In Lions Love (…And Lies) — a 1969 film by Belgian-born director Agnes Varda — a young director from New York visits L.A. to discuss the terms around what may be her first Hollywood film. While there, she stays at the rented hillside mansion of relocated Warhol actress Viva, who spends her time lounging and hazily pontificating in isolated comfort with her two lovers (played by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the creators of the musical Hair). Lions Love (…And Lies) is Varda’s self-aware California debut, having already made a name for herself with over a decade’s worth of work in France. Varda uses the opportunity and the complex cultural landscape to ruminate on the themes of luxury, fame, power, isolation, pleasure, depression, and relation in a forcibly directionless, ultimately humorless visual poem. The work is saturated in the affects of Southern California, the feelings with which it is associated through reputation, myth, and daily life.
Midnight Sister’s Saturn Over Sunset is born out of the same setting and orders itself around these same themes. A strong collection of 14 digestible songs and compositions serves as a series of vignettes, each its own study of the horror-fantasy dichotomy that underlies Los Angeles and its self-conception. Juliana Giraffe, the lead, is posed and composed, euphorically sighing through each scene. This sigh is expressive but oddly empty, the sound of a body without being and a being without body: the sound of leaving the body. Giraffe’s character takes no precaution around the emptiness that surrounds her. Her delivery foreshadows a slippage, a hazard around the corner of pleasure, but not once on Saturn Over Sunset does the fantasy collapse. This is the drama that pulls us through it. Saturn Over Sunset is a steady, vibrant collage of pristine Hollywood kitsch, a caricatured unravelling of its city’s own mythos.
SOS is preoccupied with style. Style as it inhabits form, as it bleeds into texture, as it guides you through a night. Ari Balouzian’s cut-and-paste forms mimic the always-forgetting, distinctly ahistorical landscape so familiar to those in Los Angeles, a city that only has cohesion via its large-scale patchwork, its collisions, elisions, and buried corners. SOS transcends historical time and forges an identity beyond fetishistic treatments of either the new or the old. The past appears in fragments, always embedded within the moment: typefaces of years past and years before them pressing against one another, colosseums for Olympic games that barely happened, echoed assertions of the “sound!” folded over a tipsy shuffle, a quartet on your corner, the myth of Bunker Hill that became a reality, the myth of Silverlake forging Silverlake; a brazen acid bass synth is the harping sound of death at your door, a man will hand you a flyer to begin your journey toward the Eighth Dynamic, a man will hand you a mixtape. Midnight Sister collapse the ongoing tragic quotidian of Los Angeles into brief moments of fantasy. A spotlight follows you wherever you go.
L.A., in its sprawl, is a city of overlaid, incongruent, coexisting realities disproving and denying the other. Improbability is the breath of the city, and it is constantly (un)realized. Born by no mere accident, Los Angeles demands to be portrayed as the antihero. The battle for L.A. is political; it has always been violent, and it covers its tracks in a perpetual act of forgetting. Midnight Sister are distorting and undoing the reflection they provide, infatuated but unkind to their city-as-subject. An orthodox application of dada-surrealism invigorates their portraiture with a crafty, wispy cynicism. Saturn Over Sunset undoes the industry’s tropes and techniques and stays cool doing it. It’s lopsided, wobbly, and cartoonish at times. It’s small, but it carries the schemata and the wit for a deeper portrait of the city.
So please, picture this. Heading southbound on the 101, a driver can scan the city where these movies are made. Atop one of its tallest towers is a white neon sign put up by Patron Tequila. It stoically asserts in slow, flashing alternation: “FAME IS FLEETING.” and “PERFECTION IS FOREVER.” But infinitude escapes the surreal; Saturn Over Sunset is imperfect and timeless nonetheless.