Way back in October of the paradigm-shifting year of 2001, my 19-year-old self bought a ticket to see Richard Linklater's Waking Life in Union Square with a group of friends from New York University, where I was studying film. About 20 minutes in, a woman possessed with an even greater degree of unqualified superiority rose up from her seat to loudly proclaim, "This is a college movie!" before exiting in protest. Fourteen years later, pieces of Waking Life have taken up permanent residence in my memory, along with the anonymous New Yorker who vocally rejected it and checked out after the first reel.
She regularly announces herself in my conscience when it seems like I am being drawn in by what appears to be a "college movie." Most recently, she manifested while I was settling into the peculiar rhythms of L for Leisure, the excellent new film by Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn. A globe-hopping survey of American grad students and professors making the best of their leisure time in 1992 and 1993, L for Leisure is a slippery work that is sure to entertain and elude viewers in equal measure. L for Leisure eschews a central storyline and characters in favor of episodic riffing on a type of character in a specific situation: The American graduate student on break.
The film's first act has the trappings of a softcore porn, right down to the rollerblading stud who asks for a wine glass and a Snapple in the same breath upon arriving at a Southern California yacht club. Despite all the signs and signals, the Laguna lunk and sultry professor Sierra Paradise do not get around to doing it. They are simply laser-focused on relaxing their asses off. "I'm getting so mellow," says Sierra. "Oh, you are?" asks the guy. "Here, have some of my Snapple." Not for the first time in my cinematic life, I realize that the suggestion of sex has been used to harness my attention before slowing things down and diverting it elsewhere. In this case, elsewhere seems to be the work of "getting mellow." It's about this time that a familiar alarm sounds in my mind.
"This is a college movie!"
Official Trailer for 'L for Leisure' (2015)
And boy, is it ever. However, behind the handheld camerawork, the jokey acting, and thrift-store fashion sense are nuanced meditations on time, the environment, and politics. L for Leisure places smart, young adults against a vast and uncaring natural world, struggling against the odds to enjoy free time in spite of their tireless intellects. It's like Werner Herzog directed an after-school special about the importance of turning off your mind.
After three viewings in as many cities, each rewarding me with details and insights that had escaped me previously, I spoke with filmmakers Lev Kalman in San Diego and Whitney Horn in New York City from my home in Portland, Oregon.
VICE: Where did the idea for L for Leisure come from?
Lev Kalman: The way we usually develop our movies is that we have the title and often the next thing will be the time in which it is set. So we said, all right, we're going to be making a 1992ish project, because Blondes in the Jungle was a 1988ish project. And that became the container for a lot of our ideas. If you were going to pick an era for that kind of useless intellectual, 1992 made a lot of sense. 1992 was the beginning of this fantasy of American-style globalization where the flattening of the world is going to be happening. It's close enough to the present that it's within our memories and we can draw upon it, and at the same time kind of distant.
As an academic, your work and your leisure time are always blended together.
One of the big questions that drove us to make a movie that was set in this recent past was this question of whether the future of that time was inevitable. Is their future open-ended, or is their future definitely our present? We both draw on evolution or geology as examples of super-linear ways of seeing time, where there's definitely no future and there's definitely a possibility for new openings. That's undercut by the fact that you can make a movie that's set in the past. Within that, there is a feeling of fate. In a sense, you know what's going to happen to these characters. So those are two different ideas that we're juggling in the movie, that they're doomed to repeat our history, but on the other hand, there's nothing that says things absolutely have to go in a particular direction.
There's a critical piece of voiceover dialogue late in the film when Kelly, a professor, is writing a letter to his lab partner while he's on vacation surfing in Baja. He writes, "You know that moment when the environment becomes charged and opens up your faculties? And I'm talking, like, mind and body. When you become attuned to different possibilities. I think a disorienting experience like that can make your thinking more expansive." It's like L for Leisure is designed to be the disorienting experience that Kelley describes.
Lev: I don't think my thinking is all that off from Kelly's. He says something about vacations being too productive. As an academic, your work and your leisure time are always blended together. We tried to show them at the extremes of their vacation time, when they're the least productive, to show how that's awkward for them.
Have you and Whitney been grad students yourselves?
Lev and Whitney [in unison]: No.
So what are your thoughts on grad school and grad students?
Lev: We're friends with a lot of grad students. I work at the University of California at San Diego. My girlfriend is in a PhD program here at UCSD, and that's why I'm here. I used to work at the grad program at Columbia. What drew us to grad students is that they're sort of like teenagers, or at the least the way that teenagers are in movies. They're not like a motorcycle gang or anything, they're not rebels or outlaws, but at the same time they're not as tied to adult behaviors as other people are.
What's your working relationship like? When you make a film what do you do, and what does Whitney do?
Lev: We met as undergrads at Columbia. At the time they didn't have a film-production major, so neither of us were film majors, but Whit's uncle gave us a cheapo 16mm camera and we just started making movies on our own with our friends. That's pretty much what we've been doing for the past ten years. We figured out our vibe very early on, like in 2003.
When we're getting started writing the movie, doing the dialogue, casting and all of that, it's 100 percent the two of us. Neither of us were making films at all before we started collaborating. We don't have an individual aesthetic, so if we both don't like it, it's not going to make it. When we get on set, Whitney is the cinematographer and I deal with the actors and doing sound, unless other people are doing the sound or assisting. And then we both edit together. All the titles in the film and on the poster are in Whitney's handwriting. Basically, there are no artistic decisions that we aren't making together.
Whitney, anything you'd care to say about either the cinematography or your contributions? I'd love to be able to quote you in this interview.
Whitney: Um. It's really hard. I don't really have anything to add.
Lev: Usually, when you're making a movie and you're shooting it in a gorgeous location, or you include location shots, those will always be subordinate to the story. So you have to find some way to include them. They would have to be motivated by the characters or the story. And one of the things we're kind of insistent about is that these things can be on their own and not just because the people are paying attention to them. Maybe they're missing it, but we're going to pay attention to it. Similarly, that kind of move of "these are the kinds of things that are cut out of the movie, [the things] that don't fit" is also why leisure is interesting to us, why we spend so much time on characters doing the same things, taking naps and stuff like that. Things that would be excessive to a plot are what we're trying to recenter in L for Leisure.
L for Leisure opens today, Friday, May 15, in New York City at IFP's Made in NY Center in Dumbo.
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