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PRINT February 2007

“A BRIGHT, GUILTY WORLD”: DAYLIGHT GHOSTS AND SUNSHINE NOIR

David Lynch, Mulholland Drive, 2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes. Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts).

Anticipated by the German Expressionists, discovered by French aesthetes, beloved by American film scholars, the atmospheric crime stories, paranoid policiers, and hard-boiled detective yarns known as film noir constitute the most stylized, self-consciously artistic tendency in Hollywood history. Compositions in convoluted flashback, tough-guy slang, and precisely adjusted venetian blinds—only bebop, which also developed during World War II, could claim to be a richer form of American avant-pop.

Noir is its own place, but it belongs to Los Angeles; it is a dark shadow cast by the radiant City of Angels. A particular subset of film noir deals with local history—the city’s or the movies’. These are the Sunshine Noirs. Citizen Kane’s fake newsreels and haunted mansion anticipate Sunshine Noir, as Kane (1941) does all noir. Indeed, Orson Welles virtually defined Sunshine Noir when the naïf he played in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) spoke of “a bright, guilty world”—a phrase that has been widely, if erroneously, taken as referring to Los Angeles.

Thanks to Hollywood, Los Angeles is the world’s most photographed metropolis and hence the most apparitional. As film historian Thom Andersen points out in his 2003 cine-essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, this is a metropolis where motels or McDonald’s might be constructed to serve as sets and “a place can become a historic landmark because it was once a movie location.” The whole city is haunted by an imaginary past.¹

Thus Sunshine Noir is also prefigured by the moody high-noon surrealism of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), with its doppelgänger-ridden Hollywood bungalow; Sunshine Noir similarly flickers avant la lettre in Kenneth Anger’s fragmentary Puce Moment (1949), which also concerns ghosts in broad daylight, albeit from a more documentary viewpoint: Limned in Kodachrome against the Hollywood Hills, a young woman in a glamorous antique gown strikes the poses of a silent-movie star, at one point holding four Russian wolfhounds at leash.

The founding example of Sunshine Noir features a grandiose version of Meshes’ spooky bungalow with an authentic version of the Puce wraith in residence: Billy Wilder and his cowriter Charles Brackett initially conceived Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a comedy about a silent-film star who attempts to resurrect her career, with an actual has-been in the lead. But the satire mutated into something far darker. Norma Desmond, a deranged movie queen played by silent-film superstar Gloria Swanson, takes a young, unsuccessful screenwriter as her lover-cum–script doctor and winds up killing him in a jealous rage—the mummy’s revenge.

“Movies are dreamlike and fantastic,” Parker Tyler wrote in the preface to Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947). “Camera trickery really is camera magic. Cinema illusion . . . creates a throwback in the mood of the spectator to [ancient] beliefs in ghosts, secret forces, telepathy, etc.” Shadow kingdom of capricious producers, hungry writers, and indifferent agents, Sunset Boulevard trades on an insider’s view of Hollywood. But even as Wilder and Brackett labor to dispel the notion that motion pictures are made in heaven (“audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes the picture; they think the actors make it up as the picture goes along”), Sunset Boulevard evokes their uncanny aura.

Late afternoon of the studio system: Wilder’s exercise in gothic neorealism is pure magic hour, satirizing yet attesting to the power of motion pictures to reanimate the past and raise the dead. Hollywood is less dream factory than dream dump. “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis,” muses screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who, fleeing the repo men about to seize his car, has turned into the handy driveway of a moldering mansion. It is there that the sacred monster lives in seclusion, save for her director-turned-chauffeur (Erich von Stroheim) and the rats scampering in the empty swimming pool. Paramount built the pool as payment for using J. Paul Getty’s empty Wilshire Boulevard mansion; the house, now long since demolished, would be rehaunted five years later when Nicholas Ray used it as a location in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Sunset Boulevard, as James Agee wrote in his Time review, grants the silent era “a kind of barbarous grandeur and intensity,” but by 1950 Hollywood was a feeble remnant. The cubicle in which Gillis and another writer work on their script turns out to be a fragment of Norma Desmond’s once-palatial dressing room on the Paramount lot. “Hollywood’s like Egypt. Full of crumbling pyramids,” producer David O. Selznick supposedly remarked to writer Ben Hecht, as they wandered an empty studio one dawn in early 1950. “It’ll never come back. It’ll just keep crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sands.” Predicated on the persistence of ruins, Sunshine Noir is inherently retro.

With Sunset Boulevard Hollywood experiences itself as history. It’s all over. The movie is narrated from beyond the grave—Wilder actually shot an opening scene, discarded after a disastrous preview, with the dead protagonist perched on a slab in the morgue, recounting his tale for an audience of stiffs. The movie is filled with them: Swanson and Stroheim are supported by other living “waxworks,” including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner (who played Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent King of Kings [1927]). An even more poignant sort of specter is Swanson as she appears in 1929’s Queen Kelly (directed by Stroheim); juxtaposed with her middle-aged self, she is thus doubly disembodied.

Also released in 1950, Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (a near–Sunshine Noir starring Humphrey Bogart as a screenwriter whose propensity for violence has damaged his prospects and made him a murder suspect) represents the movie colony as an environment of smashed careers and free-floating paranoia. But there is nothing nostalgic about this movie; its subject is contemporary Hollywood. In a Lonely Place is essence of 1947, a year that began with the Black Dahlia murder and ended with the Hollywood blacklist—with the assassination of celebrity gangster Bugsy Siegel and Ray’s shooting of his first feature in between.

Sometime later Robert Aldrich initiated a para-Sunshine trilogy. The Big Knife (1955) represented the movie industry as a killing machine; Kiss Me Deadly (1955) took noir toward apocalyptic science fiction, auguring LA’s nuclear incineration. The belated capper was a box-office sensation: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) replayed Sunset Boulevard as post-Psycho Grand Guignol—with Bette Davis as the pathetic, obsolete, murderous star. Soon after, Jack Smith unleashed his scandalous Flaming Creatures (1963), an orgy of displaced Hollywood archetypes which he would describe as a comedy set in a haunted movie studio—the only Sunshine Noir ever produced on a Lower East Side rooftop. Seven years after that the industry would disgorge a comic analogue in the fascinatingly catastrophic adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1970).

But the Aldrich trilogy notwithstanding, Sunshine Noir lay dormant until Robert Altman chose to treat noir itself as an anachronistic relic in his 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s final Philip Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye. A New Wave film characterized by radical mood shifts, disjointed narrative, visual puns, eccentric casting that mixed veteran actors with celebrities, and allusions to other films (including characters who act as if they are acting in a movie), The Long Goodbye employed the character “Philip Marlowe” the way Billy Wilder did “Gloria Swanson.”

Altman’s defrosted Marlowe (Elliott Gould) wanders through the brave new world of Richard Nixon’s second term chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental, and cracking wise to gangsters and cops alike. (“Anybody named Philip Marlowe has got to be a fag,” one unimpressed officer tells him.) The sense of obsolescence also includes the ’60s, as embodied by Gould, who, after MASH (1970), had briefly functioned as an American Belmondo—the signifier of Now pushing his ethnic, antiestablishment persona through a succession of youth movies.

The Long Goodbye is an extended puce moment. As in Anger’s film, the documentary subtext is extensive: Altman used his Malibu house as a location and incorporated all manner of found material, ranging from a studio guard who did movie-star impersonations to Gould’s evident depression. No less crucially, black and white has been superseded by color. But where The Long Goodbye travestied noir, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) recuperated the mode as airbrushed pastiche. Chinatown covers its traces. As if by laser from a distant planet, noir stylistics are projected back into a new and improved past; the movie is a recovered memory of a 1937 Los Angeles (and the remake of a 1937 movie) that never existed.

Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard, 1950, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Center: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

Though Robert Towne’s script was inspired by the “water conspiracy” of 1915, Chinatown is set two decades later—before the development of film noir but just as Chandler was writing his first Marlowe stories. Chinatown’s villain was played by John Huston, the man who thirty-three years earlier had directed Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941); compared to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, however, Huston is an inside reference. Film noir is not a relic of the past: The past itself is film noir, at least in Los Angeles.

Following Chinatown, Hollywood would intermittently imagine the secret history of Los Angeles as a form of metanoir—whether in the animated f/xtravaganza Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the belated Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990), or, most influentially, in the grisly conspiratorial vision of postnoir novelist James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson.

Sunshine Noir focuses on actual or imaginary crimes, sometimes conflating the two registers. Thus, Kevin Spacey appears in L.A. Confidential as an ultracool celebrity narc who, thanks to his role in Robert Mitchum’s (real life) pot bust, has become identified with the (invented) Badge of Honor TV show, an allusion to the actual Dragnet, here presented as a force in LA politics; he is also, if less overtly, an adviser to the scandal rag Hush Hush, modeled on the real 1950s terror of Lotusland (and the movie’s namesake), the tattle sheet Confidential. The fictions multiply. There is no justice, only media coverage.

L.A. Confidential, which inspired Thom Andersen’s critique, is devoted to the joy of simulation, invoking historical gangsters Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato, as well as a racket of classy hookers “cut” to resemble movie stars. At one point, one of them (Kim Basinger) watches her model—Veronica Lake—on TV. The best joke has an LA cop mistake the “real” Lana Turner (or rather the actress playing Lana Turner) for her call-girl doppelgänger. The movie curates the pop artifacts of the bright, guilty ’50s even more lovingly than Polanski represented the ’30s.

If Hanson cheerfully digs for dirt beneath every palm tree, Atom Egoyan excavates an alternate history of our times in Where the Truth Lies (2005). Tawdry yet stilted, this showbiz Rashomon asks why those guys, the smooth singer and the crazy nut—not Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis but “Vince Collins” and “Lanny Morris”—broke up their fabulously successful act. (And what did that have to do with the lovely young corpse planted by the New Jersey mob, or maybe the ghost of Fatty Arbuckle, in their hotel suite bathtub on the eve of the duo’s ultimate telethon?)

Marginally more responsible in conjuring the nightlife of the gods, The Cat’s Meow (2001) allowed sometime Hollywood historian Peter Bogdanovich to revisit the mysterious fate of pioneer director Thomas Ince, who died during the course of a wild weekend hosted by media mogul William Randolph Hearst on his palatial yacht in late 1924. (In addition to the luckless Ince and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, guests included Charlie Chaplin, aspiring gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and popular novelist Elinor Glyn.) Elevating a forgotten scandal to the realm of myth, Bogdanovich fills his movie with inside references. The trickiest is predicated on the viewer’s knowledge that an allusion to Ince’s demise was dropped from an early draft of Citizen Kane. Bogdanovich thus manages an odd footnote to his hero’s career, filming the anecdote that was considered too scurrilous to make it into Kane.

Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland and Brian DePalma’s Black Dahlia, both released last year, are only two of the most recent Sunshine Noirs. Invoking Sunset Boulevard at every opportunity, Coulter purports to part the veil on the circumstances under which George Reeves, the actor who embodied Superman on ’50s television, wound up with a bullet in his brain—and so inflates an incident that rates barely a page in the second volume of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (1985) into a meditation on the price of fame, the nature of acting, and the basis of fantasy.

DePalma’s Black Dahlia is an even more self-reflexive Sunshine Noir than fellow cineaste Bogdanovich’s Cat’s Meow. Ancient movie relics appear, most obviously, in flashbacks to the 1928 silent horror flick The Man Who Laughs, but also materially in the form of a (fictional) real-estate scam: a firetrap housing development built on the cheap using sets discarded by comedy king Mack Sennett. The film’s own heart of darkness is a deserted movie studio, complete with torture death chamber, beneath the very sign that gives Hollywoodland its name—less monument than trademark, a collective “Walt Disney” signature. Thus do celluloid fantasies insinuate themselves into life.

True-crime policier, based on a novel by the author of L.A. Confidential and unfolding in late-’40s Los Angeles somewhere between Chinatown and Mulholland Drive, The Black Dahlia involves the city’s most notorious unsolved homicide. In early 1947 the naked corpse of twenty-two-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dumped—or rather, arranged—in a South Central lot. She had been surgically dismembered: blood drained, body pieces strewn, face carved into a jack-o’-lantern grin. The details were suppressed, but the victim (nicknamed in the press for her dark hair and matching wardrobe) entered local mythology as Hollywood’s ultimate lost soul and may be considered the personification of film noir.

In City of Quartz (1992) Mike Davis calls the Black Dahlia murder “the crucial symbolic commencement of the postwar era—a local ‘name of the rose’ concealing a larger metaphysical mystery.” Blood sacrifice on the altar of Hollywood? Sadistic exercise in montage? Eruption of horrifying realness in the land of make-believe? It seems key to the horror that this gruesome crime was discovered in broad daylight.

As the Manson murders would only be conceivable in terms of LSD-induced Satanism, so the Dahlia’s death could only be understood as an insane bid for notoriety. Celebrity suspects, real or imagined, would include Woody Guthrie and Orson Welles. But although the Dahlia already figured in the 1981 film adaptation of John Gregory Dunne’s 1977 novel True Confessions, the case itself would wait sixty years to be used as the basis for a movie.²

Robert Aldrich, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 132 minutes. Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford).

Hewing closely to the first half of James Ellroy’s eponymous 1998 novel, DePalma’s Black Dahlia is less the tale of the hapless victim or even of the investigation into her death than of the posthumous spell the dead woman cast on two cops. The action is punctuated by suggestive screen tests featuring the Dahlia (Mia Kirshner). Although from a narrative point of view these interludes—which are directed by DePalma’s disembodied voice—constitute a sort of inexplicable flash-forward to the world of the Warhol Factory, they are necessary to establish the Dahlia as the unquiet corpse of every would-be starlet whose heart was ground up for dog food.

Are movies themselves evil—a technology for capturing souls? Or, as with filmed pornography, are they a means of devouring souls? The existence of a secret porn film is a motif in The Black Dahlia as well as in L.A. Confidential and in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). Indeed, Mulholland Drive has two potential Dahlias lost in Hollywood, one escaping her past, the other unable to remember hers. Betty (Naomi Watts) is innocently avid to become a star; Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is forced by circumstance to impersonate one. Their first meeting is a mini Hitchcock film, with the dazed amnesiac assigning herself a name from a handy Gilda poster.

Mulholland Drive is as carefully crafted a period film as Chinatown or L.A. Confidential—except that the period is ours. There’s a museum quality to the musty Deco apartment where Betty and Rita live under the watchful eye of a showbiz landlady (resident old-time musical star Ann Miller). The ominously rumbling city is malign and seductive, the movie industry an obscure conspiracy. A Googie coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard fronts the abyss: “I had a dream about this place,” a smug creative type explains to someone who might be his agent, even as his nightmare begins to unfold. Elsewhere, a self-important young director is compelled to endure a production meeting from hell wherein a shadowy cabal seizes control of his movie—but only so that the casting of a single, unknown actress in a starring role can be dictated by an irony-resistant bogeyman called the Cowboy (Lynch’s erstwhile producer Monty Montgomery).

There are many haunted houses in Mulholland Drive. The most frighteningly self-reflexive scene comes when Betty and Rita attend a 2 AM performance—part séance, part underground art ritual—in a decrepit, near-deserted old movie palace. The mystery being celebrated is that of sound-image synchronization, which is to say cinema. The show’s climax is an a cappella Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The singer collapses onstage, but the song continues—just like the movie. From the moment Betty and Rita leave the club, the narrative begins to fissure. Characters dissolve. Settings deteriorate. Situations break down and reconstitute themselves. “Movies are dreamlike and fantastic. . . .”

The same ancient belief in ghosts and secret forces and a similar sensation of time unmoored are evident in Lynch’s 2006 Inland Empire, which returns repeatedly to a ghost-ridden hotel and, among other things, involves the remake of an unfinished film. In this case, the script is haunted (“They discovered something inside the story . . . the two leads were murdered”) and so, apparently, is the set, where something seems to be lurking behind the flats. Does another Dahlia live somewhere in this seedy nightmare of sad, shabby rooms? There’s a trail of blood on Hollywood Boulevard by the time Inland Empire ends.

Shot entirely on format-of-the-future digital video, Inland Empire takes the long view of motion pictures. Here it is Eastern Europe—supposed birthplace of the fabled movie moguls—that functions as Hollywood’s repressed. Poland appears as a parallel universe; a sinister gypsy diva enters the vintage Hollywood haunted house belonging to actress Laura Dern, hissing that evil is a form of reflection. Or is it vice versa?

Roman Polanski, Chinatown, 1974, still from a color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes. J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson).

In California there is a different world of fantasy. The hot, dry desert no less than the cold, damp moor is the happy hunting ground of ghosts. But whereas the ghosts on the moor appear only after dark, the ghosts of the desert thrive on sunlight, like holidaymakers. Their props are swimming-pools, parking lots, patios, martini glasses, Thunderbirds, and freeways. The most disturbing thing about desert ghosts is that they appear as substantial as you or me. . . . We are not used to ghosts with suntans.

—Paul Mayersberg, Hollywood the Haunted House (1967)

The Decay of Fiction (2002), the fullest expression of avant-garde filmmaker Pat O’Neill’s career on the periphery of the dream-factory assembly line, is at once the greatest and most modest of Sunshine Noirs. Literally superimposing dream on documentary, the Los Angeles–based special-effects whiz uses a combination of 35-mm location shooting, digitalized memory, and optically printed overlay to haunt the once grand, long-shuttered Ambassador Hotel—only a few miles west on Wilshire from the Getty mansion. At once historic landmark and movie location, the Ambassador has enjoyed a curious afterlife (appearing in Pretty Woman, Forrest Gump, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name a few). O’Neill allows the hotel to represent itself in a state of physical deterioration—one more crumbling pyramid.

Welcome to the phantom zone. The past feels material. Everything is time-lapse. The empty Edward Hopper rooms are animated by creeping shadows, fluttery curtains, and the memory of guests past dressed in styles that range from the ’30s to the ’50s. Silver ghosts gather at high noon around the derelict swimming pool. The old Coconut Grove nightclub, originally furnished with papier-mâché monkeys and the fake palms from a 1920s Rudolph Valentino vehicle, is a crumbling wreck populated by black-and-white gangster apparitions. “Their props are . . . patios, martini glasses, Thunderbirds. . . . ”

Plots proliferate, beyond even L.A. Confidential or Mulholland Drive, but only as fragments—a succession of puce moments. O’Neill coaxes the suggestion of a story out of various movies, bits of sound track, and references to the Ambassador’s legendary past (including Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the hotel kitchen, itself the subject of Emilio Estevez’s 2006 quasi Sunshine Noir, Bobby). In its abstract movieness and sometimes awkward performances—as with Kenneth Anger’s foray into Sunshine Noir, O’Neill’s ghosts are the amateur simulation of ghosts—this seventy-three-minute fantasia exudes a wistful longing to connect with the bright, guilty world of the silver screen. No-longer-manufactured film stock documents a location that has been scheduled for demolition. Terminally meta, The Decay of Fiction is not so much concerned with Hollywood history as with the history of that history. Even when the narrative motor dies, the “all is vanity” mood remains.

The circle is unbroken. In the movie’s last few moments, the hotel’s resident death-angel pirouettes into a final carnival of souls, as O’Neill loops the voice of the Shadow (Orson Welles), repeating “Who knows?” It’s New Year’s Eve with Norma Desmond, and this time she has plenty of company. The movies themselves are the apparition in The Decay of Fiction—there is no other under the sun.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.

NOTES

1. Most movies are designed to transform documentary into fiction; Los Angeles Plays Itself—a nearly three-hour “city symphony in reverse” that analyzes the way Los Angeles has been represented in the movies—has the opposite agenda. Andersen, a local booster who positions himself against the movie industry, is morally opposed to the big lie of creative geography and narrative continuity.

2. Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss’s Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (Bulfinch, 2006) uses horrifying visual evidence to make the case that the Dahlia’s killer was Dr. George Hodel, an artist manqué and a friend and patron of then-local Surrealist Man Ray; the authors further suggest that the disposition of Elizabeth Short’s remains may have inspired or influenced Marcel Duchamp’s secret assemblage, Etants donnés, 1946–66. Published the same month that DePalma’s Black Dahlia opened, Exquisite Corpse is far more frightening, fantastic, and convincing than the film.