“Bright Lights, Big Cities” – GEMINI’s Low-Key LA Noir

The 2017 movie Gemini, starring Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz and directed by Aaron Katz, utilizes the elements of noir at a skeletal level. A multi-level narrative contained in an hour and a half, it doesn’t waste much time or trimmings, something to appreciate when it comes to a film that has the aesthetic burden of possibly leaning too much on long lingering shots of Los Angeles lit by neon and too-harsh-but-ultimately-beautiful sunlight.

It’s interesting in that this film reminds me of 2015’s Too Late, written and directed by Dennis Hauck and starring John Hawkes as a down-on-his-luck PI in Los Angeles, in that Gemini also takes place in smaller non-“famous” places and moments in a city known primarily for big well-known and visible locations. The implication here is of course that there’s more to the world of Hollywood than one might think, but Gemini doesn’t linger on them, recognizing that the film isn’t about LA per se, but rather Jill (played by Kirke), the assistant-turned-reluctant-investigator hoping to clear her name and simply understand what’s going on.

Jill is the personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Kravtiz), who winds up dead after an odd night, with Jill then the only seemingly-viable suspect, according to John Cho’s Detective Ahn. Jill’s desire to follow-throw with what happened leads her to ultimately discover the root of the mystery and, in a way, also give us a legitimate look at her boss/friend’s mindset, and the larger implications of that mindset regarding personal responsibility.

After a certain point, the film is somewhat by-the-numbers in its plot, an almost-cliché noir twist straight out of The Long Goodbye (there’s a spoiler for you), though, one could argue that like most noir, the story doesn’t matter. It’s style. If you’ve read a lot of Chandler, it’s of note that arguably, a lot of the stories tend to blend together into one world, where ultimately it’s revealed within the narrative (and seen by the reader thematically) that the story or case itself doesn’t matter. It’s ultimately, in the true noir tradition, pointless. However, Chandler’s language is what made his work stand out in his writing, evoking a character and an attitude in his protagonists, Marlowe in particular. Marlowe isn’t a brilliant crime-solving mind, but he represents the new world, the post-war world, the new LA. He’s cool, and that’s what counts/matters in Marlowe’s LA, being cool enough to roll with the fluidity of unsure morals.

Katz and cinematographer Andrew Reed’s view of LA, always an interesting location to try and represent in fiction because of how so many people see it with different lenses and contexts, nevermind how broad and sprawling the city itself is physically, is a surprisingly small and tight one. It’s focused, and Jill herself, in seeking the truth, is also focused. She seems to be almost surprisingly-focused, at times, though again, we’re only presented with slivers of person and personality in this film, a seemingly-deliberate novella/short-story trick to create a story and a driving movement, not an open world. This is why the short and simple but effective take on “small LA” (for lack of a better term) works here. Apartment buildings where actual working-people, not famous people, live. Jill is the assistant of a celebrity, but at the same time also presented as someone who grew up with Heather, who came to LA at the same time, and that somewhere in there, the paths of two people became a single narrative, where one inevitably moved on the path that they both strived for. And while jealousy isn’t necessarily introduced into the story here, small moments in the story hint at something else, which is exasperation. Jill is exasperated at Heather, and the end of the film’s draw away from the characters at the larger sprawl of the city itself, versus the small and intimate world we’ve been in before that has only slowly been expanding itself, breath by breath, is a part of that. Jill’s frustration with her friend-slash-boss-slash-friend being viewed and experienced side-by-side with the expansion of the world at large gives us insight into the fact that there IS a world for Jill beyond her and Heather’s immediate spheres.

In a way, the film almost acts like an ode and spiritual prequel to the birth of Marlowe, in creating someone (Jill) who recognizes their own fluidity as a useful tool for moving between and amongst social strata, as well as getting fragments and bits of what is needed in that movement. Jill is representative of a class of PI that I find fascinating, which is the ones that didn’t actually come from law enforcement or military or law backgrounds, finding themselves immersed in these roles through odd roles of luck. It’s a more modern take, one that I think even better represents the odd status of the fluid middle-class and working-class in the 21stcentury. You work with what gets given to you, or with what you manage to carve out for yourself, as odd as it might seem. In comparison to Marlowe, the Continental, Mike Hammer, or Sherlock Holmes, Jill isn’t tough or cool or the representation of strength and new masculine models (or the representation of any model). Rather, she’s a representation of potential. She could do more than she’s presented as, and Gemini shows that emerging. She’s not support, she’s forward, she’s proactive, and recognizes that forward movement is essential to survival.

Work with what you get, work to survive this weird bright and sometimes-cruel world, and it will expand for you, bit by bit, breath by breath. It might not be in the way that it did for others like Heather or the myriad of other characters that she encounters during her first “case,” but it does. It expands in giving her a greater sense of self-worth, of recognizing her own strength, ingenuity, and intelligence. And that expansion and recognition, using it to try and survive and maybe come out on top just this once? That’s one of the core tenets of noir and crime storytelling.

Maybe just this one time, I can beat it. LA in fiction is always portrayed as a place that never lets people beat it, at least in the long run. However, for the moment? For the moment, it can happen, just like it happens here.

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