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.

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