This year, the Los Angeles Film Festival turns 19 years old — that's the bronze anniversary, if you'd like to buy it a present — yet it's still discovering new stories about the city to showcase. From painters to hip-hop producers, casting directors to actors, plus a demonized president, the hard-core saviors of L.A. County Hospital and one giant rock, here are seven documentaries in the festival that will change the way we understand Southern California. >>
>>In 1993, all rap radio stations were bumping Dr. Dre's The Chronic. But two other local rappers, Charizma and DJ Peanut Butter Wolf, refused to go gangsta. “That wasn't who they were and that wasn't what they were about,” says Jeff Broadway, director of Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This Is Stones Throw Records).
Before they had a chance to prove themselves with boppy singles like “Red Light, Green Light” — and possibly even alter the image of L.A. hip-hop before Suge Knight and his hail of bullets — Charizma, at 20 years old, was shot dead by a mugger. Wolf mourned. Then he started his own record label, still headquartered in Highland Park.
“His real impetus behind putting out Stones Throw was the death of his best friend,” Broadway says. “He wanted to create an island of misfit toys for other people who haven't fit into the industry.”
Wolf gave the film access to 17 years and 400 albums of Stones Throw releases, some iconic hip-hop but also “avant-garde or even just straight weird stuff.” Consider this your invitation to the dance party.
>>Thirty years ago, if you went to the hospital with a gunshot wound, you had a better-than-you'd-like chance of being treated by a moonlighting dermatologist. “There was no such thing as an ER doctor. To train yourself as an ER doctor meant you had to go completely against the establishment,” says med student and moonlighting documentarian Ryan McGarry. “It was chaos.”
L.A. County Hospital, last seen dumping patients on Skid Row in Michael Moore's Sicko, is where the ER movement was born. “In the '80s in L.A., there were massive crack and cocaine wars and gang violence, a shitload of poverty and a shitload of traffic accidents,” McGarry says. “As a doctor, if you came from there, you were the best of the best.”
While on-site working 80 to 100 hours a week, he was given unprecedented access to film the insanity. The result is the bloody and awe-inspiring doc Code Black. And it doesn't hurt that, like the TV show it spawned, McGarry and his co-workers are totally telegenic.
>>In the art world, planting your studio in Los Angeles is an act of cluelessness or courage. For Llyn Foulkes, reluctant star of Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty's Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, it was both. Foulkes moved here from Yakima, Wash., in 1957 before he realized that New York controls the art market. “Hollywood is what I grew up on in my small town,” he says, “It was just, like, 'Oh, Los Angeles! I want to go to Los Angeles!' ”
Beyond the occasional foray to Manhattan to showcase his quirky portraits and landscapes at the Whitney, Foulkes has stayed comfortably underground. Well, as underground as he can be after winning first place at the Paris Biennale and trotting out his bizarre musical act, the Rubber Band, including a monstrous, man-made contraption, on The Tonight Show. “I can't explain it, but you'll see it,” Johnny Carson introed.
Foulkes isn't always happy in front of the camera, but he's happy to speak his mind. “The whole business of art is pretty sick,” he grumbles of the insane auction prices art fetches these days. “Van Gogh would have killed himself a lot sooner if he'd been alive today.”
>>”I love geology, I love boulders,” filmmaker Doug Pray says. But that's not why he spent 10 days watching a 340-ton rock being dragged through 22 cities in four counties at five miles an hour.
His film, Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture, celebrates a Southern California event that itself dragged 100,000 people into the streets, with more tracking its glacial progress online. “We were secretly wishing that it would just fall off the trailer,” he jokes.
L.A. is stricken by anything that might disrupt traffic, yet Pray was fascinated by the public fascination. “It became almost its own art happening, without the artist even planning it as such — it took on celebrity status,” he notes. “Whether they understood it or not, it brought communities together. By the time it got to Long Beach, they had a party with 20,000 people and a DJ playing songs with the word 'rock.' ”
Levitated Mass screens at LACMA's Bing Theater, near the juggernaut's final resting place. Arrive early and pay your respects. DJ not included.
>>Think of Richard Nixon and your mind travels to a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. But there's more to be learned about him just a short drive away at his Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.
When Our Nixon director Penny Lane heard that the library housed 500 reels of never-seen Super 8 footage of Nixon shot by three of his aides, she wasn't expecting to see him watching a bear riding a bike at the Moscow Circus, or the staff sunbathing at the beach. “A lot of it is really sweet and goofy,” Lane says. “Home movies operate on a scale of banal to adorable, and what the home movies were so clearly about was the time before Watergate defined that presidency forever.”
The film is a rare look at California's most maligned commander-in-chief, which sees him for what he was: a human. Make that a human surrounded by other humans who really believed that he was the right politician to lead the country. Lane sighs, “You see them all working really hard with big, excited smiles on their faces — it's hard to watch because we know the future.”
>>Character actor Harry Dean Stanton, he of the sunken cheeks and hawkish eyes, has almost 200 credits on his résumé. At 86, he's staying active — just this January, he was shot in the head in Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand.
Still, he's better known by his face than his name. And he's barely known for his music. “He doesn't talk much — that's part of why he sings,” filmmaker Sophie Huber says.
Her project, Harry Dean Stanton — Partly Fiction, isn't a traditional portrait. “He would freak out if I said biography or documentary,” laughs Huber, who admits the oddly camera-shy Stanton hasn't even brought himself to watch the final film.
But even if he's uncomfortable arguing for his place in Hollywood lore, Stanton's filmography makes the case: The Avengers, Alien, Cool Hand Luke, The Last Temptation of Christ. Or as Huber and countless other directors recognize, “To me, his face alone says a lot.”
>>That's the story of Hollywood: a land that's always spinning stories and then uncovering new ones about itself. Take the HBO-distributed doc Casting By, which started when Tom Donahue asked himself a question: “How come, having loved film since I was a little kid, I never thought of the importance of the casting director?”
Unrecognized by the Motion Picture Academy and unloved by actors who regard them as the gatekeepers and haters who've sidetracked their careers, casting directors have been written out of the film canon they helped to create by, say, pushing Dustin Hoffman for Midnight Cowboy or Michael Keaton for Batman — both of which were done by recently deceased casting legend Marion Dougherty.
“It's a long-overdue conversation,” Donahue says. “You really do finish this movie going, 'Oh my God, that's a whole other way of looking at a history that I thought I knew.' ”