Before the Fall Semester
By Nick Pinkerton

L for Leisure
Dir. Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman, U.S., Film Presence

Remembering the 1990s—which is to say, misremembering them—is, in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, an international pastime. Without my connivance and certainly without my desire to, I have heard Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind with greater regularity in the last year than any time since I was in high school, routinely piped into every other saloon that I enter courtesy the playlist of the SiriusXM Radio station “Lithium.” When screened on HBO earlier this month, documentary portrait Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was event viewing, an opportunity for a generation to relive its day the music died, and if you weren’t of age to have had the #authentic experience the first time around, a whole host of Lollapalooza holdovers and nostalgia acts are around to offer a reasonable simulacra. While North America has its Alt watershed to mythologize, the Eurozone was in thrall to the Utopian promise of electronic music, a future of better dancing through electronics and pharmaceuticals; 1991, “The Year Punk Broke” per the title of a Sonic Youth tour film, is the blissy starting point for Mia Hansen-Løve’s comedown epic Eden, which will have its U.S. theatrical run next month.

Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s L for Leisure isn’t quite so upfront about its engagement with rose-tinted early-nineties reminiscence as Eden—which is, after all, actually titled Eden—though their slim-but-not-exactly-slight film does have a character with the last name “Paradise.” The film, Horn and Kalman’s follow-up to their 2009 Blondes in the Jungle, debuted at Rotterdam in 2014, played BAMcinemaFest later that same year, and is beginning a weeklong engagement at the Made in NY Media Center, as part of IFP’s Screen Forward program. It is concerned with a cloistered, incestuous, mostly privileged, and almost exclusively white social group—no, not peer-reviewed independent film, but academia.

L for Leisure begins at a seaside campus in what’s identified as “Laguna Beach University, The OC, 1993,” after a succession of establishing pillow shots which carry on slightly longer than expected or strictly necessary—a strategy which will soon become familiar. On campus, a sunnily pompous young instructor, the aforementioned Sierra Paradise (Marianna McClellan), chats with students and friends, including Tristan (Kyle Williams), currently TA-ing a class called “Survey of Post-Apocalyptic Literature.” Later, draining a bottle of wine by herself at a marina café, Sierra bumps into an acquaintance out for a rollerblade, Blake (Bro Estes), who unbeknownst to her has also been teaching at LBU. The film will return to them, and the marina, at its conclusion, but only after a series of “flashbacks” in which we alternately see Sierra, Tristan, Blake, and a whole revolving cast of colleagues on vacation breaks spanning the previous academic year, from Labor Day, 1992 (in Sky Forest, California), to Summer Break, 1993 (in Baja, Mexico), with a host of stop-offs along the way that evoke Vampire Weekend lyrics.

Despite Tristan’s course name, L for Leisure’s atmosphere is distinctly pre-apocalyptic, even downright Acadian, though in between lazing in the sun, boogie boarding, and playing one-on-one basketball, the kids discuss auguries of doom. For Sierra, it’s Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” and the impending unchecked Americanization of the world. Tristan, as the nearest thing to a veteran of the recent Los Angeles riots in the group, is asked to opine on them, although he admits he was “pretty far from everything” in Westwood. Later, on what seems to be an impromptu trip to Iceland, he can be seen reading a copy of then-Vice President Al Gore’s global warming treatise Earth in the Balance in the middle of a frost-rimed field—pretty far from everything, again. This comes just after we’ve seen Andie (Libby Gery) wandering among the tall pines of Sky Forest, doing fieldwork for her dissertation, “a comprehensive account of what tree spirits are really all about, and what they have to say to us.” There are easy jokes about academia ripe for the taking here, though L for Leisure mostly skips them; in fact, it often gives the sense of being too “mellow,” to borrow a word used prominently in the film, to bother with punchlines at all.

Because L for Leisure is concerned with an articulate and (presumably) affluent set of young people drifting in and out of a floating party, it has been compared to the films of Whit Stillman, a claim that’s spurious for a number of reasons. Dialogue propels narrative in Stillman’s films, while here it’s on the film’s glittering surface, as though bobbing on becalmed water. While Stillman’s characters deliver their lines in a stylized cadence which creates and sustains carefully modulated consistency of tone, Horn and Kalman make an aesthetic of amateurism, employing an ensemble of nonprofessionals whose performances vary greatly in believability and ease—they even emphasize inconsistencies within a single performance. (In this their approach recalls that of James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s 2012 Public Hearing, a fascinating film that never got much of a public screening.) This amateurishness extends to L for Leisure’s visual design, the handheld photography by Horn, who acts as cinematographer. The film is shot on 16mm, less for period associations—it was the Hi-8 camcorder, of the sort that we see being trotted out to videotape an impromptu fashion show, which chronicled the age in murky, pixelated images—than for the texture, an enhancement to natural beauty. (As in the recent 16mm films of Laida Lertxundi, the film makes a covert appeal to touristic yearning, the desire to step into a snapshot.) Though only 74 minutes, L for Leisure always seems to find time to luxuriantly stretch out and wait, taking numerous hella Chillwave interludes scored to original synth music by John Atkinson, a member of the group Aa (Big A Little a), named for a song by anarcho-punk collective Crass, an irony I will not belabor. (Despite the prime “college rock” setting, there are few references to contemporary music—just Suzanne Vega, because she went to Barnard, and an anachronistic reference to a 1995 Mariah Carey song.)

While the film’s atmosphere is lax and unhurried, thematic through lines coalesce as it moves along. One of these is a suggestion of graduate studies and, by extension, a career in academia, as a kind of arrested development, with concomitant sexual appetites; I recalled Evelyn Waugh’s claim that “Most good schoolmasters are homosexual by inclination—how else could they endure their work?”, or the reported reference of a certain filmmaker-professor to “this legalized pedophilia we call academia.” Sierra, who we’ve earlier seen being responsive to a student’s awkward flirtation, later has a “strong makeout sesh” with her friend’s brother, the baby of the family, while spending Thanksgiving of 1992 in Beaumont, Texas. En route to a skiing holiday on President’s Day, ’93, a carload of male grad students, including Blake, pick up on four high school girls at a fast food restaurant drive-through, and pass the night with them. The girls, with their candy pacifiers, Koosh balls, and Co-Ed Naked shirts, are—like most kids everywhere—relentlessly of the present moment. The guys try to keep up with references to Marky Mark’s Calvin Klein campaign, but even here they’re limited to speaking in the vernacular of American Studies. (“They’re very important ads. Blake, this is something we should all get behind.”) In their mid-to-late twenties, the guys are already detached from mass culture, talking in untranslatable academese. “Say something in your language,” one of the girls asks.

Joel, the only one who gets any action, we later see crossing Aix-en-Provence with a traveling companion, on the way to visit his fiancée. Joel is played by Benjamin Crotty, writer-director of Fort Buchanan, which played Locarno last year; his weedy traveling companion is played by Gabriel Abrantes, who has recently gained notoriety for a series of epic short films, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms; and the fiancée, Stacey, is played by Mati Diop, who had her own festival hit with 2013’s Mille soleils. Speaking to Filmmaker about the film, Kalman noted the directors’ discomfort with being labeled satirists, for their practice was a matter of “identifying with the characters much more than satire would”—and in populating the film with their friends, they’ve well and truly made the milieu their own. What’s discomfiting about this is that, in going easy on their characters, they can also seem to coddle themselves, though the defining element of this climate is its absence of harshness and stridency—while watching I recalled a line from Bill Gunn’s script for The Landlord (1970), the bit where growing up white is described as growing up “casual.” There is a difference, finally, between showing a light touch and a pat on the back, and while L for Leisure usually falls on the side of the former, it tempts fate awfully.

Diop is one of the only persons of color to appear in L for Leisure, though given how often black people are spoken about in the movie, they are something like its structuring absence. When Sierra and her Beaumont friends decide to get high by smoking nutmeg, the deciding factor is that, well, Malcolm X did it—shortly afterwards one of the characters is shot while seated in a peacock chair, evoking the iconic photograph of Black Panther Huey Newton. Later, during a pick-up basketball game, Bene Coopersmith, the very funny, verifiably Caucasian star of Dustin Guy Defa’s short Person to Person, launches on a riotous stream-of-consciousness monologue: “See that? Improvisation… You create rules. I fly above those rules. I’m Mingus, I’m Charles Mingus. Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. Jazz rhythm. That’s my world. Your world is a European mentality. You think this is war. Levitation. Improvisation. That’s the new game. You’re stuck in this white basketball thing. It’s beyond that. It’s beyond territories now. This is the new world. Michael Jordan, man, floating above it…”

A succession of such games and pastimes run through L for Leisure: rollerblading, waterskiing, skateboarding, tossing the pigskin, wrestling, body surfing, truth or dare, and tennis. (An abortive game of singles and a match on the radio.) This is given context in the film’s penultimate scene, in which one of the characters discusses his reading from John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, which lays out a dichotomy between boundary-defined “traditional sports” (tennis is given as the classic example) and new, improvisatory “psychedelic sports,” which provide the pleasure of “navigating a disorienting environment.” This describes the film’s other sport scene, its most mysterious. In a blacklit, fog-shrouded laser tag arena, cast members are seen exchanging fire. This set piece is returned to twice; what at first seems like innocent fun takes on a sinister aspect when revisited, as combatants are struck down, even vaporized before our eyes. This is the only material in the film that isn’t identified on-screen by time and place, though we do get a glimpse of the name of the venue: FUTURE WARZ.

Are these images a flashback to a long-ago undergraduate outing, the key to how all these disparate characters know one another? I prefer to think they are transmissions from the disorienting environment of the post-apocalypse, sent back to a time before Cobain and Lewinsky and the dot-com bubble pop, when graduate students could embark on a career in academia with reasonable expectation of tenure track and accrue astronomical student loan debt with the reasonable expectation of being able to pay it back in their lifetimes. As L for Leisure ends, you have a sense of having watched shepherds frolicking in the Petit Trianon.