“Horror: Black Bear Eats Man”.
That was the headline ABC Los Angeles’s Eyewitness News chose to lure viewers to its nightly 11pm broadcast. Over on KCAL 9, the 11 o’clock news was trailed with footage of a gunfight between cops and an armed man who turned out to be a plain-clothes policeman. KTLA 5’s late-night show was running with the corpse found on the highway. This is the world of Los Angeles local news. Seven shows – three at 10pm, four at 11 – crammed with blood, blondes, bullets and rampaging bears designed to send you to bed with nightmares. Seven more, starting at 3.30 the following morning, make sure you wake up scared to leave the house.
This is the world Jake Gyllenhaal inhabits in the lurid new satire Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a skeletal sociopath whose desperation to succeed makes him almost unemployable. That is, until he’s in the vicinity of a gruesome car wreck and sees swarms of cameramen buzzing gleefully around the twisted metal. These are the freelance cameramen who haunt LA’s freeways, listening to police scanners for reports of accidents and homicides. Once something suitably bloody occurs, they try to beat the cops to the crime scene, film the carnage and sell the footage to the plethora of sensation-hungry news shows. Here Lou Bloom finally finds the career for which he’s best suited. When he sells his first piece of car-crash video to Rene Russo’s Nina, the news director of a low-rated early morning show who tells him to “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”, he finds his soulmate.
Nightcrawler may function as an introduction to a seamy, unfamiliar world but LA has been the terrain of freelance news cameramen since 1979. That was when former private detective Bob Tur began the Los Angeles News Service and dedicated himself to capturing the fires, floods, shootings, stabbings and car crashes that took place during the hours and in the areas camera crews employed by local news shows avoided. By 1985, LANS was such a success – it sold more than 3,500 stories to the local stations, made a profit of $1.6m, and had 22 regular employees – that several ambitious former employees broke away and formed rival agencies. Huddled in anonymous white vans parked in petrol stations, the opposing agencies were so hungry to be the first to film the aftermath of a drive-by or suicide, shoving matches between camera crews would frequently ignite into full-on brawls while the supposed object of their competition lay ignored nearby in a pool of blood. Gary Arnote, owner of now-defunct rival Newsreel Video Service, called the adrenaline junkies who manned his vans “The Bad News Bears”. “This city is going to hell in a handbasket,” KTLA’s news director, Warren Cereghino, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “And unfortunately the (video) stringers are holding up a mirror.”
The aftermath of the LA riots in 1992 was the freelance news cameramen’s finest hour. Sections of the city were no-go zones as far as mainstream media were concerned. The footage of looting and violence that kept the nation glued to its couch was largely the work of crews unaffiliated with network news. Another LA crime landmark, the OJ Simpson case, heralded the convergence of crime and celebrity. News departments became obsessed with the meltdowns and misdemeanours of the rich and famous, something they’d shied away from in the past because it often meant implicating people employed by their own networks. The accelerated interest in celebrity news meant LA’s cameramen saw their turf invaded and gradually dominated by the city’s paparazzi, who were every bit as tireless and immoral. The guys in the white vans may have been first to get film of six-car pile-ups but the paparazzi stole sex tapes from celebrity homes.
Ironically, just as a movie comes out shining a light on their dubious practices, 2014 is a changing time for the freelance cameramen. Los Angeles News Service is still active, although Bob Tur has since undergone gender reassignment and is now known as Zoey. But while, in Nightcrawler, Bill Paxton’s grizzled vet spits out the well-worn news aphorism “If it bleeds, it leads”, that doesn’t paint the whole peculiar picture of what LA local news looks like today. Yes, there are shootings, stabbings, muggings, suicides, gang wars, serial killers, car wrecks and freeway chases, but there are also Hollywood scandals, wildfires, mudslides and, especially, animal attacks; the same night the black bear story broke, KCAL ran a piece about what to do if confronted by an angry coyote. The aim is still to make you watch through the cracks in your trembling fingers but the tactics are different. When you do watch, you’ll start to notice how much cameraphone and surveillance footage is being used. Tur’s biggest rivals for stories used to be his ex-employees. Now it’s everyone with a camera. Which means there are a lot more potential Lou Blooms out there.
Nightcrawler is in cinemas from Friday October 31.
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