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Across the Great Divide 

Via small-form films

Thursday, Nov 4 2010

Cinema is a strangely autistic medium, often offering aid and encouragement to obviously pathological misanthropes, which isn't really a problem when that translates primarily into the form and content of their work — look at Stan Brakhage. Unfortunately, what you get when it translates further — into the very socioeconomic infrastructure for the creation of filmic artworks itself — is that poisonously hierarchical, anticreative cesspool known as Hollywood. And I've never even written a screenplay!

There are exceptions, of course: Robert Altman and John Cassavetes were both legendary for their willingness to destabilize the pyramidal protocols of the Tinseltown factory and locate the creative heart of their cinematic art in the resultant chaos. But as often as not, their work wound up as meditations on the desperate impossibility of bridging the communication gap between humans; even the most egalitarian of team players ultimately are defeated by the inherent hermeticism of the medium.

Whether through avant-garde eliminations of plot, character, the camera, authorial decision-making or intelligible pictorial content; or conversely through Imax, 3-D, Scratch 'n' Sniff and similar William Castle-type attempts at virtuality, the filmmaker's efforts to reach out and establish contact with an audience comes up against a raised drawbridge that is as narrow as the 1/48-second gap between projected frames and as vast as the gulf between you and your ex.

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An awareness of this structural and philosophical disconnect permeates LiTTLEROCK, a bittersweet, low-key but mesmerizing indie feature that's been picking up steam on the festival circuit over the last few months, and will have its L.A. premiere Nov. 8 as part of the "Young Americans" section of AFI Fest 2010.

The Young Americans category is devoted to contemporary regionalism — a good fit for LiTTLEROCK, which is set in the titular Palmdale-adjacent small town ("The Fruit Basket of the Antelope Valley"). Directed by newcomer Mike Ott, who grew up in New-hall, the film features a star-making, semi-autobiographical performance by locally grown (and current Palmdale resident) Cory Zacharia, and was realized by Small Form Films, a tight-knit gaggle of cinephiles who coalesced around Thom "Los Angeles Plays Itself" Andersen's classes at CalArts.

My own exposure to the Small Form collective came through artist and filmmaker Lee Lynch, whose work I have followed (disclosure: and occasionally collaborated on, in a celebrity cameo capacity) for a few years. While he was still a student at CalArts, Lynch gave me a copy of his student feature Transposition of the Great Vessels (a fictionalized account of the auteur's literal conception — greeeat!), which I shelved alongside other student videos I'd accumulated over the years; pretty low in the rotation.

But Lynch kept pestering me to watch it, and when I finally broke down, I was flabbergasted by its quality, particularly how the bleak/funny character-driven storyline seemed inextricably embedded in gorgeous, languorously paced California landscape cinematography. This emphatic site-specificity seems to be a hallmark of the Small Form aesthetic.

"The three features coming out on Small Form at first glance seem very different," Ott says from a European hotel room between festival bookings, "but I think there's actually a lot in common the closer you look — and not just 'cause Lynch and Dave Nordstrom have acting parts in all three films. Maybe the most obvious is that they are all very location-specific films; the location is just as important as the characters." Indeed, LiTTLEROCK's poignancy depends as much on its ambivalent affection for sun-blasted, graffiti-saturated clapboard ruins as it does on its delicate survey of the lost path to the American Dream.

The other two Small Form projects currently in post-production are Lynch's historical feature Ned's Draw — shot on location at the eponymous 1870 homicide scene near Oroville — and Nordstrom's Sawdust City, a heartrendingly funny Thanksgiving brotherly-reunion pub-crawl story set in contemporary rural Wisconsin, where the writer-director-star grew up.

Nordstrom plays one brother, while the other is solidly portrayed by Carl McLaughlin, principal photographer and co-story-credit-sharing dude on LiTTLEROCK. Lynch plays their foil, a shambling bullshit artiste who promises to hook them up with their estranged alcoholic father. Nordstrom is the lead of Lynch's upcoming film, and both have small parts in LiTTLEROCK. Which Nordstrom edited. It's a family affair.

LiTTLEROCK is actually about families, born into and stumbled across in the middle of nowhere. It begins with the quintessential American disconnect — an automotive breakdown in the midst of a road trip. Japanese tourists — brother and sister — on a genealogical pilgrimage to the Manzanar World War II Japanese-American internment camp find themselves stranded in a motel full of hopped-up trailer trash. Shit ensues: bike rides, shotgun beers, drug deals and one of the most exquisitely etched love triangles ever not written.

The catch to the narrative is that Japanese sister and universal love interest Atsuko (played by co-story-credit-sharing lady Atsuko Okatsuka) doesn't speak a word of English, and her nonverbal navigation of the tattered American mythological landscape holds its deep and painful contradictions in a tenuous, entangled, but culturally objective grip. And the shutter-gap between words and reality become more central and pronounced as the film unreels.

Atsuko's postcards home to their father oscillate between deadpan reportage and outright fabrication. When her brother reluctantly abandons her for a side trip to San Francisco, her subtitles vanish with him (both eventually return). What's left is a poetic and politically charged juxtaposition of the slacker-class, post-prosperity landscape and its unintelligible verbal rationalization, played out in a garbled collage of recycled romantic mixtapes, slapstick racism and naïve ambitious posturing. And erotically charged social choreography. Which somehow makes it all all right.

Marnie Weber's latest film, The Eternal Heart, also asserts the capacity of love to transcend isolation — in this case (no surprise to those familiar with the L.A. visual artist's cycle of supernaturally themed Spirit Girls works) the ultimate isolation of death. Utilizing a wide palette of obsolete and idiosyncratic film techniques (including some beautiful abstract, hand-processed sequences) that translate her distinctly Southern California landscapes into dreamlike realms, Weber recounts the death and rebirth of a silent-movie actress, who escapes from a world of monochromatic patriarchal routine through a bout of multiple-personality disorder and an outpouring of richly chromatic archetypal material. Sort of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz — except this time there's no "There's no place like home."

Curiously enough, Misters Lynch, Zacharia, Ott and Thornton (Frederick Fulton Henry Thornton, fourth official member and only non-auteur in the S.F. company) appear in the credits alongside Weber's usual company of collaborators — a result of her artist-in-residency gig at this year's California State Summer School for the Arts filmmaking program for high school students, where Small Form folk make up most of the faculty.

Weber's anarchist-tinged production strategies have much in common with the multiple auteurs of Small Form. "Meeting Marnie this summer was really inspiring for me," says Ott, "and I'm taking her advice and approach for my next project: If you have an idea, start on it, don't wait, start and see where it goes. If you want to be in a band, just pick up an instrument and play, teach yourself. ... If you want to show your film and no one will screen it, have a screening yourself in a backyard, or on the side of a building."

The debut of The Eternal Heart takes this philosophy to the next level: With the help of Emi Fontana's West of Rome Public Art, Weber will premiere the half-hour gothic melodrama as part of Eternity Forever, a multimedia extravaganza at one of the film's locations, Altadena's historic Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum. There will be interactive cemetery tours led by monsters from the film, the Spirit Girls will perform a live score as what is billed as the band's final performance, and the mausoleum's gallery will host a vernissage for Weber's latest collages.

It seems like the indie film world is on the verge of welcoming the Small Form scene to its bosom (aka the Sundance Channel?), but if that doesn't happen, it's not that big a deal. With role models such as Marnie Weber routinely making jewel-like DIY collaborative masterpieces for whoever feels like showing up, it's abundantly clear that the chasm between the creation and reception of an artwork isn't bridged by climbing up a ladder. You have to knock the ladder over.

LiTTLEROCK (in English and Japanese with English subtitles) screens Mon., Nov. 8, at 7:15 p.m. at Mann's Chinese Theatre; free.

Marnie Weber: Eternity Forever, Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, 2300 N. Marengo Ave., Altadena. Ticketed event Thurs., Nov. 11, 7–10 p.m.; exhibition free and open to the public Nov. 13-Dec. 20, Mon., Sat., Sun., 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., and by appointment.

  • Via small-form films

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