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California Dreaming

WINTER 2004

 

Moving from movie backdrop to filmic subject, Los Angeles is skewered, scrutinized and celebrated in four new independent films. Andy Bailey discovers the Sundance-bound Los Angeles Plays Itself as well as The Decay of Fiction, The Mayor of Sunset Strip and Sunset Junction.

...Finally, there’s Sunset Junction, shot on a Sony DSR-500W PAL digital video camera by Emmy Award–winning filmmaker Peter Jones and Mark Catalena, producers of the A&E series Biography whose past subjects include Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin and Samuel Goldwyn. Subtitled “Los Angeles at a Crossroads,” the documentary explores the gentrifying neighborhoods of Silverlake and Echo Park, where Hispanic bootstrappers co-exist with white yuppie hipsters, and where 250,000 diverse souls — ranging from gang members to gay leather daddies — congregate every August at a street fair called Sunset Junction. The fair’s colorful impresario is former Beverly Hills hairdresser, Michael McKinley, who was warned of a bloodbath by police in 1981 if he enlisted homosexuals and members of rival gangs to provide security at his nascent block party in one of the most crime-ridden enclaves of the city.

But Sunset Junction, which premiered in November at the annual AFI Fest in L.A., focuses less on the tumultuous history of the gathering than on the staging of its 2001 incarnation by McKinley and his band of so-called troubled youth, predominantly Mexican-American high schoolers, not the “gang members and other kids society wants to throw away” described in publicity materials.

What’s engrossing about this otherwise disjointed documentary is its social-activist subject, a true-life Big Gay Al whose frenzied obsession with the Supremes and other ’60s girl groups makes one wonder about his motives for staging the fair. Does McKinley really want to bring communities together, or is it merely a pretext for getting closer to his celebrity idols (and Sunset Junction performers) Mary Wilson and Freda Payne? Who can really say? “It’s impossible to know Los Angeles,” the noir novelist Walter Mosley once observed. “To be able to know a place, it has to at least in some ways want to be known — L.A. just doesn’t want to be be known.”

Los Angeles Plays Itself is currently screening around the L.A. area. Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill is available on Amazon.com or through the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication (www.annenberg.edu/labyrinth). The Mayor of the Sunset Strip opens in January through First Look Pictures. Sunset Junction, currently without a distributor, is making the rounds of film festivals.