Our latest Notable Narrative is the collected series “California is a Place,” from filmmaker Drea Cooper and photographer Zackary Canepari. Cooper and Canepari have done commercial work and journalism around the globe, but their California series drives a camel through the eye of a needle by capturing the vastness of California in a series of intimate closeups of its places and people.
The short stories they tell – all are between five and eight minutes – possess an odd quality. In a talk with the Storyboard this week, Cooper mentioned Errol Morris as an inspiration, and no wonder – Morris’ work lives in the kind of in-between space that also serves as home to these short films.
“Scrapertown” presents Oakland’s Original Scraper Bike Team, a community of riders of tricked-out bicycles that motivates kids to get and keep good grades (and a flashy ride). “Borderland” offers a relentless reminder of the physical presence of the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as the perspectives of two men committed to keeping illegal immigrants on the other side of it. “El Rey” introduces Saúl Ezqueda, a Mariachi trumpet player and vocalist who stands in Los Angeles’ Mariachi Plaza waiting for work each day.
And then there are their unnerving subjects: The sex doll designer in “Honey Pie” dedicates himself to his craft and the creepy final product he produces. The Fresno slackers of “Cannonball” clean the garbage out of abandoned pools behind foreclosed houses in order to have a place to skateboard.
With such interesting characters, it would be easy to do a “good enough” story that uses predictable elements and glides along the tracks of pre-existing assumptions. But Canepari and Cooper refuse to surrender the story to their audience’s expectations, or even their subject’s views, which lends a unique feel to the films. The beautiful images shift and move in and out of focus, keeping viewers off balance and away from sentimentality, as if to say, “Don’t get too comfortable. You might miss something.”
While the makers of “California is a Place” use a little text up front to open their stories, they are not big on offering context outside of what the visuals or their characters can directly communicate. And yet most of the films are bound up with such topical issues as immigration, the recent wave of foreclosures, and neighborhoods blighted by poverty.
The films offer a strange kind of narrative, in which not much (or else a lot) happens, while the characters themselves rarely transform during the course of the story. It is our understanding of the characters, however, that provides the element of change. By looking closer through an off-kilter lens or attending in new ways, our comprehension of individual human beings changes, and in the aggregate, we earn a truer vision of this messy, vibrant state.
[For more on “California is a Place,” check out our Q&A with filmmaker Drea Cooper, in which he talks about the fine line between journalism and art, his hopes for nudging viewers toward fresh perspectives, and why there are no women in the series.]