Los Angeles

The Antelope Valley Film Trilogy: Close Up with Mike Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka

Littlerock

As the sun goes down in the Antelope Valley, the landscape takes on a golden glow turning the ruins of abandoned homesteads into a surreal, golden-hued space of reflections of the Golden State; it is unrefined, natural, and waning in the remaining light as the world switches over to moonlight. The locals refer to the phenomenon as the "golden hour" when the descending light turns the world into a ball of fire and the Mojave Desert becomes magically real. "Does anybody here know where Palmdale is?" asks Frank Zappa on the Roxy & Elsewhere version of "Village of the Sun." "You do? Good...have you ever heard of a place called Sun Village?" Zappa's song lyrics locate Sun Village in the outskirts of the Antelope Valley "out in back Palmdale, where the turkey farmers run." While Palmdale is one of the larger regions of the Antelope Valley, the smaller communities of Sun Village-- Littlerock, Lake Los Angeles, and Pearblossom-- are on the outskirts of Los Angeles County, and remain largely unknown outside of news stories.

In actuality, Littlerock and the surrounding acres are well known on film as Anywhere, USA. The hyperreality of this desert no-place makes it highly photogenic, so it's no surprise that film director Mike Ott and collaborative partner Atsuko Okatsuka have made the Antelope Valley the subject of their film trilogy: "Littlerock," "Pearblossom Hwy," and "Lake Los Angeles." The latest, "Lake Los Angeles," will be shown as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, and clearly defines the desert and its cities as being somewhere at a threshold where reality begins and fiction ends.

Larger film locations in the region, like the Four Aces film set and Club Ed , have made numerous appearances in film, television and pop culture with a long list of credits that include Dennis Hopper's "Eye of the Storm;" French filmmaker and electronic musician Quentin Dupieux's -- aka Mr. Oizo-- "Rubber" with its killer tire; the Western staple, "Bonanza;" countless Rob Zombie videos; and a even Viagra commercial. The buttes and the horizon are common characters in car commercials or scenes depicting travel, including an aerial attack in a 1984 episode of Airwolf "Random Target." Located nearby are the sites of the "Kill Bill" church, and theatre and film scene painter Howard Arden Edward's eclectic Swiss Chalet meets Native American-patterned home, called "Yato Kya," which now houses the Antelope Valley Indian Museum.

The landscape of the Antelope Valley is almost a character in Ott's films too. Mike Ott grew up in a small town making him familiar with the outskirts and the narrative of, what he says, is "a place divided by racism, immigration and filled with people on the fringe who always touted America, but never could quite reach the American dream." Atusko Okatsuka was born in Chiba, Japan and moved to America at the age of 10. Living as an undocumented immigrant for 10 years prior to gaining citizenship, her experience relates to life in another world, a landscape that feels foreign, different. Ott and Okatsuka have collaborated on all the films in the Antelope Valley trilogy, writing them together as a convergence of their stories with the stories of others, and of each film's namesake place. Connecting with a place like Littlerock, Ott says: "I've always found the isolated towns that lie outside big cities of America intriguing and bizarre: the characters, the politics, the aesthetic, the question of what people do with all their time in a town that is only three blocks long." In Littlerock, those three blocks of the "Fruit Basket of the Antelope Valley" are packed with fruit stands, a floor to ceiling doll room, lascivious pirates, dinosaurs, date shakes, bacon gum, gnomes, Egyptian CD/DVD holders, jerky, wine tasting, Hungarian sausage, antiques-- including a decommissioned bomb, and wind toys, lots and lots of wind toys.

Ott studied under Thom Andersen at CalArts where he received his MFA degree in Film/Video and currently teaches film directing at the University of Southern California. His films address the mindset he experienced growing up in small town America where a conversation with his family couldn't include a discussion of any viewpoint that didn't coincide with their own. He makes films "as a way of trying to reach people like my family, and have them see a point-of-view they would otherwise instantly reject," says Ott. "As my mentor always said in grad school, 'a film can change the way you see the world, even if just a little bit.'" The Antelope Valley Trilogy explores concepts about the abandoned youth in the small towns of America, the fallacy of the American Dream, and the truth that lies somewhere in threshold between fact and fiction. The Antelope Valley provides numerous stories of the absurdly real, an intersection where truth is more fictional than reality, and reality seems like the tallest tale.

Okatsuka, currently an MFA candidate in the Film/Video program at CalArts, also acts in both "Littlerock," which won numerous awards including prestigious independent film awards (a Gotham Award and an Independent Spirit Award), and "Pearblossom Hwy." Her personal story and physical presence play with the fine line between the reality and the fictional aspects of the characters in the film, a technique inspired by Bruno S. in Herzog's "Stroszek" or Hossain Sabzian in Kiarostami's "Close Up." Ott explains that "she was brought out to America 'for a short vacation' by her mother and grandmother at the age of 10, when they had no intentions of returning to Japan. Without having said her farewells to her friends or father in Japan, she soon found herself living in a two-bedroom apartment with five other family members and was forced to assimilate to the Western culture." Her story provides a sense of a foreign mirror, the struggle of not knowing English, navigating friends, and wanting to fit into a life in another world that is absurdly strange and frighteningly real.

Still from "Lake Los Angeles"

Still from "Pearblossom Hwy"

Intertwined with "Pearblossom Hwy," the real and the fictional experiences of the main characters, Cory (played by Cory Zacharia) and Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) that were developed in "Littlerock," were extended, as Ott felt he didn't go far enough with pulling actual events that had or were occurring in the actors' lives into the art form, working to further bend the cinematic spectacle by including parts of their real life story throughout the film. Every day for several months, Ott had Cory film a three minute video diary into a flip camera, a new media selfie that revealed personal reflections on his inner thoughts, hopes, flaws, dreams, and failures that were included in the film as a painfully unassuming narrative of the inner mind made public as the actor and the person embarked on a search to meet his father. The narrative incorporates Cory's real life struggles with the added extension of fiction to encompass the larger issues that the film trilogy seeks to address: racism, immigration, coming of age, broken homes, and the lost American dream. David Hockney, whose own experience of depicting Pearblossom Highway ("Pearblossom Highway #2" in the collection of the Getty Museum) is inarguably the most famous depiction of the Antelope Valley, was recorded in conversation with Huell Howser in 1988, stating of the abandoned area and its conceptual place, "in no part did you feel despair. Everywhere you look it's actually exciting, because it's the process of looking..."with art "you're interpreting life...interpreting experience."

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Making its debut at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival, the third film in the trilogy, "Lake Los Angeles," started with the location-- a place once known as two small towns-- Lovejoy Springs and Wilsona, until a developer decided to promote the area as lakefront property tapping into the springs to create an artificial lake for boating and jet skis with a waterfront dining experience making it a desirable desert mirage complete with oranges skewered in the Joshua trees to make the landscape appear tropical. After selling the Lake Los Angeles dream to tourists eager for a home in the new resort town, the artificial lake became too expensive to maintain and the property owners eventually allowed the lake to dry up leaving the town without its namesake. This duality of realism and fiction worked its way into the film narrative, continuing Ott's interest in the "landscape as character, re-examining America through foreign eyes, and the struggle for the American dream by all the dreamers who society has forgotten about."

Still from "Little Rock"

Littlerock, Lake Los Angeles, and Pearblossom may not be the most well known places, they may not be resort towns or places you may ever decide to visit, but their filmic counterparts "Littlerock," "Pearblossom Hwy," and "Lake Los Angeles," introduce us to a cinematic spectacle of people and places that give us a vision of teenage boredom and growing angst, the unfamiliar, the hopelessness of hope, the reality of fiction, and of searching for a place to call home. "This is what art did for me-- it helped me escape, and not just physically, but escape mentally from an insular perspective I was trapped in," says Ott. "And if my work can reach some kid like me, feeling trapped and alone, living in some town like Littlerock, then there's not much more I can ask for." If we consider that the Antelope Valley film trilogy is located not only in Littlerock, Lake Los Angeles, and Pearblossom, but rather as a state of mind, then consider the idea that you're always in Anywhere, USA a place constantly under the village of the big black sun.

The Antelope Valley Trilogy:

Littlerock (2010)
When her car breaks down on a site-seeing tour of California, a Japanese student winds up stranded in a small desert town. Exhilarated by a sudden sense of freedom, she extends her stay and finds friendship, romance, and what promises to be a new home. But as she pulls back the layers on this unlikely paradise, she discovers a different America than the one in her dreams.

Official Littlerock Trailer from Small Form Films on Vimeo.

Pearblossom Hwy (2012)
Anna and Cory are two unlikely friends in the nowhere town of Lancaster, California. Upon receiving news of her dying grandmother in Japan, Anna begins to engage in sexual deeds to buy a plane ticket home. Meanwhile, Cory begs her to stay and come help him find the estranged father he's never met. But as her grandma's time runs out, Anna must quickly choose between her life in America or returning back to Japan for the only family she has left.

Pearblossom Hwy - Trailer from Small Form Films on Vimeo.

Lake Los Angeles (2014)
Francisco, a middle-aged Cuban exile working at a holding house for illegal immigrants crosses paths with Cecilia, a 10 year old Mexican girl who has crossed the border without her family. When all options of being reconnected with her estranged father, Cecilia escapes to the desert. While on her own, she turns the desert into a fantastical world - creating characters and stories to make the hopelessness of the empty landscape a survivable habitat. Through navigating what was supposed to be both Francisco and Cecilia's promise land, they find a common hope in each other while journeying through the hauntingly beautiful and desolate world that is Lake Los Angeles.

Lake Los Angeles - Trailer from Small Form Films on Vimeo.

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Top Image: Still from "Little Rock."

About the Author

Larissa Nickel is an artist, designer, educator, and curator whose work spans Philosophy, Art and Design with an emphasis on identity, place, and subculture.
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