Los Angeles Needs Its Own Wavelengths

I had begun writing about my viewing experience of TIFF’s Wavelengths section for Film Journey with the customary introduction and mini-history of the section and its crucial importance to the world’s largest film festival, followed by reviews/analyses of each of the key films in the program.

Then I looked at what I had written, and thought, “Nah. Scrap that.” It needed something else. I needed to consider this differently. Because I was looking at things differently. Part of this stems from my own work as a writer. Until recently, I’ve devoted my writing to cinema, which I’ve done consistently (and almost exclusively on cinema) since 1999. When I wasn’t writing, I was programming. I had been living in Beijing for the past two years, working on a program for a new, as-yet-to-be-realized film festival to be located in the northern Chinese coastal city of Qingdao and produced by the massive entertainment/media/real estate/sports conglomerate, Dalian Wanda Group. In China, I couldn’t write film criticism. Instead, I turned my hand to the thing I had always really wanted to do with my writing life, fiction.

Since returning home to Los Angeles, I’ve devoted more time to fiction, and I’ve noticed how it’s changed my writing on cinema. In fiction, everything is about writing and re-writing, outlining and re-outlining, plotting and re-plotting, drawing up characters and re-drawing them. It’s a process of steady accretion, steady touches, improvements, rethinks. You finally land on the thing that you stay with.

In my life as a journalist/critic, and because I come out of the newspaper world, it’s mostly down to this: Write as well as you can, but get out the copy.

Before, I may have stuck with my original draft on Wavelengths. Not now. And not only for personal reasons of creative process, and the longer process of what writing a novel involves.

Much of it has to do with returning to Los Angeles, my hometown, the place where I discovered cinema, where I developed my chops as a cinephile as early as the first year of the late, lamented and first real film festival the city ever had, Filmex, when it hatched at the Grauman’s Chinese in 1971, when it later imported in 1974 the entire Cannes Critics Week to screen at LACMA. (Think of that.)

The week I returned and felt like kissing the ground getting off the plane at LAX after two years in mainland China (I’m not kidding), the independent Los Angeles exhibition network was flexing its muscles and doing something I’d never see in Beijing, a major world capital that’s also a cinephile desert, where the adventurous Beijing Independent Film Festival had been summarily shut down by cops, who arrested its organizers—eight days after I had arrived in late summer 2014.

The team comprising REDCAT, LA Filmforum, Veggie Cloud, Fahrenheit, Human Resources and Cinefamily was presenting a citywide career survey of Chantal Akerman titled “Chantal Akerman: Contre l’Oubli/Against Oblivion.” It was comprehensive, serious, essential. It was precisely what I had been missing for two years, and precisely what the city needed.

It was also a clear signal that the city’s film community was growing to a new level.

So when I ventured to Toronto in September for TIFF and especially to see as much of the Wavelengths program as possible, I saw it for the first time within a Los Angeles framework.

I also viewed it in the wake of the disaster known as the Los Angeles Film Festival, which I had naturally not attended for over two years. There’s no question that what was once a quite respectable, and sometimes ambitious film event (particularly during the run of current San Francisco Film Festival program director Rachel Rosen), is now a debacle. The event’s producer, Film Independent, is in the business of film industry talent development and throwing their annual pre-Oscar Spirit Awards bash in a Santa Monica beach tent. What they threw together and tossed up on the screen in their new Culver City location couldn’t rightly be called a festival at all. It was as thoughtless an assemblage of bad crap as I’ve ever seen in my twenty years of steady attendance at festivals.

Film Independent, not coincidentally, is also partly responsible for the criminal gutting of LACMA’s once-revered film department and programming (last run by Ian Birnie, who has gone on to work for out-of-state entities while living in Los Angeles), which had at any rate long been treated as the red-headed stepchild of the larger museum complex. The film program now, such as it is, is a strange plaything thoughtlessly tossed around by LACMA head Michael Govan (who, otherwise, and in every other dimension of the LACMA campus, has been nearly revolutionary and visionary) and programmer Elvis Mitchell, who works for Film Independent and has utterly no sense of what it means to assemble a meaningful program that extends its reach to the city and makes any kind of impact, other than to draw in Hollywood acolytes for the popular but self-aggrandizing live script-reading performances. In the same hall, Leo S. Bing, where we once had huge surveys of Kieslowski, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Buñuel, we now have ego-stroking sessions with “new Hollywood.”

With the perspective brought by the astonishing Akerman retrospective, to say nothing of the regular exhibition being done at venues as diverse as Cinefamily, Filmforum, REDCAT, New Beverly, Veggie Cloud, Echo Park Film Center and the newest kid on the block, Acropolis (of which, full disclosure, I’m now a participant and programmer), Los Angeles Film Festival was an even greater embarrassment for the city than it would otherwise be. AFI Fest could be relied on, as it proved again this past November, to deliver a fine, compact survey of many essential films from around the world (it screened, let it be noted, no less than five films that had premiered the previous August in Locarno).

But AFI Fest runs a week and can’t be expected to carry the load of presenting the essential annual world cinema. This would require at least one other festival, maybe two, and would stretch over at least two weeks. In a good year—and 2016 was a good year—there are at least 50 key international movies lacking U.S. distribution that fail to screen in Los Angeles.

There’s clearly a gap, and it isn’t filled even by all the wonderful cinema institutions in the city running at full throttle. Putting aside the financial issues of putting something like this
together—film business isn’t a topic addressed at this website—just the artistic need can be perceived.

Gaston Solnicki’s Kekszakallu


So, enter Wavelengths. As most readers here know, TIFF’s reorganization of itself as “TIFF” (formerly the Toronto International Film Festival) included reorganizing Wavelengths, named after Michael Snow’s masterpiece, and the festival’s showcase for experimental cinema, usually five nightly sets of short works. The new Wavelengths would absorb the program formerly known as “Visions,” which comprised
features by leading-edge filmmakers. If great Los Angeles filmmakers like Nina Menkes or Thom Andersen might have been theoretically slotted into Visions, they would now be in Wavelengths. Ditto, say, Lisandro Alonso, Jean-Marie Straub, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Miguel Gomes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Directors, incidentally, who as a rule had had an awfully difficult time getting any kind of showing in Los Angeles.

Look who was on this edition.

Douglas Gordon (and by extension, Jonas Mekas) with his audio-intensive Mekas self-portrait, I Had Nowhere to Go.

Sergei Loznitsa, the extraordinary Ukrainian filmmaker, with his document, Austerlitz, of tourists enjoying the summer sun as they visit former Nazi concentration camps.

The sui generis Spanish-Moroccan wunderkind Oliver Laxe, confounding expectations with Mimosas, a strange and haunting action/existential adventure around the Atlas Mountains.

Albert Serra, who has now become something like a force of nature on the international film scene, with The Death of Louis XIV, which was really a study of actor Jean-Pierre Leaud playing a monarch in the gradual, final throes of life. Serra actually had a double-bill, with his multi-panel gallery exhibition, Singularity, starring many of his favorite actors (including the late, lanky Lluis Carbo) in a sprawling narrative involving shady business dealings and, of all things, a mining operation.

Thailand’s rising Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose complex, sometimes elusive political parable on oppression and representation and memory, By the Time It Gets Dark, is one of those movies that resists definition and has a way of growing on you.

Joao Pedro Rodrigues, on stunning display with his sacred-profane picaresque, The Ornithologist, which, for many, was the highlight of their ten days in Toronto.

Angela Schanelec, one of the purest members of the Berlin School, turning heads upside down with her intensely elliptical saga, The Dreamed Path.

Lav Diaz—and is a Wavelengths program complete without him?—back once again with an epic, only this time much shorter (heck, less than four hours), titled The Woman Who Left, which has already become a kind of instant classic.

China’s bravest non-fiction filmmaker, Wang Bing, doing what he should stick to—non-fiction—with Ta’ang, observing war refugees on the China-Burma border.

The often underrated Austrian documentarian Ruth Beckermann, presenting with The Dreamed One a somewhat unusual work for her, dramatizing the recording of a dramatic reading of letters between poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann—a drama within a drama.

The great Spanish independent, Pere Portabella, in even more unusual mode as a flagrant, angry polemicist in General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe, his look at Spain’s popular uprising against severe austerity measures that caused national unemployment levels above 30%.

Sharon Lockhart, a master of sustained cinema acutely coordinating time, bodies and physical space, with her beautiful and soulful film installation, Rudzienko, presenting a series of scenes cast with young women who live in a Polish home for girls.

And, for the coup de grace, a stunning triple whammy from Argentina, whose young cinema is as good right now as any in the world: Matias Pineiro’s gentle, sweet and deep Hermia & Helena, Teddy Williams’ wild and groundbreaking global trip with youth hooked on the world wide web, The Human Surge, and, for me, the single most eye-shattering work in Wavelengths, Gaston Solnicki’s third feature, Kekszakallu (titled after Bela Bartok’s opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” used explosively on the soundtrack), about a young woman’s alienation from her school, society and the world.

Now, I ask you, when has Los Angeles ever had such a concentrated program? That’s to say, a curated program in a specific single venue, or set of venues, and during a specific set of days? A program trimmed of fat, excess, pointless filler? A program that gets to the point? Also note that I’m simply selecting this most recent edition of Wavelengths, and I’m not even listing the five sets of evening programs of shorts, the original Wavelengths core. And it was an especially good year for curator/programmer/critic Andrea Picard, who knows her stuff when it comes to what’s vital in contemporary cinema, and is especially gifted at the right combinations and assemblage of programs, an art in itself.

When? I can’t pull one out of the memory bank. The closest the city has had to what I’m describing are particular years of Filmex and AFI Fest, when the intersection of a bountiful year of excellent new movies and keen, alert programming resulted in some days of magic. But, in a regular, consistent way, and maybe most importantly, on an institutional basis? Never.

At best, the city may get a few of these films (without being able to get into details, I can guarantee, in fact, that we’ll see more than just a few in 2017), and usually in a scattershot fashion: Some will pop up at AFI, some will come in for release, others will appear at UCLA Film & Television Archive, less often at Cinefamily, or at the Getty. Or not at all.

I’ve been in the fortunate position, at times, to remedy the sorry situation of “The Movie Capital of the World” missing out on essential new cinema by programming select films through the auspices of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, in a modest running series cheekily and pointedly titled, “The Films That Got Away.” But this is only occasional, and has been dormant for the past couple of years.

What Los Angeles needs is its own version of Wavelengths, in which the experimental/avant garde meets the international leading-edge, in a program that extends over several days to a week, hopefully in a setting which encourages walking and taking public transit. (Some TIFF Wavelengths gallery sites are surprisingly far from Toronto’s tiny subway system, something that Los Angeles—especially transit-friendly downtown arts district and Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station—can trump Toronto.) Imagine some felicitous combination of elements Filmforum’s avant garde programming, REDCAT’s international work, AFI’s exhibition of adventurous independent filmmakers (I’m thinking, for example, of AFI’s screenings of Maud Alpi’s mind-blowing abbatoir drama, Still Life, in November.)

The pieces are all there, but like too often in Los Angeles—though this is less and less the case—things can be spread and disconnected. The Akerman survey, as a jointly shared project across entities, was far out in front of the rest of the country, and made a stunning statement.

This is possible to do again, and on a consistent basis. The time for a Los Angeles version of the Wavelengths idea is upon us.

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