Friday, May 11, 2018

Heaven is “Heaven is a Traffic Jam On The 405”

Everyone who’s spent time in L.A. knows that the 405 Freeway (formerly known as the San Diego Freeway) is a necessary evil. If you take it north from the urban center, it lurches through Sepulveda Pass—where the Getty Center and other cultural venues await—and descends into the smoggy suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley before moving toward the hinterlands. If you take it going south, it elbows its way past shopping malls, a cemetery, some auto dealerships, and Los Angeles International Airport, then trudges toward Long Beach and (after a long while) San Diego. Whatever the time of day, it’s generally socked in with rush-hour traffic. We need it, but that doesn’t mean we like it.

Except, perhaps, for Mindy Alper. Remarkably, she finds being stuck in L.A. traffic restful. To make sense of this oddball perspective, it helps to understand that Mindy, now age 56, has an acute mental disorder that requires her to gulp down dozens of pills each day. At times she’s been committed to mental institutions; she has undergone shock therapy and spent one entire decade without speaking. It sounds as though she’s depressing to be around, but this is far from true. Late-in-life documentary filmmaker Frank Stiefel (a former  executive in charge of TV commercials) made a short film about Mindy that toured the festival circuit in 2017, to loud acclaim. Earlier this year, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (its title comes from one of Mindy’s on-camera musings) was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. I was lucky enough to see it at a screening at which both Frank and Mindy were present. It’s clear that Mindy’s deep, familial trust in Frank made this enchanting film possible. In person, she’s articulate and funny. And, as we learn from the film, an extraordinary talent.

Frank Stiefel found out about Mindy when his wife enrolled in an art workshop led by a particularly sensitive and encouraging instructor. Frank’s wife would come home with stories about a most unusual woman, someone who didn’t socialize with the others but displayed remarkable artistic abilities in a number of media. She could draw sharp, funny, highly incisive sketches that hinted at the turmoil within her. She also showed a gift for giant papier-mȃché sculptures that capture the souls of the people in her life. As a human being she continued (and still continues) to face major demons, but her artwork was good enough to earn her a showing at the highly-respected Rosamund Felsen Gallery in 2007. Felsen still represents her today.

Stiefel’s film gently probes the mysteries of Alper’s formative years. Her mother (still alive and interviewed on-camera) was loving, though somewhat baffled by her difficult daughter. Her father, who appears in Mindy’s drawings as a powerful, terrifying figure capable of sucking out her essence, seems never to have accepted what she was going through. (The film allows the viewer to wonder how much he was responsible for her downward spiral, but by now she has found a path to forgiveness.) Vital figures like supportive teachers and therapists loom large in her art, as in her life, represented by huge three-dimensional portrait busts that are awe-inspiring in their complexity.  
Oscar-nominated documentaries tend to be about grim subjects like drug abuse, racism, and war. The wonderful thing about Heaven is a Traffic Jam On The 405 is that it shows that even the gravest physical and psychological problems can be overcome, thanks to a combination of skill, will, and love. And, of course, the healing power of art.

And here's a photo of Mindy from a recent L.A. Times profile

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