To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

09/30/2016  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.

William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. inspired me to start Turban Decay. Growing up Arab in rural America meant (among many, many other things) that seeing any images of “people like me” in a film felt like finding Waldo. I’d just feel so excited at seeing anyone in any film from the same part of the world as my ancestors.

I also feel excited for the way this forward-thinking movie predicted how I text my friends.

Then I watched To Live and Die in L.A., a movie that opens with Friedkin using the language of film to sing the praises of Ronald Reagan and his tough talk on taxes. Before the film’s actual plot even started, an Arab showed up for a handful of seconds only to summarily detonate himself. It hit me that what I just saw has become not the exception but the rule. I’d feel so excited about representation that I willed myself to ignore the hateful propaganda within. I might feel different if much had changed for racial politics in the 31 years since its release, but, well, Donald Trump.…

This movie opens on President Reagan’s motorcade as he visits Los Angeles five days before Christmas. (Hello there, Die Hard!) Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) becomes suspicious when he sees an Arab in a hotel uniform (Michael Zand). He advances to the roof, where he finds the garroted corpse of a rent-a-cop. Chance finds his infuscate quarry preparing to rappel from the rooftop. The terrorist—a stereotype with a hook nose, five-o’clock shadow, and explosive vest—screams, “Death to Israel and America… and all the enemies of Islam!!” Two lines later, he explodes into a fine mist.

Why does the terrorist die like the Power Rangers defeated him?

After a few seconds of tangential foreshadowing, we cut to black. A revolver fires for dramatic effect. The credits roll. We return to what seems like a standard cop movie that has nothing to do with what we just saw.

The Historical Context

To Live and Die in L.A. contributed—and films like it continue to contribute—to a problem for Palestinians that persists to this day. If you look for contemporaneous news stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ll find plenty about Palestinians killing Israelis. These include the Kav 300 incident, the horrific murder of Moshe Tamam, the murder of two Israeli students at the Cremisan monastery, the unsolved murder of Hadas Kadmi, the suicide car-bomb in Bater al Shuf, the Force 17 killings in Cyprus.… As a pacifist and a half-decent human, I find these attacks as repugnant and heinous as you do. I do not defend any of these horrific killings or the monsters who carried them out.

But they don’t sum up the totality of Palestinian existence. Palestinians suffered their share of civilian deaths and oppression as well. See the 1983 massacre of Palestinian students or the firing of an anti-tank rocket at a bus, a reprisal for the Cremisan attack. In 1985, Israeli settlers started moving into the Oranit settlement, which defied international law. A UN report from this time reported human rights abuses, killings of civilians, destruction of property, and expropriation of Palestinian land.

I don’t ask for much, but please don’t confuse this probably-not-Arab actor with 4.17 million Palestinians.

Throughout the entire conflict, two things have remained true. No group involved has clean hands, and the civilians on both sides have paid the heaviest price. But when American media depicts one side as nothing but belligerent, braying, suicidal barbarians, Americans will have a biased picture of the conflict.

A Los Angeles sunrise: the brownest thing William Friedkin respects.

The Film’s Context

The film never touches on its prelude again. The opening serves as a glorified establishing shot, a superfluous vignette intended to portray Richard Chance as an unconventional yet self-destructive cop. Friedkin probably intended a palate-cleansing overture akin to Raiders of the Lost Ark or James Bond movies. The result reminds me more of the way Andrew Jackson’s fans of days gone by would use his slaughter of Native Americans to bolster his image as a warrior president. “Who cares about these nondescript minorities? We have a white guy’s story to tell!”

The context mitigates the stereotyping, if only a little. To Live and Die in L.A.’s structure rests on a narrative fake-out; the hackneyed beginning hides the unconventional finale. The first half hits the clichés so hard that I wondered if the film went direct to VHS. The partner dies just short of retirement. The “loose cannon” cop gets assigned an anxious, ill-prepared partner because his boss hates him. The weird, sadistic bad guy enjoys murdering his disloyal and unsuccessful associates. A shady undercover deal goes awry and culminates in a car chase along the sloped concrete aprons of the Los Angeles River, zooming under the late 6th Street Bridge. But the clichés gradually fade. Chance’s true nature emerges as a corrupt, manipulative, narcissistic sociopath. The film becomes a chronicle of the ways Chance uses and infects those around him.

[infecting intensifies]

The opening makes sense as the first stone of cliché in a trail that turns out to wander off the beaten path. Using these old trappings to one-two punch the viewer’s expectations can make for a clever way to enhance a story. Comedies have done this for decades, including some terrific ones such as The Other Guys and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Hell or High Water may prove the best film of 2016, in part because it did this.

But none of those movies feature bizarre yarō-kabuki dancers wearing Henri Matisse chasubles for no plot-related reason, so choose wisely.

But there exist ways to make the audience care about your characters without reducing an entire culture to one screaming stereotype. There exist ways to touch on current news stories without boiling them down to good-race/bad-race. This film has plenty to enjoy, but enjoying it doesn’t mean forgetting that the Palestinian people amount to more than sweaty, filth-encrusted, freedom-hating time-bombs. Because the film industry has—or should have—accrued self-awareness over the past three decades. We should have enough cultural maturity to represent minorities with fairness and empathy. Those less privileged shouldn’t have to feel lucky just to see themselves represented in our culture when it means apologizing for every appearance.

Read the original, unabridged review on Turban Decay.

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About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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