I COULD DREAM ALL DAY by Charity Coleman
CONSIDERING CALIFORNIA THROUGH THE FILMS OF LAIDA LERTXUNDI
“It is hard to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised…” –Joan Didion, Notes from a Native Daughter
Nothing is crucial in Southern California but effortlessness—what comes to mind is Cher in Clueless bringing her father tea in his office. She strides over to the open window, reaches out, and plucks a ripe lemon off the tree just outside. When I visit my mother in Southern California, her Meyer lemon tree is fruiting wildly no matter what time of year, riotous in the lambent sunshine. I pick dozens of those lemons, but then what? There’s too many, they just sit there in a pile; we squeeze some into glasses of the awful tap water that comes from somewhere far away, while the excess fruit inevitably rots. In my mind, this image is directly related to the sound of my mom’s wind chimes and the husky rush of cars on the 10 freeway leading to and from the desert—a few non sequiturs that comprise a very familiar impression of life in Southern California.
In Footnotes to a House of Love (2007), Laida Lertxundi places two people in and outside of a house near collapse in the desert. Doors and walls don’t provide much in the way of shelter, and sheets and pillows are arranged on the sand outside while music plays in fits and starts. A man and a woman, whose faces are never directly shown (as in the majority of Lertxundi’s films), intermittently haunt the dilapidated premises, lie down outside, and listen to or play music. These day-trippers doing a whole lot of nothing give the sense of a permanent vacation in a transitory realm.
Born in Spain, filmmaker Laida Lertxundi has lived in Los Angeles for several years, joining a vast population of emigrants, actors, exiles, and changelings. She holds a MFA from CalArts and her films are featured in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Lertxundi’s American influences include Hollis Frampton (one website references his film Lemon, 1969, 16mm) and Bruce Baillie (notably, All My Life, 1966, 16mm). Shot on 16mm in LA and adjacent regions, her films are rich in color, sparsely peopled and soundtrack-heavy. She uses crackly recordings of 1960s songs by Robert Wyatt and Hoagy Lands, while her lens invariably tilts upward at the sky.
During A Lax Riddle Unit (2011)—the title is an anagram of the filmmaker’s name— there were moments when I found myself glancing away from the screen, aware of reflections on other surfaces while listening to the film’s soundtrack. This was a lull in attention that felt natural (lax). The camera pans through a living room in a sunlit apartment while music plays, ending up at a girl in a bed. The filmmaker summons that quintessentially Californian no-place: perpetual adolescence, the absence of urgency, and a pervasive airiness—totally spaced out. My Tears Are Dry (2009) and Cry When It Happens (2010) both lead the viewer into a world of softness, light, and languor via sea, sky, and verdure. A girl plucks a guitar, stops and starts a tape player, toys with an accordion, but nothing is seen to fruition.
There are instances in Lertxundi’s films during which the present seems to be mourned as having already passed. The fissure between sound and image comes across as twee after repeated use, and begins to feel like a ploy. In contrast, I am reminded of the spectral repetition of Hollis Frampton’s nostalgia (1971), in which individual photographs are placed over flame, one after another, and reduced to ash while a voice methodically explains the origin of and story behind the following photo: an attempt at selective amnesia or a permanent retinal burn? Frampton’s lack of sentimentality is memorable.
Each of Lertxundi’s films shows a young person lying in a bed at some point, a romanticized lethargy that feels like a feint so that the viewer forgets that there is anything in the world other than pretty pictures and quaint analog sound. The devotion here is to anti-climax and repose—a studied nonchalance that is beguiling until it becomes wearying. At some non-moment I was driven to distraction by the manipulative effect of the songs, the blue sky, the listlessness, and idle fingering of instruments. The images are nice, but off-screen is another LA, another desert.
In reaction to the inertia of California dreaming in Lertxundi’s LA, my thoughts turned to the Santa Ana winds, fires, desolation, ex-felons, trailer parks, skid row, tooled leather faces, relics and ruins. There’s the old Krotona building in Hollywood, where you can sneak through the gate and swim in the pool at night with Theosophist ghosts. There was once the sweet disorder of undressed boys who used to parade along Santa Monica Boulevard. Still today, nightmarish events that rival the Black Dahlia case, like the brazen summer’s afternoon murder of Lily Burke, or the severed head recently found near the Hollywood sign. Constant erasure, injury, erasure.
Again and again, people come to Los Angeles in droves to wonder at and assimilate to the bounty and blinding spectacle of its phantasmagoria. The vision is commonplace, a homogenized brand, both ahistorical and legendary at the same time. Part of the allure is the promise of oblivion. My great-grandmother used to live in Hollywood in a Craftsman house that has long since been obliterated from the face of the earth—it is impossible to find her California now. I have no idea how she ended up in LA except that maybe (this could be imagined) it had to do with being orphaned, which is fitting. Who needs a past, anyway?
Laida Lertxundi’s films play March 29-April 1 at the Whitney Museum of Art.
More information can be found here: http://whitney.org/Events/LaidaLertxundiScreening