Every time you land in Los Angeles, you can feel the ghosts coming on, as early on as navigating your way through the airport. The ghosts are thick in the air, just like the smog was the first time you landed there, crawling out of the back of an Econoline van after making your way from the Northeast on what seemed like an endless stream of frustrating shows across the Midwest. You remember blinking to see if the dense film that appeared in the air before your eyes would lift. When it didn’t, when you could focus on the haze, with the warm, desert air and cool sundown winds whipping down Hollywood Blvd, you realized why a certain quiet threatening exists around every winding corner or alley in this strange place, why ghosts linger in the shadows and behind every windshield and bay window, why every car that passes is a potential carrier of the dark. It seemed dangerous and alien to you.
Years later, you visited the Chateau Marmont and in broad daylight felt such a chill pass through you as you walked from Selma Drive and Monteel Road down the hill to Sunset, you couldn’t ignore it. You turned to see dark shapes moving behind the windows of a nearby house, and felt like a spy who’d seen in someone’s open door and unlocked an incendiary secret, not to be forgotten, in spite of any labor to wish its memory away. Like someone who had unintentionally overheard a plot and tried to forget all about it.
Sometimes the most haunting scenarios or images are those of peril in broad daylight. As Barry Gifford would write, “Daylight is just some stage we have to go through to get to the moments of truth.” For when night descends on LA, there is something vampiric that lingers in the stillness, from the dregs of Downtown to the deafening quiet emanating from the Canyons. It would appear to have been there before Bret Easton Ellis’ stories, before Manson, before Raymond Chandler, though immediately, its prehistoric evil seems to make perfect sense from up here. This is the type of place where, as Ellis warned, you could truly “Disappear Here.” When you drive up in the Hills after dark and look out on the cityscape, the lights look just the way you remember them from the movies.
This year, in the wake of such spectacular public displays of violencia como el Coliseo, we are faced with the task of every day awaiting a new relay of images documenting the atrocity exhibition, as Michael Sicinski put it yesterday, becoming willfully, slowly “…ensnared in an ugly visual rhetoric, one that obscures its rather obvious meanings.” Every day another poor nobody getting shot up, every day some poor somebody filming it, putting it up, letting the world know that in this corner too, wherever that is, it exists. It has saturated every pore in the fabric, like a dye that turns every river black, splatters every flag and town with red. Like a fog. There is no seeing through it. There is something in this horror that seems to be essential to the place, and the veritable noir at the heart of it. Something intrinsic and preternaturally opposed to exposure—it lurks in the shadows, behind the frames of every pair of sunglasses, behind the eyes behind the frames, empty and shielded from the pulse beating down on them, like a phantom rhythm within the heat.
We meet these phantoms full on in the films presented at BAMcinematek’s Sunshine Noir series, cementing the institution’s longtime hold as the premiere destination in Brooklyn North (a place that couldn’t be further from a City of Angels if it tried) for cinema’s restorations and revivals. And it takes all kinds, from the codified relics first elevated to pedestals in Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama du Film Noir Américain 1941–1953, to the sun-kissed lost artifacts of a fairly affordable genre produced in the freedom of a syzygetic industry in the ’70s and ’80s. From the camp pain of Di Palma’s Body Double to the cool as a cucumber, removed, almost third-person vantage of Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Does it matter that all the while as Gregg Henry invites Craig Wasson up to that skyline space needle hanging off the Hills, that we cringe, the entire time wanting to warn the bastard, shake some sense into him? Don’t go up there. Do we care that the cynicism of the New Hollywood now has Philip Marlowe mutter and bumble like some rookie Lost Hills deputy searching for a pen to write a traffic ticket most of the story, then wake only in time for a big moment that never comes, anymore than the fact that he can’t manage to deceive his cat that market brand kitty cuisine is the same as gourmet? Played for laughs, this minutiae lends itself to an affirmation of our most instinctive suspicions of our sister city on the Left coast: this place is fucked. People will do anything here.
If the concept is to be believed as it is so easily seen, there is nothing of truth to any of these appearances, nor can you trust your faith in humanity, what with the bare morsels of that going around these days and all. Part of the reason you end up laughing from sheer discomfort through Taylor Hackford’s re-fired transposition of Out of the Past to a new, ’70s LA toxic-scape, now called Against All Odds—Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey now called Terry Brogan, pro-footballer caught in a sea of old-riche real estate hawks and influence peddlers—is because everyone is so orange. Everyone. Jeff Bridges looks like a ganguro he’s so orange. But it’s not just that—orange is the result of the combination of two primary chromatic entities—red and yellow: The color of blood and the color of the sun. See what I mean? You can’t even trust the vampires to look like vampires anymore. Now they look like movie stars, perfect. Like actors. There is something inexplicably wrong with anywhere where people look this good, and this exchange, this edge of the seat prodding of plots, betrayals, and secrets, the thrill that comes with this exchange, this is what the moviegoer’s economy amounts to. We seek refuge in these pictures to escape, just as we understand these desperate characters and can laugh at the absurdity of their attempts to do the same in life. Don’t you know better? we want to scream at the screens, How ridiculous, how damaged… They’re just like us.
The series may have boasted Inherent Vice in sneak preview, but I was looking forward to the same rekindling of the feeling that crept up my spine when I was 16 and saw The Limey for the first time downtown, the same intrigue I eagerly awaited wondering if there was anything to the cat-and-mouse of Heat still. I must have seen the VHS 25 times in a row when I lived in San Francisco, watching it in the daytime in an overcast living room off an old projector that looked like an arcade game and sat on the floor. With Soderbergh’s film, the off-centered cuts and hyperlink kinetic energy to the rhythm of the piece still carry it, the careful reiteration and prediction of characters’ words just as fresh and riveting today, and the interwoven sense of time, where and when Terence Stamp’s poor cow (Dave) Wilson experiences his twisted dream of revenge always changing, creates a sutured and angular reality. Like the memory of a dream.
When the two titans playing Hanna and McCauley meet late night for coffee and talk turns to fate, Michael Mann wants us wondering about Chris (Val Kilmer), about what happened to Waingro (Kevin Gage), about how the fuck Nate (Jon Voight!) and Kelso (Tom Noonan!) happen to know each other. The ridiculous (i.e., Rollins) cast aside—the movie is still totally bizarre. I mean this with reverence. Years after I first watched it so obsessively, I learned about L.A. Takedown and discovered what this really is: a dream Mr. Mann has had before. Cat and mouse or no, the scattered malaise as the pulse breathes and increases makes it more of an oneiric tiptoe around LA’s myriad realities than the hotshot procedural it’s remembered as being. A fever dream, perhaps brought on by lives in flux. Lives on the verge of some precipice, overlooking the distant lights of the city, perhaps waving to a lover from a balcony, subtly, warning them of the heat around the corner, so they can run. It’s a twisted dream, like it’s not even happening. The characters exist in a vacuum of moral threats, and carry this weight with them constantly. You believe the lawlessness of the place because it feels like a place so big that things like this could happen there. Like they do happen.
Reading Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly and several other Mike Hammer stories on a cold fall evening a few years ago, I was struck by how human Hammer was. Robert Aldrich’s film of the nuclear-era snatch-and-grab turned horror story reeks with danger, but not the dread or brutality of Spillane’s text. As Gifford writes in The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1988), “This Hammer is kind of an automaton, almost as if he’d been body-snatched and is running on remote control – very remote.” What did I tell you? Dames don’t just fall in front of your car like that—do they? What’s in that box? What did they do to her? These questions go unanswered save for the empty corridors and smoke filled rooms of the city, spaces that seem to know the solution to the equation, that know where the secrets are hidden, but they’ll never tell. In this world, people leave without saying what they mean, never mean what they say, and are comfortable driving around knowing good and well there’s probably another bomb tied to their car, the one they didn’t find. Where dangerous men are either so confident or so blind that they think they can waltz into another dangerous man’s home and put the moves on his sister. These things may happen, but these moves are not the maneuvers of any everyday Joe. They are the moves of a ghost, someone living in a story.
While some might note BAM’s series’ expected double dose of Tarantino’s works, one might choose to focus on the narratives you’ve managed to avoid being practically beaten over the head with growing up working in video stores. The coarseness of Mike’s Murder (1984, James Bridges), the cold devotion to crumbling ideas in The Nickel Ride (1974, Robert Mulligan), and the elliptically painted Remember My Name (1978, Alan Rudolph) give great pause, as the kind of prizes found only in series such as this one, forgotten in their moment of distribution for their fly-by-night, pulp nature, their irrelevance (or indifference) to the market, the fine edge of their razor sharp, life or death scenarios; all of them buried deep, turning the cinematic record into some serpentine run of clues, tell-tale beats, and revelations.
In Mike’s Murder, on the surface, the titular character is of little to no consequence or concern, certainly of little intrigue and possibly of no interest at all, save for the catalytic nature of his demise—and his reckoning-by-proxy relationship with the heroine Betty, her own personal struggle at the heart of the tale, all the geography of the characters’ minds and trajectory found in the massive reach of Deborah Winger’s nuanced, occasionally seemingly mystified expressions. One must question whether Betty’s unwitting involvement in a ring of drugs, thieves, and excess can lead, in any way, to any other end than her own unchanged normality. She works at a bank, plays tennis, waits up ’til past bedtime for a phone call that never comes, and yet becomes the linchpin for a series of unforeseen events set in motion by accident. This is the crux of the cinematic body noire, one of normal lives thrust into extraordinary circumstance and forced to deal.
The same can be said for Jason Miller whose work always borders the animalistic when carefully examined—his countenance and the bloodshot, blurry-eyed anguish behind his dark visage often, even at its most tender, leaving no doubt as to its origins: some line of caged beast, pacing forever his confines, left perpetually in heat from captivity. In The Nickel Ride, Miller embodies the same type of noble yesteryear hero, gallant and old-fashioned, about to topple headfirst into a steady decline from grace. Like Cosmo Vittelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, both Cassavetes and Gazzara’s finest collaboration and one of the best of the LA underworld-set, Miller’s sad-eyed, tired cayman (read: landlord/fixer) named Coop presents us with one of the most set upon, beleaguered crime figureheads in the archives. An early effort by Eric Roth (The Insider, The Good Shepherd) and mid-career swing for Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), the film is all rolled up shirtsleeves, weighted words, pregnant pauses, and hardboiled dialogue so absurd that if not spoken with the straightest of faces, as it is here, it would be reduced to smithereens at the audience’s laughter. But at this presentation, there were no such chuckles polluting the aural landscape: For as Nick Pinkerton called it when giving summation to Mulligan’s work in retrospective at Film Society a few years back, “The atmosphere is one of musty hallways, sour stomach, and looming late middle age with no retirement plan in sight.”
This normality is a weathervane effect in these films; as a wild card variable, it resembles a polarity unhinged by a rival magnetism, either one extreme or the other. It is relative to the subjects’ worlds, the vastly disparate possibilities, exponentially many, within the framework of a given social set’s norms and customs. There is either the life of a man like JJ Gittes (Nicholson) in Chinatown, or the life of Noah Cross (Huston); there is either Geraldine Chaplin’s Emily in Remember My Name, or that of Betty Berenson’s Barbara—there is no in between. Just as there is no one left completely clean of conscience, there can be no equivocation—you are always either corrupted or just trying to deal. In Rudolph’s picture, Chaplin’s performance is as unsettling and off-set from the general grain of the world she appears to inhabit (at least as far as appearances go) as a Woman in Trouble (yes, that’s capital W, capital T) can be. A desperation and an urgency to her affectation, her gait, and halting, disarming eyes, she is everything a mysterious stranger: the spell of danger, not yet lifted from the lives it casts itself over.
Everyone always quotes the end of Chinatown for how shockingly dismissive it is. I won’t put you through that here. People are people. Pushed to extremes, they act out. Rather we should remember the cool that rises through the desert air, the callous nature on display when Gittes confronts Cross outside, near the pond where Hollis Mulray met his watery fate:
How much are you worth?
I’ve no idea. How much do you want?
No I just want to know how much you’re worth. Over 10 million?
Oh my, yes.
Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat?
What can you buy that you can’t already afford?
The future Mr. Gitz! The future. Now where’s the girl?
Well there ain’t no future here, no future at all.
Ain’t no shelter neither. All gone. So’s the girl.
— Evan Louison