Many Southern California natives consider the Highway 1 city of San Clemente the last great beach town. With its scenic views and quiet suburban housing tracts mixing with the tourist scene and downtown nightlife, the city is the perfect amalgamation of SoCal beauty and fun.
For director Rian Johnson though, the city means more than just sun and surf; his 2005 film Brick exposes the underbelly of suburbia—“it’s a strange little detective movie,” he claims. The modern take on the hard-boiled, film noir style transposes itself into the flipsides of Johnson’s hometown. San Clemente High School and its surrounding more “grungy” areas become the sites for murder, confidential drug exchanges, and the uneasy attempts at and failures of teenage relationships.
The movie, fronted by the now-dreamboat Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delves into the depths of “the puzzle”—from figuring out who the “Pin” is to deciphering the lingo JGL’s character Brendan and his confidant Brain speak, we are sucked into the narrative, waiting for Emily’s tunnel-killer to be avenged and the heroin bricks to be sorted.
Because the film plays upon the noir scene in an environment of “light”—both the physical brightness of daytime detective work in the film and the innocence of teen inquiry, it was only fitting to visit the sites of the movie in the daytime.
It was a surprise for me though, because he told me to wear something nice and get ready for an adventure. We took off from Orange County down the 5-South ever nearing the mid-section of Southern California—smack dab between LA and San Diego. We got off a strange freeway exit I didn’t recognize and found ourselves taking turns here and there towards a residential neighborhood. He looked to his left, nodded and smiled to himself and parked the car. I didn’t know where we were but I had this eerie feeling that I’d seen it before. It was late afternoon and the sun wasn’t beating so hard down on us.
The breeze of the April day blew over my shoulders as he took my hand and stopped me right under the street sign for Calle Sarmentoso and Camino del Rio. I looked up the long, quiet curved street and that’s when I recognized it—my favorite movie was filmed here. Joseph Gordon Levitt once stood where I am standing now. The feeling is unlike any other—knowing that a movie that ripped at your perceptions of sorrow and made your heart pound with hope for resolution took place just inches, breaths, away from where your own body sways.
We made our way back to the freeway, heading off again into some unknown exit area. We tore behind a gas station, and then a worn-down diner. We parked in the gravel and dirt. We stepped towards the chain link fence, through the yellow flowers and over grown weeds. We peered through the metal barrier and found ourselves staring into the mouth of Emily’s death scene. Now decrepit and graffiti-filled, its inevitable and unending depth of darkness reminded us of the lifeless and wet love JGL’s character Brenden found in the sewage.
Just up the street from the tunnel is the field where love was lost, and the high school walls on which Brenden and Brain walked, talked and schemed. The sun had set, and as we wound down our visit we too were reminded of the parties and fights the night brought Brenden, and the secret heroine stashes built in the late evening that would eventually drag him into the dangerous game.
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Ilyssa Russ is a English graduate student at San Jose State University studying Victorian Literature and Modern Mediums. She currently lives in Santa Clara, California with her kitten Gatsby Derrida. She loves baseball, hockey, Welsh Corgis, Community, video games, and strange films. You can contact her at ilyssaruss [at] gmail [dot] com