Tuesday 14 July 2020

Streaming on Google Play - John Baxter delves back into LAUREL CANYON (Lisa Cholodenko, USA, 2002)


Director Lisa Cholodenko
         From A Star is Born to The Beverly Hillbillies, the transformative effects of life in Los Angeles have been comprehensively documented on film. What nobody quite captures is the intricacy of life there. No decision is simple; every question comes Multiple Choice. 

Some Angelenos probably pursue a nine-to-five existence and cultivate their garden at weekends, but one never meets them. Or, rather, one does meet them, but they spend the week administering colonic irrigation and at home raise only Venus Flytraps. Above all, it is a city of people in transition. “X pays the bills,” they tell you, “but what I’m reallyinto is Y.” Everyone aspires to be someone else and struggles to become that person, only to find themselves discontented all over again.  

The writer/director of Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko, was born and raised thereand sees the city with that oblique vision of people who never appear to be looking at what’s in front of them. There’s nothing profound about the film, but as Noel Coward observed, cheap music can be extraordinarily potent.

Frances McDormand as Jane
Cheap music is the business of Frances McDormand’s Jane, a record producer sufficiently successful to own a Malibu beach house and another in the bushy upper reaches of Laurel Canyon, which would qualify her for the A-list at any Hollywood party. Despite this, she is, of course, troubled, mostly by the arrival of her son Sam (Christian Bale), who’s around the same age as Ian, her current lover (Alessandro Nivola).

Accompanying Sam is his fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale). Both are physicians, recently graduated from Harvard, and loftily dismissive of Jane’s dope-blowing and pool-side frolicking with Ian and his band, not to mention the sex, which Jane is starting to feel may ill-become a woman of her years. “I’m sixteen years older than you,” she points out to Ian. “That’s a lifetime of fucking, right there.”  (Jane is said to be modeled on Joni Mitchell, and they share a jeans and sandals charm. One of the Canyon’s most famous residents, Mitchell lived there during the peak of its musical fame, in the sixties and seventies, when it inspired her to write such songs as Ladies of the Canyon.)

The newbies. Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale
as Sam and Alex
Jane is trying, not very effectively, to complete a record with Ian and his group. As in Les Liaisons Dangereuses,the film’s covert inspiration, the sophisticates find seducing the newbies a welcome distraction. Sam has seen it all before, and wearily reminds Jane of the various losers he’s encountered over the years entering or leaving her bedroom, but Alex is ripe for vice, and soon abandons her dissertation on the reproductive life of fruit flies for sex with humans, and nearer home. Sam meanwhile succumbs to the more cerebral appeal of Natascha McElhone, a fellow psychiatrist whose gleaming teeth, fixed gaze and predatory mien suggest he is swimming into deep waters. Appropriately their “meeting cute” occurs when Sam fails to respect what Woody Allen called “the only cultural advantage” of living in Los Angeles, that of being able to turn right on a red light. 

         Cholodenko summarises, none too subtly, the options available to Sam and Kate; juxtaposing, for example, Sam persuading a defiantly naked patient to put on her clothes while Ian and Jane encourage Alex to remove hers. Alex inspires the ballad that completes Ian’s album, but Jane, instead of taking offence, colludes in her seduction. Here the parallels with Les Liaisons Dangereuses become overt. Jane is the Marquise de Merteuil, incestuously resentful of her son choosing another woman. Ian is Valmont, the instrument of her revenge, while Alex embodies Cécile de Volanges, the ingenue, eager for corruption.

         Cholodenko doesn’t resolve these conflicts, but ends with the principals staring at one another with expressions of “What now?” Not that such a story can be resolved, since its very lack of determinism mirrors life in Los Angeles, which can be like a 24-hour audition for a job you aren’t sure you want with people you don’t entirely trust. 

         Almost in passing, Laurel Canyon offers a sideways look at life in a micro-environment where rain forest collides with resort, jungle consorts with suburbia. Racks of mailboxes clustered at the entrance to a lane winding invitingly up into the green gloom hint at the multitude of fauna inhabiting this environment, not to mention the predators who stalk them. Charles Manson’s gang did their “creepy crawlies” in homes like Jane’s, and it was in the canyon that porn star John Holmes, who shot innumerable films in its secluded reaches, was devoured by the homicidal Wonderland gang. Almost anything can happen here – and generally has.
Joni Mitchell

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