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 Life Authentic

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

To Live and Die in L.A. | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I’ve never been to Los Angeles.

My LA is an imagined kaleidoscope of images, flickering by at 24 frames a second. Its freeways, its hills, its sun, its fame-seekers, its pain, its joy—all manufactured by what they used to call The Dream Factory, which cranked out its fair share of nightmares, too. I don’t have the sense memory that comes from living in a place, when you know its character, its people, its feel. That thing that hangs in the air. LA might just be a moving, talking painting for all I know, forever locked in a two-dimensional frame, an image of a thing rather than the thing itself.

It is the shimmering night of Michael Mann’s Heat. It is the sin of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. It is the melancholy nostalgia of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. It is the existential malaise of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. It is the nightmare alleys of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It is the collapsing sense of self of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

I can’t imagine the reality of the place because I can only conjure up the imagined reality of Los Angeles as it exists on screen. It is a tiny world in a snowless snow globe, all palm trees and earthquakes and screenplays and hotels and the Dodgers and traffic. What is this place that has, through cinema, given me so much?

It is both true and false. I know it exists, but I have not seen it. If movies are something like my religion, that makes Los Angeles its paradise. I can go anytime. But I haven’t.

Do I want the illusion? Am I more comfortable with the image of the place that exists in my visions of light and shadow, flashing by on the screen? Am I afraid that the myths to which I have dedicated my life will crumble if I set foot in the place of their origin, like Indiana Jones violating the sanctity of an ancient temple?

I suppose I’m as sold on these and other modern myths as anyone else. Life today demands that we ride the line between truth and fiction. In our carefully curated online lives, we perform hunger, love, outrage, friendship, success, pain. These things feel real, and maybe we’ll increasingly make them so through sheer force of will as we migrate more of our lives into the digital space. But they remain carefully crafted representations of self, not the self. We are all mythmakers now, binding up our souls in the micromanaged collection of ones and zeroes that tells others Who We Are.

Who am I? What have I created? What have I destroyed? What is real? What is fake?

These questions drive William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., his quintessential Los Angeles crime thriller. Its 1985 production date places it firmly in a decade marked by its plasticity, neon lights, and synthesized scores. Artifice reigns, but so too does art. The film’s anti-hero, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) doggedly pursues the counterfeiter, Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), who killed his partner. From a plot perspective, it seems like a standard issue police procedural about cops pushed to the brink and ruthless criminals who’ll do anything to avoid capture. But the bright lights, the roaring electronica of the soundtrack, and the highly crafted images elevate the film to a passionate rumination on the necessary lies that built a metropolis, which then exported them around the world.

It is tempting to find metaphors for filmmaking in any movie about process—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation jumps to mind—but Friedkin seems particularly concerned with the crucial tensions of his own chosen medium in To Live and Die in L.A. Masters, the counterfeiter, is an artist. The same skills that make him an effective counterfeiter drive his art. He passionately pursues truth in his painting, to the degree that early on he hangs one of his canvases on a wall outside his home, and sets it on fire. It isn’t good enough. His devotion to his outlaw art, the painting and printing of funny money, is just as extreme. Friedkin photographs the counterfeiting process in such granular detail that the production succeeded in actually counterfeiting money. Masters extracts the serial numbers, copies a few bills, fills a stencil with ink, paints over the bills with green, prints the money, slices it with a paper cutter, and tosses it in a dryer with clothes and poker chips to rough it up. He is a man slavishly consumed by his commitment to the authenticity of the illusion. He needs the false to become real in order to feel whole.

The Los Angeles of the movies hums along, propelled by this same energy. It is the thing that drives us, the viewers, back to the movies. We have a desire to believe what we see, even though we know it isn’t really there. This has never been truer than now, when cinema is undergoing a change so fundamental that the word “film” is a malapropism, with most movies shot digitally. Entire films are made out of air, those same ones and zeroes that we use to tell the world we are who we want them to see. In 1978, the first big screen Superman film promised “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Today, digital effects dominate so fully that we seem to believe that flying is the only thing a man can do. Computers have made everything possible, but reduced the magic of the illusion to a simple answer: it isn’t really there. It isn’t really happening. Digital artists, toiling away in cubicles, each working on their individual shots based on pre-visualization, made it out of keystrokes and Red Bull. Do you believe what you see? Or do you just tell yourself you do?

To Live and Die in L.A. belongs to an earlier era of filmmaking where the line between authenticity and falsity could be an isolated theme, not the entirety of the cinematic experience. Chance, the madman driving the narrative, is a manic, obsessed thrill-seeker with a death wish. Even before his partner is killed, Chance lives up to his own moniker—in a moment of cinematic sleight of hand, he stands on a bridge overlooking a river. After a deep breath, he jumps, screaming all the way down, until his fall slows, caught by the cable strapped around his waist and running down the leg of his jeans. He laughs and whoops, the post-base jumping euphoria better than sex, which he will later perform, mechanically and without joy, with Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a paroled informant he manipulates.

Chance gives the film its authentic soul. Following the character’s lead, Friedkin’s filmmaking charges forward, infused by the unpredictable fury of his protagonist. In a foot chase through an airport early in the film, Chance pursues one of Masters’ confederates while Friedkin’s camera races past crowds of people. Chance suddenly vaults onto the rail of a moving walkway, sprinting above confused travelers, in a moment that feels explosively improvisational. As a reckless agent of chaos, Chance feels unrestrained by the customs of law enforcement. Duty, adherence to rules, the machinations of bureaucracy—all are secondary to his relentless desire to get, and kill, Masters. But even his stated desire, to avenge the death of his partner, seems like subterfuge. He is attracted to pursuing such a dangerous criminal because he senses the possibility of self-destruction. Chance is a maniac pretending to be an agent of law and order. He is false, but living true to the only way he knows for as long as he can.

The film’s most thrilling sequence is its car chase, a set piece Friedkin seems eager to return to after revolutionizing it once before in his 1971 police film The French Connection. In that film, Friedkin’s new wave approach to shooting the chase, on open New York streets with Gene Hackman doing most of his own driving—and unplanned crashing—feels remarkably out of control. Friedkin himself, in interviews, has said that he would never do it the same way again, acknowledging that he, like Chance, recklessly endangered people’s lives for the sake of a thrilling shot. Like Masters, in preserving the sanctity of the illusion, Friedkin obsessively pursued the truth. In The French Connection, the chase careens through cluttered, grimy New York City, its cold winter enveloping the entire city in clouds of gray. In To Live and Die in L.A., the sun-drenched openness adds a layer of broad daylight danger, full of sweat and thirst and panic.

The set-up for the chase crucially places Chance and his new, much more morally-inclined partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) in another true/false position that forces them to violate the law; they are police, and they are criminals, the clear lines of demarcation between two opposing poles blurring into unrecognizability. After being denied $30,000 from their agency to entrap Masters, Chance convinces Vukovich to kidnap and rob a drug courier carrying 50 grand. Vukovich reluctantly agrees, much less comfortable playing both sides of the law, which is irrelevant to Chance. The two agents grab the courier at the train station and throw him into the back of their car, but are unknowingly pursued by another pair of men. While they shake down the courier under the highway, stripping the money belt off his body, the pursuers ambush them and start shooting. The courier is caught in the crossfire and shot, and Chance and Vukovich take off in their car.

What follows is a chase through Los Angeles that rivals any car chase ever put to film, all propelled by the same chaotic fire that drives the rest of the story. Chance is behind the wheel, while Vukovich goes to pieces in the backseat, laid low by his guilt over the death of the courier in the scheme he didn’t really want to pull off in the first place. Friedkin’s close-ups of Chance reveal his dual nature—panic at the sudden appearance of the anonymous men chasing them, but genuine wonder at the thrill of it all. With every narrow miss, every squeal of the tires, every split-second reaction, Chance rides faster and harder. Sweat lines his brow. His eyes burn with passion. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Here is the cop, sworn to uphold the law, now fleeing like a criminal. Friedkin inverts the emotional structure of his French Connection chase, where Hackman’s Popeye Doyle was the pursuer, roaring through the city in search of his prey. This time, Chance is the prey. While he does everything he can to escape, he learns that there’s something equally thrilling about being hunted. 

The chase is relentless. Chance careens through a back alley, dodging semi-trucks backing in and out of loading docks. He ducks in and out of jammed traffic, bullets shattering the back window while Vukovich wails in terror. He races a freight train along its tracks before crossing them, sliding front-first down the concrete slope that leads into the Los Angeles River, an empty stretch of cement occasionally flooded with small, shimmering ponds that splash the windshield when his tires roar through them. Suddenly, there are cars and men with guns everywhere, descending upon their getaway like locusts. Cars coming straight at them. Cars behind. Cars coming from the left and the right. Snipers on the bridges above the river. Bullets flying. Tires squealing. Thrill rising.

The chase climaxes when Chance is seemingly trapped, surrounded by pursuers’ cars. He takes a last, desperate shot, yanking the wheel to the right—“Wrong Way.” He charges up the off-ramp to the highway, a cascade of horns honking, other drivers dodging this lunatic gunning his car against traffic.

It is all really happening. You can see it. There is no computer-generated madness, no death-defying physics that strain the bounds of credulity. These are human beings, working together to create something real in the service of something fake that will make us believe in something real.

After Chance and Vukovich escape, the pile-up of wrong-way traffic behind them frustrating the progress of their pursuers, they pull off the highway and park. In a long shot, Friedkin shows the two men get out of the car. Chance hops up onto the trunk and kicks out the remains of the shattered back window, riding high off of the thrill of the chase. Vukovich staggers away from the car as if he is going to throw up. In a quiet moment of poetry, the two men look around. They have no idea where they are. A junkyard looms behind them. A few men walk by, on their way somewhere else. The sun is setting behind them, the smog-filled haze of twilight clashing with the cool colors wafting up from the ground. In a city they have just conquered by mastering its bloodstream, the freeways, they are suddenly lost. They have disappeared into the lies they have told, the sins they have committed. What began as the pursuit of justice has become a distorted, twisted journey into darkness.

It might be tempting to think that our myths fail us, but more likely, it’s we who fail to live up to our myths. When we stop believing in what we know is false, we lose something true about ourselves. Los Angeles, the city of myth, which exists only in my mind’s recollections of the movies set there, is losing its hold on me. Cinema in the modern age is losing its hold on me. Its new stories, its new characters, its new technology, they feel false. I watch what I see, and, almost always, I see the seams. I know how they do the tricks. I don’t feel the thrill anymore.

I like the old lies better. They felt true.