Thursday, 12 August 2010

Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko, USA 2002

Similarly to one of Cholodenko's previous films, High Art, Laurel Canyon also revolves around a couple, Sam and Alex, confronted by a small group of people, in this case musicians, collaborators of Sam's mother, Jane, who is a producer in LA's music industry.

Sam and Alex are academics whose lives take them from their Ivy League universities on the east coast to Los Angeles, Sam's hometown, where they stay with Jane. Jane's life is as unconventional and unrepressed as Sam's and Alex's is controlled, restrained and dominated by the mind rather than indulgence. The first five minutes of Cholodenko's film set the tone for the remaining 90 minutes, as from the campus of an Ivy League university, where during a formal occasion we see Sam talking to Alex's parents, the film cuts to the free-spirited, bohemian Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where Sam and Alex are on their way to his mother's new house.

It goes without saying that with these polar opposites confrontations are bound to happen. Sam's relationship with his mother is complicated, to say the least, although he clearly doesn't hate her. He is far too rational a person to be able to feel anything as intense as hatred. There is only one single scene in Laurel Canyon in which Sam loses control of his emotions - when he discovers Alex in bed with his mother's lover and his mother. Sam is, however, ashamed of Jane, as he admits to Alex early on in the film. It is up to the viewer to imagine what Sam's childhood must have been like, growing up in Los Angeles in the free-wheeling 1970s with a mother working in the music industry. Moreover, Jane's new boyfriend, Ian, is sixteen years her junior, which puts him in Sam's own age range.

Although at the beginning Laurel Canyon seems to focus on Sam And Alex, it is Jane who gradually emerges as being at the centre of the film and undoubtedly, she is Laurel Canyon's most fascinating character. What Jane lacks in motherly instincts she more than makes up for by her integrity, honesty, and level-headedness. Never mind that she smokes dope and can't hold down any serious relationship. But make no mistake, although it may be her son who's the family's intellectual, Jane's not born yesterday, either. Quite the opposite. However, unlike her son, whose emotional life is held in check, Jane is free of all inhibitions and takes life as it comes. At first I thought - feared - Jane would be a reprise of the Norma Desmond character, replete with being obsessively jealous of her younger lover and afraid of losing her looks. But nothing could be further from the truth. Played by the brilliant Frances McDormand, giving one of her best, most nuanced, performances of her career, Jane became a complex, dexterous, charismatic, character, who for all her shortcomings, does have her scruples and principles.

I'm always amazed, yet relieved, that films like Laurel Canyon are still getting made, even though their commercial prospects are no doubt limited as they are about little more than the complexity and frailty of human relationships. But to see disaster and destruction in the cinema there is no need for a bonanza of special effects.