Category Archives: Los Angeles

The Exiles (1961)

Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

A hundred years ago, the neighborhood in downtown LA known as Bunker Hill was an upscale enclave full of grandiose mansions. After WWI, people with money began leaving the city center for the suburbs, and by nineteen fifty most of the aging mansions had been converted to apartments for working class families and pensioners. By the mid-fifties, the businessmen and politicians who ran LA had decided to raze Bunker Hill, clearing the way for a massive redevelopment project.

Before that happened, Kent MacKenzie made two films about Bunker Hill. The first is a fairly conventional documentary short in which residents give their views on the city’s plans to bulldoze the area. The second is a dazzling, poetic ramble in which we spend the night with three Native Americans who have left the reservation and made Bunker Hill their home.

It’s not exactly a documentary, but it’s not exactly fiction either. The film focusses on three people, Yvonne, Homer and Tommy, who play themselves. MacKenzie interviewed the three to learn about their lives, and then wrote the script based on what they had told him. As we watch the characters roaming through the neon lit streets of downtown, we hear them talking in their own voices about who they are and what they feel. Yes, everything we see is staged, but the three protagonists seem completely unselfconscious. They seem to be giving us an honest account of their lives.

The word documentary is kind of problematic to begin with. We tend to think the term describes a factual account of the world as it is. In reality, most documentaries are staged to some degree, and the filmmakers can’t help but organize the material from their own perspective. Robert Flaherty had his subjects act out scenes for the camera to achieve the effects he wanted. John Grierson believed that film should be a tool to bring about greater awareness and social change, and advocated using the medium to achieve that end. It may seem that Frederick Wiseman is an impartial observer who stands back and lets the world unfold before the camera, but Wiseman himself rejects that view. He insists that his documentaries are not objective, but rather an account of his experience making the film.

And in talking about a movie as vivid and original as The Exiles, why worry about definitions. The film may not be a documentary, but it is a document. It shows a neighborhood, Bunker Hill, once an elite enclave for the wealthy, now a bustling, lower-income community where the streets are brimming with life. It shows people, Native Americans who left the dead-end reservations they grew up on and came to LA looking for something different. It shows places and spaces, streets, bars, juke joints, hotels, tunnels and hilltops. The images are real, even if the scenes may have been staged.

Though the film doesn’t have a score, it’s filled with music. We hear songs jumping out of radios and jukeboxes (including some by the Revels). We also hear Native American chants which take us outside the amped-up sound of city life. Toward the end a group Indians drive to the top of a hill overlooking Los Angeles for a gathering. It’s a place where they can be themselves, where they can drink and talk and sing. We may not understand the words, but it’s clear the music brings them together. It reminds them of their kinship.

Certainly MacKenzie shaped the material, but it feels as though Yvonne, Homer and Tommy are taking us through their world. The Exiles is an invitation to see life from someone else’s perspective. As a pretty square guy living a pretty straight life, it blows my mind to hear Tommy talk about being in jail. “Time is just time to me. I’m doin it outside so I can do it inside.” MacKenzie’s great gift is that he gets people to open up, and then just lets them be who they are.

Zoot Suit (1981)

Edward James Olmos

Edward James Olmos

In 1978 Luis Valdez’ musical Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. The production opened a door on a chapter of Los Angeles history that many had forgotten. During the early forties, as the US was fighting WWII, the city was rocked for months by racial violence, sparked by the death of a young man that may have been the result of a gang rumble. Though there was no proof that it was a homicide, hundreds of Latinos were detained in connection with the case, seventeen were tried as a group for the “crime”, and twelve were sent to prison. The trial, which was a sham, inflamed racial tensions in LA, and led to a series of violent clashes between Latinos and servicemen that went on for months. The conflict peaked with an incident in which thousands of white servicemen and civilians descended on East LA, assaulting the people who lived there at random.

Who the hell would have the nerve to take this gritty slice of LA history and turn it into a musical? But that’s exactly what writer/director Luis Valdez does, and he pulls it off with sharp wit and smooth grace. Valdez changes the names and condenses the action, reduces the defendants from seventeen to four and focusses on a semi-fictional character named Hank Reyna. We see the story unfold through Hank’s eyes, experiencing his struggle with a world where the deck is stacked against him. More importantly, we are privy to his inner struggle to figure out who he is. Throughout the play Hank is visited by El Pachuco, a mythic figure dressed in high style, who keeps pressing the same question. Is Hank going to live by somebody else’s rules and let society define him? Or is he going to define his own identity? But this slick hipster in the broad-brimmed hat and baggy pants doesn’t just play the part of Hank’s conscience. He sings, he dances, and he serves as a cross between narrator and ringmaster. Clearly Valdez is not interested in realism. This is not a historical reenactmant. “But relax,” El Pachuco purrs to us as the play opens. “Weigh the facts, and enjoy the pretense.” And then he adds, “Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization.” Valdez doesn’t see artifice as just a convention necessary to staging a musical. It’s central to what Zoot Suit is about. The brash style and broad gestures come from the lives of the people being portrayed. In making the film, Valdez uses the musical as it was staged, but takes advantage of the language of cinema. Though there are a few instances where I had problems with this approach, for the most part it works well. The artifice of the theatre is completely in keeping with Valdez’ “fantasy”.

The story begins the day before Hank is set to join the Navy. He’s anxious to go off and fight in the war, but first he’s just going to have one last night out. Hank gets dressed up in his “zoot suit”, much to the chagrin of his father, a hardworking Mexican immigrant who gets even more upset when his kids refer to themselves as Chicanos. But dad calms down, and Hank goes off with his brother and sister to party at a local nightspot. A run in at the club leads to a rumble in the Sleepy Lagoon. Hank is arrested and thrown in jail. We see him quickly stripped of everything he has, his freedom, his family, his girlfriend, his pride. The trial is also a piece of theatre, in which the prosecution and the judge insist on defining the defendants on their own terms. Hank and his friends are not convicted of committing murder. They’re convicted of being pachucos.

Racism is a major issue in Zoot Suit, but Valdez doesn’t allow his story to fall into a simple us-versus-them dynamic. He knows that things are more complex than that. One of the young men sentenced to jail is an anglo kid who has grown up in Hank’s neighborhood and accepts the local culture as his own. He dresses the way his friends dress, talks the way his friends talk, and when his friends are sent to prison by a racist legal system, he suffers along with them. Is he Mexican? Is he American? Does it matter? And when Hank accuses Alice, who’s been fighting to get him released, of exploiting the case for political purposes, he learns that as a woman and a Jew she’s subjected to discrimination just as he is.

This all sounds pretty downbeat, and certainly the play deals with some ugly realities. But there’s also a lot of joy in Zoot Suit. The action is punctuated by a series of lively, raucous musical numbers that sometimes serve as a mocking counterpoint to the drama, and at other times show the vibrant joy that people can feel even in the worst of times. Valdez obviously loves the music of the forties. He revels in the chance to conjure up the spirit of Latin American swing and resurrect a number of choice songs from the era. Zoot Suit is a lament, but it’s also a celebration.

The Runaways (2010)

Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning

Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning

There was a lot of cool music being made in LA in the seventies. The Runaways were an important part of the mix, not only helping to pave the way for the local punk scene but also breaking down barriers for women who wanted to play rock. The band’s brief career is the perfect subject for a movie because their meteoric rise and fall is a classic pop myth. The amazing thing is that so much of the myth is actually true.

As the film tells it, this is the story of teenage girls discovering their sexuality and finding their voices. From the very first shot writer/director Floria Sigismondi establishes that the movie is about coming of age, and she doesn’t shy away from the messy details or the uncomfortable moments. Sigismondi has a natural feel for images, and uses the visuals to express what the girls are going through. No doubt her experience directing music videos serves her well in the heated up, hyperkinetic scenes where the band is touring and performing. But unlike some other filmmakers who cut their teeth making videos, she also knows how to shoot a quiet conversation. In fact, some of the film’s most powerful and most painful moments are just about two people talking.

Which brings us to the acting. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are both excellent as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie respectively. But it’s also important to say that Stella Maeve and Scout Taylor-Compton give strong, tough performances as Sandy West and Lita Ford. The film wouldn’t be as vivid or as lively if the whole band wasn’t putting out the same level of energy. In describing Michael Shannon’s performance as Kim Fowley, some people have used the phrase “over the top”. I want to know how anyone could possibly portray Kim Fowley without going over the top? While the rest of the cast certainly delivers the goods, it’s important to single out Riley Keough as Marie Currie. There’s a lot that goes on between the two sisters that isn’t expressed in words. It’s a complicated relationship, involving anger, envy, resentment and love. Fanning and Keough manage to put all that across, sometimes without even saying a word.

The story jumps back and forth between the tawdry, drab world of the San Fernando Valley and the tawdry, exciting world of Hollywood and the Strip. The filmmakers don’t just highlight the contrast between these two sides of LA, they push it to the max. This is important, because Cherie Currie’s story is about embracing the excitement of being a rock star to avoid the dreary weight of family obligations. When she visits the tract house where her sister is caring for her alcoholic father, it’s easy to see why Cherie wants to escape the bleached-out reality of life in the suburbs. Sigismondi and cinematographer Benoît Debie contrast the flat, bland colors of the valley with the burning reds and blues of the club scene on the other side of the hill. At times the director pushes the film into a kind of pop expressionism to match the intensity of what the band members are feeling. Joan Jett says she doesn’t recall ever hanging out under the Hollywood sign, but there’s a wild poetry in the image of these teenage girls lounging on the hillside, dwarfed by towering white letters. It may not be based on fact, but it certainly evokes the spirit of the time.

The film does an amazing job of conjuring up LA in the seventies. No doubt this is in large part due to the efforts of production designer Eugenio Caballero and costume designer Carol Beadle. Because the director uses images to tell the story, a lot of what we know about the band members comes from the way they dress, the way they wear their hair. When Joan buys a leather jacket at the beginning of the movie, it’s because she wants to change who she is. At the end of the movie, during a radio interview, we see her in the bright pink jacket worn on the cover of her first solo album. The real Joan says in the audio track that she wore the jacket for a photo shoot and probably never again. No doubt, it is important to draw the line between fantasy and fact. For the most part The Runaways stays close to the truth. But again, Sigismondi understands the power of the visual. While the clothing may not be literally accurate, the pink jacket tells us that Joan has changed again. She’s gone through the messy, joyful, painful years with The Runaways and come out stronger. She’s found her voice.

*

I’ve got to add a disturbing postscript. When The Runaways was released, I wondered why bass player Jackie Fox wasn’t depicted in the movie. I assumed it was either a dispute over money or the size of the role. Turns out it was much more serious. This article was just published on Huffington Post. In it, Fox accuses Kim Fowley of raping her, and while band members dispute her account of the event, the article cites others who were present and corroborate Fox’s version.

The Lost Girls

The movie tells a classic rock n’ roll story, five girls fighting tooth and nail to be taken seriously as a band, and finally breaking through. While the film mostly sticks to the facts in the incidents it shows, the problem here is what it leaves out. There’s no reason to believe that writer/director Floria Sigismondi knew about the rape allegations, but this shows how treacherous making a film “inspired by true events” can be.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart

A man stands on a cliff at night, looking out at the ocean as the fog rolls in. As the mist coils around him, he recalls the feeling of freedom and power he enjoyed as a pilot during the war. It’s a feeling he misses. Then a bus stops behind him. He turns and sees a woman getting off. As she walks down to the beach, he starts to follow her.

This is how In a Lonely Place begins. I’m not talking about the film, but the novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes in the late forties. To my mind it’s one of the most radical books of its time. The main character, Dix Steele, is a serial killer, and the focus is on him throughout the entire book. Though Hughes writes in the third person, she takes us inside Dix’s mind so that we can understand this angry, lonely, complicated man.* The title could refer to Los Angeles, the city of the alienated and the displaced, but more importantly it describes this man’s absolute isolation from the world around him. He is desperately lonely and wants to be loved. When he meets Laurel Gray, a young woman who lives in his apartment building, he feels she’s the one who could rescue him. But Dix’s fantasies have no basis in reality. He pursues Laurel, but he’s so disconnected from the world around him that he’s doomed to failure. He’s a lost man.

Nicholas Ray’s film of In a Lonely Place is completely different from the book. Back in 1950, no Hollywood studio would consider making a movie in which the central character was a WWII vet stalking and killing young women. So Ray and his collaborators took a few elements from the book and reworked it into a very different, but still very interesting, story. In the film, Dix Steele is a middle-aged screenwriter who hasn’t had a success in years. He’s intelligent and creative, but he carries an explosive anger within him. When it erupts, which is often, he sometimes lashes out at his closest friends. He can also turn violent. When a young woman he knew slightly is murdered, the police see Dix as the prime suspect.

While the entire cast is solid, the movie really belongs to Bogart. It’s one of his most intense, complex performances. It’s hard to imagine any of his contemporaries going as far with this part. As Dix, Bogart can be arrogant, charming, aggressive, tender, insolent. He freely heaps abuse on his Hollywood colleagues, and at times even turns on his closest friends. But he is also terribly lonely. As in the book, he meets Laurel, a young woman who lives in his building, and he is immediately drawn to her. And as in the book, the relationship is doomed from the start. Laurel loves Dix, but after witnessing his violent outbursts she begins to wonder if he is the killer. What started out as an idyllic romance is quickly poisoned. When the police finally call to say that Dix has been exonerated, it’s too late. Laurel can’t go on with the relationship. It’s over.

Both Bernard Eisenschitz and Patrick McGilligan have suggested that in some ways Dix resembles Nicholas Ray. The director made several films about angry, violent men, including On Dangerous Ground and Bigger than Life. Ray’s characters often come into conflict with the world around them. Sometimes this is because the world is unjust, but often it’s because the characters themselves are deeply troubled. Ray himself had a hard time fitting in. He was intelligent, iconoclastic and impatient with hypocrisy. In a Lonely Place could be seen as an expression of his views on Hollywood. It is certainly one of the most cynical, scathing movies ever made about the movie capitol. And there are elements of the film that have a direct personal connection to Ray’s life. The courtyard apartment where much of the action takes place is a reconstruction of a building the director had lived in. But the most obvious connection is the casting of Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, as Laurel.

Ray takes care to capture the feel of LA. Appropriately, the first shot gives us Dix’s point of view as he drives along the streets at night, his anxious eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.** Later in the film, after an angry outburst, we see him driving maniacally along a winding road that looks like Mulholland Drive. The building that Dix and Laurel live in is typical of the courtyard apartments constructed in the twenties and thirties. The settings that create the background for the story may not seem completely “real”, but they do capture the feel of the city. Ray understands architecture, and he understands space. While most of the film was shot on soundstages, the director includes location shots that help to define the city.

Andrew Solt’s screenplay, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North, is tightly constructed and bristling with tension. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography vividly captures the violent contrasts of the drama. I’m not crazy about George Antheil’s score, which seems intent on dragging this startling, original film back into the realm of Hollywood melodrama.

In many ways the film is much more conventional than the book. But by Hollywood standards, it is very much outside the norm for a commercial feature of the time. Ray and Bogart and their collaborators deserve a lot of credit for making a drama that really delves into a character who is the antithesis of the standard movie protagonist. Dix Steele rages against the world, struggles desperately to hang on to the woman he loves, and in the end still finds himself in a lonely place.

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*
I don’t know of any other book from the period that invites us to share a serial killer’s point of view. I’m not a pulp expert, but the only other novel I can think of from the era that does something similar is Jim Thompson’s The Killer inside Me, published five years after In a Lonely Place.

**
Could this have been an inspiration for a similar shot at the end of Taxi Driver where we see Travis’ eyes reflected in his rear view mirror? I’ve never heard Scorsese mention it, but it seems likely he was familiar with the film.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Jack Carson and Joan Crawford

There’s no way to adapt a book or a story for the screen without altering it. Just the process of transferring it to a different medium is going to transform it, and if we’re talking about a Hollywood film there’s pressure coming from all angles to make it conform to certain standards. Often the results are disastrous, even when the makers try to remain “faithful” to the book. On the other hand, if the makers are wiling to rethink the book completely, to transform it into something that will work in a medium of images and sound, they might come up with something that’s successful in its own right.

When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.

The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.

The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.

The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.

Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.

Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.