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Crafting a Tale With Rhythm All Its Own

Movies: Luis M. Meza goes for the offbeat in 'Staccato Purr of the Exhaust,' a look at a Highland Park slacker.


Independent filmmaker Luis M. Meza is no slacker. Neither is he a practitioner of slick, blood-and-gore, Tarantino-style filmmaking. So what's left for a low-budget producer and director to be these days?

There's always a craftsman. Although his feature-film debut, "Staccato Purr of the Exhaust," is a quirky snapshot of a slacker's life in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles, and although the movie was made for less than $50,000, Meza didn't take a slacker's approach to making the film.

The 33-year-old writer and director was more concerned with crafting an offbeat, engaging story than with wowing viewers with synapse-numbing action and violence or tantalizing glimpses of his characters embroiled in sexually provocative situations.

"I liked making a movie that made me chuckle at weird little things, and its odd rhythm," Meza said in a recent interview in a Pasadena cafe. "I know I can go out to the movies and get sex and violence and explosions at any time, but it was fun making something that I want to see on the screen."

In fact, the closest the characters in his black comedy about escaping suburban hell get to foreplay is when the protagonist Leonard's spitfire girlfriend beats him, then kisses him to apologize. What viewers will find when they see the tragically funny "Staccato Purr of the Exhaust," which opens in Los Angeles today, is a dreamy stroll through a cinematic landscape dense with minor visual victories and emotional epiphanies.

Like the deadpan Leonard, who lovingly polishes his beige early-'70s Chevelle's engine to a sonic landscape of dreamy indie rock, Meza lovingly labored over the most minute details in "Staccato Purr of the Exhaust," which won the Grand Jury Award at the Florida Film Festival and was screened in the non-competitive "The American Spectrum" category at Sundance in 1996.

Paraphrasing, and adding to, a Georgia O'Keeffe quote, Meza said, "Nobody ever notices flowers, but when you see them they seem to be spontaneously beautiful. There's a lot of complexity built into that seemingly simple thing, a lot going on underneath the surface for both a flower and a film."


The movie follows the non-adventures of luckless Leonard (Ron Garcia), a Mexican American twentysomething existing in a universe of hand-pushed lawn mowers and resentful parents whose life is falling apart in front of his very eyes.

At the bleakest point in his life, when his parents begin selling off his belongings to push him to move out and he gets demoted at work, an inviting postcard from a cousin in Texas suggests escape to a better life. So he decides to hop in his car and head East.

But forces beyond his control conspire to keep him in Highland Park after he's burned all his bridges with a few well-directed outbursts of anger.

The 1993 Sundance Writer's Lab fellow, who sported a tiny flower in the buttonhole of his white-collared shirt during a recent interview, brought his meticulous eye for detail to the making of "Staccato Purr."

A seemingly random close-up of a bumper reveals the reflection of cars going by in a colorful stream in Leonard's traffic-heavy street, and a shot of chipped paint on a door speaks of the economic conditions in the working-class neighborhood. Even the background noise--dialogue between characters on TV--was carefully written and eventually found its way on stage during a performance of "Latino Lingo Lounge" by Los Angeles comedy troupe Tripas.

The same kind of thought went into the slow-paced film's aural expression. It is full of long pauses, idling motors and a soundtrack by Los Angeles-area bands as such the Burning Sofa no. 10, Lawrence Lean, Uke Fink and the Summer Hits, as well as indie powerhouses Versus, Built to Spill and Sugarplant.

"I wanted there to be just enough space for people to have their own emotional life during the movie, instead of it just being prescribed for them," Meza said. "The music helped me accomplish that."


Like the Buster Keaton-esque Leonard, "Staccato Purr" has been limping along, making its way through the film festival circuit--including screenings at San Antonio's CineFestival, Denver's International Film Festival, the Newport Beach International Film Festival and San Francisco's CineLatino--since its completion in 1996.

There hasn't been a big push for an L.A. screening until now, despite positive reviews at Sundance last year. The festival was a sobering experience for Meza, a former Catholic school student who is painfully shy and lacking in self-promotional instincts.

"I'm a very private person, and I have a hard time with the whole press thing," Meza said. "There's a way of doing Sundance correctly, and we didn't do it. Our film is really an odd film, and you can't really pigeonhole it."

Although Meza--a Mexican national who grew up in Highland Park--populates "Staccato Purr" with Latino characters and plops them into a Latino neighborhood, he isn't hitting anyone over the head with their ethnicity. The result is a movie that was hard to package.

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