Life and Death in L.A.: August 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Taste of Death on Hollywood Boulevard

A visit to the Museum of Death in Hollywood doesn't sound like a particularly cheerful take-in ... and believe me, it isn't.
But if serial killers, mass suicides, autopsy photos and vintage mortician devices are your thing, you will enjoy a thoroughly absorbing hour or so at this humble 6031 Hollywood Blvd. showroom of the macabre.

Photos, videos, newspaper clippings and other assorted memorabilia such as human and animal skulls, caskets, and at least one mummified severed human head, are also there for the viewing.

I toured the MOD today with English music journalist Nina Antonia, who is visiting from London. After studying the exhibits, one must agree the museum offers a unique welcome to the City of Angels.

A chilling display of
John Wayne Gacy's art.
It's hardly great art, but the drawings, paintings and essays by famed mass murderers, including John Wayne Gacy and Lawrence Bittaker are among the first items you'll encounter in the museum, after passing though a room of vintage funerary accoutrements. Gacy's self portrait in clown makeup and costume -- he was a children's entertainer -- is one of the more notorious pieces.

In case you're wondering, Museum of Death owners Cathee Shultz and J.D. Healy came about the original artwork by corresponding with imprisoned serial killers, and sending them art supplies, stamps and $10 money orders.

There are also records and photos documenting the crimes of serial killers Richard Ramirez, Henry Lee Lucas and others.
Those who decide to visit should be strongly cautioned, however. There is a good deal of extremely rough stuff there --  at times it was a struggle to keep the morning's huevos rancheros down.

An instructional video on embalming showing all the gory details plays continuously in one room. Color, posed snapshots of a couple dismembering a man whom they murdered -- what happens at Fotomat doesn't always stay at Fotomat -- are also on display.

An entire room is devoted to Charles Manson, and among the news clippings, coroner's reports and police bulletins are autopsy photos of some Manson Family victims.
The 1997 Heaven's Gate cult mass suicide, the O.J. case, the JFK assassination and the Black Dahlia killing all figure prominently in the museum's exhibits.

If you're expecting a highly polished presentation of the materials contained in the MOD you will be disappointed. The pristine, exhaustively curated  L.A. County Museum, it's not.
Newspaper pages with barking headlines that seem to have been ripped from a daily edition are posted on walls with black office clips holding them up. Most exhibits are chock-full of memorabilia. In short, the galleries seem like an approximation of what a serial killer's bedroom might look like -- odd talismans of the killer's obsessions plastered on the walls and stuffed into every available surface. And here, that makes sense.

Tickets are $15 apiece and parking is free. Don't forget to visit the gift shop -- there really is one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leonard's Page Turners Also Lit Up the Screen

Novelist Elmore Leonard created characters that were violent, frightening and hilarious, often all at the same time.
The larger than life personalities in his books frequently made their way to the big screen. I'm mainly thinking about his gangsters, including Chili Palmer and Ray "Bones" Barboni ("Get Shorty"), and Ordell Robbie ("Jackie Brown") to name but a few.
Leonard, who died this week at the age of 87, started his career writing western novels, and his short story, "3:10 to Yuma," was twice adapted to the screen, most recently in the 2007 film starring Russell Crowe.
Let's look back at Ray Barboni, below, in a classic scene from 1995's "Get Shorty," where Miami gangster Barboni (Dennis Farina, who passed away last month) comes to L.A. and terrorizes film producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).

Monday, August 19, 2013

A B Picture That Profoundly Influenced Martin Scorsese

Whenever I see him in interviews, Martin Scorsese never fails to amaze me with the breadth of his film knowledge.
Click on this link to see a short video in which he talks about a crime movie that had a profound effect on the way he perceived, and later, made films. It's called "Murder By Contract," and you've probably never seen it. Above, you can watch a couple of scenes from the movie.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Tarantino's Twists and Turns Add Up Perfectly

Vincent, left, and Jules settle a score.
Some may quibble with “Pulp Fiction”’s herky jerky storyline. It dodges back and forth from the past to the present without warning. The trouble is, at first it’s challenging to figure out exactly what is happening in the present and what took place in the past.
You have to watch it more than one time before the sequence of events starts to make sense – and it does. There is really no “present” in the film. Each sequence, no matter where it fits into the story, past, present or future, is the only present you have to pay attention to.
The Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction” screenplay is so skillfully written that you barely notice its complex time shifts. You just surf the narrative wave from beginning to end, and come in for a soft landing at the end of a fairly wild ride – is it just a coincidence that the opening music is Dick Dale’s surf guitar blast, “Miserlou”?

Knocked Off-Balance
Director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear storytelling – he co-wrote the script with Roger Avary – is hardly the artifice some make it out to be. In fact, the darting and weaving storyline serves a purpose, other than keeping the audience slightly off-balance, and the film would not be nearly as effective without it.
Honey Bunny, left, and Pumpkin.
The beginning and ending scenes are part of the same sequence. On an impulse, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) hold up a diner, but their plan goes awry when they unexpectedly meet up with Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), two mobbed-up hitmen.

Coffee and Handguns
The beginning sequence shows Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, over coffee and breakfast, hatching a plan to rob the diner. They kiss, brandish weapons, then go to work scaring everyone in the joint. Their plan is to clean out the cash register and grab everyone’s wallet without incident.
The scene cuts away to the opening credits, after which we begin meeting the motley cast of characters who inhabit L.A.’s underbelly.
The story plays out, and we're back at the same diner where we started, but Jules and Vincent, as it turns out, are catching some breakfast there, too. The four characters collide, of course, and the result is as anxiety-provoking and hilarious as the rest of the movie.

Ends at the Beginning
When you piece it together, though, the entire diner sequence actually takes place in about the middle of the story. By the time we reach the last scene we don't know how the diner stand-off between robbers and mobsters will end. But we do know what is going to happen after the scene is over, and we have seen everything that led up to it. But why put this out of sequence scene where it is in the film?
Like Kung-Fu Cain.
The answer, I think, is that it firmly establishes both the movie's theme, which is redemption, and the hero of the story, Jules. By the time we reach that fateful scene we learn that Jules has decided to leave his life of crime behind and "walk the earth like Kung-Fu Cain."

The Wrong Choice
Vincent, on the other hand, is going to keep being a mobster, and, because we've already seen the future, we know that he will meet a dark fate due to that unwise decision.
The actual ending, sequentially, is the death of Vincent and the triumph of Butch (Bruce Willis), the corrupt prizefighter who double-crossed the mob. But the film ends with Jules and Vincent, who are about to part ways as crime partners, exiting the diner into the blinding L.A. sun. It’s a new day, and Jules has found redemption. It’s the perfect place for the film to end.

A DIFFERENT WHITEY FROM BOSTON -- Warner Bros., the studio with a storied history of gangster film production, has tapped James Grey ("We Own the Night," "The Yards" and "Little Odessa") to write and direct "White Devil," inspired by the true story of Dorchester (Daw-chest-ah to the locals) native John Willis, who was adopted by a Chinese family and allegedly rose to the top of the Asian mob in Boston. His nickname? You guessed it: White Devil.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

It Took Two Directors to Tell the Murder, Inc. Story

Humphrey Bogart as Dist. Atty. Martin Ferguson
"The Enforcer" is one of the lesser appreciated Bogart films, but it deserves more attention than it gets. Granted, it's no "Maltese Falcon." It would be a tall order equaling "Falcon" director John Huston's artistry. But "Enforcer" directors Bretaigne Windust  and Raoul Walsh (uncredited) pull off an impressive feat in keeping the complex story in balance. Walsh directed the suspenseful -- translation: best -- scenes. Windust was primarily a Broadway director, and perhaps needed help putting the action sequences, including story's conclusion, on film.
The story centers around a crusading district attorney -- aren't all district attorneys crusaders in the movies? Bogart ably fills that role, but it's not much of a stretch for the veteran actor. A taut script, bristling dialog and neatly directed scenes keep this thriller on track, no matter how complex the yarn becomes. It's all based on the real-life Murder, Inc., syndicate that provided hitmen for hire.
The film's structure is complex. Flashbacks within flashbacks are liberally sprinkled throughout. They do the job that they're supposed to do, and just when the film veers perilously close to being a gab-fest -- there's no way around using dialog-driven sequences -- Windust and Walsh pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat with credible and unexpected plot twists or just plain bone-crunching action. Check out the scene with Rico (Ted De Corsia) inching his way across a lofty ledge on a building's facade. Windust/Walsh keep the tension excruciatingly high throughout. It takes a while before we finally meet the heavy, Mendoza (Everett Sloane), and when we do, he's spectacularly unassuming -- until finally we see him serve up the product his syndicate delivers for cash.
Zero Mostel also does a fine turn as the nervous hitman who quickly realizes that he chose the wrong profession.