What Comes After Postmodern

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BLACK COFFEE & APPLE PIE: Film Noir & Pulp Fiction in LA

Posted by Matilda on December 1, 2010 at 11:25 AM

 - Published in the October 2006 edition of the UNO Driftwood -


Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Brick are both contemporary detective stories that draw from the rich tradition of American film noir and pulp fiction. These two films, recently released on DVD, will interest fans of the noir and pulp genres that call the hills and valleys of the Los Angeles cultural landscape their home.


Think Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Los Angeles in these films is a place, a dream, a lifestyle, an aesthetic of cool, an endless possibility, an inescapable trap…

 


Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang features Robert Downey Jr. as petty-thief but good-guy Harry Lockhart, who is unexpectedly transplanted from New York to Los Angeles for an acting gig. He’s paired with Val Kilmer, who plays detective Perry Van Shrike, commonly known as “Gay Perry”. In the best performance of the movie, Val Kilmer shines as the unarguably bad-ass, sincerely self-interested, and unabashedly gay detective who is hired to show Harry the detective ropes.


The two team up with Harmony (Michelle Monaghan)—Harry’s long lost best friend and adolescent dream girl—as they investigate a mystery involving (1) a murdered rich girl (2) Johnny Gossamer, a detective in a pulp fiction series and (3) the troubled Harmony’s also-troubled younger sister who is missing.


While I must question the distracting and too-clever visual transitions between several scenes—not to mention the use of incest as a convenient, poorly integrated plot-forwarding device—there are moments in which this movie shines.


Robert Downey Jr. is convincing as a boy-next-door, smooth talking wise ass who is better at taking a beating than dishing one out. Val Kilmer nails his character with aplomb and alone makes the movie worth watching. And the numerous references to pulp throughout the ages are clever and amusing.


But in spite of its considerable charm, the heart of pulp is missing here. It seems like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is really only dressing up in its parent’s clothing, a kid without the gravitas that comes with adulthood. In the absence of alienation, the pain of separation, indeed, the existential angst that pumps the heart of pulp, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang feels more like a Scary Movie version of American detective thrillers and less of a film in its own right.

 


Brick is a classic film noir that takes place in a San Clemente high school. The film is unconventional in its context—the Orange County teenagers here speak in the highly stylized language of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The high school setting and social hierarchy provide a maze that our protagonist, Brendon, must negotiate to locate Emily, his ex-girlfriend who is missing. In the process, the characters reveal clues that Brendon follows like a trail of breadcrumbs through the southern California noir forest.


Each character type in the noir pantheon is represented and the cast for this independent movie is superb. Brendon (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is the conflicted anti-hero who keeps one step ahead of the game by playing all sides against the middle. Emily (Emilie de Ravein) is his ex-girlfriend who reaches out to him, pulling him closer even as she pushes him away and begs him to let her go. Laura (Nora Zehetner) plays a central role in the sidelines as a femme fatale ingénue who brings to mind this nursery rhyme: “There once a girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good…but when she was bad she was horrid.”


Also notable is Lukas Haas, who in the 80s played the young boy in the acclaimed movie Witness. Haas offers another fine performance as the Pin—the dealer to the dealers who lives with his mother and runs his organization from the dark, wood-paneled suburban basement. The Pin’s flunkies line the basement hallway or drink orange juice with his mother upstairs, apparently awaiting his orders or supplies. The Pin provides some of the snappiest dialogue in a movie were there is snappy dialogue in spades.


And then there is Tug (Noah Fleiss), the muscle for the Pin. Tug resembles a very young, very angry Sean Penn. Think Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High if he were tightly wound, completely lacking in humor, and quite possibly insane. In a sunset scene on the beach, the Pin tells Brendon: “I didn’t tell Tug to hit you. He got hot and just hit you. He’s been doing that.” Tug struggles with anger management issues but eventually unclenches long enough to reveal a more sensitive, articulate (albeit still-angry) side of Tug.


Brick is not without its flaws. While the story sometimes strains under its fealty to noir cinema, this debut from writer director Rian Johnson has considerable weight. The film explores the heights and depths of noir tragedy, surrealistic comedy, and ultimately, the fundamental innocence of noir.


Mike Davis writes in The City of Quartz that the idea of culture in LA is somewhat of an oxymoron, and that the only real culture Los Angeles has ever produced is noir. “What about Van Halen and Motley Crue?” I ask, half-joking and half-serious. Well, I guess there’s no accounting for taste.


In any case, support our independent film troops and rent Brick. In fact, rent it and watch it twice to catch all the snappy dialogue. ‘Cause baby, if this is noir, I don’t want to be white.

 


NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Irony is Not a Coincidence, It is a Driving Force.

 


The newly released Hollywoodland is the story of the original Superman–-his true end unknown except that it involved a toxic cocktail of typecasting (when test audiences responded with laughter and whispers of “It’s Superman!”, his scenes were cut from the instant classic From Here to Eternity), and cuckolding by a powerful and demanding woman who dictated his career from behind the scenes.


Adrian Brody gives a characteristically fine performance as the LA detective hired to investigate the actor’s death. And it’s a treat to see Molly Parker, who some will know as Alma Garret from HBO’s cult-hit Deadwood, again smoldering as the ex-wife of Adrian Brody’s detective.


Ben Affleck plays the Superman actor George Reeve with the emotive, pensive, far-away stare of the ill-fated, while dressed in natty 40s blazers and tailored slacks. The womens’ clothes in this movie are worth watching as well.


But you know, I have to be honest. I haven’t been able to enjoy Ben Affleck in a serious role since seeing him wake up naked in bed with Eric Cartman and his J-Lo hand puppet in that South Park episode.


In fact, it is being reported by myself—who did not witness the screenings except in my own mind—that test audiences for Hollywoodland laughed and pointed to the screen during early Affleck scenes, murmuring to each other ‘It’s Bennifer!’, ‘Gigli!’ or ‘Taco flavored kisses-for-my-Ben…’.

 

Kimberly Pratt is an Instructor and PhD student at the University of New Orleans in the School of Urban Planning and Regional Studies

 


NOTE:  Ben Affleck has redeemed himself in this writer's eyes since this review was published. He has since then directed and co-screenwritten Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town--both fine films set in Affleck's native Boston. He also seems to have found happiness as a husband and father with Jennifer Gardner.  Sorry about that, Ben. I got carried away.


LATER NOTE:  In hindsight, I was also too hard on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I again got carried away, this time by my enthusiasm for Brick, and chatised the other for not being Brick.



KKBB is still a fine film, worthy of repeat watching. I do recommend it. 

: )



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