“Ah, for the days / That set our hearts ablaze”: L For Leisure

by |
05/06/2015 6:07 AM |
photo courtesy of Special Affects Films

L For Leisure
Directed by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn
May 15-22 at Made in NY Media Center by IFP

The characters in L for Leisure wear Ray-Bans and horn-rims, the girls in oxford shirts and the guys in tank tops; title cards are handwritten in pastels reminiscent of the Drive font, or early MTV programming; the music sounds a little bit like the 8-bit Out Run theme, and a little bit like shoegaze. Shot in grainy, sun-blessed 16mm, the film consists primarily of privileged, pretty people hanging out and chatting; watching it is like living inside an Instagram filter.

Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s microindie festival favorite is set over the 1992–93 school year, on beaches and in family homes from Great Neck to Baja Mexico. The vibe of laid-back affluence, and focus on social minutiae, is played up on the film’s website with the critic-courting 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.

Kalman and Horn’s friends and peers play a loosely knit social network of graduate students; the filmmakers shot where, when, and with whom was possible over the course of a few years. Each sequence takes place on a specific school holiday, hence the characters’ constant descriptions of themselves as “mellow.” On these lacunae in the academic calendar, the grad students take verbal ambles along the scenic route of their research (one student’s dissertation involves speaking through mediums to various tree spirits, a project which her friend describes as “very interdisciplinary”; the anxiety she later confesses about her aptitude for research is very touching and has an air of truth). Interspersed in scenes of waterskiing and wine-drinking are long passages of gauzy, brightly colored visual beauty, encompassing nature (the forests of NoCal; 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), and pointedly dated bougie signposts (rollerblading). During the occasional “makeout sesh” or flirtation with high schoolers, they relax their boundaries and backslide into a warm bath of youthfulness and inconsequence.

“If this is the end of history,” as one character posits, then the characters really do have all the time in the world. Yet the student studying the apocalypse reads Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance amid the ice age of an Icelandic winter; dreamy, smoke-filled laser-tag games go down at a place called “Future Warz.” (Kalman and Horn were both born in 1982: maybe too young to wear all the clothes the first time around, but just right to come of age between the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Twin Towers.)

This self-awareness is also established through the distancing affect of the deadpan dialogue, delivered with Warholian artlessness by the nonprofessional cast (“So that’s wonderful, you’re on a co-ed, naked basketball team”). But the film’s retro-chic textures are so au courant and 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.

In an earlier version of this piece, I called L for Leisure “the movie of the century so far.” A little hyperbole’s a great way to blow off steam, but I did mean it, in one specific way. Luring us into feeling effortlessly savvy about the very recent past, L for Leisure is a perfect metaphor for everything we know so far about right now, from our insinuatingly knowing failsafe corporate entertainment to our social-media habits. Enjoy it at your peril.