“You’re working for me now.”

I currently live in Berkeley but Los Angeles is my home. So I never miss a chance to watch L.A.-themed movies. This week I watched for the first time To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin, 1985). It was a strange experience. For most of the movie I had the growing suspicion that the film was a piece of crap. It seemed like an utterly cliché cop buddy movie. All the characters speak in fake movie dialogue — but dialogue that sounds silly, not cool like the fake movie dialogue in a Tarantino film. The alledged “hero” of the movie is an idiot who does all sorts of stupid and dangerous things that only movie cops do and would get real life police officers killed. More than that, the hero is a psychopath. He’s beyond Dirty Harry. He’s more like a Bad Lieutenant. But the film treats him in a typical heroic mode…. at least until the end.

The end of the movie caught me completely off guard. The hero just dies all of a sudden. And not in a big climactic shoot out or anything. The movie is going along like normal, and BANG, the guy dies. Then the movie goes along without him. It shouldn’t be surprising that he dies since he’s an idiot and a scumbag. If anything it should be suprising he lived as long as he did.

So the ending was like a Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects moment which sent me back to re-evaluate what I had seen earlier. A little Googling turned up a rather brillian essay that sheds light on the experience I had. It’s a pretty long piece, so here are some quotes:

After nearly two decades of regarding To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) with a spectrum of emotions ranging from disdain-at-first-sight to qualified enthusiasm, it occurs to me that of all his works, this is the film I have watched and pondered most frequently. No longer do I see it as a shimmering piece of costume jewelry, but a forceful, semi-serious diagnosis of a prevalent human malady: the discrepancy between what we desire, or what we are pleased by, and what we claim to value, not only in life but in cinema. …

[Director William] Friedkin redirects the modern cop thriller through the chartreuse time machine of noir, adorned with the MTV confections of Miami Vice, but his film emerges assomething far more nasty and authentic. … To Live and Die in L.A. is also quite amusing, presumably intentionally, but possibly not. The humor is a conscious or unconscious byproduct of Friedkin’s love-hate relationship with the genre he plunders…

But once the superficialities are shunted aside, it becomes clearer that Friedkin’s film strives to deviate from the norm. Its hero is a corrupt man emblematized by a refusal to change, and his partner willingly swaps his morality for depravity. The villain, who murders only those who have betrayed orendangered his interests directly, is never as unlikable as the hero becomes. The protagonist, whose conduct leads to the death of innocent bystanders, is dispatched in the climax without a tear being shed. The hero’s obligatory “romantic interest” is at the very least a reluctant victim of coercion, and, conceivably, might qualify as a sex slave. And the voracious slickness that taunts Miami Vice (1984-1989) has, by film’s end, become the source of as much discomfort as pleasure. So this is not your ordinary cop thriller. …

One of To Live and Die in L.A.’s persistent motifs is the creation and pursuit of phony things. As spectators grow to distrust the contradiction between what the film introduces itself to be and what it in fact is, they begin as well to question their own moral gullibility and aptitude in judging what is set before them. …

I believe Friedkin is intrigued that we are so quick to take sides in a movie, and so easily manipulated to accept complexity as simplicity. This is likely why he adheres to the conventions of the buddy thriller—at times pressing them beyond credulity—before escalating what becomes a point-by-point repudiation of the devices used in such films to make spectators comfortable with dynamics that should not evoke comfort.

In the end, the essay’s point is about self-deception, one of my favorite themes in cinema:

once we have agreed to stipulate that Chance is our hero, [Friedkin] wants, like a Judo master, to use the momentum of our own self-deception to flip us on our backs.

You can read the whole essay here at the website 24 Lies A Second.

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