The French poet Charles Baudelaire once said, “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”
Certainly he could have been referring to our beloved Los Angeles, where any daily stroll will reveal all sorts of innocent monsters: sitting at Starbucks clacking out high-concept scripts; gracefully straddling surfboards on unforgiving waves; adorning themselves with excessive jewelry hoping to parade their success. The multicultural Los Angelenos accept that we’re all of us innocent monsters, chasing both spiritual salvation and venal satisfaction. Maybe it’s the intensity of those two instincts battling that sparks the creative energy that fuels the greatness within this city.
Movies about Los Angeles try to capture the daily lives of our struggle to embrace our inglorious past – internment camps, migrant camps, gang-ravaged neighborhoods, government corruption – while still remaining the dreamers many of us are. That kind of complicated relationship is hard to capture in movies. But there are a few that have come very close to revealing Los Angeles’ many facets and contradictions.
Here are the ones that I find the most insightful, entertaining and satisfying. Rather than just give a list, I’m going to name the best three films within the genres that best define L.A.
TOP THREE PRIVATE DETECTIVE MOVIES
“Chinatown”: Director Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” features Jack Nicholson as a smarmy detective who tries to rise to heroism, only to be crushed by pervasive corruption.
“The Long Goodbye”: Director Robert Altman’s quirky adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel presents Elliot Gould as a brooding existential detective. Faced with corruption on all levels of L.A. society, Marlow must abandon its rules to create his own version of justice.
“Farewell, My Lovely”: Starring Robert Mitchum, “Farewell, My Lovely” exposes the slimy underbelly of Los Angeles’ elite families by revealing a basic corruption in how these families became elite.
TOP THREE FILM-BUSINESS MOVIES
“The Player”: Sometimes it’s hard to parody the movie business because the reality already seems like a parody. But Robert Altman’s “The Player” manages to convey the sweaty surrealism of a business that creates art with insights to mindful living, created by people disinterested in those lessons themselves.
“Bowfinger:” A bunch of lovable losers, led by Steve Martin, want to make a movie so badly that they are willing to go to excessive but hilarious lengths. Eddie Murphy stars as both a crazed superstar and his naive look-alike. Although the film spoofs some of Hollywood’s craziness, at its core it is about a group of dreamers with a real passion to make a movie.
“Get Shorty”: Another dark, comic look at the types of criminals the movie business attracts and how easy it is to manipulate the sticky greed that motivates many of the people in it.
TOP THREE FILMS ABOUT THE HOOD
“Devil in a Blue Dress”: Set in the South Central Los Angeles of 1948, “Devil in a Blue Dress” is an adaptation of a novel by another of my favorite authors, Walter Mosley.
It features a dapper Denzel Washington solving crimes and being a stand-up guy in a neighborhood that’s dark, not because of the color of the residents’ skin, but because they’re living in the shadow of a repressive white L.A.