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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Los Angeles Movies (originally published 10/97)

Contrary to popular belief, the movie industry did not originate in Los Angeles. The original hotbed of the fledgling industry was, of all places, New Jersey. It was an offshoot of the newly thriving movie business that originally took root in Southern California; a ragtag group of carpetbaggers making movies on the fringes of the industry with equipment manufactured and used in violation of Thomas Edison's patents. One of their primary motivations for locating in Los Angeles was to put as much real estate as possible between themselves and Edison. It proved to be a fortuitous home base for film production, with sunshine nearly every day of the year and a wealth of nearby filming locations, from coast to mountains to desert. Soon the scruffy outsiders were edging Edison and his cronies out of the marketplace to become the new industry establishment.

From that point on, sometime in the early 1910s, Los Angeles has been the home of the motion picture industry. It is therefore understandable that moviemakers often look back with nostalgia on earlier times in the City of Angels. Even when such a reminiscence includes a look at the seamier aspects of the city's past, as in "L.A. Confidential," the sense of underlying affection remains undiminished. For a sampling of earlier films about Los Angeles in earlier days, look for these titles on video.

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950). Although set in the same period as "L.A. Confidential," this classic from writer/director Billy Wilder was in its time a contemporary drama. Even so, the aura of old Hollywood hangs over it in the person of Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star played by Gloria Swanson, who had herself starred in silent pictures. Although forgotten by both her public and the industry, Norma continues to plan a comeback. William Holden plays the down and out screenwriter who takes advantage of her egotistic fantasies, realizing too late that he himself has become ensnared by her hopeless dreams of a Hollywood that will never come again.

"Chinatown" (1974). Screenwriter Robert Towne evokes a disturbing yet affectionate portrait of Los Angeles in the late thirties in the first of two scripts featuring private detective J. J. Gittes. In both this and the second film, "The Two Jakes" (1990), Jack Nicholson stars as Gittes, a small-time gumshoe who has the ill luck to investigate little cases that connect with big-time graft and corruption. On the other hand, it may have nothing to do with luck, since one is left with the feeling that there are few small-time cases in this place and time that don't sooner or later plug into corruption on a large scale.

"True Confessions" (1981). In a cynical tale worthy of any film noir classic of the forties, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall play two brothers mired in a swamp of vice and iniquity. This is all the more ironic because one is a priest (De Niro) and the other is a police detective (Duvall). The plot, adapted from John Gregory Dunne's novel by Dunne and Joan Didion, is loosely based on the infamous "Black Dahlia" murder case that shocked Los Angeles in 1947.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988). In an alternate universe Los Angeles of the late forties, the cartoon characters ("toons") are real actors, looked down on by the human actors and confined to their own ghetto ("Toontown"). Bob Hoskins is a private eye hired to find out whether Roger Rabbit's wife has been cheating on him. As we've seen already, in Los Angeles period films such simple cases always lead to bigger corruption. In this case, the creation of the Los Angeles freeway system is revealed as part of the nefarious master plan of a villain called Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd).

If the L.A. freeway system looks in retrospect like the evil plot of a master criminal, the arrival of the movie crews near the turn of the century must have looked equally calamitous to the horrified inhabitants of the sleepy environs of a small community called Hollywood. In the intervening years Hollywood and the freeways and the movies have become as inseparable as Laurel and Hardy. Luckily for us, their lively and often painful interaction has produced a body of fascinating films stretching from "Sunset Boulevard" to "L.A. Confidential" and, no doubt, beyond.

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