That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #8: Hold up your badge so they’ll know you’re a policeman.

Posted by kozemp on December 18, 2012

la confidential

My memory is a little bit hazy on the subject, but I am fairly certain that LA Confidential was the first movie that I went absolutely crazy for. It is very probable that also makes it the very first movie I was completely insufferable about, for which, you know, I’m happy to issue a retroactive apology to anyone who was around me at the time.

It’s not easy being a 20 year old cineaste, largely because while the term can be applied in its broadest technical sense it is, for all intents and purposes, realistically impossible to be a very GOOD 20 year old cineaste. You can have all the knowledge in the world, and to be honest, even back then I’m pretty sure I had most of it. You know those big thick books of movie reviews that used to be a thing before the IMDb and Wikipedia made them obsolete, movie guides by Ebert and Maltin and whoever? Yeah. I used to read those. For fun. Cover to cover. Then when the IMDb, and later Wikipedia, came around, I would read those. Seriously. For fun. I used to spend hours surfing through IMDb and other sites. Just sucking up knowledge. Facts. Trivia. Data.

I actually remember – I am not making this up – sometime in my senior year at LaSalle a girl I knew came up to me one day and said, “I want to know all about movies like you do. How do I do that?” I replied that I thought that was great, and she could and should absolutely do that. I went to my house and brought her back my copies of Ebert and Maltin, put them down on the table in Backstage, and said, “okay, first, read these.”

You could frost a cake with the look of disappointment on her face.

The problem with having all the data in the world – or, in my case, most of it – is that even with all that data the average 20 year old has the emotional intelligence of a dining room table. Suffice it to say I was several standard deviations from the mean on that one, and not in a good way. You combine vast untold petabytes of raw data with emotional instability that could be measured on the Richter scale and massive quantities of alcohol and you get the cinephile version of The Frans Lawaetz (the drink, not the person) – something that, while technically effective, is bizarre and mostly unpleasant.

Trying to understand or appreciate art without any emotional context is… I dunno, at this point, 15 years later, the concept is so alien to me I can’t even accurately describe it. And it’s not that I didn’t HAVE emotional reactions to movies back then, because I did. But I was, to say the least, slightly crocked in the head to begin with, and thus couldn’t comprehend my emotional reactions (to movies or anything else, but that’s another show). And that was just when I wasn’t crushing all my emotional reactions into paste with Absolut, which in sheer percentage terms was not very much of the time.

la confidential 2

I saw LA Confidential on a freebie pass from the Collegian, and for the life of me cannot remember what I wrote about it. I remember falling instantly and totally in love with the movie, walking out of the theatre – with Tony? possibly – being unable to put into words my feelings about what I’d just seen.

I was dumbstruck because LA Confidential was the first time I ever realized that there was more going on in a movie than just what was on the screen, that there was more to filmmaking than just a polished script and effective performances and good editing and technically proficient direction.

I have said before that seeing Chasing Amy (only about 6 months beforehand) was what made me want to be, really BE a writer, but LA Confidential was the first time I realized that sometimes a magical alchemy would transform a movie into something transcendent. Yeah, I know, I wish I could say it was Star Wars or 2001 or some other mind-expanding shit that gave me that particular epiphany and not a film as prosaic as LA Confidential, but there it is. The movie blew my mind because it was better than the sum of its parts and even with my supposedly-complete understanding of the entirety of filmmaking I DIDN’T KNOW WHY.

While I’m sure I saw a bunch beforehand and just can’t remember what they were, LA Confidential was the first movie I saw where I recognized that it transcended genre – that Hanson and Helgeland et al were using the trappings and style of an old police noir to tell a story about something else. And part of the genius of it is that it is telling stories about a whole bunch of things at once, with multiple themes running throughout.

LA Confidential is one of those movies where if you are asked to describe it to someone who has never seen it you say something like, “well, it’s about cops in the 50s who solve this murder, but oh man it is SO MUCH MORE than that.”


Now this here, kids, if you are single and having this conversation with someone whom you might have some sort of romantic interest in at that time or in the future, is a valuable test to see if your time and effort is warranted.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says something like “really, how” or “like what,” you are cleared to proceed. This is a person of intellectual and emotional curiosity and, thus, is sexually desirable.

If, when you say, “it is SO MUCH MORE than that,” whatever you desire says “oh, that sounds like work,” or, “ugh” or some other onomatopoetic noise of distaste, ah, negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.


For starters, one of the things it is so much more about is the city of Los Angeles itself, and it is pretty much the best example of that in movie history. (The movie was, in fact, voted the best movie about Los Angeles by LA film critics.) LA Confidential shows Los Angeles and Hollywood for what they really are, a venal, rotten core surrounded by false layer of sunshine that persists simply because people want to believe in it. Most movies dramatize this by telling stories about showbiz itself – some pretty great movies, in fact – but this is, to use a tortured metaphor, describing the bacterium and not the disease. The Player, for instance, is a fantastic movie about all the nasty shit buried just under the surface of showbusiness, but in the end it’s only concerned with showbusiness. LA Confidential is a movie about what all that nasty shit does to everyone who lives near it, and around it, and in it, but who don’t get to actually taste any of the benefits that come with it.

It is not a coincidence that the central driver of the plot – of, indeed, the whole movie – is the notion that nothing is what it appears to be; i.e. it all might as well be on a set. Bud White is a mindless, brutal thug, but he’s actually a crusader. Ed Exley is a slimy political comer, but his prudish zeal is a cover for righteous anger at a world he wants to fix. Jack Vincennes is a slick Hollywood scenester who hates himself for what he’s become. Los Angeles itself is a land of sunshine and beaches and good fortune for all that is really a giant lie built on exploiting and destroying the dreams of everyone it touches. And Dudley Smith; oh, the difference between what Dudley Smith would like everyone to think he is and what he truly is.

la confidential 3

In a movie full of revelatory performances, James Cromwell as Dudley may outshine them all. You get so fixated on how good Crowe and Pearce and Spacey and Basinger are that you don’t notice that Cromwell is quietly pulling the whole movie with him, and when everything comes down like a ton of bricks in the third act, in that moment in Dudley’s kitchen, you realize that this is a Movie That Is Not Fucking Around.

Broadly speaking, I intensely dislike the artificial distinction between “good” films and “genre” films, mainly because even after the way this movie began the expansion of my artistic consciousness there is still a very powerful analytical part of my brain that doesn’t trust a distinction that can’t be explicitly delineated. If pressed, the closest thing I can think of as an accurate way to describe the difference is to go back to King again: “plot is stupid.” “Genre” films (or, more probably, just bad films) are concerned primarily if not solely with plot, the explication and resolution thereof. “Good” movies pursue the higher mysteries, as it were: character, theme, ideas.

Don’t get me wrong – that same analytical part of my brain also intensely hates this theory because it is overbroad, and has tons of exceptions and – to use a technical term – basically sucks, but it’s useful now because it can point out that important difference in this specific case. LA Confidential is a “good” genre movie because the plot isn’t the important thing about it; it is about the characters, and the world, and how they interact with each other rather than a strict progression of and-then-this-happened. (Though I will admit, having just watched it, that in an empirical sense the movie actually has a staggering AMOUNT of plot in it; I always forget just how much happens.) Compare this with, say, the dreadful Mullholland Falls (which follows a very similar story), a movie that is concerned primarily with moving you from point A to B to C with as little effort as possible.

The funny thing about LA Confidential, though, is that while for me it is the original emotional reaction movie, I’m sitting here fighting the urge to dissect it for thousands and thousands of words. (I’m also fighting the urge to eat that entire bag of Doritos, but I’m not sure that’s relevant.) And that’s just all the ways the film is TECHNICALLY amazing. Forget the emotional stuff. Watching it earlier tonight, fifteen years on from the first time I saw it, it still floors me, in more ways than fifteen years ago I would have even thought possible.



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