By Jim Smith
The Other Venice Film Festival is not like any film festival you might have attended or heard about. It is informal and casual. Except for a few extremely high heels and two men wearing suits with ties, it was like any other Venice gathering.
The kick off took place in an old Venice bungalow on Rose Avenue, now a store called the Big Red Sun (athough it’s blue). Unlike the big, ugly boxes that are springing up around Venice, it has a back yard and a front yard. The movie screen and projector were in the back yard. The Margarita bar was in the front yard. This reporter was in the front yard in earnest conversation with photographers Edizen Stowell and Gisele Reberio (name dropping is required in film festival reviews) and missed the beginning of Venice (Beach) in the Sixties, A Celebration of Creativity (just the main reason he was there!).
I wandered into the viewing area in time to see Big Daddy Nord on film. He was the proprietor of Gas House, the first Beat coffee house in Venice. It was torn down by the city of L.A. which thought we shouldn’t be corrupted by such things (always looking out for our interests).
Leland Auslender, who shot the film and is a long-time acquaintance, finally assembled his footage and did a voice-over to turn it into a picture. I’m surprised that he got away with shooting at some of the beat pads in the early ‘60s. Even in the late ‘60s, anyone with a camera was considered to be a Narc, which Leland certainly isn’t.
His short film also has a scene shot in the Venice West Cafe which was located at 7 Dudley Avenue. In it we see its owners John and Anna Haag, without a doubt the most influential couple in Venice history. John, a Harvard graduate, took the Venice West to its greatest fame as its third owner. It was founded by the great Venice poet, Stuart Perkoff. He was also a founder of the Free Venice movement, the Peace and Freedom Party (today the largest socialist party in America), the Free Venice Beachhead, and helped integrate the Lincoln Place Apartments in his spare time. Anna, a dark-eyed beauty from Italy, was perhaps the first vendor in Venice and on Ocean Front Walk. She made jewelry which she sold in Venice from the ‘60s until her death in 2003. Together, their political and cultural influence on modern Venice was second only to Abbot Kinney’s.
Also visible in Auslender’s film inside the Venice West are poet Maurice Lacy, who is described as an “albino” (does any of his poetry survive?), Claire Horner, who wrote little books of “sayings,” and was by no means a Beat poet but was still part of the scene, and Tamboo, Venice’s first conga player who started the Drum Circle without knowing it. He and friends would play at the Cafe and at the Dudley pagodas. By the late ‘60s, the drums had moved to the Brooks “hill.” Later, the city built a platform out by the bay at the Brooks jetty (now buried under the sand), and finally it settled smack in the middle of the beach.
The film is available on DVD from www.canyoncinema.com.
A Dennis Hopper film from 1961, Night Tide, includes shots of the basement bar at the Town House (which played jazz in the film, not a bad idea today), the Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Police Station (now SPARC).
Hopper was without a doubt a good actor which was obvious in this, his first starring role. But was Hopper a Venetian. He did live in Venice for many years, at a compound at Hampton and Indiana, but did not involve himself in the community. Hopper was more conservative than most Venetians, perhaps being influenced by his father who worked for a forerunner of the CIA. Venice artist Bill Ataway, who was introduced as a friend of Hopper’s, said he only saw the actor twice, even though his studio is right across Hampton from Hopper’s home. Katherine LaNasa, who was one of Hopper’s five wives, had only good things to say about her late ex-husband.
While taking a quick toke down the street with new friends I watched a homeless man I know walk by with his dogs. It made me think about the relation of art (film) and real life. The great Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Today many art critics, perhaps including some of those at the Other Venice Film Festival might say that “it’s art for art’s sake, man, that’s all.” It seems that social consciousness in art is at a historic low ebb. Is it because living is so expensive that only those with a trust fund can practice art? Or is it the constant barrage of the mass media that pretends social issues don’t exist and that consumption is the ultimate experience?
As I was biking home, I cruised down Third Street between Rose and Sunset. There are no homes on this street, only buildings. It is a perfect place for RVs to park (and perhaps would make a good venue for next year’s festival?). I ran into a friend who was walking up the street from her RV. She told me that police harassment is almost constant. The patrol cars cruise by during the night clicking their sirens and loud speakers. From time to time, they bang on camper doors and demand that everyone comes out. Sleeping in a vehicle is not permitted (although it is permitted on the sidewalk). She told me that a lawyer had advised her to say she wasn’t sleeping, that she had been having sex next time she got a bang on the door. Or, if she was alone, to say she was masturbating, which is also legal.
Pedaling onward down Hampton to Broadway I notice a silent-running police car (speeding without any lights) zooming up the street. It was almost one year to the minute from last Oct. 15 when a silent running police car had killed Devin Petelski on Venice Blvd. A memorial to Petelski still exists at Glyndon Avenue, but the perpetrators who surely would have been convicted of second-degree murder had they not been police officers received only a slap on the hand. (http://bit.ly/5oLQws). After Petelski’s death, the LAPD denied knowing what silent running meant, and furthermore denied that they still engaged in it.
Arriving home to a warm and cozy environment, I felt good about our own “other” film festival, which is becoming an essential part of our community. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Reuben De La Casas, who has shepherded it through seven years, and to all the volunteers who made it possible. Don’t miss it next year.
Yet the evening left me wondering: should we be happy that we have a great film festival in Venice, or should we be sad that art cannot change our world which is so crummy for so many people?