by Malia Wollan
Stories that stretch forever
California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Skateboarders in Fresno ride the drained-out insides of foreclosed swimming pools. Silicon Valley tech nerds join fight clubs to punch each other, bare-knuckled, in suburban garages. A man in San Marcos, some thirty-five miles north of San Diego, sculpts made-to-order, anatomically correct, life-sized plastic dolls. A mariachi musician in East Los Angeles polishes his trumpet and says wistfully, “Mexican music is like a fever.”
These are just some of the haunting video portraits in a series of web videos by filmmakers Drea (pronounced Dray) Cooper and Zackary Canepari. The growing collection of three- to ten-minute video vignettes is called California Is a Place. The project has attracted more than three million viewers since the first videos went online in early 2010. Widely distributed across the Internet, the videos have won awards and been featured on news sites including PBS’s NewsHour, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. “People are craving honest stories,” Cooper says. “They want stories that are unmitigated by the television structure of dramatic moments.”
One of their films, the ten-minute long “Aquadettes,” was chosen for the Short Film program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Set in a southern California retirement community called Leisure World, “Aquadettes” tells the story of 76-year-old former nurse Margo Bauer, who takes up medical marijuana to ease the nausea of multiple sclerosis, enabling her to continue with her synchronized swimming team. “This year is the first year I’ve been aware of my disease in the water,” Bauer says. And while her voice contains the aches of age and illness, the camera captures a gaggle of tan, elderly ladies in ornate swim caps turning graceful flips in chlorine-blue water.
California is not an easy place to conjure up. The country’s most populous state is home to over thirty-seven million people. It is a tangle of every kind of person and every imaginable aspiration—a mash-up of poverty, opulence, beachside mansions, suburban sprawl, technology, farming, ocean, deserts, the broken-down, and the over-built. While California Is a Place is no summation of California as a place, the videos do evoke something elemental about the stories and obsessions that play out on this particular hunk of land.
Cooper, 34, and Canepari, 33, met in 2005 on a shoot for a Sega video game commercial in San Francisco. They were production assistants armed with walkie-talkies who became friends. They shared a visual aesthetic and for years talked about making “something” together. Four years later California Is a Place started to take shape. “We had this idea that we wanted to do short things, but what were those short things?” says Cooper. “At first we thought they would be about America. Then we thought they’d be about the West. Then we were like, ‘No this is about California.’”
Canepari, who had been freelancing as a photographer in India, moved back to California in 2009. Cooper quit his job teaching multimedia skills to high school students in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. He had just completed a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University.
That June, the duo set off carrying Canon 5D cameras capable of shooting high-definition video. They filmed four stories over three summer months. “The great thing about documenting the state you live in is that nothing is that far away,” says Canepari.
Their first piece, “Cannonball,” took them to Fresno, where they the hopped fences of foreclosed homes to film skateboarders bent on draining backyard pools to ride their smooth, concave surfaces. Sometimes the pair go into a story already knowing who their central characters will be, but for other films they just go somewhere and trust that they will find someone with a tale to tell.
For “Borderland,” which was shot along the California-Mexico border, they knew their geography but didn’t yet have a central subject, so they gave themselves a few days to hang around filming different people until the right ones emerged to tell the story of illegal border crossings, volunteer militias, and drug smuggling.
Finding their film subjects is part luck and part a keen ability to filter through news, overheard conversations, and images for tidbits of information that lend themselves to moving pictures. “We’ve got similar tastes,” says Canepari. “We’re always passing along different things to each other that might work within our palette.”
Cooper spotted the used-car-salesman character from their film “Big Vinny” driving around Alameda, his childhood home. They found their synchronized swimmer, Margo Bauer, mentioned in a small, online news story. Even before they met her, they could visualize underwater shots of aging bodies, lithe legs, and pointed toes. “At the end of the day, this is a visual medium,” Cooper says. “What we make needs to look beautiful.”
Cooper (who lives in Oakland) and Canepari (who calls Los Angeles home) research, shoot, and edit the videos on their own dime and in their extra time. While that independence is sometimes a challenge financially, it also allows them to make the films they want to make, to maintain complete control over aesthetics and content, and to capture their California the way they see and experience it.
On occasion, the two get caught up in the visual potential of something only to find there is nothing in it to make a story. They spent a few days filming a women’s roller derby team in Santa Rosa and toyed with the idea of following some Berkeley unicyclists. But the stories felt flat—full of motion but lacking narrative tension—and so they moved on.
Within days of uploading their first stories to the video-sharing site Vimeo in early 2010, thousands of people were watching and sharing them. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there is a real community online where people want to watch interesting stuff and not just another freakin’ cat video,’” Cooper says.
Although they are not paid for the videos, the viral success of California Is a Place has won them commercial work. Just like individual viewers, companies are drawn to Cooper and Canepari’s brand of visceral, visual storytelling. The two now make commercials for major corporate clients such as Toyota and Ray-Ban. “We do the commercial work in order to fund the personal work,” Canepari says.
Shot with professional actors, studio lights, and big budgets, their commercial work contains residues of the filmmakers’ core aesthetic—a flicker of blown-out sky, a shallow depth of field, a camera mounted on a bicycle, fading light through dry grass, a sense of place.
Thus far, California Is a Place is comprised of nine videos, but the duo has a long list of possible Golden State stories and issues they want to explore including Indian gaming, water, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, and subcultures like gangs and the cultish fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Following their participation in Sundance, they are considering expanding “Aquadettes” into a feature-length documentary.
Someday Canepari and Cooper want to take their cameras across state lines and film stories elsewhere—an “America Is a Place.” They talk about maybe moving east from here, finding a handful of stories to tell in each state, a kind of documentary road trip. But that would require time and funding. For now they are keeping to this stretch of land between the Siskiyou Mountains and the Tijuana River Estuary, from Bishop to Cape Mendocino. “The state is endless,” says Cooper, “and there are stories forever.”