Moving Pictures
Apr 24, 2023, 06:29AM

French Sunshine Noir

Model Shop captures Los Angeles in 1969.

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It doesn’t seem like much at first. We observe a street filled with a row of refinery crickets framed against a hazy Pacific Ocean backdrop. The oil derricks pump away in front of a house that sits directly beneath a LAX flight route. Gas was 29 cents a gallon. George (Gary Lockwood) lives on Outrigger St. in Marina Del Ray.

Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop is a 24-hour vignette of George during the Vietnam War era. When all hope seems lost, Los Angeles is a peculiar kind of place when it comes to finding hope and rebuilding lives. Compared to the other French New Wave filmmakers of the time, Model Shop was a drastic change in aesthetic for director Demy. The movie was a commercial failure that vanished into obscurity after its initial release.

Demy never worked in Hollywood again.

And here’s where the wheel of fortune a la Model Shop starts spinning and a myriad of connections fall into play. Demy was married to filmmaker Agnes Varda; her inspired tribute can be seen in a 1995 documentary The Universe of Jacques Demy. Columbia Pictures had invited Demy to California to make a movie to fulfill a contract.

In Mad Men season 7, Don Draper watches Model Shop in a movie theater. A scene is mirrored in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Cliff Booth picks up a hippie hitchhiker, Pussycat offers him a hummer. Quentin Tarantino admits the inspiration. The documentary Echo in the Canyon uses clips depicting late-1960s musical life in Laurel Canyon.

In the movie, a Vietnam draft notice has George all worried, in addition to girlfriend problems with Gloria (Alexandra Hay). Both have second thoughts. Repo men doing what they do, try to repossess his green MG Roadster giving him 24 hours to settle up. The unemployed architect graduate needs to borrow 100 bucks and decides to pay a musician friend a visit. George’s passion ignites in his green car after seeing model Lola (Anouk Aimée) driving a white convertible on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. Things go from mildly copesetic to downright stalky.

He follows her into the hillsides, setting up a sunshine noir drama. From the Hollywood Hills, he’s moved by the geometry of a vast cityscape and sees it as an intricate blanket of sparkling urban sprawl. George continues to spy on Lola on her way to work on Santa Monica Blvd. They finally meet in an amateur photo studio located in a sleazy part of Hollywood. She poses for titillating photographs, $12 for 15 minutes. The “model shop” was a precursor to today’s full-on sex shops. George’s obsession and anxiety continues to grow. When Gloria finds George’s hidden photo stash in a drawer, she goes berserk and rips them apart.

If you ever wondered what working for a late-1960s underground newspaper might look like in its heyday, here’s a glimpse. A scene shot in a Melrose Ave. storefront shows the offices of Open City; a Frank Zappa poster decorates the wall. In the background, someone’s typesetting, positioning lead type characters by hand. Meanwhile, George explains his dilemma to the counterculture editorial staff hanging out. As the day finally starts to sink in, events add up to a one-nighter of dashed dreams.

Accounts claim Jacques Demy took a hit of sunshine acid and saw Spirit playing at the Whisky a Go Go on the Strip; the band also has a cameo. Spirit’s progressive rock fusion soundtrack remained unavailable for years until 2009. In front of George’s friend house, you see the band’s lead guitarist in the window. Randy California’s impact to rock ‘n’ roll remains underappreciated within the pantheon of rock guitarists.

You don’t hear much about Randy California these days. Randy Craig Wolfe, a native LA music prodigy came from a musical family. During the summer of 1966 while in New York for a brief period at age 15, he met Jimi James of the Blue Flames at Manny’s Music checking out electric guitars. They clicked and performed together at Cafe Wha?,  a funky club in Greenwich Village for a nightly, three-month long stretch. To avoid confusion with another band member, Randy adopted California and Jimi was eventually renamed Hendrix.

Randy moved back to Los Angeles, too young to travel to London to join Chas Chandler to help Hendrix form the “Experience.” Musicians Jay Ferguson, Jon Locke, and Mark Andes and Randy’s stepfather, Ed Cassidy the stylish jazz drummer with a bald head and dark sunglasses, together formed the band, Spirit. “I've Got a Line On You,” “Fresh Garbage,” “Mechanical World” and “Nature’s Way” are some of their top songs. Randy California had successful, but difficult, music career that ended in tragedy.

On January 2, 1997, Randy rushed to save his 12-year-old son from a riptide on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Quinn was pushed to shoreline safety, but Randy was pulled out to sea by an undertow and never made it back. What happened to the others associated with Model Shop? Agnes Varda passed away in 2019 at 90, Jacques Demy died in 1990 from complications related to AIDS, and Alexandra Hay died in 1993 at 46 from a heart condition. Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood are still alive. The movie was originally marketed with the tagline: “Maybe Tomorrow. Maybe Never. Maybe.” This bittersweet tale remains a heartfelt French embrace of Los Angeles malaise brought into being through Hollywood’s lenses, Model Shop endures in its own special way.


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