The city’s longest-running organization dedicated to weekly screenings of experimental film, documentaries, animation and video art.

February 5: The Floating World of Pat O’Neill, Part II


Tuesday February 5, 2008, 8:00 pm

At the Silent Movie Theatre
611 N. Fairfax Ave. just south of Melrose
Park across the street at Fairfax High School

Los Angeles Filmforum and CineFamily present
The Floating World of Pat O’Neill
The second of two nights of films


Pat O’Neill is Los Angeles’s true avant-garde master, creating beautiful, moody films with floating mattes, variable film speeds, ghostly layering, wry wit, and masterful soundtracks, all working together to form a fractured almost-narrative, a reflection on the lost spaces and times of our city.

Tonight Filmforum inaugurates its new venue partnership with CineFamily at the Silent Movie Theatre.  CineFamily has revitalized the Silent Movie Theatre with wide-ranging,  and smart programming.  From a continued interest in silent movies to experimental films, cult works to bizarre pop hits, foreign and domestic, CineFamily displays the cinephilic sensibility that we are delighted to share.

Tonight we’ll be screening Decay of Fiction (2002, 35mm, 74 min), preceded by Squirt Gun Step Print”(1998, 35mm, 6 min)

Decay of Fiction:
Rarely seen in Los Angeles since its premiere several years ago is Pat O’Neill’s brilliant, haunting film noir set in the decaying remains of the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel.

“While depicting the relentless passage of time with a power that few other films have captured, The Decay of Fiction sustains a mood of almost gothic sadness….The Decay of Fiction is so infatuated with vintage film lore that it leaves you with a disturbing sense of the power that the Dream Factory exerts on the historical imagination.” – Stephen Holden, NY Times

The Decay of Fiction is an intersection of fact and hallucination in an abandoned luxury hotel. The hotel is in Hollywood. The walls of the Ambassador are cracked and peeling, the lawns are brown, and mushrooms grow in the damp carpets of the Cocoanut Grove. The pool is empty, and the ballroom where Bobby Kennedy died is shuttered and locked. A tall, elegant blonde stands transparently on the terrace of her bungalow, smoking and watching the sunrise. Voices and tinkles waft across the lawn. A contingent of vaguely sinister men arrive and ask for Jack. Jack is expecting trouble, but not this kind of trouble. Louise, a guest, replays a nightmare in which she drowns Pauline so that she can marry Dean. The sun sets and rises again. Two detectives seem to turn up everywhere, searching for Communist literature and telling one another pointless stories of underworld intrigue. In the kitchens and behind the scenes the daily routine continues, individuality melts, and workers fuse with their jobs. Winter passes, and then another summer, and finally it is Halloween, and there is a costume ball which claims the life of Rhonda the evasive soprano. And then the building comes down in a clatter of Spanish tiles and concrete, and fact has finally become fiction, once again. I scribbled the words The Decay of Fiction on the back of a notebook almost forty years ago, tore it off and framed it fifteen years later, and have wanted ever since to make a film to fit its ready-made description. To me it refers to the common condition of stories partly remembered, films partly seen, texts at the margins of memory, disappearing like a book left outside on the ground to decompose back into the earth. The film takes place in a building about to be destroyed, those walls contain (by dint of association) a huge burden of memory: cultural and personal, conscious and unconscious. To make the film was to trap a few of its characters and some of their dialog, casting them together within the confines of the site. The structure and its stories are decaying together, and each seems to be a metaphor for the other.

For an interesting perspective, here’s an excerpt of an interview before the completion of the film and before the demolition of the Ambassador Hotel.  From an interview between David E. James and Pat O’Neill, printed in Millennium Film Journal, No. 30/31 (Fall 1997)

DJ: Can you describe the Ambassador project briefly?

PO: Basically, on one level it’s a documentary of an existing site. The Ambassador Hotel is a curious place. It was called L.A.’s Garden Hotel. It was built in 1920, before any other buildings in the neighborhood, before Hancock Park, as a society hotel, a big deal place for the elite to come for vacations. It’s an interesting piece of architecture in that the way it’s shaped–an “H” in the plan view–it looks back on itself. It has a massive Spanish tile roof, but in a lot of ways it’s a crummy stucco building that’s fallen apart and been redecorated time and again. It has the Coconut Grove nightclub that looks what Las Vegas looked like in 1970. So it has all of these contradictions.

When you’re in it, you look out to buildings from the 60s and 70s on Wilshire Boulevard, and beyond that just a sea of low apartment houses and a startling view of the high-rise banks downtown. The sun rises behind the banks, symbolically, and sets over the ocean. Up in the tower, you find a clear perspective on the cultural politics of this part of the city. On the eastern horizon, you have Bunker Hill, the center of corporate LA, and down in the streets you have a poor and immigrant community of overcrowded apartment houses. You are in this place like an island. There is a fence around it and no-one inside. The city swirls around it. When I went there, I assumed there would be squatters and gang activity, but that’s pretty much absent.

The ball will hit it within five years, but in the meantime it will take at least two more years of legal battles before they know what they are going to do with the site. The neighborhood is changing so much that development on Wilshire may no longer be seen as a viable alternative. Originally, Donald Trump and his partners were going to put up a 128 story tower of residential units and offices, the biggest building in L. A. He bought it in 1988, then the recession hit and then the earthquake and the value of the property dropped by half. Nobody seriously thought the Ambassador could be saved as a historic architectural site although I know there were efforts early on, but they backed off because the building was pretty badly damaged by the earthquake.

The Ambassador is the Robert Kennedy assassination site. It’s perhaps best known for that–the shooting and all the controversy surrounding the investigation of it. It was where Marilyn Monroe stayed and apparently met Jack Kennedy and where J. Edgar Hoover lived and Walter Winchell lived when he was in L. A.–a lot of history that I’m just gradually becoming aware of. So it comes with all this cultural baggage; in the film business, everybody who ever passed through L. A. went there and has memories of the place. The first eight years of the Academy Awards were held there in the Coconut Grove. My uncle played trombone in the Jan Garber band, who were regulars there for years. I tried to get him to tell stories about those days, but he’s forgotten them all.

But anyway, it’s like an architectural container in which dramatic episodes can be set and so far I’ve just occupied myself with filming the container, finding ways to move through it, finding ways to approximate the way people might have existed in the space.

I’m going to composite it so that even the walls are going to be transparent, with sometimes people occupying not only the room that you are in but maybe the next one and maybe even upstairs, and other times it will be completely vacant, just the birds and the cats and the wind blowing. But it’s completely unarticulated at this point. All I’ve been able to do is to make the shots, edit the shots, and think about the transition between the shots and try to deal with all the things that the light does. In about a month I know the sunset will shoot a shaft of light right up the entry hall and all the way up the main corridor to the main lobby. I didn’t get it on film because I only saw it for one day, and when I came back, it was cloudy for a week and then it was gone. So I treat it sort of like exploring a valley in New Mexico that has a big rocky thing that looks a certain way in the summer. I wish it would snow or something to really change it. The problem is that it’s really monotonous. I go down there sometimes and I think, Oh God, it’s just this dreary old stucco building. But every so often, it will show me something that will just send a shiver up my spine. All of a sudden, I’ll look in a room and there will be this reflection from a building across the street of the sun coming through a rippled window making this astonishing picture that’s just there for maybe five minutes. I’ve managed to get a couple of those events down, but the equipment is heavy and it takes a couple of us, and by the time you get set up its gone.

A lot of the footage is designed with the idea that its spaces would be occupied by a cast of characters who would move through it. All of our camera moves are under the control of a computer, so that they can be recreated exactly later on. The camera is mounted on a dolly, which rolls on a track: this, together with pan, tilt, and zoom make up its vocabulary of movement. Filming with actors can be done later in any large room, and then combined with the hotel footage in post-production.

So using this two-stage procedure, I am able to capture the architecture and then later invent the activity that is to go on within it. This is where I am now: writing a script for a film that already exists. We will use performers to tell stories in a naturalistic way and then be able to locate these stories within the constraints of the space. And, of course, the way a character is constructed and revealed is totally variable, as is the overlap of stories.

Curiously, the problem now is writing–conceiving characters, dialog, action. The complexity of this unfamiliar craft (unfamiliar to me: completely familiar to narrative filmmakers) has become a total involvement. I began by seeing the characters in about as much detail as George Segal’s mute white plaster mannequins: soon I realized that their actions would become the heart of the film. So I seem to have backed into storytelling. It’s all very speculative because I’m not sure what the story is going to be. And then there’s the whole thing about the service side and the guest side. There’s this whole world that is kitchens and corridors and service elevators and store rooms and huge laundry rooms in the sub-basement, and the tunnels that go out from the kitchen to some of the bungalows. The workers have their stories to tell and the guests have theirs, and you don’t know much about what the workers’ stories might be; you just have to sort of make them up from what you know about life.