The Decay Of Fiction

2002, Movie, NR, 74 mins


Avant-garde filmmaker Pat O'Neill's haunting ode to pulp fiction and the now-vanished Ambassador Hotel is steeped in decaying Los Angeles glamour and the ghosts of noir thrillers past. Eight years in the making and a stunning synthesis of craft and ideas, it turns the once-grand, now-crumbling Ambassador — famous as home to the fabulous Cocoanut Grove restaurant and the first Academy Awards ceremonies; notorious as the place where Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Senator Robert Kennedy — into a spook house peopled by B-movie archetypes. Jaded socialites, practical maids, cops and gangsters, grifters, barflies, con men, and suicide blondes, all shot in shimmering black and white, glide like ghosts through the Ambassador's ruined rooms, a symphony of peeling paint, sagging ceilings, pockmarked walls and gauzy, perpetually billowing curtains. Shots ring out, a woman says, "She's gone" ("She was never there," comes the inevitable reply), and stop-motion shadows crawl across the walls. O'Neill shoots exteriors of the Ambassador in stop-motion as well, so the buildings look normal, impassive and unmoving, while the landscape around them seems weirdly agitated. Various combinations of characters are enmeshed in fragmented story lines — a torch singer is making a comeback, a high-strung tootsie is convinced a dead girl is speaking to her, children play in the hallways, lawmen square off against hoods — of which we see only tantalizing glimpses. As the film progresses, surreal images that suggest nightmares or the products of a disordered mind appear; at first they're suspended in blackness, torsos gliding in and out of a spotlight. Then monsters, naked demons, shadowy shapes, puppet people, low-rent aliens that move with the stuttering rhythms of Japanese ghosts, silhouetted women with diaphanous veils, and skeletons gradually invade the hotel's interiors. The film hums with echoes of Adolfo Bioy Casares' novel The Invention of Morel, in which an infernal machine records people's images in every detail but rots away the original flesh as it does, leaving behind only lifeless simulacra (it can't be a coincidence that Morel's shadow hangs heavily over LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, the quintessential perplexing hotel movie). The result is hypnotic, a collage of allusions to a world that was never quite superimposed on a real space that will never be again: The Ambassador, which opened in 1921, was demolished in early 2006. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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The Decay Of Fiction
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