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L.A. Backdrops Come in Focus at Toronto Fest

September 27, 1998|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

TORONTO — When Bruce Wagner set out to direct "I'm Losing You," the movie version of his provocative 1997 novel about life and loss in Hollywood, he wanted to portray the Los Angeles he knows. So he steered clear of the iconic L.A.--the Capitol Records building, the Hollywood sign, the Beverly Hills Hotel--and focused instead on the ironic.

The film opens with Frank Langella, a successful television producer, standing beside his swimming pool, under a palm tree, getting the news that he's dying of cancer. The sun shines down as Langella, stunned, asks his doctor, "Do you know how much money I made last year? Eight million dollars."

Sitting cross-legged on a plump couch at the Four Seasons Hotel here, Wagner explained that to him, that scene embodies Los Angeles' "cold warmth."

"The illusion that Los Angeles creates is that all is well--that marriages are intact, that money is coming in," said Wagner, 44, who grew up in Beverly Hills. "The lack of seasons, per se, means life and death happen under the sun. It's always bright, whether you are in the waiting room at the cancer ward or at the ballpark. L.A. is a constant day-shoot."

Wagner was one of half a dozen filmmakers featured at last week's Toronto International Film Festival who sought to capture anew the essence of one of the most photographed cities in the world. Considering the plethora of classic L.A.-themed movies--from Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" to Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Michael Mann's "Heat" and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and "The Player"--these directors deserve points, at the very least, for bravery.

What was gratifying for festival participants, however, who packed nearly every screening here to capacity, was that as well as courage, several of the directors showed flashes of originality. For every familiar shot of an Angelyne billboard, there were images of a city not commonly seen on screen: cloudless, sometimes frightening place where everything seems possible--at least until you run out of road.

"In many ways, L.A. is at the cutting edge of where the country is headed," said Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, whose film "Home Fries" (starring Drew Barrymore) was at the festival and who is executive-producing the new CBS series "L.A. Doctors." "In [the TV series'] title sequence, we try to show L.A. looking terrific--sexy, sleek, the billboards, the beaches--countered with a high shot of [O.J. Simpson's] white Bronco and a Malibu house cascading down a hill. You're reminded that this is a city of absurdities."

Among the latest entries in the genre of Los Angeles cinema are two junkie movies. Director David Veloz's "Permanent Midnight," which has already been released theatrically by Artisan Entertainment, features Ben Stiller as a heroin-addicted television writer. "Broken Vessels," meanwhile, follows two L.A. ambulance drivers who try to remedy their boredom and problems with authority by dipping deeper and deeper into drugs. By festival's end, it had not found a distributor, though many said it was a remarkable film for a first-time director, Scott Ziehl.

There are two new romantic comedies. "L.A. Without a Map," by Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki, is about a Scottish undertaker who on a whim follows an American girl to L.A. "Hair Shirt," featuring actress Neve Campbell and directed by a 24-year-old first-timer named Dean Paras, is a portrait of the twentysomething wannabe culture that surrounds the entertainment industry. As yet, neither has U.S. distribution.

Finally, there is "Desert Blue," director Morgan J. Freeman's follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature "Hurricane Streets." Set in a tiny town outside L.A. that has been quarantined because of a toxic spill, the film--which was acquired by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. last week--features Kate Hudson as a teenage TV star who is desperate to get back to L.A.

Piers Handling, the festival's director, said he was struck by the diversity of these films, which share a setting but little else.

"L.A. is a mythological city for all kinds of reasons. For Europeans, it's the capital of movies. For those who've read Chandler, it is noir," he said, reflecting on the city's cinematic versatility. "The two trends of the festival this year were dark-and-disturbing--substance abuse, dysfunctional families--and warm and relationship-oriented. Los Angeles is used as a pretty effective backdrop for both."

Kaurismaki, the Finnish director, agreed. Of all the films, his relies most heavily on portraying the city's famous icons, both architectural and human. There are references to Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise and shots of the Argyle Hotel and the Hollywood restaurant Yamashiro. But he also tried to show the city's seedy side.

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