Paris, Texas (1984)
We see wide open desert scorched by the sun. Powder blue sky littered with clouds stretching down to the horizon.
We hear an eerie, wavering droning, drifting in the ether. Then a quivering steel guitar slides into the mix.
We see a man wandering through the bright wasteland. The sound of his footsteps barely disturbs the silence.
The bleached colors of this vast landscape are rendered with striking clarity by cinematographer Robby Müller. The trembling metallic tones that hang in the air are played by Ry Cooder. And the haggard man staggering through this barren emptiness is another one of Wim Wenders’ lonely drifters.
Early in his career, Wenders made many movies about people wandering aimlessly from place to place. Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend and others focus on lonely souls who feel cut off from the world around them. They don’t have families or friends. They don’t have a home. They find themselves taking off on melancholy journeys, sometimes without even knowing where they’re going. Wenders’ early work is filled with images of solitary people surrounded by silent, empty spaces.
Which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you find in the plays of Sam Shepard, who co-wrote Paris, Texas. The stage, by its nature, generally brings people together in a compact space, and the dysfunctional families of pieces like True West and Curse of the Starving Class fill that space with bitter conflict. Shepard’s characters are forced to deal with each other, whether they like it or not, generally resulting in lively, bruising drama.
So Wenders and Shepard would seem to be an unlikely pair, and the process of writing Paris, Texas was long and complicated. Shooting began with an incomplete script, and the two men were continually rethinking the shape of the film, unsure even of how it was going to end. L. M. Kit Carson was brought in to help shape the final version. Apparently creating the film was an open-ended, collaborative process, and no one quite knew where they’d end up.
It may be the difference in the ways Wenders and Shepard approach their work that gives the film its quiet tension. The opening pulls us in with the mystery of Travis, a solitary, sunburned man walking doggedly across the desert. When his brother Walt shows up to take him back to LA, Travis doesn’t say a word, and we wonder if he’ll ever speak again. After some time recovering in the stillness of the suburbs, Travis seems to come around, but then the question is, will his young son ever open up to him? Even as the end draws near, we never know where the film is going, and at the conclusion there are plenty of things left unresolved.
Travis is probably the best part Harry Dean Stanton ever had, and he plays it beautifully. Starting as a spaced-out, scraggly wanderer who seems cut off from everything around him, he slowly reconnects with reality. Recuperating at his brother’s house he’s like a child rediscovering the world, but there’s always a sense of pain buried inside. One of the film’s most moving moments is a brief scene where he’s walking across a freeway overpass. A haggard, angry man stands on the pavement, shouting nonsense at the cars speeding by below. As Travis passes by, he reaches out and pats the man gently on the shoulder. He knows what it’s like to be lost.
Stanton gets strong support from the other actors in the cast, which includes Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski. Hunter Carson does a fine job as Travis’ young son. In Wenders’ films it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the space between the words. One of the film’s strengths is that the actors make the silences as expressive as the dialogue.
The structure of Paris, Texas has a beautiful simplicity. We start in the vast landscapes of the American Southwest, then travel to the comfortable confines of suburban LA, then, at the end, back to the wide open spaces. Art director Kate Altman gives Wenders and Müller the bedrooms, barrooms and rundown roadside concerns that make up the physical and emotional landscape for this story of shifting relationships. Having worked with Wenders on a number of films, editor Peter Przygodda understands the director’s unique sense of timing. Paris, Texas moves at its own pace, always allowing the audience to observe the actors, experience the landscapes. And in the same way, Cooder’s music doesn’t tell the audience how to feel about the action. Instead he allows each cue to grow out of the scene’s emotional tone. The wistful, lilting Canción mixteca is used as a recurring theme. This haunting melody, with its words expressing a painful longing to go back home, sums up the ache in Travis’ heart. But for him, going home isn’t about returning to the place he came from. It’s about finding a way to heal the family that he tore apart.
Paris, Texas may have been a summing up for Wenders, a turning point in his career. While his later films still deal with isolation and loneliness, from this point on his characters start trying to connect with others. In Wings of Desire and The End of Violence we see them reaching out to embrace the world, while The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina are about groups of people who come together to share their joy in music and dance.
In his youth, Wenders seemed to be wondering if love even existed. These days, he’s sure it’s out there somewhere. Maybe it’s just a matter of being open to it.
Can we ever understand our parents? Probably not. When we’re young they seem impossibly clueless and unfair. As we get older, as life starts beating us down the way it did them, we may start to empathize with them. We may begin to get some insight into why they were so angry and frustrated. But we can’t ever really understand what they went through because we can’t ever understand the times they lived through. Inevitably, their world is different from ours.
Still, we have to try to put ourselves in their shoes, if only to understand ourselves better. When we’re young, we see ourselves as the center of the universe and the setbacks we suffer seem horribly traumatic. When we get older, hopefully we start to realize that other people have suffered, too, and that when we put it all in perspective, the difficulties we’ve experienced often pale in comparison.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is generally credited with starting the blaxploitation cycle that flourished in the seventies. Certainly it made Hollywood aware of the fact that there was money to be made off black audiences, but the film itself has little to do with the routine genre flicks that followed. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweetback because he wanted to create a hero for an audience that didn’t have any movie heroes. He was sick of having his community misrepresented, when it wasn’t being completely ignored, by Hollywood. And so he decided to make a movie that would inspire Blacks. The movie he came up with was cheap, raw, and ragged, but it was also lively, imaginative and burning with anger. Black audiences had never seen anything like it, and they flocked to the theatres where it played.
I’m a little skeptical of Mario Van Peebles’ claim that he initially didn’t want to play his father in Baadasssss!, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To my mind, he’s the only one who could’ve played the part. There were probably other actors who could have done a fine job with the role, but no one else could’ve brought the same intense commitment to it. Maybe the idea scared him at first, but whatever his reservations, I’m glad he took the part. Seeing the son play the father sets up a resonance that vibrates throughout the movie. This isn’t just another film inspired by true events. This is Mario Van Peebles conjuring up the demons that possessed his father.
And his father was possessed by many demons. A smart, proud, angry man, he was determined to make Sweetback no matter what it cost him, and it cost him a lot. We’re not just talking about money, either. Melvin’s obsession with putting the story on the screen put a tremendous strain on his family, especially his son. In Baadasssss!, we see Mario being recruited by his father to play the young Sweetback, and how the boy’s initial enthusiasm turns to extreme discomfort. He wants to be a part of what’s going on, but he’s obviously freaked out when his dad asks him to play a pretty explicit love scene with an older woman. When Melvin makes Mario go through with it, it’s clear the boy is wounded. And the film’s strange reflexive quality makes the sequence especially poignant. This is Mario, playing Melvin, telling his own story within his father’s story.
But I don’t want to make Baadasssss! sound like some depressing psychodrama. It’s actually really entertaining. This improbable story of how an outsider with no money made a hugely successful independent film is totally engaging. The script, by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, is full of outrageous episodes, all of which are apparently based on the actual facts. The early scenes, where Melvin and his friend Bill are trying to raise the money they need, are very funny. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, and it’s a sign of Van Peebles’ skill as a director that he not only makes them all distinct individuals but he also shows us how the relationships between them develop. When the shooting begins, everybody’s excited and enthusiastic. By the time they wrap it up, they’re all completely fried, ground down by the grueling schedule and the overwhelming obstacles they’ve had to face. But the ones who stick it out have all grown from the experience. None of them will ever be the same after having taken this journey.
I think it’s a journey Mario Van Peebles had to take. Watching the movie, it’s clear that being the son of a rebellious iconoclast like Melvin Van Peebles could be really tough. But watching the movie it’s also clear that Mario has a growing awareness of the fact that his father’s intensity and anger were a reflection of the era. As a child, Mario must have thought at times that his dad was completely crazy. But then, he never could have made Sweetback if he’d been completely sane.
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
I was a teenager through most of the seventies, and I spent a fair amount of time in Santa Monica, but I had no idea that a revolution was going on there. While I was catching as many local bands as I could, and camping out at revival theatres that showed stuff by Welles and Godard, there was a whole other scene happening that eventually would change the world. I missed it completely. I’d never even ridden a skateboard.
Dogtown and Z-Boys doesn’t just document a sport. It captures a cultural shift. Using footage from the seventies along with an explosive collage of music from the time, the film shows how a rowdy band of kids living in an urban wasteland ended up becoming heroes to a generation. Skateboarding became a vehicle that would carry art, style and attitude to kids all over the world. Dogtown and Z-Boys is an exhilarating look back at how it all happened.
This movie has incredible energy. While it uses the standard talking head format for the interviews that tell the movement’s story, the footage from the past gives us a swirling, kaleidoscopic view of the seventies. If you’ve seen video of skateboarders doing their stuff, you know movement is everything, and I’m not just talking about the kids riding the boards. The camera leaps, jerks, swoops, trying to capture whatever’s happening. The images careen across the screen, sometimes flashing past so quickly it’s hard to say exactly what we’ve seen. The filmmakers splice it all together in inventive and expressive ways, capturing the energy of a movement that was all about movement. They also do an excellent job of using the present day interviews to provide context without slowing the film down or turning it into a lecture.
The film begins by giving us a sketch of the surfing scene in Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park back in the early seventies. The area had gone from oceanside suburb to urban wasteland in the space of about a decade. The guys riding the waves in that part of town had an aggressive style and were openly hostile to outsiders. Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom and Craig Stecyk opened up a surf shop where young surfers would gather to work and hang out. But somewhere along the way these kids turned from surfing to skateboarding, and the rowdy, crazy energy they’d shown riding the waves got channeled into their moves on concrete. Ho, Engblom and Stecyk acted as godfathers and midwives to the movement, creating the Zephyr Team, which was the tightly bound and tightly wound unit that was soon shaking up the skateboarding world.
While the film may appear chaotic, it’s actually very carefully constructed to give us not just the stories of the individuals or the history of the team, but also to give us the necessary context to understand what was actually going down. The film deftly weaves together observations about society, technology, commerce and culture to give us a well-rounded picture of the time and the place these kids grew up in, and to explain why their brash style connected with teens all across the country.
The one gripe I have with Dogtown and Z-Boys is that the makers don’t fully acknowledge their involvement in creating the story they’re telling. Sure, if you look at the credits you’ll see that it was written and directed by Craig Stecyk and Stacy Peralta. And in watching the movie you’ll make the connection that Stecyk’s work for Skateboard magazine garnered a lot of attention for the Z-Boys, while Peralta was one of the sport’s first stars. These two played a huge role not just in creating the initial scene, but in publicizing it and shaping the perception of it. I’m not bothered by the fact that they’re writing and directing the movie. Certainly they’re well qualified to tell the story, and as a piece of filmmaking Dogtown and Z-Boys is outstanding. But if you set out to make skateboarding a phenomenon, and then you make a documentary that shows how skateboarding became a phenomenon, you really have to acknowledge your dual role as subject and storyteller. Not just by putting your name on the credits, but by allowing that to be part of the fabric of the film. While I don’t distrust Peralta and Stecyk, I don’t think they’re being completely honest. In other words, I have no problem with them giving me a subjective account of what went down. I just want them to acknowledge that it is a subjective account.
Aside from that, I totally love this movie. These guys are smart and funny, and they have some great stories to tell. The footage from the seventies takes me back to the days when LA seemed like a vast, decaying paradise that you could wander through forever. And the score, featuring Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Pretenders and many others, matches the searing energy of the images.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a joy to watch.
The Crimson Kimono (1959)
Nowhere are Fuller’s strengths and weaknesses more evident than in The Crimson Kimono. The film’s main characters are two LAPD detectives, Joe, a Japanese-American and Charles, an Anglo. From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be hard to understand how provocative this was in the fifties. The Crimson Kimono was released less than fifteen years years after WWII, when Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and sent to prison camps, ostensibly because the US government felt they might be a threat to national security. For most filmmakers of the time, it would have been daring enough to introduce a Nisei cop in a crime thriller. But the central conflict in the story actually comes out of the fact that Joe gets involved in a relationship with a white woman. How this film got released by a major studio back in nineteen fifty nine is beyond me.
The turning point for Joe is when he falls in love with Chris. She loves him as well, but he suddenly becomes aware for the first time that as a Japanese man he is seen as an outsider. In reality this is completely absurd. It’s hard enough to believe that any Japanese-American could come of age in mid-century America without having encountered racism, but the idea that Joe would fit right in with the LAPD at that time is laughable. Still, Fuller deserves credit for even talking about this kind of alienation in the fifties. Whether or not we accept the specifics of Joe’s story, the director was trying to make the point that in this “land of opportunity”, there were many people who felt excluded.
Fuller opens the film, as he often did, with a wallop. The opening shots bring us to a burlesque theatre in downtown LA. We see Sugar Torch dancing onstage as the band in the pit belts out a raucous tune. Moments later she’s lying dead on the crowded street outside. Much of the film was shot on location, and we get a good look at Los Angeles in the fifties. But even more important, the film is an amazing document of the Japanese-American community during that era.
Fuller’s camera follows the detectives as they roam through the streets of Little Tokyo. We see Japanese women working in a wig shop. Cooks in a kitchen making rice cakes. A couple of nuns standing in front of the Maryknoll School. To my mind the most remarkable scene shows Joe looking for an older Japanese man who may have information about a witness. He finds Mr. Yoshinaga at the Evergreen Cemetery, where the man is visiting the grave of his son, killed in WWII. Few Americans were aware then (and fewer now) that Japanese-Americans fought with the Allies in Europe. To make sure no one misses the point, Fuller lingers over monuments dedicated to these men. Joe asks Mr. Yoshinaga for help, and the man agrees, but says he must first attend a memorial service for his son. We follow him into a Buddhist temple to witness the ceremony, watching as the priest strikes a gong, taps a wood block, recites a prayer. This scene does nothing to advance the plot, but it opens a window on a world that most Americans have never seen. A world that’s right in our own backyard.
Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Fuller challenged himself and he challenged his audience. It’s not just that he didn’t support the status quo. He was infuriated by the complacency with which most Americans accepted the bland reassurance that Hollywood dished out during the studio era (and still dishes out today). He tried to show us America in all its diversity, all its contrasts, all its complexity.
Really, he was trying to get us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Often a filmmaker’s most original work is the work he does outside the system. The constraints that directors have to deal with in making a commercial feature can tie them in knots. Producers who invest large sums of money in a project generally want something safe because they feel that’s the best way to turn a profit, which is why so many of the films we see have a ring of familiarity. A director may set out to make a movie that’s completely unconventional, but by time they’ve finished negotiating with the money men their groundbreaking work of art often becomes a rehash of last year’s hit.
Charles Burnett made Killer of Sheep when he was a student at UCLA in the seventies. It has the fearless originality, the breathtaking openness, the disturbing directness that maybe only a young artist is capable of. Working on a shoestring, using unknowns as actors, assisted by a crew you could probably fit in a VW, Burnett just made the film he wanted to. It’s a deeply personal and wrenchingly honest look at life in Watts, a run down, low income suburb of Los Angeles.
The film starts with a brief prologue where a teenage boy is first scolded by his father and then slapped by his mother for not taking his brother’s side in a fight. Early on the message is being drilled in. Violence is a part of life. Get used to it. We can choose not to fight, but we can’t escape the fight. It’s all around us. And the world is always trying to drag us into the fray.
Violence pervades the slowly decaying neighborhood where Stan lives in a small house with his wife and two children. Caught in the act of stealing a TV, a petty thief flies into a fit of rage when one of the neighbors calls the police. A couple of thugs come calling, looking for someone to help them out with a murder. And Stan works in a slaughterhouse, butchering sheep in order to make a living.
The scenes of Stan doing his job are brutally graphic. Sheep are kept in pens until they’re hung up and killed. Their carcasses are carried down a line as they’re skinned and dismembered. Stan is a gentle soul, but he spends his days slaughtering animals and we can see that it’s grinding him down. Trapped in a life he can’t escape, he seems exhausted and dazed. He talks about how he can’t sleep at night. His wife wants him to make love to her, but he rebuffs her. He barely speaks to his children.
Stan may literally be a killer of sheep, but everybody who lives in this depressed neighborhood is caught in a pen, waiting to be slaughtered. Burnett spends a good deal of time showing us the local children at play. They’re just kids, and they play the same games that kids play everywhere, but their aimless, innocent fun often seems to involve fighting, wrestling, rocks and BB guns. Violence bleeds into their lives early on.
This all may sound pretty bleak, but Burnett is so passionately engaged with his characters and the lives they lead that his film has a kind of subdued radiance. Wound up with the suffering and the sadness of Stan’s world is an implacable love that somehow survives. The glorious, eclectic score plays a major part in putting this across. Burnett brings together a variety of artists working in a range of styles, from Paul Robeson to Elmore James, from Scott Joplin to William Grant Still. But it’s Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth that reveals the film’s core of love wrapped up in pain. Near the end of the movie Stan and his family return home after a flat tire ruins their outing. It’s been a frustrating day, but as he’s sitting on the sofa with his wife he suddenly seems able to show her some tenderness. The final scene shows him back in the slaughterhouse, doing his job, but for the moment he seems to have found a reason to keep moving forward. And the last thing we hear before the credits is Washington singing the line, “…This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all.”
The Trip (1967)
The Trip is one of his smartest, sharpest films. Though he wasn’t into drugs himself, Corman understood that drug experiences were central to the counterculture movement. In a way it seems he may have even anticipated the drug culture with features like The Masque of the Red Death and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, which included delirious, hallucinogenic imagery. Corman understood that a shift in consciousness had taken place. As a commercial filmmaker, he was interested in exploiting current trends, but as an artist, he was also interested in exploring the changes that were happening in the world around him.
The first draft of the script was by Charles Griffith, who had already written numerous Corman films, including Not of this Earth, Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels. But apparently the director wasn’t satisfied with Griffith’s screenplay and handed the job to Jack Nicholson, who received sole credit. The script is pretty unconventional. There’s no plot, at least not in the usual sense. Corman avoids the melodramatic structures that had served him so well for years. He doesn’t need them because he’s not trying to deliver a message about drugs. He just wants to immerse the audience in an experience. From the beginning of the film to the end, we simply stay with the main character while he’s tripping on acid.
Corman starts off with a shot that sets the tone for the movie. We see a beautiful young couple embracing against a blue sky. Then the woman speaks, and we realize that she’s reciting an ad slogan. The camera pulls back to reveal that the couple is standing in the middle of the ocean. We then see two men perched on some rocks by a camera. The director yells cut. We’re at the beach, watching a commercial being filmed. The director, Paul, is satisfied with the shot and tells his crew to bring the couple back to the shore. Opening the film with a surreal image of an idealized couple is not accidental. Paul is shortly confronted by his wife, who is angry that he missed an appointment to sign divorce papers. It’s clear that Paul isn’t happy about splitting up with his wife, but it’s also clear that he’s interested in getting together with other women.
This sets up the dynamic for the film, the conflict that will shape Paul’s hallucinations once he drops acid. His friend John is going to act as his guide while he’s tripping, staying with him to make sure that everything goes well. They go to John’s home in the Hollywood Hills, a large, comfortable house decorated with an array of psychedelic colors and op-art patterns. When the acid first starts coming on, Paul is childlike, enchanted by everything he sees. Simple objects suddenly seem incredibly beautiful. We see Paul roaming through the house, enthusing about the living energy he sees around him, and these scenes are intercut with subjective images of Paul’s visions.
In this imaginary landscape Paul encounters all sorts of strange things. His wife appears, but there are other women, too, and it seems that the conflict between love and desire is very much on his mind. We see two riders on horseback, completely covered by black cloaks with hoods. At first they seem to be figures in a landscape, but suddenly they’re pursuing our hero and he runs into a cave filled with mist. As the film goes on, Paul’s hallucinations become darker and more complex. He starts getting very paranoid, and when John leaves the room for a moment, Paul bolts from the house, running down the side of the hill to the Sunset Strip. Somehow Paul manages to negotiate the colorful chaos of the Strip at night, though he does have a couple close calls. Finally he meets a woman in a club and goes back to her home to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, the LSD has worn off, leaving him wondering what has happened. He dropped acid to gain insight, but he’s unsure if he’s learned anything at all.
Corman gives us a striking snapshot of LA in the late sixties. From the illusionistic opening at the beach, to John’s colorful hillside home, to the happy frenzy of the Sunset Strip at night. The Trip doesn’t just document the locations, it also captures the state of mind of the hipster crowd in LA at that time. Everything’s cool, everything’s mellow, everything’s groovy. Until the cops show up, and then you just run like hell. By this point in his career Corman had become an extremely capable filmmaker, able to produce interesting, intense movies on very tight budgets. He was always concerned about holding the audiences’ attention, so there’s usually a fair amount of action and a certain amount of sex. But his best films were also visually expressive, and he knew how to create potent, compelling images. I wish that he’d invested a little more time and money in The Trip, because some of Paul’s visions seem to have a cut-rate quality, and some scenes could have benefitted from a little rewriting and a few more takes. To their credit, Nicholson and Corman are tackling some serious themes. I feel like they could have dug a little deeper, taken it a little farther. Still, Corman was not out to deliver a message, and the movie is honest in that Paul doesn’t claim to have any more answers after taking acid than before. It is maddening, though, that AIP changed the ending, superimposing something like shattered glass over Paul’s face in the final shot to imply that he’d been damaged by the experience. It’s a nasty scar on a film that is otherwise an imaginative and engaging look at a moment in American culture. It’s a rare example of a commercial film that’s willing to engage the counterculture on its own terms.
* The Intruder, a sharp, tough little movie about racial prejudice.
The Exiles (1961)
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)
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)
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 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)
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.
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.