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.
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.
The plot centers on a pro football player with a mighty complicated life. For one thing, he's been suspended from his team. For another, a ''sports accountant'' (that's a high-toned bookie) is pressuring him to return a favor by tracking down his runaway lover.
Meanwhile, the lover's mother - who happens to own the football team - is mixed up with a shady power broker and a greedy developer. Everyone has something on everyone else. No wonder it takes more than two hours, and a couple of different endings, before the movie manages to sort all this out.
It's not a graceful story, with its arbitrary twists and turns, and some viewers will be turned off by its (frequent) four-letter language and (occasional) steamy sex. Also, director Hackford doesn't always know when to drop the overwritten dialogue and get on with the action.
But he coaxes strong performances from Bridges and James Woods - playing another of the obsessive loonies he specializes in - and it's always fun to see such veterans as Richard Widmark and Jane Greer. Most important, Hackford makes the central relationship (between the two men and the troubled heiress) steadily engaging, giving the film a solid center of gravity that holds it together at all but the knottiest moments.
''Against All Odds'' is technically a remake, since it borrows that key relationship from an earlier picture, ''Out of the Past,'' a respected example of the brooding, shadowy ''film noir'' style that flourished in Hollywood during the 1940s. But during a recent New York visit, Hackford backed away from the ''remake'' label, arguing that most of his movie is very different from its predecessor.
I'll buy that, partly because ''Against All Odds'' has a very contemporary feel, and partly because I consider ''Out of the Past'' an overrated picture anyway. (I prefer its director, Jacques Tourneur, in the more fantastical moods of ''Cat People'' and ''I Walked With a Zombie.'') Hackford says he wanted to apply the menacing ''noir'' style to the '80s, not rehash a particular plot, and that seems a reasonable claim.
In any case, he is certainly the right director to look at Los Angeles with a skeptical eye; he knows the city from an unusual perspective, having been a TV reporter there for years. It was only after winning Emmy and Peabody awards as a journalist that he cut his teeth as a movie director, earning an Oscar with his first short (''Teen-age Father,'' made for classroom use) before moving on to ''The Idolmaker'' and then ''An Officer and a Gentleman,'' one of the biggest hits of recent years.
Regarding that hugely popular drama, Hackford says he was as surprised as everyone else when it mushroomed from a modest little project (''It barely got made,'' he recalls) to a box office bonanza. Does he think ''Against All Odds'' will do the same? ''Your guess is as good as mine,'' he smiles. ''It's more complicated, and it asks the viewer to do some work. But that's a plus, I think. Audiences like to be challenged. . . .''