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[whitespace] 'Livermore'
Lost in Time: Dan Lee, former director of public works for Livermore, originally buried the town's now-missing time capsule.

It's a Wonderful Town

Cinequest documentary 'Livermore' unearths the secret history of an East Bay suburb

By Richard von Busack

TO MANY PEOPLE, Livermore represents nothing more than a bleary stop on Interstate 580, the last In and Out Burger before the Altamont Pass. For filmmakers Rachel Raney and David Murray, the city is a nexus for unusual events.

The documentary Livermore, which will screen at Cinequest in two weeks, is a celebration of specialness, in which the exhibits include a lost time capsule, a woodcarving of a nuclear beaver, a totem pole guarded by a Chippewa curse and the Guinness Book-recognized world's oldest living light bulb, which on its 100th birthday received a presidential birthday card from George W. Bush--best wishes from one dim bulb to another.

Livermore examines such artifacts without comment and treats us to excerpts of a Livermore centennial film from 1969, made by the Pefiffers, a local couple who have been residents there for decades. In the film within a film, we see charming, ghostly images of the town that was, during a celebration enlivened with rodeos, pageants and a visit from Up With People.

The model for Livermore can be found in the films of Errol Morris. Raney notes that the way she was lured into filming the city on the edge of the Diablo Valley wasn't much different from the way former Northern California documentary maker Morris did his profile of a Los Altos Hills pet cemetery, Gates of Heaven.

"Morris was definitely a big influence on Murray and myself," Raney says. "We borrowed a lot from his style and his method of focusing on something that wasn't a social issue. But Morris works more out of the mainstream; our subjects were less eccentric, more normal folks."

Most viewers of a documentary on Livermore might assume that the real subject will be the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories--
formerly, as we see in the film's found footage, the Lawrence Radiation Labs. While the mayor of Livermore admits in the documentary that Livermore is "almost a company town" because of the H-bomb laboratories there, Livermore seeks the lost roots of the town in a different strata of recent archaeology.

Shadowing the frivolity are a few interviews with Bill Owens, whose unforgettable photos of Diablo Valley backyard and rumpus-room life became the book Suburbia. The photos brought Owens temporary fame. In a turn worthy of the film Pecker, Owens faced recriminations because of misinterpretation of his photos by the art world's elite--critics were happy to use the photos as an example of gaudy, backward people way out in the sticks.

Raney's affectionate film isn't likely to be mistaken for an indictment. She's a longtime San Francisco documentary filmmaker originally from Tennessee. Her recent works include The Celebrity in the City, a portrait of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. She says, via telephone, that she was drawn to Livermore with the idea of making "something a little quirkier, a little different."

When Raney read of the city's lost time capsule, she headed out with Murray and a home-consumer Sony digital-video camera thinking she'd make a 10-minute piece. "But the more stories we heard, the more material we got," she explains. "I would say one of the linchpins in turns of getting us drawn into the project was when we discovered the Owens book had been included in the lost time capsule. David Murray had been a huge fan of Bill Owens and never realized he was from the Bay Area."

Owens--otherwise known as the founder of Buffalo Bill's Brewery in Hayward, and thus a pioneer of local microbrewing--was filmed for the documentary at a time when he was renouncing photography. Since the completion of Livermore, Owens has had a retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art and gone back to his cameras.

According to Raney, "One of the things I keep saying is that it's so easy to assume that just because towns all have the same big-box stores and gas stations, we start to think that the country has become completely homogenized. When you scratch the surface and talk to folks, up will bubble this rich and unique history that most of the new residents of Livermore know nothing about, unless we make a conscious effort to preserve it. You could do a film like this about any town. However, Livermore is unique."


Livermore, a documentary by Rachel Raney and David Murray, premieres Feb. 23 at 4pm at Cinequest at Camera One in San Jose. The film also shows Feb. 24 at 6:30pm at Camera One and March 1 at 3:15pm at the San José Repertory Theatre. (408.295.FEST)

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From the February 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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