This review of L.A. Confidential first appeared in Bright Lights in May 1998. We’ve always been fond of this piece, and are happy to repost it now, not least because of Ray Davis’s suggestion that Blade Runner would be a better movie if it starred the Jetsons.
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Superfriends up, up, and away!
The day after I watched L.A. Confidential I saw a new bestseller in a bookstore window: Think Like a Genius. Yeah, and make movies like a director.
As Manny Farber pointed out way back in 1956, now that highbrows treat genre film like night court, moviemakers can’t smuggle flasks in to improve the overpriced R.C. Cola. “Alternative” reviewers and “independent” directors have gone to the same schools, were graded on the same multiple choice tests, and play the same editions of Trivial Pursuit. In Green Hollywood, recycled products are only chic if they cost more than the original and if we recognize the swipes. Thus the swipes have to come from well-known material. No point in going as far afield as, say, Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Instead, L.A. Confidential gets costumes, sets, lighting, makeup, music, and camera moves from Chinatown, while Boogie Nights could be an AFI tribute to Martin Scorsese.
The blurbs aren’t kidding with those Chinatown references. Chinatown is the period research. (The period’s ten years off, but what’s a decade between friends? Again, see Boogie Nights for confirmation.) Volume 6 of This Fabulous Century must’ve been checked out of the library. “That’s OK, we learned Chinatown at UCLA!” The only things not taken from Chinatown are a post-plastic-surgery makeup job from The Long Goodbye and that gag from “The Lucy Show” where Lucy meets Orson Welles but doesn’t believe it’s really him: “Why, these fake whiskers wouldn’t fool a child!”
After its period detail, what critics like best about L.A. Confidential is its moral ambiguity. The main characters are cops who thirst for righteousness. The bad guys are responsible for every speck of crime in Southern California, but they all get killed in the big shoot-out at the end, leaving the good cops triumphant. I haven’t had to examine my ethical assumptions so stringently since I first saw Police Academy. Imagine how much more devastating the earlier version of Chinatown would’ve been if Gittes had pulled a gat, filled Noah Cross with lead, and driven away with the frails.
For real ambiguity how about Kim Basinger as a supposed Veronica Lake-alike? (Similarly, the movie’s Lana Turner is the spitting image of Terence Stamp.) She’s got to be ambiguous because she’s the only love interest in a movie about three guys. Luckily, as a whore, she doesn’t have to be bothered with motivation. She’s just a battery-heated gel-filled Coming Crying Cathy doll: Open the door, she fucks you; slap her, she falls down. Her entire back-story fits on an embroidered pillow.
Does anyone think gam shots are funny anymore? Are they supposed to reveal unsuspected depths of character? You know what neo-noir scene I’d really like to see? A huge vintage car pulls up to the curb, its passenger door squarely blocking the camera eye. The camera stays fixed on the door. The door opens. The camera stays on the door. The door closes. The camera stays on the door. We hear the tip-tap of high heels. The camera stays on the door. A sultry voice offscreen says, “See anything you like?” But even Godard nowadays knows you can only hold a shot that long if you’re showing female genitalia or Lake Geneva.
Well, enough about women. After all, they lack character. The film’s real focus is the Three Amigos:
- The smart one wears glasses, but matures to the point that he doesn’t need them anymore.
- The strong one hates his father, but becomes reconciled to his masculinity once he finally slugs a dame himself and gets his jaw wired shut.
- The Kevin Spacey one doesn’t really fit the overall tone. Thus the audience reaction about two-thirds of the way into the movie: “Oh my god, they killed the actor.”
And at the heart of dorkness we find a villain so full of su-per ge-nius that he walks alone into a room where 500 of his henchmen have just been slaughtered. Mistah Wile E., he dead.
All this moral ambiguity and character development and “tough as nails” (across a chalkboard) male hysteria probably springs from the original story’s author, who’s much beloved of academics and journalists since, like most academics and journalists who think they’re tough, he looks like Paul Muni’s secretary in Scarface. You know, the little guy with the hat: “Oh, I forgetta, boss. I no read.” I’m sure he’s dark inside. Medical science assures us we all are. But he’s sure not as scary as, say, Eddie Cantor.
Speaking of our boy Ellroy, didn’t it ever occur to anyone that Blade Runner would’ve been much better starring the Jetsons?