LA Film Fest 2014 part one, by David Bax
I’ve really come to enjoy my time covering the Los Angeles Film Festival. The focus on truly independent and undistributed works turns the whole affair into a hunt for buried treasure. Any movie you walk into could very well be a surprise masterpiece.
That said, one of my favorite experiences so far involved a film I already knew to be a masterpiece. On Friday night, the festival presented a free outdoor screening of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. at California Plaza, at the top of the Angel’s Flight. The feature was preceded by Keaton’s short, “Cops,” and both films were accompanied by live music from a French rock duo. This last bit had something to do with Los Angeles’ sister city of Bourdoux and it made for a very charming incongruence.
“Cops” was new to me but proved to be as intoxicatingly fun as all of the silent comedian’s work. Keaton’s character inadvertently steals all of the furniture from a family’s home and then leads seemingly every cop in the city on an increasingly ludicrous foot chase. The physics-challenging antics of Keaton (walking back and forth on a ladder that is balanced on a wooden fence; grabbing hold of a passing car to make a getaway) are on display again in Sherlock, Jr. in a scene where Keaton is perched on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle that zips through town and country, around cars and over collapsing bridges, continuing to do so long after his pursuers have been evaded. I would argue that Keaton is not only a giant of screen comedy but also one of the forefathers of action cinema.
Keaton’s trademark stoicism (at least above the neck) is surprisingly fertile ground for comedy but it also becomes the undercurrent that grounds the outsized set-pieces. In Sherlock, Jr. in particular, it does the same for the special effects and formal inventiveness. Keaton’s physical precision is mirrored in the editorial one it takes to make his character do such things as get up and walk away from his own sleeping body and then step seamlessly into a movie screen and interact with the locations even as the shots change. As thrilling as it is hilarious, Sherlock, Jr. feels 90 years later like a natural partner to the work of Edgar Wright.
Eliza Kubarska’s Walking Under Water is a perfect example of the buried treasure I mentioned above. I knew little going in other than the basic premise; it’s a documentary about the Badjao people indigenous to the islands around Borneo, Indonesia and the Philippines who make their living diving deep into the ocean with only a spear gun and a length of tube stuck in their mouths, stretching all the way up to a compressor on the tiny boat waiting above. Yet Kubarska choose not to approach the topic as the hard-eyed investigator showing us the last days of a sadly dying way of life, at least not at first. The primary thing about Walking Under Water is that it is pure cinema, photographed for maximum beauty by cinematographers Piotr Rosolowski and Lisa Strohmayer and presented in a languid, almost plaintive cadence by editor Bartek Pietras.
Our two main subjects, a veteran fisherman and his nephew, spend five days fishing while the sun is out and sleeping on remote beaches at night. The underwater sequences are breathtaking. When we follow the tube from the boat down into the depths and have revealed to us a figure with large pieces of wood strapped to his feet for flippers, a spear in his hand and a dead fish carried in his mouth, he appears more majestically animal than man. Later, on the beach, the man and the boy smoke cigarettes and the man tells a story about a friend of his who had gills and would start to stink if he stayed too long on land. Non-fiction though Walking Under Water may be, it flirts with the edges of magical realism.
It’s all the more sobering, then, when Kubarska finally brings us back to the rest of civilization. When they have to detour to a city to buy a replacement part for the boat’s engine, they may as well be the part-fish friend from the uncle’s tale, so out of place do they seem away from the sea. Eventually, we see their homes, wooden hovels in which they sleep on the floor. And we see their almost impossible proximity to a resort that caters to wealthy tourists. Kubarska’s story is the story of the Badjao. After a long time of a beautiful and gloriously basic way of life, it is clear that fishing is no longer the chief industry of these waters. Only at the very end, does Kubarska gives us text on screen telling us exactly who the Badjao are how perilously close to extinction is their way of life.
Amanda Marsalis’ Echo Park is, unfortunately, what you get when you don’t find the buried treasure. The title, perhaps, should have been a warning. The Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles was, ten years or so ago, the burgeoning hipster enclave where families long native to the area brushed up against the bohemians looking to remain authentic. Now, with its surplus of vegan restaurants and overpriced coffee shops, it threatens to become as much as a phony bubble as the places on the other side of Fairfax Avenue, or about as phony as this movie.
Mamie Gummer (as winning and natural as always, despite the film in which she finds herself) plays Sophie, a woman from one of those Westside locales (Beverly Hills, to be specific) who becomes fed up with her predetermined sham of a life (in this movie, anyone who doesn’t live in Echo Park is living a lie) and moves to the titular neighborhood. She meets a British expat named Alex (Anthony Okungbowa) who is about to return to his homeland, when she buys his couch. They meet at one of the coffee shops of the type mentioned above and, on the walk to his place to get the sofa, he greets every neighbor they pass by name. Do you not get how genuine a place Echo Park is?!
The rest of the story concerns Sophie’s ambivalence between the old life that keeps pulling her back, represented by her ex-boyfriend and her mother, and the new one represented by Mr. Alex’s Neighborhood. Cinematographer Jason McCormick does manage to capture the look of Echo Park, if not the feel of it, but the lack of real narrative tension and Marsalis’ constant, desperate need to prove how with-it she is win the day and drown the film.
I’ll be back later this week with a couple more posts about the LA Film Fest.