Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Los Angeles Plays Itself, Dragnet, James Ellroy, Jack Webb and Yasujirō Ozu

I am so far behind in chronicling the films I have seen that I don't know if I can catch up.  Between work and family obligations, this blog and my exercise schedule are suffering.

On September 21 (Sunday), I saw Los Angeles Plays Itself at the Castro Theatre.

Los Angeles Plays Itself; directed by Thom Andersen; documentary; narrated by Encke King; (2003)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (LAPI) is a three hour compilation of films set in Los Angeles with trenchant narration by Encke King reciting director Thom Andersen's commentary. Long enough to have an intermission, the film has countless clips of famous and not-so-famous films shot in Los Angeles.  A partial listing of films shown in LAPI includes Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard, Rebel Without a Cause, The Exiles, Chinatown, Blade Runner, Die Hard and many, many more.

LAPI touched on so many topics that it was exhausting.  The film seemed to run out of steam rather than end with a coherent conclusion.  King was talking about racism and urban blight but rather than wrap it up, the film concluded somewhat abruptly.  It's as if Andersen ran out of time, patience or money.  Far from unsatisfying, LAPI was dizzying in its scope.  Highlighting specific locations, social trends and attitudes among Angelinos, corruption within LAPD and a myriad of other topics, LAPI was exhilarating.

Part of my enjoyment stemmed from recognizing so many of the films but there was a confluence of events which culminated in my viewing of LAPI and by viewing it, I gained an understanding of something which had up-to-then been subliminal.

Although my enjoyment of his works has waned in recent years, the novelist James Ellroy has returned to form with his latest novel, Perfidia.  I came to admire Ellroy's work just over 25 years ago.  I was living in Los Angeles (Arcadia to be exact) and read about Ellroy's novel The Big Nowhere which had just been published in paperback.  I had never heard of Ellroy up until reading the LA Times review of his novel.  I picked up a copy at the Santa Anita mall; I think it was a Vroman's Bookstore.  Anyway, I read that book until 3 or 4 AM that night and had to get up to go to work the next day.

The Big Nowhere was part of Ellroy's LA Quartet consisting of The Black Dhalia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. The four novels dealt with rampant corruption in the LAPD during the post-WWII years.  The setting of the novels roughly coincided with the classic film noir period but Ellroy's prose was more violent/racist/sexist than any film of the period.  Ellroy wrote like he was jazz musician on heroin or Hemingway on crystal meth.  The words jumped off the page and the convoluted subplots intertwined like the incestuous relationships (figuratively and literally) of his characters.

After White Jazz, Ellroy vowed to not write about Los Angeles again and published American Tabloid which is part of what has been dubbed his Underworld USA Trilogy.  Frankly, I didn't enjoy the Underworld novels as much as the LA ones.  I think Ellroy's reach exceeded his grasp when he attempted tie together all major events from the JFK assassination to the Vietnam War.

With Perfidia, Ellroy is back in LA.  The novel is the first of his Second LA Quartet or LA Quartet II.  The novel follows the LAPD investigation into the murder of a Japanese American family on December 6, 1941.  Ellroy, with his encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century Los Angeles, is back in his milieu.

What does LAPI have to do with Ellroy and Perfidia?  The film does showcase clips from L.A. Confidential and comments quite a bit on the corruption and brutality of the LAPD...a topic which Ellroy has made a career out of.  There was a particular resonance for me since I was reading Perfidia during the days before and after the screening of LAPI.  King got off a line which Ellroy should envy - "Is there any other city where the police put their motto in quotation marks? Are they trying to be ironic?"  For those unfamiliar, that motto is "to serve and to protect."

LAPI struck a second harmonic resonance with me.  I have discovered this television channel called MeTV (pronounced Me-Tee-Vee but an acronym from Memorable Entertainment Television).  MeTV programs classic television shows from the 50s through the 70s.

Among my favorites are I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Twilight Zone and Adam 12, but my current favorite is Dragnet. MeTV shows what is referred to Dragnet 1967.  The original television series ran in the 1950s.  As an aside, I've never seen an episode from the original run.  In 1966, Webb rebooted the franchise with TV movie called Dragnet 1966.  The next year, he started weekly episodes with Dragnet 1967.  It ran for three seasons with the title changing each year:  Dragnet 1967, Dragnet 1968, etc.  However, the second run of the show is typically referred to as Dragnet 1967.

Although I saw many of these episodes as a boy, over the past few months, I have come to appreciate them more.  Webb directed every episode of Dragnet 1967 and I have come to recognize his distinctive style.  In his portrayal of Sgt. Joe Friday, Webb is self-righteous to the point of self-parody.  However, it is the formulaic set up of the episodes which are simultaneously predictable and comforting.  Without exception, Friday will launch into a monotone lecture which is ostensibly a civics lesson but has more ominous overtones if you believe in the LAPD of James Ellroy's novels.  Friday memorably launches these with something like "Now mister you listen me..."

The highpoint of each episode of Dragnet 1967 is when Friday gets off a zinger at the expense of a criminal, disinterested witness or some other poor soul who runs afoul of Friday's viewpoint.  Again, the exchange usually follows a pattern.  Friday will say "Well we know one thing."  Response: "What's that?"  Then Friday will state something as fact which is really a pointed criticism of the person he is conversing with.

Again, Andersen (through King) gets off a memorable quote:  "[Dragnet's] creator and star Jack Webb directed each episode with a rigor equaled only by Ozu and Bresson, the cinema’s acknowledged masters of transcendental simplicity.  Dragnet admirably expressed the contempt the LAPD had for the law-abiding civilians it was pledged 'to protect and to serve.'"  When I heard that line, it crystallized for me why I enjoyed Dragnet 1967.  I'm not sure if the average viewer of the show picks up on Andersen's observation even 40 years after originally being aired.

The Ozu comment is spot on.  Frequently, Webb frames the scene such that he and his partner (Harry Morgan) walk into a room, they talk and then the walk out of the room.  Camera movements are kept to a minimum.  Most likely due to budgetary and time constraints, Webb's adherence to this set-up creates a zen-like awareness through its repetition.  Webb is truly inculcating the viewer to see the virtue of the LAPD and its officers.  Webb strips away anything that could distract the viewer from that message and his strict discipline in adhering to his storytelling techniques rivals Dogme 95.  There is something beautiful about Webb's exactness of direction but when viewed through a cynicism informed by Ellroy's works, Dragnet 1967 becomes absurdly grotesque which is a quality I find irresistible in films.

Circling back to Los Angeles Plays Itself, the viewing experience was something special for me because these thoughts about Ellroy's novels and Dragnet coalesced in a split second during the viewing and reminded me why I like films so much.  I don't always have these "Eureka!" moments.  In fact, I have them too seldom but I guess that results in them being more special.  I'm not sure how much of my praise of LAPI is due to the film itself or my unique viewing circumstances.

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