Over the last five years or so, there has been a natural convergence of post-cinematic technologies and the Los Angeles cityscape. As the American city most associated with classical cinema, L.A. has proved a natural canvas for post-classical films to measure and contemplate how much things have changed with the advent of post-cinematic technologies. While these films vary in their style and approach, they all share a concern with envisaging Los Angeles after cinema – or without cinema – and tend to fall into two categories: late (or lateish) works by established auteurs (The Canyons, Knight of Cups, The Bling Ring) and works by indie directors who are yet to break into the mainstream (Tangerine) or who have never quite broken into the mainstream in a definitive manner (Nightcrawler). Although most of these films are quite extravagant and ambitious in their scope and vision, they all share a tendency to be labelled as “minor” or marginal, if only because their point of departure so often tends to be the margins of the older, more classically cinematic Angeles, which haunts and propels all of them in one fashion or another.
Released in 2015 to considerable buzz, Dennis Hauck’s Too Late is another addition to this growing body of work, splitting the difference between post-cinematic indie credentials and the classical undertones of the Los Angeles cityscape in quite disarming and beautiful ways, especially in its first scene – or shot. For part of what distinguishes this vision of the city is that it unfolds across five extended takes, all of which are shot in 35mm Techniscope. As a format that came into vogue in the 60s, 70s and 80s as a cheaper option for films that wanted to exude the glamour of Cinemascope on a shoestring budget, the Techniscope “look” syncs quite naturally with Hauck’s cusp between mainstream and indie versions of L.A., as well as capturing the ways in which the moods and atmospheres of a bygone era still linger around even the most digital prospects in the city. More than mood and atmosphere, the precise sightlines, deep focus and crystalline clarity of Techniscope all work to suggest a bygone spatial regime that has been superseded by the collapse of space and time into the “space of flows” that characterises post-cinematic aesthetics, as well as digital culture more generally. In that sense, Hauck’s Techniscope takes form a kind of forensic tool for seeking out those experiences in Los Angeles that are still determined by this older regimentation of space and time, if only residually or inchoately.
As might be expected, then, this is a film that plays out spatially as much as narratively, with the story largely subordinated into the movement from space to space. At the same time, I was disappointed that the story wasn’t more subordinated, or at least wasn’t as consistently subordinated as it was in the opening take. By far the most bravura and extravagant shot of the film, this takes place in its entirety on Radio Hill, a space that is not especially prominent in recent or even classical depictions of Los Angeles. In a single sequence that introduces all the main players in the drama, Hauck’s camera twirls up and down the hill as well as occasionally zooming in to an apartment complex far away on the street below, in order to follow a phone conversation between someone standing at the window and someone calling them from the top of the hill. As the camera moves between extreme close-ups and distant vistas of Downtown – often in the space of a few minutes – I was reminded of one of the great paradoxes of post-classical cinema: namely, that it often proceeds by fulfilling the great classical cinematic dream of a film shot in one take. While there is admittedly no single depiction of L.A. that has taken place in a single shot, the advent of digital technologies has nevertheless brought a new possibility for fluidity and continuity epitomised by the arrival of the drone camera as a cinematographic signature. While Knight of Cups is probably the most drone-oriented of the recent wave of Los Angeles cinema, it seems to be the first season of True Detective that really established the drone as a viable new cinematic device, making the second season’s movement to L.A. a natural extension of its central cinematographic premise.
It is in that sense – and probably that sense only – that I think that David Bordwell’s notion of “intensified continuity” is as useful as Steven Shaviro’s idea of “post-continuity,” since part of what characterises post-cinematic visions is the way in which doing away with the divisions that once artificially and arbitrarily established continuity actually leads to a much more radical notion of continuity, as well as a more radical evocation of the convergence culture and media continuity that characterises our digital world. Critical to this notion of intensified continuity – or this convergence of intensified continuity and post-continuity – is that post-classical cinema is not merely a departure from but a kind of fulfilment of classical cinema, with the result that the most defiantly post-cinematic visions are also likely to be those that most robustly quote from, revise and remediate the cinematic visions of an earlier era, as well as the cinematic preoccupations of a director’s body of work. In that sense, as much as post-cinematic technologies are still relatively novel, there is a sense in which they already constitute late work, just as there is a sense in Too Late that everything has arrived after the event and that the best of classical cinema, along with the most experimental of post-classical cinema, is already somehow behind us.
Putting that another way, there is something deeply hauntological about post-cinematic technologies in their anticipation of a future that always seems to be behind them, a quality that is epitomised by the striking and anticlimactic structure of Too Late, in which this first shot offers us the most charismatic character of the film only to immediately kill her off, which sets a noirish detective narrative in play driven by John Hawkes’ role as a private investigator, but also offers us the most extravagant fusion of post-classical and classical coordinates in the film only to retreat to a fairly staid classical style by the very last scene. As a result, Too Late plays as a kind of devolution of stylistic experimentation into nostalgic recreation, and while I wasn’t sure whether that was intentional or not, I know that I was haunted enough by the opening sequence to make the rest of the film immersive. On the one hand, this opening sequence is bathed in cinematic references, and especially references to directors whose hyperspatial sensibilities seem to anticipate or contain the post-cinematic present, with the lush neo-noir sightlines of Paul Verhoeven, the intensified Technicolor of David Lynch and the split screens of Brian de Palma invoked here with an intensity and flamboyance that never occurs over the rest of the film. At the same time, Hauck’s camera is so mercurial and mobile during this opening shot that was impossible – for me at least – to determine whether it was an elaborate crane shot, a Steadicam shot, a drone shot, or some logistically ingenious combination of the three. Blending older forms of continuity into a new – and often dissonant – intensified continuity, this opening section exuded a documentary veracity and sensory immediacy that I found utterly exhilarating.
By contrast the next four sequences increasingly play as standard tracking-shots and differ from the opening take in several respects. Firstly – and most dramatically – they evince far less interest in the exterior spaces of Los Angeles, taking place in a house in the Hollywood Hills, a strip club, an open-air movie theatre and a upmarket hotel respectively. Granted, these are all archetypal L.A. spaces, as well as spaces that necessarily evoke the wider sprawl of the city by virtue of their internal spatial logic, but they are not really shot in that spirit here, which is in part attributable to the next major difference from the opening shot. In the take on Radio Hill, the camera is above all aligned with the place, provisionally anchoring itself on the peak and then making extravagant excursions from one part of the hill to the other. At the same time, it is never too concretely tied to its resting place either, giving the sense of a roving, curious genius loci that somehow encapsulates the entire precinct – perhaps the entire city – in its ambit. By contrast, in the next four takes, the camera is emphatically attached to bodies moving through spaces, with the result that the film increasingly moves away from the amorphous spatial curiosity of the opening towards a series of more or less standard tracking-shots.
If that sounds a bit harsh, it’s only because I thought the opening take – minus the dialogue – was one of the most extravagantly spatial exercises I have seen for some time, and the harbinger of a genuinely new voice that the rest of the film didn’t quite capture. The closest it comes is in the fourth shot, which takes place in and around a drive-in theatre on the outskirts of the city. As Anne Friedberg has pointed out, the drive-in stands as a critical juncture between cinematic and post-cinematic technologies in Los Angeles. At the same time, however, Friedberg argues that the drive-in has only accrued this status at the first place because of the way it taps into what she describes as automobility: a kind of post-cinematic potentiality that is particularly pronounced in Los Angeles and that occurs whenever the cinema screen and car screen are fused into a single mode of experiencing the urban landscape. As much as I liked this scene in and around the drive-in, then, it just reiterated that not a single shot in this hyper-fluid vision of L.A. took place in a car, despite the fact that a car trip – or a car accident – functioned as the connective tissue between each shot.
In fact, so pronounced was the camera’s refusal to get into a car that I wondered whether this was part of the point of Too Late as a whole. In both modern and postmodern L.A. the development of the freeway system was often used as the best image of the supremely fluid and provisional structure of the city itself, but recent depictions of Los Angeles – especially drone depictions – have tended to seem decelerated, grounded and bogged down by car travel when they don’t pointedly avoid it altogether. Granted, that may reflect the growing decrepitude and desuetude of the freeways themselves, but it also speaks to a new notion of mobility encapsulated in the angelic drone perspective of the second season of True Detective. In that sense, Too Late often felt like a transitional film presenting us with a style of cinematography that seems drawn from automobile travel only to suddenly exceed it as it becomes gradually clear that we are not going to step into a car at any point. Whether or not it does exceed it beyond the first sequence is a matter of opinion, but the very inconsistency and incompleteness of the film is perhaps integral to its own post-continuous, post-classical vision of Los Angeles as a city in which autocentric infrastructure no longer ramifies as it once did, and both cinema and car travel have been jettisoned and abstracted into a roaming, roving, free-floating sensibility that no longer has anywhere tangible to settle but has instead been released to hover, ghostlike, over every scene and spectacle.