This is the theme song to this blog - Press Play.
Recently I go through phases when watching movies. I am lucky to have a really good video shop (hell, DVD I suppose but old habits die hard) near me which has tons of old, foreign and obscure films and is staffed by people who really love the cinema. They are either in film school or they just want the chance to sit in a shop and watch movies all day long, an ambition I totally understand. I realise these days I could probably find any film on Netflicks or download it, indeed the movie I am talking about here is seemingly available to watch in its entirety on YouTube, but I love the chance to talk to someone about film, or just walk in the shop, stare at whatever crazy shit they happen to have on, and say 'What's that?' I have found a few choice films this way. This is something I think we are going to miss when the last videoshop closes its slightly dusty doors. I probably sound like an dribbling old git, but I pity the kids of today who will never have the experience of walking into a poorly lit, grubby store, staffed by a cynical, underpaid stoner who sneers at your rental for being too mainstream. There is something about this which is so much more vital than the clinical experience of scrolling through titles on a menu. To me as a kid it was absolutely thrilling to scan through the shelves, picking the titles with the most lurid covers and then reading the chilling descriptions on the reverse. Sidling right to the end of the thriller section so you could eye the lingiere covered beauties on the adult shelves, or even more exciting spotting a grown-up casually pluck one from the racks and take it to the counter, all the time expecting alarms to sound or a huge spotlight shine down from the sky to illuminate this incredible deviant. The videoshop was exciting in a way browsing titles on the internet can never be.
Anyway, I go through phases. Recently I have done Kubrick, Lynch and I just took a slight detour into the work of William Friedkin, most famous as the director of the Italian Job and The Exorcist. The first two have their own sections on the shelves, their titles famous and obscure all lined up together. Friedkin is harder to find. Despite writing and directing some of the most iconic films of the 70's for some reason my video shop doesn't deem him an auteur worthy of his own home amongst the greats of cinema. They might have some sort of a point here, but honestly I think it is a little unfair. His peak was undoubtedly the early 70's and he completely fell of the radar until last years Killer Joe, paying the bills with made for T.V. movies and stints on T.V. shows like C.S.I and Tales From The Crypt, but he is a director who, when given free reign has his own distinctive style, which is there to see in the two movies I have watched recently, Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A.
Both films seem like standard police thrillers, and are filled with cliches of the genre, partners with 3 days left on the force who are 'to old for this shit,' and undercover cops blurring the lines between the job and their home life. However Friedkin always has a way of surprising the viewer and upsetting those expecting the famillar tale of good cops and bad villains. Anyone who has watched the French Connection and knows the character of Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle will understand this, but really Gene Hackman's character was just a tough cop who will bend the rules to get his man, a cliche we are well acquainted with. The cops in these two later movies are corrupt; heist men, blackmailers, maybe even serial killers.
'Cruising' deserves a blog post all of its own and there are some great ones out their on the web. It is a fascinating film not just of itself but because of the development and what is being done with it today. It feels like a a film which would just not be comtemplated today, and like all Friedkin's thrillers is wonderfully of its time.
It is amazing to think that it was possible to get such a huge star, Al Pacino at the height of his post-Godfather fame, to star in a movie about a cop going undercover in the leather, S&M sub-culture of late 70's New York. I hate to say 'brave,' about any actor's choice of role, but it feels like the sort of role no current day star would have the balls (pardon the pun) to risk, even in these more permissive times. Anyway there is too much to say about this great film here to do it justice without seriously getting off the point - my advice to you is see it. Then watch it again. Then read about it. A great film with an fascinating development story and legacy.
But the point of this blog is the film I watched last night - To Live and Die in L.A. The first thing to say about this film is that it is crazily 80's in the most wonderful way possible. The trailer, although amazing, doesn't really do it justice. If you are never going to watch the film I beg you to just sit through the opening credits which are like a pastiche of the 80's asthetic done now.
The slap-bass digital soundrack, with the fast urgent synthersiser and the wonderful titles, half-print, half, stylised handwriting, with a leaning, high-topped palm, all in neon green and red. It could be a knowing pop video by some horrible poseurs from Dalston. But it's not - its the real thing and it is beautiful. From the opening scene here, and the credits which it leads into you can see one thing, that this film worships the look, feel and light of Los Angeles and Southern California. Instantly I was reminded of the hours and hours I spent in Rockstars version of the same place, so much so that I can't believe that their team wasn't forced to watch this in development.
Of course there are hundreds of films set in L.A, all of them which cover many of the various themes dealt with in Rockstars epic. David Lynch, who I mentioned above I had just finished a run of (Mullholland Drive, Lost Highway, Inland Empire and Fire Walk With Me in that order) has particular obsession with L.A. which he has dealt with in his last three films and Michael Mann has made the same film twice (L.A. Takedown and Heat) both of which were considered templates for GTA5. However I haven't seen a film which covers the look, feel and action of GTA5 as well as To Live and Die in L.A. So much so that I wonder if there wasn't talk of setting the whole thing in the 80's so evocative does this film feel of exactly what Rockstar were trying to capture.
Its not just the locations either, although this film has plenty. If you watch the opening scene
you will see the resemblance of the hotel the motorcade pulls up in to one where you have to carry out an assassination in the game - on a motorcade. The film worships the skyline, light and feel of L.A. in exactly the same way as the game. There are shots of skyscrapers winking at night, a refinery on the outskirts, the sun setting and bathing the city in hazy orange and pink light before the neon of the evening takes over.
I have never been to L.A. or to the U.S. at all, but in some way I think that makes me even more able to decide what captures the feel of the city most accurately, because what Rockstar go for in their games is not reality, but reality as filtered through the movies, music and culture in general. When you move through their cities I don't think they ever want the player to feel as if they are really in L.A., or New York or Miami. They want the player to feel as if they are in the New York, Miami or L.A. as imagined by Scorsese, De Palma, Mann and Friedkin. Seeing the real thing, to my mind, isn't the real experience for Rockstar. The real experience is the one imagined and mytholgised by decades of directors, cinematograpers and artists. The feeling I got the first time I went out at night in GTA, or when I stood on a hillside overlooking the city and marveled at the digital sprawl are the same feelings Friedkin wants to evoke in this film, and this is very similar to the same way the city forms part of the narrative in The French Connection and Cruising. Both of these films use seedy broken down New York at the peak of its Gotham City grotesqueness to help intensify idea of place which is decaying and tough and dangerous.
The way those two films, especially The French Connection, capture the hard cold concrete feel of New York is matched by To Live and Die in L.A's grasp of the hazy beauty of the West Coast. The opening credits start with a gunshot which segues into a view of the deep red sun peaking over the hills as the palms sway in the breeze. If you are watching the movie on you tube check out the moments from 42mins as Richard Chance drives along smoking a cigarette and the camera takes in the gorgeous pastel shades of L.A. sky. Even the streetlights seem to be lit in pink. This is a movie serious in love with the look of L.A. However it is not a romatic view of the city. The sensual beauty of colour and light is balanced by the images of industry and transport. In the scene above he crests the hilltop to a view of the freeway flyover curving away like a huge brutalist sculpture in the centre of the landscape. Freidkin also fills the frame with shots of refineries, forests of power pylons and junkyards, scrapheaps and warehouses. This is not the glamour of L.A., this is the grit, grime and crime.
All this is great , but if you have seen this film you will know which moment made me sit up and exclaim to no-one 'I've played this movie.' Friedkin was already famous for the car chase in The French Connection and it appears he wanted to go one better here. In fact the whole film could be seen in some way as a West Coast update of the picture that thrust him into the big time, and what is more GTA than that? Same story, same world, different side of America. Now I can't remember enough about GTA's 3 and 4 to recall if there is a car chase mission which takes you under the L, barrelling through the streets of Liberty City, but I sure as hell know that in playing those games I created that car chase over and over again. Emergent game play I think they call it. This time I had the same experience the other way around. As I watched the screen I saw unfolding in front of me the chase I had experienced countless times during my hundred or so hours with GTA5. Shots ring out, a man goes down and I need to move. Down side streets, into alleys dodging pedestrians and trucks while my pursuers close. I head for the train tracks to shake them but they keep coming. I see the train ahead and push my foot to the pedal to race in front of it and cut across the rails. Then down into the storm drain, through the water, into the tunnel, up on to the freeway heading into the traffic, faster, faster, now using bonnet cam to increase the sense of speed. Cars pile up behind me, trucks jacknife, pedestrians scream. It is an amazing scene and I felt I had lived every part of it right up to final shot of my character climbing onto the roof of his damaged wreck of a car and kicking the windows in.
All through the film I had felt some connection to GTA greater than the genre and location, but this scene to me drew them inescapably together. Obviously the scope of GTA is far greater than is possible in any one movie.The theme and visuals of To Live and Die in L.A.take in a small slice of the city and its inhabitants, while GTA tries to draw the whole county in huge thematic strokes with lashings of visual detail. But in where they do meet up, their visions of L.A. seem so aligned that it is hard to believe that this film wasn't a large inspiration for a lot of the creative thinking behind GTA5. Obviously Rockstar can and have drawn their influences from the vast number of depictions of this city but I wouldn't be surprised if fantastic film had a special place in the hearts of some of the people who worked on that amazing game. Watch it and you will know what I mean. In the meantime I am keeping my fingers crossed for DLC where you play an agent on the counterfeit team in 80's L.A.
Thanks for reading. You're beautiful.