Thursday, June 05, 2008

BIFF: Blue Hour

The Los Angeles River is probably best cinematically remembered in James Cameron’s Terminator 2. It plays a role of even greater significance in Eric Nazarian’s independent film, The Blue Hour (trailer here), a completely different undertaking altogether, which screened at the BKLN fest.

Nazarian’s film is a painfully personal examination of individual tragedy and alienation as seen through the eyes of several characters whose paths cross but lives do not intersect, in the Pulp Fiction style of overlapping narratives. Blue Hour in contrast, unfolds in a deliberate pace, making John Sayles look like the Wachowski Brothers.

Emily Rios plays Happy, an essentially unsupervised young teen, who uses the river embankment as her canvas. Avo and Allegra, played by Dutch actor Yorick Van Wageningen and Alyssa Milano, still mourn the death of their young daughter, as their relationship frays. Derrick O’Connor plays Humphrey, an old man going through the motions of life, still mourning his wife’s death. In an inspired act of casting, Clarence Williams III plays Ridley, a blues guitarist, staying in a low rent hotel while he tends to his dying mother wasting away in a hospital. These lonely, disparate lives are tied together by a few locations: the river, the cemetery, and a blues-rock bar, and a doomed homeless man.

This is not a talky picture. Nazarian’s isolated characters go for long stretches without speaking, but music does play an important role in the film. Happy takes inspiration from hip hop, and the blues supplies Ridley’s living, such as it is. Various characters drift into a lounge where Eric Burdon of the Animals leads the house blues-rock band. Their take on “Motherless Child” perfectly suits the film’s melancholy.

Burdon actually had personal significance to Nazarian, who was in fact named after the British invasion star. In the production notes he explains: “Burdon’s music was an escape for my father’s ‘Soviet hippy’ generation in the USSR. ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ and ‘They Can’t Take Away Our Music’ were their anthems and battle cries against the oppressive years during Brezhnev’s era.”

Nazarian is a patient director, with a painter’s eye for composition. His cast is uniformly good, especially the great Williams. His character do experience redemptive moments, but they are subtle and fleeting (as in some Russian literature). Elegantly crafted, Blue Hour is a demanding film, which wins the respect of those who stay with it. Like the makers of The Collective, also screened at BIFF, he conveys a strong sense of his subject city, but unlike the dangerous (and by extension seductive) New York of the former film, it is a city of sadness that Nazarian portrays on- screen.