Morgan Neville and Harry Pallenberg's irreverent, insightful "Shotgun Freeway" is surely one of the most ambitious documentaries on Los Angeles ever attempted, but it has two key drawbacks.
First, the role of Asians in local history is slighted, in particular Japanese Americans and their unique World War II internment experience. Second, the film is a 16mm blowup from video, which means most of its splendid, well-chosen archival footage is impossibly murky when projected onto a theater screen. Those who have access to the Sundance Channel may want to wait until it shows up on its schedule; it may also eventually air on KCET.
Offsetting these two not inconsiderable detractions are the filmmakers' shrewd choices of guides to Greater L.A. Historian Mike Davis, photographed alongside the concrete channel that is the Los Angeles River, takes us back to the city's pueblo beginnings, and longtime Latino activist Bert Corona calls attention to the discrimination his people have faced for more than a century.
Among the best of the documentary's witnesses is crime fiction writer James Ellroy, who, when not showing off, observes that some people come to Los Angeles who "want to live some Utopian fantasy" and are "driven crazy" when they fail. A droll Buck Henry, who grew up in the motion-picture industry, offers astute takes on Hollywood, and veteran journalist Nick Beck, who grew up in Hollywood, laments its decline. Realtor Elaine Young conducts a breezy, lighthearted tour of Beverly Hills, and architectural historian Margaret Crawford takes us on a revealing ride from one end of Sepulveda Boulevard to the other.
Frank Wilkinson, who was with the postwar public housing authority, relates the repeated betrayal of several housing projects, like the proposed conversion of Chavez Ravine into a Richard Neutra-designed low-cost residential community, as well as his own blacklisting in the McCarthy era. The LAPD's late, legendary homicide detective John St. John ("Jigsaw John") recalls key cases in his 51-year career, including the lurid, brutal, never-solved 1947 "Black Dahlia" murder case.
Jazz legend Buddy Collette recalls Central Avenue in its nightclub glory days, growing up in Watts and being shooed away by Simon Rodia as he was building his famous towers--and, of course, the hard realities of segregation. (Collette is also not the only witness to point out the historic excesses of the LAPD.) Also commenting on the local jazz scene is veteran music impresario Gene Norman.
Writer-director John Milius relates the pleasures of surfing; writer Joan Didion comments on the transitory quality of L.A. life, its lack of a sense of history or permanence; and painter David Hockney, a longtime resident, expresses his affection for the city from the splendor of his residence off Mulholland Drive.
There's no way that Neville and Pallenberg could be expected to be all-inclusive, but in their distinctive, personal manner, they and their interviewees do capture an idea of what life is like in Los Angeles and how it got that way. "Shotgun Freeway" sometimes seems to have suffered from arbitrary editing. For example, we're shown a photo of Brenda Allen but not told that she was the Heidi Fleiss of the '40s.
Sometimes, though, the filmmakers have got it just right, as when they show us the long-closed Belmont subway tunnel and power station, not to lament the destruction of L.A.'s once-fine public transportation system but rather to celebrate the richness of the graffiti art that covers this entire area.
* Unrated. The film is suitable for all ages.
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A King Picture presentation. Writers-directors-producers Morgan Neville and Henry Pallenberg. Executive producer Scott King. Cinematographer David Morrison. Editor Jordi Mokriski. Sound/music mix Bob "Cat" Greemore. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart through Sunday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.