It's Not Just about the Southland: Impressive New Breadth at LA Film Festival
By KJ Relth
Los Angeles has never been much of a hockey town, so the convergence of the LA Kings’ Stanley Cup Championship match with the third day of the 20th Los Angeles Film Festival brought an unexpected flood to Downtown LA. My attempt to navigate from IDA’s offices in Koreatown on Friday the 13th to the Regal Cinemas at LA Live was fraught with traffic jams and last-minute parking changeups. So, I missed the 4:45 p.m. screening of The Great Museum, opting instead for the easier option: throwing up my hands in defeat and heading home. My colleague Thomas White was wiser than I in forgoing the Fest that evening altogether, instead enjoying the Kings’ victory from the comfort of his couch. You win this round, Mr. White.
Thanks to generally smooth parking protocol for the other eight days of LAFF (important in a city where the car is king), I was able to catch 13 feature-length documentary films, including six of the eight in competition. Thomas Miller’s Limited Partnership and blair dorosh-walther’s Out in the Night offered a strong representation for LGBT stories alongside a heavy focus on observational filmmaking in Àgnes Sòs’s Stream of Love. (See Thomas White’s report for some of the more meditative and powerful vérité selections from the fest.) Wildly entertaining character docs came in the form of The Battered Bastards of Baseball and Adam Rifkin’s Giuseppe Makes a Movie, an offering that will either shock you silent or laugh you onto the floor (spoiler alert: I experienced the latter reaction). The selection of music documentaries was rather weak compared to previous years, with Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound offering a somewhat exhausting history of a forgotten West Coast country singer.
When a filmmaker is a direct descendant of his main subject, a viewer tends to keep the eyes peeled for overly tender treatment of the material. In the case of Billy Mize, filmmaker William J. Saunders, Mize’s grandson, handles his main subject with kid gloves. That’s not to say that the story’s subject matter doesn’t warrant sensitivity: the handsome country crooner with a face made for television lost two children and suffered a stroke in his mid-60s that rendered him unable to sing. It seems trivial to lament the would-be success of a man who insisted on placing family before career, especially a man who hosted several wildly popular country music television programs.
Billy Mize is not a household name, so it’s understandable that Saunders is interested in putting his grandfather on the map. But what is the crux of his story? The filmmaker struggles with the arc of his narrative, setting up tragedy after tragedy to be confronted and belabored in a jerky rollercoaster of emotions. The one force that separates the film from a straightforward biodoc is the anticipation of Billy’s performance at his 80th birthday: Now that his stroke has made speech so difficult, will he be able to sing? Unfortunately, the answer to the film’s driving question left me cold.
Where Billy Mize is mired by the filmmaker's relationship with its subject, directors and brothers Chapman and Maclain Way are able to set aide the relationship with their grandfather/subject to produce a film so engaging that the climax elicited wild cheers from the audience. The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which premiered at Sundance and is now available for streaming on Netflix, offers a history of one independent baseball team and the vibrant man who served as its manager. Sports documentaries often fall victim to excessive jargon and inside baseball (ahem!), but Bastards invites the audience into the story of manager Bing Russell and the Portland Mavericks, at the time the only independent team in the Class A Northwest League. The Way Brothers unfurl their grandfather Bing Russell’s transition from minor league ball player to what his son Kurt (yes, that Kurt Russell) describes as “a plumber actor” cast in hundreds of television Westerns before landing the role of Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza. After the cancellation of this second-longest-running television Western in 1973, Bing turned back to his first love.
Through interviews with sports journalists and former members of the now-defunct team and well-aged archival footage, the filmmakers recreate the excitement that was palpable in the Portland stadium when the rough-and-tumble Mavs would take the field. Game footage showcases their speed and their chances, especially the risky frequency of their base stealing. Even as the intricacies of Bing’s management style and the Major League backlash it incurred unfold, the Way brothers never lose sight of what makes the Mavericks such an entertaining team to watch and discuss. Exposing their beer bellies in the locker room and sporting some of the most iconic (and definitely outside of MLB regulation) '70s hairstyles you’ve ever seen, the Mavericks’ motivating force was the pursuit of fun. The narrative doesn’t dwell in the team’s dissolution, but rather celebrates this rare moment in history when an independent team dared to take on the major leaguers—and actually came out victorious.
Adam Rifkin’s Giuseppe Makes a Movie offers a delightful look at one of the most prolific filmmakers you’ve never heard of. You might recognize Giuseppe Andrews from the iconic '90s films Detroit Rock City (also directed by Rifkin) and Independence Day, but odds are you won’t – his years living an electively transient lifestyle have visibly weathered his face and his body. Giuseppe is a true auteur who, after spending enough time in Hollywood, just wants to make movies his way: improvised shock and exploitation flicks void of continuity and staged without rehearsal. Rifkin’s doc is a lively, behind-the-scenes look at the making of Garbanzo Gas, Giuseppe’s then-latest story of a cow who receives an all-expenses-paid vacation from the slaughterhouse—to a motel room.
The doc follows Giuseppe through the entire process of developing, casting and shooting this latest feature which, unlike his previous films,Touch Me in the Morning, Trailer Town and Who Flung Poo?, will be shot in two days instead of three. He is a whirlwind force of encouragement and idealism for his projects and his collaborators, and provides an engaging guide through his offbeat, breakneck creative process. Those easily offended should steer clear of Rifkin’s flick, but those with a stomach for the lurid exploitation genre will delight in the 82 minutes you spend with one of its most prolific artists. If you like Pink Flamingos, you’ll fall in love with Giuseppe Andrews.
While the idea of octogenarians openly discussing their sex lives might sound like a premise ripped from Giuseppe’s ribald filmography, the tone of Àgnes Sòs’ Stream of Love is more a contemplative portrait of a rural Romanian village and its vibrant inhabitants. Sure, the film is replete with racy remarks about sex and self-pleasure. But there’s nothing exploitative about Sòs’ camera, a testament to the trust she gained from her senior citizen subjects over the two years she spent with them. The Hungarian film contains traditional interviews intercut with vérité footage, but its standout feature, to be sure, is its humor and humility. Women openly speak about their intimate experiences while preparing communal meals, laughing while reflecting on the folly of their youth. The film ends with a group of the women taking great joy as they roll down the grassy hill that looks down on their village, drenched in sunlight and laughing like teenagers.
One of the more serious and poignant docs in competition was Out in the Night, the story of four gay African-American women who were assaulted on the streets of New York City by a male aggressor. Because the women defended themselves with a weapon, Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson were all sentenced to at least three years in jail, with Patreese receiving an 11-year sentence. The film actualizes the trials and convictions of these four women, placing blame squarely on a media that dares to label them “a gang of killer lesbians,” and “a seething Sapphic septet.”
In the trial testimony, the male assailant claims that he reacted because one of the women “was disrespecting [him] as a man,” which made my hair stand on end: the same misogynistic privilege and expectations were echoed in the Isla Vista killings not more than a two weeks prior to this film’s screening. After we see all four women convicted while the male assailant walks free, a civil rights advocate is interviewed, proclaiming, “male supremacy hurts everybody.” If there’s one timely take-away from blair dorosh-walther’s film, it should be this.
Another resilient LGBT narrative comes from Thomas Miller’s Limited Partnership, which proved to be one of the more emotional offerings of this year’s selections. In a festival season that left everyone talking about The Case Against 8, Miller’s film reminds us that while the fight for marriage equality has certainly come to a head in the last decade, this battle actually began in 1975, when a Colorado clerk issued the first same-sex marriage license. Following the lives of bi-national, same-sex couple Tony Sullivan (an Australian native) and Richard Adams (an American), Limited Partnership depicts their struggle to make a life in a country that refuses to recognize their union, and thus criminalizes Sullivan for what is considered a visa violation. The couple’s story plays out through family photos, clips from an extensive interview with Tony and Richard from 2002, and more present-day footage, following the couple through a decades-long struggle to live openly and without fear. In a Q&A following the Los Angeles premiere, attorney Lavi Soloway reminded the audience that the 40-year evolution of same-sex partnerships is one of the quickest revolutions in modern history. Limited Partnership shines a light on some of the early fighters in this struggle, reminding us that the fight for our civil liberties is all part of an evolution.
Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the International Documentary Association.