Thursday, May 26, 2005


Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss look into their hearts

Movie lists are irresistible for those who love to read them and use them for anything from ideas for Netflix rentals to a jumping-off place from which to begin making connections and thinking about movies in ways both personal and universal. But they’re also irresistible to film critics and others who write about movies because, whether it’s a top ten list of movies of the year, or a list like Time magazine’s oddly titled “All-Time 100 Movies,” they’re an easy-to-read shorthand format for displaying, and dissecting, a critic’s predilections, prejudices and a general sense of the writer’s aesthetic and historical perspective. Lists like the American Film Institute’s attempt a few years ago to provide some sort of definitive statement—the 100 best American films, period—are usually doomed to fail. Such attempts to sum up the vastness and fluidity of 100 years or so of film history, even one “narrowed down” to exclude films not made in this country (and there have been a few of those that have popped up in the past 100 years), is akin to attempting to swallow the sea. And those annual critics’ top ten lists, that ritualistic gathering and ranking of the cream of 200 or so films released each year, can’t presume any sort of meaningful comprehensiveness. Even critics who get paid to see everything often can’t, so the list has less meaning for its arbitrary rankings than the occasion it offers the reader to be reminded of important films he/she may have missed, and for the critic to reconsider the year as a whole, talk about recent trends, revisit films that may look different after the passage of a few months, and even ponder the function, and future, of American film criticism.

Time’s “All-Time 100 Movies” list is, thankfully, a much more idiosyncratic enterprise, and one that doesn’t have much pretense toward an all-encompassing point of view—it is, after all, the product of two film critics, Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss, and therefore bound to have a bit of a split personality. A quick listen to the interview on the Time Web site reveals that the two critics’ methodology for coming up with contenders was little more than shuffling through their own memories, and the final list retains that informal, casually tossed off feel. Such a scrappy, incomplete endeavor is likely to come up short on scholarly value, which is fine because scholarship is hardly its intention. Its main marshaling impulse is the desire to get readers, most of whom may only be casual movie fans to begin with, talking and thinking and free-associating, about omissions, of course, but also about the films that were included.

Naturally, familiar titles like The Apu Trilogy (1955-56-59), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Casablanca (1942), Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The 400 Blows (1959), The Godfather (part 1, 1972, and part 2, 1974), The Searchers (1956), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953) are represented.

But I don’t think I can ever remember a list of 100 best/all-time/whatever movies that was limber enough to save a space for argument-starters like Barry Lyndon (1975), Chungking Express (1994), City of God (2002), Leolo (1992), Mouchette (1967), Olympia (Parts 1 and 2, 1938), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Talk to Her (2002). Every one of those titles seems geared to start demanding rants on the order of, “How they could put Barry Lyndon/The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)/Sherlock, Jr./Smiles of a Summer Night/The Purple Rose of Cairo on that list and not 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)/The Rules of the Game (1939)/The General (1927)/The Seventh Seal (1957)/Bananas (1971)?” That free association that Schickel refers to as part of his process of coming up with titles is exactly where the juice from a list like this comes from. While you’re arguing, in your head or with others, about this one’s inclusion at that one’s expense, you’re likely to start finding your way toward other titles by the same director that may feature stars who make you think about other movies that are nowhere near the list from whence you started.

And the admitted scattershot representation of films across various stretches of time and geography helps to deflate a reader’s indignation when a personal favorite is omitted. For example, any list I tried to compile myself would almost certainly feature Nashville (1975), M (1931), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Project A Part 2 (1985), Jaws (1975), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Rio Bravo (1959), Horse Feathers (1932), Dirty Harry (1972), Blow Out (1981), The Big Heat (1953) and The Long Riders (1980), and would have no place for Chungking Express, E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), Farewell, My Concubine (1993), GoodFellas (1990), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Raging Bull (1980), Schindler’s List (1993) or Star Wars (1977).

But given those variances, it would be impossibly churlish to complain too seriously about a list of All-Time 100 Movies that actually includes City Lights (1931), Detour (1945), Drunken Master II (1994), The Fly (1986), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), In A Lonely Place (1950), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lady Eve (1941) and His Girl Friday (1940), The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Miller’s Crossing (!!! 1990), Out of the Past (1947), Ugetsu (1953) and A Touch of Zen (1971). And this list in particular provides a great place for those with scant familiarity with the towering cinema of India to start catching up— Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu Trilogy leads to two films with which I’m unfamiliar-- Pyassa (1957), another from India’s golden age of movies, and Nayakan (1987), from the more recent Bollywood explosion. Any time a list like this can provide a lifelong film buff with new and explored places to go, it has to do nothing else to justify its existence and earn my gratitude.

Time’s site is fun to navigate too. Though you have to be a subscriber to the print edition in order to access the reviews of each film as they appeared in the magazine upon their release, nonsubscribers can still click on each title to get a capsule review or comment written this year, which in some ways might be the more valuable piece of writing, given how much has already been said about some of these works. There are also links to a list of Richard Schickel’s Guilty Pleasures, the same critic on Great Movie Performances, Richard Corliss on Great Short Films, both writers checking in on The Best Movies Scores of All Time and those interviews with Schickel and Corliss regarding how they put the list together. Any way you click it, the new Time list trumps more recent list-making enterprises by well-meaning institutions like the American Film Institute through its sheer unpretentious zeal and love for the movies, whenever and from wherever they may have come.

(Other lists more serious cinephiles might want to take a look at are the Sight and Sound International Critics Poll and another one recently unleasehed by the British Film Institute, The BFI 100, a selection of favorite British films of the 20th century. And has a tasty list of its own: The All-Time Top 100 Voices in the Movies.)

One for the Comments column
Take a look at the Time 100 again and let us all know:

1) What ONE movie on the Time 100 would you get rid of, and why?
2) What ONE movie would you insert in its place, and why?

And, of course, and as always, as much ranting and raving to go along with those choices as you please. This is why Schickel and Corliss put the list together, after all. Let’s hear it.

Richard Corliss talks extensively about the All-Time 100 and the movies that he and Schickel left off the list.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Okay, while the dust hasn't yet settled vis-a-vis the merits, or lack thereof, of the new Star Wars picture (I've checked in with my thoughts in an update to "Your Big Sci-Fi Movie Weekend" a couple of posts below), let me just add that attached to Episode III is a trailer for another movie hotly anticipated by nerds and fanboys the world over, and here I would have to count myself among their number. The original Marvel comic book The Fantastic Four was always one of my favorites as a young kid, and it has always been my hope that it might get a movie treatment along the lines of, say, a Spider-Man 2, a movie based on the other major text of my adolescence.

But after having seen the new trailer Sunday, I'm afraid I smell the distinct aroma not of Sam Raimi's respectful yet vibrant takes on the Peter Parker saga, but that of Ben Affleck and Daredevil. Maybe it's just the way the trailer is cut and pitched, but if there's as much clunky line delivery and "extreme" action smothered in a KROQ-friendly pop metal soundtrack in the actual movie (who knew Johnny Storm would be such a bitchin' motocross fiend?), then I may just have to stay home and break out the musty old comic books instead. My fingers remain crossed that the Daredevil vibe gives way to something more like Raimi's movies, or the X-Men, which took me completely by surprise. Only time will tell. Or perhaps we're in for another unique comparison in cultural influences: how will the big-budget live-action Fantastic Four hold up next to that other super family spectacular, the one at the center of Brad Bird's The Incredibles?

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Vin Scully was recently named the best announcer in baseball history by author Curt Smith in his new book Voices of Summer. My good friend Andy Torres, contributor to a new baseball blog on the KPCC-FM web site entitled Extra Innings, has the story and some sharp commentary about Scully and the state of Dodger broadcasting. This promises to be a site that will routinely feature excellent writing and well-reasoned baseball analysis-- Andy's one of the smartest people I know, period, but particular wise when it comes to the major leagues-- so a bookmark for Extra Innings is highly recommended. Congratulations to Andy on the new forum, and to Vin for making even the most agonizing game listenable and memorable.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


UPDATE 5/23/05:

Well, since this page seems to have become the Revenge of the Sith confessional booth, I guess I’ll check in with my toosense. The Mrs. and I screened Attack of the Clones Saturday night as a sort of warm-up—she’d looked at The Phantom Menace a couple of weeks earlier, but at that movie’s first mind-fogging mention of viceroys and suspension of trade routes I ran from the room and into the arms of Jimmy Stewart in The Far Country. Where I’ve never had much of anything but disdain for Menace, I remembered enjoying Clones quite a bit way back when I first saw it in 2002, so I looked forward to seeing it again, and I genuinely wondered why most of the talk I’d heard about Revenge of the Sith was prefaced by how rotten both Menace and Clones were-- I recalled at least three smashing action sequences that seemed to make up, in my memory, for the limp, terribly acted romance at the movie’s heart, and for George Lucas’ timidity as a storyteller when it came to retreating from showing Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken Raiders in the aftermath of his mother’s death. This refusal to own up narratively to Anakin’s murderous rampage—he merely tells Amidala (and us) of his deeds— is a crucial mistake, as it might at least have made us believe in the character’s ferocious, pent-up anger in a way that Hayden Christensen’s high school thespian glowering could not.

The DVD began to spin, and I wasn’t 15 minutes in before I began to realize that Clones was indeed pretty bad. None of the sequences I liked before—Obi-Wan and Anakin’s pursuit of Amidala’s would-be assassin high above the streets of Coruscant, the duel between Jango Fett and Obi-Wan on the ocean planet where the clones were created, the big arena monster smackdown at Count Dooku’s place—seemed any better than routine, and more often just distended and lifeless, this time around. And the Anakin/Amidala courtship was even worse than I remembered. Add to the agony Lucas’ metronomically unimaginative swinging back and forth between Obi-Wan’s pursuits and the Tiger Beat in Space section—one scene with Obi-Wan, then cut to smoochies, then cut back to Obi-Wan, then cut back to Anakin and his dead-eyed, Cyrano de Bummerac proclamations of love, then back to Obi-Wan, then back to Amidala and Anakin giggling as they frolic through the Nabooian fields, ad infinitum (or at least it seemed). I sat through Clones in awe that such flatfooted nonsense could have ever seen the light of day, and amazed that I originally thought it was in any way good. The entirety of Clones would have taken up about one-quarter of the screen time of any well-constructed movie, which would have given Lucas more time to make Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader at least slightly believable. Yet I kept thinking, well, I know of several folks, writers and friends, who really seem to love the new movie, and even those who aren’t too enthusiastic about Revenge of the Sith have all been pretty uniform (with the exception of Anthony Lane in The New Yorker) in their assessment that Episode III was better and more satisfying than the previous two.

Well, I agree with that assessment. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is better than either Menace or Clones. In fact, it’s probably better than the slim virtues of both combined. Yet, all things being relative, for me the trade-up from the colossal failure of imagination of the first two episodes has been not to a sense of satisfaction but one of indifference and, finally, exhaustion. The cumulative effect of all the technology that has been poured into the prequels is to make the original movies (at least Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back) look somewhat quaint and appealingly uncluttered. But during Sith, even though I was aware that Lucas had marshaled his resources into a tighter package this time around, I found myself shutting down on a psychological level to the overly busy design and the incessant, and insistent, artificiality of the CGI landscapes. Certainly, if you’ve followed Lucas’ story through its peaks and convolutions and tacked-on mythology (is there anyone who believes the company line that Sir George had the story line of the six movies all mapped out back in 1976, but he just never thought he’d get to make them?), you’ve got a certain amount of emotion at stake in seeing just how this third episode gets all the puzzle pieces in line and attempts to butt them up against what we know of the events of the 1977 film and its conspicuously unbusy, comparatively Luddite technological trappings. But just because you get a chill at the sight of Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia being born, or goose bumps running down your back at the sight of a horrendously disfigured Hayden Christensen snapping on the Darth Vader mask and morphing into James Earl Jones, doesn’t necessarily mean that Lucas has got his shit together here.

This movie slogs through an awful lot of the same kind of inert scenes that smothered the first two episodes like a lot of rampant interstellar overgrowth: the Jedi council sitting around making ominous pronouncements and obvious statements (“I sense Count Dooku” says one Jedi, upon entering the spaceship of Count Dooku); Chancellor Palpatine attempting to lure Anakin into his clutches with lies about the Jedi Council’s treasonous intentions like a salacious old queen with his eyes on a very juicy prize (Anakin’s dull-eyed receptivity to these fabrications go further even than Christensen’s monotonous performance toward making the character seem none-too-bright very early on); and the conspicuously ignorant Amidala, who has little to do here but sit around waiting for her hubby’s fatal premonitions regarding her fate to be fulfilled, and taking wa-a-a-a-ay too long to come to the realization that her brooding dreamboat is a petulant mass murderer who hasn’t even yet risen to the full potential of his calling.

Admittedly, Sith is more fleet of foot in the action department than its predecessors—the opening rescue of Palpatine from a staged abduction by Count Dooku, and Obi-Wan’s pursuit of and final battle with the deadly mantis General Greivous (has anyone in the history of fantasy film come up with clunkier, more obvious names for his creations than Lucas?), are very entertaining, especially compared to any from the first two episodes, and despite the familiarity of that space rescue to any number of battles from any of the previous films. But Lucas has spent an awful lot of time trying to convince us (and himself) that his movies have a deeper foundation than the rickety old movie serials that were their inspiration. It’s not unreasonable for audiences who hold these movies (or at least some of them) dear to expect that by this episode we ought to be experiencing some kind of emotional crescendo created by the movie itself, and not just by our nostalgia for feelings that Lucas’ first installment generated for us back in 1977, or our hopes and expectations for the fulfilling of a cycle started when most of us were far more impressionable.

In reality, by the time Obi-Wan and Anakin get to their big number on the volcano planet, the indifference I spoke of earlier had already settled in. I knew the film had not cast the spell on me that I was expecting/hoping for when my first thought upon seeing the magma-covered surface of this world, with its curious industrial structures intended for the gathering of molten lava (to what purpose I remain unclear), was, Gee, what an unstable world on which to try to run a company or build a civilization. And during the mano-a-mano between Obi-Wan, the master who hasn’t a clue where his training went wrong, and Anakin, his traitorous padawan who still believes Palpatine’s blathering about the Jedi trying to take over the Republic, all the CGI-enhanced acrobatics as the two bounce along and balance on chunks of apparently heat-resistant rock on the surface of the lava flow became distracting and unconvincing. Again, rather than being enthralled by this scene, which I had imagined myself for years (it was described briefly by Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars), all I could think about was, Why are these two acting like it’s only 85 degrees? Why aren’t they sweating? (Frodo and Sam sure did.) Why, given the fact that they’ve spent the better part of their scuffle mere inches from thousand-degree heat, didn’t they both simply erupt into flames before the first cries of betrayal or swings of light saber? Oh, Lucas saves that bit for Anakin’s crispy defeat, but when it happens, it just highlights again the fact that, by the elemental laws we know to be true and that Lucas himself has just acknowledged, both these guys should have been reduced to rapidly vibrating particles in the lava landscape long before.

And in the aftermath of Anakin’s apparent destruction and Amidala’s death during childbirth, Yoda decides that the newborn twins, who will fulfill the empire-destroying prophecy that Anakin did not, should be separated for their own protection and raised where no Sith would think to look for them. So where does he ship them off to? He gives Leia to a high-ranking Republic senator who has openly aligned himself with the remaining Jedi, and the other to be raised on the very planet of Anakin Skywalker’s origin, apparently mere footsteps away from where Anakin was raised! Talk about keeping a low profile. If the movie, and Lucas’ highly publicized abilities as a master storyteller (a bigger load than this in cinema lore exists not, in the parlance of our little green friend), had really been firing on all cylinders, I wouldn’t have been thinking about stuff like this.

But so it goes. Lucas has said all along that all six movies have been pitched to 12-year-olds, but despite some clunky comedy, usually involving those damned droids, the best parts of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back never felt like that. They may have appealed to me in ways that only an adolescent can be appealed to in great, or even merely good movies, but I never felt I was being pandered or condescended to. That all changed with the downright ugly design, frenetic action and blatant over-Muppetization that was the hallmark of Return of the Jedi, and that’s, to answer a question recently posed on the Salon magazine Web site, where I parted ways with the Force. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones ramped up the cutesy characters, made even more overbearing and unbearable through the alchemy (or should that be malchemy?) of Industrial Light and Magic’s fetishizing of computer-generated imagery, but also ladeled on a barge-load of bogus political posturing that, for all its “complexity” and machinations, ended up exposing Lucas as a true simpleton incapable of composing the grays in between the blacks and whites of a truly compelling and turbulent universe. (Just what 12-year-old was supposed to be enthralled by all this malarkey, anyway?)

Return of the Sith finds Lucas butted up against his own legacy and scrambling, in that none-too-urgent way of his, to link up the dangling ends of his tale in a way that would make rational storytelling sense and honor the investment so many viewers, casual ones as well as the fanatical hordes whom Lucas seems to loathe and love in equal measure (just listen to his audio commentaries on those DVDs if you don’t believe me), have made in his epic, self-serious fable. But to say that in some measure he succeeds is not to admit that that success is much more than a Pyhrric one. The genuine emotion I felt as the slaughter of the Jedi commenced was unexpected and, given my reaction to the rest of the movie, overwhelming, but its origins, I think, came from two separate places. There was sadness, and exhaustion, in seeing the first raging of the Empire that was born of my foreknowledge, as a viewer familiar with the remaining three chronological episodes, of the trials that would have to be endured before any real triumph, personal or political, could be achieved. But that dramatically-inspired exhaustion eventually got all entangled with the other kind of exhaustion I felt, a weariness with Lucas’ excessively detailed, yet tinny galactic universe, and the overwhelming relief that it was all finally over, that there was now some closure, some escape from a cycle that ensnared me when I was a young film fan, ready to be amazed, astonished and inspired.

For 30 years George Lucas has dangled the possibilities of Star Wars in front of his audience like the promise of a most delectable meal, and there are those who will continue to insist, now that it’s all done (until he starts futzing around and re-releasing everything in 3D in a few years, that is), that Lucas has served up a great piece of filet mignon, or at least a darned good, honest steak. For me, as good as was The Empire Strikes Back, the taste left in my mouth in the wake of Sith is that of an average flame-broiled burger served to accompany the cool toys at the drive-thru that seem, far more than the riches of a great narrative, to be the series’ raison d’etre. That burger patty only looks like our tragic antihero Anakin Skywalker as he comes up well done and left for dead by Obi-Wan. Bite into it, and it tastes like any other sandwich at any other joint. In much the same way, Star Wars has ended up, with Revenge of the Sith, only slightly more resonant and powerful than any of the average, and seemingly endless, diluted copies of the Lucas formula that have clogged our imaginations, and those of an endless rank of storm-trooper/clone filmmakers, ever since that first title crawl, and the sight of that first overwhelming Imperial cruiser, made us shrink in our seats in amazement 28 years ago. Yeah, Sith is better than the first two episodes, but it turns out that's not really saying much.


Well, this is the big weekend, when audiences will finally see the latest (but will it really be the last?) chapter in a popular saga that had its dawning back in the “golden age” of 1970s American cinema. It’s a saga that has been embraced by many, but derided by just as many others who have laid the diminishing returns of its genre at its feet and blamed it for helping to shift the economics of American film into the blockbuster mode from which it has never recovered. It’s the story of the classic battle of good versus evil. Its iconography is as old as the origins of mythmaking.

I’m speaking, of course, of Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, one of the most highly anticipated, and unprecedented, releases in cinema history. Never have audiences been able to see the auteur theory so clearly at work as they will by comparing this movie to Renny Harlin’s ghastly 2004 release Exorcist: The Beginning, a full reshoot of the same material Schrader submitted to his producers. Schrader’s version, rejected for not being scary enough, was worked over by Harlin and refashioned with action-hungry horror fans in mind, and with some of the same cast (Stellan Skarsgaard played the young Father Lancaster Merrin in both versions.) Now audiences will be able to judge for themselves whether Schrader’s vision was the scarier and more worthy, or whether perhaps both versions should have been abandoned.

But if your tastes run a little more toward the center than a brooding, arty rumination on religion and psychology, perhaps there might be something else on which to spend your hard-earned dollar (or perhaps ten of them, plus snack fees) this weekend.

For those who just can’t wait for the curtain to ring down on the third (sixth) chapter of George Lucas’ space opera, and for those who are eagerly anticipating it, there’s a very funny discussion between filmmakers Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma), Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (writer-star and director, respectively, of last year’s brilliant Shaun of the Dead) about the whole Star Wars thing and how it has informed, affected, and possibly ruined their lives. You can read it here, or print it out and read it while you wait on one of this weekend’s endless lines at your local googleplex.

One fella who likely won’t find himself in line is friend and fellow blogger Loxjet, who posted a spirited (or should that be dispirited) anti-Lucas rant on his Wailing and Gnashing site a few days ago. Those of you who remain unimpressed by Lucas’ deft handling of actors and his nimble way with words may want to check out Loxjet’s thoughts entitled ”I Am Your Father, Luke – BFD!” Who knows, even the Lucas faithful may get a grin or two out of Loxjet’s rage against the machine.

For Loxjet, and those who bemoan the drift of science fiction from the order of actual science-based fiction to an almost exclusively space fantasy-oriented realm, I heartily recommend Shane Carruth’s dazzling, confusing and exhilarating Primer, in which two fledging inventor/entrepreneurs inadvertantly construct a time machine. There are no wacky Back to the Future exploits here—it’s a movie primarily about the boundaries of trust and the fuzzy spot on the horizon where innovation gives way to too much knowledge, and the prickly question of what to do with it. It’s also a movie that demands your attention. The movie’s science seems plausible enough, but you’d need a degree in, or at least a proclivity for engineering to know just how plausible. Primer’s strength, and the source of its maddening philosophical quandary, is its deft structure, its criss-crossing and back-tracking on itself until it threatens to swallow its own tail. You may feel completely caught up in it and satisfied by it, as I was, without fully understanding more than about a third of its complicated narrative. But not to worry—at 74 minutes, it is brief enough that a second, cerebral cortex-clearing viewing is not out of the question, and Primer is good enough that you may very well want to press “play” again right away.

IT'S READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP, MR. ANDERSEN: Los Angeles Plays Itself Reviewed

Thom Andersen on the Great Literalist Tour of the South Bay: "I
can watch Gone in 60 Seconds over and over again..."

It's a rare-enough occasion to happen upon a great movie when you lay down your cash at the box office. But it's even more rare to see a great movie that's also a great piece of film criticism. Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema and Notre Musique would, by most accounts, qualify, but I can't say personally because I've not yet had occasion to see them (Notre Musique is in my Netflix queue). One that I have seen, however, is Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, which ends its extended American Cinematheque run at the Egyptian in Hollywood this weekend. It is, as I've said before, well worth the effort it takes to get to Hollywood for one of these screenings.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is no dry Film History 101 lecture, but instead a poetic consideration, a personal remembrance, a love letter, a politically progressive deconstruction of prevalent myths about not only Los Angeles but the films most often singled out as the best representations of the city, and a reconstruction of some forgotten chapters in the city's ongoing cinematic iconography. Andersen begins with a faux-ominous "This is the city," in first-person narration read by independent filmmaker Encke King, invoking the spectre of Dragnet, about which Andersen will offer surprising observations later. "They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me a right to criticize." Andersen frames his criticism with the use of extensive clips (nearly 200 of them) and that crisp, deadpan, often very funny narration to take on the gargantuan task of detailing how the movies have observed, and essentially created, a Los Angeles of the mind that often has little to do with the reality of the city. This Los Angeles is also the city within which resides Hollywood, and if you didn't already know, Andersen wants you to understand that there's a distinct difference between the two.

The film states that Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world, yet it's the hardest to capture, to get right. In its first chapter, "The City as Background," Andersen details some of the reasons why that may be. Movies such as Public Enemy, White Cliffs of Dover and China Girl have used distinct Los Angeles locations (Wilshire Blvd., the Bradbury Building) to represent, respectively, downtown Chicago, Burma and an overseas military hospital, and Andersen suggests that the very quality that allows the city to be molded in imagery homogenous enough to make such leaps acceptable (at least to the casual viewer, which, after Los Angeles Plays Itself, I guarantee you will no longer be) is what has rendered its true spirit so elusive to most filmmakers.

The film's second section, "The City as Character," considers films such as Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, films that, for better or worse, contributed to the character of Los Angeles and how it was perceived throughout the world. It was Wilder's film, Andersen asserts, that convinced the general population that Los Angeles was the world capital of murder and adultery, a perception that provided the film industry with the white-hot nucleus of a campaign of exploitation that continues to this day. Wilder, throughout his career, Andersen suggests, was not himself interested in what made Los Angeles a city, but rather in what made it not like the other cities he knew, and therefore he may have had a keener eye for geographical detail as a result. It is this perspective that ended up giving license to a series of films and directors that Andersen labels "literalist," a label he intends as a compliment. Literalist films hold prime value for the director, despite their variances of success as narratives. Films like Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949), Anthony Mann's The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), a definitive portrait of Los Angeles in the 1950s, would serve as a detailed chronology of disappearance of the beloved Bunker Hill neighborhood; and the obscure Kent MacKenzie film The Exiles (1961) stands as a solitary representation of Native Americans in Los Angeles, a group of people getting to know the city on its own harsh terms, and on foot. One of Andersen's most stinging barbs is reserved for Joan Didion and her observation that "No one walks in L.A." The footage from The Exiles, coupled with Andersen's narration-- "That is, no rich, white person like us walks"-- expose some of the prevalent mythology of the city as being firmly race and class-based, as well as utter bullshit.

It is here that Andersen introduces the concept of tourist directors. In his view, there are high tourists-- directors like Wilder, Antonioni (Zabriskie Point), Jacques Demy (Model Shop) and Jacques Deray (The Outside Man) who bring a restless, inquisitive, more fully documentary sensibility to the recording of the city within their films-- and there are low tourists, like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, directors interested in Los Angeles only for its familiar landmarks and scenery. The Outside Man is a routine thriller but for the fact that its protagonist is a French assassin who spends an inordinate portion of the film observing and interacting with his Los Angeles surroundings. Andersen calls it "the most precise portrait of the city there is." And Demy's Model Shop is derided as being practically unwatchable, but it does get the theoretician's love nonetheless for being an early (1968) attempt to define Los Angeles as a city-- "incoherent, but if you love Los Angeles, it is moving."

Andersen is at his funniest when debunking a couple of cinematic sacred cows. I'm not sure how I, and many others, who love John Boorman's Point Blank are meant to react to his statement that "People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank," but I can say that I've never been aware of my feeling for the city being a major factor in my appreciation of the movie. That said, Andersen uses a witty selection of clips to highlight the film's ghastly interior decor (which may in fact be a form of literalism in itself, given the film's 1967 release date) and offers the backhanded compliment that director John Boorman does manage to make Los Angeles look "bland and insidious" at the same time. And he hilariously dubs Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a film famous for observing that the only cultural advantage in Los Angeles is the ability to make a right turn on a red light, "A Tale of Two Marquees." One of Allen's bits of visual shorthand to indicate the essential seriousness of his characters in Annie Hall is the shots of them congregating outside of the Thalia movie theater in Greenwich Village for screenings of Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity. But when Alvy, Annie and Max arrive in Los Angeles, we get the usual montage assortment of imagery meant to signify the crassness of L.A. culture-- incongruous architecture, eateries shaped like giant hot dogs and doughnuts, and a theater marquee boasting the double feature House of Exorcism and Messiah of Evil (one of the films, coincidentally enough, highlighted elsewhere in Los Angeles Plays Itself.) Then comes the narration (paraphrased here) that deftly skewers Allen's condescending provincialism: "I know I saw The Sorrow and the Pity in Los Angeles. And I'd bet that a lot of New Yorkers had the opportunity to see House of Exorcism." Andersen then goes one unexpected step further: "But if New Yorkers have Woody Allen to live down, we have Henry Jaglom." Cut to a clip from the logorrheic, visually dormant director's Venice/Venice, inaudible beneath the roaring laughter of an American Cinematheque audience that knew all too well the agony of being stuck enduring a Jaglom film for two hours.

But the section of Los Angeles Plays Itself that is perhaps most challenging to the conventional wisdom of audiences and film critics is the third chapter, entitled "The City as Subject," in which films where Los Angeles became conscious of itself are highlighted. Andersen rejects the cynical hopelessness of Chinatown as well as the film's alternate history of Los Angeles, which he fears may well have subsumed the city's actual history for critics and audiences inclined to accept movie shorthand in place of readily available research. Similarly, the corruption of the L.A.P.D. as depicted in L.A. Confidential was, according to Andersen, insufficiently portrayed in the film, while at the same time the deals that ushered in cheap urban development, as they are laid out in the film, were the result not of graft but of public decree-- they were legally voted in by a general public swayed by fast-talking politicians. Andersen sees these films, and others in this section, as valuable largely in that they illustrate that much of what passes for nostalgia in films about Los Angeles is rooted not in a longing for a past social utopia, but for what might have been if not for one profound event (say, illegal water diversion, or swift urban sprawl) that may have, in fact, been a series of less dramatic events ushered in by far less dramatic means.

Here Andersen also underlines that the one prevailing subtext in epic visions of Los Angeles is, in fact, transportation, or the lack of it. In Chinatown Jake Gittes loses his car early on and spends the rest of the film borrowing cars or heading out on foot. Andersen sees this a symbolic castration-- Gittes is always two steps behind the machinations of the movie's mystery sans his wheels, and he never catches up-- and boils the film's philosophy down to a corrosively funny, "Without a car, you will die." As if to prove this point, he immediately moves on to poor Joe Gillis, trying to outrun repo men who want to take back his ride, who fatefully pulls into that driveway off Sunset Boulevard with a flat tire and ends up narrating the movie with two bullets in his back, face down in a swimming pool. Even Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its alternate history of the development of the Los Angeles freeway system, comes under consideration in Andersen's exhaustive, entertaining thesis. Andersen finds room for an insightful consideration of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, which he terms the director's best film, and how its turning of the Philip Marlowe mythology inside-out and using it as a discoverer's map to 1973 Los Angeles made for a fully realized portrait of the city. Marlowe cruises the streets in a vintage Cadillac, which reinforces Altman’s conceit that he really is the Marlowe of the ‘40s who woke up one day, Rip Van Winkle-like, to find himself in the free-floating ‘70s, but, like Gittes, he’s still two steps behind everyone else. However, one of the director's most acclaimed films, Short Cuts, his transplanting of various Raymond Carver short stories from the Northwest to Los Angeles, is witheringly exposed as a condescending travesty. Curiously, the film depicts an L.A. where vehicles seem de-emphasized, unless they are objects of derision (Anne Archer’s clownmobile) or deliverers of death (Lily Tomlin’s waitress accidentally hits a child, setting one of the intertwined stories in motion). For Andersen, Altman, with his claim that the movie pays attention to parts of L.A. usually ignored in films, like Downey, Glendale, El Segundo, suggests the difficulty of privileged directors making films about Los Angeles-- they only really know a very small section of the city. And nothing in Short Cuts feels like the Los Angeles, not to mention the Glendale, that I know.

Los Angeles Plays Itself ends by highlighting the films of three black filmmakers-- Haile Gerima (Bush Mama, 1975), Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1977) and Billy Woodberry (Bless Their Little Hearts, 1983)-- that suggest an entire alternate vision of Los Angeles that reverberates beneath the pop culture radar. It's in raising the audience's awareness of titles like these, and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles, that Andersen proves the ultimate worthiness, in a broad sense, of his entire enterprise. These are the films we may not know about that could, if we choose to seek them out, reform the way we see this city, and for people who live in it every day that comes to feel more like a social imperative than a way to kill some time on the Internet Movie Database and Netflix. The studio dream factories and the neorealism, the "literalism" of these other directors, both have visions of value to impart, but Andersen suggests these African-American neorealists may hold the key to ushering in an era that explores the worth of a man as it relates to the worth of a city in a meaningful way that cuts across racial and social lines. He ends this sprawling, 169-minute masterpiece of superbly entertaining film criticism with a clip from Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts. A man drives past the ruins of a tire factory that once provided him, and hundreds of others, with a reliable, good-paying job, while the narration remembers, for the character and for us, that one used to be able to tour this Goodyear tire plant and see how tires are made, just like one can buy a ticket today to take a tour of a studio and see how movies are made. That's the ambivalent cherry on top of perhaps the most provocative, prickly, allusive and challenging movie I've seen in years. I'd openly hoped, as one fairly disillusioned with everyday life in this city, to see the city through the eyes of someone who could still find room for amazement and inspiration in the sprawl of cars and culture clashes and endless summer of the city of angels. Sometimes hopes, and prayers, are answered with silence, or with the opposite of what one wishes. Los Angeles Plays Itself is a film I hope to be able to return to many more times, an answer in the positive to the hope and prayer of a lifelong film buff for whom reconciling the dreams with the city of the dream factories is becoming more difficult each day. I have been inspired to look anew, to keep looking, and to ask new questions. How can there be another movie this year that could possibly top that?

Postscript: In various Q&As after screenings of Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen was repeatedly asked about movies and filmmakers he did not specifically address within his film, whether because of time constraints or, in the case of Michael Mann's Collateral, the movie(s) in question came out after the film had been completed. Steve Erickson published a fascinating interview with the filmmaker at last year that examines some of the questions raised about Andersen's methods, questions about clearances for the film clips that may prevent the film's DVD release, and other fascinating bits. You can read that here. Even better, Andersen himself wrote an article for Cinema Scope magazine in which he talks in detail about Mulholland Drive and Collateral, and, yes, even Henry Jaglom that almost feels like a print sequel, or continuation, of Los Angeles Plays Itself. It is, in fact, entitled Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself. If you've seen the movie, this piece will feel like continuing a conversation with an invigorated friend. If you haven't, you should still read it-- it may convince you, in ways I could not, that getting to the Egyptian for one of the remaining screenings should be a priority. (Here's the Egyptian schedule once again.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


I called my local Ford dealer, but they were fresh out...

If my photo-posting program hadn't been on the blink for the past two weeks, I would have had this one up much sooner. But better late than never, I suppose. I saw this parked on the street about a block away from my house one Sunday afternoon while I was out running errands and thought to myself, okay, you're not gonna see THAT on the street just anywhere! I just wish my nieces and I could have pulled up to the Arclight driving this thing when we saw Kung Fu Hustle a few weeks ago! Might have gotten a free popcorn out of it, at least.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Here come those Santa Ana winds yet again. A question, one among 40 I posed in last month’s Spring 2005 Pop Movie Pop Quiz—“What is the Best L.A. Movie?”— inspired a lot of interesting responses, all of which seemed to be movies that focused on the city’s venality, superficiality or corruption. Those responses got me thinking that although there are movies that throw the spotlight on exactly those same aspects of almost every other major U.S. city, there are also lots of movies that spring to mind, like Manhattan, Sleepless in Seattle and Hannah and Her Sisters, that serve as romanticized valentines to their respective metropoli. The question that followed, which I used as the centerpiece to a piece I wrote two weeks ago, was, essentially, Is there a movie that’s in love with Los Angeles? I wrote there:

“My own capacity to be held by any kind of wonder for what this city has to offer has pretty much been whittled down to the view of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the perfectly green cut of the infield, from a seat on the third base side of Dodger Stadium. I’d like to maybe not exactly believe again, but at least see the city through the eyes of someone who still finds room to be amazed and inspired and swept away by the spectacular sprawl of cars and culture clashes that make up this city of no seasons, where almost everything seems somehow effected by viral corporate groupthink or the venality and superficiality of the movie business. Is there a movie that has as its subject the richness, vibrancy and vitality of life and/or love and/or work in Los Angeles, a movie that glorifies life in this city with even a tenth of the romantic intentions of a movie like Manhattan? Or do people, and, more aptly, filmmakers, just not see the city that way?”

I got several thoughtful, vigorous, impassioned responses to the question. My best friend, Blaaagh, now currently residing in the Bay Area, talked about the Los Angeles experience as someone who used to live here upon revisiting the city:

“The last time I was there, in February of this year, I tooled around the downtown area, where I had a meeting, and enjoyed the drive out to Glendale from downtown, especially going through the old tunnels with their faux-Egyptian look, as if DeMille had commissioned them. It was particularly nice because it had started raining (and hadn't started raining hard yet), so it felt a little Raymond Chandler-esque. I'm a glass-half-full person, but I tend to think of the beautiful places there: Griffith Park; that new Getty museum; the Warner Bros. lot with its for-real tour and evocative stucco buildings; the old Will Rogers house and grounds... Really, someone ought to make a movie that loves L.A.”

Thom McGregor, a Los Angeles native who I know particularly well, put forth a theory about why the city doesn’t seem to inspire too much movie love, a theory that I thought was pretty sound:

“I believe a lot of directors/writers come from other cities originally, and once they succeed in Hollywood, they have all these fond memories of their roots, their "peeps," so to speak, and then write/direct their cinematic valentines to their hometowns and people they grew up with. I've lived in L.A. all my life, grown up seeing familiar buildings, streets, backgrounds in almost every movie and TV show I saw (the entire carnival finale of Grease was filmed on my high school gym field), but it is very hard to think of a movie that was openly in love with the city. L.A. itself is so spread out and varied, it's kind of hard to reconcile South Central and Malibu in real life, much less in the movies. How about episodes of Dragnet where Jack Webb starts each episode in voice over, giving the current day, time (to the minute) and weather of Los Angeles—‘This is the city.’ THE city.”

Friend, fellow blogger and Movie Poop columnist Alison Veneto took her answer and turned it into a post of her own, in which she went beyond my suggestion of a Los Angeles movie as being one “shot in Los Angeles whose locales are integral to the plot, or whose thematic text or subtext is some critical aspect of life or work in this city" to consider what it is that really constitutes an L.A. movie:

“Does it have to be a love letter to the city like 'great NY movies'? I don't think so. I think to figure out what the real LA movie is we have to determine what the real LA story is. And the real LA story is dreams -- shattered or realized. (L.A. is) a mecca for the desperate and the hopeful. And it's not just the Hollywood dream. It's the immigrant's dream. So the real LA stories are movies like Boyz 'N The Hood (the brother who's going to get out as a football player, following the dream), El Norte (immigrants who see their dream in Los Angeles) and Singin' In the Rain (realizing the Hollywood dream). While they represent Black people, Latinos and Caucasians repectively, they still represent the feeling of the city. Even if you are just showing one part of LA and one ethnic group, the dreams are what ties everyone in the city together… The 'best' LA movie, in that it really encompasses what LA is about, is any incarnation of A Star Is Born. Because that's LA-- someone's going up, someone's going down... dreams being realized and dreams being shattered.”

And finally, good friend, constant supporter and regular reader Virgil Hilts, also a native Los Angeleno, took the opportunity to toss out titles, but also to put forth a spirited defense of the city, its achievements and its day-to-day life, as well as throwing a spotlight on a movie that too few seem to remember:

“No matter what anybody believes, Hollywood, and Los Angeles by extension, taught the rest of the world how to make movies just as Henry Ford and Detroit taught the world how to make cars. Ultimately, the movie valentine to LA are the studios themselves-- as (Blaaagh) noted, the great old buildings on the Warners lot, or the Paramount gate-- and the Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame and the folks selling maps to stars' homes… Does anybody in New York try to sell you a map so you can stand outside of some star's apartment building? Do any of the stars from Chicago still spend their winters there? We hate the freeways, but at least they don't smell like a century's worth of urine like the subways of NYC do after a good rain. It gets hot in LA, but when it gets hot in Chicago, people die, a lot of people. And have you noticed that it keeps happening when they have those heat/humidity waves in the Midwest, and still they laugh at us for drinking bottled water… Although it might be another movie about about corrupt Los Angeles, Devil in a Blue Dress was every bit as brilliant as L.A. Confidential, and it was set in parts of the city that few people would recognize as Los Angeles-- not just the suburbs, but the suburbs where postwar African-American vets set down roots. Why is Devil so easily forgotten? Could it be that black/white thing again?”

All these were, I thought, excellent, probing responses to a question that I wasn’t sure even had an answer. But the aspect of receiving and reading them that I enjoyed so much was that each and every one of them threw something into relief for me, as the poser of the original question and as a reader, that expanded the original question and made me reconsider my own preconceptions. And they also brought up titles that, either for reasons of my own lazy, nonexistent research or failure of imagination, I’m ashamed to admit never crossed my mind, and one that did.

Thom McGregor was absolutely right to include Dragnet, particularly its 1967-70 TV incarnation, among those works that display a distinct vision of Los Angeles. The vision here, however, springs not from a romanticized vision of social utopia, or anything so Hollywood as the mind of, say, a Quinn Martin, but instead from an officially sanctioned representation of the Los Angeles Police Department—their imprimatur and the names of official department consultants, who sometimes appeared in the shows themselves, were stamped on the end credits of every episode. So was the credit “directed by Jack Webb,” who, as teacher/theorist/director Thom Andersen observed in his recent film Los Angeles Plays Itself (more, much more on this film a bit later), emerged within this series as a formally rigorous stylist— don’t mistake the show’s visual boxiness and robotic dramaturgy as anything but deliberate-- who could stand with Ozu and Bresson in terms of sheer transcendental simplicity.

Webb’s mechanized Detective Joe Friday, curt, paranoid and witheringly superior to those he has been commissioned “to protect and serve,” is the Parker–era L.A.P.D’s idealized image of itself, and each speck of minutiae in each episode (Friday: “It took us 12 minutes to drive up the Hollywood Freeway, exit at Vermont Avenue and arrive at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Commonwealth Street, where Mrs. Freeman stood outside her gray stucco apartment building”) is built for police-report verisimilitude and, despite all the fruitcakes and weirdos that comprise the populace, civic pride. This is, as Thom McG correctly points out, the city, Los Angeles, California, and Webb wastes not a second of the episodes’ 25-minute running time on anything that might distract from his detailed vision of how that city is laid out, how it ought to run, and why it often doesn’t. Webb’s L.A.P.D. is paranoid and distrustful of its public, but what makes Dragnet distinctive is that neither Webb nor the L.A.P.D. positioned these attitudes as drawbacks, but as elements of necessary detachment, and this perception suffuses the actors’ clipped, deader-than-deadpan delivery and the director’s pared-down, claustrophobic, austere mise-en-scene. It also makes Dragnet valuable beyond its camp quality— Webb serves up Nixon-era harsh realities and attitudes, and the attendant indulgence in ridiculous stereotyping of anyone who doesn’t dress and sound like Joe Friday, all captured in celluloid amber. The distance of some 35 years has done nothing to dilute the power of their singlemindedness and righteous disdain for the criminal and crackpot element, not to mention the impatience and condescension left in reserve for the general citizenry. Dragnet may be one of the best documents we have of Los Angeles, both geographically speaking, and in terms of its almost insider’s view of the philosophy of a police department that had not yet scaled the heights of its own paranoia and self-intoxication.

Now on to the titles of which, shockingly, I had to be reminded. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) has to be considered one of the premier Los Angeles movies, not only for its reflection of a specifically Southern California high school milieu that, as it turned out, was a hell of a lot more generally recognizable everywhere else in the country than could have been anticipated, but because it itself perpetuated fashion trends (the popularity of Vans tennis shoes), other movies (Valley Girl, The Wild Life) and even music (Frank Zappa’s satirical top-40 hit "Valley Girl") that would help to define a dominant strain of pop culture of the ‘80s.

There’s even a certain amount of romanticism for the teen mall culture in director Amy Heckerling’s approach, mixed in with a clear-eyed view of teenage sexuality and fumbling romantic mores, that is as evocative in its details as that of cruising the streets of 1963 Modesto in George Lucas’ American Graffiti.

And Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, which the director rechristened Jackie Brown (1997), is in one aspect another geographically brilliant mall movie—the movie’s last third is an elaborate con staged at the Del Amo Fashion Center seen in its entirety from three separate points of view, thus highlighting not only different aspects of the job, but also different aspects of what, to a casual observer, might appear to be just a typical, overly recognizable shopping space.

But Tarantino’s movie (his finest, in my estimation) shows the same sensitivity to all of its locales, largely those situated in the city’s South Bay area, a flat, arguably nondescript section of Los Angeles that is neither expensive beachfront or Hollywood Hills familiar, nor populated with gleaming skyscrapers of the kind frequently documented in the Los Angeles downtown cityscape (the wild car chase in the original Gone in 60 Seconds served as a virtual tour of this same area, circa 1974).

Another part of the city that has been largely ignored by the movies, either as location or history, is the vital and bustling Central Street of Walter Moseley’s Easy Rawlins novels, vividly brought to the screen in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). The set designers recreated the jazz clubs of this downtown district, an area vibrating with promise for African-American veterans of World War II, and the neighborhoods just south of downtown where these vets could find affordable, good-quality housing when they returned from service, in a completely believable, lived-in fashion.

The movie, in addition to being a crackling good noir yarn, as Virgil suggests, on the order of L.A. Confidential, serves as a reminder, or perhaps a fresh bulletin to those who only perceive those neighborhoods now as urban war zones (a perception reinforced with plenty of help from local and nationwide media, and, of course, the movies). South Central Los Angeles was once a place where the reigning feeling was hope for the future, a part of the city that may have evolved for African-Americans essentially segregated from the dominant, white socioeconomic and geographical culture and substructures, but a place nonetheless where happiness could be pursued and life could be lived. That bleak undercurrents of desperation exist for Moseley’s Rawlins, as depicted by director Franklin and star Denzel Washington, does nothing to dampen the spirit by which Devil in a Blue Dress has been cinematically realized; those undercurrents are magnified by the dimension of reality brought forth by the film’s characters, which, in turn, the realistically elaborate sets help to expand to fuller expression, for once, rather than to serve merely as an inadvertent means of smothering fertile performers amidst all the pretty sights.

Three other visions of a romantized Los Angeles of the past are just as interesting, and evocative, in their own way. Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), set in Beverly Hills in the days just before Richard Nixon was first elected to the presidency in 1968, is a precise and deeply felt comedy of vacuity and swinging sexuality as the State of the City.

But it cuts far deeper than might a shallow parade of stereotypes masquerading as tribute (L.A. Story) because it allows for a vision of characters, and by extension the city, teetering on the brink of disillusionment, about to enter an era where the party could only go on by acknowledgment, however fleeting, of the existence of a much bleaker social landscape beyond the swaying palms.

The decaying milieu of Hollywood’s underbelly circa 1955-- desperate characters with plenty of zeal but little talent and the ghastly movies they made-- is highlighted in Tim Burton’s delightfully cracked “biopic” of the man commonly thought to be the worst film director ever, Ed Wood (1994).

The movie isn’t much interested in whether there’s any truth to this conventional wisdom— Burton obviously recognizes that Wood’s “vision” is definitely on a par with his fumbling ability to realize it, but I’d bet he could think of several directors who could be considered worse; I know I can. But I think this movie might have to be included on a list of great Los Angeles movies simply because of its nonjudgmental and, yes, romanticized view of Wood and his stock company of friends and assorted show business cast-offs, and their own pie-eyed infatuation with their personal vision of Hollywood, bitter realities, shimmering fantasies and all. Any movie that could make me pine for companionship with the kinds of marginalized, cluelessly enthusiastic tinseltown characters that Ed Wood celebrates must understand something profound about survival and desire, and friendship, in the movie business, and by the extension the city for which that business is so central.

Finally, I’m thankful to Virgil for mentioning a movie I most certainly should have thought to highlight, a movie that has a spot on my list of all-time favorites, a movie that ended up influencing my own bejewelled fantasies of Los Angeles in the days before I ever set eyes on the city myself. Steven Spielberg’s unjustly maligned 1941 (1979) is a comedy which makes fun of American paranoia and hysteria in the early days of our involvement in World War II, and it does so in a manner which many of its detractors decided was itself hysterical, and bloated and sloppy and undisciplined. I humbly submit my disagreement.

There are set pieces within this gigantic movie that can stand with the director’s funniest, most nimble work-- I’m thinking here of the entirety of Jaws and Duel, as well as parts of E.T. and the stunning musical number/action sequence that opens the otherwise shrill and overwrought Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And the whole of 1941, despite the broad pitch of most of its humor, is far more graceful and expansive than its reputation suggests. Its overwhelming night vistas of a sprawling Los Angeles, as seen from the hills over which passes a fighter plane (piloted by John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso) on its way to a date with destruction along Hollywood Boulevard, belie a fascination with the cityscape that informs the film’s every falsified depiction of famous Los Angeles locales. These vistas, despite actually being only miniature model layouts of the city, capture the optimistic infatuation of Americans for their homeland during this wartime, and they are vibrant and alive. They give truth to Roman Polanski’s famous assertion that there is no more beautiful city in the world than Los Angeles, provided it’s seen at night and from a distance. But even up close, in 1941, the city lives up to the glittering promise of those city lights. The views of a partially blacked-out Santa Monica, from off the coast as well as from inside an abandoned amusement park, are velvety and rich and funny, as is the brilliantly reconstructed Hollywood Boulevard that serves as the site for the movie’s spectacular dogfight sequence. But I’m also thinking about scenes like the sensual, eerie stillness (which, naturally, erupts into mayhem) in which Spielberg stages Wild Bill’s moonlit meeting with a crazed general (Warren Oates) who has stationed himself and his remaining troops somewhere in the fields outside of Pomona, awaiting an imagined Japanese air attack. Scenes like these, and the dogfight, and almost every other sequence in the picture, have nothing of “reality” to represent as far as the existing city—they are exclusively the creations of brilliant technicians working for a director who became convinced that his movie was careening out of control. But the resultant imagery, rooted in fantasy though it may be, serves to construct an alternate vision of Los Angeles’s past that may have nothing to do with geographical and architectural reality, but that is every bit as evocative and intricately detailed as MGM’s Oz— it comes together in your head (or at least mine) as a uniform realization of how Los Angeles might have been, a city population every bit as off their nut as the hippies and freaks of Jack Webb’s Dragnet, sans all that gaseous condescension, placed amidst settings as fantastical and idealized as Webb’s were unadorned and matter-of-fact. 1941 directs its barbs at the lunacy of Americans overreacting to misperceived threats (usually unwittingly generated by their own populace) and obliviously underreacting (with the exception of Ned Beatty’s character, of course) to the real Japanese sub floating just off the Santa Monica shore. But it has nothing but love and spectacular eyes for Los Angeles.

All this, and I’m really only at the halfway point of where I wanted to be for this post. I’ll have to leave part two for tomorrow night. But before I stop, I just want to go back to what I wrote in my previous entry. Coming from a place of my own disillusionment with everyday life in this city-- its struggles, its frustrations, its inordinate expenses, its hostilities, its detachment— I wrote:

“I’d like to maybe not exactly believe again, but at least see the city through the eyes of someone who still finds room to be amazed and inspired and swept away by the spectacular sprawl of cars and culture clashes that make up this city of no seasons, where almost everything seems somehow effected by viral corporate groupthink or the venality and superficiality of the movie business.”

Of course what I had in mind was a narrative film that might encompass such a wide-ranging vision, but what became quickly apparent was that there probably was no one such beast. To stitch together a vision of what Los Angeles means, how all its many cultures survive together and bash up against one another, you would have to look at a broad range of films, as broad as the city’s geography and the origins of its multiethnic populace, and try to see the city the way the movies have seen it. And no sooner than I realized what I was really talking about, I opened up last week’s Los Angeles Times “Weekend” section and saw that Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002) would be screening at the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theater through Tuesday, May 10. Andersen’s movie, a spectacular attempt to grapple with nearly 100 years of film history as it pertains to images and perceptions of Los Angeles in films, had screened almost everywhere BUT Los Angeles before this past weekend, and every impulse told me this was an opportunity I really couldn’t afford to pass up, especially given the back and forth on this blog over the last month or so.

Well, against all odds, I managed to get a ticket, and Tuesday night, the last night of its brief run, I made my way to the Egyptian, and for three hours I was enthralled. Los Angeles Plays Itself turned out to be the answer I was looking for, the most compelling and entertaining and masterful piece of documentary film criticism I can ever remember seeing, and I’ll take some time to detail more about the movie and my experience with it in my next post-- it’s getting much too late to start writing about it, because I wouldn’t be able to even begin to do it justice before the sands of sleep started interfering with my ability to hit the proper keys on my laptop. Tune in tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel.

One thing that I do want to make you aware of, though, is that apparently the Cinematheque’s presentation of Los Angeles Plays Itself was so successful in terms of patronage that this past Tuesday night was, in fact, NOT the end of the movie’s engagement here in Los Angeles. The Cinematheque has extended the movie’s run. A quick click to their web site will give you all the information you need to know about upcoming weekend screenings on May 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22. Before I say another word about this film, just know that if you have a love for movies, Los Angeles, or both, it is worth any and all effort it will take from you, outside of something really absurd like purchasing plane fare, to arrive at the Egyptian Theater for one of these screenings. No DVD release has yet been announced, and the movie’s low-tech usage of film clips, sans the requisite clearances, may be too big a hurdle for it to clear in order to make it to your home theater, so this extended engagement may be the only chance for Los Angeles residents to see this remarkable work. At the risk of sounding a bit too Siskelian, I can’t imagine seeing a more fascinating, stimulating film all year, and I look forward to talking about it next time. Is there a movie that is in love with Los Angeles? Yes. That movie is Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Well, Patty and I managed to make some time for ourselves this Mother’s Day weekend. Our oldest daughter (she's five) went for her first sleepover— we dropped her off at 2:00 p.m., but she only made it till about 9:30 p.m. before we got the rescue call. But during those seven or so hours we did manage to smuggle some sandwiches in and see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Patty, the bigger Douglas Adams fan (she’s read all five books), thought the movie did a good job of capturing what she suspected might be largely uncaptureable about the books— she gave director Garth Jennings and company a 65% success rating. I felt it worked even better than that, so the two of us had a very enjoyable afternoon at the movies indeed. Now, if only the sandwiches— Vietnamese roast pork and Filino adobo-- had been a little easier to eat in the dark…

Mother’s Day itself was very low-key. The girls jumped into bed with us around 8:00 a.m., watched Patty open her Mother's Day gift, and then jumped on top of her and tickled and hugged her into submission until she had no choice but to understand just how much they loved her. (Given my size, relative to all the rest of the living beings in my house, I chose a subtler tack and showered her with iTunes gift cards.) Our day culminated with a happy dinner for us all at a very welcoming favorite British steakhouse in Pasadena. I had halibut in a delightful lobster sauce, and I couldn’t help thinking, as we passed the hostess on our way out, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”…

I even managed to catch up on some DVDs that have been lurking around the house for a while, on loan from very generous friends who are easily as lenient with their return policies as Netflix. Sunday night Patty started reacquainting herself with a certain space opera in preparation for this coming Memorial Day, while I sat back and relaxed with Anthony Mann’s The Far Country and Dziga Vertov’s Man With the Movie Camera. The Vertov was every bit as invigorating and exciting as I recall from my college days— the conceit of this silent film is to create a visual symphony of a day in a Russian city in 1929, without use of title cards, based on the observations of a Man with a Movie Camera, who we frequently see ostensibly recording the images we're seeing. I’m amazed at the editing techniques on display in this movie, with not an Avid in sight (not for 60+ years or so), as well as its playful visual imagination-- it's a fascinating 68-minute trip that I recommend to anyone who loves the movies, and the life they can capture, preserve and shape.

But I must admit a slight disappointment in the Mann western. Don’t get me wrong— it was perfectly well-made and compelling, but set against the other psychological westerns he directed with Jimmy Stewart— Winchester ’73, The Man from Laramie and especially The Naked Spur and the flat-out brilliant Bend of the River, I felt a bit of a let-down with this one. I was expecting a further dimension from the characters that I didn’t get-- too many of these men and women seemed delivered direct from the Folksy Stock Department, and the plot was, I felt, a little on the routine side. That said, it still stacks up better than most westerns of its period, and I loved the sexual chemistry between Jimmy Stewart and good/bad girl Ruth Roman, who was almost always better than her roles,Strangers on a Train notwithstanding. It's just next to these other Mann offerings that it pales.

And finally, the friendly folks at Netflix made available to me Vera Drake for my Saturday evening’s entertainment. Let me tell you, that Mike Leigh is a corker! This one was every bit as frothy and feel-good as I expected! Seriously, Imelda Staunton is very, very good in what I felt was a very convincingly lived-in, yet at the same time somewhat frustrating movie. Leigh’s refusal to contextualize Vera’s deeds much beyond a slight hint at her past, and the character’s own refusal to speak up for herself or rail even slightly against the situation in which she ultimately finds herself, makes the movie feel simultaneously alive and constricted. The experience of viewing it is uncomfortable, but not always in the way I suspect the director intended. It is, however, very much worth seeing, as a showcase for some very good actors in a series of sharply observed, non-ostentatious settings and scenes, and as an example of how to make a political film that is, for all intents and purposes, deceptively disguised as an simple period character study.

Okay, so that was the weekend. I left the blog alone because I couldn’t get my picture-sharing program to work and because, frankly, my arms and fingers and back are sore from typing and I wanted a bit of a break. Now that I’ve had it, I’m looking at a potentially big week for posts on this site, and I’m hoping I can stick to my schedule and bring them to you in a timely manner. It’s going to be time to revisit The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soon (the Criterion DVD comes out today), and I wanted to talk briefly about Oldboy, which I finally saw last weekend, before no one cares to hear anything more about it. But more importantly, this week should see light on an article I’ve been ruminating on for a few weeks now regarding baseball movies, as well as some thoughts and projections about upcoming summer releases. And I did manage to score a ticket to see the last screening of Los Angeles Plays Itself at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood tonight, so I hope to be able to report on that extensively and tie it in with some final comments about the whole Movies About Los Angeles discussion. That’s a pretty full plate, but it’s all stuff I’ve been champing at the bit to get finished for a while now, so I’m hoping that my ambitions don’t overwhelm my stamina and/or the time I have available to write this week. (I’m also hoping that by mentioning my ambitions out loud I might more easily be able to see them through.) I’ve had a few days off, refreshed by family, fun and films, and now I’m ready to go! Let’s see what happens…

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Alison Veneto adds her comments to the discussion on the question, “Is There a Movie That’s In Love with Los Angeles?” over at her blog Electric Shadow, and I’ll hope to have a few more words to say on the subject too, as some of you have had some really great comments that should be highlighted and addressed. I posed the question, but I was too foggy to come up with even a decent start on an answer myself. Virgil Hilts, Thom McGregor and Blaaagh, however, wrote such thoughtful words (V.H. & T.McG are lifelong Angelenos) that they really kick-started my own thought processes and shamed me a little bit in the process with their sharp and incisive observations. Add Alison’s post, and we’ve got ourselves a pretty interesting roundtable going here, which I hope will continue.

In that light, synergy just happens, sometimes, it seems…

Alison notes that this whole discussion, though it was never intended in this way, seems to be a long lead-up to the release of Paul Haggis’ look at L.A. culture clashes entitled Crash. The movie is a sprawling character mosaic, in an Altman-esque scope, if perhaps not in style, and it’s been getting some pretty polarized reviews. David Denby in the New Yorker called Crash the strongest American movie since Mystic River, and Ella Taylor in today’s L.A. Weekly says it’s “not just one of the best Hollywood movies about race, but, along with Collateral, one of the finest portrayals of contemporary Los Angeles life, period.” (Sounds pretty appropo to our discussion here, eh?) Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice is less impressed, as I’m sure other reviewers will be when the film opens tomorrow. Such is the nature of a movie that takes on this kind of subject matter— it’s not going to please everyone. Whatever one ends up thinking about Crash, it’s nice to know that there are still movies being made and released that don’t feel that pleasing everyone is their job.

And continuing the synergistic angle, this weekend the American Cinematheque here in Los Angeles will be featuring Thom Andersen’s acclaimed documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which examines the ways in which the city has been portrayed throughout cinema history. Kenneth Turan writes extensively about the movie in today’s Los Angeles Times (the link requires a subscription to the print version of the paper, but for 50 cents you can get your fingers inky and read it the old-fashioned way). There’s still no information about a DVD release, though in his piece Turan suggests that one of the roadblocks to the documentary securing a wide theatrical release involves clearance for the 200+ film clips employed in the text of the film, so it's conceivable that such concerns might hang up an eventual digital release as well. For now, the Cinematheque is your best shot, if you’re here in L.A., and it’s only playing through Tuesday. Check out their schedule here to see if there’s any way you can get there and see it. If you do, I hope you check in here and tell us all about it!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


As reported on IMDb today, the Loews Cineplex exhibition chain is going the European route, after much angry prompting, and posting the actual start times for movies, as opposed to times when the trailers and ads start:

"Responding to complaints from moviegoers -- and the threat of legislation -- Loews Cineplex Entertainment said that beginning next week, ads listing the times for the movies being shown in its theaters will also carry a note reading, "The feature presentation starts 10 to 15 minutes after the posted show time." The note will first appear in ads for theaters in Connecticut, then two weeks later in the rest of the country. John McCauley, head of marketing for the theater chain, told today's (Wednesday) New York Times that it was only coincidence that the initial test will be held in Connecticut, where a state representative has sponsored a bill requiring real-time listings."

I'm not holding my breath for the possibility of an actual courtesy flush on the "pre-show entertainment" here. And most theaters don't provide reserved seating, so if you're expecting to be able to walk into a screening of, oh, say, Star Wars Episode II: Revenge of the Sith two minutes before the actual feature starts in order to avoid the asinine Coca-Cola and Juicy Fruit ads, as well as trailers for The Fantastic Four, well, you may find yourself without a place to park your arse. But it is encouraging that one of these corporations has finally started to bend a little bit to incessant complaints from its customers about being subjected to advertising after having paid $10 or more for the privilege of the theatrical experience, which is, after all, supposed to be substantially different from watching television. Theater chains always counter that the pre-show "entertainment" helps them defray the high cost of the movie exhibition business, while always failing to mention that the real culprit here may just be their own overzealous construction of too many movie theaters in which to exhibit a very limited amount of mainstream Hollywood blockbuster fare. And really, by telling you that Star Wars Episode III really starts at 7:15, and not the advertised 7:00, they're not exactly telling you something you couldn't have figured out by employing your handy Texas Instruments calculator to do a few fancy goezintas. It's a minor concession to complaints, that's all, but if the complaints keep pouring in, maybe the concessions will start to become a little more meaningful.


It’s been a while since I’ve sung the praises of Turner Classic Movies, but their May schedule is worthy of some praise-singing. The TCM Star of the Month is Orson Welles, which means every Wednesday (starting today) you’ll see a month-long, 20-film festival of Welles’ work, including five films new to the TCM rotation. Today’s schedule includes Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil— but it’s the following Wednesdays that reveal some relatively rare treats for Welles fans and neophytes alike.

May 11 highlights Welles the actor with Tomorrow is Forever (Irving Pichel, 1946), Man in the Shadow (Jack Arnold, 1957), The Tartars (Richard Thorpe, 1961) and Is Paris Burning? (1966, Rene Clement), as well as the 2004 documentary Shadowing The Third Man."

Come May 18, it’s Welles the director in the spotlight again, with his provocative take on Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955), The Immortal Story (1968), The Trial (1963) and, most notably, F for Fake (1976), which was recently released on DVD from Criterion.

And on May 25 TCM’s Welles menu begins with Norman Foster’s Journey Into Fear (1942) starring Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dolores Del Rio, followed by Welles’ The Stranger (1946), the bloated Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), The V.I.P.s (Anthony Asquith, 1963), and two which offer only Welles’ mellifluous vocal talents, Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946) and King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961). Too bad they forgot his wonderful narration bits in Bud Yorkin’s Start the Revolution Without Me and Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I...

But even more of a treat than the Welles collection is TCM’s Cine Mexicano: The Golden Age, a 17-film salute to the rich heritage of Mexican cinema, which starts out on May 5 with a day-long tribute to Luis Bunuel, featuring Los Olvidados (1950), Nazarin (1959), Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simon of the Desert(1965). Also, on May 12, is a program of films directed by Emilio Fernandez, a reputable director who is probably more well known to Americans from his role as General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Fernandez’s adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Pearl (La Perla) (1947) is the standout here, with two others, Maria Candelaria (1944) and Enamorada (1946) also featured.

Stock up on the blank DVDs or videotapes and enjoy!

Monday, May 02, 2005

HERE COME THOSE SANTA ANA WINDS AGAIN: Is There A Movie That's In Love With Los Angeles?

Drive west on Sunset to the sea
Turn that jungle music down
Just until we’re out of town
This is no one-night stand
It’s a real occasion
Close your eyes and you’ll be there
It’s everything they say
The end of a perfect day
Distant lights from across the bay
Babylon sisters shake it

Here come those Santa Ana winds again...

-Steely Dan, “Babylon Sisters”


Chicago is the Windy City, a picturesque metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan that wears its points of pride— Michael Jordan, the blues scene, deep-dish pizza, Mike Ditka, uh, Roger Ebert— like a badge of honor, and being a citizen, especially a native, is something many Chicagoans, particularly celebrities like John Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Akroyd (a Canadian, but a Chicagoan by way of the Blues Brothers), routinely brag on. The same can most definitely be said of New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and many other major American cities.

So when I was finishing up compiling the responses to Mr. Hand’s Spring 2005 Pop Movie Pop Quiz last week and came across the answers to the question, “What is the best Los Angeles movie?” (meaning a movie shot in Los Angeles whose locales are integral to the plot, or whose thematic text or subtext is some critical aspect of life or work in this city), I was struck not by the lack of answers— they were plenty and varied— but by another angle on those answers that was thrown into relief by a comment set forth by commenter Alison. She abstained from submitting an answer because “there’s nothing good about L.A.”

At first I just kind of chuckled at the sweeping generality of Alison’s statement. But as I continued to think about it in the context of the question, I came to realize that, although I tended to agree with her in terms of how grueling and demanding and expensive and maddening day-to-day life in this city can be, I felt that at least one would have to say that, considering the films listed under this category, Los Angeles had to be good for something, namely that these films came either directly from the city or as a response to it themselves.

But then, a quick look at the titles-- To Live and Die in L.A., Sunset Boulevard, L.A. Confidential, The Long Goodbye, Mulholland Dr. and Chinatown— seemed to suggest pretty definitively that at the same time they are all, to one degree or another, brilliant films, they are also pretty uniform in their view of Los Angeles as a singularly curdled, corrupt and decadent place.

For whatever reason, there is not, as far as I can tell, a whole lot of bragging going on about being an Los Angeleno. The city demands an inordinate amount of attention from government at the state level, thanks to its size and, more recently, the movie-star governor. Likewise, so much media attention, statewide and nationwide, is paid to L.A. that those from the northern part of the state, as well as all points south (if the recent debate over the ex-Anaheim Angels' association with the city at the expense of their allegiance, legal and otherwise, to the citizenry of Orange County is any indication), are routinely and often severely unimpressed by anyone traveling to their regions and crowing about Los Angeles and its cultural contributions. As Oregonians view Californians who migrate to the state and, by implication, bring their corrupt value system along with them, so does the rest of the country, and probably the world, view Los Angeles as ground zero for the cultural manifest destiny that is invading and homogenizing civilization worldwide. It’s not all Los Angeles’ fault, of course— folks on Madison Avenue and Wall Street have a little something to do with the fact that there will probably one day be a McDonald’s on top of Mount Everest-- but “Hollywood”’s pervasive influence is as metaphorically demonic and widely accepted an umbrella with which to cover the world’s ills as there is in operation today.

It’s not too difficult to find a movie that glorifies or romanticizes, say, a city as picturesque as San Francisco. Even a bleak psychological portrait like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo doesn’t presume to hold the beautiful geography of the Bay Area responsible for Scottie Ferguson’s dementia— that geography may lend the film an often eerie quality, but we’re never to believe that there's a specifically San Franciscan malaise seeping through the film. Genuflections toward the wonders, beauty and implied hip qualities of Chicago can be found in The Blues Brothers, Grosse Pointe Blank, Continental Divide, and the entire oeuvre of John Hughes, as well as other films that may be even more pertinent. And though there are likely many more cinematic examples of the seediness and desperation of life in New York City than of its splendors, one need look no further than Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters to view its official enshrinement as The Greatest City In The World.

The question that rings in my mind after all of this is: Is there a movie that romanticizes or glorifies life in Los Angeles in a roughly equivalent manner to any one of these films that depict these other American cities? I’ll admit, I’ve done no research at all on this, but I figured if there were one or two that they would eventually come floating to the surface of the tar pit that passes for my mind. But so far, I’ve come up with nothing. I rejected L.A. Story, which was submitted as an answer to the question, because it’s not a love poem like Manhattan (to which it has been insufficiently compared), but instead a somewhat softheaded satire of the excesses of Los Angeles life.

And that’s as far as I’ve been able to get. So I’m putting it out there. I’d love to know about a movie or movies with these qualifications, not only for my own curiosity, but because my own capacity to be held by any kind of wonder for what this city has to offer has pretty much been whittled down to the view of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the perfectly green cut of the infield, from a seat on the third base side of Dodger Stadium. I’d like to maybe not exactly believe again, but at least see the city through the eyes of someone who still finds room to be amazed and inspired and swept away by the spectacular sprawl of cars and culture clashes that make up this city of no seasons, where almost everything seems somehow effected by viral corporate groupthink or the venality and superficiality of the movie business. Is there a movie that has as its subject the richness, vibrancy and vitality of life and/or love and/or work in Los Angeles, a movie that glorifies life in this city with even a tenth of the romantic intentions of a movie like Manhattan? Or do people, and, more aptly, filmmakers, just not see the city that way?

Babylon Sisters, shake it…

UPDATE 5/4/05: I'll be ready to tackle this subject again in a few days, but until then, Alison checks in with her own observations on the quintessential L.A. movie on her blog Electric Shadow.