05/15/15 12:00pm
05/15/2015 12:00 PM |

L4L_Still - L-R Andie (Libby Gery), Tristan (Kyle Wiliams), Blake (Bro Estes) and Otto (Engelbert Holder) in Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L FOR LEISURE. Courtesy of Special Affects Films

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.


05/06/15 6:07am
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.