LAFF 2010: Downtown
By Tom White
When the Los Angeles Film Festival announced that it would be pulling up the stakes from its Westwood digs and moving eastward to Downtown LA, there was a mild hue and cry from the indie blognoscenti that the audience that had grown accustomed to self-contained Westwood Village and its cluster of theaters might not make the commute to the other side. But given that two of those venues had shuttered soon after the 2009 LAFF and an additional one was teetering on the brink, the festival leadership opted to follow the lead of the Independent Spirit Awards and cast its lots downtown. And with the rapid emergence LA Live as the latest in a series ambulatory environments that have defined that have defined the commercial/cultural landscape in LA, the allure of Downtown seemed to make sense. What's more, the region has seen a population growth of 40,000 over the past decade; with the Music Center, REDCAT, MOCA and Disney Hall anchoring the northern section of Downtown, LA Live, with its Regal Theaters, Grammy Museum, Conga Room and Staples Center, provides a compelling counterweight.
And so it went, with opening night coinciding with the Lakers' triumph at the Staples Center right next door. Despite a raucous and riotous crowd outside, the festival faithful reportedly enjoyed a rooftop soiree following a screening of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. But in keeping with the other high-profile sporting event that the rest of the world was watching-the FIFA World Cup-the festival screened The Two Escobars, about the 1994 Colombian soccer team-captained by Andres Escobar and owned and controlled by notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The film is part of ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, for which the sports cabler commissioned 30 of the best established and emerging docmakers to make films about a moment or event in recent sports history that bears cultural significance. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, whose previous work, Favela Rising, documented life in the gritty favelas of Rio de Janeiro, gained remarkable access here to friends and relatives of both Escobars, as well as to riveting footage of both football matches and of the aftermaths of Pablo Escobar's bloody reign of terror. The Zimbalists deftly weave together the precariously and tragically entwined stories of Andres and Pablo, and how the dreams of elevating a nation's hopes through the exploits of its national sport were both fueled and shattered by the dark elements that defined a nation's identity.
A festival has the advantage of developing unique programming and hosting filmmakers to interact with audiences. LAFF presented Sam Green's performance documentary Utopia in Four Movements, which, following its Sundance premiere, has been showcasing at various stops on the festival circuit. Green explained to the audience that each performance was different, that with co-director and co-composer Dave Cerf and main composers/musicians The Quavers, they would gauge the space and the audience and fine tune the work accordingly. Green, the on-stage narrator, operating his off-stage laptop with a remote, walked us through his musings on utopia-what it means, where it comes from, whether it's possible. He combines various tropes of the essay documentary with the trompe d'oeil performance monologue of the late Spalding Gray, whose down-to-earth persona-a flannel shirt-clad middle-age raconteur sitting at a bare desk telling stories-masked a soaring, exquisitely crafted work of art. Utopia in Four Movements is inextricably linked with the power of performance-and by its nature defies replication in other formats; it's as ephemeral as its subject. Green is currently taking his work to documentary audiences, but he'll be testing out new waters this Fall at The Kitchen, the venerable New York-based performance space.
Another bracing festival experience was the screening of the Audience Award-winning Thunder Soul at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Mark Landsman tells the story of the Houston-based high school troupe the Kashmere Stage Band, which, in the 1970s, dominated competitions across the country with its hard-driving blend of funk, jazz and soul. The band members reflect thirty years later on the value of their experience under teacher/band-leader Conrad Johnson, the special kind of mentor who not only taught his charges how to play and play well and cohesively, but guided them through their lives. But what made Thunder Soul special is that the reflecting and reminiscing transpired to action: The bandmates reunited and played one more time before their aging and ailing svengali. And no sooner had the credits stopped rolling, when the 30-odd band members assembled on stage and launched into the music that changed their lives.
Of course, LA grows some funk of its own, in the form of Fishbone, the subject of Chris Metzler and Lev Anderson's Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone. The band, which has performed a frenetic amalgam of ska, jazz, punk as well as funk for over 30 years-and yet, despite their legions of fans and admirers, including Flea, Ice-T, Perry Farrell, Gwen Stefani and Branford Marsalis, the band never achieved the arena-sized popularity that those artists had. Founding members Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore still hang on--as their bandmates leave and briefly return and leave again--and doggedly pursue their creative dreams, playing to scant audiences and scarping by. Their plight is somewhat similar to that of Lipps and Rob of Anvil, pursuing their adolescent dreams into twilight. Metzler and Anderson take us back and forth between now and then, and at times this structural strategy needed tightening. When narrator Laurence Fishburne fills us in on the early years, it's almost superfluous, since the Fishbone members are fairly ribald raconteurs in their own right. And when Fishburne returns to his narrating duties after a long absence, it's jarring, since we really didn't miss him. This is an LA story, one of intercultural experimentation and tension, and the filmmakers bring that out well.
By moving across town, the LA Film Festival may well have solidified its profile as an essential stop on the festival circuit. And in going head to head against Silverdocs across the country, several films-Waiting for Superman, Marwencol, Camera, Camera-played both fests in the same week. But more than that, the festival held its own in Downtown, complementing the wealth of cultural offerings there.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary Magazine.