A “Post-Racial” Quagmire? Lasting Thoughts On LAFF 2014

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LAKE LOS ANGELES, a break, sparse drama about illegal immigrants, coyotes, and dislocated individuals, is actually a economically-told story of a father and child, of sorts.  Cecilia, a young pre-teen who has crossed the U.S. border illegally with no parents to speak of, finds herself under the care of a Francisco, who labors at odd jobs but is in fact separated from his own family back home in Cuba. Set in Lake Los Angeles, a desolate community somewhere north of the Palmdale/Lancaster area, the story holds sway over the fate of Cecilia and Francisco once the two are separated, supposedly so that Cecilia can be reunited with her father who has also crossed the border a few days prior. Part fable, part nightmare, the film nevertheless finds its rhythm in the intimate, largely unspoken gestures of the actors portraying Cecilia and Francisco, and enthralls in its alternating depictions of despair and hope.

To me, it was only fitting that LAKE LOS ANGELES was the final impression I had of the just-concluded Los Angeles Film Festival, which typically takes up residence somewhere among graduation week here in the City of Angels and Fathers Day. Just before, I made the mistake of sitting through a Paul Rudd/Amy Poehler vehicle, THEY CAME TOGETHER, that traded heavily on its inclusion of fellow alumni of “Saturday Night Live”…and wound up sucking SO BAD that straight-to-VoD would be too kind a fate for this cinematic piece of shit.

I guess that’s the trade-off I get these days in indie cinema: the more apparent that filmmakers aspire for mainstream exposure and success, the more these kinds of films unfortunately fail real, real hard. In comparing notes with an acquaintance around the films we saw this week, I noted that the documentary features have proven to be most compelling, while the narratives? Well, the quality and intent of the narratives were all over the map, with the unifying boondoggle being that the more dialogue-heavy a story is, the more apparent that the filmmakers are trying to hide something. A failure to communicate, perhaps?

Exhibit A: THE LAST TIME YOU HAD FUN, a 30-something comedy/drama that takes place over one debauched night, in a stretch limo, among four people who conveniently are experiencing various stages of marital difficulty. The written dialogue was so busy and unsubstantial that I found myself wondering not thirty minutes into the film why I would care enough to stay not only through the end of the movie, but through the post-screening Q&A session as well.

Exhibit B: THEY CAME TOGETHER, which suffered greatly from the same scriptwriting hijinks that masqueraded as “witty”. Can you say “busy” and “forced?” Me? I left the screening thinking, Why did it seem that this movie wasn’t made for people like me…that is, normal people?

Exhibit C: DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, a Sundance holdover that’s getting a commercial release in the Fall. I saw a movie just like this one over twenty-five years ago. It was entitled SCHOOL DAZE. And I came away thinking, is “post-racial” filmmaking supposed to be this dull and manneristic?

I had better luck with the documentaries. Two stand-outs for me were SOUND OF REDEMPTION, a portrait of the late be-bop era saxophonist Frank Morgan. Framed by a “celebration” concert staged by contemporary jazz luminaries at San Quentin Prison, which Morgan called home for a spell, the film traces the musician’s rise as a contemporary of the late, great Charlie Parker, his addiction to heroin and numerous scrapes with the law and eventual decline and rediscovery upon his release from prison. Employing a wealth of still and archival film and video footage, punctuated by an uncovered interview with Frank Morgan himself, SOUND OF REDEMPTION was, for me, thoroughly engrossing and rewarding.

Also rewarding, but for different reason, was another Sundance standout, Rory Kennedy’s THE LAST DAYS OF VIETNAM.  An otherwise clinical, blow-by-blow story recounting the events leading to the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, director Kennedy’s stellar follow-up of sorts to her Sundance 2013 fave ETHEL similarly marries exclusive documentary footage, including footage shot by sailors aboard one of the many evacuation vessels in use that day, and revealing CGI graphics of Saigon to create a tense, urgent filmgoing experience. I should say that at the screening I attended, a number of buddies of mine, Vietnamese America all, were amazed that this story was told so deftly and with such dimension. As an aside, I learned that the film will be returning in the early fall, to qualify for the usual post-season awards gauntlet. If any film was deserving, this one certainly fits that bill.

And oh, yeah, Asian American cinema: there were two feature-length works included this year, if you don’t count David Boyle’s taut cross-cultural detective mystery MAN FROM RENO, which may have been produced by a Japanese distributor but was otherwise created by a non-APA producing and writing crew. David Au’s EAT WITH ME, an expansion of sorts of FRESH LIKE STRAWBERRIES, an earlier short film he screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival back in 2004, wasn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination — I think his producer could have forced him to refine his script and not render a scenario that seemed planted so firmly in a live-theater tableau — yet it remained an audience-pleaser, benefitting in no small part to lead actress Sharon Omi’s performance as Emma, who seeks to escape her bland marriage by moving in with her estranged son Elliot. Yes, I know…the story seems to lift a page straight out of playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s THE WASH. Nevertheless, EAT WITH ME is an auspicious step up for director Au, marking him as a director to watch out for.

And siblings Geeta V. and Ravi V. Patel’s MEET THE PATELS turned out to be a hoot. This charming documentary tale of Ravi’s forced immersion into the dating scene (certainly a misnomer here — Ravi’s parents are out to find their son an ideal bride) walks the fine line between triumphant and pathetic, but is fueled by the sibling’s deft storytelling both in front of and behind the camera (as an aside, as of this writing, I learned that MEET THE PATELS earned LAFF’s prestigious Audience Award for Favorite Documentary Feature Film; while MAN FROM RENO was recognized as Best Narrative Feature).

If there was a truly sour note for my LAFF 2014 experience, the Festival’s first Friday, June 13, at the Union Station revival screening of Luis Valdez’ LA BAMBA had to be the worst. Coming on a day of extraordinarily ill fortune — a colleague of mine, David Magdael, suffered a slip-and-fall accident at one of Festival’s hotel venues, and earlier that day I learned that a co-worker’s father had passed away after a long illness — my most significant take-away of this entire Festival occurred when, in the middle of an on-stage interview with director Valdez and actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, the director pulled out, once again, his stock-reply when asked about casting Phillips, a Filipino American (and decidedly NOT Chicano), and insisted that Filipinos are “Hispanic” and part of the larger rubric of Hispania. Sheesh, he didn’t even have the decency to even pull out the “Latino” card. Well, Fuck You, Luis Valdez, you Hispanic veteran director. I’M Filipino, and I don’t consider myself “Hispanic” in any sense of the word.

Some hard lessons learned in our supposedly post-racial Los Angeles. Thank You, Dear White (and African American and “Hispanic”) People. I knew I could always count on you to let me know what time it is…

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