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Ramblings on Noir City, Dragon Con and Representation in Media

September 6, 2017

Let’s talk about the past two weeks, shall we? I am finally coming down from a daily marathon of activities, events and general busyness. I have a new-found understanding of the Tasmanian Devil as I am now dizzy from spinning through life and consuming everything in my path. That grin and bewildered look on his face when he’d stop spinning is plastered on my own from being shell-shocked in some ways and ravaged by a drunken desire to begin spinning again. This daily marathon began last weekend when I joined Turner Classic Movies in Chicago for Noir City in partnership with TCM’s own Noir Alley. There I watched back-to-back noir films curated by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, while knocking back enough Rye whiskey to swear me off the sauce for a while.

On Noir City’s opening night, I found myself waiting with my co-worker for our ride to the Music Box Theatre. There she chatted with an older man, seemingly mild-mannered at first until we made acquaintance and began conversing. This older man turned out to be James Elroy, author of some of the most iconic true crime fiction novels of our generation. He was attending the festival to commemorate the 20th anniversary film adaptation of his novel L.A. Confidential and had the brilliant idea that we all ride together to the theater. Thank God for brilliant ideas! My ride with Elroy kicked off a deep dive into all the seedy, salacious drama and rumors of classic Hollywood… everything I live for! Elroy stunned my co-worker and I by dishing the dirt on who was well-endowed and who wasn’t; which actors were cruel assholes; which ones are currently involved in illegal, unsavory activities; and who are truly great people to work with: Joel Schumacher, Willem Defoe and Guy Pearce for instance. It was all unforgettable: off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

The ride was an absolute hoot that ended at the theater where we got our drinks and seats before revisiting the ‘90s classic L.A. Confidential. But Elroy’s information dump wasn’t over. He took the stage alongside Muller to introduce the film, where he proceeded to let the crowd know how shitty L.A. Confidential is compared to his book… naturally. While Elroy crassly tore the film apart, he instinctively promoted his own work making me anxious to dive into his original story to see the discrepancies for myself. Though Elroy laid out why he doesn’t like the film adaptation (although he admits it is his favorite adaptation of his work, the worst being Black Dahlia of course), Curtis Hanson’s ode to the classic Hollywood era in all of its glamour and seediness speaks for itself.

L.A. Confidential is still a gorgeous film seeped in shock, drama and surprise. Hanson drew out stunning performances from his actors that felt natural to their individual personas while capturing a coolness that seemed effervescent only in the 1940-1960s. L.A. Confidential manages to be a great popcorn muncher while also proving itself as a much deeper musing on America during the 1950s; a time of moral hypocrisy, racism, stanch capitalism and the beginning of the L.A.P.D.’s reputation as a hard-nosed, sadistic task force shouldering militarization and questionable practices as opposed to protecting the community they served. This deliberate investigation is largely Elroy’s doing, but Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay does wonders capturing it.

As the days went on, I watched nine more films at the Music Box including Dragnet, a colorful precursor to police procedural dramas. Jack Webb’s film version of Dragnet premiered three years after the television series had already taken off and become a hit. The film version encapsulates everything about the series that made it so iconic and influential from its tight close-ups, voice-over narration and ear-catching theme. The rest of the festival included a slew noir films focused on heists and robbery mostly unknown by the general public.

Kansas City Confidential, High Sierra, Drive a Crooked Road and The Aura were all gems that I watched for the first time featuring familiar faces and intriguing plotlines. However, Plunder Road was the one that took my breath away. This leisurely paced drama follows a group of men during and after a gold heist as they deal with pending consequences for their actions and attempt to evade police while heading for the border. We know nothing about these men. We know nothing of their history together, their home life nor how they found themselves in a life of crime. Like all noir films, their conscious decision to commit a crime seals their fate, and yet I was utterly invested in their journey holding my breath as the film came to its close. Hubert Cornfield’s tasteful direction adds color and character to the thin tale of a heist gone wrong.

After watching three days of noir, I decided to cleanse my pallet with a midnight exploitation film. Sleep deprived and loopy, I forced myself to stay awake for Last House on Dead End Street, a horribly made film with a legend that loomed large. Roger Watkins, the film’s star and director, concocted a truly disturbing film that conjures up interesting musings on America during the time of its production in 1972. But for more than 20 years after it was made, no one knew anything about who created and starred in this low-budget trash fest as the credits listed pseudonyms. When Watkins, a former porn director of the 1970s, admitted it was his project he also admitted that most of the budget at the time was spent on amphetamines to curb his habit.

This film possessed some strange magic that kept me wide awake the whole way through and restless with energy afterwards. Last House on Dead End Street follows Terry, a newly released convict who enlists the help of a few twisted friends to take out his frustrations on a group of smut filmmakers. They do so in gruesome, diabolical ways while filming the entire process. As a post-war society disillusioned by the hippie movement and strung out on the high that the 1960s left, America was in truly dark times during production which reflects itself all over the screen. Terry and his minions resemble Charles Manson and his family, whose lifestyle and murders marked the swan song of the Free Love movement. By 1972, America endured a social crisis struggling to find itself as the government went on as if it were business and usual. Last House on Dead End Street exudes this crisis through its grungy, sexually charged story of torture and nihilism.

Now, I likely gave this film more credit than it deserves. Don’t go rushing out to find this because frankly it sucks. It’s a poorly made, thinly veiled slasher film that was made so cheaply that it required voice overs for the dialogue. Supposedly there’s a three-hour version of this film. God bless the fool that finds themselves watching it. The version screened at the Music Box was already filled with an excruciating amount of padded shots and a snail-paced narrative. The actors often repeat themselves and shots are repeated because there’s nothing to this story that requires more than half an hour to tell it. Frankly, Last House on Dead End Street was garbage, but as a fan of exploitation, underground cinema this whet my appetite along with the perfectly curated experience that paired a series of trailers (The Toolbox Murders, Exposed, Jacob’s Ladder) and a short film on dicks beforehand.

Chicago was a blast and as cute as it always is when I visit its touristy side. I followed up that weekend with Dragon Con, filling my time with informative panels and saw enough cosplay to make me almost dread Halloween. This annual celebration of all things geeky and culty brought folks from all walks of life out in celebration of their favorite fandoms both new and old. My love of horror as a genre became marked by an insatiable need to ingest more thanks to the twisted minds of the speakers on the horror panels. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of 1987: “the greatest year for horror”. We fawned over the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria, while the Chiodo Brothers gave marvelous insight into the uncanny creepiness and social history of clowns (and I got to thank them for scaring the shit out of me as a child). I sat in a room full of Nightmare on Elm Street fans as we lauded The Dreams Warriors as the best in the series and I chatted ad nauseam about American Horror Story. I also learned the genius of mashing genres from TCM’s brilliant panel Noir… in Space! that focused on noir films that crossed over into sci-fi.

My entire experience at Dragon Con taught me what I want and no longer desire from my media ingestion as it ignited a desire that had sparked after completing the series The Last Kingdom. While watching the final episode about a Dane named Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who aided in uniting England as a continent and world power, I became incensed. Not only was the last episode just a frustrating watch, but I realized that once again here I was watching a show about white men doing white men things in a white centric world as if no one else existed during the Middle Ages. What were Africans doing at this time? How was Japan developing? What about India? How were other dynasties operating? What drama were they dealing with? Who were they having sex with or killing? Why are we still only focusing on Eurocentric stories that have been told in some way or another over and over again?

Dragon Con drove this point home as I saw everyone represented there. I saw a member of almost every race dressed as their favorite character. I saw a sliding scale of genders: men, women and everything in between. I saw people in wheelchairs, with walkers, with bodily braces and all having the time of their lives and looking stunning in their cosplay. The amount of diversity in gender, race and ableism was inspiring. It was refreshing. It was a reminder that humans come in all shapes and sizes and we need to stop swallowing bullshit stories that show the same type of people, the same types of bodies and the same expressions of love. There is no one shoe size fits all for humanity so why aren’t we as a whole demanding all these different sizes on film and television.

Although Dragon Con has work to do in their representation on the panels, the shows and films that are highlighted present viewers ways to see themselves. This is why I’m making it part of my personal crusade to only write about films and television shows that showcase underrepresented people. I learned so much from the panels at Dragon Con: a panel on Spiritualism and the Occult taught me that a woman ran for president in 1872 with a Black man as her running mate—Virginia Woodhull and Frederick Douglas (although he never accepted the nomination); during an Asian Exploitation and Horror panel I learned of the countless gems that Japan, Thailand, the Koreas, China and India have been making for decades; Movie Physics and Other Stupid Things taught me of the multiplicity within the science community and how collaboration is key to solving situations, despite most films regurgitating the false narrative of a single scientist saving the day.

All of this information placated my curious mind and retrained it to think outside of the confines that I usually do. In order to keep this focus, I must be weary of the type of media I take in. There is a reason America is undergoing another identity crisis. The racial makeup of this country is changing and many of us want to see that reflected in our government and media. The demand for proper representation and validation of our life experiences should not scare white people, and yet for no logical reason it does. A continuing perpetuating of that fear are the myths and false narratives created through the media they see.  When the same images of one group is repeatedly shown in negative ways, those who watch it begin to think it’s reality instead of questioning the products they indulge in. For this reason, our own president irrationality justified ending DACA, thereby putting children and Americans of color in jeopardy of their safety and livelihood. From now on, I plan to primarily highlight the films that get representation right and tear apart the ones that don’t. But until then, to anyone reading this please take heed: Do NOT dress up as Rick Sanchez of Rick & Morty for Halloween. It’s been overdone to the point that you won’t impress anyone.

Sincerely your friend,

The Cinephiliac.

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