Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405; Frank Stiefel; USA 2016; 40 min.
Making one’s way through this fest, you encounter familiar names and faces, some from years past or even other media. Look! There’s Suzzy Roche, one of the three original folk-singing Roche sisters, playing a conflicted mom in the tightly drawn short, The Law of Averages. And wait—is the Peter Suschitzky in the documentary Tracking Edith about Edith Tudor-Hart, the photographer/spy for the KGB, the same Suschitzky who shot Rocky Horror and The Empire Strikes Back? Ha! It is!
So what’s with Mindy Alper? Isn’t she the LA artist who does those bizarre sculptures made of paper mache all wired together? Whoa. Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405 is the one film that brings this NYJFF to a skidding halt. We have to sit back and take this one in, one sterling minute at a time. Mindy is a 58-year-old Brooklyn-born artisan who’s battled through a lifetime of mental disorders, acute anxiety and devastating depression. She explains it all in tight closeups, intercut with dozens of astounding sculptures and paintings—nightmare art that on closer inspection reveals a redemptive and almost ethereal sensitivity. You can’t imagine anyone else pulling this much beauty out of this much darkness and despair.
Alper’s life is revealed as the bad dream she’s partly escaped through her work. The family migrated to LA when she was four, being raised by an abusive, sternly unyielding father and an unstable mother she desperately wanted to please. Alper began what would become a 36-year apprenticeship under the legendary Dorothy Cannon (1909-1999) at her art studio in Studio City, learning oils, watercolor, acrylics, pencil, pen, pastels, crayon, charcoal, ceramics, enamel and other media. Cannon taught her how to collage in paper, glass and wire. Alper also studied puppetry with Harry Burnett at the Turnabout theater, and sculpture with Leonard Schwartz.
Mindy Alper, self-portrait in paper-mache
Mostly, though, she collapsed and was often hospitalized, where she was given electroshock treatments. For a decade she never spoke. Today she’s dependent on a carefully prescribed regimen of prozac, valium, zyprexa and a host of other stabilizing medications. She speaks clearly but slowly and haltingly. It’s a wonder she can safely drive at all, let alone handle a car on California’s Highway 405, but she does. “I love being stuck in slow traffic, as long as I’m not running late or have to pee,” she tells us.
Her massive sculpture of her psychiatrist is a masterpiece of paper mache and wire, made from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times whose paper stock Alper prefers over The LA Times. One of her most influential teachers, Tom Wudl, calls it “a statement of authority.” Mindy looks and sounds optimistic: “I’d like to have a partner one day,” she says wistfully, adding “but one one who lives next door.”
Mindy with “Shoshana,” paper mache/wire
Heaven is a traffic jam on the 405 can serve as an ideal lesson for every documentarian who’s ever had to decide whether to make a long short film or a short feature film. Too many filmmakers go for the latter, stretching what might have been a terrific 20 or 30 minute short into a padded, interminable 90 minute feature. They do this because features can play in theaters forever, while only a tiny percentage of shorts even make it into one-time festival showings. Frank Stiefel, who once ran a tv commercial production company in Manhattan, knows better than most that less can always be more. This doc was originally an 84-minute cut—feature-length. Stiefel trimmed it to 40 minutes, deliberately. “I cut out what doesn’t propel the story and just left what powers the narrative forward,” he says. Tape that line to your Avid.