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AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival October 30- November 7, 2009
Check our coverage on from Martha and Mark Halperin


AFIFEST day 2 Los Angeles: Its Character and its Characters

Way before Hollywood colonized the Southland, before even the Spanish Missionaries came to spread the word of God, the Tongva Indian tribe inhabited Los Angeles. As with most Indian tribes, they had a very close - almost spiritual - connection to the land. A simple "nga" sound gave words a sense of place. While we've inherited names like Cahuenga (the place of the mountain), Topanga (where the mountain meets the sea) and Tujunga (the place of the old woman), the city has most certainly lost this sense of place. Asked to describe L.A., most people would quote Mencken (invoking Pirandello) and say, "nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis."

For its desperate lack of a physical sense of place, Los Angeles has a carefully crafted celluloid sense of place. It's glamour, grit, the Sunset Strip and it permeates every frame of TV and film broadcast around the world. Nevertheless, even that is only a big illusion in search of a very large audience.

So what is the real character of our nation's second largest city, home to 3.9 million people? Is it as superficial as they say, simply a network of freeways, contacts, and endless plastic surgeries? Is there something more real, more complex, even perhaps - gasp - human and universal about the Los Angeles experience?

Many of the filmmakers in this year's AFI FEST have dared to answer this question with a rich tapestry of films that reveals Los Angeles and its characters to be charming, complex, romantic, creative, hard working and often times heartbreaking.

There is a feeling Angelinos hobnob with George Clooney and the gang like it's Oceans 11. This could not be further from the truth. We are, for the most part, just normal folks doing our best to get through. Think of all of the people you encounter everyday that have nothing to do with the industry. Those are the people in Cecilia Miniucchi's quirky romantic comedy EXPIRED, where Claire (delicately played by Samantha Morton) and Jay (Jason Patric in a comedic triumph) - two misfit parking enforcement officers - try to overcome their own personal challenges as they try to fit their lives together in a torridly awkward love affair.

Or Alex Holdridge's IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS, a cinematic brother to Before Sunrise and Swingers, where Wilson (Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Victoria Simonds) dance through the nighttime ruins of the city - and their feelings - on their way to finding each other.

"Somehow, I think we just wanted to tell our story, a side of L.A. we don't see depicted in movies yet is much more our daily lives," says writer-director Holdridge. "The city's decayed nature and abandoned theaters are relics of a bygone era but to me, [are] signs of all the people [that] came here to 'make it,' their relationships, struggles, untold stories..."

Some of these stories of struggle are told in CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO, Matthew Ogens' documentary about the men and women who work Hollywood Boulevard as superhero characters, taking pictures with tourists for tips. Peppered with evocative still photography, this documentary exposes the other side of fame in Hollywood and gives four human faces to the dream deferred.

While it is true that Los Angeles vanquishes the dreams of many creative souls, it serves as a muse to others. In LYNCH, the filmmakers delve into the creative process of director David Lynch. For a man known mainly for his visions of the absurd, Lynch comes off as entirely human. Sure, he is odd at times but he is also equally funny, passionate, and in a few moments, startlingly vulnerable. For Lynch, who has made a career of exploring the seedy underbellies suburbia and the big city, Los Angeles is his geographic and environmental muse, providing all of the settings that fascinate and inspire him.

"I think that, as he has stated many times, the light in Los Angeles is something which he loves," says director blackANDwhite.

But it's not until you see Doug Pray's BIG RIG, a documentary about truckers, that my theory of Los Angeles comes together. Following a group of truckers from New York to Los Angeles, the film is a delicate portrait of American life as told by the men and women who see and experience the breadth of our nation while delivering to us the necessities of modern life. What comes to the surface is a fiery American spirit and a view that life is not really all that complicated - work, reasonable gas prices, and the freedom to manifest a destiny - are all we need.

As film ended with the sun setting and the Polish trucker driver singing pop songs as he drove into Los Angeles, it struck me: Our suburban sprawl, built out on the promise of open roads, burgers and post-war freedom, is the quintessential American city. The city's amorphous sense of place is its character because it has to be everything to everybody.

From truckers to actors, young lovers to oddball creatives, immigrants to natives, the L.A. experience is to make of this city whatever we want.

As Doug Pray, the director of BIG RIG says, "Los Angeles is so overwhelming, so sprawling, so strange, but also, so beautiful and free all at once, it's inspiring." Unlike New York or any of the "great" cities, Los Angeles does not impose her charms on us. She hides them, only to reveal her many charms when the proper suitors, such as the films in this series, come calling.

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Dailies from AFI, ambience, videos, pictures from the festival scene.

Special contributions from Red Carpet Worthy's team: Archer Sierra and her team of ambassadors from the red carpet.

AFI FEST presented by Audi is the longest-running film festival in Los Angeles and one of the most influential film festivals in North America. Each year the Festival presents one of the world's most anticipated showcases of international film, demonstrating AFI's commitment to celebrating the art form.

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