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.
Tag: William Friedkin
The question of where the momentous artistic energy generated by the late 1960s would lead must’ve loomed large in the minds of Hollywood executives as they witnessed the dismantling of the studio system and rise of the American auteur. What kind of institution would the Academy become after awarding the X-rated Midnight Cowboy Best Picture? Would grafting the European director/creator model across the pond be successful? Coppola, Friedkin and Stallone, among others, responded with a resounding affirmation, driving the Hollywood into the American New Wave, where freedom reigned and masculinity was on hyperdrive.
The Exorcist – 1973 – dir. William Friedkin
Part of the fun of seeing a movie you haven’t seen in years are the memories it triggers of faces and places and names from long ago, forever associated with that film. A mere mention of The Exorcist is all I need to conjure up Rachelann, a girl I “dated” in college back before I was ready to be open about my sexuality to anyone but myself. Back in 1973 when it opened, the world was up in arms that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist had ever reached the screen; in fact, the Catholic Decency League condemned it, forbidding the faithful to see it under pain of eternal flames and damnations so of course, I wanted to rush out to see it, pronto! Rachelann, in those days, was enamoured of me, and she was companionable and everyone (whether they admitted it or not) was dying, just dying, to see this hellish depiction of demonic possession. We had heard about the long, long lines of moviegoers that formed in theaters around the world, but were not prepared for the tempest that hit us when not only were there lines wrapping double and triple for blocks in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood but also a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth mob of picket-carrying anti-Exorcist fiends screaming at us to, “STAY OUT!! CLEAR OUT!!” and “YOU’LL BURN IN HELL LIKE REGAN DOES!!” It was scary but of course, I loved it, and all the extra excitement that added to the thrill of seeing this controversial sensation of forbidden cinema. But Rachelann took one look at the crowd and the frenzy and said, “I’d better call my parents to check if it’s okay to see this.” Her mother, a strict Baptist, as what Baptist isn’t, said, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!!”, and that was the end of that. (Interesting aside — Rachelann and I saw The Paper Chase instead, and its story of beleaguered Harvard law students and the curmudgeonly, old law prof who terrorizes yet mesmerizes them, so captured her that she abandoned her U.S. History studies to become a lawyer and practices, quite successfully, to this very day. I, on the other hand, after seeing her safely home to Lowell, jumped on the very next train back and caught a late showing of “that devil movie”.
To Live and Die in L.A – 1985 – dir. William Friedkin
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, few directors enjoyed the dual critical and popular acclaim William Friedkin did; his French Connection still jumps and crackles like a pan of hot popcorn. The Exorcist (one of the few films of the ’70s so controversial as to merit being picketed by Catholic and Decency League interest groups) still has the power to shock. Both are classics in the canon of American cinema. If To Live and Die in L.A. is not considered to be in their league, it should be.