Rampart Noir

I’D BEEN curious about Rampart. It came and went so quickly that I missed it during its eye-blink of a run. That didn’t dissuade me. But to my mind, this film does what the much lauded Crash didn’t do, that is recreate the very tense, very real pins-and-needles mood that was (and still is) a part of living in Los Angeles.The vantage of L.A. through the driver’s-side window is particularly well-done — fitting. It felt real in a way that L.A. seldom does on film — not idealized at all. Bright yellows, blues, reds, stark whites. Only at night, does the city look truly beautiful — and again, only from up high in a lonely spot looking down, the lights fanning out like sequins.

During this period, the late 90s, I lived in Echo Park and my across-the-hall-neighbor was a Rampart Division LAPD officer who worked undercover in MacArthur Park. He was on a drug detail. I watched the scruff grow on his chin, his hair trail, to and then, beyond his collar. The stories he wore on his face alone suggested a post-1992 Riots city not healed but hemorrhaging.

If not talkative, he was affable. He was a far cry from the Woody Harrelson character in this film — the “I hate everyone” sociopath/loner. He didn’t like my working hours — made that clear from the beginning. I often would return late from either reporting a story or covering some event. Eventually, he began instructing me how to approach my car, my front door — my world — in the safest way possible. He appeared aloof — some of the other neighbors thought that. But that’s wasn’t what I was struck by — I sensed also wound-up, taut. I once accidentally startled him. He was walking, slowly, to his door with a canvass gym bag. I was moving quietly, as it was late. He heard something, perhaps the jangle of my keys — and he stood stock still. He lifted the bag away from his body. His face wore an expression that I couldn’t quite read. He told me later that in that bag was his gun and showed me the safe where he locked it away at night. “Always let me know you’re behind me.” He said it in the tone not of warning but as an apology.

As the Rampart scandal became prominent in the press — particularly in the paper I worked for — I noted his fatigue evolved into something else. Shortly thereafter, and in quick succession, he married and promised his wife that he’d leave the force. He did. They moved to Monrovia. We kept in touch for awhile, but in that way that distance does particularly in L.A., our contact lessened then evaporated.

This film fills in some of the blanks of those conversations — of what it really means to have “seen it all” — a world of the worn out, worn down, rubbed raw — of desperation falling in on itself.

It’s as noir as noir gets — the sense of anxiety, uncertainty, duplicity — nothing is as it seems. Nothing.

Rampart scandal timeline from Frontline here.

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