Watching in L.A.: The Los Angeles Festival of Movies’ First Year

By Ryan ColemanApril 26, 2024

Watching in L.A.: The Los Angeles Festival of Movies’ First Year
WHAT WOULD A perfect local moviegoing culture look like? Tons of theaters and screening spaces scattered from the center to the edges of the city. Each neighborhood serviced by a space that tailors to its tastes. These spaces’ operating costs low enough to actually turn a profit. A municipal transit system robust enough to move transportation off the logistical hurdles column. Opportunities for local filmmakers to source collaborators, hold test screenings, and premiere their work. Diverse programming—new film screenings, repertory programs, studio movies, independent fare, international and art-house films, old movies, consensus classics, and deep cuts on any given night.

Does this resemble the moviegoing culture we have today in Los Angeles? It depends on who you ask. I was born and raised on the eastern edge of the county, in Glendora, and ever since I started spending time in the city, what I’ve heard about L.A. film culture is complaints—from the inside and from the outside. This isn’t unique to film in Los Angeles, of course. Every community and culture in this city is driven by complaint—what could be made better, what shouldn’t be so lacking, all the things that might be implemented if only there were more money. Such complaints aren’t an indicator of piss-poor cultural affairs across the board; they’re actually what make life in Los Angeles so special.

Los Angeles County is massive. It has a huge, diverse population. But the size of the land area it encompasses is what leads to the cultural siloing of the region. What happens between Malibu in the west and Pomona in the east, between the county’s northern pole in Antelope Valley and China Point on San Clemente Island, its southernmost point, is too much to ever know fully. Yet when you ask people about the state of local culture, their answer is often that “there’s not enough.” This discrepancy is a feature, not a bug. The whole of Los Angeles is too vast and heterogeneous to keep in your mind at one time. Whenever someone expounds on what local moviegoing culture lacks, they’re really just pointing to the parts of their mental city map that remain dim and uncharted. Yet the belief in genuine absence is what spurs the city’s culture makers and community builders forward. If they really thought their ideal theater/program/scene was just on the other side of town, they’d simply drive there, not dedicate their lives to its creation. So, they tirelessly work to build the world they want to be a part of, and the whole of the city is richer for it—a greenhouse for hundreds of blossoming cultural ecosystems.

It is true that, in the past five or so years, moviegoing in Los Angeles has entered a kind of renaissance period. Big theaters like the Academy Museum and the Egyptian have opened and reopened; smaller spaces like WHAMMY! Analog Media, 2220 Arts + Archives, and Now Instant Image Hall have quickly amassed loyal followings; there are video rental stores downtown (Video Vortex at Alamo Drafthouse), on the Westside (CineFile Video), and on the Eastside (Vidiots, Vidéothèque); and programming outfits like Mezzanine and Acropolis Cinema are keeping the daily screening slate dynamic and intriguing. That’s good because on the festival front, it’s been closure after closure. First came the cancellation of the long-running Los Angeles Film Festival, then the shocking collapse of Outfest, then the sad news that the 2023 edition of Locarno in Los Angeles would be its last. (The only annual event that seems to be thriving is Beyond Fest, which focuses on cult and genre movies.) It’s into this ecosystem that programmer Micah Gottlieb, the artistic director at Mezzanine, and independent producer Sarah Winshall introduced the L.A. film scene’s newest vanguard cultural gathering: the Los Angeles Festival of Movies.

Numerous write-ups in advance of the early April festival framed it, following the demands of the click economy and the perennial misperception that local culture industries are perpetually on the brink of extinction, as the event that was going to “save” moviegoing culture in Los Angeles. But the L.A. Festival of Movies ended up being such a cohesive, deeply enjoyable, and smoothly run experience precisely because Gottlieb and Winshall never conceived of it in messianic or competitive terms. Winshall told Variety that she “felt pretty passionately about not trying to do too much,” about making sure that attendees “could go to all the screenings if [they] wanted.” To IndieWire, Gottlieb described the vision for LAFM as “just one part of the landscape.” The feeling on the ground during LAFM’s four days and nights reflected this vision: a harmonious unhurriedness that opened up space for deeper engagement with the films and with fellow attendees than is really ever possible at a weeklong, four-films-a-day marketplace festival. This inclusive note struck by LAFM was particularly welcome for a festival in Los Angeles, whose heat and constant gridlock often conspire to induce countervailing senses of rush and discordance.

That being said, if LAFM was designed with no more ambition than to have a good time, and with no more focus than to simply add to local film culture, it would likely have been a formless, unstimulating mess. The programming showcased here was instead clear, focused, and effective. Fifteen total programs subdivided thusly: seven new fiction features, a new feature documentary, the first episode in a new docuseries, a program of six new shorts, three 4K restorations (one accompanied by a short), and two artist talks. The opening and closing night films screened in Eagle Rock at Vidiots, the largest venue; the shorts program screened twice at Now Instant Image Hall in Chinatown; and the rest of the films were screened at 2220 Arts + Archives in Historic Filipinotown. None of these theaters is more than a 15-minute drive from the others; programs overlapped only a handful of times, and from what I could tell, virtually all non–ticket holders who took a chance in standby lines got into the screenings.

This was not a marketplace film festival like TIFF or Cannes (though one film, Prashanth Kamalakanthan and Artemis Shaw’s exquisitely funny pandemic comedy New Strains (2023), got picked up by MEMORY following the LAFM announcement). It was not designed as a training hub for emerging professionals, like Berlinale Talents or Sundance Labs. It wasn’t interdisciplinary like SXSW and didn’t focus on a particular genre (like Fantasia) or time period (like TCM Classic Film Festival). LAFM was designed as an audience festival—to bring those who make films and those who simply enjoy them together; to show these attendees small, high-quality, (mostly) independently produced and undistributed films; and to release these audiences into gathering spaces for conversation and connection.

The social dimension is notable among film festivals, which generally have to hold screenings and mixers in separate spaces due to the sheer volume of programming. Cleaved from the subject of a preceding screening, these mixers are invariably taken under the wing of distributors and PR firms who opportunize them to best benefit their clients/films, which usually means subjecting them to the hierarchizing force of the guest list. LAFM did throw a party each night that entailed some manner of restriction, but during the day, 2220 Arts + Archives became the community well for all ticket holders. Those pouring out of films in the theater space and talks in the adjacent art/performance space were free to mingle without limits. Within the context of Los Angeles’s film-cultural infrastructure, this was an even more radical intervention, and a continuation of a project that seems at the core of Gottlieb’s broader mission as a programmer with Mezzanine.

If moviegoing in Los Angeles lacks one thing, it’s screening spaces that double as social spaces. Engaging with art provokes the spirit, spiritual provocation demands expression through discourse, discourse builds community, communities make art, and so the cycle sustains itself. There are far too many theaters in L.A. that are forced to dump you out on the street immediately after the credits roll because there’s no bar, gathering space, or even lobby in which to congregate. That would be a bummer in any city, but Los Angeles’s car-centric infrastructure already makes it a breeding ground for an incurious, isolationist mode of civic engagement. If you’re forced to spill out onto the street after a film screening in a city like New York, there are always neighboring bars to take you in and a walk to the subway to nurture the formation of new connections. There are no such assurances in Los Angeles, which puts the onus even more on our cultural institutions to foster community around art, not just facilitate its exhibition.

Vidiots, Now Instant, and 2220 were all built with post-screening conversations in mind as much as the screenings themselves. This is true of 2220 especially, where Gottlieb has programmed the lion’s share of Mezzanine screenings since the cinema nonprofit’s 2022 founding. The packed house at each screening affirms Gottlieb and Winshall’s main guiding instinct—that Los Angeles needs more launchpads for new, small films that are formally challenging and conceptually daring. But LAFM ultimately sticking the landing is an equally resounding affirmation of the fact that enabling audiences to engage meaningfully with films is as important as screening the films in the first place.

As for the films, the LAFM lineup ranged from outright comedy to sober drama, from documentary to hybrid to fiction, trekked across continents, and so on. Aside from there being no major studio titles in the lineup, the through line could be found in tone. With a couple exceptions that consistently employed challenging experimental techniques, the films that screened at LAFM all toed the line between avant-garde and accessible. The opening and closing night films are great examples. Jane Schoenbrun’s opener I Saw the TV Glow (2024) tells a tough story of slow death through identity repression with a pretty, populist voice, utilizing a conventional screenplay structure, demonstrative performances, and guiding musical cues. The closer, Conner O’Malley and Danny Scharar’s outlandish mockumentary Rap World (2024), takes the opposite approach: luring viewers in with familiar characters (Midwest burnouts with big dreams) and situations (a mumblecore-adjacent gambit about writing raps), only to assault them with a frenetic barrage of electrifying formal U-turns.

The feature highlights were all screened at 2220. India Donaldson’s Good One (2024) represented one of the most straightforward approaches to narrative in the lineup but also executed the festival’s most subversive structural inversion. It’s a rare feat to have an audience so enthralled by your work that a single line of dialogue delivered over a quiet campfire elicits a collective gasp. Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s excellent Gasoline Rainbow (2023) prodigiously mixes documentary and fictional approaches to what is essentially American Honey (2016) if it had happened for real during the pandemic. Shirkers (2018) director Sandi Tan moderated the Q and A following this screening, a program highlight alongside Nathan Fielder surprise-moderating a screening of the first episode of Lance Oppenheim’s new docuseries Ren Faire (2024) and Maya S. Cade of the Black Film Archive interviewing director Bridgett M. Davis after a screening of a new restoration of her remarkable self-distributed first feature Naked Acts (1996).

Other highlights included Tana Gilbert Fernández’s searing prison documentary Malqueridas (2023), a 75-minute collage of illegally captured footage shot by inmates inside Chile’s largest women’s prison. Jordan Cronk of Acropolis Cinema presented the festival’s most brazenly experimental film—Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3 (2023), a globe-trotting nonnarrative disorientingly shot on 360 cam. The shorts program was curated by Sam Raphael, Andrew Theodore Balasia, and Ted Gerike of Now Instant Image Hall, and it featured new work from Mike Stoltz, Alison Nguyen, Kim Torres, Deborah Stratman, Laida Lertxundi and Ren Ebel, and Rachel Walden. Walden’s tragicomic, father-son road movie Lemon Tree (2023) and Torres’s looping, hypnotic, small-town sci-fi Solo La Luna Comprenderá (2023) were particularly accomplished standouts, and both directors joined filmmaker Al Warren for conversation after Saturday’s screening.

The Los Angeles Festival of Movies may not have set out to reduce the L.A. moviegoing scene to rubble and rebuild it in its own image. But after such a seamlessly executed, well-attended, and creatively generative first edition, film lovers across the city should hope for its return this time next year.

LARB Contributor

Ryan Coleman is a writer from the San Gabriel Valley.


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