Equal parts L.A. love story, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” spoof on Greek gods and personal diary of actual events from 1988 to 1998 (when the pic was being lensed), Lawrence Bridges’ half-cracked, half-inspired “12” is a dizzying, slightly amateurish but unforgettable adventure about characters in search of themselves. Pic is being presented in as unorthodox a manner as its making: Unspooling of completed work in workprint form happens in parking lots at various L.A. locales (revealed only at pic’s Web site), with viewers driving in and tuning their car’s FM dial to a station temporarily pirated by presenters. Effect is of a new drive-in experience for only the most adventurous cinephiles. With trimming, traditional fest appearances and vid shelf life in the art film racks are a good though not sure bet.
Pic belongs to American tradition of art made by dogged outsiders, from Simon Rodia to Harry Partch. First half is especially nonlinear, owing more to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Helas Pour Moi” (also depicting the gods in contempo human form) than anything on the indie scene, which was just coming into its own when Bridges, a well-known TV ad helmer, began project.
Immortals Marie-Noel (Alison Elliott) and half-bro Filmore West (Tony Griffin) are Zeus’ illegitimate progeny, ordered to find a play and act it well as the means of becoming fully mortal.
Bro and sis have come upon Oscar Wilde’s “Earnest” as the play that will free them, with Filmore as Jack and Marie-Noel as his niece, Cecily. Role of Algernon is taken on by a rotund mortal named Allen (Allen Lulu), a struggling L.A. thesp.
Like his literary doppelganger, Filmore is known as “Tony” in the city and by his real name in the country, an estate on one of the remote Channel Islands being invaded by the feds, where Marie-Noel lives in boredom with her tutor-assistant (Lisa Stark).
Despite (or perhaps because of) a decade’s shooting and more time in post, pic refuses to fix on a tone, shifting capriciously between the near-profound and the pointlessly silly. Former is best captured in grand vistas of human figures in island landscapes (Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and Catalina islands are beautifully chosen locales) which recall another Godard epic, “Le Mepris,” plus an extraordinary if rather ostentatious soundtrack of music ranging from Arvo Part to Bach to Mozart.
Latter is typified by Filmore’s and Marie-Noel’s pesky family of gods, including Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Hera, Aphrodite and Pan, who often look and act like they’ve walked out of a bad soap.
The “Earnest” plot takes over in the second half, with some scenes closely tracking Wilde’s text, but not for too long. The Gwendolen to Filmore’s Jack is Earth-bound Julienne (Julienne Greer), dominated by her overbearing Aunt Debbie (Golde Starger), who is Lady Bracknell turned into an obnoxiously loud New York-accented mama.
Amidst the arch comedy and cleverness are genuinely touching encounters between mortals and immortals, finishing with wild finale as Filmore returns to L.A. amidst riots (captured, as is the Northridge quake, with originally shot, non-stock footage).
Griffin and Elliott provide a good grounding for the viewer’s attention as the deconstructed stream of images and story roll by, but much of the fascination here is not in the highly uneven perfs, but in pic’s raw enthusiasm for the film medium, montage, the juxtaposition of image and sound and the reimagining of Greek classicism in a SoCal setting.
Characteristically, print (screened via projected video) is extremely rough, but with its own charming texture that grows on the eye, and FM stereo sound is a genuine drive-in novelty.