AUSTRIAN NEWSPAPER -- March 26, 2006

"California Dreamin'"

by Michael Freund

Eulogy for a Utopia: "Malibu Song" by Werner Hanak and Natalie Lettner

The end of the trip has many names. Those that moved to the Western U.S. came to the edge of the Pacific, where they still found no peace, or perhaps only a false silence. Their stations were called San Francisco, the perfect melting pot; Monterey with Steinbeck's "Cannery Row"; the Lala-land of the dreamers and starlets, Los Angeles.

Or Malibu. This place lies close enough to LA that you can see is smog layer. On the other hand, it's far enough away that the beaches are clean and desirable. On the water's edge are the rows of mansions that Malibu can afford. But the rural land has been mostly a half wilderness with canyons.

In one of these, Topanga Canyon, was preserved a special California "ecosystem," an improvised colony of artists, and of aging and upcoming hippies – people who came here when the land was open, Hawaii was too far, and the local spirit was right.

Natalie Lettner and Werner Hanak learned about this idyllic community in the Canyon at the end of the '90s. When they returned to Malibu in 2002, Lettner had the idea to document their life. At the time the filmmakers only thought the project could be made into a eulogy. "Malibu Song" is exactly that: a swan song.

In the middle of the gigantic steel and asphalt kingdom of Southern California, so says one resident, there was a small bubble protected by a fairy without the restrictions of the upwardly mobile existence happening all around it. That sounds like counterculture kitsch, but it come across otherwise. Not only because the bubble bursts, but also because the film enlarges the characters' biographies.

The poet who physically lives in the Canyon, but who lives emotionally on the edge of the Milky Way and reflects upon his Pop-past with Captain Beefheart; the woman who remembers when she saw Malibu for the first time on Independence Day in 1969 and how she never left again; the painter discovered by Warhol who sold really well until he found out "how idiotic art is." And so on.

Lettner and Hanak's documentary concentrates on how these hold-outs deal with eviction notices. The filmmakers don't judge or dramatize, and they avoid social criticism, as well as the West Coast Euphoria/Pathos. The last part of the film is a sobering picture of how the protagonists live afterwards. While one can't get over the loss of her Utopia, another proudly displays his new grill in his tract home. But the first impression is strongest: these are the days to remember.


DIAGONALE (Austrian Film Festival, Graz) -- March 21-26, 2006

"Malibu Song"
2006, Digi-Beta, Color, 65 Minutes

Camera: Werner Hanak
Editor: Udo Schuetz
Sound Design: Thomas Kathriner
With: James Mathers, Norton Wisdom, Carole Winter, Herb Bermann, Larry Payne, Pablo Capra, John Overby.
Producer: eurotrashproductions
Grant provided by: City and State of Salzburg
Premiere screening: Diagonale 2006

Natalie Lettner:
Born 1965 in Salzburg. Studied Literature, Art History, and Theater. Working since 2000 at Vienna's Art History Museum.
(natalie.lettner@chello.at)

Werner Hanak:
Born 1969 in Salzburg. Working since 1994 as Curator at Vienna's Jewish Museum.
(werner.hanak@jmw.at)

Beginning of the 21st century: in an almost unspoiled environment near Malibu, California, a community of artists and non-professionals has been living for decades in makeshift buildings dating back to "hippie times." In 2002 the State of California bought Topanga Beach, a prime Malibu site and home of the artists, and is now forcing the inhabitants to surrender their homes and lifestyles – ironically for the creation of a new National Park. This film is their "Malibu Song" made from dissent and life utopias, which they are not prepared to relinquish.

California, beginning of the 21st century: an artists colony with hippie roots in Malibu by LA. The painter James Mathers sits in front of his Airstream trailer and sings the "Malibu Song": "A song for all the lazy poets," then say, "life was not given to us to be productive." Then he stands up and paints a picture.

The artists colony had until now successfully weathered the global neo-liberal storm: Norton Wisdom, both a performance artists and lifeguard in Malibu; Carole Winter, an incorrigible flower child; Herb Bermann, a one-time Rock poet who wrote songs for Captain Beefheart; Larry Payne, a master of 24-hour architecture; Pablo Capra, a young poet for whom his neighbors are fairytale heroes; and John "Baretta" Overby, a homeless man who wrote the "Malibu Song."

Many from the community considered it hopeless to fight a "good thing" like a National Park, and so they dispersed in all directions. Others like James Mathers are fighting for the preservation of this unique colony: "Will they ever get rid of us?"

A film about the end of a chapter of American cultural history that is on the other side of Arnold Schwartzenegger and George Bush: "Everything that's wrong with America is anti what this community is." (Natalie Lettner, Werner Hanak)

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