Two of the best films from the 1990’s, both of which were adapted from well known literary sources, present very different views of the City of Angels yet both explore the often sinister contradictions between image and reality that simmer under Los Angeles’ landscape of broken dreams and superficial glamour. Robert Altman’s loosely adapted Short Cuts threads together several of Raymond Carver’s short fiction into a dynamic tableau of everyday people behaving like…well…everyday people. With a star studded cast that includes Tim Robbins, Jack Lemon, Tom Waits, Robert Downey Jr., Lilly Tomlin, and Jennifer Jason Leigh but to name a few, Short Cuts effortlessly weaves together the lives of these wonderfully drawn characters in ways both surprisingly humane and hilariously blemished. For those new to Altman’s classic, do not expect a linear or simulated rendering of Carver’s stories. Altman draws from Carver’s tones and themes of people living on the social edges to masterfully depict modern life in all its garish comedy rather than replicate the stories verbatim. Carver’s vision is still there, albeit mashed up and re-imagined through the optics of a gifted auteur.
The beautifully detailed and soundly acted crime thriller L.A. Confidential also looks toward Los Angeles for its backdrop. A stylish and taut take on James Ellroy’s noir classic, director Curtis Hanson, unlike the mundane city of ineffectual Angelinos portrayed by Altman, delivers a cool Hollywood with a 1950’s sheen and Chandleresque heart. Like Short Cuts, a great deal of L.A. Confidential’s strength as a film stems from a strong cast including Aussies Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe as well as Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell and Kim Basinger. This a wonderfully paced detective thriller with strong performances from everyone involved. Hanson’s subsequent work has never quite lived up to the expectations that L.A. Confidential brought with it.