Sunday, August 17, 2008

Natural Colors

I have an odd affection for movies set in Los Angeles that share a similar visual style. Movies that aren't particularly flashy in their visuals, but which look like they're lit only by the natural rays of the Californian sun during the day and the suburban streetlights and smoggy glow in the evenings. Those made during the 1980s and early '90s like Dennis Hopper's Colors, Stephen Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape and Robert Altman's Short Cuts and The Player all share this aesthetic, as do more recent LA-set films like Gurinda Chadha's underrated What's Cooking and Michael Radford's Dancing at the Blue Iguana. Even Michael Mann's Collateral, despite being a far glossier version of it, shares the look.

It's hard to describe, but they all share a common thread. They're lower budget and more independent films and they're all set in the contemporary. Studios such as Orion Pictures and pre-Disney Miramax produced films that all had it. At times, particularly on the '80s films, they look like they were filmed on film stock that other more prestigious and glamourous films wouldn't use because it's too cheap. I really do love it though, it adds a certain natural realness to it. I guess it helps that a lot of these movies are set outside of the typical pretty side of Los Angeles. The alleys, the strip clubs, the ghettos, the cheap apartment complexes that have communal pools and are populated by divorcees and shady characters. You won't see much of Rodeo Drive or Sunset Blvd in them. The directors and their cinematographers don't try and do anything flashy, they just do clean, effective and economical work. Having actually been to LA myself (however briefly), I can guarantee that it isn't not all luminescent sunbeam palm trees and beautiful panoramas, which is an image these movies do capture, but they do so with a more realistic, almost grimy way.

I bring this up because I finally got around to watching Colors this evening, which I've had on my DVR for over half a year (the network promos before it feature a Christmas theme! Yikes) and I thought it was great. Filmed in actual gang territories by Dennis Hopper, it has an even stronger sense of realism that the camera work I described earlier provides. Feels so authentic. It helps that the life Hopper was documenting hadn't been overrun, at the time, by all the things that make that culture so retched today. It has two great performances by Sean Penn and Robert Duvall and an ace soundtrack featuring an original score by legend Herbie Hancock, plus songs by Eric B & Rakin, Rick James, Salt n Pepa as well as the film's theme song "Colors" by Ice-T. I like to imagine that this song - which I had on iPod long before I saw the movie, bless ABC's Rage program for that - would have been Oscar fodder if the movie were released today. I've included the video below.

You don't know me, fool
You disown me, cool
I don't need your assistance, social persistance
Any problem I got I just put my fist in
My life is violent but violent is life
Peace is a dream, reality is a knife
My colors, my honour, my colors, my all
With my colors upon me one soldier stands tall
Tell me what have you left me, what have I got
Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot
My home got jacked
My mother's on crack
My sister can't work cause her arms show trax
Madness insanity live in profanity
Then some punk claimin' they understandin' me
Give me a break, what world do you live in
Death is my sect, guess my religion

Absolutely brilliant.


... said...

Hate to be 'that' guy, but just wanted to point out that sex, lies, and videotape was set and shot in and around Baton Rouge.

I think personally that Collateral is more stylized than glossy, almost a sort of forced naturalism, although one that compliments his earlier work, Heat, very well as two disparate takes on the L.A. look from the same mind.

I would suggest checking out To Live and Die in L.A. as well. Friedkin paints an over the top version of the neon and palm trees that he felt were becoming too much of a cliche.

nick plowman said...

I love "Colours" too, haven't seen it in a while, I should revisit it soon.

leah said...

'colours, colours, c-c-c-colours...' terrific ice-t, great movie.

another film that fits into that 'LA' lexicon for me is 'training day', shot around the streets of the city and typical non-glossy neighbourhoods. 'it takes a wolf to catch a wolf...' perhaps.

Glenn said...

elipses (that's what I'm calling you), nice catch although it shares a similar aesthetic to what I'm trying to explain so it still works.

I actually watched To Live and Die in LA last week, which kick started these thoughts about LA presented on screen.

Leah, Training Day is far too traditional for my liking. Big budget hollywood stuff with silly Macy Gray cameos. The look of that movie is far too typically studio.

leah said...

hmm, that's interesting, kam. i think 'training day' is fairly unconventional for a studio flick, lots of driving around in a car, talking, over the course of a single day (i don't even remember the 'gray' cameo, where in the day was that? my memory is the pits), the ambiguous nature of both denzel's character and the relationship between the rookie cop and the vet, plus it features our own magnificent cliff curtis of 'once were warriors' fame cast in yet another latino role, funny for such a maori boy! for my money 'to live and die in LA' (which i love, btw, and could wang chung BE any more '80's?) is as 'studio slick' a crime drama as 'training day', though obviously of completely different eras.

leah said...

i remember macey gray's part now! (she didn't bother me tho.) i swear, the retirement home beckons...

Glenn said...

Yeah, it's very hard for a Hollywood flick to appear like it was actually made in the 1980s. It's not as simple as using black and white film to make it look like a film was made in the '40s. Which is why I mentioned Dancing at the Blue Iguana, because I really love it's use of location and the way it films LA is actually quite striking compared to something like Training Day.

But, really, I just didn't care for Training Day at all (I believe I gave it a C- grade).

One of the reasons I love American Psycho is because it looks like it was made in 1990 New York City. It feels so authentic.

I just I just have a thing for stuff like that, hey?

I'm sure Curtis is happier making movies as a latino than he is making weird stuff like River Queen back home in NZ.

leah said...

well, that explains it! (the fact you didn't care for 't. day', i mean. it's certainly no 'colors', i'm with you there)

i just saw curtis in 'sunshine' the other night (i don't know why i haven't seen 'sunshine' earlier, i just didn't, and i like boyle), cliff was the best about it, imho. at least he wasn't playing a crim!

man, 'river queen', what a mess. a lot of weird stuff went on behind the scenes on that one..vincent ward showed some potential for a shiny career but seems to have lost the plot somewhere along the line. (and lee tamahori never seems to have recovered from the 'tranny' incident, which is a real shame)