Cultural Comment

Dancing with HAIM

A screenshot from Want You Back music video where HAIM walks down the streets of LA
In their music videos, the three-sister band HAIM turns the streets of Los Angeles—the city where, cliché has it, nobody walks—into a place where pedestrians strut and sashay.

Though I have been walking in cities all my life, there is still something irresistible to me about certain images of other women doing the same. There is something exhilarating, especially, about the sight of women striding down city streets like they own them.

Women of any age will know what it’s like, in body and soul, to be afraid while walking in a city, to hunch and scurry and make oneself smaller. But most of us will recall, too, the times when we’ve covered block after block, arms swinging, legs pumping, smiling at people because we wanted to, not because some dude told us to—feeling, for a moment, like our life is a movie that we are directing.

I remember vividly the rare scenes in TV and film that catch that feeling from a female perspective. When I was a kid, I loved the opening credits of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” wherein Mary feels so delightedly comfortable with her own single-working-woman-in-the-city independence that she’s moved to toss her winter hat in the air, in the middle of a crowded Minneapolis intersection. I saw Noah Baumbach’s 2012 movie “Frances Ha,” starring Greta Gerwig, twice in the theatre, partly because I so relished the sequence in which Gerwig runs and leaps through lower Manhattan, awkwardly at first, then with more and more freedom and grace, to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

Lately, I’ve been getting this particular jolt of exuberant identification from the music videos of the three-sister band HAIM—the ones in which Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim turn the streets of Los Angeles (the city where, cliché has it, nobody walks) into a place where pedestrians strut and sashay, enjoying the amplitude and momentum usually associated with cars. In the video for 2017’s “Want You Back,” a song that characteristically combines the sisters’ folkie, yearning vocals with a poppy, propulsive energy, they walk and then dance together down Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, beginning at a car dealership with the very L.A. name of Casa de Cadillac. It’s early morning and there are no cars, no other people—just an inviting sweep of clean, gray asphalt lined with palm trees, their own personal parade route. Danielle and Alana, then twenty-eight and twenty-five, are in T-shirts and mom jeans; Este, thirty-one, wears a striped turtleneck and a black miniskirt; their hair is long and loose. It’s fun to see the three of them bust out their dance moves, not because the results are so crazy or sexy but because they’re so plausible. They dance like they might be walking to school with their friends, talking about their favorite song. They drum in the air, casually twirl, and skip from side to side, like Dorothy on the yellow brick road.

体育投注平台In the documentary essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” from 2003, the film scholar Thom Andersen points out that “to someone who knows Los Angeles only from movies, it might appear that everyone who has a job lives in the hills or at the beach.” For many years, the iconography of the city, as it was depicted in Hollywood movies, was limited. A film might announce its Los Angeles setting with shots of the Hollywood Hills and the eponymous sign, or of the beach, or maybe the mansions of Beverly Hills. The vantage point was often from a car. People, especially if they are poor, have, of course, always walked and taken public transportation in L.A., but that experience has not been shown often in movies. (The best depiction in recent years is Sean Baker’s film “Tangerine,” from 2015, a buddy picture, shot on iPhones, about the perambulations of two transgender sex workers trying to track down a cheating boyfriend on the streets of Hollywood.)

The Haims are, like me, white women with middle-class backgrounds, raised in suburban San Fernando Valley, one of those parts of L.A. that, to paraphrase Thom Andersen, is often photographed but not very photogenic. (The Haims’ father, Mordechai, and mother, Donna, who are Israeli-born, raised them on classic rock and encouraged their musicianship.) Their videos depict an L.A. that is immediately recognizable to anyone from there, but not especially iconic or paradisiacal-looking. I grew up in the Valley, in the seventies, but I did not learn to drive then and never have. It’s an artifact of adolescent rebellion against car culture—and of a brief period when I accepted the snooty bullshit that L.A. was vapid and longed to impress an imagined audience of East Coast intellectuals—that stuck, and ended up shaping my adult life. (I have never been able to live anywhere but a city, and I had to learn to love walking, which was good, because I’ve never been much of an exerciser.) In high school and afterward, I was often a passenger, and, though I’ve always enjoyed riding in cars as much as any golden retriever with its head hung out the window, I also walked and took buses a lot. I got to know the particular topography of pedestrian L.A.: muffler shops and taquerias and strip-mall doughnut shops run by Cambodian immigrants; bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise that grow opportunistically in cracked sidewalks; abandoned shopping carts and outdoor newsstands and faded courtyard apartment buildings with grand names; the scintillation of sunshine on passing rivers of traffic, telephone-pole flyers advertising suspicious-sounding opportunities in the entertainment business, and freeway underpasses and their homeless encampments.

The HAIM videos show the interstitial flatlands, more hip than they used to be, but still scruffy, with swirls of smog stirred into the marmalade-colored sunsets, and views of hills haphazardly stacked with billboards and houses. Angelenos treat their venerable restaurants like historical landmarks and keys to the city. In the video for this year’s “Now I’m In It,” a glossy, mid-tempo song elevated by the sisters’ floaty harmonies at the break, Danielle dashes across a nondescript section of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, ducking out of a French restaurant called Taix, which opened in 1927, and turning up in a diner called the Brite Spot. At one point, she goes through a car wash, without a car, on the of edge of Silver Lake. In the video for “Summer Girl”—which, like several of their videos, is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a Valley boy who memorializes unglamorous suburban Los Angeles in his films “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”—the sisters walk around funky little pockets of Hollywood and through Canter’s, a twenty-four-hour Jewish deli on Fairfax that has been popular with the city’s night crawlers for decades.

体育投注平台The Haims’ lyrics are not especially complex or visionary, and their songs aren’t known for their social commentary. It would be a stretch to call the sisters feminist icons. Yet there’s a way in which their girl-group identity seems reimagined for the twenty-first century—freed from the confines of tight matching dresses and set loose for a casual ramble through the city. I feel a certain aspirational nostalgia when I watch their videos—a sense of solidarity with girls I underestimated in high school, including myself—as though I, too, might have walked in easy formation with my besties, right down the middle of the streets where I grew up, shoulders thrown back, heads held high, our ankle-booted feet tapping out the rhythm of our unfettered futures.