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Monday, August 31, 2009

Los Angeles Noir

I have always been fascinated by police, private investigators, and the dark underworlds of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Maybe I just love the 1940s, the World War II angst of the troubled, hard-drinking male detectives who maybe had survivor's guilt, or carried scars of previous battles. I love their plucky female sidekicks, usually the girl-journalists, whose tight little sweaters and sharp wits usually win over the dogged detective...unless he's already head over heels for the requisite femme fatale. See? I even have a copy of Dashiell Hammett's The Continental Op sitting on my bureau right now, waiting for me to finish, um, this other book about crime.

I'd like to think that if I could travel back in time, I would go back to 1940s Los Angeles--the Black Dahlia murder, the Hollywood glamour, the slim suits, the birdcage veils--and I came close, a few months ago. My friend Courtney and I took a roadtrip down from San Francisco (after an epic trip to the ill-fated Tonga Room, and a little roller derby) all the way to LA via Highway 1. We made a point of mapping out all of the LA landmarks we wanted to hit, and the majority of our list was historical: we ate at Musso and Frank Grill (disappointing), Bob's Big Boy (awesome), we took a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, drove up to the Ennis House, drank cocktails and had tacos in Los Feliz, drove around Silver Lake with jaws dropped, and generally soaked in the fabulous architecture. As badly as I wanted to Dita von Teese it up and dress like a 1940s vixen, it was all shlumpy jeans and t-shirts for us for that magical week. So, to inspire you but mostly myself, I've created a little slideshow of film noir goodies:

The hardboiled film noir detective world of Los Angeles, circa 1925-1950, is the subject of an upcoming coffee table photography book by Catherine Corman. Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City documents the very real Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler based his noir fiction on, and creates an iconic vision of the mystery and beauty of Chandler's time in LA.
Raymond Chandler may have imagined his hardboiled city around these architectural landmarks, but the noir-ish effects of Los Angeles are still intoxicating. I left thinking that sure, I could live there, but the city of broken dreams is a fairly apt description, don't you think? All those people coming to look for fame and fortune in Hollywood, only to end up as Pilates instructors and waiters...in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's time, they were the fallen women and low-life gangsters of Hollywood.

Los Angeles will, I hope, preserve what's left of its glorious, dark, dirty, fabulous noir history. There's just an air in the city that fills me loathing yet draws me back again--obviously, I have no Hollywood dreams, my tastes run more along the lines of driving up Laurel Canyon ogling the amazing houses. (I may have driven around the neighborhood in Studio City where Lee Pace apparently lives, with no luck on that front...we went and had onion rings instead of befriending that adorable man and living happily ever after.) Los Angeles is blinding in its rapid turnover of lost souls, the pervasive wannabe culture with the rare glimpses of the real, everything is fleeting and tenuous at best. I expected to feel nervous and fat in Hollywood, but I found myself to be much more grounded and self-confident than the people I met there. It's easy to imagine the girls who flocked to LA in the 1940s, looking for love and fame on the silver screen. I wish I could capture that spark of history's hopes and dreams in a bottle and wear it as a perfume--it would smell of sunlight, honeysuckle, the sea, and shadows. It's the scent of a city full of people convinced they are on their way to something better.

I just couldn't help myself but to make a little Polyvore palette to inspire myself--I love all of those pulp novel covers. In terms of 20th century fashion history, you could make a case that American fashion was never so politically driven as in the 1940s. Women gave up their silks for nylon and rayon to support the war effort, cut down the shape of their dresses and separates to ration fabric and notions (thus was born the huge-skirted 1950s New Look as recovery), and went to work looking as smart as their husbands, brothers, and fathers. It was a era of advancement for women, strength, and struggle. We still have a lot to learn from America's past, in fact and fiction, it's worth the dignity of preservation and value.

For now, I want to go back to LA and put together my own (driving) tour of Ms. Corman's Raymond Chandler sites--check out her website above for Daylight Noir, where she's paired black and white photographs with snippets of classic Chandler.

1 comment:

Nisha said...

This post made me laugh, i love the style from that era as well. Feminine but strong :)

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