L.A. Film Festival Celebrates a Decade of Challenging Cinema
by Jonny Leahan
The 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival wrapped on Saturday night, celebrating 10 years of bringing quality cinema to a city hungry for fare beyond the scope of Hollywood's usual offerings. About 40,000 people from all walks of life descended upon the festival, which the IFP/Los Angeles presented from June 17-26, screening about 200 hundred films from the U.S. and around the world.
LAFF kicked off with a screening of "Garden State," starring Zach Braff ("Scrubs"), Method Man, Natalie Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard. Braff, who also wrote and directed the film, delivers a highly believable (and likely semi-autobiographical) performance as Andrew Largeman, a struggling actor in Hollywood who returns to his childhood home for his mother's funeral. The trip back to New Jersey uncovers secrets both from the past and present, as the story effortlessly weaves between family drama and surreal comedy, invoking cinematic influences ranging from "Ordinary People" to "Harold and Maude."
The sold-out screening at the Arclight Cinerama Dome was followed by a blow-out gala at the Hollywood Athletic Club where Braff happily mingled with the crowd into the wee hours, partying with Danny DeVito and friends while enjoying the formidable array of food and the seemingly endless supply of Absolut vodka.
As good as that party was, it was trumped by the shindig for the documentary "Rock School," which took place at Shelter in West Hollywood. The crowd was treated to an off-the-hook live performance by five of the kids who starred in the film, as they brought down the house with smokin' renditions of songs by Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones, to name a few.
"Playing live at the party for the 'Rock School' premiere was an awesome experience," said Dom Malandro, singer and sax player for the band, who has the voice of Jim Morrison and the sassy strut of a 15-year-old Mick Jagger "I really wanted to show the people what we can do. There was huge applause when we were done, and even an encore request. I had a great time performing."
The documentary follows Paul Green and several of his students at the Paul Green School of Rock Music, from nine-year-old twin boys whose hairstyles outshine their talent, to true virtuosos like CJ, who overcomes a disability to become one of the most talented and versatile guitarists around -- despite being just 14 years old. When asked by indieWIRE where he will be in five years, CJ said, "Maybe I'll be touring, but if it doesn't happen by the age of 19, I will be at Berklee College of Music playing with some of the best musicians in the world. I think that I will either make metal music... or I will make pure rock and roll, but if you ask me the same question next year, you might get a different answer."
Another hit documentary in the program was Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," which recently played to rave reviews at both Sundance and the Director's Fortnight at Cannes. The film is as personal as they come, telling the story of Caouette's beautiful and tragic family life using mostly pre-existing home movies and photographs, which he saved from age 11, blended with ingredients like old answering machine messages, TV clips, and some current video footage. All of this was fed into his home computer and remixed on Apple's iMovie, using text in favor of narration, coupled with a mind-blowing soundtrack featuring the likes of Nick Drake and Bob Dylan -- ultimately creating a psychedelic distillation of one man's life that is as raw and singular as it is full of universal truth.
Apparently the judges saw it the same way, since they awarded "Tarnation" the Target Documentary Award for best documentary feature, which carries with it a $25,000 grant. The Target Filmmaker Award for best narrative feature went to Ferenc Toth for "Unknown Soldier," along with an unrestricted $50,000 grant.
"Unknown Soldier," which marks Toth's directorial debut, tells the story of Ellison (Carl Louis), an 18-year-old Harlem kid who goes from obsessing about sex to far deeper concerns almost overnight, as he finds himself suddenly homeless. With just a backpack and a few places to temporarily crash, time ticks on but it doesn't take its toll, as Ellison finds the strength to keep his dignity, and ultimately his pride, intact.
Pride is also a theme of one of the more memorable short films in LAFF's excellent shorts selections. "Welcome to Life" was written and directed by Jowan Carbin, who last week won the DGA award for best African-American student filmmaker. "It's a film about two 11-year-old boys whose pact to be friends forever is witnessed by the school bully," Carbin explained to indieWIRE. "This invasion of innocence leads the protagonist, Roger, down a lonely and destructive road, leaving his mother with an agonizing decision. I think the most difficult thing in dealing with such sensitive subject matter was discovering two boys emotionally mature enough to just be themselves. By doing so, I was able to capture the beauty of adolescence as the harsh realities of society come crashing in."
The harsh realities of racism are explored in the historical documentary "Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power," an important film that highlights the contributions of Rob Williams, the nearly forgotten forefather of the Black Power movement. The doc expertly pieces together the story of his life, from his southern roots in the 1950s where he began to advocate black self-defense, to his unlikely exile in Cuba, where he broadcast Radio Free Dixie with the permission of Castro himself. The film also serves as a stark reminder of the extreme violence perpetrated toward African-Americans in the south just a few short decades ago.
Another documentary that explores the Deep South, but from a white perspective, is "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus." Director Andrew Douglas tours the South after being inspired by an alternative country album after which he named the film, and ends up capturing a culture with near anthropological precision and skill. The focus is on Pentecostal living, but this is far more than a religious documentary, delving into the very soul of those who dwell there -- exposing its inhabitants as both good and evil, as both close-minded zealots and open vessels of creativity. Heavily relying on regional music and expert storytelling, the film preserves for us a vital part of our American culture that is on the brink of extinction.
In fact, American music played a vital role in several selections at LAFF, from "Metallica; Some Kind of Monster," the hilarious story of a band in mid-life crisis, to "DIG!," which has taken the festival circuit by storm in 2004 after winning the grand jury prize at Sundance. The film's director, Ondi Timoner, spent seven years chronicling the rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, and results are a classic "good versus evil" battle that can be found (in some incarnation) in every practice studio in the country. Ultimately, the question is always the same: are you a sell out, or the real deal?
LAFF's artist-in-residence, the legendary Neil Young, has never been accused of selling out -- although his poolside chat at the Argyle Hotel was beyond oversold. Hosted by local radio host Nic Harcourt of KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," the hour-long affair was classic Young, as he gently won the crowd over with his intelligent wit and self-effacing stories, eliciting alternate applause and laughter with his brutally honest commentary on everything from the current state of radio to why he shot his film "Greendale" on Super 8 -- "because it's so cheap!"
That commentary also included Young's thoughts on "Fahrenheit 9/11," which he proudly presented later that evening as one of his three film selections for the festival. The unprecedented screening, which marked the movie's North American premiere, played to a packed house at the DGA, as Young introduced the film by reading a letter from director Michael Moore. "I'm sorry I couldn't be here tonight," read Young to a whooping audience, "but I'm showing the film to a bunch of senators in Washington... Mr. Bush is invited... but I doubt he'll show up."
Other highly anticipated festival screenings included the centerpiece premiere "Before Sunset," directed by Richard Linklater. The sequel to Linklater's 1995 film "Before Sunrise" resurrects the characters of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), picking up where the two left off some nine years later. Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the script (a very dialogue-driven piece) with Linklater based on dozens of meetings, e-mails, and improvisations about where the characters would be now. The result is a compelling actor's piece that may not be for everyone, but delivers the goods to those with a little patience and a lot of appreciation for the skill it takes to make conversation on the big screen seem natural and authentic.
Carefully crafted acting was also the driving force behind the festival's closing night film, "The Clearing," by first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge. A veteran producer ("Heat," "Bulworth," "The Insider"), Brugge had a head start on how to work with stars like Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe, and his debut as director yielded a slick yet understated work of compelling substance. A character study between captive and captor, "The Clearing" explores the relationship between the haves and the have-nots on a level that provides as much sympathy for the kidnapper as it does for the corporate suit being held against his will.
Following the screening, LAFF closed the festival with its signature party sponsored by Target, which seems to spare no expense when it comes to good food, great cocktails, and even better company. Although it's always good to witness the enthusiastic support of the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry (this year's honorary co-chairs), the real guests of honor were the filmmakers, who were there in full force, marking a decade of bringing independent film to the most commercial of places -- Hollywood, USA.