Ghost World

A pair of sunshine noirs go in search of Hollywood's heart of darkness


The original sunshine noir, prototype for The Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland (as well as such less self-reflexive thrillers as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential), is Sunset Boulevard. Made in the late afternoon of the studio system, Billy Wilder's exercise in gothic neorealism is pure magic hour, evoking the uncanny nature of motion pictures as well as the disembodied creatures that populate them.

The Decay of Fiction, Pat O'Neill's magnum opus (opening for a one-week run next Wednesday at Anthology), takes the historical phantom zone first evoked by Wilder as its subject. Literally superimposing dream on documentary, it defines sunshine noir. Special-effects whiz O'Neill uses a combination of 35mm location shooting and a digital overlay to transform the once grand, long-shuttered Ambassador Hotel into a haunted mansion. The Ambassador has enjoyed a curious afterlife as a movie set (used in Pretty Woman, Forrest Gump, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name a few). O'Neill allows the hotel to represent itself in a state of physical deterioration.

An uneasy threesome: Eckhart, Johansson, and Hartnett
photo: Universal
An uneasy threesome: Eckhart, Johansson, and Hartnett

Details

The Black Dahlia
Directed by Brian De Palma
Universal, opens September 15
The Decay of Fiction
Directed by Pat O'Neill
September 22 through 28, Anthology Film Archives

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The past feels material. Everything is time-lapse. Empty rooms are animated by creeping shadows, fluttery curtains, and the memory of guests past. Silver ghosts gather around the derelict swimming pool. The old Coconut Grove nightclub, originally furnished with papier-mâché monkeys and the fake palms from a Rudolph Valentino vehicle, is a moldering wreck populated by gangster apparitions. O'Neill coaxes the suggestion of a story out of various movie moments, bits of soundtrack, and references to the Ambassador's legendary past (including Robert Kennedy's assassination in the hotel kitchen), but The Decay of Fiction is less a narrative than a monument. In its abstract movie-ness, this 74-minute carnival of souls exudes a wistful longing to connect, not so much with Hollywood history as with the history of that history.

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