In 1956, a 23-year-old named Stan Brakhage received an offer to work on the television show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Brakhage had come to Hollywood to work with Charles Laughton on an adaptation of "The Naked and the Dead." But by the time Brakhage hit Hollywood, Laughton was off the project and the young filmmaker was fielding the Hitchcock invitation. Brakhage didn't pursue the offer. He made a couple of short films, worked here and there, but eventually left Los Angeles, turning his back on the industry and becoming one of the greatest yet least-known filmmakers of the last century.
Like a lot of filmmakers, Brakhage came to Hollywood to try to make a living doing what he loved. Although he turned his back on factory work and embraced a life of personal expression -- in lyrical abstractions that grappled with the largest questions, often through images from his quotidian family life in Colorado -- he never turned his back on commercial movies, remaining a faithful lover. (He once, rather hilariously, filled out a questionnaire with an ode to Woody Woodpecker.) More important, because he chose to make films for artistic reasons -- films that were pure expressions of an undeniably personal vision -- he remained engaged in a de facto dialogue with studio filmmaking. Like the very greatest off-Hollywood work, his films were a sublime confirmation that movies can aspire to the condition of art -- and sometimes achieve it.
If you've never heard of Brakhage, who probably received more mainstream press when he died in March than in the entirety of his remarkable filmmaking life, you're not alone. Filmmakers working outside the studios have always had a tough time attracting attention in this country, but as long as there has been a Hollywood there has been an off-Hollywood too, a parallel tributary consisting of avant-garde cinema, experimental animation, documentary and truly independent moviemaking. Although some off-Hollywood filmmakers have toiled within the studio gates, they have staked their claim on cinema history with work made on the industry's ragged fringes, outside groupthink and commercial imperatives. Some staked their claim as far from this city as they could possibly get. But others staked that claim right here in Los Angeles.
Beginning tonight and continuing through the weekend, you can get a sense of just how radical, untamed and occasionally brilliant Los Angeles-based non-studio cinema has been -- and continues to be -- with the inaugural film series at Walt Disney Concert Hall's REDCAT (the name is an acronym for the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater). Curated by CalArts film and video Dean Steve Anker, who for years helped run the San Francisco Cinematheque, and CalArts professor Berenice Reynaud, with assistance from guest curators Irene Kotlarz and Cathy Rivera, the program gets this newly launched weekly showcase off to an excellent start. The series' name may be a snore -- coined for maximum literalness, the plodding title is Independent Los Angeles: A Festival of Independent Los Angeles Filmmakers -- but the assembled work is something of a revelation.
Given Los Angeles' enduring reputation as a cultural wasteland -- sustained, it seems, principally by media elites east of the Hudson River who swan into town for a weekend before swanning back home to recycle all the exhausted cliches -- the city's long history of off-Hollywood production may come as a surprise. Stories about men and women being swallowed up and spit out by the movie industry are instrumental to Hollywood's lore and its mystique. Decades of stories devoted to squandered and abused genius, to butchered screenplays, to artists driven to drink and worse, have helped fuel the perception that nothing worthy (certainly nothing visionary), ever comes out of the industry and -- by extension -- out of the city often seen as little more than its adjunct.
The curators for the Independent Los Angeles series subvert that canard with a program of works that, taken together, make the case that for some filmmakers the city has been more of an oasis than desert. In this respect it's an especially nice touch that the series begins with a program of short films by a young Kansas City animator named Walt Disney. (Screening this evening, the films, alas, were unavailable for press preview.) Made in 1923 at Walt and Roy Disney's first Los Angeles office, and before they hung up a shingle announcing their studio, these "Alice Comedies" (named after the little girl in the series) combined live action and animation. Although there's no question that launching the series with Disney cartoons has a whiff of political expediency, it underscores the crucial point that before his name became a synonym for industrial moviemaking, Walt Disney was an artist.