Excess as a state of mind: intellectualism, vacation, and the pleasure of scenic rhythms.
Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s early ‘90s period piece, L For Leisure, is a simultaneous ode to—and interrogation of—the bourgeoisie’s right to a vacation. Spanning a series of jealousy-inducingly lush locales (including Laguna Beach, Long Island, the south of France, Baja, and Iceland) the film revels in those tiny, implacable moments of bliss and introspection perhaps best remembered by being left unarticulated. But if the film’s “body” is mostly made up of ravishing 16mm vistas, its mind is unerring in its specificity: Kalman and Horn’s characters are a smattering of grad students yakkety-yakking about whatever feels right at the time, alternately vain, insightful, sweetly curious, hilariously pretentious, and ultimately, all too human.
As someone who routinely pouts out loud about the preponderance of indie films concerning youngish, white, college-educated people, I was blown away by L For Leisure. The film juxtaposes their forever-unspooling intellectual digressions against impossibly majestic scenery, but never to score an easy point: the memory of visitation and the act of eavesdropping are rendered one and the same. As with their earlier Blondes In The Jungle, Kalman and Horn turn their subject matter inside out without dehumanizing the people onscreen (or in the audience) and have fun doing it too. The result? Some mysterious alchemy of deep irony and deeper beauty, like an impromptu dance party in a fast food parking lot—a terrific vacation in seventy-five short minutes.
L For Leisure screens Wednesday, June 25th at 9:30pm as part of BAMcinemaFest 2014.
Steve Macfarlane So, to start: can you talk about your dialogue-recording technique? I know the dialogue in your earlier work had this disembodied, un-synced quality. You record audio digitally, shoot on 16mm, and sync the two—leaving yourselves a little wiggle room?
Lev Kalman What we did with L For Leisure was more of a mix of techniques, depending on both technical things and aesthetic decisions. Sometimes it was just straight-up sync sound, added digitally of course, but recorded during the shoot. Sometimes it’s a dubbed voiceover.
SM How do you decide which one you prefer? Is it the performance, or the tone of the scene, or something else?
LK I think in general our intent was to have it feel, in L For Leisure, like it was sync sound throughout. But there were some scenes with dubs, one in particular towards the end, in Baja, Mexico, in which we had a monologue we tried recording a few different ways. The way we liked best was a recording the actor had done with us over Skype. That telephoney, mediated vibe felt more direct and intimate than our cleaner sync sound takes. And that was the one that we thought fit best in that scene.
SM Something about those scenes, maybe especially because of the handwritten title cards you put on them, felt very ephemeral and nostalgic to me. Was the film organized originally in its final structure, or did you move the vacations around until you got an order you liked? Each one is an isolated moment, it seems.
LK Yeah, I think there is supposed to be a feeling that it’s ephemeral and also incomplete. I think that one element of L For Leisure is that it often seems like there’s more of the world that can fit into whatever little scene we show, in terms of both the actual frame and the story. Each scene should feel kind of incomplete and unsatisfying, and the rhythm of those scenes build off of each other, reinforcing each other, or not. Each one should not feel like its own short film, but rather, like it’s missing something kind of big, and the one that comes after should complement the previous one but also add another feeling of something missing, as well.
SM Well, the locations—or is it the cinematography?—are gorgeous. It’s a bit surreal juxtaposing these very literal, almost grating conversations, with just unbelievably beautiful surroundings. For me it was an almost empty, depressing feeling.
SM Well, when you consider it to be that afterwards, at least.
LK Totally. I think one of the tensions that we’re working with is that there are both deeply satisfying moments—music video montages, pure pleasure as far as we’re concerned—and then there are other parts that are frustrating because, how could you not feel a disconnect? Or a lack?
SM So, writing-wise, what comes first—the locations or the characters? The film seems really severely influenced by the spaces where you shot these scenes. Is the human stuff secondary?
LK No, it doesn’t feel secondary. The whole way the movie was structured was very contingent on the question, "What are we going to be able to make where we know we’re not going to be able to hold onto the same actors for four years?" Actors are going to fall through; locations are going to fall through. It’s not like we were able to keep any of our actors under a contract, so... We had to make a movie that would benefit from having another actor show up who’s kind of like the character you were just watching, but slightly different, and it’s us benefitting from the idea of catch-as-catch-can, at least with locations.
Iceland was something that emerged really late in production; there was going to be a whole Silicon Valley scene, and we wanted Kyle Williams to be in that scene, but he told us, “Sorry guys, I can’t do the scene, I have to go to Iceland instead.” So we were like, “Well, can we go to Iceland with you and just re-imagine the scene for one person?”
SM Do your actors usually have that much influence over the story? Did you aim to cast people who could inspire the film to move in different directions like that?
LK Well, we were pretty attached to his character by then and we knew we wanted to see more of him. So it’s definitely—by no means did we poll the actors—“Where do you guys want to shoot?”—and work around that, but in that one case, it made perfect sense. We were like, Great, another exotic location and we don’t even have to fly you there. And it filled out the Christmas scene, which we really felt was missing from the movie.
SM If you’ll concede that the scenes are incomplete by design, I guess I would say Blondes In The Jungle was like a more fleshed-out version of one character’s story in L For Leisure. There’s also this whole similar Americans abroad thing...
LK Dealing with the first part first: especially watching it now, Blondes is a much more linear film than L For Leisure is—you have three characters, they go on a quest, they find a thing they’re looking for. It’s kind of simple like that. In L For Leisure, I think our impulse was actually to explode Blondes; the stories are fractured, the characters are all incomplete and all lacking a little bit. It’s spread out more, there’s almost this feeling of smoke clearing in the film. It’s a much more split-up, broken-up movie.
There’s one thing that we have always been chasing: we’ve always been trying to figure out how, within a tight little movie—without getting boring or anything—do you show moments that are just pure excess? In terms of relaxation, in terms of hanging out, maybe in terms of getting drunk. And then having that kind of scene repeat again and again, breaking out of narrative economy. We tried that a little bit with Blondes. It was important to have the main characters doing coke again and again and again, and not just one scene to let us know that they were doing coke.
LK So, with L For Leisure we were really pushing that impulse, to see how un-economical we could be and still make a movie that doesn’t feel like it’s wasting the viewer’s time. Instead, we want to use that lack of economy to show something that doesn’t normally come through in movies—in our case, this feeling of there being too much of something: a lot of laying around, a lot of leisure.
SM The movie has visual pleasures for sure, but normally, depictions of excess on film are a lot of stuff, or some really big expensive...thing. Tell me about excess as a state of mind? In your film, it’s ... almost Emersonian.
LK (laughter) I think you’re on the right track; we’re trying to show, not exactly the Miami Vice type of excess—“Look, we bought a crane for no reason!”—which is awesome, but instead we’re trying to create an excess that’s kind of a generosity towards the rhythms of the scenes, as opposed to just trying to get through a movie.
SM Tell me about the music. You’ve always had consciously new music in your films, as opposed to sourcing songs from the era.
LK Definitely not. Yeah.
SM I couldn’t quite wrap my hand around the score—it drifted in and out of a “’90s” sound. What did you want it to do? Did you send the film, clean, to your composer? Or...
LK No, actually we were working with John Atkinson, the composer, for the entire four years that we were making the movie. First we came up with the title. Then after that we decided that it would be around vacations and grad students, and John would do the score. And he’s been involved like that ever since.
I think the way you described what the music does is right. Our original plan was to have him do more of a “score,” something more atmospheric, all of one piece, and then we realized that both his tendencies and ours tended towards songs. So we’re like, How do we make something that’s a song that can turn, at any minute, into an atmospheric space? How do we occupy that middle ground?
That’s what we discovered working with him: the songs converge on each other, and they can kind of lilt in and out of the film, but at the same time they’re like pop songs you could picture the characters listening to. So it sort of makes sense. Also, his project mirrored ours, in that the last thing we would want is for somebody to see the film and mistake it for found footage from the ’90s. It should look very much like a contemporary point of view on the times, and we were trying to get him to not do a retro thing. Even the dance scene in the parking lot, with the teenage girls—that’s not quite what they would actually have been listening to.
SM I guess I took it as a more alternate history thing—not sci-fi, just a very, very, slightly tweaked version of the time and place.
LK We thought it should sound like you made it on a laptop in 2014, but it should relate to the characters and locations of the film.
SM Can you elaborate on that—something retro, but not hyper-referential, in how it reveals itself? Are you trying to correct something you’ve seen in other movies about the ’90s?
LK I think that it’s, again, the impulse to always make it clear to the audience that we are making a film about a time and about characters—an act of memory and recreation, and not an attempt at total mimicry. Our intention wasn’t to make a nostalgic movie but rather to really ground a movie in a certain time, to make people aware that there’s effort involved in that, and that even when there are slips and mistakes, I think that’s okay. We were trying to point to specific trends, intellectual trends, fashion trends, whatever, and we’re recreating them specifically, rather than taking the entire world in one big bite and saying, “Oh, well, that’s just how it was back then.” It’s a series of decisions about that time.
SM It’s like you’re mapping this weird shadow history of a certain kind of middle-class intellectualism, from a specific point. Actually, come to think of it, the idea of you two riffing on Silicon Valley is really tantalizing.
LK And maybe we’ll make a short one day. It’s great to us when people in the audience actually take seriously the dialogue the characters are having, not just considering it to be silly and brainy intellectual bullshit. Those dialogues are very specifically chosen by us, and when our characters are described as intellectuals, yeah, we did our best to be as intellectual as we could get on those topics. At the same time, we’re trying to pick topics that distance us from them. Taking characters that are, in some sense, young, thinking, left-leaning people, and find all the places where, when they talked about things, it doesn’t quite gel with the way we think about a conversation like that going anymore. And so that’s why things like the reference to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History were so important.
SM Or the discussion between the two dudes playing basketball. This is why I was so taken with the film: conversation is so innocuous and random, at least when you’re having it. In retrospect you can see how far off-base you were, but it feels natural when they’re having these discussions.
LK Yes. We got that from editorials from the times, and how even Michael Jordan himself participated in this obsession with questions like, “What does it mean that basketball is so black now?” Imagining that as a totally mainstream conversation that anti-racist, left-wing people were having all the time—“What is essentially black about basketball?”—that’s a kind of conversation that we can’t even picture anymore. And that gets kind of washed away if you present it as, “Oh yeah, we’ve always believed the same things across time.” In fact, you can track the little details of things and attitudes changing. It was only twenty years ago but so much of it seems alien to us now.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.