LAFF Tracks: Los Angeles Film Festival Kicks Off the Summer

The 14th edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival was bracketed, first, by Mark Gill’s Cassandra-like keynote address about the dire state of independent film, then by an evening with Sheila Nevins, in which the HBO doc doyenne reaffirmed the primacy of television as the go-to venue for nonfiction (I was not able to attend either event). And in between, THINKFilm was teetering on the brink of solvency, if not respectability; YouTube opened its Screening Room for more artful fare; and Nevins was finally invited, after 15 years, to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  

And LAFF itself arrived at the heels of Summer Solstice, launching for the third year in its WestwoodVillage digs, with a new venue, The Landmark, about a mile south of the Village, hosting both the Film Financing Conference (where Gill delivered the aforementioned keynote) and a slew of competition docs and narrative films. I like the dynamic of the Village; having the venues within walking distance of one another creates a true sense of a festival within a clearly circumscribed area. Not to dis The Landmark—it’s an ideal screening emporium, with comfy seats and agreeable sightlines—but I guess this means that LAFF is solidifying its position geographically on the west side of LA, while its crosstown/other-side-of-the-calendar rival, AFI Fest, anchors the east side.

The docs at LAFF were plentiful—30 in all, with four screenings at the Ford Amphitheatre, including the much lauded Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Dir.: Sacha Gervais; Prod.: Rebecca Yeldham), which copped the Documentary Audience Award with just one screening.

This being Los Angeles, LAFF programmed, as it always does, a handful of LA-specific docus, including Largo, an homage to the venerable nightclub whose owner/impresario, Mark Flanagan, also happened to direct, with DP Andrew Van Baal, and produce the film. Van Baal’s black-and-white cinematography lends an elegiac texture—fitting, since Largo recently closed its doors (Flanagan plans to reopen in another location). That Flanagan opted to eschew narration, interviews and backstage/behind-the-scenes vérité and focus solely on performance, however, is part of the problem with this film. This is not to knock knocking conventions, but when you strip a doc of context, who is this film for, then, other than Largoites? If you don’t happen to recognize Largo regulars like Jon Brion, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Sarah Silverman, well, you’ll just have to wait ’til the closing credits, when those performers and many more, are ID’d. That said, will New Yorkers or Berliners flock to this film? And if they do, will they feel like I, an Angeleno, did—on the outside, behind the velvet rope (or, as Apple put it in a recent article about Largo in The New Yorker, “like pigeons on the windowsill.”), looking in?

Largo
Jon Brion, in performance. From Largo (Dir./Prod.: Mark Flanagan; Dir.: Andrew Van Baal). Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

Largo the club does provide a forum for artists to work out material, and this year’s LAFF, via a trio of docs and an accompanying panel with the respective docmakers, honed in on the creative process and the making and cultivating of the artist within and without. Jeff Stimmel’s The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, which airs on HBO this week, addresses the fall from dubious grace of the eponymous subject, who was lauded and feted on the same pantheon with the likes of such ’80s downtown Manhattan stars as Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel. But the art world, driven by commerce and image as much as by aesthetics, was not an ideal fit for the volatile, hard-drinking, hard-driving Connelly, whose self-destructive behavior eventually landed him out of favor with dealers, collectors and fellow artists. Stimmel’s story picks up a decade and a half later later, with Connelly relocated to Philadelphia, struggling to retain a glimmer of his old stardom, and exuding the same manic behavior that had throttled his career in the first place. But given that a portion of the film was shot by Connelly himself and his then-wife, and he seems to save his most boorish antics for these home videos, The Art of Failure succeeds not only as a portrait of an artist, but as a portrait of an artist trying to maintain the persona of the tortured artist. And if we knew nothing else beyond the frames of the film, we wouldn’t know that, thanks to a handful of screenings prior to its broadcast, Connelly is starting to sell his work again. And there’s talk of a possible feature film. Nothing succeeds like failure, I suppose.

Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe, by Harry Kim, is an amiable, well-intentioned and exhiliarating mess of a film, given that, according to producer Elizabeth Ai, Kim was faced with the documentarian’s dilemma of not knowing when to stop filming and start editing. It might not have helped matters that Kim and Choe were lifelong friends. Dirty Hands had begun as a short, then evolved over the next nine years into a feature. Choe is a mesmerizing and at times infuriating subject, his work informed by the underground, guerilla culture of comics and graffiti. He’s a thrill-seeker and a danger-seeker, and sometimes his manic energy lands him in jail. Unlike many artists who rebel against their parents, Choe is driven by the Korean culture that had discouraged his father from pursuing an artistic career. Time in a Tokyo jail does cause him to shed his Jean Genet persona, contemplate his faith, and kick-start his creative energy into overdrive. His career takes off, much to his chagrin, and he ponders the consequences of career, normality and the downside to making your dreams come true.

Finishing Heaven
Robert Feinberg, working on his 37-years-in-the-making film, Heaven. From Finishing Heaven (Dir.: Mark Mann; prods.: David Shapiro, Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Ian Rosenberg). Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival.

Rounding out the “artistic struggle trio” is Mark Mann’s Finishing Heaven, also slated for an HBO broadcast. Heaven is the unfinished work of Robert Feinberg, who, in 1970, was a student at NYU film school and a hanger-on in the fabled Warhol Factory scene. But he never finished the film, and for the next 37 years, he carted the reels around with him—to Italy, where he found work with Antonioni; to Brazil, where he worked in various capacities in the film industry there; and finally to Northern California, where he now lives alone in a ramshackle hovel, and scrapes by working for a cruise line. Amazingly, despite the Rube Goldberg means of preservation, the 16mm footage is in pristine condition. Ruby Lynn Reyner, his star and girlfriend from the Heaven period, called him one day, after several decades, and encouraged him to jump-start the long-abandoned project. And Mann, in full disclosure, agreed to help convert the film footage of digital, in exchange for Feinberg’s participation.

Feinberg is an amiable sad sack—self-deprecating, rueful, yet charming in a cranky sort of way. Reyner, his foil and sparring partner, goads him to dust off his long-dormant creative passion and realize their long-deferred dream. She herself had been through the mill—never quite emerging from the Factory days to bigger things, struggling with heroin addiction, caring for a husband stricken with AIDS-related dementia. You get a sense that finishing Heaven is redemption for both of them, and in one Gloria Swanson moment, Reyner says, “I was beautiful then,” as her younger self performs on the monitor behind her. For Mann, “The whole project was a delightful torment,” as the process of finishing Finishing Heaven proved just as arduous, maddening and rewarding.

Politics is an art of sorts—a nefarious one, to be sure—and in this election year, LAFF programmed Stefan Forbes’ Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, a tale of the notorious political operative who plied his trade like a warlock. As Forbes skillfully illustrates, the key players in today’s roll-in-the-mud style of politics—Karl Rove, George W. Bush—owe a debt of gratitude to Atwater, who caught the political bug back in high school in his native South Carolina, then learned at the feet of arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Atwater joined the College Republicans, then, through a series of Nixonian dirty tricks that would foreshadow the 2000 Presidential election, helped Rove secure the presidency of that group in a closely contested race that was ultimately decided by the chair of the Republican Party—George H.W. Bush. From that point forward, Atwater insinuated himself in political campaigns, local and national, working all the way up to the White House, leaving a horde of enemies and former friends in his wake. Then came divine retribution: Atwater was stricken with brain cancer, which would eventually kill him.

Chuck Connelly
Chuck Connelly, subject of Jeff Stimmel's The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale. Courtesy of Los Angeles Film Festival

Under Forbes’ skillful direction, as well as the steady producing hand of Noland Walker (whose previous credit as producer and writer, Jonestown, must have given him an education in the dark side), Boogie Man gathers an impressive cast of characters—campaign managers and politicians on both sides of the aisle, journalists, pundits, longtime friends, and Atwater’s most maligned victims, Michael and Kitty Dukakis—as well as footage of Bush pere and fils, Rove, Dick Cheney and many others to tell the story. But what works best in the film is the subtext—the long, deep, dark history of the Deep South; the ever-festering scar of race in America; the vulnerability of the democratic process. Over the last eight years we have witnessed the legacy of Atwater’s black arts.

Politics has been called the second oldest profession. As for the oldest one, Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal documents the fallen hooker-to-the-stars’ comeback attempt: as the proprietess of Heidi’s Stud Farm, due north of Las Vegas. The film plays as a sort of diptych: filmmaker Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey follow Fleiss as she tries to set up shop in the Nevada desert and runs into resistance from the locals, and HBO’s Sheila Nevins interviews her, well-coifed and softly lit, in a posh Beverly Hills hotel room (Fleiss reportedly had a falling-out with Barbato and Bailey, and Nevins gamely stepped in.). The interview coaxes out the candor—about her upbringing, her past, her time in jail time, her addictions and her efforts to remake her life in Nevada—and serves as a kind of Greek chorus to her travails in the desert. Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal screened in the “Guilty Pleasures” section of LAFF, but I’m not sure if I would categorize the film that way. This is an LA story in reverse—leaving LA to reclaim your life and repurpose what had made you famous in the first place.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of www.documentary.org.

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