Noir and Then
Wesselman Collection/The William's PartnershipUNTIL MOVING TO LOS ANGELES, I HAD NEVER seen the word noirish in print. I thought it was a Yiddishism my grandparents had somehow neglected to pass on, rhyming with lawyerish, as in "Your uncle gets so noirish when he's on his medication." I quickly learned, however, that it's a local coinage, riffing on noir and referring not just to the films that were the origin of the phrase, which were just as likely set in New York or Chicago or Vienna as L.A., but to what is perhaps this town's most basic (if by now endlessly clichéd) way of understanding itself, as a deceptively bright and hopeful city with a dark, corrupted soul. It is a vision that first appealed to the startled Protestant hearts of the small-town Midwestern émigrés who for the first half of this century formed the core of L.A.'s white population, in which the city, where sexual freedom and racial mixing were a constant temptation and a constant threat, was imagined, like the Puritan soul, as invisibly cloaked in sin. It is a fundamentally religious vision, but a fundamentally white American one, in which sex equals corruption, and blacks (anybody got a French dictionary?) and foreigners are convenient repositories for both. Thus the central noir plotline, with lust leading to greed leading to murder and, inevitably, punishment. Thus the central noir images of the Chinatown alley where anything can be bought, the Watts juke joints where good girls go bad and, at the bottom of it all, the naked white corpse of the violated beauty.
This last image appears on Page 47 of Jim Heimann's Sins of the City, a collection of period photographs that purportedly illustrate "the real Los Angeles noir." The book -- the contents of which rarely live up to its lurid title -- does a far better job of outlining the boundaries of the noir myth than it does of illustrating anything that might unwinkingly be called real. What, after all, is the theme uniting such disparate elements (all depicted within) as bootlegging, gambling, Central Avenue jazz clubs, burlesque shows, Tijuana, murder and homosexuality? Sin, of course, construed in a way that any good xeno- and homophobic fundamentalist (like the homegrown Rev. Bob Schuller, smiling on Page 95) would recognize in a flash.
ALL OF THIS ECHOES THROUGH THE MARGINS OF L.A. Requiem, Robert Crais' neo-noir set in present-day multicultural L.A., in which private dick Elvis Cole tracks a serial killer who may or may not be his partner and digs up dirty secrets from the not-so-distant past. The plot, if relatively intricate, is woefully predictable; the characters tend toward cliché (the one strong female character's credibility is shot when she inexplicably falls for the knuckleheaded protagonist) if not outright stereotype: The Latinos are largely former gangbangers who say things like "I'd bet my last tortilla"; the Latinas are all either "gang bait" or thick-waisted domestic types doting over pots of machaca; one of two black characters is given the charming lines "Lemme tell you somethin', muthuhfuckuh, it don't mean shit to me you killed some muthuhfuckuh. I killed so many muthuhfuckuhs you can't count," just before getting his arm broken.
Despite countless hard-boiled descriptions of L.A. as sinisterly whipped by Santa Anas and roasted by the ever-present sun (my favorite is on the first page: "Here in Rampart Division south of Sunset, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans simmered with Salvadorans in a sidewalk machaca that left the air flavored with [sic] epizoté . . ."), in the end Crais drops the standard noir tropes for an equally tired brand of boosterism, declaring the city a "treasure chest filled with magic and dreams" and confessing, "I love L.A." -- all of which raises the question of for whom or what the requiem of the title is sung.
John Ridley, on the other hand, puts his professed disdain for the city right up front. In a note preceding the title page of his third novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell, he refers to the "insipid degenerates who populate the city I hate more than cancer." The next 200-some pages biliously illustrate his disdain, following a slacker convenience-store employee named Paris who gets his hands on the last tape recorded by a rock superstar prior to his suicide, which gets mixed up with a brick of heroin stolen in a bungled heist by his roommate and inspires all manner of baddies to chase Paris and kill his friends. You get the picture.
If Ridley's novel is occasionally funny in a gross-out, sitcomy kind of way, his characters compete for flatness with â Crais' (the goofy Pakistani convenience-store owner, the coke-sniffing Hollywood agent, the swishy fag, the black drug kingpin, the racist redneck fry cook), though he has the dubious virtue of not taking them seriously, except to revel in their brutal Tarantino-cribbed deaths. Ridley gets so loudly righteous about the "vapid vacuum of a hole where nothing people lived nothing lives" which lurks beneath L.A.'s glamour that he fails to hear his own voice echoing through that very emptiness. Not that he has nothing to say: Beneath his novel's dark glibness, Ridley is selling the straight-out Protestant work ethic. It's his characters' lust for the quick fix that damns them: "At the end of the day nobody got the money or the drugs or the tape or the girl or anything except killed. Everything else, the getting of things in life, was hard. Very, very difficult." Get off your lazy asses and work, you no-good Hollywood dreamers.
NONE OF THIS SHOULD BE TAKEN TO imply that the noir mystique can't be tweaked to good effect. Walter Mosley's novels are a case in point, as are, oddly enough, Ed Wood's. Two of the late director's 22 novels, Killer in Drag and Death of a Transvestite, first published in 1965 and 1967 respectively, have been reissued in paperback this summer. Both follow Glen/Glenda (no immediate relation to the title character of Wood's dreadful film Glen or Glenda), a transvestite hit man for the mob, as deadly as his pink angora sweaters are soft. In Killer in Drag, to avoid taking the fall for a murder she didn't commit, Glen/da hits the road, falls in with a carnival, takes up with a whore with a heart of gold and narrowly escapes the clutches of two corrupt cops. The law catches up with our hero in Death of a Transvestite, which opens with Glen awaiting execution. In exchange for the warden's granting his last request, to die dressed as Glenda, he agrees to tell the story of all that's occurred between the last novel's close and his near-fatal shooting in Hollywood at the hands of another assassin in drag named Paul/Pauline.
But plot is hardly the point. The pleasures of Wood's novels come from the constant loving descriptions of Glenda's outfits (angora, angora, angora), of the many men inspired to jerk off in a quiet corner after seeing gorgeous Glenda pass, of Glen/da's "talent for pure love" ("His tongue found her breasts. One nipple then the other, back and forth with the suction of a windshield wiper in a heavy rainstorm"), and from the author's unwillingness to moralize, except against moralizing.
Despite the noirish ambiance, the fatal femmes, and the dirty cops and hoods, Wood buys into none of the prevailing noir myths. When Glen/da walks Hollywood Boulevard for the first time, she is impressed by neither the glitz nor the sleaze nor their coexistence: "The longer I walked, the more I realized there was little to really see on the famous Boulevard. A few brightly lighted stores, a few cocktail bars and the names of movie personalities embedded in bronze stars in the sidewalk. 'What the hell?' I mused."
This is healthy, libertine noir, demystified and stripped of its Puritan trappings. Sex is not sinful; hypocrisy is the only serious crime. It's the two-faced morality of small towns that reeks of corruption. And it's only in the city that a drag queen, or anybody "a -- little -- different" (as Shirlee, the rubber-fetishist "Half-Man, Half-Woman" from Killer in Drag puts it), can breathe almost freely, that anyone can live up to Shirlee's drunken declaration: "Conventions! huh -- You know where they can stick their conventions."
SINS OF THE CITY | By JIM HEIMANN | Chronicle | 158 pages | $19 paperback
L.A. REQUIEM | By ROBERT CRAIS | Doubleday | 382 pages | $24 hardcover
EVERYBODY SMOKES IN HELL | By JOHN RIDLEY | Knopf | 236 pages | $24 hardcover
KILLER IN DRAG | By ED WOOD | Four Walls Eight Windows | 164 pages | $10 paperback
DEATH OF A TRANSVESTITE | By ED WOOD | Four Walls Eight Windows | 172 pages | $10 paperback
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