By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Someday, film historians will argue over where and when the once-concrete notion of independent cinema devolved into such an abstraction that it nearly ceased to exist. In the meantime, Independent Los Angeles, the inaugural film series at CalArts’ multi-use REDCAT theater space inside the Disney Concert Hall, represents an important attempt at reclamation, one that aspires to redefine independent cinema — which is to say cinema that is independent not just financially but ideologically — in the era of Tarantino, Sundance and studio-owned specialty divisions.
Curated by CalArts film school dean Steve Anker and critic and festival programmer Bérénice Reynaud, the extraordinary four-day exhibition comprises nearly 50 short and feature-length films, spanning the spectrum from animation to live-action, documentary to fiction and narrative to experimental. But what is perhaps most notable about the series is how little its films have in common, beyond the fact that they’re seldom screened, and that most of their makers are L.A.-based. It’s hard to think of the last time such an eclectic and rare bunch of films were grouped together under one roof in this city, suggesting that REDCAT’s future programming will be well worth keeping an eye on.
Just as the “independent” in the series’ title refers as much (or more) to the artistic vision of the works on display as it does to their budgets, so does the “Los Angeles” imply films that filter the city through a unique personal expressiveness: films like Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), one of the most quietly perceptive, heart-wrenching films ever made about the struggles of the working class. Set to a wailing blues soundtrack that amplifies the anger, disappointment and humiliation of its protagonist — a once-proud African-American man (Nate Hardman) drifting between a series of dead-end, day-labor jobs — the film is a devastating frieze of scenes from lives lived at or near the poverty line, among naked light bulbs, unadorned plaster walls and secondhand housedresses. It is a movie about people most movies are never about, who live in neighborhoods most movies never bother to show. And though it has become virtually unknown in the two decades since its making, it remains an authentic masterpiece of American independent cinema.
Two decades, on the other hand, may not be nearly enough to fully sort out Damon Packard’s way underground Reflections of Evil, in which an obese mama’s boy (Packard), given to mass consumption of sugar products and frightening, Tourette’s-like outbursts, wanders the city’s streets and terrorizes its denizens. It’s an audacious, very funny shock-satire that suggests William Lustig by way of John Waters, and it may well repel as many viewers as it fascinates. But nothing about Reflections of Evil is nearly as disquieting as any one moment from Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s documentary A Certain Kind of Death, about the processing of human corpses through the various L.A. County agencies responsible for their transportation, attempted identification and ultimate disposal. Unsparing and unironic in its attention to the smallest, grisliest details, the film is fascinating for its macabre trappings, but even more so for its immersion into an office atmosphere where such trappings go almost unnoticed — a place where death is the business, and where a box of cremated remains is no more aberrant than a box of copy paper.
Of course, not all the filmmakers take Los Angeles as their subject; some, like experimental filmmaker Sharon Lockhart, cast as far afield as the Brazilian opera house where Werner Herzog shot scenes for Fitzcarraldo, while others, like the late abstract animator Jules Engel, just happen to have called the place home at one time or another. Dating from the early 1960s, Engel’s marvelous abstract shorts largely employ shapes and lines in intensely choreographed, fractal-like arrangements that, when combined with various original soundtracks — a jig, a pastorale — make it seem as though we are seeing the images form in our subconscious. Then, just when you think you’ve got him figured out, Engel throws out a curve ball like Silence, a computer-animated piece that shows us edges and outlines of forms that threaten to appear, but never quite do.
If only the same could be said about 21 Grams, the much-anticipated second film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and scripted by Guillermo Arriaga — the duo responsible for the dazzling 2000 triptych Amores Perros.That film was flashy and fast, the storylines often cartoonishly over the top, but somehow it was all of a piece, as its distinct melodramas gradually revealed themselves to be interconnected. The movie left an undeniable impact, and when I thought about revisiting it before seeing 21 Grams, I found I didn’t need to — its sights and sounds were more vivid in my mind, three years after the fact, than those of most movies I’d seen since. In particular, I found myself wondering whatever became of that bedraggled dog lover and reformed hit man El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), last seen trudging off across a desolate, muddied landscape in the film’s final shot. Not long into 21 Grams, I continued to wonder the same thing. For where Amores Perros was a feast of energy, wit and imagination, 21 Grams is like a starvation diet — a movie that wallows so profoundly in its own misery that watching it is like atoning for some sin you didn’t commit.
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