Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sean Penn's film "Into the Wild": adventure and tragedy, and a moral fable


I recall hearing the tragic story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) back in the middle 1990s. His adventure and excruciating passing form the new biography “Into the Wild,” from Paramount Vantage, both written and directed by Sean Penn.

The filmmaker went to great lengths to film his adventures in as many real locations as possible. This of course includes the wild country near Fairbanks, AK where he spent his last few months living in an abandoned Fairbanks transit bus, but many other lower 48 sites: first, Atlanta, where he graduated from Emory University in 1990, then the Arizona and California deserts, the Oregon coast, the South Dakota plains, and skid row in downtown Los Angeles. I don't know how Mr. Penn got around the usual requirement that every location have a separate "unit" represented by industry unions and guilds (if a visitor knows how this works, please comment!) In full 2.35 to 1 which sharply focused, detailed outdoor photography, this is a sunning film that could well have warranted Imax showing.

Penn also tells the story in layered, retrospective or flashback fashion. He starts with Fairbanks and the bus, and one sequence takes us through that 1992 summer to his end, which comes when McCandless mistakenly eats poisonous potato seeds (the root was edible but the seeds are not -- how do wild animals like bears know what is edible?) that causes his internal organs to shut down and him to starve with lack of glucose metabolism. Had he not eaten this, he likely would have been able to hike back to help before the Alaskan autumn, and resume his adult life. This all happens some time after he has shot a moose, and then been unable to protect his kill from maggots. It’s interesting, man is trying to be the top predator; but man does need technology and tool (maybe based on current sunlight) to compete with bears, cats, wolves, and foxes. He has one encounter with a grizzly ("Bart the Bear") who senses his plight and peacefully walks by, honoring him as a kind of fellow food chain "predator".

In parallel, Penn tells the story of McCandless’s adventures. It starts with a dinner confrontation with his protective parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) where his dad wants to buy him a new car. “I don’t need any thing,” he says. Later: “It’s not enough to be strong. I want to feel strong.” He soon gives away his savings, and heads out, and we quickly realize he had been contemplating this all four years of college. There is some discussion of moral idealism and rejection of materialism and “power”, but later we learn that Chris felt hurt by some of his parents’ indiscretions. He has his own moral code, demanding not only complete trustworthiness and engagement of life, but the ability to remain beyond even one temptation. At one point in California (reunited with a middle aged couple he helped reunite), he is introduced to a teenage girl, and he quickly establishes that she is under legal age. He meets an older hermit, apparently gay, living in the Mojave desert with a leather business; the man makes him a belt, and then says he would like to adopt Chris. This, of course, is euphemistic for wanting to have a relationship with Chris, who says he could think about it when the adventure is over. Chris meets the concept of “psychologically feminine” in Paul Rosenfels’s terminology, as he establishes in one line where he says that the only important virtues to him is “Truth.” He talks about "just living man" as if that alone were some kind of organic experience (Paul used to say that in the Ninth Street Center talk groups -- discussed elsewhere in these blogs; so did the Rosicrucians). As a kind of psychological purification, he hides his identity and calls himself "Alexander Supertramp" (at the LA homeless shelter).

The layering, with the parallel lines of story, probably work better here than a simple linear chronology would, since the end is otherwise so difficult to take. This, unlike Robert Zemeckis ’s Cast Away (2000) (2oth Century Fox and Dreamworks) will not end happily; there is not even the redemption of Timothy Treadwell’s loss trying to film grizzly bears (in Grizzy Man, 2005, from Lions Gate and the Discovery Channel, dir. Werner Herzog).

Paramount Vantage recently released “Arctic Tale,” (dir. Adam Ravetch, Sarah Robertson, narrated by Queen Latifah) a survival story of polar bears in the arctic with the ice caps melting. That makes a curious complement, in a statement about who man has to learn to live in a world that is not infinite in its ability to accept the changes brought by technology. Chris tried to like in complete harmony with the planet as it is, and he did too much of it alone.

Another good comparison is LionsGate's "Open Water," (2004) (dir. Chris Kentis), about an Australian couple stranded in the water on a snorkeling trip; that film had an ineffective sequel.

Still one more comparison: Kevin Costner 's "Dances with Wolves" (1990, Orion Pictures), where a wounded Civil War hero is on his own for a while until he befriends a Sioux tribe.

Update: Oct. 4, 2007

ABC "World News Tonight" and "Nightline" reported on modern day hikers, like Mark Patterson, going out into the Wild with similar motives. At one point, Mark refuses an offer of food after hitchhiking (which is the way men in this culture have to get around, despite public and law enforcement disapproval of hitchhiking in general). The bus (on the Stampede Trail, near Denali National Park and Mount McKinley) has become a kind of shrine. There is some concern that this movie will inspire others to challenge their own lives in a similar way.

I flew over the flanks of Mt. McKinley in a private seaplane in 1980, and we landed in a well-equipped cabin south of the park for dinner afterwards.

Update: Short news items: (Oct. 4, 2007)

For an announcement about another intended Paramount Vantage release ("The Kite Runner") please go here on my blogs.

Reuters (and MSNBC) also report (on Oct. 2) "Hollywood union asks writers to authorize strike," here. One wonders if this would be a window for even more independent film. Variety has a story by David McNary, "Studios Brace for Life Without Scribes: Prospect of WGA Strike Has Studios on Edge," Dec. 20, 2006, here.

Here is WGA 's Strike Authorization Letter (Oct. 1, 2007) link.

Update: Oct. 10, 2007

Hollywood Reporter has a detailed story, by Carl Di Orio on the possible strike today, "DGA Could Call the Shots." The link is here.

David McNarry has a new story on Variety Oct. 11, "WGA prepares for strike; Writers Guild drafts hardline regulations", if the contract expires Oct. 31 without a new contract, here.

There are mixed rumors on an informal "lockout" until there is a new contract, but obviously production companies cannot make plans without settling this somehow. For example, Carl DiOrio and Nellie Andreeva have a Backstage story from Feb. 2007 "Fearing WGA Strike, TV Execs Bank Scripts", here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In the Valley of Elah and Unit Cohesion (and preview: "Meeting Resistance")


First, most people may know that the Valley of Elah is where David meets Goliath, in 1 Samuel, Chapter 17, verses 2 and then 19. The men of Israel are to meet the Philistines, and the story of an underdog becoming an ambiguous hero starts.

Here, in the movie, it’s not so clear that the metaphor maps exactly, in the new Warner Independent Pictures release “In the Valley of Elah,” written and directed by Paul Haggis, from “Crash” (the second of those two movies; the first, very different, was from David Cronenberg in 1996). This time, Haggis presents one continuous story, rather than a round robin, but with a certain narrative simplicity that intensifies the mood. The only layering is in the recovered cell phone video that retired Army officer Hank Deerfield (an intense Tommy Lee Jones) sneaks out of his missing son’s barracks room when he travels to New Mexico from Tennessee to look for him when he is AWOL, due back from Iraq.

It’s the early scenes in this wide-screen film that are worthy of note. They show Army life stateside, permanent party OK, but still a life from the military mind. The cinderblock rooms are immaculate, with hospital corners on the bunks, simple furniture that is not much more than the BCT foot and wall locker. It’s from such that Deerfield finds the evidence. The camera roams a little, shows men, nude but discretely, coming out of the showers. The film seems to be trying to send a subliminal message about unit cohesion, bringing back memories of the debates about this from Sam Nunn and Charles Moskos back in 1993 as Bill Clinton tried to lift the ban on gays in the military. “They have no privacy,” Nunn used to holler in the Senate. Indeed, this seemed to be a Spartan, collective lifestyle where the unit, the group was everything and not much was left of the individual.

Then, in Iraq, we find that not much is. The disappearance of the son does have to do with unit cohesion and cover-ups, but not in a way that we can anticipate for a while (it's relation to DADT is at most remote). And when we find out the answer, we learn what our soldiers have to do over there every day.

This is not necessarily a plea to get out of Iraq at all. It just tells us what it costs our people.

Update: Oct. 8, 2007

ABC "World News Tonight" today mentioned (and showed very brief clips from) a new documentary "Meeting Resistance" about the insurgency in Iraq, told from the point of view of the insurgents. The film (84 min) is from Nine Lives and Goldcrest. It posits the question, what if the United States were occupied? I'll review as soon as I can see it or find a copy; it's not on Netflix yet. The movie was shown to American soldiers in Baghdad. The ABC News story, by Miguel Marquez, is "Hearing Their Side U.S. Soldiers View Documentary Portraying Other Side of the Iraq Conflict," link here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon, and other planetary explorations (Mars, Titan)


The indie film around now that is all the rage is “In the Shadow of the Moon.” (Actually, the “In” reminds me of something else – “In the Valley of Elah” -- save that for another entry), directed by David Sington. Ron Howard, who directed “Apollo 13” was apparently the catalyst for this little gem distributed by ThinkFilm.

I digress again about ThinkFilm., in 2006, distributed a film called “The King” and the print in Washington DC at Landmark E Street broke. The film moved to the AMC Dupont Circle AMC (actually going out of business in January 2008) where it was still unusable. I called ThinkFilm in Toronto myself (I had to gumshoe to find the contact points) and reached a company executive. Two days later there was a viewable print at the Dupont theater and I got to see it. With platform releases, prints do break sometimes. DVD’s may be easier to manage, but the same thing happened in a film festival with a indie gay film “WTC View” on DVD. I had to rent it from Netflix to see the entire film.

To get back on the moon, this new film traces the history of all the moon walks from the viewpoint of the remaining living astronauts who went, all of them in their seventies now. The film shows more footage of the actual Moon surface than every seen before. It is a gray, grainy desert, looking like a shot from a black-and-white movie, with the only color the yellow of the lander and blue earthshine. But in this film, the live video (including a lot of aerial footage from the revolving command module 60 km up) is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, making the film as a whole look small, where as the astronaut interviews are the standard 1:85 to 1. There is plenty of talk about "The Right Stuff" (the book by Thomas Wolfe and 1983 film directed by Philip Kaufman).

Compare this with the Imax 3-D film "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon", in the fall of 2005 (distributed by Imax, although the movie said that Sony Pictures was involved), directed by Mark Cowen, written and narrated by Tom Hanks. Seeing that 45 minute film was like a $10 vacation to the moon, but I’m not sure if the 3-D full screen shots were real; there were many mini-inserts of smaller video.

Of course, everyone remembers Universal’s anamorphic Panavision "Apollo 13", directed by the same Ron Howard (book by Jim Lowell and Jeffrey Kluger), about the mission that struggled to survive the return trip. I saw this in a theater in 1995, and then again on a return flight from one of my “don’t ask don’t tell” gumshoeing trips, this one to San Francisco in 1995. There is a curious scene early where the lower sternal part of Tom Hanks's (Lowell) chest is "sandpapered" for the electrocardiographic or Holter Monitor leads that he will have to wear for several days. The end is a tremendous emotional high. On a substitute teaching assignment in 2004 in an eight grade science class, the kids watched this movie, and had to write up an explanation of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented. One boy wrote a very lucid engineering discussion, with good spelling and good English that was quite accurate.

Of course, Imax cameras need to go other places in the solar system. There is a Disney 2006 Imax film, "Roving Mars" (without 3-D) than again gives one a $10 trip to the Red Planet. (Remember the cynical "Capricorn One" (Peter Hyams) from 1978.

PBS produced a one-hour documentary (2005) "Exploring Space: The Quest for Life", that provides an animated simulation of drilling the surface of Europa (moon of Jupiter) down into the subterranean “Ocean” in a quest for life. Even more interesting in the Nova documentary “Voyage to the Mystery Moon” about the Cassini / Huygens probe of Titan, with some real pictures of the dry methane lake bed (it still looks like a desert at dusk on a hazy day) and of the “coast line.” Other pictures have surface since of sand dunes around the equator and of polar “Minnesota like” methane lakes. Titan would make a great subject for an Imax movie already. (Disney or Sony Pictures, where are you?) NASA has offered a lecture with detailed slides of all the Saturn moons at the Washington DC museum.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The "dead hand": in "The Ultimate Gift", "The Bachelor", even "The Brothers Solomon"


A somewhat obscure notion in American society (less obscure in the UK perhaps) is the “dead hand” whereby an individual can get or keep his or her inheritance only by performing certain tasks or living up to certain conditions laid down in the will. That way, the parent or ancestor maintains “control” over the behavior of his progeny “from the grave.”

Yet, sometimes Hollywood was responded to this concept as if it were a foregone conclusion that it is real. Fox Faith, early this year, released a film “The Ultimate Gift” in which a North Carolina playboy (played by an evolving Drew Fuller) has to perform twelve tasks to get his bequest. The film was directed by Michael O. Sajbel, and is based on a novel by Jim Stovall. The tasks have a lot to do with charity and volunteerism and some manual labor (he has to drill some fenceposts into the ground at a spread at a Texas “King Ranch:”), so the whole tale comes across as “moralistic,” but the ending definitely feels good, even if some of the intermediate confrontations are stagey.

Sometimes this issue is a subject for comedy. In New Line Cinema’s “The Bachelor”, from 1999 (dir. Gary Sinyor, based on a play “Seven Chances” by Jean Havez), Chris O’Donnell is the playboy, who must marry by age thirty, stay married for ten years, and produce biological offspring (yes, he must procreate – please the Vatican.) This sounds like a setup for opera buffet and would work in European farce (definitely in a major key) but it rather offended me as a film.

More recently, this sort of idea came up in a Saturday Night Live spinoff film, “The Brothers Solomon", from Sony TriStar and Revolution Studios (a major production studio usually associated with Columbia and Fox), written and directed by SNL regular Will Forte, who plays one of the two incompetent brothers (the other is Will Arnett). Their dad is dying, and he has let them know he wants biological grandkids. They actually set up intensive care in their apartment for him, and then don’t seem to understand what artificial insemination really means. No will gets mentioned, although the idea seems implied by the circumstances. This sort of thing does work as a skit on SNL, but it let a bad taste as a feature film. I think that the idea of mandatory marriage was hinted in a couple of the “On the Lot” short films on fox from the aspiring young directors.

I know of a script floating around that explores this problem from a GLBT perspective. I won’t name it, but the problem is important, as are the way many people perceive the “moral” issues underneath it. The problem deserves serious treatment, not just farce.

(See also the posting on Aug. 24, 2007, about "mandatory family responsibility" for the childless in films.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

DC Shorts 2007 Sept Festival, a lot of originality



Here is a rundown of some of the films at the DC Shorts film festival Sept 13-20 2007 at Landmark E-Street Cinema. Some of the films used SAG or SAG Indie.

Chinese Dumplings (8 min), dir. Michelle Hung, in Cinemascope. Kids practice the violin when they would rather play outside, which is good for them. Some good food is shown.

415 M Street (8 min) dir. Stephanie Slewka, a film made about a historic house in Shaw in Washington DC by the owner. Built in the 19th Century, it has housed a Jewish boys group, an African American Bible church through the 50s to the 70s, and then from 1984-1993m the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington DC which ministers to gays and lesbians. Pastor Candace Shultis, a former Marine, appears. I attended from 1989-1993, when the new church on Ridge Street was built. Rev. Larry Uhrig, author of the piece “There Is No Better Half,” was pastor, but died in 1993. I played piano for some services in 1992. There was a yard where the Church had socials and after service refreshments.

The Bleeder (13 min, Ian Cook). An obese 12 year old boy with nosebleeds (maybe hemophilia) imagines how he can get back at his brothers.

Carla Cope (05:30, dir. Aileen McCormack) is a super-8 retrospect of the losses in NYC on 9/11.

Loman’s Tale (6 min, Peter Bruenner) where drawings of the woods merge into reality.

The Job (3 min, dir. Jonathan Browning) where professionals have to undergo the indignity of labor hiring halls usually used by illegal immigrants.

Quiet (16 min, dir, Alehandri Rodriques) On moving day, with boxes packed, a woman hears signs of carnage and martial law outdoors, and is not sure if she is dreaming, or if her world is falling apart.

Martial Artsy (5 min, Kiyong Kim) In Baltimore, an artist unwittingly goes to a martial arts competition and prevails.

Rumbero (9 min, dir. Din Atlit) where mother intervenes in a tender family reconciliation.

Hidden Faces (7 min, dir. Lucie Rouche, France) A woman struggles in a regimented “Big Brother” Orwellian workplace, where she longs for human contact and friendship, even from Human Resources.

Sunday Afternoon (13 min, dir. Gaia Adducchio, Italy) a couple buries a loved one in lake in a film with slightly Hitchcockian flavor.

The Hitchhiker (16 min, dir. Jason Goode, Canada) a hitchhiker has to go through security before a woman picks him up in rural British Columbia, and then there is a surprise waiting for him in the trunk. This film reminds me a bit of Jason Epperson from “On the Lot.”

When I Grow Up (6:40, Michelle Meeker). Well, it’s not just to sit back and contemplate. Girls ruminate on their career plans. Funded by the KIPP project. Animated.

Esperando (“Hope”, 6 min, dir. Michael Flores) Women crossing the border face abuse once in the US. In black and white, reminding one of “Touch of Evil.”

Can I Kick It? (6 min, dir. Gabe Uhr). Informal kickball, in a form that simulates baseball (as in grade school) on the Washington DC Ellipse near the White House. Forget RFK stadium; There are no outfield fences.

Feeding (11 min, dir. James Arnall) a schizophrenic woman imagines that her disposal is like Stephen King’s IT or Tommyknockers, to the tune of Schubert’s E-flat Piano Trio. Her husband will make good fodder.

Paper (2 min, dir. Elliot Blanchard) animation.

Palweiser Label
(10 min, dir. Brad Wise). A beverage company hires American Chinese to fake speaking Chinese in ads.

Signage (13 min, dir. Rick Hammerly). A vain 41-year-old, already with a younger lover, visits a gay bar and meets younger deaf men. He tries to hit if off with one recent 21-year-old, who resents not his age but his unsympathetic hearing. Some real drama about values here, not limited to the LGBT world.

Lesson 5 (5 min, Stephen Carr) a date with some language lab lessons, with Beethoven Pastorale Sonata, Satie, and the Chopin Raindrop prelude.

2 in the AM PM (8 min, dir. and animated by JG Quintel) In original black and white animated drawings, two young men at a gas station entertain themselves on Halloween night by drifting into substances not wholly legal. The portraits are lifelike, and the director disclaimed that art imitated life in the Q&A afterwards.

Big Dumb F* (3 min, Dean Harner) An African American woman berates intellectual men, who are out to judge the individual worthiness of others.

The Run (3 min, dir. Shawn Costa) a young college man is chased in a dorm by another man, however, menacing, with a real emergency.

The Money Shot (12 min, dir. Chip Frankin). A woman delves into why her boyfriend likes porno, and wants to see “the ending” where the fantasy turns to love and commitment.

Robin Williams Has No Top Lip (2 min, dir. Paul Haber) Eavesdropping in a bar, Andy Warhol style (reminds one of “Water”).

Partially True Tales of High Adventure
(12 min, dir. Murphy Gibson). A screenwriter, desperate to win a Hollywood agent, decides that his art needs to imitate life, and sets out to make his life funnier, both at home and in the bar, especially. Reminds one of “The Dying Gaul.” In the bar, they talk about screenwriting, so the movie is reflexive. I once had an experience a bit like this in Boston.

Trigger Effect (24 min, dir. Tim Gordon, Centura) (this film should not be confused with the 1996 Universal film by David Koepp; in both films the title is an effective pun) is a docudrama examining the DC handgun ban, which was recently struck down by an appeals court. Filmed on location in SE DC in a low income neighborhood with the Capitol in view constantly. A middle school aged boy has lost his father to gun violence and feels compelled to get a handgun illegally to prove that he can "protect his family." At the same time, a homeland security official debates the issue with the police chief and politicians. Compare to the film "Bill's Gun Shop" from Minnesota. (Review link). So far there have been very few films on the gun control issues.

Fast Love (3 min, dir. Josh Flowers). A comic documentary about the car service line at a fast food joint. Last time I waited in a line like this was in Pittsburgh. Really.

Girls Room (10 min, dir. Maria Gigante). A dilapidated girls lavatory in a public school provides an excuse for some rather risky comedy.

Barberin' (7 min, dir. Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran) a documentary about a barbershop with barbers trained in prison. Memories of the MGM "Barber Shop" movies come back.

Glimpse (9 min, dir. Dustin Grella) animates some of the art of Willem de Koonig, with the effect that nothing lasts forever.

Personal Spectator (16 min, dir. Emmanuel Jaspers, Belgium / UK) In a British eatery, an unemployed and handsome young man approaches a woman and suggests working for her, actually getting paid, as a "spectator" (not a peeping Tom) so that her ordinary life becomes important. Based on a play "The Seven Jays" by Carol Frechette.

Push (16 min, dir Loris Lai, Italy) A young man agrees to a bank robbery to save his family from a vendetta; this little film seems like a Sicilian "Days of our Lives" -- the real thing.

The "O" Word (8 min, dir. Alan Lock, Australia). The "O" means "Obey." A mother locks her daughter in a room to keep her from marrying a garbage collector and disgracing the family, whereas the daughter worries about having a family at all or becoming an old maid.

One other short here should get mentioned, because it doesn't merit a whole blog entry: Andy Samberg 's "Laser Cats", from the Saturday Night Live skit Sept. 22 (when Jake Gyllenhaal hosts). The cats take on Clark Kent heat vision powers. The film is framed in a skit where an agent rejects it. But it has a lot of Zack Lipovsky-like effects and it would have played well On the Lot.

Also Brian Williams has his own SNL Digital Short (Nov. 3). I don't recall the NBC cafeteria when I worked there as a computer programmer-analyst 1974-1977. I do remember the semi-private offices (14th floor then), and I never leaned out a window like he does in the short. The short did bring back memories. Past is prologue.

Also, the US Postal Museum at Union Station in Washington DC shows a 5 minute short, 'Mail by Rail", about the Railway Post Office, which closed in 1974. The jobs of railroad mail handlers were very "communal" in nature.

The National Archives has the eleven-minute Discovery short "Democracy Starts Here," about the Archives as a national family scrapbook. Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock is an immigrant? Ken Burns narrates.

A picture of the 415 M house is shown (subject of one of the films).

video

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Devil Came on Horseback -- documentary about Darfur in Sudan




The non-profit Avalon Theater in NW Washington DC has been showing the documentary “The Devil Came on Horseback,” (the word "Janjaweed" from Arabic for the attacking groups) about the genocide in Darfur, an area of western Sudan. The film is distributed by the International Film Circuit, with “Break Thru Films” as the production company, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, and it has been presented at Sundance. Each day this week, the theater has presented a speaker from the Darfur effort. Tonight the speaker was Adam Sterling, from the Sudan Divestment Task Force.

The film is shown through the eyes of former Marine captain and freelance photographer Brian Steidle. The country reached a “peace” between northern (Arab Muslim) and southern (black Christian) areas, but the Sudanese government has always been hostile to the native peoples in the western Darfur area. Other than tribal power, the motives are not that clear. Steilbe, working as an unarmed photographer, was able to get unbelievable footage of the carnage, which is visually beyond description. Technically, the film (1.85 to 1) is stunning (on real film or HD, with sharp Digital stereo), with panoramic scrub desert scenery around the Nuba Mountains, with the primitive conditions in the villages shown close-up. It’s not apparent how Steidle could such an accomplished film crew into essentially a civil war zone. He would come back, present his pictures to the New York Times, and gradually attract international attention, including meetings with the U.N. and the Bush Administration. He would go back, visit Chad and Rwanda, and begin to feel “guilty” not being able to be in combat again. Finally he would help organize rallies, as on the Mall. His website is Global Grassroots. Also visit "Save Darfur".

There is a considerable effort to pressure other countries (especially China and Malaysia) profiting from oil business in Sudan, as well as many private American and international companies, to withdraw from business in Sudan as long as the genocide goes on.

Update: Nov. 9, 2007

Warner Independent Pictures has released Darfur Now, directed by Ted Braun, produced by Participant, 99 min, PG, and it started in Washington DC tonight at Landmark's E Street Cinema only.

Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger broke his promise of "no more movies." As governor, he appears in this one, promising that California pension funds will not be used to support genocide in the Sudan. Actor Don Cheadle plays a prominent role in the film, (a clip from UA's "Hotel Rwanda" is shown) with George Clooney; they travel to China (which buys a lot of Sudan's oil) and Cairo to put international pressure on the Sudan.

This film is more of a Hollywood professional film. More of it takes place outside Darfur. But it tells a particularly interesting story of two college students from LA, who take to the streets to raise money for the Darfur issue. One of the guys says he had never approached people in public before. Later there is a conversation with an African American who helps them put their spiels in terms of union solidarity. There are jobs like this now, where people approach others in shopping malls or other public spaces to raise money for charities by "selling" excess restaurant meals or hotel rooms.

Update: 11/21/2007


On Nov. 20, 2007 PBS Frontline aired "On our Watch", directed by neil Dochtery (60 min) to further explore the crisis in Darfur. The show mentioned gross genital mutilations during the raids. The professor activist Eric Reeves, and his web site sudanreeves, was presented. The activism of actress Mia Farrow, with her multiple trips and op-eds that have "eclipsed" the rest of her life, was shown. The United States and UN have been slow to offend China for political and economic reasons (for China's complicity with the Sudan oil business), but activists want to present the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as "The Genocide Olympics". There is more talk on how international law should be invoked on sovereign countries that commit "war crimes" against their own citizens.

Update: June 19, 2008

See writeup of news story on propaganda music in Sudan and video "Singing for Peace," on International issues blog (see profile) today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (HBO Documentary)


On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007, the Log Cabin Republicans arranged a “theatrical” screening of the HBO Documentary (actually now available for theaters from Zeitgeist) Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (2006), directed by Julie Anderson. The film was shown in quintuplicate on five plasma screens in the downstairs lounge at a sports bar, the Rhode Grille on Rhode Street and Wilson Boulevard, just above Roslyn in Arlington, VA.

Of course, Barry Goldwater became gradually known as the most famous establishment libertarian conservative. The film starts with the famous black-and-white H-bomb ad (with the little girl) in Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater was painted as the warmonger, when it would be Johnson and McNamara who would get sucked in by the domino theory into the war in Vietnam. The film shows lots of black-and-white shots of the 1964 campaign year, with the Republican convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco. It also shows some of Barry’s life in Arizona, his enjoyment of nature alone, flying solo with prop planes into the wilderness, learning self-reliance, using citizen’s band radio. Barry even made a film “Grand Canyon Rapids” in 1940, a home movie, Technicolor perhaps, that actually got into theaters.

Goldwater (his famous book is “The Conscience of a Conservative”) hinted at his libertarian stance in the post Brown v. Board of Education days, when he maintained that it should not be the government’s business to force desegregation of schools, but that as a personal matter segregation and discrimination were wrong. He claimed that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to enforce its opinion (the “with all deliberate speed” problem).

Goldwater would come back into politics and serve thirty years in the Senate. George Will says, he really didn’t lose the 1964 election; it just took sixteen years to count the votes. (Try that with the 2000 Florida presidential election.) With “the Reagan Revolution” his ideas seemed to pay off, but quickly Goldwater became disenchanted with the neo-Republican strategy of social conservatism, attacking abortion and “gay rights.” Goldwater had always believed in the right of a woman to control her pregnancy. He was turned off by the entry of the Moral Majority into politics. (A James Robson sermon using the p word is quoted.) Although earlier in his life his attitude toward homosexuality was unfavorable, when a grandson Ty Goldwater was gay, he came around, even to the point of writing a famous op-ed (in 1993, after President Clinton tried to lift the military gay ban) that the was wrong. He wrote, “To serve in the military, you don’t have to be straight, you have to shoot straight.” He also saw it as federal intrusion on free speech and a reasonable expectation of personal privacy, even for a servicemember, which was becoming the practical view of many people in the early 90s.

Also appearing in the film are Sandra Day O'Connor (she talks about her appointment to the Supreme Court and Sen. Goldwater's help), James Carville, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Franken, and John Dean (covering the Watergate and Nixon period). The film covers a lot of second half of twentieth century American political history, and shows that politics, as it changes, can produce strange bedfellows or bunkmates.

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the protection of liberty is no virtue." From the 1964 convention.

Another important recent HBO Documentary film is "White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (2007), about the event that ended World War II in Japan. The film shows graphic footage of Japan immediately after the events, and horrifying footage of the injuries to the victims.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Saint of 9/11; Mother Theresa: films about Biblical charity


Netflix, with its brand Red Envelope Films, offers a documentary that may be the only significant feature film that covers both the 9/11 tragedy in New York City, and the history of the AIDS epidemic. The film is Saint of 9/11, directed by Glenn Holsten, 91 min, produced with Equality Forum. The DVD has a conventional 1.85 to 1 format.

The film is a biography of Franciscan priest Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. He died ministering to fireman during the 9/11 attacks when the South Tower collapsed. The early part of the film does review that tragic morning.

The middle part of the of the film gives a biography of his religious and, somewhat, his personal life as a very private gay man. He would “come out” gently, although to the consternation of a few others around him, and eventually become very active in ministering to PWA’s. The film reviews many of the headlines in the 1980s as the new epidemic unfolded.

Eventually Congress would pass and President Bush would sign the Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-196, commonly known as the “Mychal Judge Act”). The law is supposed to prove a $250000 benefit for anyone “most likely to suffer financially” to a policeman, fireman, or similar official killed in the line of duty, made retroactive to Sept. 11. If has been criticized for not always providing benefits to GLBT partners (look at Cynthia Wade’s film “Freeheld” on this blog June 17). Here is a discussion from the National Center for Lesbian rights. (Link: Here is a discussion from the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Link:
Here is an account by Richard Goldstein in the Village Voice, July 17, 2002, Link:

A related film from 2003 might be Mother Theresa of Calcutta (Italian title: “Madre Theresa”, from Lux, directed by Fabrizio Costa, in English, at least on DVD). This is a somewhat perfunctory biography of Mother Theresa, and some attention is paid to the financial “scandal” that she stumbled into. The media has made much of her (according to her diaries or journals) own crisis of faith, and she mentions it toward the end of the film. She also blasts the “culture of indifference” of our capitalist culture, as she indicates that her own highest calling is to serve the poor without intellectual question.

About the same time I watched Forgiving Dr. Mendele, 2006, First Run Features, dir. Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh, 82 min) about two twin sisters who survived horrifying eugenics experiments at Auschwitz (the (Pittsburgh) Andy Warhol Museum, discussed in these movie and drama blogs in late May would have an exhibit on that early this year). But the main point of this film was the public debate over the decision of Eva Moses Kor to forgive the infamous Nazi doctor. The theological meaning of forgiveness comes into discussion and takes up much of the film.

This is a good place to mention Bernadette, (1988, Cannon, dir. Jean Delannoy) which I saw in 2001 in Lourdes France. This is the story of Bernadette, son of an unemployed miller, who apparently sees the Virgin Mary in the Massabielle Grotto in 1857. I saw the movie in Italian with German subtitles; it was offered in various combinations.

Picture: From the National Park Service museum at Chancellorsville Battlefield in Spotsylvania County, Va. At this Center one can see a 22 minute film on the battle, with a similar film at the Fredericksburg museum nearby. The full length DVD’s are very expensive and apparently not available outside of the NPS visitors centers.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Rusurrecting the Champ, The Hoax, Shattered Glass: exploring journalistic and authorial ethics


The Yari Film Group (YFG, apparently founded by Bob Yari) seems to be a new kid on the block of film production companies and distributors, apparently a small company that arranges projects for established directors and actors who want to get beyond the big studio bean counters and tell their own stories. The films from this company so far all have a lot of substance. The latest effort is “Resurrecting the Champ,” produced with Phoenix Pictures (a well-established production company) and directed by Canadian Rod Lurie (yes, this movie has the good old DGC stamp in the end credits, and was shot in both Denver and Calgary).

The subject is journalism, specifically ethics in journalism. Wholesome Minnesota hunk Josh Hartnett plays Erik, a twentyish sports reporter for a Denver paper, an ambitious young man who got his personal life on too fast a track, with a result that he has a six-year old son at a young age himself, and an older wife from whom he is separated. The crux of the story is that he meets a homeless man (“Champ”, played by a scraggly Samuel L. Jackson), and, at first out of kindness (they kind that Garry Marshall talked about “On the Lot”) gets taken in by the codger’s story that he is the former boxing champ Bob Satterfield, now living in the streets after brain injuries and falling into skid row. Erik, after being told by his boss (Alan Alda) at the paper that his “copy” is trite, is eager for a big story, something more than a scoop from the Parker Brothers game “Star Reporter.” He is had, and that sets up the ethical dilemmas of the story, which Erik has to explain to his son.

The very first words in the film come in Hartnett’s voice: a writer puts his words out to the world, and they are permanent. In that sense, a writer is like a boxer, or any sportsman: he suddenly becomes famous. That happened to Hartnett himself in 2001 one late spring weekend with Touchstone’s “ Pearl Harbor” – that applies to “actors” too. But actors have to be much more than that. In April 2003, Hartnett spoke at a benefit showing of “Blue Car” (Miramax, dir. Karen Moncrieff, with Agnes Bruckner) in Minneapolis for a battered women’s shelter.

There is a scene in a restaurant where Erik aka Hartnett explains to the son why you don’t go up to famous people in restaurants or public places and plunk yourself down in front of them. “It’s a grown up thing,” he says. In fact, Hartnett used to “hide out” with a stocking cap (a trick that works better in the Minneapolis winters) at the Bryant Lake Bowl on Lake Street when the IFPMSP had its free screenings ("Cinema Lounge"), once on the take next to me as I was showing my own “movies” about a 4th of July Celebration on East Bank (relative to the Mississippi River) and about a simulated “attack” at the U of M (where the houses have been TP-ed.) MPEG Link also 2-4). I got to show these at a “Flaming Film Festival” at the Minneapolis Intermedia Arts Center in 2002.), and they looked and sounded menacing in an auditorium with digital projection. (I put these clips on my own domain before there was a YouTube.)

There are a number of other movies about ethics in journalism. The most important was probably Billy Ray’s "Shattered Glass" (2004, Lions Gate), about Stephen Glass’s fall from grace as a young columnist (played by Hayden Christiansen) at The New Republic, after making up a story about a hacker’s convention. Glass would follow up with the novel “The Fabulist.” Peter Sarsgaard is the contemporary kindly boss who hates to fire him.

The Yari Group also helped produce "The Hoax", (dir. Lasse Halstrom) which was distributed by the “new” (Disney only, without Weinstein) Miramax, based on a “novel” by Clifford Irving, played by Richard Gere, who invents a fictitious interview with Howard Hughes in order to write an “autobiography” for which he had a huge advance from New York publishing bean counters. He gets caught, and like Glass (and unlike Erik, above), his deception is deliberate.

There is even Raja Gosnell’s “Never Been Kissed” (1999, 20th Century Fox) where a female reporter Josie (Drew Barrymore) goes undercover and pretends to be a high school student. (Oh, remember the lengths that Brian Herzlinger would go to, on his $1000 budget, allowing his body to be plucked, to win "My Date With Drew" (2004)?)

All of this brings one back to the question of how writers get “established.” The Authors Guild expects its members to be able to earn a living off of publisher’s advances. The pressure on reporters and columnists to sell newspapers or periodicals (even online) does lead to temptation to invent things. David Callahan discusses the pressures on professional journalists in his 2004 book "The Cheating Culture".

On Aug. 24, this blog discussed the Fox Faith film "Saving Sarah Cain," in which a single female reporter takes over custody of a sibling's Amish children (after a tragedy) and gains professionally by writing about it. But this sort of issue also shows up in the 1948 RKO George Stevens film "I Remember Mama" (novel by Kathryn Forbes), where writing about family members is first considered rude and then vindicated, even exalted, and even in George Cukor's 1933 RKO film "Little Women" based on Louise May Alcott's famous novel, and her, for her time, controversial life and ideas.

We come full circle to the riddle of self-publishing, which some people says “doesn’t count.” Maybe it counts if you can sell. (When I arrived in Minneapolis in 1997 with a corporate transfer, St. Paul novelist Vince Flynn had a smashing commercial success with his self-published suspense novel "Term Limits" that would lead to a contract with Pocket Books.) Maybe just if you can attract attention (through search engines) and affect things, especially difficult political arguments. Bloggers set out to do just that and it seems are often successful. As Mr. Hartnett vocalizes in the opening line, once you put your words out with your name (or identity) on it, you’ve instantiated (or constructed) yourself. Just as in a java program.

Update: Sept. 22.
MGM / TWC (dir. Richard Shepard) have a tall tale "The Hunting Party" about three journalists (a discredited veteran played by Richard Gere, a cameraman played by Terence Howard, and a Harvard rookie Ben played by Jesse Eisenberg) who uncover Bosnia's most wanted war criminal (Ben improvises the tale that they are CIA) when the real CIA and government really don't want to find him. Is so, what about Osama bin Laden?

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