Welcome to L.A. DVD Review: Like Altman Under Anesthesia

Non-characters sleepwalk through "the city of the one-night stands."
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It would certainly be easy to write off Welcome to L.A. as a vacuous, tedious, pretentious movie about vacuous, tedious, pretentious people.   And this would not be inaccurate.  But it might miss some other aspects of the film that are more interesting.  It's a flawed time capsule of a certain time, place, and attitude.

welcome to LA

Alan Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman.  He worked as an assistant director on The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, some choice works from Altman's golden decade.  Welcome to L.A. was not actually his first film as a director - he is credited with two cheapie horror movies called Premonition and Nightmare Circus (also known, believe it or not, as Barn of the Naked Dead).  But Welcome to L.A. was his "art" debut, with the full Altman imprimatur.

It involves a group of anomic Angelenos, vaguely centering on a songwriter (Keith Carradine) who is the estranged son of a rich businessman (Denver Pyle).  Other characters played by Geraldine Chaplin, Sally Kellerman, Sissy Spacek, Harvey Keitel, and John Considine fall in and out of bed with each other in various combinations.  Hearts are broken; lessons are learned.  That may sound intriguing, but it very rarely is.  The characters are barely sketched in - they don't resemble anyone real, and there is not a glimmer of drama or urgency to their stories.

What little semblance of depth there is comes from Richard Baskin's songs (the ones supposedly written by Carradine's character), which weave in and out of almost every scene.  They are not unpleasant, if fairly bland, but their limited meaning can be summed up in one of the titles: "City of the One-Night Stands."  (Baskin also contributed songs to Nashville, and he appears in this film to sing his own compositions.)

Most of these actors appeared in much more satisfying roles in Altman's own movies.  No one is incompetent (with a couple of exceptions, like Viveca Lindfors); they just don't have much to do.  Spacek comes off best, as a housekeeper who moonlights as a prostitute, because her role is often funny, and she looks very beautiful.  There is not much intentional humor in the film, although Chaplin's role is outrageous enough to generate a few giggles (in the silliest example, she walks around with an exaggerated cough after seeing Garbo's Camille at a revival house).  As her husband, Keitel is just helpless and dreadful, with a silly blonde hairdo that doesn't help a bit.

Rudolph went on to do much more interesting work (Choose Me, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle).  But much of the time, this movie is like Altman under anesthesia.  After a while, I felt numb, and began nodding off.  And yet, some would say that is one valid way to portray the Los Angeles of 1976:  sleepy, shallow, barely there.

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