Once a year at the Passover Seder, tradition demands we recline while we eat and consume four glasses of wine. For the characters in L for Leisure, this is merely the daily routine. Taking languor and extraneity as its very subject, the first feature from filmmaking duo Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn (Blondes in the Jungle) unfolds over the course of the 1992-1993 academic year. But there’s very little class time involved; instead, the directors drop in and out on a group of loosely interwoven graduate students in varying states of repose. Whether chilling beachside in California, sprawled out in backyards across the East Coast, or casually leaning against a pack of ponies in the fjords of Iceland, life, it seems, is one giant chaise lounge—and there’s always a beverage within arm’s reach.
Shot on 16mm, the film’s languid tone and bright, sun-kissed aesthetic owes as much to the work of Eric Rohmer and Whit Stillman as it does to early MTV music videos, but the characters’ mannered way of speaking most closely recalls DIY king Hal Hartley circa The Unbelievable Truth. Deadpan and heady, these intellectually inclined sybarites discuss things like the “erotic hold” of post-apocalyptic fantasy and ruminate over the possibilities of an alternate universe “cellularly and molecularly.” They marvel at semantics (“Is that the word we’re using? That is so interesting”) and constantly report on their state of “mellow.”
The film is chock-full of visual landmarks and cultural references specific to the early-90s: Snapple, Rollerblades, Marky Mark’s “important” ads for boxer-briefs, Wayne’s World’s “Sha-wing.” There’s an endless supply of high-waisted Levi’s and, best of all, a spontaneous A Capella rendition of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” But the directors are not terribly bothered by subtle anachronisms: Mariah’s hit came out in 1995, do we care? With the aid of John Atkinson’s original synth score, L for Leisure strives toward creating impression rather than an imitation of the decade.
For all its atmospheric laziness, this is not a film about (or for) slackers, but rather thinkers; embedded directly into the easy-breezy aesthetic is quite a rigorous exploration of time and space. There’s a telling moment towards the end of movie where one of the characters discusses John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s concept of “psychedelic sports.” In the 20th century, he explains, activities whose pleasures lie simply in the sensation of moving through space—skiing, skateboarding—have replaced traditional games burdened by rules and keeping score, like tennis. The same might be said of Kalman and Horn’s style of filmmaking, which eschews all restrictive structural expectations in favor of free-flowing mood and temporality.
We reached the directors by phone in advance of the film’s theatrical run, which begins this Friday at Made in NY Media Center by IFP, to mull over their artistic conception of leisure and why the 90s resonate so strongly today. Though Lev Kalman speaks for the pair in interviews as a rule, Whitney Horn will introduce the film on multiple nights during “L for Leisure week“; other screenings will feature Q&As and “L for Leisure Lectures” on topics such as nostalgia and laziness, as well as special-guest videos and music performances.