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AUGUST 29, 2008

Only-in-L.A. Stories

Looking for a True Kiss, and a Real City; and Disinfecting the Germs's Semi-Secret Saga

By Mark Jenkins

L.A. Plays Itself: Simmonds and McNairy watch the city switch from forefront to background. (IFC)

Also this week: An interview with Frozen River director COURTNEY HUNT.

"HAVE YOU READ City of Quartz?"

With that unexpected question, In Search of a Midnight Kiss departs the already burned-out "mumblecore" genre and heads for someplace more interesting: downtown L.A., which has more cultural strata than most of Southern California, yet is generally ignored by Hollywood productions.

"Mumblecore," for those who've been fortunate enough to avoid it, is a subset of the Amerindie low-budget film whose affectations include a preference for black-and-white images. Usually set in New York and environs, these movies celebrate the listless romantic adventures of Generation Y's low-rent creative class. In practice, that means a lot of indie-pop losers, although Kiss writer-director Alex Holdridge alters the formula slightly, if unsurprisingly. If the filmmaker's principal inspiration is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, he's also working in the tradition of such modern city-symphony films as Wings of Desire and Lost in Translation.

The male lead is Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a beagle-eyed would-be writer who's newly single and recently arrived in the general vicinity of Hollywood. He lives with his friend Jacob (Brian Matthew McGuire) and Jacob's overly flirtatious girlfriend Min (Katy Luong). With New Year's Eve looming, Wilson demonstrates his loneliness by getting caught masturbating to a Photoshopped image of Min's face on a nude body. Not all that offended, Jacob insists that Wilson go online for a big-night date. They turn to Craigslist, placing an ad headlined, "misanthrope seeks misanthrope."

The female lead is Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a testy, broad-faced would-be actress who answers Wilson's ad — and quite a few others. She interviews them all at the same near-Silverlake cafe, and Wilson waits while she dismisses the others, who have the advantage of making him look a little better. Not a literary type, Vivian had to look up "misanthrope," but at the moment she fits the definition. Fleeing a cheating live-in boyfriend, she's mad at humankind, especially its male half. Vivian wants some fleeting fun, and perhaps that midnight smooch, but insists it won't lead to sex. At first, it appears that all Jacob's raunchy tips about how to prepare for a one-night stand will only sabotage Wilson.

The misanthrope and "misanthropee" take the subway downtown, which is when he asks her about City of Quartz, Mike Davis's brilliant analysis of L.A. history and culture. "Books suck," she replies, but Davis's study is there in spirit nonetheless, as the couple explores the abandoned movie palaces south of the city's bland contemporary business center. Without this peripatetic sequence, rendering Kiss in black and white would have been pointless. But Wilson and Vivian's journey into the past makes sense of the monochromatic images.

Eventually, the two return to Hollywood and the 21st century, and such plot complications as Wilson's cell-phone confrontation with Vivian's explosively jealous ex and — in a distracting display of cross-cutting — Jacob's plan to propose to Min. Love blossoms, sort of, and people change, a little. Covering less than half the length of L.A.'s Red Line, the film's territory is small in actuality but (somewhat) larger in theory. Wilson and Vivian discover each other and the city around them, moving ever-so-slightly out of the self-absorption of protracted adolescence.

While Vivian's quest for a midnight kiss is a last fling before accepting adult responsibilities, Wilson is less dramatically affected. Mumblecore is a boy's genre, and for its male protagonists growing up is not on the agenda. Yet the movie does a offer its characters — and its viewers — a glimpse of wider world, which is a significant advance for the genre. In Search of a Midnight Kiss doesn't make history, but at least it acknowledges it.

(2008, 98 min; opened Aug. 29 at Landmark Bethesda Row.)

THERE ARE SEVERAL POSSIBLE WAYS to hate What We Do is Secret. Devotees of the Germs, the notorious L.A. punk band whose story it tells, can loathe writer-director Rodger Grossman's film for making frontman Darby Crash and his life appear prettier than they really were. Skeptics of the band — or of punk, or of the Hollywood subgenre thereof — can abhor the movie for taking the Germs and Crash too seriously, or for glamorizing their and his destructiveness. In short, the only people who are likely to condone the film are those who know enough about the Germs to be sort of interested, but don't care sufficiently to worry about the authenticity of Grossman's portrait.

A small group, to be sure, but one that includes me. I'm no fan of rock'n'roll suicides, especially ones who — like Crash and his apparent model, Sid Vicious — make a messy spectacle of it. But Secret does capture the do-it-yourself vitality of a fledgling music scene. The film is lively and well-constructed, and features winning — if again, too pretty — impersonations by Shane West (as Crash), Bijou Phillips (bassist Lorna Doom), Rick Gonzalez (guitarist Pat Smear), and Noah Segan (drummer Don Bolles). For punk geeks, there also glimpses of such scenesters as Rodney Bingenheimer, almost-Germ Belinda Carlisle, Claude Bessy, and the like.

The band's dynamic is convincingly rendered, revealing the improbable chemistry of Crash's nihilistic charisma; the growing skills of Doom and Smear, who were hopeless musicians at first; and Bolles's highly beneficial competence on the drums. This, roughly, is how a lot of punk bands came together, although few had lead singers who proclaimed their admiration for Hitler's showmanship or had a five-year plan that amounted to suicide by O.D. at the end of the group's run. (Crash's big finish was eclipsed, however, by the murder of John Lennon.) Grossman also concedes Crash's heavy debt to David Bowie, and managed to get the rights to several Bowie tunes, including the sadly influential "Five Years."

There is, of course, a shadow over What We Do is Secret — and it's not Crash's apparent suicide. It's The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris's 1980 L.A. punk documentary, whose making is part of this movie's tale. Spheeris's portrait of the Germs is fragmentary, but more visceral than Grossman's. His pseudo-docu drama tells the story, but doesn't capture the pulverizing frenzy that Spheeris got. As his late conversion to Adam and the Ants proved, Crash was hardly a musical visionary, but he was far more feral than What We Do is Secret can convey.

(2007, 92 min; opened Aug. 29 at Landmark E Street.)