Review: California Dreaming
by Guilhem Caillard
- Fabrizio Maltese’s new documentary confirms his fascination with desert expanses
The 9th Luxembourg City Film Festival gives pride of place to local productions, and its "Made in/with Luxembourg" section is all the more alluring thanks to Fabrizio Maltese's third documentary, California Dreaming [+see also:
First there was Twenty-Five Palms (2015), about Palm Springs International Film Festival. Then came 50 Days in the Desert [+see also:
film profile] (2016), which followed the Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse as he shot The White Knights [+see also:
interview: Joachim Lafosse
film profile] in Morocco. And now California Dreaming, which confirms Fabrizio Maltese's fascination with the desert. Everything stems back to 2016, when the filmmaker’s father mentions California City to him after having watched a documentary about it on RAI. Maltese is captivated and immediately stars filming.
Situated in the heart of the Mojave Desert, California City is the third largest city in California (53,000 hectares). It's hard to fully comprehend just how vast the place is. Especially since no real conurbation actually really exists. In any case, it’s a far cry from what the idealist Nat Mendelsohn once imagined – a real estate developer and sociologist – when he bought the land in 1958, creating a number of large avenues across its sandy plains. But the businessman failed to attract investors.
Fabrizio Maltese tries to embrace these infinite, twilight places, marked with plots that have never been inhabited. Aerial shots sweep overhead, allowing us to imagine what could have been if everything had gone as planned. The narrative intertwines with poetry and brief animated reconstructions that serve to bring this sprawling city to life according to Mendelsohn’s original plans – parks, roads and houses; enough to make Hollywood blush.
Now populated by 14,000 individuals, California City is an anti-Palm Springs hit by successive crises and forgotten by the world. The precariousness of its inhabitants embodies the disappointments of the famous "American Dream.” Jean-Paul Leblanc, a Quebec immigrant who arrived fifty years ago, says, "There is no American dream unless you know people.” This particular individual, who is filmed over the course of several months, is Maltese’s best find, while the city mayor, the gay owner of a Thai restaurant looking for better days, and a number of others also share their difficulties.
In order to do away with barriers, everything is filmed with an iPhone 8. Fabrizio Maltese uses a few style effects (split screen, accelerated shots), willingly allowing his silhouette to appear in the reflection of his characters’ sunglasses. The frame stealthily catches a glimpse of the filming equipment during (very moving) scenes, in which the inhabitants of California City are interviewed under a tent that serves as a photography studio, with an actual desert landscape as the backdrop.
These games of mise-en-scène punctuate the story sparingly. They represent real energy spikes, just like the inclusion of interviews with teenagers dreaming of the future. Or adults, attached to their city and looking to improve the community’s quality of life at all costs. Nothing is lost. This is the premise of California Dreaming, and its real focus is the American dream, which still remains a driving force. One can easily imagine Mendelsohn’s city plans one day actually becoming flesh.
(Translated from French)
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