Two films that throw a different light on Los Angeles
Since so many movies hail from California, it's not surprising that the West Coast has a glamorous screen image full of swaying palms, blue skies, and towheaded surfers frolicking in the sun.Skip to next paragraph
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Not so at the moment, however. Two new pictures give a much darker view of California, and Los Angeles in particular, than we usually see.
El Norte, directed by independent filmmaker Gregory Nava, begins in Guatemala. Its heroes are a peasant brother and sister caught in the cross fire between government repression and a popular revolution being championed by their father. When the authorities mark them for death in their native village, they set out for ''el norte'' - the fabled north - in search of safety and, they hope , the kind of comfortable life they've seen pictured in American magazines.
Part 2 takes place in Mexico, where the travelers find nothing but poverty and crime. In the most harrowing part of their trek they sneak across the US border, then find their way to Los Angeles, where they're greeted by chilly winds, an overcast sky, and a bleak landscape that bodes a future very distant from the cozy visions of Better Homes and Gardens.
Although the film's Guatemalan and Mexican portions include much effective storytelling, the long American episode is the most stirring. Our heroes are smart, capable, honest people - so it's a pleasure to share their moments of triumph over adversity, and it's wrenching to see happiness yanked from beneath them more than once. The saga comes full circle in the end, suggesting that oppression and misery may thrive under the American system as brutally (though not as blatantly) as in the third-world jungle.
Like the previous film by director Nava, an unpretentious medieval drama called ''The Confessions of Amans,'' the ambitious ''El Norte'' has ideas as well as emotions, though it lapses into melodrama at times and some of its storytelling devices seem rather studied. While there are moments of hair-raising violence, and some of the language is foul, the movie's obvious sincerity dispels any hint of exploitation.
Its occasional tilt toward overstatement aside, ''El Norte'' is a model of clear, committed filmmaking in which talent and thoughtfulness easily compensate for budgetary limitations. It's heartening to see this non-Hollywood production finding a solid niche in the commercial movie circuit.
Against All Odds is very much a Hollywood picture. You can tell because Jeff Bridges plays the main character, and because the screenplay knocks itself out trying to please all comers - squeezing football, mobsters, crooked politicians, and a missing heiress into the same crowded story.
But nobody can accuse it of boosting Los Angeles, which comes off as a sort of low-rise New York or Chicago, full of people so busy wheeling and dealing they wouldn't notice if the palms vanished overnight. Indeed, director Taylor Hackford tells me this was one of his goals in making the movie: to show a grittier, more harshly realistic L.A. as a corrective to all the fairy-tale versions we've been dosed with over the years.