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.
How much suffering is enough suffering? As far as Iñárritu and Arriaga are concerned, there appears to be no reasonable limit. While the people of Amores Perros suffered, they also carried on with their lives. For the characters of 21 Grams, suffering is all there is; they’re martyrs in training. In the minds of Iñárritu and Arriaga, it’s hardly enough that Cristina (Naomi Watts) should lose her husband (Danny Huston) and two young daughters in a gruesome hit-and-run — best to make her a cocaine addict too, so she can be withdrawn and morose even in the scenes before the accident. And why make the receipt of a long-awaited heart transplant anything other than a temporary respite for the dying Paul (Sean Penn), when it makes for a more purifying bit of cinema — more vomit, more agony, more weight-fluctuating method-acting — if his ravaged body also comes to reject heart number two? Which is to say nothing of the brooding driver (Benicio Del Toro) of the murderous truck, whose guilt over his unconfessed crime only deepens the shame already festering inside him over his failings as a husband and father.
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As in Amores Perros, the order of events has been jumbled up, but the device here feels like just that, a pandering, manipulative device. Rather than the sense that we’re watching a series of distinct, self-sustaining narratives that just happen to intersect, we feel like we’re watching a single story that’s been diced up in the hopes of disguising how hopelessly convoluted it is. So, we may not realize right away that Paul’s new heart is the one formerly belonging to Cristina’s dead husband. Or that Cristina will eventually enlist Paul to track down her family’s killer. But by the time Del Toro angrily exclaims, “This is hell, right here!” while pointing animatedly at his own head, we have a pretty good idea of what he’s feeling.
21 Grams is being pushed hard by its studio, Focus Features, as a top awards contender, and it may be that the publicity wizards are on to something. This could be the year’s perfect picture for those disposed to confusing artifice with art. Certainly, that’s the trap Iñárritu and Arriaga have fallen into. Perhaps feeling the need — as filmmakers following up great success often do — to make something that much more serious and contemplative than their prior picture, they seem to have decided that the more they pile on the still, solemn affectations, the more we’ll be compelled to think deeply about the movie’s big theme: death. (The film’s title is a reference to the urban legend that a human body loses 21 grams — the weight of the soul — at the exact moment of death.) Yet, once you peel away all the nonlinear editing, bleached-out cinematography and vehicular manslaughter that’s been retained, however superficially, from their earlier collaboration, you’re left with a movie so self-flagellatingly ascetic that suddenly Ordinary People starts to look like a movie you can go to for a raucous chuckle.
INDEPENDENT LOS ANGELES | At the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT), Thurs.–Sun., November 20–23 www.redcatweb.org | See Film & Video Events for more information.
21 GRAMS | Directed by ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU | Written by GUILLERMO ARRIAGA; story by ARRIAGA in collaboration with IÑÁRRITU | Produced by IÑÁRRITU, ROBERT SALERNO | Released by Focus Features | At selected theaters