October 11, 2006

Lone Pine Dispatch. 1.

In the first of two dispatches, Brian Darr samples the offerings at this past weekend's unique Lone Pine Film Festival.

Lone Pine Film Festival

Living in a densely-packed city like San Francisco, it can be easy to lose sight of just how physical geography shapes the communities that humans have built. But spending a few days in a town like the tiny Lone Pine, CA, nestled deep in the Owens River Valley between the glacier-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range to the west and the lower and dryer but just as rugged Inyo Mountains to the east, I feel I'm constantly being reminded of the power of landscape. Everything seems to originate in these mountains: their streams provided the water for agriculture here back when no one but the Paiute Indians were practicing it, until 1913 when the Valley's ranchers and farmers (whites who'd by then driven out most of their Paiute neighbors) lost the battle to prevent the Los Angeles Aqueduct from transporting it to another county 230 miles to its southwest. You know the story, sort of, if you've seen Chinatown, and somewhat better if you've seen Los Angeles Plays Itself.

Enabled partly by this grab, Los Angeles County increased its population and swiftly became a less and less appropriate place to shoot an outdoor film like a Western or a British military adventure. In 1920, Paramount filmed a Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle feature called The Round-Up in the Alabama Hills at the foot of the Sierras just outside Lone Pine. Since then, hundreds of Hollywood productions have been shot in and around the town, enough to inspire a one-of-a-kind film festival devoted to showing only films shot in a single location. The Lone Pine Film Festival is now in its 17th year and going strong.

The mountains also brought me, indirectly. I first heard of this festival ten years ago when visiting the area with my dad, an avid Sierra backpacker for whom Lone Pine was often the site of a first taste of civilization (i.e., pizza) after a week or more in the mountains. Neither of us had traveled to the festival (or any festival that takes much more than crossing a bridge to travel to) and we decided to make this the year to finally go, at least to the final day and a half of the three-day event. Being used to seeing Lone Pine in the sleepy summer months, it was eye-opening to see the town with its motel rooms filled up (as they had been for months; we camped), its streets packed with parked cars, and its sidewalks bustling with people, a good portion dressed as if they'd just walked out of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

Bad Day at Black Rock It's clear that not everyone who descends on the town this weekend is here to see any films. With organized activities including tours, a parade, an evening concert, celebrity panels and book signings, a memorabilia hall, a museum and even a closing campfire, the festival also functions as one of the region's biggest annual parties. And given the gorgeous weather and panoramas, the idea of sitting in a theater watching 16mm prints and DVD projections has limited appeal, even for a cinephile like myself. I only saw four feature-length films, far fewer than I'd anticipated. One of them, Bad Day at Black Rock, is apparently a perennial festival favorite, perhaps because it so vividly recalls an important piece of history located twenty miles to the North, the Manzanar war relocation center that imprisoned more than 10,000 Japanese Americans (mostly US citizens) between 1942 and 1945.

At the time of its release, Bad Day at Black Rock was one of the most expensive films to have been made in the Lone Pine area, as an entire street set was built outside of town. If you haven't seen it, Spencer Tracy is a war vet on a mysterious and very personal mission to an off-the-map outpost called Black Rock, where he's met with aggressive inhospitality from certain of the inhabitants (Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine) and overwhelming apathy from most of the others (Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger.)

Revisiting this phenomenally cast Super-Western, I was reminded of the ways in which it doesn't feel much like a Western at all. A complaint from certain purists is that it's too modern, as it is set in late 1945 and deals not with the physical frontier of American manifest destiny but the psychological frontiers of a bigoted society. The time period is less alien to my conception of a Western, though, than the way that it resembles a constricted chamber piece. Opening and closing shots showing off the scenery stand in contrast to director John Sturges's choices in staging the majority of the film (lots of medium-to-long shots in indoor locations), which combined with the diction of the dialogue creates something feeling like an Arthur Miller play in Cinemascope. None of the characters truly live in the landscape, like the typical nomadic gunslingers found in so many Westerns. Instead, the topography and vast stretches of wilderness painted by the mountain ranges in the distance mainly serve to cut Black Rock off from civilized society, perhaps to reassure cinema audiences of 1955 of their moral superiority to the xenophobes in the "stix," or to chastise viewers about any narrow attitudes they might hold within themselves but feel ready to isolate and let wither.

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Posted by dwhudson at October 11, 2006 10:35 AM


Brian: What an exquisite essay on the setting and history of this festival! I'm belatedly reading it as I've been out of town this last week. Congratulations on crossing the bridge to your first out-of-town festival. The first, I ardenly hope, of many.

Now off to read your second report!

Posted by: Michael Guillen at October 16, 2006 10:25 AM