A pair of personal responses to the movie capital’s other painted backdrops from two of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers, exploring the city’s mural culture over 30 years.
We are delighted to announce that the screening will be specially introduced by Tate Modern Curator of Film, and former Los Angeles resident, Stuart Comer.
The Grande Dame of the French new wave Agnès Varda turns her lens on the murals of Los Angeles, the cultures they stem from and their eclectic bunch of Angeleno creators. From Afro-Futurism in Watts to utopic psychedelia in Venice Beach, Varda surveys the iconic and the cockamamie, the commercial and the communal, mixing her own unique dose of poetics into this valuable cinematic document of aesthetics, politics and civic history – as homespun urban backdrops rub shoulders with the epicentre of the movie industry.
France/US 1981 Dir. Agnès Varda 81min.
English and French, with English subtitles
Get Out of the Car
Andersen’s follow up to the celebrated Los Angeles Plays Itself is a tribute to the beaten roadside signs and community murals of L.A, the city's lost and hidden histories, and the absence of signs where they should exist. Composing these transient billboards and façade’s into an ambient collage of the city, a soundtrack of local music, residents’ voiceovers and Anderson’s own narration accompanies this singular close-up homage to L.A, from the master of the essay film.
US 2010 Dir. Thom Andersen 34min.
English and Spanish
Supported by LUX
Programme Notes by Rita Gonzalez
Associate Curator, Department of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
In 1972, when Reyner Banham came to Los Angeles to turn his architectural writing into a documentary, the first thing he did at LAX airport was to hop in a car.* Indeed, the critic is often quoted as stating that he learned to drive, to read LA in the original. For both Agnès Varda and Thom Andersen however, the streets of Los Angeles are best approached on foot. “Get out of the car,” the voice of R & B musician Richard Berry implores at the beginning of Andersen’s eponymous film. And so the filmmaker does, in search of its signs — signs that say “we are here” by the many recent (and not so recent) immigrants who populate the sprawling city, and signs that signal the loss of historical sites where earlier generations of multi-ethnic communities once commingled. In Varda’s Mur Murs (1981), one exits the automobile to enter into what artist Terry Schoonhoven describes in the film as an immersive dreamscape – created by the thousands of murals on the city’s walls – a city that is in addition itself the centre of the dream production industry.
Mur Murs (and the feature length Documenteur shot in the same period) was Agnès Varda’s return to Los Angeles, where in 1969 she had made Lions Love – a freeform narrative film with Warhol superstar Viva and experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke. The film essay begins with Varda musing about the typical establishing shots of Los Angeles — the waves, the Hollywood sign, the highways — all of these icons she rejects whilst confessing, “I mostly saw walls.” Varda’s take is a subtle and complex understanding of the multiple forms the urban mural takes. It is in part the hippie-Christian approach of Kent Twitchell’s The Holy Trinity, in which the artist uses television stars remembered from his childhood as models for his messianic visions. Or it might be the phantasmatic approach of the Chicano muralist Wayne Healy in Ghosts of the Barrio (1974), imaging a mestizo co-existence in which cholos, conquistadors, and Aztec warriors stand side by side.
In Andersen’s Get Out of the Car, there is a very definite possibility of getting lost, or at the very least of entering into some liminal time zone where (to quote the city motto of the L.A. suburb El Monte) “the future meets the past.” Andersen seems to invoke the temporality of an Angeleno neo-realism, that in his magnum opus Los Angeles Play Itself (2003) he connected to Kent McKenzie and the filmmakers associated with the L.A. Rebellion (Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and others). Andersen’s alter-ego narrator describes this alternate temporality as a “spatialized non-chronological time of meditation and memory.” In a perpetually sun-soaked Los Angeles, Andersen and his cameraman rove the terrain less documented by mainstream Hollywood films (El Monte, Alhambra, Downey, Watts, etc) to find numerous memory tinged locations. The mostly static shots are sidewalk views — looking close up at a sun-streaked fading mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe on an automotive shop, or through the chain link fence of a famous old restaurant that is threatened with destruction.
More than Andersen’s self-proclaimed “city symphony,” Get Out of the Car seems like a lengthy dedication murmured on a late night radio show. One of the longest sequences, in fact, is an homage to DJ Art Laboe, a veteran of the radio format going back to the 1960s who still has a large following of mostly Chicano and African American listeners. In a particularly personal “dedication” in the film, Andersen stands outside of the El Monte Legion Stadium, a former music venue for R&B and doo-wop musicians. To the strains of Memories of El Monte, a meta-song penned by Frank Zappa and Ray Collins, Andersen shows snapshots of dances and concerts that took place in the now destroyed building.
A radiophonic “memory” propels the soundtrack. Music is purposefully recorded to sound like it’s wafting out of a car or overheard on a street corner. Songs create mysterious juxtapositions – even within themselves as we hear a Spanish language version of the U.S. country music hit Achy Breaky Heart. As the soundscape creates this notion of Los Angeles as a palimpsestic city, Andersen calls our attention to the layered forms in the visual landscape: billboards peel and release hidden statements; graffiti taggers bomb a church in South Central designed by Rudolph Schindler; and commemorative signs (concocted by the filmmaker) serve as cautionary tales to a city known for its perpetual amnesia.
In Varda’s film, a chorus of whisperers calls out the names of each mural’s artist. Many of the murals documented in Mur Murs are now long gone. The legislation of a city ordinance decreed in 1986 in an attempt to depopulate billboards has also been applied to murals, thereby rendering any large-scale paintings illegal. Andersen’s film captures privately owned businesses attempting to keep the mural tradition alive, albeit in a hybridised form that sometimes awkwardly puts hand-painted business signage side-by-side with Jesus’ crucifixion, or graffiti alongside Mexican revolutionary figures.
Both Varda and Andersen share an insatiable curiosity for the lesser-known but truly distinctive aspects of Los Angeles. Seeing these two films in one screening is a bit like getting lost in El Monte—losing, if just for a moment, that sense of where the past meets the future.
* In 1972 Reyner Bahnam adapted his spatial theories about Los Angeles from his seminal book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies into a radio program and then a television movie for the BBC, entitled Reyner Banham Love Los Angeles.