From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive

A Talk given to U.S.C. Humanities, March 27, 2003.

Is it possible to define a "real" Los Angeles, or has the city been so forcefully imagined in literature, art, and especially in films that only a mythological city now exists? The mere mention of Los Angeles in the title of a film arouses presuppositions. "To Live and Die in L.A.," the title of a William Friedkin film, resonates, just as does the phrase "Only in L.A.," with implications of edginess. To Live and Die in Fort Worth? To Live and Die in Rhode Island? To Live and Die in New York?--not even that creates a strong as definitive an impression.

     No other modern city draws more fascinated attention than Los Angeles as depicted primarily by film. In Rome, London, Paris, mention the city, and intrigued questions pour out, along with repeated expressions of longing to come here, where there is still the offer, at least the offer, of dreams fulfilled; that is, of getting into the movies.

     Los Angeles is a city of daily apocalypse--fate swirls on the freeways. The city constantly prepares for natural disasters (and, now, very unnatural disasters), disasters that include Sant'Ana winds, fires, earthquakes, floods, sliding cliffs--no tiny catastrophes; they're immense, dramatic, extreme, even melodramatic. Los Angeles is not only metaphorically edgy but literally on the edge. Nightly, the sun falls off the Malibu cliffs and sinks into the ocean bringing night.

     Against such a dramatic backdrop, this last frontier that at any moment may tremble toward apocalypse, this last-chance frontier, against all that, almost-biblical concepts of good and evil, morality, ethics, explorations of complex identity--these themes play well. After all, this is the City of Angels, a city of promiscuous spirituality--every religion and cult group settles here--and of physicality, a city of bodies and souls. It might be the place of exile for rebellious angels who refused to sing the praises of the celestial dictator.

     As a result of so much inherited mythology and associations, Los Angeles has become a readied set for films. A set is prepared for performance; and Los Angeles inspires grand performances, as exemplified by the films to be shown during this conference. Furthering that sense of performance is a strain of self-reflectiveness running through these films; of film looking at film looking at a Los Angeles recorded by Hollywood.

     There are ample locations for unique performance: Forest Lawn, with its glamorous statues shrugging off death in Tony Richardson's film version of Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One" extends its commentary on silly death. When Ma is about to "get it" in the back in "White Heat," the dark Sant'Ana wind, rustling leaves ominously, adds heat to the treachery. The racist betrayal by a rich white man of his mulatto lover in "Woman in a Blue Dress" is rendered profound by its being played out in the distance, silently, against the backdrop of a deserted Griffith Park Observatory at night. The same setting elevates the rebellion in "Rebel Without A Cause," just as it augments the universal implications of Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

     Like other great cities, Rome, Pompeii, and as a city of daily apocalypse, Los Angeles has been destroyed in movies over and over, but unlike those ancient cities demolished by the same disaster depicted over and over, Los Angeles has been destroyed by a spectrum of grim calamities. It has been wiped out by a volcano erupting on Wilshire Boulevard. It has been stung to death by giant spiders, ants, and killer bees. It has been set aflame by asteroids, and gnawed at by moll people. It has been ravaged even by a giant baby seeking gallons of milk and intent on finding his mother--even in the sewers of Los Angeles--in order to eat her up; the latter occurs in that underrated masterpiece "It's Alive! Part One."

     John Schlesinger's rendering of Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" includes not one but three apocalypses possible together only in Los Angeles. A literal movie set for a costume epic collapses, killing and wounding dozens of extras. An earthquake--augured earlier by the image of a cracked wall decorated, like a camouflaged scar, with a rose--strikes. A riot erupts simultaneous at a Hollywood premiere when a grotesque painted child, Adore, is mauled. (An aside: the hideously cute painted child Adore may be the close cousin of Baby Jane in Robert Aldrich's "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"--and that aged child star, played deliriously, all eyes, by Bette Davis, might be what Shirley Temple would have become if Richard Nixon hadn't appointed her ambassador to some country or other.)

     Within the next two days, several films, all set in Los Angeles, will be exhibited and discussed by a panel of reviewers and critics. Some of the films are experimental and may introduce points of view other than those I'm presenting. I'm limiting my remarks to so-called mainstream films because of their wide accessibility and immediate impact.

     A film that--unfortunately or fortunately--will not be shown is "L.A. Story." It attempts to define the city only ridicule, distorting all that's imposing about Los Angeles.

     The screenplay was written by Steve Martin, who often takes swipes at the city when he's in New York--nothing, though, that equals Woody Allen's fatuities or Ms. Bette Midler's recent announcement of why she fled Los Angeles. "There are," she said, according to that unassailable bastion of truth Liz Smith, "too many sick people here." Guess where she went?

     "L.A. Story" opens with a montage of clichés: a shimmering pool, beautiful women lounging about, a helicopter floating overhead with what looks like a large penis in a bun but is really a giant hotdog, mustard oozing; rainbows of sprinklers on identical lawns; a man in bizarre shorts lugging a Christmas tree to the garbage under a shower of sun; an old couple abandoning their walkers to creep into a convertible while donning sunglasses; earthquakes ignored in favor of nonsensical conversations at the Ivy; batty Venice West denizens, including an aging Lolita, neurotically obsessed with "colonics"; drivers firing at each other in congested freeway lanes. (About the city's congestion: have you noticed that in films, everyone finds a parking space right in front of his destination?)

     A clownish weathercaster, played to the manner born by Mr. Martin, informs: "I was deeply unhappy but did not know it because I was happy all the time." Sara, a London journalist, arrives to write about Los Angeles; the clownish weatherman offers to show her "cultural Los Angeles"--in 15 minutes.

     In seeming rebuttal to her ex-husband's claim that Los Angeles is for the brain-dead, the English reporter delivers this cloudy reprieve: "They turn the desert into their dreams, and no one is looking to the outside for verification that what they're doing is all right." What no one is doing, either, is asking what the hell she means. She confesses that she's met some intelligent people here, like-- The camera shifts to the clownish weathercaster skating through an art gallery that contains glass cases which allegedly contain: Verdi's baton, Mozart's quill, and Beethoven's balls.

     Throughout, rich visuals counter the sophomoric silliness. Lofty palmtrees, lush sunscapes, sweeping seascapes, streams of red and white lights on the freeways at night--these brush away the insults.

     On the freeway the clownish weatherman encounters an electric sign that flashes messages to him: I'M A SIGNPOST HUG ME. It also flashes Martin a liberating riddle, a riddle of the sphinx for the braindead: HOW DADDY IS? Now will Martin sing to it a rendition of DooWahDo? The riddle is solved, and from all this the daffy weatherman draws this profound lesson: "... deep in the heart of Los Angeles love is possible." It isn't truly clear whether he's referring to the prospect of an affair with the braindead electric sign.

     If only because of the preponderance of self-love in this proudly narcissistic capital of the world, Los Angeles might well be viewed as the City of Love, a city to which the constant influx of immigrants bring new variations of romance, of courtship.

     Los Angeles is also a city that suggests passion, terrific possibilities for illicit love. Films set in Los Angeles borrow the City's sensuality, its physicality. Even murder becomes glamorous in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" the moment the camera glides up Los Feliz and enters a Glendale mini-mansion and locates Barbara Stanwyck wearing only a towel and high heal pumps, and a sexy sneary smile that kills Fred MacMurray long before she shoots him, a unique love story. "I love you, baby." "I love you, baby!" Growl, growl, shoot, shoot, come, come, die, die." It may also have redefined terms for fidelity. "The machinery had started to move and no one could stop it."

     In other sweaty "noirs"--whether in black and white or Technicolor--the setting of Los Angeles contributes a sense of fate conspiring, just as the city's undercurrents conspire to grind. "The machinery had started to move and no one could stop it," says MacMurray about his fatal passion with Stanwyck. A similar sense of inevitability augments the drive toward injustice in Robert Wise's "I Want to Live!"

     Among the voyeuristic films that stare in fascination at themselves and reflect a city enthralled by its many reflections, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's "Sunset Boulevard" sets the pattern, a narcissistic, consciously self-conscious film about narcissism in a narcissistic city. Its metaphoric title appears on concrete. The film wasn't shot on Sunset Boulevard. It was shot on Wilshire Boulevard.

     Not only is Gloria Swanson's performance as Norma Desmond appropriately stylized; but so is the structure of the film. When at the opening Norma Desmond summons the man she believes to be an undertaker claiming the body of her pet-monkey, she also alerts the audience: "You there, why have you kept me waiting?"

     Viewed in retrospect by a dead man, the film links past and present into a journey toward inevitability, fate asserted; it links the past and the present without flashbacks through a series of reflections: Early photographs of Norma Desmond abound. Led to believe we're watching a clip of a young Norma famous movies, we're actually viewing a clip a Gloria Swanson film. That actual film was directed by Erich Von Stroheim, whom Swanson, the mistress of Joseph Kennedy, fired and who here plays her butler. Silent film stars pantomime themselves.

     When Norma Desmond returns to Paramount, Wilder's wicked sense of irony about Hollywood is displayed: Cecil B. DeMille informs Norma Desmond that Hollywood has changed, at the same time that he's directing an actual biblical clunker, "Samson and Delilah," while Norma Desmond is offering him her not-dissimilar treatment of "Salome."

     At the end, the film's structure winds into a circle of reflections. A Paramount newsreel camera, filmed by the movie's cameras, arrives to capture the filmic action. Norma Desmond snaps out of a trance when she hears that the cameras are rolling again, but they're newsreel cameras. Simultaneously she converts a small mirror into her key-light, the prized glowing territory of light given to only a few great stars. Her mansion turns into a set within the set of this Hollywood movie.

     As she descends to face the deceiving cameras, her indictment of the audience in the opening sequence extends: "This is all there is, just us, and the camera, and those wonderful people out there in the dark"--the people who kept her waiting, abandoned her, the audience now watching her decline in fascination.

     The film fades into a shimmering backdrop. Is that the pool into which Narcissus drowned in search of his own reflection? Or has Norma Desmond been saved by disappearing into her own stardust, her particular salvation?

     Even ostensibly "realistic" films emphasize performance in incorporating the set of Los Angeles. Several borrow from Sunset Boulevard, some subtly, some overtly; I have often observed that there is a vast difference between "homage" and "pillage."

     In "Star Maps," directed by Miguel Arteta, a shabby Mexican young man selling star maps is picked up on Sunset Boulevard by a beautiful rich actress who offers him stardom, albeit limited. Perceived by many reviewers as a realistic film, "Star Maps" is largely fable and sexual fantasy. Sunset Boulevard has never been a hustling avenue for map vendors; the director employs the street clearly because of its associations; it was in a Sunset Boulevard pharmacy that, legend insists, Lana Turner was discovered.

     Other elements in Arteta's film abandon verisimilitude. A pimp and his boys make loads of money but the boys continue living on the street. A fight that is a highlight of the film occurs on an actual movie set and is allowed to proceed uninterrupted by any of the various burly grips. Paradoxically, the most "realistic aspect of the film is the dream-hallucination of an dying old Mexican woman being escorted into heaven by Mexican movie star Cantinflas.

     Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" is a film whose story bears a strong historical antecedent. In the early 1940's in Los Angeles a climate of anti-Mexican racism resulted in the railroading of a group of zoot-suiters tried on spurious murder charges. Subsequently, squads of marauding sailors, marines, and soldiers raided East Los Angeles in a violent vendetta against "pachucos."

     Valdez's film mythologizes the harsh event. The action is performed--and at times literally choreographed--on an actual set, at times a theater. The actual stylistics of pachucos easily become theatrical representation: the stride--a stalk--slow, rhythmic; the language, a cadenced incantation; the clothes, a complexity of hat, often plumed, pegged pants, wide shoulders, dangling key chains.

     As Wilder did in Sunset Boulevard, Valdez acknowledge the audience, capturing it as it enters the theater. El Pachuco, the quintessential zoot-suiter, freeze-frames the action in order to comment. During an emotional high in the drama, he warns an agitated protagonist: "Don't take the play so serious, mano."

     The film employs the standard props of socially conscious Hollywood movies: the happily grumpy mother, the protesting but supportive father, the suspicious attorney who turns out to have integrity, the left-wing woman blinded by her social commitment. Other ironic reminders of performance are black actors playing prison guards, Mexicans playing cops--in the '40s.

     Although the Pachuco reminds, "Life ain't like that," Valdez flirts with a happy ending, extending three possibilities about what became of the railroaded man, once released: he committed other crimes and died in prison, he was killed in the war, he became a happy family man, despite the racial whirlwind that had sucked him in and was still churning during his release. Like "Sunset Boulevard," like "Zoot Suit," Robert Altman's "The Player"--which will not be shown during this weekend--opens by announcing itself as a performance on the set of Los Angeles. "Action!" a grip calls. There follow several minutes of an uninterrupted tracking shot as two men discuss famous long no-cuts. There are reminders of film as film everywhere: The camera glimpses glamorous Hurrell photos of great stars; there are sequences of movies within the movie--in one of which Julia Roberts as a woman doomed to execution in the gas chamber is saved by Bruce Willis, an ending the screenwriter of the movie-within-movie has dreaded from the first day of his pitch.

     IN THE NAME OF ALL WRITERS, I AM GOING TO MURDER YOU, warns an anonymous letter to a big film executive who had promised to "get back to him" in five weeks that have stretched into five months. We learn from the hunted executive that out of 50,000 yearly collective pitches, only 12 will become films. The wronged writer was not one of the 12, because: "... his script lacked the necessary elements for a successful movie: laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, happy ending, mainly happy ending." With zestful irony, Altman provides a deliberately forced happy ending, as the film we just watched turns into the film now to be made.

     Los Angeles is often depicted as a city to which many seek happiness, and often end up redefining it. Is the goal no longer to find love, but... stardom?--as in "Star Maps." Or is it just hope redefined?--as in the third proposed ending of "Zoot Suit." If indeed Norma Desmond drowns in the glitter of her legendary stardom, then she has found her version of salvation. It is found in "dolls" by the ladies of "Valley of the Dolls." (Incidentally Jacqueline Susann made that up, the word "dolls" for pills; nobody else ever used it.) The "Pretty Woman" finds redemption on Rodeo Drive. The clownish weatherman a lasting affair with a freeway sign.

     Roman Polanski's and Robert Towne's Technicolor "noir" film immediately pays homage to its classic antecedents (especially John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"): A not entirely noble detective occupies a not quite elegant office within which slatted venetian blinds allow slabs of light and an overhead fan whirrs lazily. In walks a mysterious woman who makes a proposal for the detective to hunt a missing girl, somehow connected to one of the City's most powerful figures. (It also casts Huston in the film.)

     That is only the beginning, because "Chinatown" intends to deal with large themes that play out perfectly within its setting: a desert city bordering the ocean and on the brink of destruction because of the threat to one elemental need, water--"where," one character reminds, "life began." On this vast plain, evil of biblical proportions looms, murderous corruption links with incest.

     Water, gallons of water, are being discarded into the ocean during a severe drought that may destroy the city. L.A. IS DYING OF THIRST, SAVE OUR CITY, a poster informs. In an eerie silent scene, viewed from a distance, a lone Mexican boy mounted on a horse meets a tall imposing man we learn later is the man stealing water--an unheroic Prometheus. Placed on the sun-baked Los Angeles River barely veined by water, this scene of conspiracy assumes a quality of desolation and moral aridity. An angled overhead view of a girl being sought conveys her sense of unique captivity by its being framed by beautiful flowers.

     When asked, "What more do you want?" the powerful Mulwray conniving to rob the city of water so he can buy the resultant cheap property, answers, "The future, the future," a motto of unchecked power that extends into his rationalization for incest and murder: "Given the "right place, right time--we're capable of anything." Setting the ending of the film in Los Angeles's Chinatown--early on identified as the locale of a crime the detective never fully solved or understood--lends lingering mystery and impact to the film's ending. (The film's exploration of unchecked arrogant power becomes timely today as we watch on television the reckless destructiveness of cynical power wielded by the current administration.)

     While white contemporary younger directors seem increasingly to push their explorations of the city toward surrealism, black directors deal more forthrightly with its realities, while adjusting the prepared set.

     MENACE II SOCIETY, directed by the Hughes Brothers, pushes the viewer into a world of no exit, and it does so in part by filming Los Angeles through a brownish murk that camouflages the beauty of the city. The violence is not camouflaged; it saturates the film in blood. Even on this muted set, elements of self-reflective performance occur: The killer of a grocery clerk watches raptly the store video tape that recorded his crime. His religious grandparents, just as enthralled watch a Jimmy Stewart movie--perhaps "It's a Wonderful Life"--on their TV screen.

     The inspired madness of the "Naked Gun" movies relies largely on surrealizing the action, while leaving the city's "real" background intact. In "Naked Gun 33-1/3," the parody of and homage to Eisenstein's famous "steps" sequence in "Potemkin" gains comic impact when we recognize the Park Plaza Hotel in the mid-Wilshire District.

     Katherine Bigelow, in her 1997, "Strange Days," distorts Los Angeles into burning shadows, twisted silhouettes among Los Angeles landmarks, the Bonaventure Hotel, Broadway downtown.

     It is December 31, 1999, the eve of the millennium. Sporadic fires, looting, suggestions of rioting are occurring. (Even these relatively mild intimations assume a humorous aspect when we remember that Los Angeles greeted 2000 with a shrug, perhaps because--I find this endearing--it was the only city to understand that the millennium would not begin until 2001.) A new illicit form of entertainment, "Playback," is now in the hands of black-marketeers, a new pornography that records violent experiences and allows the player to re-experience them, like listening to music with earphones. Recurrently we're seduced into the film's action only to realize that we've really "experienced" "Playback." (In a broad sense, "Playback" suggests the so-called reality shows of today, shows that, however, stop being realistic the moment the camera is aimed.)

     There are implications of a collapse of morality. In a dingy club full of costumed revelers, a leggy girl does a sexy song and dance, and an orgy is implied. (Alas, the orgy is even more passive than Kubrick's languorous one in "Eyes Wide Shut.") Bigelow does not make it clear how all this will bring about the apocalypse, on this particular day; no forecasts of computer failure, no terrorists, no connection to "playback pornography," just Los Angeles as tensile set.

     As disparate as the two films are in both content and quality, Curtis Hansen's "L.A. Confidential" opens with a sequence much like that of "L.A. Story"; and as in Sunset Boulevard, the narrator turns out dead. The voice of Danny de Vito itemizes a series of L.A. clichés. Unlike Martin's, this litany is delivered with jaunty irony: "Come to L.A," the voice invites as the camera roams over golden beaches, lush orange groves, a gorgeous landscape. "Life is good, paradise on earth." Yet: How is it possible that in such a city, organized crime can exist?"

     It is not only organized crime that exists in this Los Angeles. Corruption saturates every level of power, especially the Los Angeles Police Force--and note that in virtually every one of these films that indictment occurs, an indictment still prevalent.

     Early on, the intent of the film's exploration is established: What ethics can survive widespread moral anarchy? There are three cops on the moral spectrum: the police chief is overtly corrupt, another cop has a skewed morality--he draws the line on hitting women; and the third, the good cop, refuses to plant evidence, refuses to shoot even a guilty man in the back, the way Ma got it in "White Heat." Their ethics will be tested.

     As the roams through layers of corruption--racism, planted evidence, beatings, murder--impersonation assumes a major importance in the plot. High-priced prostitutes acquire plastic surgery in order to evoke the stars of fantasy: Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake. A confusion in the impersonations occurs at the famous Formosa Club, where the good detective encounters petty crook and gigolo Johnny Stompanato with a beautiful blonde, who protests the invasion. The cop retorts: "A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker"--only to be informed that she is Lana Turner.

     One cop works as a consultant for a "Dragnet"-like movie, and then we see clips from the actual "Dragnet" series. Location shots look like sets filmed in sepia-tinged colors that suggest the Los Angeles of 1950; occasionally the bright colors of the city are allowed to startle in bright Technicolor.

     In this film, the happy ending is rendered with a telling twist: The implicit morality of it is skewed.

     David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" gave banished deconstructionists hope for a ... comeback, at least for a nudge to queer theorists before they claimed it. Both were emboldened by Lynch himself. "The film is what you see in it," he pronounced about the episodes from a rejected film series pasted together with additional footage.

     Roles are constantly reversed: a "monster" is a homeless person, Diane is Betty, there are two Camillas, one of whom, an amnesiac, took Rita Hayworth's name for a time.

     At a staged theatrical performance, voices are lip-synched, music canned. Lines like: "Don't play it for real until it gets too real" and "Just like in the movies, pretend you're someone else," constantly remind we're watching a film. A cruel manifestation of self-reflective performance is the filming of indomitable old-time star Anne Miller through a kind lens, until the end, when the camera pounces on her in an unveiled closeup.

     "Weird skylines, dangerous parking lots," a voice describes Lynch's Los Angeles. But the skylines look a beautiful. Out of Lynch's jagged forms, the intrepid Los Angeles sunshine bathes the city. Palm trees sprawl majestically. The city glitters at night glitters from a distance as two women, like phantoms, surrender into it from Mulholland Drive.

     And along comes Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights." Knights--with a K? Why not?-- since it is something of a modern picaresque, and a highly moral one, too. It is a film that could be set only in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, the seat, as it were, of pornography, a most elemental form of performance.

     That sense of performance is affirmed even before the film begins. Its star, Mark Wahlberg, once known as Marky Mark, is a one-time homophobe who in this film gets assaulted by gay-bashers.

     Here, he plays a legendary porn king à la John Holmes, who was reputed to have had the largest endowment of all time. Scenes from antecedent films are replayed throughout. Mark accepts a best erotic player award, just like Anne Baxter did while getting a somewhat classier "Tony" in Mankiewicz's "All About Eve." As Mark's character declines, he become Bette Davis as Margo Channing. A "new kid in town," with rivaling endowment, becomes Eve Harrington, lurking in the wings to snatch the Big title away.

     Echoing Norma Desmond's protest, "Nobody leaves a star, that's what makes one a star," Mark asserts his challenged place in the constellation of porn: "I'm a star, a star, a big bright star." Upon her return to Paramount Pictures, Norma Desmond haughtily declared, "Without me there would be no Paramount," and Mark asserts his place to his betraying cohorts. "Without me you wouldn't be anywhere."

     A scene of dual violence is choreographed. While Mark is being assaulted by gay-bashers, a porn actress beats up a would-be client on another street. The scene of gay-bashing is ritualized into a crucifixion, emphasized by a church in the background; a deep blue Los Angeles sky is somber. The music uniting the alternating sequences is grave, funereal. Later, a wild man on drugs becomes a demented ballet dancer.

     A porn entrepreneur trespasses into kiddy porn and is ostracized, then beaten in prison. The husband of a porn queen kills her for indulging in off-screen sex.

     This film's ultimate comment on performance occurs at the very end when Wahlberg as Johnny-Holmes reveals his what is supposed to be a legendary penis. Instead, it's an obvious prosthesis, a limp, rubbery fake.

In ending, I would like to inject a most personal note: I cherish this city so often maligned, a city that despite all the ridicule it is too often the object of, can inspire films like "Chinatown," "Sunset Boulevard," "L.A. Confidential," "Boogie Nights," and many others, including, of course, "It's Alive, Part One."

     A favorite time of mine occurs at the beach in Santa Monica during late summer. That is when the "blue hour" drapes the world tints the world in a purplish blue haze created by a conspiracy of haze, clouds, fading sun. Film-makers often wait for this light to shoot their most memorable scenes. It is a time between dusk and night, a brief, mysterious transition during which, mythology claims, things are at once the clearest and therefore the most ambiguous.

     That is how Los Angeles emerges finally in films, clear one moment, ambiguous the next, bold and subtle, always mysterious, as real as movies, as unreal as the city itself.

John Rechy
March 2003
Los Angeles, California