The characters in L for Leisure wear Ray-Bans and tortoiseshell horn-rims, oxford shirts for the girls and tank tops for the guys; title cards are handwritten in pastels reminiscent of the Drive font, or early MTV programming; the original songs that make up the soundtrack, by John Atkinson of Brooklyn’s Aa, sound a little bit like the 8-bit Out Run theme, and a little bit like shoegaze. The film is shot in grainy, sun-kissed 16mm and follows mellowed-out, privileged, pretty people hanging out; watching it is like living inside an Instagram filter—basking in the authored, self-contained textures of the fairly recent past.
Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s film, which plays at Videology on Friday night (having made a very well-received run ‘round the fest circuit last year), is set over the 1992-93 school year, specifically over the various school vacations, on beaches and in family homes in SoCal, Great Neck, Baja Mexico, and other photogenic locales. The laid-back, uninflectedly affluent vibe, and focus on social minutae, is played up on the film’s website with the very film critic-friendly tagline, “Find out what happens when people stop being real… and start being polite,” as if the Sally Fowler Rat Pack had moved into the Real World house.
The characters in the film are played in large part by friends and peers of Kalman and Horn, who shot scenes where, when, and with who was possible over the course of a few years; likewise, the film seems to follow a varied and loosely-knit social network of graduate students. Interspersed in these scenes of waterskiing and wine-drinking are long passages of gauzy, brightly colored visual beauty, encompassing nature (from the forests of NoCal to the wheat fields of Provence), consumer kitsch (painted toenails on a Merrill Lynch promotional golf towel; crumpled-up Capri Sun packets under streetlamps in a fast-food parking lot), young bodies, and pointedly dated bougie signposts (a trying-on-jeans party with a lot of distressed and high-waisted Levi’s; rollerblading).
Each sequence is specifically identified as taking place on a specific school holiday, hence the characters’ constant description of their mental state as “mellow.” On these lacunae in the academic calendar, the grad students take verbal ambles along the scenic route of their research into alternate universes or tree spirits—they are idle but not stupid, though occasionally ridiculous (one student’s dissertation involves speaking through mediums to various tree spirits, a project which her friend describes as “very interdisciplinary”; though the anxieties she later confesses about her aptitude for research is very touching and has an air of truth). During the occasional “makeout sesh” or group flirtation with high school kids, they relax their boundaries and backslide gently into a warm bath of youthfulness and inconsequence.
“If this is the end of history,” as one character posits early on, then the characters really do have all the time in the world, as the film’s tone and narrative structure imply. (The film is set over the unmentioned transition from Bush I to Clinton; Kalman and Horn were both born in 1982, so maybe too young to wear all the clothes the first time around, but just right to have come of age between the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Twin Towers.) But the film also hints at an awareness of its place within a champagne-bubble of history and privilege: against the grain of his social circle, the student studying the apocalypse goes to Iceland and reads Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance amid winter scenery that’s half primal, half postapocalyptic; dreamy, smoke-filled laser-tag games go down at a place called “Future Warz.”
The film establishes this distance through the deadpan dialogue, delivered with Warholian artlessness by the nonprofessional cast (it is also frequently hilarious: “So that’s wonderful, you’re on a co-ed, naked basketball team”). But the film’s 20-year-old retro-chic, or ironic-retro-chic, is right in the sweet spot of what millennials are currently reclaiming of their own; it’s so luxuriant—for fetishists of both fashion and of cinema—as to dissipate any airquotes we might try and put up as we wallow in our low-risk memories. L for Leisure is the movie of the century so far. Enjoy it at your peril.
Tomorrow night, the film screen’s with Kalman and Horn’s 2009 effort, Blondes in the Jungle, a 45-ish-minute featurette with a six-person cast, featuring collegiate naifs from Bret Easton Ellis-era Manhattan on the trail in Honduras, looking for the Fountain of Youth. En route, they encounter a coke dealer named “Armani” in a Miami Vice blazer, and a Mayan Jaguar God. (“Last night, I was visited by the Mayan Jaguar God.” “Wait, there was a guy here?”) The film tugs even more aggressively than L for Leisure at the seams of artifice: the amateur cast delivers even more aggressive nonperformances; the pop-culture references are even more groaners, the special effects, like monkey hackings, are deliberately terrible bad; and while L for Leisure is plotless, the plot here is arbitrary and capricious.
Especially given the Reagan-administration and Central American setting, and cast of preppie white interlopers, it seems germane to note that Ingrid Schram, the lone female of the party, looks uncannily like the girl on the cover of Vampire Weekend’s Contra album, but in a baby-blue Lacoste polo dress instead of a yellow Ralph Lauren polo. Members of Vampire Weekend—who were at Columbia at the same time as Kalman and Horn, obviously—contribute to the soundtrack, by Atkinson, Julianna Barwick, and others, under the name El Jefe and the Executive Look.