Los Angeles as Seen in Movies: My Five Picks

Los Angeles as seen in movies Chinatown 1974 
I know what you must be thinking. On what criteria can I possibly choose just five of so many films that are shot or take place in Los Angeles? Therefore, for the films on this list, you have to dig a little deeper. First of all, L.A. has to be a “character” in each of these movies; they couldn’t have been made anywhere else but there. Secondly, I am not the type for romantic comedies or love letters to L.A. Noir is my favourite genre, so even if not all these entries fall in the category of classic noir, they must at least convey a bleak portrayal of Los Angeles, either on the surface or emdebed in the subtext. Whether social reality or crime pictures, they allow a critical depiction of Los Angeles. Thirdly, these films speak through images just as much as they do through dialogue; the cinematography is another character if you may – it’s not just the way the bright, desert light of Los Angeles is filmed in one movie in particular (see first title below), but also about the capture of the City of Angels at dark. And, finally, although it’s not a mandatory factor, it doesn’t hurt if the costumes add to the overall style of these films.
 
Chinatown 1974 
Chinatown (1974) / Director: Roman Polanski / Cinematographer: John Alonzo / Production designer: Richard Sylbert / Costume designer: Anthea Sylbert

“I wanted the style of the period conveyed by a scrupulously accurate reconstruction of decor, costumes, and idiom – not by a deliberate imitation, in 1973, of thirties film techniques.” That’s the sense you get when watching Chinatown: you feel you are in the world of 1930s Los Angeles. Polanski wanted a film that was alive in its time, not a nostalgic period piece. It is a very modern film in its look. Given Polanski’s obsession for period accuracy, there is no wonder that the costumes created by Anthea Sylbert are memorable for their thirties LA authenticity. Faye Dunaway, as Evelyn Mulwray, makes a great role, and the costumes she wears help her tremendously to commit to her character. Faye’s clothes also blend in with the narrative and the warm tones of the film and with that incredible Los Angeles light – John Alonzo’s creative, beautiful cinematography made it look like a classic black and white movie magically transposed to colour. His minimalistic approach had Dunaway shot in close-up just two and a half feet from her face, the exact opposite of traditional Hollywood movie star glamour style.

“In Chinatown, what I was trying to create was this Philip Marlowe atmosphere, which I’d never seen in the movies the way I got it in the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler,” said Polanski. As James Greenberg writes in Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, what Polanski brought “to this quintessentially American material was a European sensibility and an unerring feeling for the darkness of the human soul”. A realistic vision (what American director would have had his leading man wear a bandage over his nose for almost the entire duration of the film?). “If you spend any time in Los Angeles, you can catch glimpses of the paradise compromised by greed, just as Towne (Robert Towne, the screenwriter) did when he first conceived Chinatown,” says Greenberg. Robert Towne had originally conceived of Chinatown as part of a trilogy chronicling the sprawl and exploitation of the LA he remembered from growing up there. Wrapped around the four basic elements of life, Chinatown dealt with a water scam; The Two Jakes, eventually directed by Nicholoson in 1990, continued with fire and earth, in the form of oil; and the never made Gittes vs Gittes was going to be about the air and the advent of no-fault divorce in California.

One other thing Roman Polanski fought for was the tragic ending, which was essential for following the logic of the plot – an ending that takes place in Chinatown, but that also links the story to the metaphorical Chinatown, a place where things go hopelessly wrong, despite one’s best intentions.
 
Nightcrawler 
Nightcrawler (2014) / Director: Dan Gilroy / Cinematographer: Robert Elswit / Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh / Costume designer: Amy Westcott

Nightcrawler is a beautiful, if deeply cynical, portrait of Los Angeles as media capitol of the world in constant motion. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Lou Bloom, a freelance cameramen who roams the night looking for crime scenes, the “if it bleeds, it leads” type, to sell to the morning news (the film is a morbid satire of the TV news business), delivers a tremendous depiction of the relentless fame-seeking sociopaths that Los Angeles is famous for attracting and making. Bloom is (and looks – he lost 30 pounds to get into character) hungry for what sells, cunning and corrupting, amoral and ruthless, “the perfect product of our times”, said Gyllenhaal for The Guardian. It is a sharp, creepy, stinging, comic yet cruel character study. “I did not want a character with an arc,” director Dan Gilroy, at his debut feature, told Flavorwire, and that’s something, I believe, that makes for some of the most interesting characters. “I wanted to break as many narrative rules as a could, so there’s no arc, there’s no redemption, there’s no backstory.” It is a stellar work Gilroy elicits from Gyllenhaal.

This is less about the California sunshine, and more about the dark corners and undertones of L.A. at night (although Robert Elswit, the cinematographer, commands both worlds beautifully, as he has also shown in other movies, Magnolia being one of them). It is a great example of how a film evokes a feeling without constantly reminding you that it is not reality that you are watching- Elswit’s nighttime photography communicates the danger and thrill of the protagonist’s work.
 
In A Lonely Place 
In A Lonely Place (1950) / Director: Nicholas Ray / Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey / Costume designer: Jean Louis (gowns)

In A Lonely Place is a bleak view on Hollywood and what’s happening to people in the movie business backstage. Dixon Steele, Bogart, plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter with a hot temper. In fact, his multifaceted personality plays out as the movie’s background. You never know what might set Dix on fire. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, in one of her best performances) is his beautiful new neighbour, who bears a bruised past, but who seems to have a great influence on Dixon. “She’s not coy or cute or corny. She’s a good guy, I’m glad she’s on my side,” says Bogart, as he admires Gloria Grahame. Cool and composed, she strides down the courtyard in a straight-lined skirt and turtleneck – simple, stylish, yet revealing a buttoned-up, controlled character. I have always admired the subtle, yet optimum effect of Gloria’s costumes in this film. In fact, every piece of clothing she wears (designed by Jean Louis) is buttoned up, from rollernecks, to even an evening gown and her fur-cuffed robe. But she isn’t in control after all, and whatever hopes and dreams Steele and Laurel might have had, they are crushed too soon and too radically.

An unusual film noir (my favourite), mainly because it focuses on the psychological part of Steele’s character and its impact upon the environment he lives in and on his life as well. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography adds to Nicholas Ray’s vision of what hides behind a Hollywoodian face and his success.
 
Los Angeles as seen in movies Mulholland Drive 
Mulholland Drive (2001) / Director: David Lynch / Cinematography: Peter Deming / Production design: Jack Fisk / Costume designer: Amy Stofsky

The first time I saw Mulholland Drive, it puzzled me. The second time, much more recently, it made me realise that it doesn’t have to be an explanation. Some of the best movies are those which defy explanation and invite introspection, prioritizing questions over answers. What better world to do that than the world of dreams? And what better place to do that than the most notorious for its dream-effects and disillusioned limelight, Hollywood? “Hollywood is where dreams are made.” Because one thing that Mulholland Drive is, under its dream-like surface, is a brilliant commentary on Hollywood’s machinations.
 
LA Confidential 
L.A. Confidential (1997) / Director: Curtis Hanson / Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti / Production design: Jeannine Oppewall / Costume design: Ruth Myers

“L.A. Confidential” is a great film noir, especially so as it is a 1990s movie. It is about the lack of scruples in the urban jungle of Los Angeles, about the equally corruptible individual cop and police department, a crime film in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (the same two Polanski took as inspiration for Chinatown). And it has more than that, too, one element being what makes the aforementioned In A Lonely Place stand apart – it deals with the psychology of the characters. It also has a Hollywood fixation, that figures not only in Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey as the sergeant with a knack for arresting celebrities that made him a celebrity himself – “It’s some of the best self-loathing I’ve ever seen on screen,” James Ellroy himself, the author of the novel and co-screenwriter, described Spacey’s portrayal), but also in the prostitution ring run by Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a pimp who moulds his hookers to look like movie stars. Kim Basinger is Veronica Lake-a-like Lynn Bracken, who lets her blond hair hang down over one side of her face in the peekaboo style of the 1940s screen siren – can anyone question her appeal?

The film has a rich atmosphere and much credit goes to cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who evokes 1950s LA, by night and by day, and further emphasises Ruth Myers’ costumes Jeannine Oppewall’s production design. But speaking about the costumes, about Basinger’s wardrobe, to be more precise, I have to comment on the fact that, as opposed to Dunaway’s clothes in Chinatown (when we watch her, we see her living in those times), Lynn Bracken’s clothes, although beautiful and glamorous, seem almost too alive in this time, if there is any sense in that; it’s a little too stylised version of the ’50s (when we watch her, we imagine her how she would have lived in those times).

And, just wait, I have to mention Polanski’s film once again. It’s the ending. Because Ellroy isn’t interested in an ending that brings order to chaos either (and I am not talking about the many threads of the film, which are eventually skillfully put together at the end). As a wise movie cop once said, “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”
 
photos: 1,2: Paramount Pictures, Penthouse, Long Road Productions / 3-Bold Films, Sierra/Affinity / 4- Santana Puctures, Columbia Pictures / 5-Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc. / 6-Regency Enterprises, Wolper Organization, The Warner Brothers

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A Sporting Life: Guillermo Vilas

A sporting life Guillemo Vilas 

 A Sporting Life – taking on the challenge to put together sports and style (not exactly natural bedfellows), and making a plea for outdoor sports

 
It’s clay-court season and Rafael Nadal just won his tenth Monte Carlo title yesterday, becoming the only player in the history of tennis to win the same championship ten times. It was also his 50 clay-court trophy, beating Guillermo Vilas’ until-last-year record of 49. You may have read about Nadal a couple more times here on the blog or on my Instagram, so regardless of his milestone achievement, I don’t want to repeat myself. Instead, today I am going to talk about the other Spanish-speaking champion of la terra batuda – the aforementioned Vilas, considered the best Argentinian tennis player of all time.

When I started this series, I meant to make it mainly about former sports champions, about those times when players combined substance and image, and defined a game. And as long as we talk about tennis, the stars of the modern men’s game will never arise the kind of passion and adulation tennis players generated a few decades ago. My father, who is much more advised to talk about those times than me, says that the top five players of those years were unequivocally more valuable than those of today. Vilas was one of them. His tennis was skillful, accurate, consistent. Tennis may be more spectacular and rapid today (due to space-age rackets, new technologies, improved equipment, more rapid court surfaces that unfortunately sometimes produce better servers than complex tennis players – and, frankly, that is what my problem with Serena Williams has always been), but the players were undoubtedly more talented back then, continues my dad. And there is more than that. In the wood-racket era, the tennis stars of the 1970s and 1980s dominated the sport not only with their abilities, but also with their personalities, as James Kaplan was pointing out in a New York Times articles some years ago. And the style of the head-to-head rivalries counted as the third player on the court. “Artistry has yielded to velocity.”
 
A sporting life Guillermo Vilas 
Even if he was strangely inefficient at the French Open, winning only one of his four finals there (it must be noted though that he lost to Björn Borg twice and to Mats Wilander once, in 1982, at the Swedish player’s first attempt at Roland Garros – only Nadal would also win the title at his first attempt, in 2005), the left-handed Argentine’s command of play on clay is undisputed. In the late 1970s, Vilas went on a title-winning rampage, making history with his winning streak of 53 straight wins on clay in 1977, a record that Rafael Nadal later eclipsed with 81.

Known for his one-handed backhand and smashing good looks (apparently Borg had a rival even in sweating a headband), Guillermo Vilas fused success with stardom. PUMA’s iconic “GV” line was reintroduced in 2007, in homage to the Argentine legend who, back in the day, paired with the brand to create a line of tennis shoes that matched his winning style.
 
Related A Sporting Life entries: Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal / Jean-Claude Killy / Nacho Figueras / Björn Borg

photos: 1-Björn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, Suntory Cup, 1982 / 2- Argentina Exceptión, 1975

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If Spring Were A Dress

If Spring were a dress 
What’s that staring at me from the back of my closet? Well, what do you know? It’s a… umm… that thing I haven’t worn in six months… how do you call it… yes, a dress! It was the realisation I had one glorious morning earlier this month that called for a necessary and much needed break from my jeans uniform.

This look says spring on my own terms. A dress in a pitch-perfect hue of green (I wouldn’t know what to do with florals or bright colours, not even in summer), elegant in its silky fabric, cool and functional in its simplicity and narrow yet not skin-tight silhouette, blurring the line between feminine and practical through its association with a soft yet casually worn trench and sneakers (because, as the days go longer, I still like my heels to stay low). Uncomplicated, yet holding all the cards to put a spring in your step.

photo: Collage Vintage

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In His Own Words, Morrissey

Morrissey Autobiography
 

“I didn’t want to live unseen, camouflaged within the crowd. I knew then that life could only ever be changed for the better because somebody somewhere had taken a risk – often with their own life.”


 
Just read it: These are initially the only words I want to tell you about Morrissey’s Autobiography. It is more than enough to recommend a book that will leave you feel richer. After all, isn’t this the best part about good books? But then I’m thinking I want to add a few more things to that, before I leave you with a few quotes from its pages. It is a superb book, not just the best musical autobiography I have read so far.

Even before starting to read it, Morrissey’s autobiography stole a big smile off my face: it was published as a Penguin Classic – so pretentious, so characteristic of Morrissey, so right to be so. From the opening pages I knew I was in good hands. With audacious skill and understated humour, it delves deep into his life and soul, evoking a sense of what it must be like to dwell within an out-of-the-ordinary mind. Because it does feel like you have a privileged access to a very rich inner world; it feels rewarding. Sincere to the core, devastatingly articulate and completely authentic, just like the music of Morrissey and The Smiths, a music that always felt personal to their millions of fans – they found out they were not alone in their insecurities, worries and anxieties. But I also believe that the unique creativity of Morrissey also stemmed from the fact that he was so passionate about one thing and one thing only – music – and once he found it, he hasn’t let it go. And if you have that, something to live for, you can change the world.

“History has trapped me for a long time, and now it must let me go,”
said Morrissey when he started to sing.

 
Morrissey

The book The Smiths, by Nalinee Darmrong, released last year, documenting The Smiths on tour in the USA during the 1980s, is on my list now.
 

“Change! Change! Change!
It doesn’t happen by being the same as everybody else.
Now I could accept all the suffering that came my way
as long as the Ramones were in the world.”


 
“Life’s biggest prize is to have the day before you as yours alone to do with as you wish.”
 

“Although a passable human creature on the outside,
the swirling soul within seemed to speak up
for the most awkward people on the planet.”


 

“It is quite true that I have never had anything
in my life that I did not make for myself.”

 
“I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in music that had done so – although, of course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname. Only classical composers we known by just their surnames, and this sites my mudlark temperament quite nicely.”
 
photos: 1-by me /2-Nalinee Darmrong, from the book The Smiths / 3-The Smiths book cover, Nalinee Darmrong

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Three Films by Wong Kar Wai

In the Mood for Love 
I have watched only three films by Wong Kar Wai and I loved them all. I don’t know what I will feel about the rest of them, but the fact that the movies I have seen spoke to me I am sure will have an impact on my appreciation of the rest of his filmography. So, yes, I believe that when you are trying to discover a filmmaker’s work for the very first time, it’s important where you start. It can be a daunting task. I was sometimes inclined to think that it may be a good thing to discover them gradually, ease into them by watching their debut film and see their vision evolve from there. But unless it’s a new-comer and you get to watch his films along the way, I don’t believe this is the best approach.

That said, I don’t plan too long what film to watch next. If there is something that appeals to you about it, if only the title, or if it was a recommendation from a friend whose suggestions you trust, just go for it. I try to be very open minded towards anything that comes my way. You’ll be surprised how varied your cinematic taste can be and how it can change in time. In the same regard, I don’t read too many reviews before watching something (it wasn’t just once that I read a “reliable” review about something I wanted to view to realise how differently I felt about it afterwards) and instead, my husband and I usually go with our instinct – which, after more than three thousand movies watched, is something I can sincerely say that we can rely on. So I believe it’s more a matter of circumstance, which, in the case of Wong Kar Wai’s films, was a lucky one for me. So here is what I loved so much about them – and the first thing would be that they are not for everyone.
 
In the Mood for Love 
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The first Kar Wai film that I watched and watching it felt like something had been missing from cinema forever. Had it been the only one by the director that I liked, it would have been enough. In the Mood for Love is a visual splendour, a ravishing cinematic exploration of unrequited love and quiet, barely suppressed passion, depicting sensuality through music, light, colour and space alone. There is this melancholic, dream-like beauty hovering over – the way it evokes the essence of romantic love, while keeping everything wonderfully ambiguous makes this film one of its kind. The kind of film that lingers in your memory, just like Maggie Cheung walking up the stairs has been imprinted in our cinematic memory. A big part in the cinematic beauty of this film (those radiant cheongsams, the hidden glances, the gliding camera moves) played Christophe Doyle, the cinematographer, and the multivalent William Chang, credited with the set design, costumes (I wrote about them here), and editing – both of them are close, long-time collaborators of Kar Wai.
 
Chungking Express 
Chungking Express (1994)
While I am glad I started with In the Mood for Love, watching Chungking Express (years apart, sadly) I was just as glad to find out that Wong Kar Wai knows how to make you laugh, too. It is a nice change of pace. It is a story about love and heartache, navigating the loneliness of modern big city life, as characters brush against one another throughout their busy days but struggle to connect. It does it with playful exuberance, which makes it electrifying to watch, especially in this trendsetting vision of the city in motion created by Wong Kar Wai. Furthermore, it is his most accessible film, from what I have seen, which could be a good starting point. In fact, as John Powers writes in the book WKW : The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai, when it was released, film schools urged their students to go see it, and filmmakers, young and not-so-young, copied its style. But I don’t think success is what Wong is after. He is a unique filmmaker, he follows his own instincts and trusts his own taste. If the audience finds it in themselves to relate to it and appreciate it, then it’s all for the better.
 
2046 Wong Kar wai 
2046 (2004)
2046, Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung, Kar Wai’s muse) tells us, is a place that no one has ever left. It is a futuristic world he has written a novel about, where memories stand still, where people can travel by train to find lost lovers. As he seeks the lover that he lost in In the Mood for Love (the film is a self-reflexive sequel to the 2000 film – he mentions her name, but there are other many ties to it, too), Chow is a womaniser who stays at the Oriental Hotel in room 2047, right next to room 2046, a room where an important part of his past was written – his heart remained there.

Loneliness is a recurrent theme in Kar Wai’s films. But the director finds new ways to depict it in 2046 – through setting (in a hotel), the main male character (he has a tortured soul, and despite his many interactions with women, his past refuses to stay in the past), and especially the main female character (Ziyi Zhang in the role of Bai Ling, an escort who falls for Chow). It is her who owns 2046. Her superb performance, her shifts of emotions (especially in the scene in the restaurant where she is about to say goodbye to Tony), that kind of vulnerability, and heartache, and loneliness so expressively portrayed on screen, in pretty much one shot, does something to you. Wong Kar Wai’s movies do something to you. They have an aftertaste – that’s what a good movie is about, in the director’s own words.

photos: movie stills from 1,2-In the Mood for Love (Block 2 Pictures/Jet Tone Production/Paradis Films) / 2-Chungking Express (Jet Tone Production) / 4-2046 (Shanghai Film Group/Jet Tone Production/Orly Film)

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