The Man Who Knew Infinity
An account of a remarkable person should strive to be as equally remarkable as its subject, not the timid and tidy boilerplate special of a…
Los Angeles is a behemoth or, better, an octopus, with tentacles stretching 468.67 square miles, a fact that shocked me when I moved here in 1990. That meant that it was bigger than the distance consumed by driving to and from Chicago from my hometown, Kewanee (150 miles southwest), and back again. I soon realized that one could easily live an entire lifetime in Los Angeles and never see it all. This also meant that so much was always going on, including really desirable events, many of which would most certainly be missed.
That's surely applicable to the Los Angeles Film Festival, born in 1971, which was once rather poorly-attended - and probably without many good reasons, as excellent people worked hard to program it. I recall the single screening I attended years earlier, and only at the behest of an out-of-town festival director who'd invited me. The film writer Carolyn Petit told me, "I've lived in Los Angeles for many years and never gone." Despite being the center of the filmmaking universe, it just seemed that Angelenos had a greater yen for getting out of town - to Toronto, Telluride, Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance. Especially Sundance.
Times have changed. In 2000, Film Independent, producers of the annual Independent Spirit Awards, purchased and revived LAFF, which now welcomes as many as 90,000 filmgoers each year. Held from June 14-24, the 2012 festival offered 200 feature films, shorts and music videos from 30 countries, along with 3 "Music in Film Nights" with live performances at the Grammy Museum, as well as several filmmaker panels ("Coffee Talks"), and special presentations with Guest Director William Friedkin, who screened his latest, "Killer Joe," musician - composer Danny Elfman (notably "Chicago," "Spider-Man 3," "The Simpsons" theme), and cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose fine camera work received an Oscar for 2010's "Inception," and can be seen again in "The Dark Knight Rises." Driving into downtown Los Angeles my first day, I brace for the horror of traffic, which comes to a daily standstill around the points where the 5, 10 and 110 freeways merge, and think I couldn't possibly handle this every day of this 10-day festival.
(Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)
"To Rome with Love" opened the festival. Its fabled writer/director, Woody Allen, noted for dissing Los Angeles, was actually convinced by critic David Ansen, LAFF's Artistic Director, to appear in person. Allen is quoted saying that although L.A. has changed a lot since "Annie Hall" (1977), "and become a fun place to visit..., I would not like to live here because I would never be able to survive getting up in the morning and seeing that sunshine day after day and having to get into the car to go someplace."
I decided to skip this premiere and others, such as Friday night's gala for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," because I'm sure to see them in theatres. Instead I want to catch the docs, the foreign and "small" indie films which have less chance of theatrical distribution. For me, that's the central pleasure of a film festival!
"Without Gorky" is my first foray, a documentary about Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky, whose suicide in 1947 haunts his widow and two daughters even today. London-based filmmaker Cosima Spender approached this film in pursuit of the truth after growing up hearing so many stories ("the white noise of my life") about the famous grandfather she never met. Watching it, I thought of the first sentence of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina:" "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Unhappy as this family is, few storytellers begin with such rich material: his elderly, still-elegant widow, Mougouch, his wounded, now adult daughters, the old home and studio in leafy Connecticut, the ancestral lands of ancient Armenia and, most of all, Gorky's startlingly lyrical paintings --- these enable Spender to craft a film of unusual beauty while sorting through the oft-told stories, confronting the family's pain and ultimately discovering how much of Gorky's image (even his name, by which he claimed to be related to the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky) was sheer creation, even lies. At the Q & A afterward, Spender allows that making this moving film had become its own journey, enabling her family to find a little peace after so many uneasy years.
Next is something very different. "Red Flag" is kind of a "you really have to see it" film. Subtitled "a grave comedy," its 31-year-old writer/director/actor Alex Karpovsky plays a character named Alex Karpovsky, a filmmaker and comedian whose break-up with his girlfriend becomes grist for an on-the-road saga as Karpovsky takes another actual film, "Woodpecker," to actual college screenings in the South. I recognized Karpovsky from Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" (he's the sort of cute but annoying crasher at her mother's apartment) and learned he's also in "Girls," her provocative series for HBO.
Made for little money (Karpovsky wouldn't say how much, although $6000 is muttered through the audience), it was based on a 30-page outline and shot in 8 days; its use of 3 main characters, inexpensive wireless microphones, a digital camera employed by a DP who doubled as the editor, somehow add up to a delightful film. I laughed through lots of it, even the scatological humor which seems derigeur for this generation but usually unnecessary to me. The self-deprecation, plus the ability to observe the world outside himself spot-on, with such dark humor, suggest early Woody Allen, as do his charming nerdish looks. Asked how much of himself was in this character (reply: "I couldn't answer that"), Alex Karpovsky has surely arrived - and I'm happy for that.
Laura Colella is a filmmaker who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, and resides in a semi-communal Providence setting composed of 3 couples, 1 kid and a grandmother --- a ready-made cast of characters about which she one day decided to make a film. Shot in an easy, loopy style with all non-actors, and set in this neo-hippie milieu of the shambling purple house where they base much of their lives, its sweet, slight story involves Curtis, a smart, introverted teenager whose moment of bad behavior during grade school has alienated his neighbors. In an attempt to mend a several-year rift (and also create commercials for his mail-order book business), Syd, the oddball, old-style hippie - Theo Green in a happy self-parody - coaxes him into shooting short films starring Syd. These films provide the funny centerpiece of a character something like "Woodstock's" Wavy Gravy, or maybe that amusingly weird, long-haired older guy you know. In time, Curtis is drawn out of his shell to join this revelatory, pleasure-seeking, self-styled family in its technicolor joie de vivre. "Breakfast with Curtis" is the home movie you'd make if you were pretty talented. It works.
That's 3 features in a day, not to mention the shorts shown with nearly every film. Tired but sated, I skip the stairs for half a dozen escalators to get back to my car, then hit the 101 freeway heading north, the windows down, breezes blowing on a fine California night.
Having binged on cinema the first day, my next allows a broader perspective on this festival. Most recently it's been held downtown at the Regal Theatres Stadium 14 at L.A. Live, a flashy venue next to the Staples Center (home of the NBA's Lakers and Clippers, the NHL's Kings, and various mega-concerts) and the L.A. Convention Center. For many decades, L.A.'s downtown had "no there there;" people avoided it and its awful freeway traffic jams whenever possible. But, with a boom in the renovation of fine old buildings into chic lofts, which are being snapped up as soon as they're offered, many new restaurants and actual late night street life, that's no longer true. This is an exciting place to attend a film festival.
LAFF has 700 notably welcoming volunteers keeping people in the proper lines, providing info, wrangling crowds. And like the volunteers, the crowds are appealing, clearly representing Los Angeles in its complicated diversity. LAFF Artistic Director David Ansen, for many years Newsweek's film critic, says, "We're trying to mold a festival for Los Angeles, and we're very conscious of this incredibly diverse city."
Not only is there a nice range of ethnicities and ages but also what could be called interest groups: the music films, of which there are many (some of them shown at the aforementioned Grammy Museum nearby) bring out folks who might be dressed for a hip-hop or rock or alt-country concert, or maybe performing in one; the international films, an arty-looking group who I imagine, standing with them, might be speaking many other first languages. The viewing is not "segregated," as members of these groups can be seen at a variety of films once here. And the Q & A's after the films are filled with relevant questions from knowledgeable people, often other filmmakers.
Grabbing a seat for "Neil Young Journeys," I think of my late brother Phillip, remembering how much he loved Young and how we'd debate his merits; I always argued that his voice isn't much good, "whiney" (something I still think) but that was no matter to my brother, whose constant playing of his recordings eventually lowered my resistance. In a way, choosing this Jonathan Demme film (his third with Young) is my tribute to my brother.
With some shots of Young driving around his hometown in Ontario, Canada and bits of biographical footage interspersed, this is mainly a solo concert film --- stunning, and spare. Alone with equipment and one eloquent Indian totem pole, it's just Young on stage at Toronto's Massey Hall, reprising a solo concert he gave there in 1971. The sound (a special concern of Young's) was given extra attention, with significant expenditures to enhance the audio quality of the film experience. It was photographed by Declan Quinn, said to have been "obsessed with the idea of a performance zone - the space between the performer and the microphone." So, along with many other cameras, they attached a tiny one to the mic stand, getting shots of such power and intimacy - just his mouth and even spittle - as Young sings.
One of the songs is "Ohio," so familiar that it's a surprise to learn Young has rarely performed it. Here Demme intercuts rare footage from the May 1970 Kent State protest and shootings, on which the song is based, ending with the photographs and names of the four students who were killed that day. It's hugely powerful, perhaps informing those too young to have known much about it, causing muffled sobs in people like me who remember.
We enter the next theatre to live music - the strains of a familiar Coldplay tune performed by a string quartet of teenagers! They offer 3 compositions, and then a brass ensemble, also of teens, takes over, finishing with the Beatles. The crowd applauds enthusiastically as a woman thanks these members of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, explaining that LAFF is a big supporter of arts education in the public schools, and that next year each screening would feature a comparable live performance.
The film that follows, "Crazy and Thief," is one of my least favorites. Made by an obviously likable, and irrepressible writer/director named Cory McAbee, it stars his own two children, a girl 7 and a boy 2, let loose on the streets of New York in an ostensible treasure hunt. This film, made for only $1,500.00, features very telegenic youngsters in a story that too often comes off forced and artificial. ("Narcissistic," a woman murmured to her friend.) Nevertheless there's enough there, particularly a dreamily-shot subway sequence without much dialogue, to make me curious about what McAbee will try next.
Back home, some vimeos sent by helpful publicists await. What a nice way to "cheat" a little, this opportunity to catch a few more of the festival films without that harrowing commute.
"Four," a four-character film whose setting is the Fourth of July, is receiving its world premiere at LAFF. Based on a play by Christopher Shinn, director/writer Joshua Sanchez has pulled off a tough task, "opening it up" to make it work on film. The material is also challenging: a father and daughter, both lonely, reach out for one night's intimacy, with a cautious teenaged boy (in the father's case) and a tender "homeboy" wannabe (in the daughter's), with the two encounters intercut with each other and tied together by phone calls. Additional elements, exploring sexuality (the uncertainty of the boy's homosexuality, the teens' sexual inexperience) and with an interracial subtext (white, black and Latino characters) make this a film worth seeking out. (As LAFF ended, jurors awarded it the Best Performances in a Narrative Film prize, for a fine set of performances by Wendell Pierce, Aja Naomi King, EJ Bonilla and Emory Cohen.)
"Reporter" ("Reportero") is Bernardo Ruiz' potent documentary of Mexican reporter/photojournalist Sergio Haro and "Zeta," the political weekly for which he works. By now Americans are aware of the corruption and especially the violence, including beheadings, which have become shockingly commonplace in Mexico, causing many Californians to forgo trips to those beguiling places just a few hours south. Yet Haro and his colleagues, despite great risk, pursue their stories with extraordinary commitment, making one squirm in wonder: "In the same circumstances, what would I do? Could I be a tenth this brave?" This important film will be shown this fall on PBS' "POV" and shouldn't be missed.
After a couple of days watching from the couch, I figure on a full weekend of back-to-back screenings. First up is an event called "Developing Story: Inside HBO's Newsroom with Aaron Sorkin." The sold-out show is a pre-screening of the pilot, followed by a panel featuring Sorkin. In the past, a film festival offering something from television would have been curious but that's no longer true. Last February, I heard writer/director Terry George ("In the Name of the Father," "Hotel Rwanda") assert, "Everybody wants to do long-form television now." The chance to develop a storyline over many hours, and the meaty roles now found on cable (a seminar on AMC's "Breaking Bad" was also presented at LAFF) are drawing film actors, writers, and directors hungry for this opportunity which, one must surely agree, HBO pioneered almost from its start, 30 years ago.
Prepared to really enjoy "The Newsroom" (my own background includes producing for NPR) - and what's not to like with actors Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer? - I just really don't. The set-up scenes, in which a misanthropic national news anchor played by Daniels releases his frustration at a college seminar and then on his TV colleagues, seems bombastic and unduly thunderous and (dare I say) not very original. I mean, we've seen this in "Network," and, more gently, in "Broadcast News." Not that there isn't truth here: much of journalism, particularly the variety practiced on television, is on the skids. Yet it's too important to our democracy to let that happen and that's clearly Sorkin's concern. I'm just disappointed with much of how he's chosen to tell it, and should underscore that the later sequences, where the newsroom staff face a big story unfolding - British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon has just blown in the Gulf - really cook, offering evidence for how culturally significant this series could be.
The panel afterward, with public station KPCC's Madeleine Brand tenaciously attempting to query Sorkin, is mainly interesting to me for Sorkin's pleasantly-put stonewalling. He doesn't want to "go there," into what he intends nor whether he's read the reviews, but does offer he's happy the entire series is in the can, therefore unalterable and immune to criticism (much of which has been negative). In spite of my own, I'm glad "The Newsroom" exists, and hope Sorkin will take in some of the valid criticisms in writing its second season.
Approaching the entrance to the 110 freeway, I stop at the light, my windows down in the breezy darkness. Suddenly there's a man at my door and I'm momentarily frightened. But he points to the cat he holds in some gerry-rigged snuggle on his chest, and politely asks for change. Relaxing, I give him a couple bills, and drive on.
Next day, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" is packed. My seat on the end down in front, although not optimum, allows the chance of exit I think at first I might need, as an early scene with ultra-cute dialogue (a couple's ingrown form of baby talk) has me thinking I'm going to hate this film. But I don't really believe in walking out of films, so I hold tight, uncomfortably at first, and my reservations slowly dissolve. Rashida Jones, who co-wrote and produced the film with actor Will McCormack, stars with Andy Samberg in this story of 2 people in their early 30s who have known each other since their teens, been best friends, married, gotten separated, and are still hanging out daily, trying to decide if they should be together in some way or never see each other again.
It's not a "chick flick" (a term I find derogatory) but a romantic comedy in the tradition of "Annie Hall" and "When Harry Met Sally," both of which were templates for the writers. Opening and closing outside downtown L.A.'s Disney Hall, it's directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who says at the Q & A that they also meant to create a love letter to the often-photographed Los Angeles, not by employing the standard shots but rather some of its neighborhoods, and in fact they do a sweet job showing the day-to-day lives of people who live and love here.
It was produced for a mere $840,000.00 and is filled with really choice performances (in particular, Chris Messina, irresistible as a too-cool guy taking yoga classes to pick up women, and Emma Roberts as a gum-popping, Britney-like pop star), but it's nevertheless Rashida Jones's picture. An actress in her 30s who's mostly had small and supporting roles in film and on television (and, as it happens, is the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton), she gets her chance here, carrying the picture and filling the screen with a lightness of being which makes me want to watch her again soon. I find myself thinking of Jill Clayburgh and "An Unmarried Woman," and by its end, am in love with "Celeste and Jesse Forever." And good news: Sony Pictures Classics is releasing it in August.
Next, another of the music films: "Big Easy Express," directed by Emmett Malloy. Three contemporary bands - Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show - came together for a series of shows from Oakland to New Orleans. They travel by train, playing as much music along the way as in their concerts, and the filmmakers are there to capture it. For those who love this "neo old timey," or alt-country music like I do, the film is enjoyable for that experience, and there are some pretty shots of the country along the route. But the filmmakers miss a chance to inform us, even a little, about its subjects and their music, and their film is weaker for it.
I catch "Robot and Frank," written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by Jake Schreier, starring the always watchable Frank Langella, with a noteworthy supporting cast including Susan Sarandon and Jeremy Sisto. Now aging and alone, Frank (as the character is also called) may be developing dementia and his absent children try to assuage their guilt by supplying this robot companion. No HAL, this robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, is closer to R2D2, but less endearing. With our population aging precipitously, there's a story to be unearthed here, but the filmmakers seem to have passed it up for a grab at humor involving small town cops and cars that falls pretty flat. I found this film worth seeing for Langella, but otherwise a little wasteful of the other talent and too obviously an attempt to stretch the short film it once was.
Now for my first love, the foreign films...
"Bestiaire" was made by French-Canadian writer/director Dennis Cote, and it's unlike anything else at this festival --- a non-narrative, even "experimental" film shot mostly at a zoo outside Montreal. Without music or a voice to guide us, it's all about watching: the camera watching the animals, a few quiet human caretakers watching the animals, and the many extraordinary animals watching back. It's a meditation on the relationship of humans to other animals, and surely more timely than ever as this planet loses thousands of species every year. Among many stunning scenes, the sequence of a lion jumping at his cage door is unforgettable. This film seemed to enervate some viewers, as more people left than during any other screening I attended, but for most of us who stayed, it had distinct rewards. "Bestiaire" deserves the term art film. I salute LAFF for including it.
"The First Man" ("Le Premier Homme") is a French-Italian-Algerian collaboration directed by Gianni Amelio, and having its American premiere at LAFF. Based on the unfinished last novel of Albert Camus, who died in an accident at the age of 46 (the manuscript was found in his car), it is set in two periods in Algeria: the early years of Camus' hardscrabble childhood, and his return visit as a celebrated middle-aged writer living in Paris. The latter occurs in the mid-1950s, just as the Algerian revolution against its French colonialists gathers force. Shot by Yves Cape in magnificent 35 millimeter (the difference from digital shouts from its first frames), "The First Man" is a film that feels timeless and might have been made 30 years ago (when it would've starred Yves Montand). Classical filmmaking in the very best sense --- what a huge relief and pleasure that such cinema is still conjured.
(Watching it, I'm reminded of one of my favorite films, Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers," (1966), a stunner which recreates that revolution, actually taking the side of the revolutionaries while never prettying up their violent acts. These two are natural companions and would be a stellar double bill.)
It's now Saturday night and I'm heading home early, around 8. I make a left near the Staples Center and find myself in line I can't escape at a DUI checkpoint. An LAPD officer waves me in. I'm not nervous. "I've been at the film festival all day," I tell him. "And I never even had a diet soda." The officer checks my license, shines his flashlight into my backseat, and very genially lets me go.
Sunday I'm back in the church of cinema. "Neighboring Sounds" ("O Som Ao Redor") is the remarkable first feature of Brazilian director/writer Kleber Mendonca Filho, recognized previously for a fistful of successful short films. Set on one street in an upscale neighborhood of Recife, Brazil, its story is of a community of people, from the wealthiest to the poorest, brought together by their shared need for work or shelter, mainly at one high-rise on this street. There are tenants and owners, security guards, security dogs. Thieves and victims of thieves. Lovers and the bereft. A bored, pot-smoking housewife. A patriarch who owns the high-rise and other properties on the street. His good son and a bad one. All of these neighbors, at least on the surface, seem to get along while secretly suspecting each other of various misdeeds, yet throughout the film there's an underlying tension brought home by a soundtrack of indescribable menace, and always a sense that something terrible may happen.
Unlike most Brazilian films, there's little music (the director said he wanted to "break a stereotype about Brazil") and mostly natural sound. An exploration of a deeply complicated culture in one of the world's largest and most diverse countries, "Neighboring Sounds" could also be described as a cousin to "Bestiaire," its panoramic camera watching, watching --- although the subjects this time are the human animals. The film has been called "an x-ray of Brazilian life," and that seems apt. It's certainly an experience.
The last film is 3 hours in length, in Russian and has a story preceding it. Each year members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association select one exceptional film which never screened in Los Angeles, or didn't get the attention it deserved when it did, and present it at LAFF. Known as "The Films That Got Away," this year's is "The Banishment" ("Izgnanie"), (2007), directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.
I settle into my seat with a large crowd to watch this drama based on a novella by the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan. We see a young family, 4 good-looking people, parents and 2 children, leaving the city for a visit to the town and cottage the father was raised in. Various people --- brothers, old friends from the town, other children --- come and go as we watch the family, still dressed in city clothes and shoes, attempt to deal with this rustic setting. Somehow they seem out of place, suggesting the dislocation in the marriage ("We're strangers to each other," the wife tells the husband), and the tragedy which will come. The wife, it turns out, is pregnant again - and we're told it's with another man's child. Whether it is or isn't is central to the story that unfolds.
"The Banishment," inspired by an Old Testament story, is gorgeous to look at, with painterly scenes of women raking hay, sheep in pastures, children playing together outdoors as children always have - and inside, old photographs of ancestors seeming to keep watch. Arvo Part's "Fur Alina" is memorably laced through the film, and like "The First Man," there's a timeless quality here, a luxuriance of scene and image. See this film in a theatre if ever you have a chance.
Funnily, in this time of advanced technology, this 35 millimeter film breaks. Not kidding! And it's at the most pivotal point in the story. Everyone seems to let out a collective shout of "No!" It's almost refreshing, this moment of imperfection, and as a little time passes, people begin to chuckle, but nobody leaves. Somebody from LAFF arrives to say "we think we have someone who can fix the problem." The audience appears patient (so unusual these days), and maybe 5 minutes later, we take in the haunting final scenes.
As I leave the Regal Theatres, preparations for tonight's closing gala with "Magic Mike" (2012) are well along, the streets blocked off, the big lights up. When director Steven Soderbergh, and stars Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer walk the red carpet an hour from now, they'll be greeted by impressive crowds already clogging walkways around the theatre complex. (In a few days the film will open to major box office, surprising Hollywood with numbers swollen by a 70% female audience.)
And that's it. A really terrific festival by a fine organization. I've watched over a dozen films, almost as many shorts, and in 5 days driven at least 300 miles to savor the experience. Back home I go online to Film Independent.com, seeking information about membership and its offer of great screenings all year long.
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