Monday, April 03, 2006

Kids in America

"Kids in America", dir. Josh Stolberg, Launchpad Releasing, 2005 (also now, Screen Media Pictures)
Seen at AMC Courthouse Plaza, Arlington VA, Oct. 2005

When I designed the backcover of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book I somehow miscalibrated the age of the Bill of Rights, saying it was 160 years; and many copies I hand-applied a sticker to change the number to 210. I did correct this for the second printing, of course. I don’t know how that happened; many eyes missed it. Actually, the date of the Bill of Rights (12/15/1791) is the accepted date in history books – (here is a good web reference: http://www.magnet1.com/constitution.htm ) - figures in to the story, as “The Kids” plaster their high school lockers and walls with “12/15” as one of their peaceful protest tactics against Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) in this drama-comedy of constructive student rebellion.

The story features several incidents early on, as Weller suspends a girl for wearing condoms on her dress (when the girl claims to be promoting abstinence), suspends another for an overly graphic paragraph written in a free journal period in English class (a short journal period in a notebook is a common practice in high school English), and then suspends and then expels Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith) for a stunt in a school acting performance.

Now here we have to get into more of the setup. Most of the action centers around film, drama, and English classes where the kids are making videos and setting up short drama skits. (On a substitute teaching assignment last year I actually supervised a class where “kids” edited an entertaining instructional film on chemistry, using Premiere and other editing tools.) One girl has made a video “manifesto” appeal to protest the brutal practice of female clitoral mutilation in some African societies, and her teacher asks (“ask why!”) if it would not have been more appropriate to pick a cause that affected her own family or environment more directly. (This is a good question that probes into the moral underpinnings of one’s own speech.) The tension has been building when Holden pulls off his stunt.

He starts with the famous Hamlet (“play within a play”) “To be or not to be,” and hesitates. Then he goes on an effective monologue to protest the administrations treatment of several specific student efforts and then says that he is “not to be.” He then fakes suicide and slitting his wrists, then of course gets up and demos the prop underneath his long sleeve hiding the fake blood. (I’ve known of HIV patients who hide iv’s at work this way, even when working as flight attendants.) Of course, the administration is “very offended.”

Expelled, Holden rather takes over the movie, leading more protests and arranging to rig the microphone systems at school. There is another rather charismatic out gay student Lawrence Reitzer (newcomer Alex Anfanger) who has made a strategic opening appearance in the film nude except for boxer shorts, revealing what is essentially a perfect teenage male body (at least according to many tastes). Alex has sung and participate in a pivotal manner in various classes. Then he suddenly falls into the (false) gay stereotype when he can’t climb rope in gym class (it would appear that the real life actor would have no problem doing so). During all the protests, Alex kisses his boyfriend in the school hall within sight of The Principal, and is of course suspended, too. (Who is going to be left behind?) So Holden engineers all the students to engage in a same-sex kiss-out in front of The Principal. All of this from a character who is cast as energetically heterosexual in his own life as possible, with various making out scenes.

Holden will then get himself and several other kids thrown in jail when they try to burn a sign (even using laser alignment pointers) onto the football field to defeat Weller’s bid for election to the School Board. Lawrence catches on fire in a terrifying moment and is hospitalized, although fortunately his (second degree) burns are not that serious. It’s not clear that this was necessary for the story.

Is Holden named after the J. D. Salinger character from "The Catcher in the Rye"? It seems that his is much more forceful. (Remember what Salinger writes about "old guys' legs"?)

Apart from Alex Anfanger, in fact, Gregory Smith dominates this movie so thoroughly as the puppetmeister that it seems to me the movie must have been partly his idea. He does play the part as “Ephram plus” (for those viewers familiar with his work as the teenage piano prodigy Ephram in Everwood). He talks with the same colorful metaphors that seem to be Smith’s own personality. A the end, during the closing credits, he has a six minute “disco break dancing” kiss-out (part of it on the hood of a car), his shirt very loose and half-open as he tries to set a time record. The viewer can look for a couple of minor technical directorial errors here (or maybe there is double entendre).

This film is coming out as a platform release, and when I saw it in Arlington VA and an AMC theater on a Sunday afternoon I was the only one in the auditorium. Obviously the film is intended primarily for Cable and DVD. Since TheWB has advertised it on its own network, I would think WB could promote it more successfully if it took over formal distribution (as WIP). It is interesting that this political comedy was released at the same time as Warner Independent Pictures’s hit about McCarthyism, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” And this comedy is one of the most important films of the year, even given the likelihood of a budget under, say, $1 million.

I want to make a note here, to, about the legal issues regarding free speech in schools. There have been many cases over the years. Generally, school administrations can control student speech and teacher on-premises (particularly classroom) speech that would disrupt the school environment or undermine the credibility of accepted curricula. (With gay and lesbian issues in many areas of the country, this can be a problem, as it may also be with some parents.) At one point in the film, principal Weller draws an analogy between her control of students and the Patriot Act after 9/11, a comparison that is obviously inappropriate. There is a paradox here: the school wants to develop critical thinking skills in its students, so it would seem to need freedom of expression. But in public schools, even high schools, students vary so much in cognitive skills with abstract thought that many students need a carefully nurtured environment.

Off-campus speech is more edgy, and the legal barrier that a school system would face in proving a student’s or a teacher’s speech to be disruptive would probably he higher. Even so, the presence of the Internet and World Wide Web raises unprecedented issues because of the Web’s global pervasiveness. There have been issues with regard to student web sites that grade or criticize teachers, as well as those that promote certain cultures perceived as anti-social (Gothic, or even gangs). Students have sometimes made statements from home computers that were perceived as threats and have been disciplined as a result. Teacher speech on the Web could become an issue if students found it through search engines and if the speech was somehow perceived as offensive or disruptive. Yet, one would not want schools to be able to censor the content of teacher off-duty speech. Therefore, the responsibilities of the teacher (at least if he or she is responsible for grading students) to mediate his own speech on the Web sounds like a potentially serious subject, maybe for another movie (maybe even mine).

Here are some legal references on free speech in public schools:

http://www.electronic-school.com/199903/0399ewire.html

http://www.cla-net.org/resources/articles/minow_libraryspeech.php

http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=4373

http://www.lambdalegal.org/cgi-bin/iowa/cases/documents.html?record=382

Gregory Smith and Lee Norris (One Tree Hill) sponsor “The U” on TheWB:

http://thewb.warnerbros.com/web/o_generic_blank.jsp?id=WB-The+U

I would recommend showing this film along with John Stossel’s ABC 20/20 documentary “Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids”.

This film appeared at a time when I was involved in my own controversy regarding school "free speech" ("BillBoushka blog, July 27, 2007).

Eileen is a Spy

Eileen is a Spy

Cantadora Productions (2205 California St NE Minneapolis Mn 55418 cantadora.prod@usa.net)

Written and Directed by Sayer Frey; Produced by Sayer Frey and John Kremer; Music by Barbara Cohen

No rating given (I suggest PG-13); 75 Minutes; 8.5/10

Caption: “You can take the curiosity out of the girl … but NOT the spy out of the woman.”

This film is the winning feature for the 1999 Maybery Award for the Minnesota Film and TV Board. The winning short was the improvisatory bland-and-white fantasy Chromium Hook.

And indeed, this is a nice little black-and-white movie (somehow reminds me of the look of 1955 Sabrina), that makes you feel that you are at the movies. Its feminist genre has a rather gentle edge.

The film amounts to a personal account by a young woman who “comes out” to herself in her ability to love women. She has to get over the psychological conditioning and (I think) abuse by her father, who could not value women unless they were “beautiful” (rather than “good” or “intelligent”) in order to indulge the “needs” of men. In doing so, she develops a certain “voyeuristic” approach to her world that resembles my own in my Do Ask, Do Tell book. The script contains a lot of first-person narration that sounds a bit conventional (unlike the narrative styles of American Beauty and Fight Club, which are very effective) and that should have been replaced by more interactive dialogue with the sparse other characters. And the script could use more organization and structure (so effective, say, in Sleepers) to give the viewer a sense of place.

The BW photography, though, satiated the eye constantly with on-location upper-Midwest images. You approach downtown Minneapolis from the Central Avenue Bridge crossing the Mississippi (watch out for the speed trap!) and view the skyline, including the Churchill Apartments in which I type this review. You see a woman lying on a bed from above, almost that near-death look that reminds one of a similar, but colorful shot in American Beauty. Along the streets and roads (to borrow from a famous grade-school reading text of the 1950’s), you feel yourself riding into a past generation: tractors designed to look like Thomas locomotives run around a state fair, and women (Mennonite??) sporting parasols march down a country road. Perhaps she has a bit of Clive Barker’s dominions in her blood

Bubble

Magnolia Pictures, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 73 min

First: a note about the title. I once had a boss in an “interim job” during my early “retirement” (?!?) who called me “Bubbles.” after a csrtain chimpanzee, so rumor has it.

This is one of those movies that creates controversy by the circumstances of its release and its technology. Magnolia is releasing this film on DVD and Cable at the same time as its platform release in theaters, which has caused some theater chains to boycott it and has started your typical turf wars debate. So I went to Landmark E Street in Washington Saturday Jan. 28 to see it, and found the small auditorium reasonably full.

The film is in cinemascope HDNet, the full wide screen rendering of high definition video by Panavision, and visually it is very effective, with the outdoor scenes of spring in southern Ohio and in Parkersburg, W Va. So are the indoor scenes of the doll factory. The visual image of the molded plastic doll body parts forms a metaphor for the characters, who inhabit this fictive world as objects and pawns in a game where others have a lot more wealth and they are the proles struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck. So this minimalist movie is itself about the morality of the way we perceive other people.

The cast is reported to be locals, not professional actors, and they are very effective. The script was apparently improvised so the speech is very natural with a lot of slang and monosyllabic chatter. I don’t know what the legal arrangements were, and whether the actors had to join SAG.

The story centers around three main characters: Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), an fiftyish woman supervising in the doll factory and taking care of her sessile aging father (Omar Cowan) who pretty much has to have all of his physical needs attended. She keeps him at home rather than sending him to a nursing home ICF with Medicaid. She mother hens a young man Kyle (Dutsin Ashley), who would look like a gay icon with his young unfurrowed teenage face if he hadn’t disfigured his forearms with symmetrical tattoos on his wrists (oh, yes, he wants to be covered with body art, as that is his own avenue to self expression). Oh, yes, he chain smokes, as do the other characters. (Oh, didn’t you hear, heavy smoking can make you go bald in the legs.)

Enter 23-year-old Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) as an employee, and an emotional triangle develops, which Martha perhaps resents. Rose has another job cleaning house for rich people in town, and had just quit a CAW job in a nursing home (where she was the last resort to take custodial potty care of nursing home residents). But Rose asks Martha to babysit her two year old while she goes on a date with Kyle, who apparently quit high school and some sort of emotional disturbance and a stint of special education. They go to Kyle’s room (a room is all that he can afford), and little happens, but while Kyle is out of the room to get a beer, she steals some money from his chest of drawers. They return, and Rose has a confrontation with her ex boyfriend Jake (K. Smith) who had fathered the child.

Next day Rose is found strangled to death, and you have the mystery. I won’t give the solution, but there are loose ends in the story, clues that go nowhere. In the final analysis, it seems that people do not always know what they do. Decker Moody is masterful as the police inspector, and he hammers home at the guilty party into remembering the crime.

The Century of the Self

The Century of the Self (2002, 4 hours, BBC)
Seen at The Avalon, Washington DC, April 2004, DC International Film Festival

Adam Curtis prepared this four part documentary for BBC television in the Spring of 2002, and the Washington DC International Film Festival presented it in 2004. The project is interesting to me because it presents the history of the gradual growth of individualism in the 20th Century through several political stages. Curtis’s historical thesis, like an history final essay exam, is to trace all of this back to Sigmund Freud. But it is the stages that interest me, rather like the six chapters of my own Do Ask, Do Tell book.

Part 1 is called “Happiness Machines.” The story starts with the influence of Sigmund Freud on his nephew Edward Bernays, who would invent the modern career of public relations, and mass consumer persuasion, in the 1920s. Companies used to market to consumers on the basis of need but were transformed into manipulating desire during the 20s. The consumer could see ownership of goods as a kind of self-expression. The world would crash down with the 1929 crash and succeeding depression, and that would bring discredit on ideas like freedom, capitalism, and democracy. FDR would try to save things with the New Deal while Goebels and then Hitler would promote national socialism, the idea that the state should manipulate the individual according to a folkish aesthetic meritocracy. All of that would crash, of course, with the extremes of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. The film pays little attention to communism and Stalin.

Part 2 is called “The Engineering of Consent.” Immediately following WWII, our own government would try to save “democratic capitalism” by using psychology and the “mental health” field (starting with a Mental Health Act of 1946) to channel people into cultural conformity, especially with regard to family values. The mental health field (based on Freud) saw conformity as necessary to repress irrationality and emotional wildness. This would fit into the Cold War and McCarthysm, but it was also partly a reaction to what had caused the rise of Nazi Germany. Individuals, if left to their own devices, might truly become dangerous in pursuing their private aesthetic fantasies. Conformity was thought to socialize people into the family so that the needy could be cared for efficiently, so gradually government welfare programs might become less a burden on business. Conformity also meant, to put it bluntly, that you outgrow adolescence and prove yourself as an adult by raising a family before any other claims to fame. Of course, this did not work that way, as “family values” in the 50s tended to promote segregation and the transfer of unearned wealth. And doesn’t forced conformity defeat the whole idea of democracy? This movement provided the scenario for my expulsion from William and Mary and subsequent psychiatric confinement in a government hospital after telling the Dean of Men that I was a latent homosexual. Quite an irony.

Part 3 is called “There Is a Policeman Inside All our Head: He Must Be Destroyed.” In the 1960s there were radical changes in psychotherapy, and one of the leading figures, William Reich (not to be confused with Theodore Reich who wrote a spirited book The Greening of America), turned against Freud and began to advocate the idea that individual self-expression is a good thing. Companies in time would catch on, and realize that marketing to self-promotion and vanity could make money. Ronald Reagan (to get government off our backs) as presented as promoting the libertarian brand of individualism, although many of us know of his receptive ties to the “Moral Majority” during the 1980s. The theory of polarity by Paul Rosenfels (see book reference below) fits into the idea that adult relationships should exist for a person’s happiness, not for social utility.

Part 4 is called “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering.” The old Left, with its expansive programs for the poor and disenfranchised, would meet a new attitude in the 1990s, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would become “Republicrats” after the pressure from polarizing figures like Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. “A hand up, not a hand out,” was the phrase as Clinton and Blair sold welfare reform. To get elected, both the Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in Britain would have to see “progressivism” as an assembly of individual consumer wants, as politics learned from business.

So all of this about the new Self leaves us wondering about morality. You can’t take freedom for granted, and you can’t abuse the planet forever, or take care of an increasing elderly population with working-age professionals who feel a disincentive to reproduce. You can’t just drop the poor on the tracks with a “rank and yank” meritocracy. Some of this explains the cheating culture leading to our financial scandals, as well as the hatred of America around the world. But I don’t want to see big government come back either.

This gets painful. A bit of a nerd myself, I played the system during the Cold War, and again during the age of the Internet to promote myself. It seems like I could have been required to pay my dues more and prove that I could take care of others as a condition for self-promotion. The example such a paradigm sets would help take care of the poor or less able. But can you do this without corrupting the system as during the age of conformity? Well, the outsourcing phenomenon gives pause for thought: content-based jobs are more easily shipped overseas, and jobs that require you to be a convincing, persuasive person regardless of your “content” stay here. I have shown up short in this kind of market so far.

Compare this to the CNN 1999 series “Millennium.”

Jerome's Razor

Jerome's Razor (2001, Reelcinema, dir. John Swon) Seen at Oak Street Cinema, Minneapolis, in 2001

Once again, here is an independent film with that “you are there” on-location intimacy, filmed in Minneapolis and in the Sandia mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico. It has this sense of progressive reality that the viewer doesn’t get from the manipulations of high-end Hollywood art. The intensity of the characters in this movies has that edge that the critics noted for “larger independent” movies like “The Shipping News,” “In the Bedroom,” “The Deep End,” and “The Business of Strangers.” And here the point is to keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat, wondering what is going to happen to the lead character, Jerome (Marcus Edwards), who, looking around 22 or so, has just come of age, started working, and entered the solstice of life.

I’m not sure what the title means, but it is clearly symbolic (maybe it is the name of a mountain). But I can remember an “I Love Lucy” episode based on the comedy resulting from tatking an art movie title literally.

He starts out working (an accountant, maybe) in a typical cluttered suburban office (maybe around the 494 strip) and dealing with office “relationships” that would interfere with the discipline and concentration of work. A pudgy office chum claims to be his “cube mate” and then becomes his boss, while showing what seems an inappropriate interest. But Jerome is carrying on a bit of a (heterosexual) romance with an young lady there, behaving in a manner that would be inappropriate in larger companies. He seems to take his future advancement for granted, but is becoming bored and depressed. He runs on a treadmill yet smokes in bed.

Here the film is bifurcated, as Jerome makes his journey to New Mexico. So the film takes on the format of Beethoven’s 32nd Piano Sonata, or of Profokiev’s Second Symphony, where you start with a sonata-allegro and follow with a huge “theme and variations.” Jerome runs out of gas near the ski lift for 10,000+ foot Sandia mountain, gets a lift (literally) and finds a small commune of characters with a young rather forceful and virile ring leader Thomas (Mark Parrish). The other characters are the “variations” and they all seem at odds, as if they didn’t want to be there. Is this a cult? Soon, they go off on a life-risking journey into the backwoods, leading to challenges like those in “Vertical Limit” (Columbia, 2000). It doesn’t have to end happily or triumphantly. It can die away, like Beethoven’s or Prokofiev’s variations (which is how I would have put together the music score), in an “arioso.”

New Mexico is well known as a place for people who “search for meaning,” for self-made philosophers. Most of this kind of searching centers around Santa Fe or Taos. In both 1980 and 1984, I visited the Lama Foundation (the second time for a “Spring work camp”), on the sides of Wheeler Peak north of Taos. The property would burn in a forest fire in 1996, and I don’t know if it has been rebuilt. (Maybe a reader does.) I actually did take a ski lesson on Sandia Peak myself in January 1980. My first time through the Sandia area was as a graduate student on a Trailways bus from Kansas University to Los Angeles in November, 1967, before I was drafted. So all of this brings back memories. Nearby are the ruins of the Chaco culture, a native peoples that took over two hundred years to dismantle what they had built, for unknown reasons. How civilization can fail.

There is a recent (as of 2005) head shot/publicity photo and new filmography information about actor Mark Parrish at imdb.com. I am unable to find this film on imdb.com, but it appears under the link "productions" at reelcinema.net with plenty of images. There was an unrelated Canadian film "The Secret of Jerome" in 1994, a 19th Century European adventure.

Primer; My Date with Drew; Cavite

Primer (Fine Line/ThinkFilm, 2004, dir. wr. Shane Caruth, 77 min, PG-13) is a fascinating sci-fi film made for just $7K. Three attractive upper-middle-class young men (Aaron, Abe and Robert played by Shane Caruth, David Sullivan and Casey Gooden), usually overdressed, it seems, in white shirts and ties, contemplate with what to do with an accidental discovery of a time machine (it has to do with a fungus and argon gas), that they work with “secretly” in a public storage warehouse. They wonder how to sell it, or even whether to sell it when they could use it, say, to play the stock market or win lotteries. The dialogue is sharp and detailed and often conveys a lot more information that is typical in many smaller scripts. There are lots of clever little lines that foreshadow the bigger issues, like an early conversation about whether to have steak or Tacos for dinner. Later, the writing does deal cleverly with the time paradoxes, which are visually managed with changes in film saturation—I might have been tempted to use black-and-white instead. Family life is barely suggested in a few scenes, as if it were encapsulated and made invisible. The story suggests a certain paradox for me—how do I “sell” my own work?

My Date with Drew (2003, DEJ/Lucky Crow, dir. Jon Gunn and Brian Herzlinger, 90 min, PG, Website). First for a quote: “If you don’t take risks, you’ll have a wasted soul,” from Drew Barrymore, a child actress in The E.T. 27-year-old Brian Herzlinger wins $1100 in a game show, and spends it to win a date with (female) Drew Barrymore and to make the lowest budget feature film in history. He “borrows” a camcorder from a Circuit City store on a friend’s VISA card. Then he uses the chain of “degrees of separation” to approach Drew with the final success with a date in the Mexican Grille restaurant in New York City (most of the film is shot in L.A.) Along the way there are numerous fitness training and grooming sessions. Now here the movie sounds like lightning striking twice, accidentally mimicking The 40 Year-Old Virgin (Brian’s movie was made first). He asks some other female friends whether he should get his chest and even his arms waxed (remember John Travolta in Staying Alive?) and in one midpoint session they pull up his shirt and tease his body with tweezers (that you couldn’t get past the TSA). But his bod will survive such humiliations. Actually, his appearance is quite striking: his chin just a little thick, but with fitness training he can become super macho man, which may not be to his taste. After all, this movie is PG-13. A major part of the denouement of this movie is the setting up of his Internet domain (a process that I remember right after publishing my own books) and dealing with the DNS errors. He even has to burn a DVD at the last minute (a problem for me on the iMac) or find one that he gave out. The end of the movie is much happier than Everwood’s “A Moment in Manhattan.” There is something off-putting, however, about the likeable hero of a movie bragging about his poverty, inability to pay bills, and desperation to meet one queen.

A more recent film made for extremely low budget is 2005, Cavite (Magnolia/Truly Indie/Gorilla, dir. Neill Dala Llana, Ian Gamazo. A young Filipino man working as a security guard in San Diego gets a call from his family about his father's death. He flies home and at the airport gets an envelope passed to him. He is dared to commit a violent act at a church lest his mother and sister be killed. The film plays on "tainted fruits" ideology and on the idea that a man is responsible for protecting his family even if he does not have his own children.

Five Lines


Five Lines: (or 5 Lines)
Director; Writer: Nicholas Panagopolus (also with Christian Zonts)
Distributor: Brainbox
I attended a special screening at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD. on January 6, 2003, with preceding reception for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Showcase (MARS). This was shown in high-definition in a theater equipped to show it directly from a digital format. Relatively few theaters do this yet, and availability of this presentation mode (before conversion to standard 35mm) seems to improve clarity in presentation (particularly when there is varying motion at different distances from the viewer), so that the film looks a bit like Todd AO or VistaVision from the 1950s.

But, the real importance of the film is its content, issues, and screenwriting concept. And it was a labor or love, made apparently in 1999 and 2000, when the Washington Monument was being renovated. Which gets us to the concept definition: five strangers, who normally ride the five separate Washington DC Metro lines, have their very different lives crisscross, as, over the next five days, they head for tragic ends.

Now this sort of story of intersecting lives is rather popular in the art movie world, at varying levels of ambition and expense. Well known examples include Robert Altman’s Shortcuts, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), and Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations on One Thing (2001) (Sony Pictures Classics). In Sprecher’s film, several of the acting performances are particularly poignant, such as Matthew McConauhey as the assistant DA who hits someone with a car, and Alex Burns as insurance agency executive Ronnie English, who treats a scene where he fires a subordinate with great finesse. The idea of having strangers interact in a geographically interesting place is often tried, as in the 2003 film Lost in Translation. Even the nature of a Metro system has been used before to generate screenplays, as in the 1998 film Sliding Doors, by Peter Howitt, exploring alternate universes with the London Underground. European film, especially French, likes to explore the connection of characters to specific places (remember Swimming Pool in 2003).

This film really keeps the moviegoer on edge, however, because of the problems it creates for the characters, the relevance of these problems to major societal issues, and because of the way it exposes, reveals, and develops the characters with increasing visual and precise visual detail.

For me, the most interesting problem was the young Army Staff Sergeant (E-6) Mike Catalano, played by Nat Taylor. Actually he looks too young to be that well-ranked as an NCO, and he seems rather clean cut and serious. He is challenged in a bar (after getting off the Foggy Bottom Metro near GWU on the Blue and Orange lines) for an initiation or tribunal exercise at the Iwo Jima Memorial along Route 50, near the Arlington Towers apartments and near the Arlington Cemetery. He gets there, and, all right, the exercise is to “roll queers,” (or, literally, “clean up some monuments”) and one of them is a former civilian buddy from high school who “wasn’t supposed to be gay.” They leave the scene in a cab with a driver who couldn’t care less. The rest of this subplot will explore the hatred (however inconsistent across different commands) of homosexuals found in today’s military, especially after President Clinton tried to lift the ban and was forced to settle for “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Particularly disturbing is the visit of the soldier to his now paralyzed ex-friend in intensive care in the hospital, and then the attempt of his commander (a field grade officer) to cover it up. This film, even though this subplot takes about a quarter of the time of the film, is one of the most important made about anti-homosexual attitudes in the military and the collective “warrior male” sociology behind these attitudes in the past ten years of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; but since it is little known, the film has been little mentioned in the gay press. The idea in he minds of some soldiers that gays make convenient practice fodder for practice aggression comes through. (One of them describes the incident as a “fluke” after it makes The Washington Post.) So do Mike’s grief and contrition, in scenes late in the film, where his teeth literally communicate his despair.

Also interesting in the scam artist Bench, played by Christian Zonts, a college dropout who will make his fortune the easy way, with pyramid schemes exploiting his frat brothers. He gets in trouble, of course, with the loan sharks and quickly becomes desperate, but his interpersonal charm and “always be closing” salesmanship comes across. In a typical cheesy telemarketing call he starts out with “How are you today,” then talks people into phony ID’s or signing over their bank accounts. People fall for it. The problem here is that Christian is gradually unveiled and he becomes only more and more likeable.

Then there is the homeless woman Anna played by Josette Murray-Ballo, for whom life is a shopping cart and a chance to see pretty lights one more time. She bails a young teen out of trouble (played gently by Ben Fernchok), and he will invite her to his home for dinner, where he encounters unexpected prejudice.

There is the young woman Stacie dying of an aneurysm (facing a fate similar to the character Colin in TheWB’s Everwood) but trying to live in denial. And there is the party girl Kathryn playing off two male lovers, one apparently an ex-husband, who now takes hidden videos of their sex scenes. The film plays back these videos as a well to show off, incidentally and by comparison, the benefits of High Definition. The filmmakers are not afraid to show hairy men—“bears”—even heavy, in very intimate scenes, a far cry from the buffed look of a lot of the stars on daytime soaps.

The Green Line con man Bench draws some extra reviewing attention I think. Christian Zonts plays this role with a degree of satiric comedy, which sets him apart from the other four main characters. Is this because he wrote the part for himself? I get the impression that comedy is his forte, and, after all, good comedy sells (remember Anything Else?). Bench is a bit of the wild man risk-taker here, and Christian plays it kind of like Sam on Trump-a-Dump’s The Apprentice. There is a great scene where Bench has gotten away and teases his chaser from inside a Metro car, after the doors close. (They really will take a train out of service if a customer holds it open.) But, his own demise is then all the more brutal.

All of the outdoor scenes are on location, and use the Washingtin, DC metro area accurately. There are shots of the Capitol, Library of Congress, Rosslyn, Bethesda. The film gains a tense and sometimes menacing quality with quick black-and-white rapid-motion shots of the underground Metro, which has a chilling futuristic look when shot this way, even though it opened in 1976! (David Greenwalt’s UPN Show Jake 2.0 has a very similar accelerated time-lapse shot of an underground Metro for an attempted ricin attack!) This sense of intimacy and connection to setting is consistently much more serious in many independent films than in Hollywood, where there is often a preoccupation the shortest attention spans in a multiplex audience. Here, the characters are gradually revealed, literally stripped physically a little at a time, sometimes in scenes (as with the flatliner in the hospital) that have you making sure you are still seeing them; then the characters are imagined almost undressed on the Metro itself in dreamscape. This film builds up a tension that reminds me of the technique of Gus Van Sant in Gerry and Elephant, Minnesota filmmaker Jon Springer in The Hymens Parable, or even New Market’s surprise etude, Memento. One device to unite the characters is a homeless man accosting each of the five at some point in the film at a Metro station, giving them coins that could have come from Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depp could have played this!), in each case sending the character into the last chapter of his terrestrial life.

The showing started with a brief Brainbox short or prelude (in regular MiniDV), which I wasn’t sure whether it was a preview or a symphonic introduction to the film itself.

My own experience at this film presents a certain irony. I had to leave a few minutes early to catch the last Metro leaving Silver Spring (against the backdrop of CSX freight trains) back downtown (on the Red Line), on a bitter cold night (and the station is above ground!). Yet, at the last minute, the couple that I had sat by got on the Metro car (they had chanced it) and told me the last few minutes of tragedy. I barely made the connection to the last Orange Line home (after almost going the wrong way), when a passenger, a young teen, would have an apparent medical emergency. I would spend the ride trying to communicate with 911 desperately from a cell phone blocked by the tunnels. After getting out at 12:30 AM at Ballston, I would have to do a “Clark Kent” through dark suburban streets to get home. Lines keep crossing.

I did, however, get the DVD to see the complete ending. The DVD presents an alternate beginning that reveals the denouement, but the film is stronger as is, with the last five days of each character going in time sequence.

For more about the film see this link.

The Hymens Parable; Heterosapiens

THE HYMENS PARABLE
There is a new independent film that touches on family loyalty, The Hymens Parable (Cricket Films and Catholic Partners,1999), produced, directed and written by Jon Springer. I saw this film at the 2000 Twin Cities international film festival. Like so many independents, it is realistically filmed on-location, at various points (especially campuses) in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The look varies from a grainy black-and-white (very chilling in a fatal auto wreck scene) to a use of pencil-like hues that suggests colorized film. But a major point of the story is that a young man (Jason, played by Shane Barach) studying to be a priest has to deal with his own “hatred” of his mentally-ill and sometimes suicidal sister (Cassandra, played by Melissa Lewis) who, as it turns out, has grown “crazy” in her desire to be consumed by Christ in the context of religious ecstasy. Later we learn of problems in the family background (especially the father) that explain many of her problems. But the young man will not feel free to pursue his own spiritual goals without coming to terms with how he is expected to “feel” about other possibly “burdensome” blood-family members. The intensity approaches real psychological horror. Let’s hope a FineLine Features or an Artisan Entertainment discovers this film.

HeteroSapiens (2002)
Seen at The Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, Minneapolis

I had the opportunity to review the screenplay for this sci-fi comedy just before the September tragedy. On the surface, it reads like a spoof on discrimination by reversing homosexuality and heterosexuality and placing straights in the defensive position. But when viewed (in wonderful black and white) it comes across as a comical celebration of heterosexuality, as Masters and Johnson would rejoice in it. There are neat ideas in the script, such as a job firing after a conflict of interest over indulging in heterosexual simulations from a “competitor,” and some lines about one’s role in the world. This film was originally to be called “Interchange.” Jeff Gilson comes across as a sincere and convincing protagonist, and a salesman for the idea that heterosexuality need not be confining or anachronistic. The film is based on the novel The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess (1996, W. W. Norton).

This film was screened on March 16, 2002 at the Heights Theater by IFP Minneapolis/St. Paul. Other showings were a preview of How to Kill a Mockingbird (Jon Sweet and Amy Brewster), The New Boy (Mark Ray Moreau and Screenlabs) and Rebel in the Soul (Marie-Francoise Theodore). The New Boy is a particularly sweet story (oddly reminiscent of Stephen King) of a couple trying to make connections in a nursing home for its 52nd wedding anniversary, and is a good challenge to what we really value in others.

In early 2003 Springer showed a new short, Heaven 17, a Kubrick-like short about pathogenesis and state-forced partial-birth abortion, and edgy and metallic and blue-looking political statement.

DV Cinema offers DVs of short films from Minnesota filmmakers. I have disk 1, and can comment on a few other films.

Tiger Show (2001), dir. Nate Gubin, presents a rural farm and a man with some interesting pets. Remember the accident in Las Vegas? Tigers are just cats.

The Inheritance (2002), dir. Teddy Schenck, presents “generational wealth”—in three successive generations, young men are tempted to make the same bargain with a mysterious stranger.

Other short films are “Radio Rails” “Endless Transit” (an abstraction of the NYC transit system), “Spilling Cicada” (which has an airplane and U of M neighborhood shot strikingly similar to my own “Air Raid” clips at this link) “Such Love Exists” “Mr. Sandwich” (one peanut butter sandwich eats another and then throw it up), “Aus Blue”, “The Man Who Couldn’t Breathe” and a “Super 8 Animation Sampler.” There are previews of “Bee Boy” from City Council Productions, dir. Alronzo Becherro, and “I Told You Not to Tell Anyone.”

Bill's Gun Shop

Bill’s Gun Shop, from Polychrome Picture and Dangerous Films (2001), directed by Dean Lincoln Hyers, produced by J. Michael Tabor, written by Rob Nilsson, starring Scott Cooper, John Ashton, Victor Rivers, Tom Bower, James Keene, Carolyn Hauck, Sage, Jacy Dummermuth.
Seen at the Heights Theater in Minneapolis, in 2001
Again. The independent, locally produced film (this was shot on location in the Twin Cities and in southern Minnesota) imparts an urgency and tension lacking in the glitz and polish from bigger operations (and, again, why does Hollywood have to cover up real companies and real locations when small filmmakers don’t?). In fact, the film has stunning photography (seems wide screen) and a pinpoint digital sound track. And we identify with the 23-year old Dillon McCarty (Scott Cooper), starting out his adult life with a bit of personal schism, between being a mild-mannered (almost impotent) “good guy” and wanting to emulate his movie-star police heroes and marshals. He goes to work for a gun shop and gradually sinks into a rather scary world. (I didn’t know that gun shop employees are expected to wear guns going to and coming from work.) Eventually he goes on a bounty run and has to get himself out of an impossible situation, generating a lot of rooting interest from the audience. This film played to a full house at the Heights Theater, and comes across as a level-headed treatment of guns and self-defense for mainstream Americans (the film also covers racial tensions pointedly), and not just an activity on the rightwing fringe.

Chicago Stories

Chicago Stories (King Productions/Avenue) is a quartet of short stories directed by Duane Edwards. The stories are “The Confession,” “Contest Winner,” “Imagine This,” “Hit & Run.” They are a bit it the style of a gentler Stephen King. I won’t give the loglines here. But I’ll say that a bit of “Glen Garry Glen Ross” and “Always be Closing” in one of the clips, where a salesman really finds out if he’s ballsy or not. There is some irony about the priesthood, and a woman really does a horrible thing, worthy of “Days of our Lives.” Two of the films are in black-and-white, and another uses it; they remind me of the black-and-white scene composition of the famous opening of “Touch of Evil.” Edwards is a finalist in the 2004 Project Greenlight Director’s Contest, with a clip that jerks us around with the unexpected. (Do not confuse this film with the big 2002 Miramax release, “Chicago!”)

The Director's Contest produced ten shorts (each about five minutes long) based on a simple script with generic dialogue involving a conflict and resolution. Many of them were quite dazzling. I believe that the shorts would legally belong to liveplanet.com or to the Weinstein Company, LLC and I would encourage those companies to release a commercial DVD of all of them. You can watch the top three at this link: http://www.liveplanet.com/video_pgltop3shorts.html

Bill's movie reviews

This blog will contain reviews of some hard-to-find, mostly smaller films. Many of them are available on DVD from services like Netflix and Blockbuster.

The film business is changing with technology, as new ways to develop, finance and distribute (even through broadband) small films emerge. You may want to visit IFP sites (like ifp.org and ipfmsp.org).