LAFF 2008: Gardening at Night

Scott Hamilton Kennedy is one of the whitest looking white guys you’ll meet, and yet he makes movies about South Central L.A. that come from a real place of knowing. Of course, OT: OUR TOWN was on one level just a movie about his girlfriend (now wife), but she also happened to be a drama teacher in South Central, and the chronicling of her class’ attempt to stage Thornton Wilder’s classic Americana piece in a way that was relevant to the inner city was a thing of beauty to watch. That said, I am something of a drama geek, and just the other day while talking to Kennedy, I realized that I have never once given a bad review to any documentary about putting on a play. So consider that my bias.

So I wondered what I’d think of his new documentary that isn’t about a drama class. OT was shot on what appeared to be VHS – it was probably something better than that, but point being it wasn’t the most visually stylish thing in the world. The content was what carried it. I need not have worried: THE GARDEN, also set in South Central, shows Kennedy continue to grow as a filmmaker and as, dare I say it, a journalist (having been both myself, I think I can).

[imdb tells me that Kennedy also wrote, directed, and edited a direct-to-DVD BRATZ animated movie. I will charitably assume he needed the money.]

If you pay attention to L.A. media – and since you’re reading the LA Weekly website right now, I’d reckon that’s a safe bet – you surely know about the South Central farm, founded after the Rodney King riots, and at one time the largest community garden in the U.S. You also probably know how the story ends. Yet even so, it’s one thing to read a lengthy cover story in an alt-weekly after the fact, and another to actually watch the events unfold onscreen. Not only does Kennedy have better equipment and a stronger visual sense this time around, but he also lays out the story and the relevant facts in simple, common-man way sop that any viewer can understand the mechanics of the debate.

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Which, in a nutshell, are:

-the farm was built on government land as part of community restoration after the riots, BUT…

-that land had previously been seized from a man named Ralph Horowitz under eminent domain; the city paid him $5 million for it. Horowitz sued three times to get it back, and failed, BUT…

-Later, in a secret backroom deal, the city came to an agreement to sell the land back to him at the same price it paid for it, AND…

-As soon as the deal was struck, he decided he wanted those damn kids (and old people) off his land, though he’d consider selling back the land for $16.2 million.

I won’t spoil the outcome if you don’t know, though it is public record, except for the parts that aren’t (and there are more of those than you’d think). And suffice it to say that developments are still ongoing, even though the central issue does appear to have had a resolution of sorts.

It’s not relentless tragedy, though – Hamilton finds humor where he can, as in the excitement of the farmers to know that a major presidential candidate is going to come and support them, only to have it turn out to be Dennis Kucinich. All in all, a terrific piece of agitprop journalism, and if I were councilwoman Jan Perry, I’d be very worried about constituents seeing it.

[A note to some former colleagues of mine: I tried to tell the filmmakers about some of the similar shenanigans going on in OC involving the last orange grove. The guy I talked to, who was getting audience members to sign petitions, didn’t seem to have heard about it, but maybe I sparked his interest, who knows. Anyway…]

I had some worries of my own afterwards, not being able to find my car. Had it been towed, or stolen? That seemed so unlikely since, unlike many straight males, I don’t like awesome-looking cars. I like vehicles that run well but look like a POS so that no-one would want to take them. But it would feel like some sort of nasty karma to have it stolen, since I just sunk two grand into the mofo. Thank Christ, it turned out I was just on the wrong parking level. But it made me miss my 7pm movie, so I compensated by drinking lots more rum, which had been switched out; the bartenders ran out of the official sponsor rum, so now we got the Malibu coconut kind, which almost tastes too non-alcohol-like for me, but what the hey.

My plan for the night had been to see an upcoming British movie called BOY A, but I was corralled by a couple of miscreants into going to NIGHT FLIGHT REBORN instead, mainly because it started later and gave me 15 minutes more drinking time. I’m glad I saw it, though. I missed NIGHT FLIGHT the first time around, as I didn’t grow up in this country, but based on what I saw here, it represents something quintessential that I think has been lost. Debuting months before MTV, it was a TV show that went out uncensored on the USA network (eventually to be replaced with UP ALL NIGHT) that featured music videos, interviews, shorts, repurposed vintage footage, clips of Reagan looking like an idiot…this documentary feature version splices in some current stuff in the same vein, including Internet cartoons and George W. Bush acting the fool. This was a show that had not only obvious music stars like Annie Lennox and Billy Idol, but also up-and-comers of the era that included Wendy O. Williams and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Not to mention a young buzzcut-sporting Ozzy Osbourne looking quite a bit like his son Jack.

The “Sun City” video was one of many things I’d forgotten the sheer awesomeness of. Participants include Melle Mel, Run-DMC, Hall and Oates, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, and Bono in one of the most awfully ridiculous hairdos you’ve ever seen, all hanging out together like buddies. Can you even imagine anything like that today? I think the last celebrity sing-along like that was Sean Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” during the ’91 Iraq war.

The founders of NIGHT FLIGHT, who quit after getting burned out some 8 years into the deal, are now back together and talking about starting it up again. I’m all for that. MTV abdicated its role long ago, and could use a competitor kicking its ass with new music.

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