Bookended by Gala screenings of two Sundance favourites – Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler and Todd Graff’s Camp – the ninth annual IFP Los Angeles Film Festival spanned 11 days, offering a broad programme peppered with small revelations.
The first of these was the fest’s centrepiece premiere, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, written and directed by George Hickenlooper (best known for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse ). Appropriately screened on Sunset Boulevard, Hickenlooper’s energetic documentary offers an affectionate portrait of local cult icon / institution Rodney Bingenheimer, a one-time club owner and long-term disc jockey for the mighty KROQ radio station in LA.
With his sweet, ethereal voice, Bingenheimer at first seems almost too fragile for rock ‘n’ roll. He’s compared at various times throughout the film to Peter Pan, a gnome and the Pied Piper. This last tag helps explain the secret of his success – Rodney is accredited with breaking many major British acts on the West Coast through his once legendary English Disco club nights and his (now late-late night) radio show. Artists from David Bowie to Coldplay pop up in the doc to pay tribute – and pay their dues.
A consistently adorable figure, Bingenheimer gradually emerges as a musical Forest Gump, or "living Zelig" as the director calls him. In a long line of clips and snaps, he’s seen hanging out with stars as diverse as Debbie Harry, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart and Nancy Sinatra. Most pertinently, we also see him with Andy Warhol, though this parallel goes tantalisingly unexplored.
Hickenlooper does well to contrast his subject’s private nature with his public persona. He may be a star-maker, but Bingenheimer also remains touchingly star-struck. A tour of his apartment reveals a hoard of much-cherished memorabilia including Elvis Presley’s driving permit, a letter from Phil Spector and a Brooke Shields coathanger. His efforts might not have made him a millionaire but the music – and the mementos – seem to have kept Rodney happy.
An extraordinary, exemplary documentary littered with characters you couldn’t invent, Mayor of the Sunset Strip is one of those rare films that drags the viewer through a full gamut of emotions. The final act, in which Rodney scatters his mother’s ashes, is quite heartbreaking.
Catherine Hardwicke’s first feature Thirteen was a highlight of the festival’s narrative programme, and a smash at Sundance, where it won the directing award. An acidic teen movie with rare punch, this well-paced feature charts the emotional descent of an adolescent Angelena. Tracy (a terrific Evan Rachel Wood) is one of her school’s more innocuous pupils – a sweet plain-Jane who harbours secret desires to experiment and rebel. Winning the affection of the wayward Evie, she gets a Melrose Avenue makeover and before long is skipping school to chase boys, drop drugs and get body piercings.
While the film’s opening scene seems designed for Larry Clark-style provocation, Thirteen steers clear of lurid exploitation and somehow manages to eschew sappy moralizing. An incredibly assured debut, it’s told with a searing rock soundtrack and a thrilling visual design that grows darker at the same time as the plot.
Hardwicke’s film draws raw performances from its young leads, and also benefits from Holly Hunter’s sterling turn as Tracy’s sometimes bemused, often-terrified mom. The screenplay taps into different school types without making them stereotypes. If it feels like the real deal, then that might be because Hardwicke co-wrote it with teenager Nikki Reed, who plays Evie with brilliant authenticity. While there’s an apparent closing nod to Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959), this is a different breed of youth movie – a visceral and emotionally draining race with the devil.
One of the true finds of the festival, Bomb the System sees first-time feature maker Adam Bhala Lough employing a similar visual virtuosity. The 23-year-old director’s impressive film is set in the underworld of New York graffiti artists and charts the war between talented young ‘taggers’ and the vandal squad that strives to clean up the streets.
In a manner also reminiscent of Doug Pray’s Scratch (2001), Bomb the System continues the search for visual equivalents for mixing. Like an inspired DJ set, the film explodes with inventive techniques, utilizing freeze frames, split screens and striking stills to tell its story. At first it seems keen to fuse documentary material on hip-hop culture with the main narrative drag – a pattern that is sadly later forgotten.
The film offers a real feast for the senses. In one alarming scene a character vomits and we hear the sound of breaking glass. At the other end of the scale, Jay Rabinowitz’s elliptical editing creates a beautiful love sequence. (Rabinowitz is best known for editing Requiem for a Dream and many of Jim Jarmusch’s movies.)
For all his visual trickery, Lough slightly loses sight of some of his characters. Storytelling’s Mark Webber (a graffiti artist himself) is appealing in the lead role, and this is possibly his best performance to date, but there are flaws with the supporting parts. The authority figures, particularly, are one-dimensional bad lieutenants. Lough seems to see the film as a revenge western with spray-cans for guns, but it’s also a potent urban tragedy.
I had heard good things about Salt, an improvised road movie set in Iceland and directed by an American, Bradley Rust Gray. Shot with a tiny crew and occasionally filmed by the lead characters themselves, it proved to be a fascinating piece, sometimes reminiscent of Atom Egoyan’s Calendar (1993). It’s essentially a two-hander, so David Orn Halldorsson and the mesmerizing Brynja Thora Gudnadottir, who play a pair of lovers undertaking a personal quest to Reykjavik, are required to carry the film. It proves, perhaps, too tall an order.
In Dogme fashion, Salt’s opening scene is disarming but unlike, say, Italian for Beginners, we never warm to these characters and they remain, at the end, as cold and mysterious as the picture’s austere settings. Gray’s freewheeling camerawork and affection for extreme, off-putting close-ups create a peculiarly claustrophobic atmosphere throughout. I found the film hard to endure and it proved too much for some audience members.
The fest’s British fare, however, went down a storm. Already a prizewinner at Venice, Peter Mullan’s uncompromising The Magdalene Sisters (2002) won the audience award, while Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later (2002), which received an atmospheric outdoor screening on Friday 13th, was something of a sensation. (It’s since opened to strong reviews in the States.) Shane Meadows’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) and Amy Hobby’s Coney Island Baby (2002) also featured in the narrative line-up.
Programmers might like to look out for three of the festival’s more memorable shorts. Mark Waites’ irreverent 72-Faced Liar utilizes an impressive array of masks, Tom Putnam’s Tom Hits His Head charts a paranoid odyssey with considerable style, and Paul Gutrecht’s The Vest – the audience award-winner – boasts a smart lead performance from the young Skye McCole Bartusiak.