Angel City

(Jon Jost, USA, 1976)


Pleasure, meaning, discourse: these are the three poles of film criticism. Taking pleasure, finding meaning, spinning discourse. Don’t discount that third one! There are films that spur you to think, write talk, conceptualise. Any film that produces that effect is, in some sense, good and valuable. Angel City is, for me, one of these films.


The Great Fallacy of much (most) film criticism is an over-emphasis on the meaning pole. “Making meaning” – coding and decoding it, constructing and deconstructing it – has become the veritable pedagogical manta of virtually all media studies, at every educational level, during the 1970s. At its worst (and older, literary forms of critical method are partly to blame for this, too) we ask “what is this film saying?” – as if it could be squashed into the nutshell of a single sentence, point, proposition, message or idea. And as if there’s also a magic key to unlock (when it’s not already patently obvious) what is going on beyond the film, underneath it or inside its essence. For instance, Andrew Sarris [1928-2012] often gnomically evoked the “interior meaning” of an auteur’s work, this innermost or outermost ring of thematised knowledge and experience that, more often than not, remained tantalising and ineffable.


Take a different approach. Think of a film as the sum of its parts: a machine, complex and diversified, with many kinds of relations and intensities happening between the constituent parts. An assemblage, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari would say. Or a text, not in any strict, objective, literary or linguistic sense, but in the way that Roland Barthes and many others have appropriated this word: a textual, filmic system, composite and heterogeneous. A signifying system – which is not a fancy synonym for “making meaning”, since it stresses the materiality of errant signifiers as much as the meanings eventually (if ever) produced. Everything in it is constantly tying and untying, combining and colliding dynamically. And all this frantic activity is entirely on the surface of the work. Just reach out and grasp it; dive in.


A random analytical example from current [1980] TV, of which Angel City’s director would probably not approve: the advertisement for L’Oréal Girls. [A similar one from 1987 is viewable here.] It conjures fragments of a narrative film, a narrative world. There are three women walking down streets together, or sitting in their rooms alone, or drinking wine with their boyfriends. But these fragments have been reworked, recast by a particular photographic technique (soft focus) and a regulation of the speed at which these images unfold (slow motion). There’s a succession of shots, perhaps a dozen, smoothly linked to each other by overlapping dissolves, each moment lingering for a moment over the next. Obviously, we are asked to look at these images, these women. And the women, at moments, turn and look at us: a relation of two gazes. Sticking with the image, at least one more thing should be noted: the use of the printed graphic of the word “LÓréal” that fades in and out at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Now the soundtrack: a romantic, mock-Charles Aznavour sung by a chap with a heavy French accent (I hope it is not really Aznavour!), complete with Michel Legrand-style chord changes and instrumental ornamentation. The song itself has its various levels: lyrics, rhythm, musical arrangement, the singer’s vocal tone. The final element to mention is the context of the segment, its purpose and raison d’être: to sell hair shampoo.


We should probably go further but, by my count already, we have eleven separate semiotic levels to this brief commercial. I have merely listed them, but then we could start interrelating them – seeing and sensing the gears of the machine in motion. Relations of audiovisual montage, for instance: the images are cut and treated in time to the song. The women referred to in the song may or may not be the women on screen. Within each image, we can choose to look at the human figures, or the various fixtures around them, or the hypnotic written word appearing and disappearing … and so on.


So far, I have only been descriptive. We have started to make an inventory of this textual system of the L’Oréal Girls ad, but we can advance to a different plane of discussion. For a textual system is also a signifying system: it creates meaning and effects. But not just one, solitary meaning – there are potentially many, sparked by the multiple parts, levels and relations in the machine. If, for example, we accept the premises of John Berger’s 1972 Ways of Seeing TV series and book, then the L’Oréal Girls are beautiful sex objects displayed for possessive eyes of men – the men in the TV audience, and they guy singing the song: “Everywhere I stare, L’Oréal Girls in plenty … so sexy, so sensual, so natural”! But things are rarely that simple. The song, for instance, sounds ridiculous – a highly exaggerated pastiche of French ballad-pop (the singer swooning breathlessly over piano trills) that almost registers as outright parody.


So any of us can be both inside the ad, seduced by it, and simultaneously outside it, treating it as a joke (intentional or otherwise). And then you can go on to talk about what the ad is selling, and how it sells … shampoo to women, women to men (or whomever enjoys watching women!), images and sounds to us all – the desire for more images and sounds, more pleasure, more crazy music. To give this imaginary picture just one last touch: the ad can be seen as a machine, but we have to ask who (or what) is working the machine, what factory it’s sitting in, what the workers are being paid for maintaining it … In other words, everything about its socio-political context, history and affect.


The aim of most films – The Parallax View (1974), for instance – is for us not to see and register all these heterogeneous parts whirring away. Conventional or classical narrative films don’t want us to see what Jean-Louis Comolli calls “this work that is effaced by work”. Don’t want us to see the cuts, or perceive the image and sound as two different, potentially autonomous tracks. Angel City, by contrast, is comprised of two separate films, obviously and grindingly so. It splits itself in two, and invites you to examine that split and its repercussions. There are more conventional films that are also constructed as the alternation of two parts or stories – but usually within some conceit that absorbs the difference between them, like a play on flashback-memory, or the main character’s secret fantasy life. Angel City, though, is clearly a machine in the way I have described this kind of machinic text, and it asks us to compare and interrelate its large-scale parts. I would label these separated parts the detective film and the avant-garde film.


How does Jost’s machine work? I propose that the two distinct films inside Angel City destabilise and criticise each other, entering into a series of relations that can be described as a process of ongoing writing (in the sense that Marie-Claire Ropars has defined the work of textual écriture in any medium – not strictly in literature – as per her splendid 1978 Film Reader essay “Muriel as Text”). This writing is based on a large-scale montage, an alternation of block-parts.


Let’s first try to describe these separate “films”, as I’m calling them, and to gauge the clearest, most evident points of comparison and difference that play between them. At stake here are two distinct forms of representation in cinema.


The detective film has three, entirely generic terms: corpse, hero and villain. And it has a narrative itinerary or trajectory equally typical of the genre: to put the pieces together, restore the picture of the past, to arrive at knowledge and truth – as in (to cite a complicated, neo-noir example) Night Moves (1975). Clearly, what Angel City serves up is no ordinary detective film. Robert Glaudini as Frank Goya presents us with an image of a detective hero beyond even the shambling satire in Robert Altman’s vision of Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973). Jost offers us a sort of quotation of the genre. And we wonder, for instance, from where Frank is telling the story, and which side he’s on … But, all the same, there’s at least a nominal diegesis (fictive world) and plot of some basic substance, including a trail of evidence … Most significantly, this part of the film assumes our identification with the “hero” figure, however un– or anti-heroic he may actually be or behave.


The avant-garde film is also a type of quotation or pastiche. It is typically American, and displays its allegiance to a certain tradition of experimental cinema: full of self-expression, cine-poetry. There is also a parody nestled within this framework: parody of traditional documentary cinema.


Let’s sum up the initial comparison as in a diagram or table, labelled “The Film and Its Double”. In the detective film, Los Angeles is documented as a matter of hard, empirical facts; in the avant-garde film, its conveyed in poetic impressions. Where the detective film depends on the flow of narrative time, the avant-garde film stresses purely cinematic time, with its fragmentation, discontinuity and insistence on duration (long takes). While the detective film uses the trope of character identification and especially the device of POV (point-of-view), the avant-garde film plunges into a direct discourse. And finally, while the detective film is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle that implicitly promises (due to the law of genre) the revelation of a final truth, the avant-garde film places its faith in seemingly random combinations of image and sound.


Now to the écriture – within each major element, and especially within their unfolding combination. The avant-garde film criticises the concept of facts, and thus the detective hero (Frank) who embodies that concept. It’s devoted to the recognition of film language by the spectator – not disappearing into an illusory world. It mixes different voices, plumbing for heterogeneity over homogeneity. But the reverse is also the case: the detective film criticises the avant-garde for being empty, indulgent and uncommitted – “While you were dreaming in L.A. …”


The avant-garde film posits that Los Angeles is unspoken, unspeakable – beyond ordinary means of representation. There’s no L.A. there on the screen, the film is the only material reality on offer. And so, if a film wants to be political, if it wants to have any impact or play any real, social role, it needs to challenge all representational cinema, and make the projected spectator decidedly uncomfortable in the process of this destabilisation. It’s an old and still ongoing battle in film culture!


Meanwhile, the detective film strand asserts, in its own way, the need to understand images, to “read” and decode culture (as in the discussion of “video culture”) – a “hermeneutics of suspicion” built into the DNA of the mystery-noir-detective genre, and often raised to its surface by progressive filmmakers, yesterday (Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, 1947) and today (Hugo Santiago’s Écoute voir, 1979).


One of Angel City’s strongest writing-effects is, at particular points, to mix the two films, thus making the “argument” between them all the more clear. The Gloria scene is about film-time, film production; while the Lipstick (1976) scene is about the political meaning of images and how this can be subverted. And, in fact, the two distinct films finally do merge at the very end – but with nothing neat and tidy in their fitting together. In this concluding section of the work, the avant-garde romanticism of aesthetic “organic wholeness” and philosophical universality are criticised; but so, too, is the narrative strand, exposed for its phoniness. The “investigation” ends nowhere and sums up nothing.


Angel City is deeply involved with both putting things together and scrambling them into their separate units or levels. It’s about the production of images and of language, extending this exploration to the medium of film: what it conventionally does to us, but also the possibilities that it opens up. Recall the use of the alphabet, the ad for Lipstick, the photos, the roots of words that are scattered, and the soundscape at the very start. It’s like the trace or preview of a machine à venir, forthcoming.


But writing, in this self-analytical signifying-system, displaces the centrality of the auteur as traditionally conceived, too. The author/maker is not a god, a boss that runs the factory-machine: he or she is deflected, caught up in its unpredictable workings (recall the main credit image). Jon Jost is not preaching “make films as I do, follow my model”. Rather, he is urging us to fervently inspect every composite part of the cinema-machine, in order that – if we want to – we can disassemble it and build another, totally different.

MORE Jost: The Bed You Sleep In, Last Chants for a Slow Dance, All the Vermeers in New York

© Adrian Martin 1980

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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