April 11, 2005

The Desire Realm of the Four Destinies

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2003’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, the strangely vitriolic documentary by Thom Anderson, compiles nearly every cinematic depiction of the place known to the world as La-La Land or The Big Parking Lot. In the movies, L.A. is an erotic inferno torn between cannon-toting rioters and offensively affluent airheads. Anderson believes it is “the most photographed city in the world but the least photogenic.”

It’s certainly hard to argue with him once he presents three hours of Hollywood sleaze, sludge, and sap, including ample shots of incendiary car crashes and enhanced bikini bodies. Even the filthiest derelict owns beach-front property and a ’78 Trans Am. Surfers and businessmen cruise around Watts, while illegal immigrants own apartments in the Hollywood Hills. Aliens and fault lines collaborate to blow up small office buildings. Occasionally, a cybernetic killer from the future murders police officers.

Anderson’s wildly implausible thesis is that these things never actually occur in the reality of Los Angeles. He is completely apoplectic that movies are fake, even though he gives marginal praise to a few “literalist” films. The scary part is Anderson claims to be a CalArts professor! If these are his best insights, his courses must be like a kindergarten class taught by a mute Jenna Bush in a firebear’s cave built by a mute Jenna Bush. Regardless, here are five films that serve as adequate introductions to L.A.

(Note: Blade Runner is excluded because it takes place in a futuristic Tokyo they arbitrarily call “Los Angeles.” Mulholland Dr. is also ousted since it takes place in the head of a lesbian schizophrenic they arbitrarily call “Los Angeles.” Magnolia is too white, Falling Down is too silly, The Terminator is too Chicago, Chinatown is too obvious and Double Indemnity is really just a one-note joke about insurance agents.)

1. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Robert Aldrich’s exhilarating gangster apocalypse rivals Out of the Past as the best permutation of film noir. Ralph Meeker is an awkward, misanthropic P.I. named Mr. Hammer. Cloris Leachman is a half-naked, possibly insane thug magnet with cold eyes and a hot pistol. Then Hammer finds a radioactive box. The captivating script is L.A at its breaking point: sociopaths, international intrigue, concrete heat, Bunker Hill whores and Malibu armageddon.

2. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Dude’s odyssean voyage includes trips to Venice surf shacks, Westside parking lots, Beverly Hills mansions, Simi Valley suburbs and San Pedro bluffs. But the most L.A. scene is a broke Jeff Bridges clutching a White Russian and a joint, listening to Creedence and crashing his car into a stop sign in a narrow alley off Sunset.

3. Killer of Sheep (1977)

Charles Burnett’s student film avoids all the hysterical stereotypes of inner-city life in the early 1990s. Instead, Killer of Sheep introduces Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a frustrated slaughterer condemned to a lifetime of poverty and despondency. The lyrical cinematography perfectly captures metropolitan anxiety and suburban ennui. It also features one of the best (and longest) L.A. car scenes as Stan struggles to move a rusted engine across a labyrinth of apartments and corridors.

4. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder demonstrated that he was the missing link between Nathanael West and Robert Altman when he directed this corrosive indictment of malignant Hollywood myths. Screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), recently deceased, relates how he broke into an aging femme fatale’s mansion. Gillis promised the delusional starlet that he could write a comeback script for her. Holden does a deadly impression of Los Angeles parasitism and Hollywood greed.

Archived article by Alex LinhardtSun Senior Writer