LOS ANGELES — “Who is Tony Longo?” my editor inquired, after I pitched her on this piece about Thom Andersen’s new short film “The Tony Longo Trilogy” (2014). It makes sense that Andersen, the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which discusses how the city is portrayed on film, would fixate on a specific character type or actor, in this case a somewhat obscure one. The truth is that I, too, did not know who Tony Longo was until I watched Andersen’s piece at the Echo Park Film Center as part of the New Works Salon, which also included a selection of short films and video by Dana Berman Duff, Laida Lertxundi, Reza Monahan, Luciano Piazza, and Juan Daniel F. Molero.
Tony Longo is probably not a name that the average American moviegoer would recall, but his is a face they would likely recognize. A character actor who typically played big, dumb body or security guards in 1990s action films, Longo has a body type that fits the part (although he’s too much of a softie, according to the film’s synopsis). Longo is not incredibly recognizable or memorable. Andersen’s parody/tribute puts the face to the name. Kind of.
The ’90s were good to Tony Longo, and that’s the decade Andersen focuses on. He excerpts the actor’s brief though important roles in three films: The Takeover (Troy Cook, 1995), Living in Peril (Jack Ersgard, 1997), and David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Andersen makes Longo’s roles in these movies into small vignettes, or cinematic portraits, entitled “Hey, Asshole!,” “Adam Kesher,” and “You Fucking Dickhead!”
In The Takeover, Tony suffers for his inability to perform his simple bouncer-at-a-skeezy-club job. His only task is to keep the gangsters out of the club, yet he fails multiple times and eventually gets killed. In Living in Peril, he plays a maniacal yet mentally challenged truck driver who doesn’t realize he could have killed another man by driving him off the highway, which he did in a fit of rage. His mistake cost him his job — and then his life. Tony’s character redeems himself a bit more in Mullholland Drive by not getting killed and carrying out his thug role to the best of his abilities; this is the culmination of Andersen’s film.
Using a similar slashing-up and layering technique as in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Andersen makes the 14-minute “Tony Longo Trilogy” triumphantly funny in large part because of its concept: a trilogy is normally a title reserved for a hard-won three-part work that an auteur or playwright labors over for an agonizingly long period of time. Think of filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (Blue, White, Red), sci-fi/fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Earthsea Trilogy, or playwright Elaine Romero’s war trilogy A Work of Art. These are serious works that, when read or viewed together, create an epic experience for the viewer or reader. To take the short-lived roles of schlocky Tony Longo and satirically elevate them to the level of high art (in 14 minutes, no less) both suggests the ways that art takes itself too seriously and points to its ongoing rivalry with the world of entertainment-oriented Hollywood cinema.
Then again, the trilogy is also a form that any creative work can fill, including Hollywood film; consider the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones, both Hollywood blockbuster franchises. There is mastery in Hollywood — it just looks different than the “high art” trilogy format that some of us are used to. Andersen’s oddball short film makes Hollywood and art comfortable bedfellows. It might not be forever, but it’s a good pairing for now.