The Fight for Los Angeles’ Soul

SO, THIS afternoon, I was finally finished with deadlines and ducked in to see Gangster Squad. It was at one of the theaters up here where you pick your seat before you go in and you’re not bombarded with advertisements while you wait for the show to start.

The gentleman who “introduced” the film for us this afternoon decided to go personal: He told the five or so of us gathered at the early show that he liked the film because he’d arrived in Los Angeles in 1960 “Before Bunker Hill was all torn down. When the city in places still looked like it does in this film.”

He talked a bit more about what he missed about the old Los Angeles — and about how much had been gutted in the name of progress. It was passionate and startling but welcome little-extra feature, hearing this impromptu oral history.

The film? I liked more than I expected. But if you know enough about this story you’re going to be a little more than a bit frustrated by how liberally facts are bent, time-frames changed. Sean Penn, (as Mickey Cohen) looked as if he enjoyed every mili-second inhabiting this role — thrashing about, throwing fists, eventually wielding a Tommy gun; and Josh Brolin’s performance, as John O’Mara, the head of the Gangster Squad, felt solid and authentic, like something plucked from luminous black and white celluloid — all dead stare, square jaw. But the star of this film is Los Angeles — a reconstructed L.A.: spacious, elegant, untamed — sunlight and neon. That’s the part of the film I didn’t want to walk away from. The usher was right, with so much of the smaller details that comprised the old L.A. bulldozed away — it wasn’t the obvious iconic landmarks — City Hall, the Hollywoodland sign — but the bungalows and dining room the built-ins, the tap rooms and restaurants — even Cohen’s “leisure wear” recalled those old photographs in the papers of “life on the Coast.”

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie -- from Gangster Squad

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie — from Gangster Squad

The script also grazed some social/racial issues, with both an African American and Latino member of the detail who are less characters than archetypes. Their presence (and the ensemble’s reaction to it) was a device to communicate racial attitudes of the era.

Even in this “wide-open L.A.” in this motley band of outsiders — these two men existed on its outer-edge.

images — top: Mickey Cohen via all
bottom: via

Rewind: “Where The Blues Were Born…”

KICKING LINE-UP in this little clip from the film, New Orleans (1947)
Among them: Kid Ory, Red Callender— whom I used to see sometimes rolling up for rehearsal with my neighbor from long-ago, John Carter and the smiling Billie Holiday alone warms my Sunday morning.

New Orleans 1947

(note the different spelling of Callender’s name on the poster)

“It’s Mickey Cohen’s Town …”

"L.A. is my destiny." Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen

“Los Angeles is my destiny…. ” — Sean Penn as Mickey Cohen

IF I were teaching my L.A. class this spring, this would have been part our the mid-semester discussion, in which we spend a week or two on L.A. noir and the city’s underside. I am a big fan of John Buntin’s excellent history of the era L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,and one of the early chapters we dip into evocatively walks this territory.

Gangster Squad, which opens Friday, is based on New York-gangster Mickey Cohen’s influence in Los Angeles. But this particular slant on the story was set in motion by a series of newspaper articles that ran in the Los Angeles Times in 2008. The pieces explored the history of the LAPD detail that was informally assembled under police chief William Parker to identify and eradicate mob rule in Southern California. Going after Cohen (played by Sean Penn in the film) was like going for the beating heart.

As most long-time Angelenos know (as well as anyone else who even casually studies L.A.’s checkered history), the line between “good and bad” — in that era in particular — was not just fuzzy but fungible.

I’m hoping Gangster Squad delivers — the trailer’s look and feel and the locales chosen as backdrop suggest that there was thought behind what needed to be conveyed and how that might expressed, but sometimes those period Los Angeles stories on the screen are simply vapor: style trumps substance.

Already, as verisimilitude goes, the Jay-Z thumping in the background on the trailer doesn’t bode well…but I will be there. Have to.

“The Nonfiction Novel”

FINALLY, I finished In Cold Blood. I write “finally” because I realized my reading pace changed dramatically after the second half. By the last quarter, I found myself moving through very slowly — but in the way one might when visiting some location for the first time and you want it all to imprint. I was struck by how much information, facts, figures etc — the layers of it — Truman Capote wove with great precision into this specimen: something he called nonfiction novel: the judicial system, psychological screenings, geography, sociology. It’s now humming inside. The voices, the wheat bending in the wind. Always, as I step off into a big writing project, I crave one fine, sturdy example of a writer tackling something that seems impossible and watch them lay it down with (seeming) ease and elegance.

I ran across the trailer for the film on YouTube and thought it was an interesting approach at teasing the story — that instead of an overview that solely plucks dramatic scenes from the film to preview the feature, this is more the meta-story about what it was like to land in Kansas and make a film about the Clutter family murder and the legal proceedings that followed, it’s showcasing the verisimilitude.

And because it’s really worth watching, I’m posting this link again to Truman Capote talking about how he got the idea for the nonfiction novel.
photo of Truman Capote by Irving Penn

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.

Criss Cross 1949

WE JUST watched this in my L.A. class the other night.

The opening sequence with the herky-jerky flight over downtown Los Angeles always sends me.

And this line: “Hello, baby,” Slim Dundee says to his wife, Anna, while Steve stands nearby in his undershirt. “You know it don’t look right,” he tells her, “you can’t exactly say it looks right, now can you?”