Lawrence Russell

To Live And Die In L.A. (1985) dir. William Friedkin writ. Friedkin and Gerald Petievich (based on the novel by Petievich) cine. Robby Muller music Wang Chung star. William Peterson (Chance), John Pankow (Bukovitch), William Dafoe (Masters), Darlene Fluefel (Ruth), Debra Feurer, Dean Stockwell, et. al.

Expanded Cinema

Although structured like a T.V. pilot, the action in this film is relentless, edited with blink cuts and photographic mises en scene in a pure cinematic montage that suspends time and the desire to protest. The narrative is cut like a rock video without the interior histrionics. It's another Gun Drama alright, a pump action thriller of sex, violence and the art of counterfeiting in the degraded atmosphere of chic Los Angeles in the eighties. The model is lifted from Miami Vice, the first of the T.V. cop shows to go nihilist, where death is the objective, not the penalty.

The nihilist here is a hipster artist gone bad, Ric Masters (Dafoe), whom we first see in his studio setting fire to a self-portrait in a talismanic anticipation of his fate. His talent for portraiture extends well beyond doing the occasional silkscreen of himself or his lovers into the icons of the Federal Treasury i.e. Ben Franklin and George Washington. He makes money, greenbacks, on his offset press like an art forger makes Vermeers or Picassos. The megalomania is in the subversion, and personal wealth is secondary. The artist's allegiance is to orgasm, so his subject by necessity involves risk.

Masters is another villain who makes the hero look mediocre. In our times the anti-hero criminal has become the object of our fantasies rather than the anal-retentive enforcer like Eliot Ness. In Miami Vice, the cops masquerade as criminals, enjoy life on both sides of the divide like high ranking padrones in the Vatican or the Forbidden City. Everyone wants to be "under-cover" as it makes his current unsatisfactory circumstances only one half of a double life -- you may hang out in the bar a lot, shoot pool and puke, but who knows? You might be a Narc... or a Secret Service Agent.

The good guys in this one are a couple of agents who pursue Masters as a personal vendetta and break the law in order to satisfy the need for the only real justice there is, revenge. Thus the agents themselves become criminals, albeit with a higher purpose. It's the gospel of vigilantism again, the idea that personal loyalty is the true spiritual marker when the Law is the horse's ass. It's another one of those Constitutional truths, a paradox like the citizen's right to bear arms while being denied the right to revolution.

The movie opens with a Presidential motorcade moving through the Los Angeles scrapper district, then docking at a hotel which the agents have secured. Reagan's radio voice is heard in the background: "Death and taxes may be inevitable, but not unjust taxes...."

As Chance (Peterson) prowls the corridors he discovers there's been an infiltration, radios an alert, heads for the roof. A dead agent lies on the tar and gravel, anonymous and inconsequential in his dark blue jumpsuit. The infiltrator is going over the side on a rope, presumably rappelling for the President's room. He's the de rigueur Arab terrorist, a human bomb, dressed for Paradise.

As Chance's buddy materializes like the human fly, Chance tries to stall the terrorist:

Terrorist: I'm ready to die!

Chance: Nobody's gonna die...

Terrorist: Death to Israel and the enemies of Islam!

With that he detonates his bomb belt, vaporizes. Agent Hart drags himself onto the roof, groans, "I'm too old for this kind of shit." Indeed he is -- he's closing down a 25 year career with the Service, will be retiring that weekend.

Cut To: the credits montage, driven by the new wave chimes of Wang Chung. Various cuts of Los Angeles, the images a collision of industrial strength and weakness. Mostly long shots which flatten perspective and deliver gallery consciousness. A heavy locomotive... a horse drawn cart... thousands of power poles... scrappers... the bloated sun going down or coming up. Flash frames and pans, gradient fills that use the L.A. smog as a natural filter.

Agent Hart's last detail on the job is also his death scene. Alone, he scouts out Masters' desert warehouse, and, as he's checking out a dumpster, is ambushed and executed by Masters and his "buddy", the ugly "Jack" who spits rather than talks. When his shotgunned body is found in the trash a short time later by Chance and a squad of agents, the agenda for the movie has been set.

"You want bread, fuck a baker."

Chance is typical of the extreme sports types who pump themselves on danger rather than drugs. He's always taking "chances". He wears a T-shirt with "52" on it -- an ironic inversion of his friend Hart's 25 year stint in the Service -- goes base jumping (bungy cord) off bridges on the weekends. He wears jeans and cowboy boots, his bandy legs and tight butt swagger giving the impression that he's either just got off a horse or a woman. Well, he has a woman called Ruth, a blond hardbody check-in lady from a strip club, a minor criminal whom he blackmails for information and sex. "You want bread?" he says to her. "Fuck a baker."

In this sense, he's the criminal, and Masters' relationship with his woman, the redhead dancer, looks like love by comparison.

Chance gets a new partner, Agent John Bukovitch (Pankow), someone he doesn't want at first, a straight-shooter whose sense of loyalty is so strong (his dad was an agent) it overrides his ethics and common sense... so that eventually he becomes Chance.

Chance and Bukovitch plan to entrap Masters by posing as a couple of money buyers looking for some primo "paper". Chance learns through Ruth that a mule is coming into L.A. on the Amtrak with fifty thousand dollars. As they sit in a bar arguing the ethics of this heist, Bukovitch says, "Steal real money to buy counterfeit money...!" But Chance is a driven man and Bukovitch can only be with him or against him, so they abduct the mule at the station... only to discover later that he's a F.B.I. agent operating as part of a sting.

There are car chases and there are... well, the incredible chase sequences in this film. The gritty authenticity is what makes this more than a gratuitous montage of sensation and impossible stunts. Using the architecture of the L.A. freeway system, Friedkin gives us a choreography of order and disorder, violence and orgasm. It's wild: the "mule" is shot by an F.B.I. sharpshooter with an M-16, the chase continues through the pylons of the elevated freeway, through a truck market, then down the L.A. flood canal, the duo finally escaping against the traffic on the freeway proper.

"You know you're living like a fucking animal in the zoo?"

Meanwhile we also follow Masters' career as he deals ruthlessly with those who try to cheat him. He sends his woman to set up a fence in a trendy townhouse. As the fence and Red get comfortable on the couch, Masters appears out of the rain:

Masters: First you set me up, then you rip me off... now you're trying to fuck my lady.

Fence: I swear... she came on to me. I didn't have anything to do with the Cody setup.

Masters: You know your house is under surveillance? Do you know you're living like a fucking animal in the zoo?

He snap-kicks him in the stomach, they fight, and it ends with Masters shooting him... and recovering his "paper". And the surveillance? Chance and Bukovitch are asleep in their spy-hole across the street.

Later he takes out the black hustler, Jeff, in an ugly rumble. He ceremoniously burns the money in his fireplace, naked and occultic in the dancing light as his naked woman lies watching from the bed nearby. It comes as no surprise when Masters eventually dies in the self-inflicted arson of his studio, as the game he plays is really one of predestination.

Chance's sting operation goes bad and he gets whacked by the spitting beast Jack in the locker room at the gym Masters prefers for keeping his body tight and holy. Jack in turn is shot by Bukovitch as Masters escapes in his cool black Testarossa (another "lift" from Miami Vice). To no avail, though, as he's hunted down by B. and killed in his burning studio. The film closes with Bukovitch visiting Ruth, Chance's informant. He helps himself to a beer and with the cynical inflection of his old partner, says, "You're working for me now."

We don't really have time to question the stereotypes because of the documentary validity of the style. This is what makes films of this sort subversive, dangerous, because the characters react rather than reflect. It's true that Bukovitch presents an ethical position and his eventual corruption (or conversion) allows us to either sympathize or chastise, but... basically we're here for the sensation and the imprinting.

You might ask, what does the Arab terrorist in the hook scene have to do with what follows later? In a complex plot with many interesting secondary characters, this is the only one who exists for effect. The characterizations are quite good for the genre and the cinematography is excellent.

Prime Friedkin: predestination vs. chance. One of his best.

© LR '86/'99


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