Sunday, August 5, 2012
JIM AKIN'S BEAUTIFUL, BRUISED L.A.
After watching AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF YOUR BIRTH this afternoon, I went and sat along the Atlantic Ocean for about an hour. The pounding of the waves was so loud that it was like I was in a world without sound, a cone of whitecap noise where only my internal monologue could be heard. I sort of felt the same way about the characters in Jim Akin's impressive and often mesmerizing debut indie feature. They wander (mostly) alone through a strangely depopulated Southern California, keeping time only to the rhythms in their heads. What are they thinking about? It's the usual stuff of depressives and doubters (i.e., most of us): faith, fucked-up families, damaged relationships and hopes for romantic renewal. You could almost sum up the entire movie in the line from Bruce Springsteen's RACING IN THE STREET, where the bruised protagonist promises that "Tonight my baby and me/we're gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands." Akin doesn't break new ground here, plot-wise; it's more the way Akin says it. From the first frame, he lures you into a unique world of rapturous and inventive widescreen imagery. It's not too far afoot to say that some of his images (he also shot and edited) rival Terrence Malick on a tighter budget, and there is a similar sense of stillness and wonder at the heart of this film. At the same time, he and his producer/co-star and wife, the singer-songwriter Maria McKee, create an eclectic palette of sounds to go with these images, so you find yourself seduced by the ear as well as the eye. (If there were any justice in this world, GHETTO CHICKEN would be summer's breakout urban spin.) Lots of influences flood the mind while watching AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF YOUR BIRTH: the films of Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jacques Demy; the L.A. skid-row poetics of Charles Bukowski, the dust of John Fante, the sun-baked noirs of Southern California. And, to me anyway, the photographs of the Southern pictorialist William Eggleston. This film is shot throughout spare, rundown industrial sites in Southern California or on the beat streets of downtown L.A., and the details and compositions of commercial signage, scuffed sidewalks and other-side-of-the-tracks cafes and bodegas remind me of Eggleston's work. The film interconnects several stories: Eli (Tom Dunne) is a man who reaches his 40s and discovers he's still smarting from daddy-abandonment issues. So, with only his briefcase and a punky J.J. Gittes fedora, he decides to walk seven days and nights from the California desert to the Pacific Ocean to complete a trip he was to take with his father as a child. Eli feels like his own growth requires some sort of reckoning or closure with his past, a key theme in many classic noirs. As such, Eli tells most of the film's literary/lyrical, philosophical/psychological narrative in a gravelly, detective-like voiceover that is pitch-perfect and helps make up for some of the plot's spareness. Meanwhile, a Los Angeles woman named Millicent (McKee) is having a crisis of faith after being abandoned by or losing her lover. For solace, she has long talks with a religious woman (Maria Doyle Kennedy, the smart, reflective Irish actress of THE TUDORS, DOWNTON ABBEY and THE COMMITMENTS). Millicent is also a music teacher who mentors a talented, but troubled, latchkey kid, a subplot that provides a sense of mosaic life in L.A. but doesn't really move the film along (for a more linear flow, the movie could easily lose about 10 minutes or so, especially a long scene in an apartment culminating with two talking rodents, but such diversions are why these are personal statements and not studio product.) Back to Eli: As he walks across the ragged end of L.A., he encounters a religious man who urges him to find faith, gets life advice from a disabled beauty standing in some weeds and begins a possible relationship with Eva (the fresh, lively Tessa Ferrer, granddaughter of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney), a dancehall prostitute and wannabe poet. He is also constantly dogged by a clad-in-black doppelganger (Rob Zabrecky) who may be The Devil or may just be a manifestation in Eli's mind and who may definitely remind you of Robert Blake in Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY. There are no great resolutions or epiphanies here, just people questioning their lives and the ability of spirituality to help them cope and trying their best to get on with it. As with so many works of art, it's not always the result that interests the filmmaker, but the journey. Will they move forward, throw off their insecurities or fall back into their funks? I think there's hope for Eli and his poetess, but who knows? The title of the film, from my reading, is sort of funny: It says that the miracle of actual birth is the high point and things get dicier from then on. Hell, the whole film may be a hallucination. Mostly, though, as befits McKee and Akin (who has co-written and produced many of her inventive, post-Lone Justice albums) this film is less an Alan Rudolph-esque statement about fragmented urban roundelays and more a fascinating, experimental collage of image and sound that tells its tale in a refreshing, non-narrative fashion. I will remember with pleasure so many of these sights: the framing of weathered buildings (especially a great visual joke involving the word Jesus), a phone on fire in a grocery cart, and Eli and Eva jaunting down a dilapidated street like lovers in a Truffaut movie. This film is a consistent delight.
AFTER THE TRIUMPH OF YOUR BIRTH premiered tonight in Los Angeles and has another screening next month in Santa Monica on the 13th at the Aero Theatre. Not sure when it's going into any distribution network for the public, but you can keep track of its progress at shootistfilms.com and on Facebook.