Inspiration often comes to us from a combination of two elements:
what’s happening in our lives and what’s going in our DVD
player. Often, the relation between the two isn’t directly obvious.
two years ago, we found our Netflix queue dominated by British Kitchen
Sink dramas from the early ’60s. Seen by some as drab,
depressing, and—even worse—antique, the movies connected
to us with surprising immediacy. They told their stories with political
acuity, and sardonic humor. Set in the cobbled streets of the industrial
North of England, films like This Sporting Life, Saturday Night
and Sunday Morning and, most significantly for us, A Taste
of Honey, suddenly
seemed fresh and modern. We started to wonder: What would a Kitchen
Sink drama look like today?
We were invited to be the
official photographers for our next-door neighbors’ Quinceañera—the
Latino 15th birthday event for girls. We were asked to do this in January
even though the celebration itself was not until June. Sunday after
Sunday in our Echo Park neighborhood, as a dozen or so of the girl’s
school friends turned up to practice waltzing in the backyard, we gradually
recognized the importance of the Quinceañera for the girl concerned
and her whole extended family.
On the big day, in a storefront church
on Sunset Boulevard, the ceremony was breathtaking. All the girls were
dressed in pink, the church was decorated with pink, garlands of pink
flowers were everywhere. Our neighbor, suddenly revealed as a luminous
beauty in a tiara and silken dress, paraded down the aisle to the march
from Aida. The court of young men, sporting tuxedos and number-1 cholo
fades, stood by with masculine detachment; this day belonged to the
girls. It was an undisguised celebration of the bloom of youth, of
girlhood, of purity—bottom line, of virginity.
place in an Evangelical church, the event felt intrinsically Catholic,
many images recalling the Virgin Mary. In fact, a little Googling revealed
that the Quinceañera predates Christianity by almost 500 years,
dating back to Aztec civilization, where 15 was considered the transitional
age between girlhood and womanhood. It is still alive and kicking in
21st century Los Angeles.
In a neighborhood reception hall a few tequilas
later, the formalities melted and the teenage energy harnessed by the
Quinceañera broke loose. Reggaeton music replaced the Straussian
waltzes and the dance floor was taken over by freak dancing, which
looks to the untrained eye like intercourse. Four generations of an
immigrant family went wild: uncles, cousins, grannies, podgy ex-gang
guys dancing with toddlers, soused old Aunties flirting with young
bucks. We thought—this was a movie!
On January 1, 2005 we started
the year with a plan to make a film about our neighborhood. The Echo
Park of Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca has changed a great deal
in 12 years; the front line of gentrification—gays and artists—has
moved in. Increasing real estate prices create conflict with the existing
community, and a coded racial distinction emerges, never acknowledged
by realtors when they tout “an up and coming area.”
idea of the Quinceañera movie now had a context—the ancient
ritual would take place in a newly gentrifying neighborhood, and it
would have an antecedent; it would be like A Taste of Honey.
We wanted a film that had a sense of place, that showed how small things
grow large; a film that had politics that were oblique, humor that
was unexpected; a film that gave a voice to people who aren’t
usually heard. With this in mind, we attempted to recreate the Kitchen
Sink drama in Echo Park, L.A. After nine months—with the support
of our neighbors and of some venturesome executive producers—Quinceañera (the
movie) was born.
These days, our Netflix queue consists mostly
of zombie movies and our life of Hollywood meetings. We are trying
not to see the connection.