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As a resident of Los Angeles I've been putting up with insults for years from Arizonans and Coloradans about how worthless and morally unsound my hometown is. Now I may have found the cause for these slurs -- Alan Rudolph's first solo writing-directing effort, Welcome to L.A.. 1 The prime protégé of the laid back, let-it-all-happen director Robert Altman, Rudolph won his wings assisting on Nashville before bouncing onto the scene with this 1976 mini-epic of excess and ennui in the City of the Angels. The Altman association guaranteed Rudolph serious critical ink -- some of it flattering beyond belief -- at a time when director-driven studio filmmaking was on the wane -- the previous year's Jaws had already lit the path to a new box office-centric film industry.
Rudolph's first films specialized in multi-character stories where situations and attitudes figure more heavily than narrative concerns. Some critics unfairly labeled him a mini-Altman, and this show lacks Altman's usual strong story hook to motivate his star ensembles. Director Rudolph wouldn't hit his stride for several years, when his quirky Choose Me made a stronger emotional connection with audiences. And his pictures do have a following.
Welcome to L.A. sees songwriter Carroll Barber (Keith Carradine) returning to Los Angeles after three years in Ireland. His appearance destabilizes a number of relationships among some well-heeled Angelenos. Serene and untroubled, Carroll is a magnet for most of the women he sees. His agent Susan Moore (Viveca Lindfors) is frustrated when her attentions are not returned. Married real estate agent Ann Goode (Sally Kellerman) is the first to tell Carroll "Welcome to L.A.", which in this movie directly translates as "Let's f___ , right now." Carroll has apparently hit it famous as a songwriter, but besides noodling a bit on a piano, his work effort is restricted to dropping in on the recording sessions of singer Eric Wood (Richard Baskin), where he mostly picks up more women. He beds the gorgeous receptionist Jeanette Ross (Diahnne Abbott of New York, New York) simply by asking her why she hasn't welcomed him to L.A. yet. Carroll picks up dissatisfied housewife Karen Hood (Geraldine Chaplin) and endures her angst-ridden deliriums: Karen fancies herself a modern Marguerite Gauthier and is prone to quote movie dialogue from Garbo's Camille. Karen happens to be married to Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel) who works for Carroll's father Carl Barber (Denver Pyle), a millionaire dairyman. Her marriage is just as empty and communication-challenged as that of Ann, who unfortunately tries to be possessive with Carroll. The songwriter's new live-in maid Linda Murray (Sissy Spacek) does her housework topless yet shows no inclination to hop into the sack with her boss. He does eventually bed the slick photographer Nona Bruce (Lauren Hutton), his own father's mistress. Forget it, Carroll, it's just another evening in the City of One Night Stands.
With all this welcoming going on, we'd expect some dramatic fireworks, but Welcome to L.A. mostly just sits there. Most of the actors out-do each other to affect "cool" attitudes, with the basically likeable Keith Carradine winning top honors for appearing at all times sedated. Dressed in a hipster getup apparently acquired in Dublin, Carroll just bops around from point A to point B in a rented car. When women don't show up looking for a good time, he'll give one a call, even if he hasn't shown even a spark of interest in their previous lovemaking sessions. Some men just have it, I suppose. I wonder if father John Carradine saw his son's film and scratched his head, or just had a good laugh.
Sally Kellerman is beautiful and dignified. Lauren Hutton gives forth with a liberated statement or two before gravitating toward the unaccountably magnetic Carroll. Viveca Lindfors' Susan makes the fatal mistake of externalizing her passion, and goes on the reject pile. This leaves the loose emotional cannon Geraldine Chaplin and the stealth pixie Sissy Spacek to carry the show. Ms. Chaplin trods the path of neurosis bravely, spending her days driving around in taxis looking for signs of love in the city. We half expect Karen to do something violent to the other characters. Ms. Spacek's Linda is the only personage truly free of the mellow-mellow rot that infects her fellow citizens. Behaving like a Girl Scout (who sheds her top at work), Linda shows her practical side when Ann's unhappy husband Jack (John Considine) tries to bed her. It's inescapably funny to realize that Linda is the only character who knows what she wants and is capable of making a firm decision. If Welcome to L.A. is a collection of souls lost in the Miracle Mile-to-Malibu purgatory, Linda is a friendly Imp. She gets in the way of Ann's obsession with Carroll and mischievously breaks off a phone reconciliation between Karen and Ken.
Alan Rudolph never hoses down a set with a zoom lens, as did his mentor Robert Altman on occasion. But he does have his tics, the most obvious being ending several long character close-ups by having the actor-character break the fourth wall and regard the camera lens. This idea may be honest and direct but it comes off as an affectation. Rudolph treats Los Angeles as more of a state of mind than a place. Instead of travelogue shots, we get wedges of unidentifiable real estate glimpsed from high windows (is that Century City?) or a blank Pacific horizon off Malibu. Actors spend considerable time in their cars, but the upward angles mostly show us palm trees and an occasional skyscraper. The effect is less ethereal than claustrophobic.
Finally there's the music, which has its fans but has also attracted some pretty brutal criticism. Keith Carradine isn't exactly tuneful but he can carry a song with his personality. The actual singing in the studio session scenes is performed by Richard Baskin, the film's actual composer and lyricist. Baskin has a professional voice but the music is mostly a non-melodic wail with some of the most pretentiously faux-soulful alienation lyrics yet heard. A little of this stuff goes a long way (like the title tune in Altman's The Long Goodbye) but we must bounce back to Baskin at least six times. Similar musical interruptions to the artist Alan Price in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! were refreshing, but if Baskin's singing is not your cup of tea, the corresponding scenes in Welcome to L.A. will leave a big hole where a musical soul should be.
Having never been part of the moneyed creative élite in Los Angeles, either in the club scene or the art scene, I certainly cannot assert that this show gives a false picture of the '70s. Alan Rudolph was "there" and I wasn't. 2 I have a great affection for some of the director's later pictures, particularly the shaky Love at Large, simply because its heart and emotions occupy such a nice space. Fans of the actors here will also find reason to enjoy Welcome to L.A. -- Sissy Spacek and Geraldine Chaplin are in fine form.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Welcome to L.A. is a so-so enhanced widescreen transfer that hails from about 1996: one can tell by the vintage of the UA logo at the head. Blacks aren't deep and colors are on the pale side, but I've not seen the film projected and this looks much better than the flat TV versions that haunted early cable and The "Z" Channel. Included is an original trailer that pretty much nails the movie on the head: we get samples of the warbling songs (the one with the lyric "city of one night stands" is the best), quick views of the disengaged & alienated characters, and a wince-inducing tagline that urges us to expect not a story, but a "scene". What can I say? The '60s died hard.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Welcome to L.A. rates:
1. Actually, this was Alan Rudolph's third feature film following the exploitation horror efforts Premonitions and Barn of the Naked Dead. The second title has received some serious re-appraisal from Video Watchdog, I believe.
2. I lived a few blocks from the Troubadour for a year in college but have never been to that or any other Los Angeles music club. I did drive by the classy Sunset Strip haunts and observed the affluent hipsters pursuing their entertainment. I'd more likely walk the few blocks to the old Academy Theater on Melrose and take in some great old Hollywood movie, hosted by a director or a star. They were usually free to students. Los Angeles was once very welcoming to students, "welcoming" in the old-fashioned sense, that is.
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T'was Ever Thus.