Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself


by Thom Andersen

Originally published in Cinema Scope no. 20 (2004). Thom Andersen is one of the Artists in Focus on the forthcoming Courtisane Festival (1-5 April 2015), on the occasion of which the restored version of ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ will be shown.

Since my video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself was launched in Cinema Scope a year ago, it has had a curious career. Somehow it’s been better received than I anticipated. I thought I had gone out of my way to make agreement difficult. But not far enough, it seems. There have been so many good reviews I find myself resenting the bad ones—and taking them too seriously. When Gary Indiana, writing in Artforum, took exception to my claim that Hollywood movies denigrate the modernist residential architecture of Los Angeles by citing the “many less ‘negative’ representations” of buildings by R. M. Schindler, I actually wrote a letter to the editor asking what movies he had in mind. I knew one, but had he even seen Impulse (1990)? Did I miss something else? I never got an answer.

So did I really take cheap shots at James Dean, George Kennedy, and Henry Jaglom? Do I really feel superior to Hollywood movies, as A. O. Scott claimed in the New York Times? I would say that I take them more seriously than someone who has to write about them twice a week can afford to.

Fortunately, the criticisms I get at screenings are more concrete and circumspect. The most common complaint is the omission of one movie or another. I had anticipated this line of questioning before Los Angeles Plays Itself was screened publicly and I made up an all-purpose response: I put that film in, but I had to cut it out to get my movie under three hours. But I couldn’t stick to this line, it was too glib, and I usually ended up apologizing for the omission and explaining it in some lame way. The truth is simply that some movies interest me and some don’t. I can watch Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) over and over again, but I can’t bring myself to watch another surf movie, no matter how high the recommendation of my surfer friends.

One that didn’t interest me that much is the most-often cited omission, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) (somehow his other Los Angeles movie, 1997’s Lost Highway, doesn’t inspire the same level of passion). When asked about it, I could have just said that my movie was already composed when it came out, which is true. Instead, I would offer some ungainly remark about Lynch’s complacent exoticism or his depiction of the homeless as the source of some ineffable terror—an answer that didn’t even satisfy me. I should have worked up something better, but I could always find some occupation more pressing than watching Mulhollland Drive again—until a critic in New York explained to me that it was one of the all-time great lesbian films.

So I watched it, and she was right. Lynch generally hypes up passion to the point of parody, as if he’s afraid of it, but he has a sure touch with friendship, its rituals and rewards, and the love between the naïve ingenue Betty and the amnesiac siren Rita in Mulholland Drive is based on friendship, on the sharing of adventures as they try to reconstruct Rita’s forgotten past and make their way in an unfamiliar world, each discovering an unexpected resourcefulness in the other. It’s like a Nancy Drew mystery, full of little human-scale triumphs. Comradeship gradually turns into intimacy, and the gestures that delineate the transformation are rendered very precisely and subtly. There’s a rapport between Naomi Watts (Betty) and Laura Elena Harring (Rita) that transcends Lynch’s fiction, and I couldn’t help being moved by Betty’s blithe indifference to the warnings of everyone around her that Rita is some kind of trouble.

But what about Mulholland Drive as an evocation of Los Angeles? What makes it so compelling to so many people? It has beautiful shots of downtown, both from the air and from the ground (sped-up versions of the tracking shots Juris Poskus invented in 110/220 [1999]), but so does Wim Wenders’ The Million Dollar Hotel (2000). It has the most gorgeous city lights shots I’ve ever seen in a movie, as if to demonstrate the truth of Roman Polanski’s quip, “Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world…provided it’s seen by night and from a distance.” In a few brief shots, it captures the almost uncanny fear you can sometimes experience as a pedestrian in Los Angeles, in residential neighborhoods at night as cars whiz by, too close for comfort, their drivers oblivious to your presence.

Instead of dispensing with the clichés about Los Angeles, as I might desire, Lynch plays a series of witty riffs upon them. The arty black-clad film director is a secret Oliver Hardy, and he carries a golf club around with him so he can always give tit for tat. The amiable surfer dude with the blond locks turns out to be a ruthless but incompetent (or unlucky) hit man. The gangster boss is obsessively fastidious about his espresso, and when he is given a cup that isn’t up to his standards, he terrorizes his hosts by lazily expectorating a mouthful of it onto a linen napkin. The gang enforcer is a wizened albino cowboy, an odd amalgam of William Boyd (as Hopalong Cassidy) and Walter Brennan, with a gentle, almost effeminate voice and a comically oversized white hat.

As it is for people, so it is for places. The film director’s mansion on Mulholland is all modernist glass and chrome, but it has an incongruously traditional mansard roof. The apartment Betty inherits from her aunt Ruth radiates an orange glow that is more than the sum of its precise period details. Conversely, Diane Selwyn’s apartment is a bit too spare for its setting, a courtyard complex of picturesque Norman cottages, one of the most whimsical examples of eclectic historicism in Los Angeles architecture. Even the palm trees are a little askew.

Mulholland Drive falls down when the clichés aren’t twisted. I was dead-on about that homeless guy camped behind a coffee shop on Sunset Blvd., his face so dirty it almost looks like blackface. In this movie, the sudden appearance of a black man in Hollywood can frighten you to death.
And it falters at the end, when Lynch abandons one plot just when it was getting interesting and sketches out an alternative story with the same characters under different names. You could say it’s what might have happened to these people if they had met at different times. But now all the clichés are back in place. The film director is spared any encounters that might get him into another fine mess. The blond assassin and the cowboy enforcer are reduced to stereotyped walk-ons. Betty has become Diane Selwyn, a prematurely haggard monster of jealousy, and Rita has become Camilla Rhodes, a vapidly glamorous movie star. It may be presumptuous of me to say so, but it’s a sad ending to a great lesbian movie. It’s as if Céline and Julie turned into Blanche Hudson and Baby Jane.

It may say something that Mulholland Drive is a movie often cited by people who live outside of Los Angeles, but never by people who live here. Maybe it’s because Lynch’s vision of Los Angeles remains that of a tourist, although he has lived here for many years. In a way, he is still Betty, the naïve provincial in the big city, and maybe that’s why Mulholland Drive carries conviction when it stays with her point of view and feels artificial when it moves to other scenes, other stories. When she is transformed into a jealous spurned lover, I felt betrayed, and now I’m convinced my response was appropriate. Lynch betrayed his own vision to produce a sour, cynical addendum that is worthy of Billy Wilder.

On the other hand, the people who live in Los Angeles accuse me of being unfair to Michael Mann. For quite a few of them, Heat (1995) is the definitive Los Angeles movie, and they resent the cheap shots I directed at it. I ridiculed Mann for situating a character in the Hollywood Hills when her economic station would place her in the plains below and for rechristening the Vincent Thomas Bridge, named after a venerable state legislator from San Pedro, the “Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge.”

It’s true that I was in a sour mood when I saw Heat, first of all because the teenage cashier sold me a “senior citizen” ticket, then I ripped my jacket on a seat arm, and I was expecting a regular 90-minute crime drama, not a three-hour (almost) epic. So I spent most of the last two hours wondering why there was no ending in sight.

That was almost ten years ago, so I should have gotten over it by now. Can’t I think of a few nice things to say about Heat? Well, it was the first movie to depict the Metro Rail Blue Line, which runs from Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, and that impressed me. It did establish a new colour palette for Los Angeles movies, replacing smoggy warm tones with cool blues and slate grays, a colour scheme elaborated and exaggerated in Blade (1998) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999).

But still…I didn’t mention another geographical howler in Los Angeles Plays Itself because it requires a little explanation. After the big shootout in downtown Los Angeles, a tv newsman is heard characterizing it as “tragedy in a southland neighborhood.” Downtown may be sometimes forlorn, but we still know it’s there. It’s not just another neighbourhood. And the Hawksian posturing about professionalism is just silly, and it mars the greatest acting battle since Taylor Mead and Dennis Hopper squared off in Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort of (1964), saddling Robert De Niro and Al Pacino with speeches that are almost embarrassing.

Yet when I read about Mann’s new film Collateral, I was convinced this was the movie I’d been waiting for. I admired The Insider (1999), a virtuoso docudrama that doesn’t cheapen its subject, and especially Ali (2001). Its opening montage is exhilarating, and it’s unsurpassed as a fictional reconstruction of the 60s. I once drove a taxi in Los Angeles, and ever since I’ve been eager to find a movie that did justice to the pleasures and frustrations of the job. For me, what could be better than a movie of a cabbie driving around Los Angeles all night? Even if it has a hokey-sounding plot: the cabbie is hijacked by a hit man and forced to drive him to the five assignations he must fulfill in the course of one night. And the critics promised an original, redeeming vision of Los Angeles. Maybe Mann had become “one of the cinema’s great lyric poets of urban space,” as Gavin Smith proposed in Film Comment.

Of course, it wasn’t to be. At least, not quite. When I finally saw it, I discovered that the cab driver is named Max Durocher (although he’s a nice guy), and he is played with admirable dignity by Jamie Foxx. The hit man is named Vincent (after the police detective in Heat?), and he is played with some ferocity by Tom Cruise. They are both quite loquacious, especially Vincent, who is a knowledgeable jazz fan and given to philosophizing in a manner appropriate to his profession. After a while, he starts to needle Max with the eternal question all veteran taxi drivers must face: Why are you still driving a cab? Of course, this is a mistake, since it will goad Max to action.

So there is drama, but the plot is curiously uninvolving. It didn’t quite make sense to me. Why is Vincent given only one night to kill five people? (In Murder by Contract [1958], Vince Edwards had months to kill a single potential witness.) Why did his employer, a drug cartel facing federal prosecution, ask him to kill the prosecutor as well as her witnesses? (The assassins of Murder, Inc. in The Enforcer [1951] knew better.) Why didn’t he just rent a car at the airport? These are old-fashioned, even pedantic questions, but I believe they suggest a significant issue. As thriller plots have lost their moorings in the real world of causes and effects, something valuable has been lost. When actions become arbitrary, stories lose their power to help us make sense of the world and they become strictly formal patterns. Thus many of us now turn to documentaries for the emotional knowledge we once found in fiction films.

Yet these formal patterns can still be of some use: they can describe a world, more or less adequately, and they can make it strange. In this respect, Collateral improves on Heat. I admired its portrait of a taxi driver who’s good at his job, although, unlike a Hawks hero, he yearns for something better. Although Vincent is more self-conscious about his professionalism (“I do this for a living” is a constant refrain), he actually takes his work too personally. Of course, if he didn’t screw up, there wouldn’t be a story.

In Los Angeles Plays Itself, I complained about the movies’ disdain for “the dismal flatlands” of the Los Angeles basin and their insistence on housing their characters in the hills or at the beach. Although the action of Heat takes place in the flats, all the characters reside in the more picturesque environs of the Hollywood Hills or along the shore of the Santa Monica Bay. InCollateral, Mann has self-consciously spurned these locales. There’s not even a glimpse of the hills or the beach. The whole movie takes place in the basin of Los Angeles from Hollywood in the west to Pico Rivera in the east. According to Ella Taylor, writing in the LA Weekly, this is “that Other city of angels that so enthralls white Westsiders, if only from a safe distance.” No, it isn’t. It’s where most of us live, and I think Mann understands that.

Mann is no literalist, but his distortions are generally of the sort that remind us how the city could be improved. The Yellow Cabs in the movie have two tone paint jobs, yellow tops with bright red bodies, although real Yellow Cabs are painted yellow all over. I prefer Mann’s version. Maybe the Yellow Cab Co. should consider taking up his hint. The Blue Line train runs all night long, although in reality it shuts down around midnight. However, the transformations that are physically impossible strike me as more dubious: he gives a Hollywood high rise a close-up view of the downtown skyline by filming interiors at a hotel on South Flower Street.

Steve Harvey, who writes a documentary humour column for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out one other small liberty: “One of the unsolved mysteries of the new thriller Collateral concerns a taxi ride taken by L.A. prosecutor Jada Pinkett Smith at the outset of the movie. She tells driver Jamie Foxx she wants to go to 312 N. Spring St., and they argue about the best way to get there. Finally, she confesses he knew best—even though he is seen dropping her off at 5th and Grand.” I could add that the route she proposes is rather absurd, but so is the one Max sketches out to get from downtown to 1039 South Union. Mann’s grasp of local geography still seems oddly uncertain.

But he does acknowledge that Los Angeles is a multiethnic, multilingual city. The hero and the woman he must rescue are both black. Max speaks Spanish—an aptitude that is required of ill-paid service workers in Los Angeles, but not of its well-paid professionals. In the course of the evening, Max and Vincent visit a jazz club in Leimert Park, a Latino night club in Pico Rivera, and a Korean disco on Sixth Street.

Yet each of these scenes made me feel a little uneasy. Before he gets shot by Vincent, the owner of the jazz club, Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley), is allowed to spin an utterly unconvincing yarn about the night Miles Davis dropped into the club and jammed with the house band. Miles heard him play and characterized his playing in a single word: “cool.” It was the highlight of his life. Vincent’s sympathetic interjections are a bit askew, overly condescending, but the discomfort this induces in us is appropriate: it’s the perverse setup to a murder. What makes the interaction unbelievable is that Daniel doesn’t notice anything odd in Vincent’s responses and the story itself doesn’t quite ring true. A word from Miles Davis might be the highlight of my life since I’m an outsider to the jazz world, but that world isn’t big and an insider wouldn’t be that star struck.

The other clubs are just backdrops, local colour, but I had the sense that a vision is imposed upon them. The Korean disco scene was shot at a club called Bliss that Mann renamed Fever, and his vision of Club Fever comes from movie nightclubs, not from observation. His version of the Latino club El Rancho may be closer to the real thing, but I doubt that all of the male patrons wear cowboy hats. In both cases, though, an ethnic subculture is turned into an alien underworld, presided over by an evil drug kingpin.

But the rides in between are beautiful. We are invited by the framing and the focus to look beyond the faces of the actors into the background of the shot, to look at the buildings and the lights and the sky. Mann is trying to describe something other filmmakers hadn’t noticed before. As he wrote in the production notes, “there is a unique mood to the skies above L.A. [sic] at two or three a.m. Streetlights reflect off the clouds. Even in darkness, you can see into the distance.”

Vincent complains that Los Angeles is sprawling and disconnected, a place where someone can die on the subway and ride around unnoticed for hours (actually, that was New York), and the movie provides some evidence for his observation. Certainly Los Angeles lacks the density that in older cities makes walking so rewarding. So the cruiser has replaced the flaneur, and cruising is the chief pleasure of a cab driver’s job.

Although Mann is sensitive to the horizontality of Los Angeles, he seems especially drawn to its more vertical sectors, like other action filmmakers before him. The movie begins and ends downtown. Mann stages the climactic duel on the 16th floor of a glass-walled office tower with the lights out so that the actors are silhouettes and all we see is the view, the lights of the city. He seems to be suggesting that Polanski was right about Los Angeles and maybe we can find some consolation there.