Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Crumbles: Coming to Rock LA

It’s Friday night and I’m running late. My friend Francisco Hernández, a filmmaker born in Boyle Heights and raised in San Juan Bautista, has invited me to the L.A. premiere of a film he has co-produced. Written and directed by Akira Boch, one of his life-long friends, the film has a buzz. For the last two years, I have connected with him, and a mutual circle of friends I love and cherish, only sporadically. I miss them, and the opportunity to help celebrate this milestone achievement is reason enough to make the rare trek west, all the way to the West Hollywood environs that glitter with a tangible movie business patina.

It merits mention that Francisco and Akira were reared alongside Kinán and Anahuac Valdez, scions of the Luis Valdez-led Teatro Campesino theater clan, an extended Brechtian guerrilla theater crew forged in the heyday of the Chicano Movement that took shape in the ’60s and ’70s. In support of farmworkers and labor leader César Chávez, Teatro Campesino earned a well-deserved place in the annals of American theater history as the first family of Chicano theater, spawning a score of like-minded Chicano theatre troupes throughout the southwest in its wake.

The company, of course, later became renowned for its production of Zootsuit, a ground-breaking musical which shed light on the heavy-handed police and military efforts to thwart a Mexican American expression of pride and sartorial style. In the ‘80s, Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba, a film about pioneer Chicano rocker Richie Valens that hipped Hollywood to the ever elusive box office draw of the Mexican American experience.
Ambitious forerunners of DYI filmmaking, who witnessed the making of Luís Valdez’ La Bamba first-hand as toddlers, Hernández, Boch and the Valdez brothers formed a film company together while still in high school. “It sounds funny now, but, believe it or not, it was called Funky Flicks,” Francisco says about his peer group’s first ambitious foray into media over the phone several weeks in advance of the LA screening at the Directors’ Guild of America theater on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. The screening is part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival organized by Visual Communications.

So I’m running late because I have to drive to Southgate to pick up table cloths and chair covers for a wedding scheduled tomorrow at the hall where Boyle & Boyle is currently camped out. I suddenly find myself tearing down Franklin to avoid the Friday night 101 and Sunset traffic.  All I know about The Crumbles, Akira’s feature debut, is based on a cursory look at a web-site and Francisco’s excited description of the film’s effusive reception at a recent Bay Area screening. The DGA screening I’m careening to is, naturally, sold out. Francisco has graciously provided a comp ticket at will call.

Luckily, I’m able to nab a still vacant seat on the last row and fall quickly under the spell of a funny but riveting film about friendships, expectations, aspirations, disillusion, betrayal and, ultimately, the infallible belief in the power of music, art and the creative impulse inherent in us all to transcend the challenges and obstacles we face every day. The Crumbles, a fictional indie, alt-rock start up band around which the film is based, resemble the real world in a way that Hollywood still resists. In spite of that sad fact, they become, nonetheless, the band we want to believe in and root for. 
Unfortunately, the industry continues to have an incredibly hard time believing that the Katie Hipol, Therese Michelle Lee and Jeff Torres and are the new Winona Ryders and Brad Pitt, respectively, of cinema.

A nuanced, well-crafted film that features Hipol as Darla, a brown-skinned, ethnicity neutral, guitar-wielding songwriter who recruits her talented, but flaky Asian-American slacker BFF for a musical project with Torres along as “Dante,” the penultimate “awkward and awesome” drummer who crushes on Darla is, despite what so many well meaning young executives (and yes, Scott Budnick, I am talking to you, and believe me, I’m not kvetching) will say about how they can’t sell a movie without a goofy but lovable white boy or white girl in the mix as a lead. All that excuse making and hem-hawing aside, The Crumbles rock. Their story is universal and every bit a part of the mainstream because this is where we live. This is who we are.

I’m watching what is a standard LA reality that, given half a chance, would otherwise be an amazing sleeper box office smash. I understand that it will be studiously ignored by studios and the Fox Searchlight types precisely because it is every bit as good as an early Woody Allen dramedy. And it’s a homegrown, organic expression that has none of the exotic allure of an import vetted by the likes of Diego Luna or Gael Garcia, who are generally sympathetic guys. But they don’t, however, automatically or readily assume that we also grew up reading Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez while we were discovering, unlike them, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Rodolfo Anaya, Corky Gonzales and Americo Paredes. 

Boch has assembled a cast that represents the real Echo Park, the real Boyle Heights and the real downtown L.A. But the industry is loathe to accept that filmmakers like Boch and Hernández are the arbiters of what is quickly becoming the new smart, quirky cool. It is uncomfortable with outsiders deciding what constitutes culture and taste with an edge.

So what? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hipol and Torres and Lee and Seth Millwood as Serge and Ebony Perry as Francine, an independent bookstore manager who just happens to be black, are believable and true and indicative of what this country will become in spite of backward, xenophobic Arizona-style legislation. The Crumbles embody an idea that flies in the face of the ignominious, visceral and latent assumptions that black and brown and red and yellow people are intent on subverting traditional  American values.

The latter is more than evidenced by the recent retard laws which criminalize immigrants and seek to ban empowering studies and books that have led to an increase in graduation rates for all students and allowed for the kind of learning that boosts graduation statistics and college prospects for kids emerging from a community that has the highest drop-out rate in the nation.

As The Crumbles unspools on a screen at a bastion of American cinema, I feel pangs of empathy for Darla, who realizes that her rock star aspirations are perhaps a pipe dream. She tastes the possibility and then sees her hopes dashed because she trusts a girl she cares about. It may be that she has a more intimate interest in Elisa, but she can only recognize them as platonic feelings colored by a need to help a sister trying to make her way out of relationship with a wannabee rock star that has worn thin.
A lucid and cogent musical score by Quetzal Flores bolsters the story of a little band poised to make the big-time that can’t seem to overcome the dead-end inertia that plagues so many in a contemporary generation that has all but given up on real social interaction in favor of safe  iPhone and Facebook distance. In many ways, the music makes the film flow seemlessly. 

Through it all, Boch proves to be a sensitive, gifted story-teller who is, by virtue of his integrity and experience, able to muster the efforts of talented friends who support his vision and believe in the redemptive power of collaboration. There are moments in the film, some of them uncomfortable and ungainly, just like real life, which trigger laughter and others that lend to the sad emptiness that can sometimes invade your spleen with that sick, broken-hearted, almost sinking feeling you get when life seems bleak and insurmountable.

This is what makes the film soar, what makes it resonate with truth. The ensemble cast and crew that gathers for the Q & A afterward gives ample credence to the “awkward and awesome” mantra that has informed Boch’s aesthetic. Their nervous, tentative answers to audience questions are refreshing as a reminder that engaging, independent, underground cinema, which reflects the inevitable veracity of our times, is alive and well in L.A.

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