Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Celluloid Cities & The Spiral of Time

H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) in Time After Time.

Why is it that movies set in American cities do more to characterize their locations than to simply inhabit them? Los Angeles on film is as different from New York, as San Francisco is from Los Angeles. While L.A. sprawls outward across a wide screen into places where people never have to encounter each other, San Francisco creates a concentric circle where characters obsessively retrace their steps with the expressed purpose of encountering others – that is, those who are also circling the same territory. In the movies, San Franciscans seek to explain psychological riddles that can never be solved. "What used to mean San Francisco for me is disappearing fast," wrote film essayist Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) in 1994, years after he became obsessed with the city, and with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which was set there. "The spiral of time, like Saul Bass’s spiral in the credit sequence, the spiral of Madeleine’s hair and Carlotta’s in the portrait, cannot stop swallowing up the present and enlarging the contours of the past." San Francisco is continually lost in the spiral of time and its characters quickly find themselves out of time.

The H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) of Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time (1979) travels to the Bay area in a time machine believing that the future holds forth a socialist utopia, as well as an escape for him from the moral strait-jacket of Victorian England. As he arrives in 1979, he's hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper (David Warner), the mass murderer who got there first. Jack believes the future will prove his view that human existence is nothing more than a charnel house of death and destruction, and where people hunt and are hunted. Wells has greater hopes. But when he arrives, he can only circle a strange city that gives him no peace, or place to rest, and where utopia can only live up to its translation which is about being nowhere. The Ripper, by contrast, is more cozy in San Francisco than he was in the deep fog of London. The spiral of time, however, gets to determine our perspective and that of the characters. If both men had come over, say, a decade earlier, the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco might have actually confirmed Wells's idea of enlightenment and the Ripper would have taken a bus in frustration to L.A. where he possibly could meet up with Charles Manson. But the Bay area of 1979 wasn't tanning itself in a Summer of Love. San Francisco was one year removed from the mass suicide of 913 San Franciscans who fled to Guyana and followed cult preacher Jim Jones into a twisted idea of socialist utopia. And if seeing the lifeless bodies of men, women and children scattered across a jungle landscape weren't already more than enough, a week later, former city supervisor, Dan White, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall. So when the Ripper tells Wells that here in the steep hills of San Francisco, he fits right in, he can't help adding that the city makes him look like a rank amateur a century earlier.

The spiral of time in San Francisco, which unspools like reels of film, also swallows up the characters in David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), who are not only trying to solve a series of mass murders by a serial killer, they're also discovering how helpless they are in identifying him. The murderer claims not only real bodies here, he also claims the lives of those who are obsessed with him, as if he were a poltergeist that time itself set loose to wreak spiritual destruction. Police detective Paul Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) going over one crime scene after another always makes us conscious of the city's geography, but his mapping only yields clues that don't spawn answers. As he chases his tail in the city streets he knows only too well, it's a tale told on the screen that offers up answers too easily arrived at. For Toschi, the years are starting to pass him by and leaving him no closer to catching – or even identifying – the killer. So he sits uncomfortably in a movie theatre watching a version of himself in the guise of Harry Callaghan (Clint Eastwood) in Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971). Not only does Harry single out the perpetrator for the audience to hiss at, Harry has the weapon he needs to dispense with both the killer and due process in order to send people home happy. Toschi is living out a nightmare no movie can solve, and it's too much to stomach, so he exits the theatre before Harry shows him a future that never comes.    

Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac.

Circling the city also does little for James Stewart's Scottie in Vertigo, a man who relentlessly covers the same ground that once carved a clear and deadly path that led to the death of the woman he loved. Yet like a former detective, Scottie still looks for clues he may have missed, and he covers the same roads we watched him walk earlier in the film as he followed Madeleine (Kim Novak). When he eventually meets a woman who looks just like her, it's not in one of their familiar places. And it puts both of them off-guard. Both characters then seek to undo what has been done by stepping back inside the spiral to undo the damage of time and finally fulfill a love that was once lost. But Vertigo is also a detective story. It offers up evidence in a crime that Scottie can no more ignore than Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) could in San Francisco a decade earlier in The Maltese Falcon (1941), when he sent up the woman he loved for killing his partner. But where Spade "won't play the sap," Scottie helplessly becomes one, even losing her twice like a man trapped in his own existential deja-vu.

In Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, a professional eavesdropper, lives in his own perpetual deja-vu. With due diligence, he goes over his assignment, a taped conversation he's recorded that might be setting up his targets for murder, and he gets lost in the circle of time taken to record it. As the reels of tape spin in their own concentric circles on his deck, the sounds we hear take the shape of an aural spider web. Caul relentlessly manipulates the reels, as Scottie in Vertigo did the streets of San Francisco, in order to find the one clue that uncorks the meaning of the conversation. But he can't help but misinterpret what he hears because, for all his skill at bugging conversations, he lacks the intuition as a human being to understand what they mean. The circles of sound that spin over and over drag him down a drain he can't escape from and where ultimately he becomes the target of others who listen to him. Rather than circling the city, as he did daily with his microphones, Harry Caul ends up himself encircled.

Gene Hackman in The Conversation.

If San Francisco is what film critic Pauline Kael once called "paradisaical," it makes sense that something like Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which is set in that city, could uncover a hidden horror. A place well known for cultivating non-conformists, might also someday cultivate those who wish to make us all as one (as the seed pods who land do to the citizens of the city). But would that same fear also be applicable to a city like New York? "In New York, where crime is so obviously a social outgrowth, the dregs belong to the city, and a criminal could not be viewed as a snake in paradise," Kael wrote in her review of Dirty Harry. Given that view, New York might well endorse the coming of seed pods in order to bring peace and serenity to a bustling city that crackles with conflict. But, in Los Angeles, where the hedonistic pleasures of the city have a way of also spawning apocalyptic horrors, corruption and seduction make companionable bedfellows. Which is to say that the pods may have landed there before they discovered San Francisco.

New York and Los Angeles do create curious contrasts in dramatic study. You just have to consider two films that contain the same DNA, even when the cities that spawned them alter their characteristics. Dan Gilroy's debut film, Nightcrawler (2014), which just came out on DVD, is being compared which good reason to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Both films deal with sociopathic loners who blend into the crowd, and ones who also desperately seek to stand out from it. While the comparisons to Taxi Driver are apt, there are also some fascinating differences (also, as good and unsettling as it is, Nightcrawler doesn't transcend the noir genre as masterfully as Taxi Driver does). In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a thief who roams the night until he becomes fascinated with freelance 'nightcrawlers' who shoot footage of accidents and crimes in Los Angeles and then sell it to news channels. Bloom soon begins his own nightcrawling 'business' which includes  in some ways –  manufacturing the death and mayhem that he sells.

While Taxi Driver, set in New York during the Seventies, is about a Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who is an outsider waging a personal war with the city in which he drives cab, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in contemporary Los Angeles and the only war he is waging is with himself. Bloom is a cipher who wishes to find a self that allows him to achieve. The New York of Taxi Driver is claustrophobic and tightly wound, and a city which gives Travis no room to disappear into his isolation, while the Los Angeles of Nightcrawler is so sprawled out and dispersed that all Lou has is his isolation. He seeks an identity that allows him to belong. New York becomes Travis's projection of Hell, a damned city that needs to be cleansed of its filth, while in Lou Bloom's Los Angeles, with its sparseness, it is in sharp contrast to the teeming crowds who walk the streets of the Big Apple and torment Travis. Los Angeles is a pleasure zone where loners can find the space to invent any self they choose to fill in the gaps the city leaves them.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert de Niro.

In that sense, it isn't the city, but the Internet that gives Lou the community that Los Angeles denies him. In this virtual world, he learns to incorporate the self-promotion verbiage of websites that turn him into a perversion of the self-made American entrepreneur. "I feel we live in a hyper-capitalist society, in the sense that everything now is the bottom line  it’s really a world reduced to transactions," Dan Gilroy told critic Michael Sragow in Film Comment. "In this world, Lou is so far ahead of everybody else because he’s only about the bottom line. So his way of speaking, in the line of that integrated-vertical-synergistic bullshit  that’s literally his religion. Lou is a corporation." Gyllenhaal's Lou is also the product of a corporate digital world where information gets absorbed, but without effect, and he doesn't discriminate, or have any conscience about its content. Travis Bickle represented an alienation that could be accounted for. He lived in isolation in a real world seeking community but couldn't find it. Lou Bloom's alienation has no desire to find real community. In one sense, he's simply looking for a job.

But where the New York of Taxi Driver concludes with a bloodbath that momentarily provides Travis with psychic relief, Scorsese (and screenwriter Paul Schrader) make clear that the process of rage is once again building in their character. That the city chooses to reward Travis's actions – rescuing a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) so that she can return home to her family – as heroic reveals a greater madness at large where behaviour is recognized over motivation. In Nightcrawler, the ending is more problematic because motivation gets abandoned. Gilroy wishes to make a larger sociological point. So he reaches for an ending that resembles more Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982) than Taxi Driver.

Throughout the picture, Lou sells his material to a local TV news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who is eager to see her ratings jump. Though she may be looking for the sensational to sell her news, she isn't stupid, at least, until the end when Gilroy asks us to believe that after perceiving Lou's mounting megalomania, she still welcomes him into the executive world of her television station. The picture not only stretches credibility here, but attempts to make a larger point of claiming that society at large has become a comfortable home for Lou, a world in which he finally fits. Besides making this specious claim, which takes us outside the movie's dramatic logic and into the illogic of making social commentary, Nightcrawler caters to a cynicism that Taxi Driver avoided by leaving us with the discomfiting idea that Travis Bickle will always be "God's lonely man." Lou not only finds his job, but he also finds a warm spot in the bosom of corporate America. But isn't this just like the cities that spawned these films? While New York, in Taxi Driver, ultimately honours realism over fantasy, the Los Angeles of Nightcrawler, despite its many virtues, gives us a pat ending worthy of the city it was made in.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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