Past the studios’ shadows
In 1956, a 23-year-old named Stan Brakhage received an offer to work on the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Brakhage had come to Hollywood to work with Charles Laughton on an adaptation of “The Naked and the Dead.” But by the time Brakhage hit Hollywood, Laughton was off the project and the young filmmaker was fielding the Hitchcock invitation. Brakhage didn’t pursue the offer. He made a couple of short films, worked here and there, but eventually left Los Angeles, turning his back on the industry and becoming one of the greatest yet least-known filmmakers of the last century.
Like a lot of filmmakers, Brakhage came to Hollywood to try to make a living doing what he loved. Although he turned his back on factory work and embraced a life of personal expression -- in lyrical abstractions that grappled with the largest questions, often through images from his quotidian family life in Colorado -- he never turned his back on commercial movies, remaining a faithful lover. (He once, rather hilariously, filled out a questionnaire with an ode to Woody Woodpecker.) More important, because he chose to make films for artistic reasons -- films that were pure expressions of an undeniably personal vision -- he remained engaged in a de facto dialogue with studio filmmaking. Like the very greatest off-Hollywood work, his films were a sublime confirmation that movies can aspire to the condition of art -- and sometimes achieve it.
If you’ve never heard of Brakhage, who probably received more mainstream press when he died in March than in the entirety of his remarkable filmmaking life, you’re not alone. Filmmakers working outside the studios have always had a tough time attracting attention in this country, but as long as there has been a Hollywood there has been an off-Hollywood too, a parallel tributary consisting of avant-garde cinema, experimental animation, documentary and truly independent moviemaking. Although some off-Hollywood filmmakers have toiled within the studio gates, they have staked their claim on cinema history with work made on the industry’s ragged fringes, outside groupthink and commercial imperatives. Some staked their claim as far from this city as they could possibly get. But others staked that claim right here in Los Angeles.
Beginning tonight and continuing through the weekend, you can get a sense of just how radical, untamed and occasionally brilliant Los Angeles-based non-studio cinema has been -- and continues to be -- with the inaugural film series at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s REDCAT (the name is an acronym for the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). Curated by CalArts film and video Dean Steve Anker, who for years helped run the San Francisco Cinematheque, and CalArts professor Berenice Reynaud, with assistance from guest curators Irene Kotlarz and Cathy Rivera, the program gets this newly launched weekly showcase off to an excellent start. The series’ name may be a snore -- coined for maximum literalness, the plodding title is Independent Los Angeles: A Festival of Independent Los Angeles Filmmakers -- but the assembled work is something of a revelation.
Given Los Angeles’ enduring reputation as a cultural wasteland -- sustained, it seems, principally by media elites east of the Hudson River who swan into town for a weekend before swanning back home to recycle all the exhausted cliches -- the city’s long history of off-Hollywood production may come as a surprise. Stories about men and women being swallowed up and spit out by the movie industry are instrumental to Hollywood’s lore and its mystique. Decades of stories devoted to squandered and abused genius, to butchered screenplays, to artists driven to drink and worse, have helped fuel the perception that nothing worthy (certainly nothing visionary), ever comes out of the industry and -- by extension -- out of the city often seen as little more than its adjunct.
The curators for the Independent Los Angeles series subvert that canard with a program of works that, taken together, make the case that for some filmmakers the city has been more of an oasis than desert. In this respect it’s an especially nice touch that the series begins with a program of short films by a young Kansas City animator named Walt Disney. (Screening this evening, the films, alas, were unavailable for press preview.) Made in 1923 at Walt and Roy Disney’s first Los Angeles office, and before they hung up a shingle announcing their studio, these “Alice Comedies” (named after the little girl in the series) combined live action and animation. Although there’s no question that launching the series with Disney cartoons has a whiff of political expediency, it underscores the crucial point that before his name became a synonym for industrial moviemaking, Walt Disney was an artist.
The Disney name leads directly to that of the late Jules Engel, an animator who thrived inside and outside the system. Born in 1909, Engel worked on the dancing mushrooms sequence in “Fantasia” and helped storyboard “Bambi” before joining the Army. After the war, he worked on “Mr. Magoo” and collaborated with Saul Bass, and in 1970 he founded the program in experimental animation at CalArts. Engel didn’t make his first non-studio animation until he was in his 50s. This later-life landmark becomes all the more impressive when you see the films, some of which have been gathered together for closing night on Sunday. The work ranges from playful color-and-form studies that look as if they had jumped off the walls of the Guggenheim to a lovely short (“Accident”) that echoes one of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies.
From Engel it’s a straight shot to one of the series highlights, a program of experimental animation titled “Where Worlds Collide.” Among the films included in this part of the series are shorts from Lewis Klahr (“Daylight Moon”) and Janie Geiser (“Ultima Thule”), transplanted New Yorkers who are among the most talented avant-garde animators working today. The Sunday afternoon lineup also features a short by Pat O’Neill (“Coreopsis”), a central figure in the city’s avant-garde film scene since the 1960s, and an animation from newcomer and CalArts senior JJ Villard. In his 11-minute short, “The Son of Satan” -- an adaptation of a story by L.A.'s wino poet laureate, Charles Bukowski -- Villard deploys a jagged, expressive style that recalls cartoonists Gary Panter and Lynda Barry and yet is wholly original. It’s a must-see.
The aggressively rough, hand-made quality of Villard’s short piece works a vivid contrast to the self-conscious gloss of Sharon Lockhart’s films. A well-known name in the fine-art world, Lockhart has two films in the series, both screening Friday night. The 38-minute “Teatro Amazonas,” which Lockhart shot in a Brazilian opera house, consists of a single uninterrupted shot of a packed audience looking directly into the camera. One of the singular pleasures of non-narrative film is that it forces you to engage with elements -- in this case, cinematic time and space -- that you don’t always notice when you’re busy following a movie plot and admiring the actors. Just as weirdly engrossing is the artist’s more action-packed film “No,” in which two farmers cover a dirt field with hay during a single uninterrupted shot, this one lasting 34 minutes.
As much as I admire the conceptual rigor of Lockhart’s films there’s something undeniably chilly about them. But one of the great things about the Independent Los Angeles series is that it shines a light on the full spectrum of off-Hollywood work -- from Lockhart’s icy intellectualism to the warm heart and deep soul of Billy Woodberry’s neglected 1984 classic, “Bless Their Little Hearts.” The emotionally shattering story about a family living and hoping against hope in Watts, with a scorching lead turn from Kaycee Moore, was written and shot by Charles Burnett. Like Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Woodberry’s film -- few titles are as piercingly ironic or pitiless -- stands as proof that although Hollywood looms large in Los Angeles, the personal vision of a Billy Woodberry transcends even the darkest shadow.
Manohla Dargis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Film history, under the radar
Frank E. Wolfe directs the pro-worker feature “From Dusk to Dawn.”
Filmmaker and composer John Whitney is born in Pasadena; his brother, James, follows five years later. In 1949, their short “Five Abstract Film Exercises” wins first prize at the First International Experimental Film Competition in Belgium.
Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich make the experimental short film “The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra.” Florey goes on to direct many B-movies while Vorkapich becomes a celebrated montage specialist.
Luis Bunuel moves to Beverly Hills and immediately buys “a car (a Ford), a rifle and a Leica.” That same year, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, bankrolled by Paramount, moves to Coldwater Canyon. Eisenstein and Bunuel hang out drinking poolside at Charlie Chaplin’s.
German filmmaker Oskar Fischinger moves to Hollywood, where he makes short films for Paramount and MGM, and, later, works on Disney’s “Fantasia.”
The family of then-teenage Roger Corman moves from Detroit to Beverly Hills.
Bertolt Brecht lands in Los Angeles. Three years later, after many rejected pitches and unrealized projects (“Boy Meets Girl, So What?”), the German exile declares that “even an ivory tower is a better place to sit in nowadays than a Hollywood villa.”
Maya Deren and her husband, Alexander Hammid, move to Kings Road, north of Sunset Boulevard, where they shoot Deren’s avant-garde classic, “Meshes of the Afternoon.”
The Coronet Theater screens a short by the then-14-year-old Kenneth Anglemyer, who three years later shoots his avant-garde classic, “Fireworks.” Re-named Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker goes on to write the “Hollywood Babylon” books.
Gregory Markopoulos shoots his avant-garde film, “Psyche,” while attending USC and taking classes from Marlene Dietrich’s director, Josef von Sternberg.
Charles and Ray Eames shoot “Traveling Boy,” the first of more than 100 films they made together.
Stan Brakhage makes “Flesh of Morning” and “Nightcats.”
Avant-garde filmmaker and Inglewood native Pat O’Neill (“The Decay of Fiction”) finishes his first film while at UCLA.
Andy Warhol shoots “Tarzan and Jane Regained...Sort of” with Taylor Mead and Naomi Levine.
Artist Bruce Conner shoots Toni Basil dancing for several hours in a Los Angeles studio; the next year, he edits it down to a 2 1/2-minute short called “Breakaway” named after the singer’s pop hit.
Avant-garde filmmaker Morgan Fisher works as an editor on Roger Corman’s “The Student Nurses.” Brian Madea makes “Yellow Brotherhood,” a documentary about Japanese American motorcycle gangs.
Painter Ed Ruscha shoots “Premium,” his first film. Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” hits theaters.
The Chicano art group Asco (Spanish for “nausea”) performs the first of its conceptual movies, dubbed “No Movies.”
H.B. Halicki wreaks havoc across the Southland with his cheapie car-crash anti-spectacular “Gone in 60 Seconds.” Jerry Bruckheimer remakes the movie a quarter- century later for a lot more money.
Experimental film venue Filmforum is founded.
Morgan Fisher and Pat O’Neill, among others, found the avant-garde film group Oasis.
Charles Burnett’s poetic masterpiece (and UCLA thesis film) “Killer of Sheep” is released, four years after wrapping. Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) shoots “Diary of an African Nun” while at UCLA.
Duane Kubo and Robert Nakamura direct “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner,” the first full-length fiction feature for and by Asian Americans. Trent Harris starts making his cult oddity “The Beaver Trilogy,” about a young Salt Lake City man who dresses in Olivia Newton- John drag, later casting Sean Penn to play the fan. In 1985, Harris returns to Utah and casts Crispin Glover in the same role, finally finishing in 1999.
UCLA graduate Billy Woodberry directs his feature film “Bless Their Little Hearts,” shooting in South-Central. Morgan Fisher makes “Standard Gauge.”
Pat O’Neill makes “Water and Power,” a counter-history of L.A.
Tom Joslin’s documentary “Silverlake Life: The View From Here” premieres, completed by Peter Friedman after Joslin and lover Mark Massi succumbed to AIDS.
Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro shoot “Hustler White” on Santa Monica Boulevard, casting performance artists Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis, and Madonna’s ex-boyfriend Tony Ward. It premieres at Sundance in 1996 to oohs and ughs.
Thom Andersen takes on Hollywood in “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” revealing how the industry has colonized the city in its movies. Not having secured the rights to the movies he samples, Anderson is unable to commercially distribute his opus.
-- Manohla Dargis
Independent L.A. Filmmakers Festival
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown
* “Alice’s Wonderland” program screens tonight, 7:30
* Multimedia program “God Bless Americana: The Variety Show,” tonight, 10
* “Sharon Lockhart: Ways of Seeing” program screens Fri.,
* “Border Crossings,” a program of short works, screens Fri.,
* “Animal Charm in Performance,” Fri., midnight
* “A Certain Kind of Death” screens Sat., 7 p.m., with the short “The Lonelys.”
* “Bless Their Little Hearts” screens Sat., 9:30 p.m., with two shorts, “When It Rains” and
“Dr. Indassa Holland.”
* “Reflection of Evil” screens Sat., midnight.
* “The Politics of Fur” and
“A Small Domain” screen Sun.,
* “Where Worlds Collide,” a program of experimental and independent animation, screens Sun., 5 p.m.
* A tribute to Jules Engel, includes many newly restored films, closes the series Sun., 7:30 p.m.
Price: All tickets are $8 except for the “Alice’s Wonderland” and “God Bless Americana” programs, which are $10.
Info: Call (213) 237-2800 for tickets and information; go to www.redcatweb.org for updates.