Blue flags are coming down all over town; Broxton in Westwood is reopening; and local movie theatres are returning to their regular programming. With the glitzy closing gala (the well-received Hellboy II, reuniting much of the cast from the first movie, again under the direction of gothic fantasist Guillermo del Toro) and the distribution of various awards – amongst others, Target best narrative feature to Prince of Broadway, audience award to The Wackness, best international feature to Man On Wire, Spirit of Independence award to Don Cheadle – the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival is over.
No one possibly has time to see all the films at any given festival (more’s the pity!) so one person’s festival experience can wind up being wildly different from another’s – I saw none of the award winners, although most will doubtedly get a release of some kind. I prefer to pick out films that look unlikely to appear again on these shores in the near future, and mused on some of them from the first half of the festival here. The second half proved yet more enjoyable, not least because it included the irrepressible (and eminently releasable) Mirageman, from the Chilean gang who brought us the kung fu Kiltro. Marko Zaror plays Marco, a mild-mannered young man who works out in his bedsit and seems to have no friends or acquaintances aside from a younger, mentally ill and hospitalized brother, but boasts some mean martial arts skills and a built bod. One night out jogging he foils a home invasion with fearful excitement, and via one of the victims, a TV reporter (young, blonde, pretty..), his act of heroism and subsequent disappearing act (like a mirage!) becomes well-known throughout Santiago. He is immediately taken with the idea of this vigilante persona, not least since the TV coverage prompts signs of interest in his chronically withdrawn brother.
Director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza says his twin inspirations were Taxi Driver and the live-action TV Spiderman; the darkness of the former is largely absent until the finale, where the knockabout comedic tone is slightly jarred by the sinister lair and purpose of the the Paedofilia Red gang, whence Mirageman’s final mission is to rescue a little girl. Otherwise, spidey holds sway, as Marco punches and kicks his way through gangs and purse snatchers throughout Santiago (several sequences apparently filmed with a hidden camera), culminating in a terrific set-piece as Mirageman fights off countless black-clad goons, Bruce Lee-style, in the grounds and patios of a country mansion before winding up on a hillside arena-like terrace, facing off against a beardless Chuck Norris-a-like. Zaror’s skills carry the film – often the action was improvised as he would let a couple of thugs come on him and wait to see how he would defend himself until the camera rolled – enhanced by a shooting style that lets his moves speak eloquently for themselves, helped occasionally by some discrete editing. It’s also very funny, such as the sequence where Marco tries out a succession of outfits or makes himself a vigilante shopping list (including “flexible trousers”) and particular fun is poked at the exploitative media through news reports and on-the-street interviews (mostly negative about the city’s new vigilante, save the amusingly odd would-be sidekick, Pseudo-Robin) and headline pages in which unrolls the subplot of the reporter’s manipulation of her new-found celebrity and subsequent fall from grace. The film is perhaps too thin an idea to stretch to the potential sequel or the TV series currently in production in Chile, but it’s hugely enjoyable, well-paced, good-natured and even somewhat touching in the end.
One of the most promising screenings announced for the festival was Ballast, winner of best director and cinematography at Sundance (for Lance Hammer and Lol Crawley respectively). Touted as a shot in the arm for US indie cinema, with a heavy does of european naturalism (specifically via the Belgian Dardennes brothers) and a restraint and quietness unusual over here, it did not disappoint. The story, such as it is, unfolds in the rural emptiness off the Mississippi delta: a man shoots himself before the film begins, and his surviving twin, ex-wife and 12 year-old son try to pick up the pieces and stabilise their relationships. Despite touching on issues such as the schooling system, healthcare, drug-use, gun-use and dead-end poverty, Hammer’s aim was to create a tone piece, to capture something of the light and atmosphere of the area through Crawley’s beautiful blue-gray and muted green palette and a soundtrack divested of music but bulging with distant cars, dogs, birds and the winds and the not-quite-silence of the open fields.
He also worked hard with the actors to capture the local idiom and demeanor, and the largely improvised performances are uniformally excellent, particularly considering most of the cast are non-professionals; this method, one suspects, led to some stunting of character growth, but this is not a narrative that looks to make great forward strides: rather to encircle its protagonists and situations, and to show how they interact with one another and their environment, almost going in circles like the innumerable car journeys that give some idea of the bleakness and emptiness of an area where one’s nearest neighbor can be ten miles away. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but the pace is beautifully judged and the final scene completely, and appropriately open-ended. Another comparison has been to the work of Carlos Reygadas but despite many scenes of silence and inaction, there are no lengthy show-off shots of self-indulgence or would-be transcendence. Instead, a quiet, contemplative – and successful – attempt to capture the poetry of place, all too rare in cinema from America or indeed elsewhere.
Capitaine Achab is more familiar arthouse fare, but no less interesting for that. Expanded and revised from director Philippe Ramos’s 2004 short, it is for its first two thirds a marvelous reimagining of the backstory of Melville’s famous madman. Young Ahab is born into a beautifully-drawn Giono-esque rural Eden, one in which the tree of knowledge has already divulged its secrets, and passions of lust and jealousy spring forth with the force and inexorability of an earthquake. The film is divided into five chapters, each with a different character’s voiceover as Ahab crosses their path. By the time he is taken in by a prespyterian minister, the boy (Virgil Leclaire – excellent) is hard-headed and set, afraid of no-one, and the white-washed chapel for the souls of sea-faring men serves as an equivalent to Father Mapple’s last stopping post for the sailors of the Pequod; Ahab abandons his seminary training for the naval academy where grows up into Denis Lavant (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mister Lonely, Beau Travail). Lavant’s strange, ageless, feral face is perfect for the grotesque Ahab, looking alternately moulded from clay or hewn from solid rock, impassive or apparently uncomprehending, and with something of the air of the holy fool that was Bruno S.
The film skips Ahab’s early sea-faring life, depositing him sans leg in the courtyard of a laundry (a blanchisserie, no less, full of white sheets) right after his first encounter with the great white whale. He marries the laundry woman who nurses him to health and turns his back on the sea, but in the end cannot resist; the final chapter is narrated by Starbuck drifting with (presumably) Ishmael in a ship’s dinghy following the sinking of the Pequod. Despite some loose symbolism and unresolved themes of a biblical or sexual nature (not one but two cunnilingus scenes!) this is the film’s first mis-step; it is easy to accept that Ishmael is unusable as a narrator – he’s already told his story, after all – but admitting Starbuck’s very different, and confrontational, relationship with Ahab, how much more interesting it would have been to keep to the text and have him deliver a posthumous voiceover; where two men slide a dead sailor into the sea from their dinghy at the start of the chapter. It seems only from an unexpected and timid convenience that the dead man is an anonymous sailor rather than Starbuck, and that Ishmael remains with a companion rather than alone.
From here we get the coin-on-the-mast scene, the “on such a day … I struck my first whale” scene, and the final fatal encounter, none of which is presented with enough verve or impact to match the imaginative resetting of the character that has already been presented. On the plus side, however, we get some superb archive footage of whalers and whalemen, set to a particularly rousing rendition of “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”, but it is an unworthy conclusion to an otherwise mysterious and beautiful film: presented from the five viewpoints Ahab’s character threatens constantly to be revealed but remains tantalisingly elusive; and the visual style is a delight, characterised by beautiful effects of natural light, be it bathing the swaying trees and grass in an idyllic glow, illuminating numerous interiors in a way easily compared to Vermeer but with a character all its own, or simply imparting magic to numerous inserts of still-lifes or, in one sequence, a set of female nude studies (the film opens with the best “origine du monde” bush shot since since Godard’s Je vous salue, Marie).
These were three most enjoyable and interesting films, but the treat of the festival for me was the presentation by the excellent Film Foundation (adhering to tenets of “preservation, restoration and exhibition”) of a programme of restored short films (1958-1963) by George and Mike Kuchar. The twin brothers, living legends of the underground cinema/New York School of the late 50s/early 60s, were both in attendance, dry of wit, highly genial and probably a little batty. Shooting on regular 8mm (smaller even than Super8!) their films are testament to their passion, dedication and invention. Hugely prolific, they started shooting around the age of 12 and enlisted friends and family and anyone who happened to be around to appear in their hysterical, campy and silent miniature epics inspired by the most gushing melodramatic fare that Hollywood of the 1950s had to offer (Sirk was a particular favorite). It is easy to see why both John Waters and Guy Maddin are big fans. Each about a quarter of an hour long, the films bear such splendid titles as The Thief and the Stripper, Confessions of Babette and I Was A Teenage Rumpot, with credits for collaborators such as Mary-Emma Smutt, Brigitte Bazooka and Pixie Latrine, together with fantastic intertitles including “It’s Laura, back from the dead,” “They mocked me as though I was trash” and “Shame is not a stranger to this hospital of sin.”
The restoration of the originals has brought to life the eyepopping 8mm colors and the continuous soundtracks – largely compiled from their record collections – run the gamut of swelling Hollywood strings to Mexican dance party music to early R&B and rock and roll (the first sounds of the programme were “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”: a good sign). That the brothers were happy to film any of their acquaintances who had a “bit” to do leads occasionally to some langourous sections: Gina Zuckerman frolicking in a bubblebath in Babette (George reported in deadpan that she and her husband were “very into cheesecake” and the scene where Babette, searching for someone to beat her with leather, comes across a spiv and a sailor in the woods is totally Betty Page meets Tom of Finland). But for the most part the pacing is pretty tight, even if the plotting is amusingly nonsensical (several films were edited from parts shot years apart, sometimes for different films altogether) and one of their most charming aspects is the frequent use of hand-drawn inserts and animation and special effects. Often this is created created by filming though a fishtank (the best being a striking scene of a twister laying waste to cars, buildings and power lines in A Town Called Tempest); there’s a good decomposing mummy head, and even a doctor rather effectively peeling off his own face (before an animated sequence reveals him to be a spaceman..).
The best thing about the films, however, is that the brothers and everyone else involved obviously loved making them, and gave of their all, in the process creating their own highly influential trash/camp aesthetic abounding with good humour rather than irony and entirely unconcerned with its own shortcomings. Inspirational: as George put it, he figured that if you want to be a film-maker, you’ve just got to make films.