Watching Los Angeles Plays Itself right before I watched this got me so excited for this movie that at some level, I was afraid, I was setting myself up for disappointment. But there was just no way this wouldn’t appeal to me. It’s about a part of society that we rarely get to see represented on film. It feels almost completely like a documentary (I’m still not convinced that it’s not a doc) and it’s photographed beautifully. The very intent of the film seems to be to portray as realistic and yet unsentimental a portrait of this group of people as possible.
It’s incredible how simple this film is in so many ways. It’s really just follows Yvonne and Homer during the course of an evening till early the next morning. We see them and the people they drink, dance, flirt, gamble and converse with during the time. Amazingly, the film didn’t feel dated to me at all. I know the Bunker Hill neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that neighborhoods that are similar to that still exist as do people like Yvonne and Homer and things haven’t really changed much for them.
The film begins with these archival photographs from various tribes. Beautiful close-up shots with a voiceover that tells us about how these people have been confined to reservations by white people. As much as I loved those photographs, the voiceover worried me a little.
But my worries were put to rest pretty soon. I loved that opening scene with Yvonne in the market. I have to interject at this point to mention how moving Yvonne’s face is. I couldn’t quite figure out how old she is but her face just has this childlike quality to it. She seems excited and happy to be in Los Angeles and not at the reservation. She seems happy that she is finally able to have the child she has always wanted and seems hopeful that she’ll be able to give the child the things she hasn’t had. And have I mentioned how much I love it when Yvonne smiles?
Otoh, she gets all pensive and resigned as she climbs up the slope towards the apartment and starts talking about her marriage to Homer. When she reaches home, we see that she is all but ignored by the men in the apartment, including Homer. Incidentally, there’re so much stuff in this film about how women are treated… depressing stuff. The part where Yvonne talks about how Homer is willing to drop her off at the movies but then forgets to pick her back up was so devastating :'(.
Another really great scene is when Homer is reading the letter from home. But even before that, we hear Homer talking about why he enjoys going to bars and how they provide excitement. He talks about how he dropped out of high school and about how he started drinking regularly and all the time after he got discharged from the military. And he’s saying all this while standing outside a liquor store waiting for his friend.
We then see him reading the letter and then get to see a photograph of his parents. The scene then cuts to the actual reservation in Arizona where his parents are and something about the way the kids there are playing and just running around freely, the whole scene is imbued with a sense of nostalgia that Homer seems to be feeling at the moment.
I also really love the fluidity of the barroom scenes. The general sense of merriment combined with a certain poignancy and sadness everytime the camera zooms in on a single person. Btw, I had so much trouble with this guy and yet he was one of the most fascinating characters in the film for me. He seems to be such a party animal and a ladies man. And yet he’s pretty brutal with the women at times. Despite that, I love this scene SO MUCH. Something about this guy playing that air piano and the happy look on his face is just so great. It’s a beautiful scene and one of my favorite scenes in the entire film. And then he goes and leaves the woman behind because she takes too long in the bathroom .
And in the midst of all this we also see Homer withdraw into himself and become gloomy for a bit. It’s these little glimpses into the inherent conflict that these characters feel as they try and make their way and build a life in this big city that makes this film so affecting.
And the scene where the gay white guy is dancing and Homer picks up a fight.. something about the way that whole thing is shot makes it so ominous. There’s this underlying sense of violence throughout that scene. And just the way Homer seems to withdraw and become more forlorn as the night progresses… I couldn’t help but feel bad for him even though I was pretty mad at him given the way he seems to treat Yvonne.
And then there’s that lovely shot of Yvonne gazing at those store windows. Yet again, the words coming out of her mouth are about how happy she is to be in Los Angeles but her eyes seem to convey something else entirely.
I was so happy when Yvonne goes to her friend’s house. Up until that point, we always see her alone and to see her being able to talk to another human being and laugh was just such a relief for me.
That whole scene up on the hill where all of them gather and beat on drums and chant and wait for the sun to come back up felt a little surreal almost. And again, we see the women being treated really badly. This scene really highlights the appropriateness of the film’s title. These people seem to be exiled from their own familiar surroundings and all they seek now is the company of others like themselves away from the white people that they don’t identify with at all.
The whole film felt like a formal ethnographic document to me in some ways and yet it was never boring or dull. The amazing photography really helped and the film also serves as such as great snapshot of a particular neighborhood in LA that doesn’t even exist now (I never got tired of seeing that funicular btw).
I think what makes this so emotionally powerful is that it always feels like the filmmaker is merely observing these people without adding his own perspective on what is going on and it really never feels sentimental or manipulative (or didn’t to me at least). Secondly, I think it constantly made to make me think about these people in relation to the place they are at. When we see them all crawl back after a night of drinking, I wondered if they felt like they were coming home.
Despite enjoying it so much, I have to admit to feeling a weird pang of guilt while watching it. I felt as though I was peeking into the lives of these people and seeing something I am not supposed to see. I don’t think the film is exploitative but something about the idea of filming these people playing themselves and being so emotionally honest in front of the camera just made me a little uncomfortable. But I feel this way while watching some documentaries too and it’s not that I think these films shouldn’t be made or that I shouldn’t be watching them but I guess I feel like I’m intruding.
Oh and I love the soundtrack.. there’s music playing constantly, usually blaring from a jukebox.