‘Gangster Squad’ Gets Away with Murder

Gangster Squad (2013)

Historical fealty has never been Hollywood’s strong suit (as this year’s Oscars crop reminded), and even classic exposés of La La Land such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential played fast and loose with the facts. But at least these period pieces covered their tracks with allegorical subtext, composited characters, and pseudonyms. Ruben Fleischer’s crime drama Gangster Squad (2013), which shoots holes as wide as the Arroyo Parkway in its realistic backdrop, not only purports to play it straight but flaunts authenticity like nobody’s business.

The bait and switch begins with the opening establishing shot of Los Angeles in 1949, highlighting a seemingly spanking new “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign—indeed, the sign’s original spelling since 1923, when it served as a billboard for a residential development. By 1949, however, literally fallen into disrepair with letters crumbling and keeled over, the sign was renovated and resurrected in its present iconic form. The abridgment expanded the sign’s purview to reflect, and rebrand, the larger Hollywood district, film industry, and frame of mind—all of which were themselves in desperate need of refurbishment due to a disastrous postwar decline in movie attendance and the rise of Las Vegas as a rival nightlife hub to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Continue reading “‘Gangster Squad’ Gets Away with Murder” »

Historical Representations Weigh Heavily on Best Picture Nominees

Every year, it seems we try to ascribe some great meaning to the Academy Awards. Beyond superficial debates about what is the best (or how we might even go about defining “best,” a task that feels reductive to the nature of personal reaction and opinion), I appreciate more the arguments about how the Awards stand as a “cultural touchstone,” a reflexive means for the industry to communicate how they want to be perceived. The Oscars may themselves be an industry, replete with full-page Variety ad after full-page Variety pushing a studio’s most touted project. Regardless of whether you still consider them culturally relevant or rich people aimlessly rewarding each other, the Oscars can help us inscribe meaning on a year. The films they group together tell us the kinds of characters and screenplays and the styles of directing that a very large voting body coalesced around. While there are plenty of 2012 releases that didn’t get a single Oscar nomination—The Dark Knight Rises, anyone?—focusing on the ones that did can perhaps tell us something important about the cultural moment of 2012. Continue reading “Historical Representations Weigh Heavily on Best Picture Nominees” »