Saturday, February 11, 2017

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.: Symbolic Suicide and Law Versus Order

The greatest juxtaposition of all happens in the last half hour. When Richard Chance (William Petersen) and his partner are engaged in a car chase, a large Los Angeles highway is engulfed in chaos. Big Rigs with cargo sliding off the axis, cars side-braking only to be hit by other cars, while our heroes dive out of the way in time to drive on the wrong side of the road away to safety. As they ride away we hear the radio declare: "There's a minor tie-up on the north Long Beach right near Henry Ford. A couple cars tangled there. Shouldn't take too long to get this to the shoulder. It's a very simple affair, no injuries involved. It shouldn't cost more than a few minutes". Immediately after the Air Traffic Control lady Stacey Binn signs off, we're given an image of chaotically misaligned cars and people jumping out looking ready to fight each other including one gentleman who took to stand on top of his car with a shotgun. 

To Live and Die in L.A. is a film full of little juxtapositions like this, some major and others minor, and they're even woven into not just the title of the film itself (life vs. death) but into it's contrasted color presentation, with red representing the danger lying within the placid criminal Erik Masters and green, as used in Hitchcock's Vertigo, for Richard Chance's outward and at times seemingly homoerotic desire for Masters. All of these juxtapositions aim to reveal something about the rift between Detective Chance and his object of desire Erik Masters (Willem Dafoe), a counterfeiter who killed Chance's snooping partner. William Friedkin, as Michael Mann would later do in 1995's Heat, posits two characters on opposite sides of the law whose juxtaposition reveals the corrupting nature of the city. While Heat plays up to Mann's quieter tendencies, To Live and Die in L.A. is undoubtedly a film for the cocaine '80s, placing one irony (anarchy of law) against another (solemnness of brutality).

Friedkin frames his characters through their interactions with their environments, and through their actions against the landscape. Consider Erik Masters, he is first introduced after the title sequence where he takes a somewhat abstract self-portrait and nails it to a wall outside, proceeding to light the portrait on fire and watch it burn in front of him. This is immediately followed with Richard Chance looking reflective and solemn while preparing to jump from a bridge in what at first looks like a suicide attempt. Friedkin shows him jump from the bridge but now a rope is visible and when he reaches the end of it, he swings back and forth screaming excitedly and in joy. This is later revealed to have been a dare by his fellow colleagues. These two scenes reveal something about the nature of these characters on a very base level, that one is brooding and another is reckless, but there's something beyond the surface going on with these interactions. It has to be read as a proverbial suicide, one by self-immolation, and another by a large and sudden fall. It's these interactions, not the murder of Hart, that serve as the inciting incident for the plot. For Erik Masters, he is surrendering his own image in order for him to eventually read himself in the image of others, as part of an interconnected network of criminals and counterfeiters as well as with his social interactions, to live for others. For Richard Chance, he is surrendering physical and emotional control and allowing his base emotions to dominate his path throughout the rest of the feature. All of his motivations are essentially controlled by an overwhelming desire to catch and perhaps even kill Erik Masters for killing his partner.

Erik Masters watches the art go up in flames.

The double suicide is necessary. It has to take place for the film to work like it does. These individuals have to surrender their moral agency in order to show how the landscape has molded them to become what they are in the present. Erik Masters, Friedkin states, was a character he wanted to capture as being a sort of lion in a cage. Only suggesting the nature of his violence in subtle facial cues and strained vocal patterns from Dafoe, and never actually revealing it until he's ready. Masters is shown as a professional navigator of the surly underworld spaces, constantly adapting and shaping between lumbering machismo and ambassadorial tact. From his grunt Carl Cody to his lawyer Max Waxman trying to bust him out. Masters mirrors the people he interacts with as a consistent tool to gain the upper hand in any conversation, and its no wonder that Friedkin constantly shows us Masters behind glass and reflected through mirrors, where his true nature can't actually be known except as an image constructed to resemble what he wants people to see. And watching him try to read and react to Richard Chance when they finally meet is a site to behold. Masters is overlooking a railing on the roof when Chance calls out to him, and he looks behind his back wistfully to see Chance and his partner. He goes over to meet him, laughs at his jokes, and then takes him to the gym as they interrogate each other, constantly eyeing each other as they work out, and engaging in a minor confrontation of will.

But this isn't the only molding that takes place because while Masters voluntarily molds himself to match to his environment, Chance's violent hurricane of masculine, aggressive energy manages to shape those around him. A secondary arc before the climax that has a center-stage conclusion in the films final shot, Vukovich's transformation from an orderly young cop to Chance's heir to the anarchic throne, taking over the position as the one to squeeze information out of the abused Bianca Torres. Masters and Chance represent the end-result of urban corruption and how they operate in their everyday lives, but Vukovich is key to the film's thesis because his arc is actually traced from beginning to end. As Chance coerces him to break the law more and more to enforce the law, he begins to abandon his hard-coded system of ethics about how law enforcement can and should operate. If we look at Chance as someone who has, by the act of symbolic suicide, surrendered his agency and became part of the Los Angeles landscape, then his act of corrupting Vukovich is really an extension of the nature of the city. And by doing so, Vukovich is absorbed into not only Chance's character but into the city itself as another one of its constructs. When Vukovich takes over as the new Richard Chance, he really completes his own form of suicide by surrendering both his principles and his identity to the hellish landscape.

And in a way, Los Angeles is Hell. It's not merely the consistent use of fire as a symbol and motif but the very real separation from God, the most basic definition of hell. If the most divine and heavenly aspect of a person is the right to self-determination, then God is conspicuously missing in To Live and Die in L.A. Even the title suggests the immovable certainty of the characters fate, as one event destined to follow another. If the arcs and movements of Friedkin's 1985 masterpiece demonstrate anything, it's the director's sheer contempt and cynicism.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, this is one of my favourite movies of all time. It is a film that reveals new layers and images which each viewing, all wrapped in the sweet sounds of Wang Chung. Everybody should see this masterpiece.