Film: Trouble in paradise

Despite the sunshine, it's the darkness of Los Angeles that fascinates directors. Film has created the city as a bitter Arcadia of American dreams.

Welcome to LA. Again. In next week's Playing by Heart and next month's Go, another pair of would-be auteurs join the Nineties crowd who've tried to navigate the arteries of America's myth-making, movie-making capital, to try to locate the warm heart of a city founded and sustained on deceptive dreams. Playing by Heart's apparently disconnected characters search for love in what at first seems like any town. Go jumps nervously between three teenage friends over 24 hours of incompetent, E-driven crime and punishment. Both take the cross-patched ambition of Altman's Short Cuts as a template. Both see LA as the perfect setting for socially disparate, resonant American drama.

It's an excavation of the layers of living on Hollywood's doorstep which has paid rich dividends in recent years, revealing a city that's just as mythic and mutable as the movies themselves, with a history that's been reinforced and re-routed by film-makers as diverse as Polanski and Tarantino, Jack Nicholson and John Singleton and - just as importantly - cinematographers like Vilmos Zsigmond.

All the stranger that, for Hollywood's first half-century, its interest in the flourishing neighbourhoods of the aggressively propagandised, industrially negligible Sunshine City beyond its studio gates was so slight. Apart from films about its own tiny community, such as Sunset Boulevard, all you could glimpse (in Raymond Chandler adaption The Big Sleep and other noirs) were occasional street scenes and visits to art-deco sanatoriums and slick new bungalows in the Hollywood Hills.

These films were set in LA with no thought beyond convenience. It took the music industry's relocation there in 1964 to spark truly mythic evocations of sea, sand and sunshine, of the paradise LA's marketing had always claimed. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson especially conjured a city of carefree, sun- drenched health, while the smooth, lush Burbank Sound added an appropriate, overdue aesthetic style.

These innovations coincided with Old Hollywood's decline, and interest in its environs from brilliant outsiders - an interest, ironically, that was far from reverential. Alan Rudolph's debut Welcome to LA (1976) caught the slurred comedown of the city's studio-bound musical culture, its soft-focus bitterness appropriate to the new coke-fuzzed elite. He wasn't the first. Rudolph's mentor, Kansas native Robert Altman, had already found a new way of envisioning his adopted city in The Long Goodbye (1973). In it, Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe, beautifully lit by Zsigmond, slouched through a world of sunshine-softened values and dark, old secrets in the city's Wilson-sanctified surf: LA's old noir knight used to anatomise its sun-saturated coma.

Meanwhile, screenwriter Robert Towne was digging more deeply under the perpetually smiling present of the city. Like his friend Jack Nicholson, who he met in Hollywood's thriving bohemia of the late Fifties, he was a native of LA's sprawling South Bay suburbs. Towne's father was in real estate; he knew where the bodies were buried.

Chinatown (1974) would offer the city a founding myth. Set in 1937, it drew on the ugly episode in the Twenties when city fathers like William Mulholland grew fat by draining nearby Owens Valley farmland to over-irrigate their own land, causing despairing violence from starving farmers: the blood-sacrifice on which LA was built. Towne's still more ambitious sequel The Two Jakes, with Nicholson as director and Zsigmond as cinematographer, flashed forward to 1948, and the literal eruption of oil and freeway culture under unstable dream homes. In a postwar landscape of evaporating promise, Nicholson let himself look ragged, exhausted. It was how he felt, recreating the Los Angeles he'd once known, a place of vineyards and quiet suburban streets. By 1963, and the scrapping of the last LA street-car, it had gone. "He used to stand there every day at his house on Mulholland [Drive, named after Owens Valley's despoiler] and look out at the valley," recalled co-star Madeleine Stowe, "and you could see that he remembered completely what it was like". "[The films] were for me... an acknowledgement that I lived with things I loved but could not see," Towne wrote.

James Ellroy's LA Quartet novels, spanning 1947-1958, and begun in 1987, caught the same mood, factoring in the racial, drug and corrupt LAPD culture which by then defined his city (his friend Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (1997) and Lee Tamahori's Mulholland Falls (1996) would glossily indicate the novels' viciousness). Ellroy, like Towne and Nicholson, was obsessed with the LA which he remembered but which - after its uniquely ruthless urban clearances - had been erased by the Sixties. The murder all these thrillers investigated was that of old LA; the mystery they neurotically worked over was the disappearance of its corpse. To these visions, one might add the final image of Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): young black homeowners proudly strolling down a street of clapboard bungalows and manicured gardens in Watts, 1948. LA's paradise would be lost for them, too.

Such powerful historical statements gave film-makers in the Nineties new confidence to seek out the social layers in which they lived. The strata and ghettos of crime, which had smothered sun and sand as the city's definition for outsiders in the Eighties, were teased out by John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991), describing the decline of the black neighbourhoods' Seventies hope into a world cordoned off by "Stop" signs and spying helicopters, homework attempted to the sound of machine-guns; a mournful evocation equal to Towne's.

White film-makers meanwhile proved the ghettoisation of blacks by their own, utterly different descriptions. Theirs was an LA of scattered webs of random social connection, highly appropriate to a city of car-cocooned, exclusionary zones. Altman's Short Cuts (1993) was the exemplar. The helicopter whirr of its shadowy opening hovers over a fractured cross-section of suburban cops, make-up artists, painters, surgeons, bakers, waitresses, bored phone-sex workers, an often comical patchwork stitched together by an earthquake rumble, and an equally primeval spilling of blood.

Drawing on Raymond Carver's short stories, Altman had found a form which linked LA's seemingly isolating suburbs more effectively than any number of freeways. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) formed a useful variant, pumping up pop culture products ignored by Altman, splicing time as well as space, as its crime movie simulacra careered through the haunts of the native Los Angeleno's youth.

It's a way of seeing the city that's stuck. A mere quarter-century into its self-conscious cinema life, LA has, with typical precociousness, found its voice: a form which allows each writer personalised destinations in its narrative sprawl. "The Great American Novel", Gore Vidal called Short Cuts. Now, at the century's end, everyone wants a piece of it. Doug Liman's Go attempts analysis of a rave scene only just being acknowledged in America, spreading out as far as Las Vegas and touching on haphazard underworld connections in its attempt to encompass LA youth. For all its desperately "modern" MTV style, it's the structural lifts from Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction that work best. Go's best scenes involve an almost-famous gay actor couple moonlighting for the LAPD, and their novelistic descent into the surreality behind one man's closed door: the non sequitur oddness pure Altman.

Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart is more perverse. Short Cuts yet again gives it shape, even one of its actors (Madeleine Stowe). But, in its 27 locations, from the Santa Monica pier to the Hollywood Hills, it hardly feels like LA at all. The decades of myth-making have disappeared. All that's left is people's homes. "The desire was to show the appealing rather than appaling side of life in Los Angeles," agrees production designer Missy Stewart. "This isn't about cars or crime - it's about nests, emotional environments... the houses, the gardens, the clubs, the beach."

Coincidentally, our old friend Vilmos Zsigmond was employed to turn his lush visuals in kinder directions. With a cast ranging from Sean Connery to complete newcomers, Carroll's film is the least conflicted love song yet to the city of too few angels. Set mostly in rich eyries overlooking the race-riven, criminal epidemic below, it somehow manages to sweep your disgust away. A little bit of old Hollywood magic, at the last.

`Playing by Heart' is released 6 August, `Go' on 3 September

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