“Sunshine Noir” begins tonight at BAM, and continues through December 9 with new films daily.
We’re reminded early on in Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Andersen’s landmark dissection of the movie industry’s conflicted relationship with the city it ostensibly calls home, that Los Angeles is a place “where reality and representation get muddled.” And indeed, from the birth of the studio system onward, Hollywood has borne inevitable, though not always intentional, witness to the ever-evolving landscape of districts, enclaves, villages, and neighborhoods which comprise greater Los Angeles. In fact, one could, if so inclined, chart the development of the City of Angels solely through the movies. The results would be fascinating yet false, an alternate yet far from comprehensive cultural and topographical chronology rendered in moving yet immutable images. The films included in BAMcinématek’s “Sunshine Noir” series, a 21-title program of various permutations on the Los Angeles film noir, not only capture the city through diverse diagrammatic design, but also epitomize but one of its many enduring contradictions, approaching its borders from the outside in, from the sun and sand-streaked coast to the streets of its seedy urban core.
In the case of BAM’s series, noir is perhaps less a genre than an aura, a kind of existential condition which the characters in these films must confront in an effort to stay alive and thus maintain the city’s labyrinth, inharmonious infrastructure—a conflation, in other words, of the personal and political with the unsettling, offsetting sense that one may in fact be dependent upon the other. Set in 1947 Hollywood, Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is both a stylistic send-up and thematic reconsideration of noir tropes. A radical admixture of animated and live action adventure narrative, the film utilizes the mid-century transportation crisis—a very real and very decisive moment in Los Angeles history—as dramatic impetus for a tale of industry-reared nostalgia and looney toon capitalism run amok (the latter embodied to eerily seductive degree by Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom). That more Los Angeles productions don’t take real events as either subject or backdrop, choosing only to re-appropriate locations and landmarks, is one of the great ironies of Hollywood. One notable exception, of course, being Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), a dramatization of the California Water Wars and an allegorical depiction of a city built on deceit starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, which, befitting its stature, is one of only two films to screen twice in the series (the other being Roger Rabbit).
Other “Sunshine Noir” titles look to the past in more functional fashion. Both Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds (1984) and Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) are remakes—the former an update of Jacques Tourneur’s first-wave noir Out of the Past (1947), the latter a reinterpretation of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 nouvelle vague classic of the same name, itself a European riff on the American crime drama—and both betray a certain sexualized decadence indicative of the period of their creation. The 80s weren’t exactly a period defined by good taste, but these two potentially egregious examples of the decade’s indulgence manage to valiantly reflect their counterparts’ spirit even as they transpose their action to contemporary Los Angeles. Breathless is particularly memorable apart from its association with Godard’s original, with Richard Gere as a comic book-carrying, Jerry Lee Lewis-loving murder suspect whose romantic pursuit of his French lover (Valérie Kaprisky) takes him through many Westside locales as he simultaneously attempts to outrun the cops. The film literally and figuratively climaxes with the couple making love at a movie theater as Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) plays in the background, an appropriately symbolic and ostentatious image for a film so enthralled with its influences.
While a handful of titles featured in “Sunshine Noir,” such as Michael Mann’s epic underworld showdown Heat (1995), Steven Soderbergh’s fractured revenge thriller The Limey (1999), William Friedkin’s gangland fever dream To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and Ulu Grosbard’s Beverly Hills heist film Straight Time (1978), are true-blue crime sagas, others are more quintessential noirs. In fact, the earliest film in the series, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), essentially crystallized the existentialist tone which not only marks this program but which came to define the final full decade of classic studio filmmaking. Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele, eternally nonchalant even in the face of murder charges, is indicative of a genre in which the moral lines between protagonist and antagonist blur, where motivations and responsibilities fade from view, forever lost in the shadows. Released the following year, Joseph Losey’s M (1951)—yet another remake—relocated Fritz Lang’s disconcerting tale of a child killer from Berlin to Los Angeles, but the original’s atmosphere of terror and nocturnal ambiance manifest in a recognizably American manner in the Stateside move, carrying with it a distinctly homegrown sense of civility and geography. Set mostly in and around Bunker Hill, the film features many storied Downtown locations, from an opening shot in which the camera ascends from inside the Angels Flight railway to a climatic chase sequence set inside the elaborate Bradbury Building.
Identifying familiar locations amongst such inherent cinematic artifice is one of the great peripheral pleasures of watching Los Angeles-set films. In “Sunshine Noir” alone, one’s able to sample everything from the gaudy end of 80s Los Angeles in Brian De Palma’s most hyper-sexualized film, Body Double (1984), which makes ample use of John Lautner’s octagonal Chemosphere House, to the outskirts of the South Bay in To Live and Die in L.A. to MacArthur Park and the Eastside haunts of Robert Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride (1974) to the bygone Edendale (now Echo Park) neighborhood depicted in Chinatown. Such visually arresting settings have obviously made Los Angeles a popular shooting location over the decades, but it’s the iconic sites located Downtown which are perhaps most memorable. Before it was torn asunder in the 60s, Bunker Hill was an especially functional location, its rolling facade and decorous architectural designs a veritable fixture of 40s and 50s crime films. The most extensive index of Downtown was mapped by director Robert Aldrich, whose Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—an parabolic vision of urban corruption following a private investigator (Ralph Meeker) and a succession of duplicitous femme fatales on a journey toward possible apocalypse—captured both a district on the verge of destruction and an air of Cold War paranoia which permeated well into the next decade.
Kiss Me Deadly’s fusion of B-movie storytelling devices and newsreel dread resulted in a film both decidedly of its time and far ahead of it. In fact, the film’s central MacGuffin, a mysterious box containing a glowing, unidentified, possibly nuclear substance, has been co-opted by an untold number of filmmakers over the years. The most famous nod came from Quentin Tarantino—represented in “Sunshine Noir” as both a writer, with True Romance (1992), and a director, with Jackie Brown (1997)—who predicated the plot of Pulp Fiction (1994) on a mysterious briefcase containing a glowing, unidentified, possibly narcotic substance. But earlier than this was Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), which, like Kiss Me Deadly, features multiple characters in hot pursuit of radioactive cargo. It’s something of an outlier in “Sunshine Noir,” however, as it’s not exactly a noir. Then again, it’s not exactly anything that one might easily define: as an anarcho sci-fi punk comedy it digests genres as swiftly as its eponymous anti-hero appropriates neglected vehicles; but as a hallucinatory look at ravaged, Reagan-era Downtown, it’s probably the most accurate portrait of the city in contemporary cinema. As the pissed-off pair of Otto (Emilio Estevez) and Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) follow their professional pursuits across Downtown’s industrial district, hardcore punk shows spilling forth from unoccupied warehouses just as an early car chase takes them careening through the Los Angeles River Basin, the viewer is taken on a guided tour through an area of Los Angeles that’s often overlooked, both cinematically and politically.
The primary impetus behind “Sunshine Noir” is the impending release of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice. Anderson’s long been one of the most dedicated and reverent observers of Los Angeles life, and Pynchon’s mellow exhale of detective tropes and stoned 70s hippie jargon results at once in the director’s most surreal, obliquely plotted ensemble piece, as well as his most evocative, expansively detailed reimagining of his hometown to date. The film has already understandably, though slightly misleadingly, drawn comparisons to Robert Altman’s Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye (1973), one of “Sunshine Noir”’s few true neo-noirs and a moody evocation of West Coast wantonness which takes Elliott Gould’s Phillip Marlowe from Malibu to Mexico and back again as he hurdles toward a kind of cognitive reckoning. Marlowe’s spiritual ennui certainly exemplifies a specific period of widespread post-war disenchantment, but in the context of film noir it’s one that’s proven surprisingly conducive even as current cultural climates invariably cool and conform over the years. It’s somehow perversely appropriate that such a restless sense of social identity and civic culpability would be so thoroughly chronicled against the hazy horizons of Los Angeles, the most moderate environment of all.