Festivals: Los Angeles
Since its original conception under different management as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the major mid-year generalist festival in the second-largest American city has been uneasily wedged between the big events at the top of the calendar (Sundance, Rotterdam, Göteborg, Berlin) and those ushering in the fall (Venice, Telluride, Toronto). For festivalgoers, calendar placement may not matter—they tend to be more interested in the movies they can snag tickets for—but it should, since it can directly affect the films that the festival can actually program. The New York Film Festival, for example, was fortunately designed from the outset by Richard Roud and Amos Vogel according to a “festival of festivals” concept, as a curated program selecting from the best of the year’s festival circuit. “Fortunately,” because NYFF is positioned in October—a month after the early fall onslaught, allowing it space to consider and distill the year’s work. (AFI Fest Los Angeles, the other major generalist Los Angeles festival, set in November, enjoys a similar spot on calendar and, thus, curatorial position.)
The Los Angeles Film Festival faces an annual challenge: can the selection of its competition sections for narrative and documentary features—leaning heavily toward American work, with an emphasis on world and U.S. premieres—include enough fresh, vital, and good films that haven’t already been unveiled in Sundance, South by Southwest, and Tribeca? I’ve attended the festival since the beginning, and the challenge has never been met. LAFF can serve as a useful metric: if you’re playing the world premiere game, there are simply not enough good U.S. indie films to go around (and, if anything, fewer each year), so by mid-June the pickings are slim.
Forty Years from Yesterday
Take the narrative competition. Of the 12 in the lineup, there was one genuine discovery (Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s powerfully resonant Forty Years from Yesterday), one exceptional U.S. premiere from Mexico (José Luis Valle’s deadpan Workers, coming from the Berlin and Guadalajara festivals), and one reasonably decent European import (Janis Nords’s Latvian coming-of-age drama Mother, I Love You, which won the competition jury prize). Little else will make any impact on the festival world, except perhaps for Kamal K.M.’s highly flawed, hyper-repetitive indie Mumbai drama I.D., which has already played such festivals as Rotterdam and Turin.
Even if it weren’t surrounded by generally poor and mediocre American indies making their world premieres, Forty Years would remain a superb opening salvo from a filmmaking team with a fine future. Balancing cool distance and generous intimacy, Machoian and Ojeda-Beck stage a chamber piece about how a husband experiences the death of his long-sickly wife, and how the death affects the rest of his family, as well as the undertaker team caring for her body. Not a moment in the film is wasted, nor an affectation indulged; in other words, rigor is the watchword—a rare quality on view in today’s American indie landscape. Though clearly the work of serious cinema artists, Forty Years is just as invested in emotion, and its range of expressions of grief pushes the film toward the transcendent. It’s not too much to say that the final minutes attain the level of Dreyer’s more spiritual cinema, but without a trace of New Age wooziness.
Forty Years contains equal doses of feelings and ideas, as does Valle’s Workers, which similarly stood out from a sorry field of premieres at the declining Guadalajara festival. Though obviously indebted to Fernando Eimbcke’s innovative brand of deadpan humor, Valle’s intricately constructed social comedy portrays the parallel fates of two aging laborers in Tijuana: a loyal, hard-working janitor at a Philips plant and a maid for a dying matriarch whose beloved pet greyhound outlives her. The film plays out several variations on what it means to be a worker, including a bravura long shot on a busy street that’s a living diorama, but remains true to the central characters, both faced with absurd indignities which they find deviously clever ways to combat. Few filmmakers have tackled the rich dramatic potential of Tijuana, which has recovered from a period of almost unimaginable violence, and Valle does it like a director who has confidently found his own voice.
The gap between this pair and the rest of the field at LAFF was stark, making for a rather schizoid experience. Nords achieves some striking moments in Mother, I Love You, particularly when a young lad being raised by a hard-working middle-class single mom squirms out of being caught at his latest round of mischief-making. During these passages, the tension is palpable and relentless, but too much of the film is merely competent and familiar. Affecting moments also accent Karl Jacob’s Pollywogs, a loose-limbed tale about the failure of a suddenly single man (nicely played by Jacob himself, who shares directing duties with T. Arthur Cottam) and his long-lost childhood love to reconnect on a long summer weekend in the Minnesota woods. American cinema since the Seventies has been on an obsessive binge about success—or at least happy endings—and Jacob’s conclusion, which suggests that he’s watched his share of Ozu, for once portrays the face of failure.
But moments don’t make a movie, and neither of these films nor the promising but ultimately disappointing I.D. create sustained experiences. Kamal K.M.’s heroine tries to ascertain the identity of a house painter who died in her living room, but it’s like looking for a needle in the impenetrable Mumbai haystack; in contrast to Pollywogs, failure is so certain from very early on that the film becomes morbid in its repetitions and constant dead-ends.
This left seven new or nearly new American movies that look ready to expire almost instantly. It’s always intriguing, especially for critics who have worked on the festival-programming side, to ponder what might be the cause: a weak field of options (the result of that calendar dilemma); a policy of generally prioritizing world premieres; uncertain curation; the mission and agenda of the producing entity, in this case, the Los Angeles–based filmmaker-service non-profit Film Independent, which also produces the Independent Spirit Awards; sales companies refusing their stronger titles (a common problem endured by most U.S. festivals); or, as is frequently the case, some combination of all of the above.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the cause, but LAFF’s scaling back of foreign film, new and old, in favor of new American indies isn’t yielding gold. (The tradition of a small but nifty program of retrospectives was reduced this year to a single screening of Jean-Pierre Melville’s negligible 1959 curio, Two Men in Manhattan, and, as part of a David O. Russell tribute, Three Kings—hardly an “old” film.) Alexander Mirecki’s sloppy ensemble film All Together Now, Molly Green and James Leffler’s aimless road comedy Forev, Joe Burke’s vapid Four Dogs, Denis Henry Hennelly’s misguided apocalyptic dramedy Goodbye World, Henry Barrial’s creaky Bronx drama The House That Jack Built, Aaron Douglas Johnston’s dull and plain My Sister’s Quinceañera (which premiered at Rotterdam), and the inexplicably overwrought Winter in the Blood (from yet another co-directing team, Alex and Andrew Smith) are the kind of new works that are often the rejects of the more powerful indie festivals and generally lack the audacity or spark to interest the European events. (Quinceañera for one is an extremely odd and lame duck to pick from Rotterdam, which typically features more vital American work.) Since most of these also have slim hopes of a post-festival future through distribution channels, they fall in a zone where many thousands of festival films land every year, a kind of DMZ between art and commerce, too weak for either but somehow suitable as filler in festival programs.
This isn’t a sustainable model for LAFF, yet given the generally solid attendance numbers, it’s hard to determine whether or not the festival considers it to be a problem. On most days, when the crowds are flowing in and out of its home at the massive L.A. Live, the problem may not be detectable. Whether the current approach also affects the documentary competition will be something considered in the next post on LAFF 2013.