Some iconic L.A. films – Rebel Without a Cause, Zabriskie Point, Chinatown, Annie Hall – relish the city. A sprawling urban metropolis built up of drastically different neighborhoods, a skyline defined downtown and dozens of notable landmarks; Los Angeles is inherently cinematic. Perhaps best unpacked in Thom Anderson’s equally sprawling documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the city didn’t just give us movies, it became them. Which makes William Friedkin’s depiction of the city in the 1985 neo-noir To Live and Die in L.A. that much more enigmatic.
Author: Justin LaLiberty
In 1999, as the country was gearing up for the potential catastrophe of Y2K, Hollywood was spending its spring season in cyberspace with three months of high profile genre films set within some concept of virtual reality. This started with The Matrix in March, which gave way to eXistenZ in April, and ended with The Thirteenth Floor in May. All three films traffic in the paranoia that comes with technology, particularly that related to computers and how reliant we were becoming on them.
At a press conference on March 22, 1971, Melvin Van Peebles read aloud a letter written to Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America. In it he stated:
“As a black artist and independent producer of motion pictures, I refuse to submit this film, made from Black perspective for Blacks, to the Motion Picture Code and Administration for rating that would be applicable to the black community. Neither will I “self apply” an “X” rating to my movie, if such a rating, is to be applicable to Black audiences, as called for by the Motion Pictures Code and Administration rules. I charge that your film rating body has no right to tell the Black community what it may or may not see. Should the rest of the community submit to your censorship that is its business, but White standards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”
Nine days later, on March 31st, 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song would open at the Circus Theater in Detroit and within five days would gross a staggering $45,534.00 – an all-time house record. And only two days later it would smash the house record at the Coronet Theater in Atlanta. Black cinema, independent American cinema and, perhaps, cinema itself would never be the same.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Allen and Albert Hughes (credited as The Hughes Brothers) took the American box office by storm with a jarringly violent urban crime drama set in LA titled Menace II Society. Released two years after John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society avoids much of the more familial melodrama of Singleton’s film – instead turning in a ferocious indictment of inner city violence, something that would then permeate the genre in the mid and late 1990s.
The year of 1995 was esoteric for fans of genre cinema with a variety of sub-genres and trends brought to a boiling point: the buddy movie (Bad Boys, Money Train, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Tommy Boy, Friday, Top Dog), the revisionist western (The Quick and the Dead, Wild Bill, Dead Man), neo-noir (Se7en, Heat, Devil In a Blue Dress, Kiss of Death, Jade, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead) all got their due but the most singular, and eerily prescient, sub-genre trend was the cyber thriller.
Joe Dante’s distinctly American genre career has focused on the horror of suburbia: Gremlins, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, even in title, The ‘Burbs all concern what can happen in our very neighborhood—be it supernatural, science fiction, or just plain ol’ crazy neighbors. Not to be confused with the primarily 80s and 90s staple sub-genre of the Domestic Thriller (such as Poison Ivy or The Babysitter), Dante’s Suburbia Horror almost always positions families, rather than a sole individual, as victim or perpetrator, at the center of the terror. At the center of The ‘Burbs is a family…or two.
It takes nearly ten minutes for the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to complete their slow, sporadic crawl through the center of the screen. They’re chopped up, delivered piecemeal in a seeming attempt to prolong the inevitable. By the time John Carpenter’s “directed by” credit punctuates the ordeal, we are well aware of whose hands we are in; the brash, electronic score has kicked in, the image is wide and oppressive and the apocalypse has been foreshadowed.
Referring to Prince of Darkness as an apocalypse film is far from novel; the film has long been the center of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” which begins with The Thing in 1982 and ends with In the Mouth of Madness in 1995. But where The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness rely on an apocalypse brought about from within man, either than manifested in an organism transmitted via blood or one man’s (mis)understanding of reality, the apocalypse of Prince of Darkness is far more epic – and theological – in nature.
It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
By the time of the 1973 release of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, director Peter Yates already had two great crime films under his belt in the form of Bullitt and The Hot Rock. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both of those were based on novels as well, creating a throughline of late 60s through early 70s pulp that was never equalled by another filmmaker – though folks like Walter Hill and William Friedkin certainly tried.
There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.