We need a Woody Allen, I tell my friend, someone who sees L.A. the way Allen captured Manhattan with his adoring eye. All that lyricism, that magic, that beauty. That’s what I want—a great filmmaker to portray the city I love, with love. Am I asking too much?
The question is directed at my pal Peter Rainer, who is one of the country’s veteran movie critics. Over the decades he has written on cinema for publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to New York magazine and is now the movie reviewer for The Christian Science Monitor. We are discussing his newly published collection of reviews and essays, Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era—an entire life’s work—and I detour into one of my favorite questions: Why does my hometown not have a legendary cinematic celebrator? Is there something in the water or something about those hot desert winds that rattles the nerves and makes our auteurs—real and wanna-be—recoil from the sunshine to plumb the depths?
Peter understands and shares my affection for the city, having lived and worked here for almost 40 years. He offers up as solace 1991’s L.A. Story, a gently satiric look at the romantic entanglements of a local weatherman played by Steve Martin, who wrote the script. What I remember most about the film was a pre-stiletto Sarah Jessica Parker as a bouncy, gum-chewing Angeleno. People told me that I resembled her. It was the hair.
He also points to director Paul Mazursky, a Brooklyn boy who had a fondness for this piece of the country, evident in films like Blume in Love and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The latter was indeed a howl, with Bette Midler as a yoga-obsessed housewife whose life is turned upside down—or is it right side up?—by a suicidal homeless guy portrayed by Nick Nolte. At least Mazursky is limning the class divide. But an unalloyed valentine and/or a masterpiece? No, it is neither of those.
If you want to talk about the standout L.A. movies, Peter says, you have to turn your face away from the sun. You have to look in the shadows and down the alleyways, where Philip Marlowe and other fabled detectives lurked in their signature trench coats. They are our emblematic protagonists, just as their slinky blond temptresses—think Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential—are our homespun sirens. In these movies people talk tough and flirt tough, and the city is a lonesome, spooky assemblage of police stations and morgues. We are in noir land, where the streets are slick with rain and dreams die hard and the good-byes are long.
Peter has written elegantly about this canon. “In pop culture terms, Hollywood movies have provided L.A. with its only hallowed text, and within it the film noir occupies pride of place,” he observes in his book. “Where better to set off such sleek anomie than in the wonderland where, if you’re lucky enough to hit with a script or get a record deal…you can all at once vault your crummy life and become a pop pasha? Fast-track L.A. and film noirs both hinge on fate, but in the films the fate all runs downhill.”
Alas, I know too well how poignant that trajectory can feel. Near the end of his life, when he was no longer being hired as a director, my father was still trying to “hit with a script,” still taking meetings in his white loafers and Members Only windbreaker, a Hollywood Willy Loman peddling his wares, or trying to—a figure I push from memory whenever I can. This place is full of such peddlers, those who arrive looking for the big score and end up disappointed when it doesn’t pan out. As Peter notes, their disillusionment is the underpinning of these movies, the sense that this city, like those celluloid femmes fatales, will beckon you to come closer only to break your heart and, in the case of the films, your bones, too.
Of course I must ask about Crash, the upset winner in 2006 for the Best Picture Oscar. There was much contention at the time about Paul Haggis’s film, some maintaining that it had its finger on the fractious pulse of L.A., others—like Peter (and me)—insisting it was phony and contrived. “Crash was a connect-the-dots cauldron of overcooked racial and ethnic animosities that managed to make the very real rifts in our city seem wildly implausible,” he tells me.
Peter is also pretty grumpy about Quentin Tarantino, whose 1994 Pulp Fiction was set here. But by the time Tarantino was done with his vicious—some thought, hilarious—spree, the locale had become borderline immaterial. “All of his movies…mainline blood and guts and grunge,” Peter writes in his review of Tarantino’s more recent Django Unchained. “But it’s violence of a special sort: shockingly explicit and yet not to be taken altogether seriously (even though some of us do).”
I’m discovering that Peter is a moralist with a small M. He is not a prude or a pulpiteer. Far from it. He’s fine with a good ol’ escapist shoot-’em-up as long as it doesn’t pretend to say something important. If movies want to be taken seriously, they owe us more than sensationalism. They can’t just fling ugliness onto the screen without showing the physical, psychological, and spiritual ramifications. And they can’t use racism and misogyny as forms of cheap entertainment. “I do think you need a moral dimension in art,” he tells me. “It’s not that I object to violence in movies. What I object to is the lack of depiction of the consequences of violence. Pauline Kael once called Straw Dogs a ‘fascist work of art.’ I am not sure such a thing exists. I think if something is immoral, it is by definition anti-art.”
I am a sucker for what Peter wants from movies: a lot. He wants them to be good, to say something real. He is a quasi-fan, for example, of last year’s cop action thriller End of Watch because it offers an unflinching portrait of the police who patrol the meaner streets of L.A. It’s hardly perfect, he says, but it has an authentic, human core. Ditto with 1997’s Boogie Nights, which shows us the porn world of the Valley, a seedy slice of the city but a place where real people grind away, literally, to make a living. Fellatio meets family values.
To get to the best of L.A. in cinema, Peter invokes 1992’s The Player, which famously skewers the entertainment industry. Written by Michael Tolkin and directed by Robert Altman, it is one of Peter’s favorite movies about L.A. After seeing the movie I came away feeling dirty—that good kind of icky when you have witnessed something that is so dark and disturbing and funny. “[It] plays extremely well as a black comedy,” he writes in the book. “But it’s also about something deeper: It’s Altman’s death knell for his profession. The murder of the screenwriter by Tim Robbins’s studio executive, which he gets away with scot-free, stands in for the murder of movie art in modern Hollywood. The paradox, of course, is that Altman’s movie is itself a work of art.”
Are there other takes on the town that reach the same high mark? Peter speaks admiringly of Devil in a Blue Dress, the 1995 neo-noir based on Walter Mosley’s novel and starring Denzel Washington as a P.I. Indeed, it is hard to forget the evocation of postwar South-Central L.A., with its juke joints and sultry dames. Again: Los Angeles as a backdrop for the dreamers and schemers and the nefarious just as it was in Chinatown, the 1974 psychological drama that is among the quintessential Southern California films.
So much for the valentine I am hoping for. I concede that there is something about this place that drives artists to ignore paradise and unearth the longing and the loneliness and the malevolence. That’s what, Peter says, our best moviemakers have done.
Perhaps our city’s greatest role has been as muse, the source of inspiration that compels filmmakers to show the world in all its sordid and elevating complexities. They migrate from everywhere to partake of the enterprise that is still the creative soul of the city.
“I never had disdain for Hollywood or the culture or what it’s like out here,” Peter tells me. “I even like all the glitz and shallowness. What makes it work for me is that something really great can come out of this. Some of the greatest works of art and entertainment have come out of this 20-mile radius.”