Movie Review: 2009 Los Angeles As A Character: Short Film Reviews
This was the second year for the Los Angeles as a Character short film screening, with both editions being curated by filmmaker Charles Doran. The premise behind the event is that L.A. is such a huge, sprawling metropolis — seriously, I live here and it’s mind-boggling at times — that it inspires any countless number of representations on film and video just based upon the different neighborhoods filmmakers happen to live in.
The main difference from last year’s screening is that this year’s films were much more literal in their visions of the city, whether they were trying to capture the vibe of a specific neighborhood or to capture as broad a landscape of L.A. as possible. The majority of the films were also actually shot on video and were all primarily documentaries.
But, it was interesting to see such a mix of styles within the documentary format. Few were what one could consider “traditional” documentaries with picking a subject and exploring it through direct-to-camera interviews and verite footage. However, others were very playful with technique and style, some creating a fictional L.A. out of actual footage and some offering wry commentary through jarring juxtaposition. As many different visions of L.A. were included in the screening were as many different approaches to documentary filmmaking.
Here are reviews of the individual films:
I Am Alive in Los Angeles!!, dir. Mike Sonksen. This was the perfect film to open the screening: A two-and-a-half minute rant about everything he loves about this city. Sonksen goes by the nom de plume Mike the PoeT and he gives an impressive, lively, shot-in-one-take rap where his delivery has a beautiful musicality to it. The video is shot in a grungy location under a bridge and in front of a graffiti-encrusted wall and you think, “Ok, maybe the poem’s title is going to be ironic.” But, it’s not. Mike paints a beautiful picture with his words of the lovely diversity that makes L.A. so awesome.
Los Angeles Through the Looking Glass: the Incredible Perpetual Motion Machine, dir. Jonathan Emrys. This film was actually inspired by last year’s screening after Doran was asked to give a lecture at Antioch University about it and to screen some of the films. Emrys, who lives here, decided to take a visitor’s eye view of the city, driving around taking snapshots of interesting landmarks. The images are then strung together along with Emrys’ own narration, like a tour guide leading the audience around on a twisty and twisted journey to all the spots none of the other guides will take you. But, what’s more fun? Checking out movie star homes? Or hanging out on the corner of Pico and Sepulveda?
Sunset to Sunset, dir. Kent Hayward. This was an interesting, successful experiment by Hayward, who decided to walk the entire 14-mile stretch of Santa Monica Blvd. from its beginning in Silverlake to its end at the Pacific Ocean. (The title refers to Santa Monica Blvd. beginning at its intersection with Sunset Blvd. to the time of day the walk ends.) Every block or so, Hayward snapped a single frame from a Super 8 camera to capture the ever changing tone of the boulevard. For those that don’t live here, Santa Monica Blvd. is kind of a crazy street with lots of not-very-nice stretches. It’s narrow for cars and cramped, and I have to personally wonder if it wasn’t quicker for Hayward to walk than it is to drive the same route, the way traffic backs up on the road. But, Hayward really captures the strangeness of Santa Monica Blvd. in a unique way.
The New Los Angeles, dir. Will O’Loughlen. This was a film after my own heart. O’Loughlen presents a vision of L.A. that I long for, where public transportation is king, people don’t rudely run into you while walking down the sidewalk and where the cement river that courses through the city looks clean enough to drink out of. It’s a dream and, who knows, maybe someday it’ll be possible. This is the city where dreams are made, idnit?
Echo Park: A Different View, dir. Stephanie Cisneros. Now, here’s a film to make me feel guilty about myself. Cisneros doesn’t offer up quite an anti-gentrification treatise, but it does view the practice with cause and alarm. Why do I personally feel guilty? Because I am and have been a gentrifier. I don’t live in Echo Park myself, but I live close enough for guilt to set in for all the people who end up displaced because of people like me. Cisneros documents the displacement of poor Latino families from Echo Park from a very personal, direct angle — covering the closing of important community gathering points and the businesses that still struggle to stay open and stay connected to the community’s heritage. This film is actually a few years old (2005), so many of the locations discussed are long gone and a lifestyle is still currently passing.
Naked Slave 4 Art Infomercial #2, dir. Johnny Naked. Presented like an infomercial and hosted by an extra from The Big Lebowski — if you look closely, you can see him bowling next to Jeff Bridges — this film introduces us to the Naked Slave art project. Johnny Naked is a real guy who attempted to sell himself as, yes, a naked slave to one lucky buyer to the tune of $1,999,999.99 for one year. We don’t get to meet Johnny Naked. Instead, a poster of Johnny Naked along with the terms and conditions of his sale are put on a wall at an art gallery at Barnsdall Art Park and shocked attendees are interviewed about their reaction to it. Nobody seems too genuinely shocked or horrified and most just giggle at the picture of a skinny naked dude. But, it’s a funny premise and the fake infomercial structure works well for the film.
Ennui, dir. Charles Doran. I actually saw this and reviewed it before on the Underground Film Journal, but, having liked it previously, it was even better checking it out on the big screen where it was easier to pick up on the film’s more subtle nuanced bits. Not that the film’s vicious attack on a certain pretentious art school type is all that subtle to begin with, but Doran gives us an unreliable narrator. Not that she’s misleading us, just that she’s not being entirely open about all of her activities. That “she” is a girl who desperately wants to be labeled an “artist,” but who is more just irritating than actually creative. Her voice is an annoying drone on the soundtrack, while the images capturing her grotesque behavior are in a grainy B&W Super 8. She wants to be all cutesy and quirky, but there is an evil, vicious mean streak hidden beneath the cat’s eye glasses and Betty Crocker dresses. Woe to the male art student who thinks there may be something deeper beneath the cloying exterior. Oh, there is, but not what they, or the audience, expects.
Dichotomy, dir. Van Veng. This is a clever look at the two realities that exist in downtown L.A. First, Veng takes actual videos produced by enthusiastic realtors waxing rhapsodic about how wonderful it is to live in a luxurious downtown high-rise loft. In between those videos are images of the homeless people who populate downtown’s Skid Row on the street. It’s a weird scenario of pretending that the issue of homelessness doesn’t exist right around the corner from these multi-million dollar renovated buildings. Maybe the new residents will get lucky someday. If enough of them move in, then perhaps Skid Row will have to eventually relocate.
Homeless in Hollywood, dir. Hollis McLachlan. How far will a person go to become a famous, or even just a regularly working, actor? In McLachlan’s documentary we meet Marcus, an overly cheery Australian dude who refuses to give up on his dream of working in Hollywood even if that means living like a homeless person. Marcus crashes in empty warehouses and bathes in church bathrooms all because he knows deep down that someday he’s going to “make it.” On the one hand, you have to give the guy points for ingenuity and commitment. On the other hand, he seems pretty off-kilter, if you know what I mean. Don’t most actors wait tables or work retail or something in between gigs? Marcus refuses to compromise for his dream. McLachlan doesn’t judge his subject and just gives us Marcus as he is. Truly, it’s hard to judge him because there’s a little bit of Marcus in all of us who come to Los Angeles to fulfill our dream, whether that dream is to become an actor, a filmmaker or a film website editor.
Watch I Am Alive in Los Angeles by Mike the PoeT: