Monday, August 23, 2010

William Friedkin, To Live and Die in LA (1985)

I wonder why we waste our lives here
When we could run away to paradise
But I am held in some invisible vise
And I can't get away

Again, spoilers for old movie.

The first question you might ask about this movie--with justification!--is: what the holy hell is the deal with the crazed Islamic suicide bomber at the beginning? He's a right-winger's wet dream, sure, but what is he supposed to have to do with anything?

I think it was really just desired that the movie open with a confrontation between the protagonist, LA cop Richard Chance (William Petersen) and an unimportant, subsidiary villain; the sort of thing movies do all the time. But making the confrontation so politically charged was clearly not coincidental. Seems to me that there's a persistent element of othering in this movie. There's the suicide bomber, There's John Turturro as a mule who, we are clearly meant to assume in his first scene, is planning some sort of airplane terrorism. There's the crooked lawyer, who is said to have represented hippies, and we all know what they're like. And then, of course, there's Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters, the mastermind counterfeiter, who, though he speaks with an American accent and putatively is American, is very clearly coded as a sinister European. First: just look at him; he's Willem Dafoe, fercrissake. Has any actor ever looked more sinisterly European? Then, there's the suspiciously decadent, androgynous burlesque at which his paramour dances. When we first see them kiss, she looks very much like a boy, which cannot be coincidence. And, as we find out, she herself is also into women. There's a lot of frighteningly non-American gender-fluidity going on here.

'Course, on the one hand, this is just another instance of the movie's counterfeiting theme--these two as a fake version of a "normal" couple (and Chance's quasi-abusive relationship with his informer is clearly another version of this), but on the other, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to suggest that the movie emphasizes the distance between the law and the outlaws in order to make the subsequent effacement of this distance more striking. In other words, I don't think there's any cause for wingnuts to get too damn smug about a movie featuring a crazy Islamic terrorist. I know subtext is hard and confusing, but civilized people recognize its importance.

A very impressive movie, this is, if you can handle the overwhelming nihilism at its core. A formidable neo-noir. It's strikingly shot, Dafoe is awesomely scary, and the Wang Chung soundtrack is just stunning (the fact that a synthpop band was chosen to score a movie about counterfeiting is probably significant, but ultimately pretty trivial). The only really notable problem--but it IS a pretty big problem--is this: there's a big fucking car chase in the middle, that absolutely murders the film's momentum. I don't have a problem with car chases qua car chases, but this one absolutely does not belong. In the making-of documentary on the DVD, it is made quite clear that they basically included this sequence because they could, with no concern for how it might fit into the movie (which is not, at heart, an action movie) as a whole. One moment we're witnessing a classic noir trope--a seemingly simple plan spinning terrifyingly out of control--being played out; next moment: break for twenty minutes of cars driving at one another! (The sequence may not actually be that long, but it sure feels like it.) Unfortunate, but the movie does more or less recover from it.

The DVD also includes an alternate ending that the studio apparently insisted be shot. If not quite happy, it's certainly comic: Petersen somehow doesn't die after all (it's not clear to me what happens to Masters in this version), and he and his partner are reassigned to a base in Anchorage, there to more or less waste away. I think we're all thankful that integrity won out and this version was rejected, but I'm kind of glad it exists. It really adds an exclamation point to the movie's counterfeiting theme. It would be interesting to do an analysis of the movie in comparison to Gaddis's Recognitions.


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