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Venice Beach was shown at the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival and Digital Bearfest 2000 as the Featured Documentary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rhythm of Venice Beach

considered by Pat Hartman

As the year 2000 dawned, Marc Madow contemplated his next major project, a documentary about one of the century’s more interesting Americans. To get in some practice with the new mini DV camera, he headed for Venice Beach. The result is this "video postcard"- a souvenir more explicit, lively, and shareable than any t-shirt. "If you only visit once in your life," Madow says, "this would be the perfect thing to remember it by, once you were back in Finland or Japan."

I’m in absolute agreement. It’s the Venice Beach film I’d have wanted to make if I were a filmmaker. It’s the Venice my paintings and website try to express: the best of what America is all about. This is the ultimate day at Venice Beach and your feet don’t even get sore.

Venice Beach includes street performers not seen in similar documentaries. There’s no narration, only ambient sound. With the first part, one variation to try is, play your own music over it - as if you were strolling down the boardwalk with your best tunes on the headphones. Does the filmmaker have an invisible camera suspended on fishing line? He checks out the same kinds of details that I would: a vendor putting together - what? Sage bundles? Fly whisks? A little kid trying out a marionette. Are there really names on those rice grains? What covers the gourd the woman is shaking? Is that topless and rather androgynous drummer a boy or a girl?

The film is 67 minutes long, of which 42 minutes are Drum Circle footage. One thing you can do with this segment is make it your daily workout tape - much more interesting than any exercise guru. Boogie along with the exuberant dancers, some of them obviously professionals enjoying a day on an informal stage.

There’s a remarkable performance too by a gymnast on flying rings, Madow’s reward for returning to the same spot several times in hopes that something visually interesting would happen. This athlete must have overreached, because Madow saw him not long afterward, all bandaged up, apparently suffering from bilateral shoulder dislocation.

We see some of the area bordering the beachfront, too. On Windward Avenue, a building that’s in one of my paintings is shown with different murals adorning it, and the SKATES sign now spells TATTOO.

This film, made by one guy unobtrusively observing "like a fly on the wall" (or in this case, the palm tree), is part political statement, part historical document, and totally wonderful fun.

Amongst the ongoing colorful assortment of causes, personalities, events, and weirdness found at Venice Beach, Madow was particularly intrigued by the Drum Circle, at first for artistic reasons. For instance, the rhythms produced vary noticeably depending on the season and weather. But it soon became evident that the Drum Circle, a Venice institution since the early 1960s, was in turn encircled by controversy. Not for the first time, its very existence was threatened.

A $10 million renovation of Ocean Front Walk had just been accomplished, and there was a new attitude of intolerance in general, and animus against the Drum Circle in particular, especially coming from a few individuals. Based on the noise level and the fact 50 people habitually gathered without a permit, the opposition applied increasing pressure on the Drum Circle to dry up and blow away.

This wasn’t about to happen if Madow could help it. "Venice is supposed to be a free-spirited place. The Drum Circle brings people together in ways that don’t happen in mundane life. It draws a cross-section of people who might otherwise never meet, in a peaceful, relaxed, cooperative setting, which is always a plus in this chaotic and divisive world."

Nearby tenants objecting to the noise are in a similar situation to people who buy a house beneath the airport flight path and then want to close the airport. Even if annoying to some, the gathering of percussionists is peaceful, interracial, healthful fun. And a tourist attraction. It’s one of the things that makes Venice the second biggest tourist draw in the state. Hundreds of people - not just the drummers but all the boardwalk performers - donate their talents so the local merchants can thrive. In most states, tourism is considered a desirable thing.

Madow gave between 100 and 150 copies of his completed documentary to bureaucrats and influential citizens. "Maybe if they could see this was good clean fun, they would change their minds." Publicity had some effect - even the mayor of Los Angeles showed up to take part in the drumming. But in politics, idealistic visions of utopia don’t often win. So the Drum Circle’s champions pointed out that nearby Little League games violated the same noise and crowd standards. If the Drum Circle was persecuted, something might have to be done to curtail baseball, too.

Madow credits Captain Williams of the Pacific Division with being rational and fair-minded. And why not? Getting into someone else’s head for a minute: from the point of view of even the most bigoted police mindset, isn’t the presence of all those black guys on the beach, drumming and dancing, preferable to having them who knows where, doing knows what?

The 9/11 crisis took some heat off, as law enforcement found other and more pressing concerns to keep it busy. In the end, compromises were made, including the relocation of the Drum Circle farther out onto the sand. The traditional character of Venice Beach was preserved.

Clowns to the left, jokers to the right. Unfortunately, the Drum Circle isn’t the only activity that has been challenged. Over the years, it’s been an almost constant battle - at any moment, you can be sure that some aspect of what we’ve come to think of as the beach scene is being closely scrutinized and plans are being drawn up to eliminate it. Individuals have been picked off one by one, banned from the beach for peace marching and other unapproved activities. Madow tells of a beautiful young woman who lived in her car and did an impressive fire dance act within view of the Sidewalk Café. After several warnings from the police, she was finally arrested. The officers kindly let her collect the crowd’s offerings before taking her away, saying she would need the money to post bail.

As with any art, I praise this film not only for its intrinsic value but for the things it gets me thinking about, like how much the setting is part of the mystique. Having your hair braided at Venice Beach is special. (Hair-braiding, incidentally, is one of the other beachfront entrepreneurial activities that came under heavy fire.) Getting a tattoo at Venice Beach is special. It’s like kissing the Blarney Stone, a site-specific rite. And what’s wrong with that?

Venice is where the Sixties not only started, but never came to an end. In my experience, there’s plenty of evidence that the Sixties ethos has insidiously penetrated even the most remote outposts of America. Only at Venice Beach, the flashier and more photogenic aspects of everything the Sixties represent, show up on a daily basis.

Stephen King nailed it with the phrase "hearts in Atlantis." He compares the Sixties to the lost continent, with dazed survivors wandering through the world trying to recall their home and recreate it. One of the reasons for visiting Venice is to feel just for a day the atmosphere of a be-in. It’s the hip Disneyland. And what’s wrong with that?

Venice Beach is also the entertainment industry’s open air Open Mic and the loss of it would be grievous. Aspiring show biz types do get discovered at here. That’s what they come to LA for. Everybody knows: you do your thing at Venice Beach and wind up with a record contract or a part in a movie. Meanwhile incidentally providing the best free entertainment in the hemisphere. And what’s wrong with that?

 

 

 

This link goes to drumsontheweb.com for a great article by Marc Madow about the Venice rhythm phenomenon

 

 

ALSO FROM MEDICINE BOW GALLERY

Rubber Tramps - about people who stay in motion, with commentary by Ken Kesey. Includes some Venice material.

Comporting Roadwise is an autobiographical work detailing the shocking story of RomTom, an American hippie-gypsy who was imprisoned for his pacifist beliefs during the Vietnam War era, and who when ultimately released from confinement embarked upon an amazing adventure as an American nomad along with Ellie, his French-Canadian born wife. The journey cost them their three daughters, losing them one at a time to the U.S. government, and a multitude of other miseries which government agencies and the rigors of living on the road heaped upon them. In addition to the horrors they experienced, there has also been a great deal of wonderful magic in their lives during the thirty years since their journey began.

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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