Miracle Mile made its debut 30 years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, but you aren’t likely to see any reverent anniversary oral histories in your social media feed. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt’s apocalyptic thriller never made any money or attracted a cult following the way, say, Buckaroo Banzai, They Live, or Repo Man did. And that’s too bad, because it’s one of the best sci-fi/romcom/catastrophe films out there.
The film follows everyman Harry Washello (played by a post-Top Gun, pre-E.R. Anthony Edwards) who meets Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar pits and instantly falls in love with her. After sleeping through his alarm and missing a date they made, Harry picks up a payphone and inadvertently discovers that a nuclear attack is about to strike America. Convinced of this message’s truth, Harry and a group of random strangers at Johnnie’s Coffee Shop on Wilshire and Fairfax scramble to make their way out of town as Harry tries to track down Julie before the shit hits the nuclear-fallout fan.
The tone jumps from funny to weird to absolutely brutal as it threads together our collective anxieties, be they sexual, nuclear, racial, or economic. It’s kept from being scattershot, however, by a classic, earnest ‘80s score by Tangerine Dream. With a plot that takes place over the course of 24 hours, it feels like L.A.’s answer to Scorsese’s After Hours, an underrated, highly cokey curio (even by Scorsese’s standards) that follows a guy through one hellish night in pre-gentrification SoHo. Harry spends the film running around the Mid-Wilshire area, at times questioning if a nuclear attack is actually coming or if he’s being gaslit. There’s a bit of Kafka and Gogol in this absurdist anxiety dream of a narrative.
A fascinating thing about the film is that it asks the viewer to ponder why this end-of-the-world story takes place here, in this neighborhood, on this particular corner, at this time. The film begins and ends at the La Brea Tar Pits, a sort of primordial bookend. The tar pits are an obvious reminder that we live in a city full of oil fields. It’s also a nod to a pre-human history, at life during another epoch.
One of the Tar Pits’ most iconic displays is the fiberglass mammoth mired in ooze as its young offspring cries out from the shore. It captures a sort of tragic brutality that’s at the core of this movie. The characters become that dying mammoth, trapped forever in a penultimate moment of their kind’s existence, which feels prescient in a culture again made hyper-aware of nuclear realities.
It’s also worth noting that the story is set in a neighborhood that has a very dated and very traditional Los Angeles feel. Lots of L.A. neighborhoods harken back to a whitewashed period of L.A. expansion. The Miracle Mile neighborhood’s tar pits were originally used by the Tongva people to collect materials for building structures. The path they would travel between downtown and the tar pits eventually became “El Camino Viejo,” an important artery for the colonialist settlers. Socialist millionaire Henry Gaylord Wilshire (after whom both Wilshire Boulevard and the Gaylord are named) donated part of the road that would later become Wilshire Boulevard. In the ‘20s, developer A. W. Ross believed this new road could be connect cars to a new a profitable shopping district with wide parking lots, and he gambled to make that happen.
Ross (a self-proclaimed “visionary”) started using the name “Miracle Mile” not because anything miraculous had ever happened here but basically just because it sounded good— another hollow but classic L.A. marketing moment. The May Company building, whose old neon sign you can see Harry staring at out of the back of a van at one point, was the flagship store, a consumer oasis between downtown and Beverly Hills.
Miracle Mile isn’t a film about any of this history, truth be told, but the background helps explain why the movie’s setting feels so eerie, haunted almost. Now the neighborhood is known as Museum Row, and it’s steadily clogged with tourists and locals alike taking selfies in front of lampposts, shopping at the Grove, and (soon) visiting the Academy Museum, which is overtaking the old May Company building.
Miracle Mile seems to be about holding onto the past. Take Lucy, an old woman at Park La Brea who holds a several-decade grudge against her former lover, Ivan. They finally reconcile when the end of the world seems imminent. This is echoed in Harry’s attachment to history, both his personal history and the history of the species. The past is this idyllic and ordered thing that the film seems to argue isn’t worth trying to hold onto.
As precious time ticks away, Harry and Julie are cornered by the LAPD in an abandoned shopping mall. Just when they think their number is up, the SWAT team is called off, we presume because now authorities have gotten word about the nuclear attack. There’s a gorgeous shot of the couple running across Wilshire toward Johnnie’s, and inside the diner, a coyote is just hanging out while the world ends. It’s like Day of the Locust for the Reagan era. (And, as far as coyotes in L.A. movie moments go, it almost beats the coyote scene in Collateral.)
Every truly honest L.A. story is the story of people trying to overwrite each other’s culture and a battle for resources (water, oil, land, fame), and Miracle Mile shows how gross and tragic the human endgame will probably get as we hurtle more rapidly toward disaster. Every day should probably feel like the end of the world given how tenuous life is, and Miracle Mile captures that better than most movies are able to.
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