So one of the core requirements in USC’s general education curriculum is the Category 5 GE class, known by most as “Arts and Letters.” These classes are taught by a professor in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (aka “The College”) and range in variety from classes about science fiction in film, to post-war literature, to aliens, to happiness as a human, all the way to the experience of being a loving wife. Naturally, choosing which class to take can be difficult. This semester, I am enrolled in LA Noir, a class about the image of Los Angeles, and how this image is constructed in literature and film. I chose it based on the book and film list in the course description. While I had previously seen the three films listed in the description, I had never critically analyzed these works, and the books were all pieces I have wanted to read for a while. Given the “Noir” in the title, you can imagine that most of our readings have been grim and dark. However, despite many common motifs, every noir author/director appears to take a somewhat unique stance on the city, as evidenced by their conveyed themes. Despite their darkness, if analyzed closely enough, these works can even be uplifting in some ways. No matter how one chooses to critically read these texts, one thing can be agreed upon: this is some good stuff. No matter how gruesome or foreboding some of these novels are, they are undeniably entertaining. This is not the reading that puts you to sleep. This is the reading that keeps you up at night. We started the class off with some mystery, moved on to love triangles involving tortured artists, and are now enjoying Hollywood drama at its finest. I thought I would share with you some of my favorite works from the class thus far. These are my recommendations for leisure reading/watching if you have some free time:
1. The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy
A fictional account based on the real life murder of Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” in 1947.
This novel details the quest to solve her horrific murder over the course of several years. Although the murder was never actually solved, the book does provide a killer! I’ve always been fascinated by the Dahlia case (E! True Hollywood’s unsolved murders specials are a total guilty pleasure of mine), so this book was gratifying in that it was a great read, but dissatisfying in that it just made me wish the actual case had a resolution.
2. Play it As it Lays, Joan Didion
This book is extremely hard to summarize, so I will refrain. The style with which it is written is unorthodox and a little difficult to read the first time through. but it is on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century, and with good reason. It follows the life of a troubled actress and those who surround her, with various chapters told from different points of view. It was a great change of pace in the class, because it was about a woman’s perspective of Los Angeles, a difference from the other novels.
3. Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder
The classic story of an aging, ex-starlet who once dominated the screen as a silent film star.
However, Norma Desmond refuses to realize that she is old news, a thing of the past. As a result, she decides to prepare for a comeback of sorts, starring in her own film. She enlists the help of a young screenwriter to fix it for her, eventually getting him to be her companion with the use of her wealth. Sunset Boulevard shows just how cruel Hollywood can be to women out of their prime.