Traveling to a film festival means enduring some of the more unexpected and disastrous turns that life has to offer. Cannes has brought blackouts, tidal waves, ash clouds and, most scarring of all, tub-thumping European techno music. Sundance has put festival-goers through blizzards, traffic jams, Mormon protests and, most scarring of all, low-budget American indies.
Not all of us react that well, or that sensitively, to the introduction of crisis into the film-festival bubble. During a Lars von Trier screening at Cannes a couple years back, a man stood up at the front of the theater, walked up the aisle, and promptly fainted in the arms of several unwitting film-goers. The movie kept right on playing, and the audience kept right on watching.
But those tribulations weren't a match for the events of Thursday night in downtown Los Angeles, when the Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off this year in its new downtown digs with a premiere at Regal Cinemas and an after-party at L.A. Live, while the Lakers were playing next door (and fans were, er, celebrating in the street).The screening went smoothly enough. The opening-night film, Lisa Cholodenko's family dramedy, "The Kids Are All Right," played to an appreciative crowd (though not nearly as appreciative, it should be said, as the crowd at Sundance).
And the party on the roof deck came off without a hitch: It had the buzz of a cultural event while seeming more open and friendly than the openings in the darkened restaurants of Westwood. There was even the requisite nod to the Lakers before the movie, as Cholodenko quipped from the stage that she was glad everyone there had given up their Lakers tickets.
That was the good part. Then came the bruising part: Leaving.
As we walked down to Olympic Boulevard from L.A. Live and attempted to swing east to walk the five blocks to our car, we were greeted with a phalanx of riot police, with clubs and Plexiglas-shielded helmets, moving up the street, blocking it with Newark-level intensity and sending everyone scurrying. We tried to walk several blocks north and make the turn there, and again met with the same wall.
Then things got hairier. As we tried walking down one more street, we found ourselves caught in a bottle-throwing match between jubilant fans (or "fans") and riot police, who responded by charging after the bottle-throwers in a way that only seemed to incite them further. We stood against the wall and held our breath as the crowds stampeded around us. Several people were caught and thrown against police cars. It passed, but not before our lives passed before our eyes.
We also wondered if any of the rabble-rousers might have been LAFF attendees, and then couldn’t help thinking, "Wow, some people really have strong feelings about Lisa Cholodenko."We managed to slip through the bedlam and make our way one block east, but only as far as that. Each fresh attempt to walk north (and away from the car) and circumvent the battalions of riot police was met with the same fate . Soon we were two miles from our car and the crowds and police were only getting more dense and boisterous. Finally, after 45 minutes of walking, we found a cab, which of course wanted to get away from downtown faster than we did. We took it home, leaving the car to its uncertain fate. (It was fine the next morning.)
In the history of mob swarms, it probably wasn't much, like a 4.5 earthquake centered really far away. (About 85 people were arrested or detained for reasons including suspicion of inciting a riot, assaulting a peace officer, resisting arrest and vandalism; it felt, from being in the middle of it, that the numbers could have been a lot higher.)
But the chaos certainly wasn't what one wants or expects to see after sipping Pinot with the film festival crowd, and it accomplished what we never thought possible: made us pine for the European techno music.There was a lot of talk about the unfortunate timing that the LAFF had in scheduling its opening night opposite a Lakers game 7.
But in a way this is what the festival became vulnerable to by moving downtown -- an appealing choice, but one not without its downside. Over and over in interviews, programmers and executives have said they craved the energy of downtown and a change from the staid predictability of Westwood. They meant artistic energy, of course. But downtown is a frontier neighborhood, and unpredictability happens more often in frontier neighborhoods.
After that kind of surreal start, we can only imagine how the rest of the festival unfolds. But we’re hopeful for one reason: At least the festival isn’t showing any Lars von Trier movies.
Photos: Scenes downtown after the Lakers' win. Credit: Richard Vogel / Associated Press