Mike Ott’s latest feature “California Dreams” — receiving its World Premiere as part of the fledgling Critics’ Week program that runs concurrently with the main Berlin Film Festival — is one of those barely-there, micro American indies that is a little more SXSW than Sundance. The film — Ott’s sixth — places the audience in medias res of its hybrid fiction/non-fiction narrative, offering minimal orientation and ultimately resolution to the travails of a handful of marginal figures.
Certainly, this hybrid filmmaking technique has proven routinely salient in works with more ambition and is arguably the vanguard of contemporary arthouse and indie filmmaking. Unfortunately, the marker “unfinished” serves more appropriately as an ironic indication of the film’s superficiality and disposable form. “California Dreams” remains like a tumbleweed and never reveals its purpose (including any resonance to its meaninglessness).
“California Dreams” primarily focuses on aspiring actor Cory Zacharia (playing a variation of himself, already a regular fixture in Ott’s filmography) who ekes out an existence in the California desert. A series of characters (or subjects) come into contact with Cory, all ostensibly with the same goal of acquiring fame and fortune in the film industry as actors or writers. Opening with a series of auditions taken out of context, we meet characters whose problems are later meted out to the audience via longer excerpts of their monologues and their interactions with Cory. In keeping with the conventions of ambiguously fictional cinema, it is never clear where the real lives of these subjects begin and the staged elements begin. However, the stakes of this obscurity don’t coalesce — the reality is never stranger than fiction, and the fiction is banal enough to be reality.
As is the case with some of the more uneasy moments in 2015’s acclaimed doc/fiction feature by Roberto Minervini, “The Other Side,” it is unclear when Ott is laughing with these people — each one is more hapless and hopeless than the last — and when he is laughing at them. To offer one example, a Dog the Bounty Hunter impersonator mistakes Cory for a lucrative bounty on (bafflingly) multiple occasions; these are moments wherein “California Dreams” finds itself operating in a more comfortably comedic mode. In another instance, Cory queries one of his peers — a virginal, acne-scarred man child with a lisp — about the man’s ideal sexual boundaries, in a sequence that plays out like an outtake from “Napoleon Dynamite.” Fiction or non-fiction, this is the kind of low-hanging fruit that makes one wonder what Ott’s interest is in Cory and company.
The structure and subject of “California Dreams” recalls Gianfranco Rosi’s under-seen “Sacro GRA,” a documentary that chronicles a range of outsiders living along the ring road that encircles Rome. The comparison is useful in illuminating Ott’s most interesting directorial decision: to keep the Los Angeles mecca absent from his film. This expresses succinctly how marginal his characters truly are, living in the fallout wasteland to Hollywood’s ground zero, a place to which they can never functionally hope to travel.
With this in mind, there remains the fact that the subjects in “Sacro GRA” are far more compelling — as well as those of so many other pure documentary or doc/fictions films of this ilk — than the people Ott rounded up for “California Dreams.” Compounded with a rote sense of humor and shots of highway wanderlust that haven’t been original since “My Own Private Idaho” in the ‘90s, Ott’s film offers very little to distinguish itself, appealing primarily to the brave audiences who are on a permanent quest to delineate the boundaries of micro cinema.
It is apparent that the borderlands between narrative cinema and documentary filmmaking is the space that interests Ott with “California Dreams,” as he plays up both the fictional fantasy and an uncomfortable realism. In fact, a recurring, heightened quality is the non-diegetic music, more often than not sounding like it has been ripped from a classic Hollywood movie. Likewise, the film’s ending is undoubtedly a fictional fairytale, obvious not only from the contrivance of Cory’s happenstance but also in the way that Ott and his crew cut and frame the event. As with the rest of the runtime, however, this turn is neither cathartic nor earned and leaves one largely unfazed and disinterested in the character’s newfound prospects. [D]