Sunday, May 31, 2009

"In the Year of the Pig": historic documentary about how America got into Vietnam


The UCLA Film & Television Archive Project (link), in 2003, restored the 1968 documentary film “In the Year of the Pig,” by Emile de Antonio.

The black and white film traces the development of American involvement in Vietnam, back to the 1950s with the politics of the family ruling South Vietnam, during the French colonial period. Generally the film presents the news clips in sequence, although some are predictive, as when Lyndon Johnson says “I didn’t get us into Vietnam; we’ve been in Vietnam for ten years,” shortly after a clip where Johnson says “we have it so good.” Back in the late 50s and early 60s, some commentators warned that the “military industrial complex” would draw us into war, whereas others made a lot of the idea that Americans value individual human life more than do “Asians” and a lot of talk about “Asian patience.” However, politicians conducted debate on the unwritten assumption that they had the right to draft young men into their cause; conscription was a fact of life then.

Then the film gets into the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Then the film shows the early ground operations of American troops, and the spin put on by American politicians, including Hubert Humphrey, who was surprisingly hawkish for a “liberal”. Later they talk about South Vietnames troops as a “bloody good bunch of killers.”

Some viewers believe that the film preludes the style of Michael Moore, but it is much more literally a compilation of interviews and clips with little or no external commentary. The very first image is “Make War, not Love” on a soldier’s steel pot.

I went into the Army, after “volunteering for the draft”, on Feb. 8, 1968, and was probably in Basic Training at Fort Jackson, SC while much of this film was made. The Tet offensive had just occurred, and I remember radio broadcasts of the start of peace talks while on ammo detail on the rifle range.

There is a US Newsreel film with a bizarre use of the closing passages of Mahler’s First Symphony. I would remember it if that newsreel had been shown to us in Basic. The LBJ speaks about “open elections” in South Vietnam as elections are shown, with naïve American observers; the election turns out to be fraud.

The film has some footage of Hanoi in the 1960s with armed civilians walking around in the streets. The people in the North Vietnamese countryside were armed, and the women were responsible for air defense. “One of the most important proofs that the government speaks for us is that the government has armed us, and we could bring it down.” That’s an odd Communist adaptation of the American Second Amendment. The left says that the North Vietnamese now had enough to eat.

“The war is not working” is too simple for the complexity of our government. Vietnam, people said, meant “the end of Superman.” The North Vietnamese insisted that they were winning the war, not just resisting. Journalists said that the North Vietnamese did not restrict what they reported. (I doubt that’s true of the Hanoi Hilton that housed John McCain.)

The film ends with a bizarre, honky-tonk adaptation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The film can be compared to “Hearts and Minds” (1974, dir. Peter Davis, Rialto, 110 min, R), which was shown again at the ADI Silver (in Silver Spring MD) in 2006.

The director also made "Point of Order" about the McCarthy hearings.

Attribution page for public domain image of Fort Jackson, SC heraldry.

The DVD contains a "Sheldon Film Theater" interview at the University of Nebraska of the director. He says "you can't win colonial wars without exterminating the people." He says America was defeated in Vietnam; it did not just get out.

He says that he does not like to use "narration" in documentary or dramatic action; he says that the visuals on the screen should tell the story. I used to hear this a lot in screenwriting workshops.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"Little Ashes": a trio of artists in pre-Franco Spain; a gay relationship?


I’ve mentioned “Paseo”, a short film about the rural execution of a political prisoner during the Spanish Civil War in my April 25 review from FilmfestDC, and the new film “Little Ashes” (website) has an almost exactly looking scene near the end as Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran) is executed after his “reputation” as critical of Franco has become known. And just before, Lorca has given a speech to the effect that artists exist to espouse freedom, and must run the gauntlet set up by those who think that artists step on the toes of real people and don’t pay their dues – hence the horrific exploitation by authoritarian political systems. The film has some witty lines about the paradoxical antagonistic relationship between Fascism and Marxism, which the artists believe amount to the same thing. So do libertarians.

The story begins in 1922 as Salvador Dali (Robert Pattinson, who is set up to look “young”, unfortunately and gratuitously) arrives in Madrid and meets Lorca, who tends to ignore the attention and confusion of Margarita (Marina Gatell), and the other “musketeer” filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty). Gradually, the friendship between Dali and Lorca, especially becomes more intimate, although the film choppily goes from shot to shot with lots of punch lines, until there is an underwater scene, and later, some mutual undressing. The gay relationship is a matter of some speculation.

The film is directed by Paul Morrison and written by Philippa Goslett, and distributed by Regent and produced by Here! and Film4. It is a coproduction from the UK and Spain (much of it filmed around Barcelona), and is in English (I think it would have been more effective in Spanish with subtitltes).

The film opens with the comment that in 1922 "conservative morality" along with the Catholic Church and big landowners prevailed in Spain.

The visual style emphasizes "masculinity", and presents the idea that the male, as well as the female, can be admired or noticed for "plumage" and the external trappings of beauty, as is very common in the natural world.

The 9:40 PM show at Landmark E Street in Washington played to a nearly sold out audience in a large auditorium.

The film should be distinguished from Alan Parker’s “Angela’s Ashes” (for Paramount) in 1999, based on the autobiography of Irish expatriate Frank McCourt.

Attribution link for the Bilbao, Spain Guggenheim (which I visited in April 2001), here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"The Slanted Screen": a short documentary about casting Asians in film


The Center for Asian American Media offers a documentary “The Slanted Screen” about the role of Asian Americans in the movies. WETA’s link is here, and the movie’s own website is here. The movie is written and directed by Jeff Adachi.

There is a philosophical question in screenwriting as to whether characters should be written in a race neutral fashion, but it isn’t hard to imagine many concepts where that is not possible.

In the early days of the movies, white actors played the roles of most Asian characters. But an earlier prolific actor was Sessue Hayakawa. In time, he would play enemies (especially relative to WWII). He would play in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. Other features that offered Asian roles were “The Sand Pebble” and “Flower Drum Song”.

The film moves on to cover Bruce Lee and the evolution of martial arts movies. But in mainstream films, Asians still tended to play servants, waiters, or gangsters. Later, nerds would be added to the stereotypes.

There was a resistance to present Asian men as “sexual”. One of the directors says “we are not eunuchs.”

The film recounts an incident in which an episode of "The O.C." was cast with an Asian actor and then rewritten and cast with a Caucasian kid.

Gradually, an independent Asian American film industry developed.

Visitors will enjoy the PBS Independent Lens website here. Note the Art House map and essay on the state of art house theaters today (provided to me by email from PBS today).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Rotation": 1949 classic German film on life for an average family as Hitler came to power


The 1949 German film “Rotation” (from Deutsche Film and Icestorm Entertainment) is one of the relatively few films that show how the Gentiles in Germany came to become loyal to Hitler and Nazism without exactly getting what was happening. The film is directed by Wolfgang Staudte and written by Erwin Klein and Fritz Staudte.

The film starts with the Battle of Berlin as Nazism falls in 1945, and then goes back to the 1930s to trace the history of a family, with a wand being passed from one character to the next, giving the film its name.

But the central character is a machinist and printer Hans Benkhe (Paul Esser), who gently falls in love and has a son, Hellmuth (Karl Heinz Diechert as a teen). Like most middle class families in post-Weimar Germany he struggles with unemployment, and is drawn to National Socialism believing it is for workers (it is first made to sound like Marxism). Indeed, he gets employment and his family does better, and then soon he is approached to join the Nazi Party. He is reluctant to get involved in politics, and then begins to put the pieces together as he sees Jews next door being picked up to be taken away. It’s not clear how he would have known where they would go. He starts printing pamphlets for the resistance (it’s hard to see what that would have been), but the printing press then amounted to today’s Internet. Hellmuth, however, embraces Nazi ideology as part of the Hitler Youth. The whole issue of Nietzchean “superiority” does come up with the military training of the youth, but the working class parents never had any such ideological exposure or belief system; they just wanted to live and raise their families. The Nazi’s were very invasive, coming into homes, asking families why they didn’t have pictures of the Fuehrer in their homes, and militarizing them.

A couple of related films are "The Aryan Couple" (2005, Hemdale/Celebration/Atlantic, dir. John Daly), and another DEFA/Ice Storm film "The Unknown Brother", dir. Ulrich Wiess.

Attribution link for picture from Wikimedia Commons, WWII ruins, Potsdam, Canadian photo with expired copyright, here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"The Deal" is a niche satire of indie filmmaking, including screenwriter pride


A nice little satire of filmmaking, that made a round in some Jewish film festivals some time back, is “The Deal,” (2007), directed by Steven Schachter, written with William H. Macy, adapted from a novel by Peter Lefcourt, distributed by Peace Arch Films.

William H. Macy plays desperate producer Charlie Berns (Macy), who reviews a period piece screenplay by his appealing nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter) about Victorian era English statesman Benjamin Disraeli. Berns wants to “change” it into a modern action thriller about terrorists, and Lionel feels that his artistic integrity is destroyed. Lionel wants to take his name off the credits, when Berns warns him he’ll get no pittance in royalties. There is some kind of line about fun as self-entertainment. The movie is to be shot in South Africa (it really is, with some picturesque footage of Table Mountain) and Berns picks an African American Bobby Mason (L L Cool, Jr.), who is soon kidnapped, with terrorists making political demands. One is led to wonder if this really could happen to a studio making a controversial film overseas. Berns moves production to Prague and has to go back to his nephew’s period piece script, redeeming his nephew as a writer. Toward the end, the movie shows some real period-like shots (indoors in a British court) of “Bill and Ben”, which is shown as winning accolades at Cannes.

What other satires of the filmmaking world come to mind? Maybe Robert Altman’s “The Player" (1992). Maybe Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” (2002). Or even Mel Brooks’s “Blazing Saddles” (1974).

There are many other films in imdb called “The Deal.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

DC 48 Hour Film Project 2009: "The Best"


The “Best of the 48 Hour Film Project DC” played tonight. I attended the 7 PM screening at the AFI/Silver (in Silver Spring, MD). Here is the website.

The requirements were that the film contain the character Ivan Pagoda, had an ID Card as a prop, and include the dialogue line “we’re hoping things will change.” The Project Greenlight director’s contests used to be structured similarly.

The twelve films (not listed here in order shown) were
(1) "American Institution”. A good looking, hairy young man goes on a personal crusade to preserve the “sanctity of marriage”. Dupont Circle is not the best place to try. This was a pretty effective satire of the gay marriage debate.
(2) “Cirque d’amour”. A teenager learns to act as a clown to please a girl friend, and learns some life lessons.
(3) “Decidophobic” A young woman hires a millstone to help her with her indecisiveness. This film showed some artificial, technical comedy.
(4) “From Behind the Corn Hole” On the beach, two buff men play a game that mechanically resembles a form of shuffleboard.
(5) “Happy Hour” – just that, in a bar, with a twist for an ending
(6) “Looking for You
(7) “Make a Difference Day” – a parody of the “National Day of Service” on Martin Luther King day the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration. A young man tries to do some good deeds and makes things worse. Stuffed animals were injured. I wondered, why not make a movie about how a neighborhood cat watches the people in a neighborhood. The short also brought to mind the 2000 film "Pay It Forward".
(8) “Motivation
(9) “Nowhere, Man” – I’ll just say that I saw the “reality film” Woodstock (dir. Michael Wadleigh) in Indianapolis in 1970.
(10) “Please Forward” – in a biting parody of the financial crisis, a business man tries to make himself a millionaire on illegal chain letters, and fires employees (at Christmas time) who don’t make enough “money”
(11) “Rakirovka” – a chess game, starting out with collector’s pieces, that get replaced by knickknacks. Compare to the Pixar film “Geri’s Game” (reviewed May 13).
(12) “Za” – the good side of “Reefer Madness” This film won the audience award for the best use of the script line.

Picture: Street art on Colesville Road, Silver Spring, near the AFI Silver, apparently a rendition of early Earth.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Recalling survival tragedies: "Gerry" and "Open Water"


Tonight (Wednesday May 20), The Discovery Learning Channel aired a painful-to-watch episode in its “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” series as three 15-year-old Boy Scouts and their eldery leader get lost descending the Grand Canyon during a heat wave, and have greatly underestimated the time it takes to reach the river. One of the party comes to a tragic end, despite the fact that they finally encounter rafters with paramedic training on the river. The link is this.

I’ve known of friends to hike down to the bottom, and get sick on the way back up. But I didn’t think people dared to bushwack in the area.

The one hour documentary recalls the (Miramax) Gus Van Sant film in 2002, “Gerry”, where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two young men who get lost in the Mojave Desert and at least one comes to a tragic end. The dialogue in the film, about a silly friend giving the movie its name, shows that their bond is not as complete as one would think, and that actually affects their ability to survive. The wide screen CinemaScope, and the raw beauty of the land, contrast with the horror that the men are descending in to.

The other really famous movie about being stranded in the elements is the (Lionsgate_ Chris Kentis film “Open Water” (2003) about a married couple that is actually left behind scuba diving off Australia by a tour boat. The film was shot for $30000 in digital video and is still a painful experience. It comes to tragedy. The film has an unfortunate and ineffective franchise sequel (2006).

Picture: Ellicott City, MD: notice the flood measure on the Patapsco River.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Intimacy": looking for mystery beyond one's own partner


Intimacy” is something to be experienced rather than talked about or dramatized in the media, yet I remember writing journals about it when “coming out.” So I found this British-French film (also Germany and Spain were involved), shot in London (in English), by Studio Canal by that name, back in 2001, the distributors Koch-Lorber and Empire Films. The director is Patrice Chereau, based on stories by Hanish Kureishi.

The opening shot, of hairy male thighs, sets the tone for this R (almost NC-17) film, that is very explicit and somewhat claustrophobic in setting, making the 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation gratuitous. Jay (Mark Rylance), a middle aged musician, failing in his art and in his life, is having energetic weekly trysts with Claire (Kerry Fox). But we learn from flashbacks about Jay’s own failed marriage and wife (Susannah Harker), and after consorting with his buddies, Jay goes on a “Tarzan’s quest” to track down his lover. It’s no surprise that he finds out about her family, and perhaps the moral consequences of their behavior. Or perhaps they will find some new form of real intimacy. Audience reaction varies as to whether the two lovers really “learned” anything or not, but their confrontations with each other’s pasts do create the structure for the story.

The film has been praised, despite its somewhat spare settings, for its use of body language and visuals and relatively little dialogue. There is a lot of guy talk in the bars in the film’s middle, and a curious line about listening to someone is saying.

I have, in the past, wondered what a person’s “story’ was, and only gradually found out as circumstances unfold. Once in New York, in 1978, I, in a bar, accidentally met someone who had been the “lover” of someone I had dated, and it was an interesting surprise; I seemed to be a hidden celebrity.

Picture: the Apex Club in Washington DC.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sci-fi screenwriters with "interplanetary" stories should remember MGM's "Forbidden Planet"


For anyone contemplating an “existential” science fiction script, the MGM 1956 classic film “Forbidden Planet” comprises a lot of elements that any writer today would want to compare his work to. The film was directed by Fred M. Wilcox, and the story by Irving Block was adapted by screenwriter Cyril Hume.

The problem is, of course, what would happen if an exploratory crew arrived on a planet, perhaps a smaller one, with a civilization, perhaps extinct, and perhaps with a relatively reduced presence so that a cohesive plot can carry out in 90 minutes or so of film. It's easy to speculate what a world would look like, but it's hard to take a whole new planet and build a cohesive, character-driven story with the beginning, middle and end.

The “Star Trek” films, by way of comparison, seem to intricate with too many worlds and too much complicated interstellar politics; perhaps Frank Herbert’s Dune (an uneven but curious-looking film in 1984) provides a little more of a comparison.

And another idea comes to mind: hero is abducted, hero has to deal with the civilization, hero has to escape home. That’s hard to pull off, but that’s what’s on my mind.

I’ll lay aside the Alien films – as fascinating as is their premise (and the opening 40 minutes or so of the first film, some of the most gripping in all of cinema).

But “Forbidden Planet” has most of the plot elements that make a film like this work. And it has the solid visuals. In full 50s Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, the planet is given a kind of California look, with a lot of desert, and some off colors in the plants. Is that any surprise for Hollywood? Indeed, plants on most other planets (with life) probably won’t be green, as their “suns” won’t have exactly the same spectra as the Sun.

Leslie Nielsen plays Commander Adams, visiting this modest terra-like planet around a star 16 light-years away (pretty reasonable, probably in Betty and Barney Hill country) trying to find out what had happened to an earlier crew. It seems that Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) have the run of the place and can do what they want. The civilization, the Krell, had vanished in a night of apocalypse, leaving a world of “Life After People” – except that their computers and machines kept themselves running (very unlikely on any planet). The movie gives an idea of what high-tech could look like in a different civilization, as there is a planet-sized library with a 50s-concept of what would become today’s Google. But the monsters come back, invisible, and they seem to relate to our idea of karma – they can remain as energy from our own id, our intentions, the existential nature of our own intentions, of what makes us tick.

The crew would escape, and the planet would undergo a fate worthy of Star Trek, or perhaps Discovery’s “Apocalypse How”.

The movie has the instrumentalities of a philosophical statement, with a number of interesting elements (including Robby the Robot) that interact. And it has a most interesting look.

As for 2001 and 2010 – I’ll take them up another time.

Attribution link for Wikimedia Commons and NASA image (public domain) of Io, the volcanic moon of Jupiter.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Logo's "Gay Siblings"; Showtime's "Twilight of the Golds"


Netflix and Red Envelope Entertainment have released the 2006 45-minute documentary from Idea Factory that had aired on Logo, “Gay Siblings,” directed by Stephen David and Darryl Silver It appears to have only one episode, and the main website is this.

The film airs in the style of time-lapse reality TV. It tracks three families in which all or most of the siblings are gay.

The most interesting family may be that of a Midwestern woman who raised her children in a Pentecostal faith, but all four sons and one daughter were gay and lived in various cities as adults. The oldest son develops severe diabetes and the family comes together for him toward the end of the film. The mother insists that all the children had “chosen” to be gay despite their upbringing, but she says she loves them all.

There is also a straight man who adopts the child of a lesbian sister.

In another episode a man travels to Madrid to track down the tragedy of a brother’s suicide. From what one can see, European or modern Spanish society looks just like ours.

The film does not attempt to go into the genetic research, such as LeVay in the 1990s (as in Scientific American).

One could go back and look at "Twilight of the Golds" (1997, from Cineplex and Showtime), directed by Ross Kagan Marks, based on the play by Jonathan Tolins. Jennifer Stein (Jennifer Beals) discovers that her unborn son might be gay from an amniotic test (not yet possible) and ponders her decision, causing great grief in the grown and health gay brother David (Brendan Fraser) who says at one point that part of him would be aborted. Quite a moral dilemma.

Maryland teen has short film about Israel in Cannes Film Festival


Michelle Pinczuk, a fifteen year old girl from Silver Spring, MD is being honored by the showing of her documentary film "L'Chaim Israel: Happy 60th Birthday" (4:05) at the Cannes Film Festival, (url link) in southern France. According to WLJA and NBC4 in Washington DC, she has a gastrointestinal illness that could become life-threatening, and her trip to Cannes was supported by the Make-a-Wish foundation.

The WJLA embedded news report on her film is here.



NBCWashington is offering her film for free viewing over the Internet, here.

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcwashington.com/video.

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The visitor may want to try more than one browser . The link for the text NBC4 news story is here. The story was aired Saturday morning on local NBC4 news but the film was not shown.

Whatever today’s international politics demands (as in Jimmy Carter’s controversial book in 2007, reviewed here), the film celebrates the homeland. One of the speakers in the film suggests that the Holocaust might not have happened had the Jewish people had a homeland before Hitler came to power in the 1930s. The film shows many stills, including a nice shot of the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Regarding Israel, the film asks “what should I give to show my love for her?”

The Maryland Gazette had a story here, and it shows her editing her film.

According to the Gazette, the film was shown recently at the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, but I could not find it there now. It would certainly be appropriate for the AFI Silver Documentary Film Festival.

Michelle has a commentary on her own film, “A Young Filmmaker’s Tribute To Israel” in JVibe, here.

Picture: The Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited in 2001. Available from Wikimedia Commons, attribution license here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Angels & Demons": that is, "Da Vinci Code 2"


I have a sci-fi scenario involving the idea that some particularly engaging people are actually angels, ready to guide us to the discovery of what the rest of the universe is really all about. In my settings angels have the ability take over the identities of willing subjects with karmic “leveraged buyouts” but there are rules. They can’t father their own children, but they can raise the children of the people the absorb, which means that if you want to go on the ride, you must have kids, you must show generativity.

Enough of my theories as an introduction to “Angels & Demons”, which amounts to “Da Vinci Code 2,” from Ron Howard. This time Columbia and Imagine are not so secretive about what happens. Novelist Dan Brown is one of the culprits, having written the necessary novel for his franchise. In fact, all the parties boast about it. Everyman Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back and is summoned to rush to Rome when the Vatican is “attacked” after the death of a Pope, and the College of Cardinals is electing a the next Pontiff.

We’ve seen that before, back in 1968 with “The Shoes of the Fisherman” based on the novel by Morris West, a wide screen spectacle of the times that got into Maoist politics toward the end. I saw that at the old L’Enfant Plaza theater with a friend from graduate school after finishing Army Basic.

This time, we have the preposterous situation of the Cardinals keeping their meeting going while the Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign country in area, apparently threatened with annihilation by the “Illuminati”, an old order (the name is written as a palindrome -- in the spirit of the last movement of the Hindemith Horn Concerto) with a score to settle from the 17th Century. Hanks goes on a treasure hunt through various churches in Rome – giving the movie a claustrophobic look (compared to Da Vinci I, which had opened up nicely), trying desperately to rescue the four cardinals who had been kidnapped. It’s messy: each cardinal has had his chest opened up disco dirty dancing style, and then branded, resulting in at least disfigurement – except that most of them don’t survive. There are the various ways to die that we saw in movies like “Se7en” and “Bone Collector.” Eventually the hunt leads to the vial containing the antimatter from Cern (the collider in Switzerland).

The antimatter is quite interesting to look at, a very crystalline looking metal. I won’t say too much more about how they “denoue” this, except to say that the explosion is quite well done, almost suggesting an Ascension. They didn’t cover the idea that such an explosion would probably cause an electromagnetic pulse that would fry all the electronics in a good part of Rome.

The movie has the usual fiction disclaimer, which is rather unnecessary as the movie is so preposterous that it really cannot be believed. It becomes “that’s entertainment”, PG-13. Hans Zimmer wrote a propulsive music score, but the closing credits offers a real concert overture.

Ewan McGregor is appealing as Camerlengo. Stellan Skarsgaard and Armin Mueller-Stahl also appear.

The script does aim toward a summary view of the "science v. religion" debate, but is is still inconclusive.

I saw this in a large Regal auditorium in Arlington VA at 8 PM, and the auditorium was about two-thirds full. It appears that the movie will do well opening weekend.



On Sunday, May 17, The Discovery Channel aired a one hour examination of the archeology behind Dan Brown's claims in "Angels & Demons" (link). It mentioned the purge of Galileo, the formation of the Illuminati, and debunked the idea that they became a "satanic cult". Nevertheless, Dan Brown is great in seeing the patterns.

Picture: from the Spanish exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. The opposite of "the angels" may be "the grays".

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pixar offers DVD of short films, and more of its history


Pixar offers a DVD (available on Netflix as “Pixar Short Films: Vol. 1”) with a number of its most famous short films, which more or less track to its technical and corporate history as a leading animation studio. The DVD really demonstrates the artistic culture of Pixar, which finds fun and expression in abstraction alone.

"The Adventures of Andre and Wally B." (1984), dir. by Alvy Ray Smith, shows that kids who taunt can get what they deserve, in the woods.

"Red’s Dream" (1987), dir. by John Lasseter, deals with the abstractions of juggling and a unicycle. Juggling is supposed to be good for kids with coordination problems, or so I was told in Ninth Grade.

"Tin Toy" (1988), dir. John Lasseter shows animation of a baby, which Pixar says was its first human character.

"Knick Knack" (1989), dir. John Lasseter, deals with solid fractal geometry for its own sake.

"Geri’s Game" (1997), dir. Jan Pinkava: Geri plays a game of chess with himself. The moves show him to be a patzer (Opening moves: 1 e4 e5 2 f3 ?)

"For the Birds" (2000), dir. Ralph Eggleston, about the sociology of birds on a telephone wire, and their hospitality to strangers.

"Mike’s New Car" (2002), dir. Peter Docter and Roger Gould. A kid thinks that a brain can talk directly to a computer (the fuel injector of a car). Maybe it can.

"Jack-Jack Attack" (2005), dir. Brad Bird. A mother finds she can set a disobedient baby on fire to calm him down. Except in abstract animation, a rather dangerous idea.The Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem plays.

"One Man Band" (2005), dir. Mark Andrews and Andrew Jiminez. Two street music performers compete for a girl’s attention. Joshua Bell at the DC Metro these performers are definitely not.

"Mater and the Ghostlight", dir. John Lasseter and Dan Scanlon. Along Route 66 in the Midwest, a mysterious light chases cars. Maybe it is ball lightning, maybe a UFO.

"Lifted" (2006, dir. Gary Rydstrom). This is one of Pixar’s most famous shorts. A UFO driven by a teenage alien tries to abduct a sleeping rancher, who remains unaware. When the kid runs into problems, he winds up taking everything around except the rancher. The humor in the film rests with the mailbox.

The DVD contains a 23 minute documentary "The Pixar Shorts: A Short History" (2007), dir. Tony Kaplan, Erica Milsom. The most interesting part of the documentary refers to the history of their computers. In the 1980s, the supercomputers had less than 1% of the processing speed of an iPhone chip. Later they talk about the idea of toys becoming “alive.” There was a controversy over whether the short films made money, and whether the company should be in the hardware of software business. Eventually the company “graduated” to feature films. Pixar discontinued short films for a while, as it made Toy Story.

The DVD contains four "Sesame Street" episodes: “Surprise”, “Light and Heavy”, “Up and Down”, and “Front and Back”.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Jacob: The Man Who Fought With God": still a quirky Bible story, about the "accidental" patriarch


As with the episode of “Samson and Delilah,” made into opera that I wrote about last week, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) has some stories that seem to correspond to some kinkiness in our culture today, to our notions about “what it means to be a man” or to be a woman.

So is the case with “Jacob: The Man Who Fought With God” (“Giacobbe, l'uomo che lottò con Dio”), an Italian film directed by Marcello Baldi, from San Paolo Films (a studio that makes Biblical films) and Eurocine all the way back in 1963, dubbed in English.

The narrative seems rushed, as it first sets up the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the pillar or salt stuff but then skips most of if. Likewise, the scene where Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac seems almost crude, except that we know its significance.

Forty minutes into the movie it gets to the birthright business, having already mentioned some other facts about ancient society, such as that a man could have another woman if his “wife” was “barren.” Progeny and lineage were everything you lived for in their world.

Esau gives away the birthright when he is hungry, and then Rachel (Judy Parker) rationalizes her belief that her second, more gentle and favored son, should become the true patriarch. Now, to simulate being sufficiently hirsute, Jacob (Giorgio Cerioni) simply wears a bear’s hide on his arms, as if Esau had been more like a gorilla genetically. In fact, later we see Esau chasing him, and the crude makeup has red fur pasted on to his arms and chest (rather the reverse of “40 Year Old Virgin”). In fact, the actor who plays Jacob looks “normally male” with average amounts of hair; he is not made smooth (as in some of the Fox spectacles of the era – remember how Victor Mature always looked in the 50s). (Actually, the brothers were born this way; actually premature babies can be born with lanugo, which is normally shed in vitro). The entire matter is the brushed off as the movie moves on to other customs of ancient tribal law (like should Jacob’s uncle pay him a salary), and then agricultural genetics and biology. (“Animals are like people; they take on the characteristics of their parents.” No kidding.)

This little story, though, was a challenge for Sunday School teachers, as I recall. Well, after all, someone who looked as Jacob as described in Genesis could be “just as much man” as Esau – after all, history proved it. But not until Jacob fights with an angel (or is that God himself, giving a test), just to prove that he can defend himself – and others.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Star Trek" starts over, with a yin-yang "friendship" and a call for universal existential integrity


Okay, we get to start over with "Star Trek", as J. J. Abrams directs the ultimate prequel for Spyglass Entertainment and Paramount.

The concept seems almost like a series of Bible stories, starting with the birth of James Kirk in a pre-history battle, and then his boyhood and adolescent recklessness on the now desolate plains of Iowa (a warning about global warming). I didn’t know that Iowa has any such quarries. So, the solution: not join the Navy and see the world, but join the Enterprise and see the Universe. He (played by Chris Pine once he reaches college age) has passed what amounts to a service academy’s battery of aptitude tests with the highest scores ever, and his “Plebe Day” is rather blasé. The Academy is located in San Francisco, again rather iron\ic.

Then the movie becomes the story of his antipathy for and ultimate friendship with the ultimate “intellectual” Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. (Leonard Nimoy appears as his dad.) Their relationship is one of yin and yang, the polarities, and – with some metaphor – diversity in the military. Okay, they both have the mandatory girl friends to keep up appearances (you can see where Randy Shilts would have taken this.)

The young Spock, given a “choice” as to how to run his life (again, we can read something into that), picks to base it on Truth rather than implementing Right (the latter is up to Kirk), but Spock takes “Truth” to the point of demanding existential integrity in everything. That’s necessary because the Romulan culture (with the captain Nero – pun – played by Eric Bana) will exploit the existential paradoxes to destroy planets – first Vulcan and eventually Earth. They do have a technology of launching a drill and placing what seems like red kryptonite in the core of a planet to create a black hole, causing to implode as if gutted by a supervolcano from a History Channel mega-disasters episode (Yellowstone will do). The Romulan spaceship, looking like a space squid, is rather interesting.

The original 1979 Star Trek film takes place much later, with an encounter with a supership which Kirk’s ship has to enter and explore.

Attribution link for NASA (Wikimedia) picture of Europa:

Saturday, May 09, 2009

"The Other Side of Immigration", film by Roy Germano, at the "Politcs on Film" Festival


The brief “Politics on Film” festival in Washington DC May 7-10 presented the one hour documentary “The Other Side of Immigration,” (film website) a digital video (in regular aspect 1.78:1) directed by University of Texas doctoral graduate student Roy Germano. The DVD was projected onto a reduced area of the screen, rather than filling it as with normal projection.

The underlying argument is easy to state. Since NAFTA was enacted during the Clinton Administration, American agriculture, with its emphasis on huge corporations, has driven down the prices of Mexican agriculture, making it impossible for Mexican men to support their families. So they go north, sometimes illegally, to take undesirable jobs in the United States. (So do women, and sometimes into the sex trade). The film, with some irony now given current events, showed a lot of scenes on Mexican hog farms.

Many of the men are husbands providing for wives and children in a conventional way, but some are unmarried and are providing for siblings. Mexican immigrants send a lot of money back to families, and this money is important to the Mexican economy. (The same is true in Europe, where Muslim men send a lot of money back home.)

After the film showed, there was a panel discussion including the filmmaker and Bush administration Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, and two others (including a customs official). One idea that was floated was that, even with the current unemployment rate, there are many jobs that are hard to fill and that legal temporary immigration ought to be made easier. The jobs include farm work and particularly giving home health care. Filling these jobs will be important to economic recovery, partly because of the demographics.



I have visited Mexico (other than border areas) once, in 1974, over Labor Day weekend, and on Sunday, September 1, 1974 I saw the “inauguration” of a Mexican president. I was in the process of moving to New York City then. The following is the Wikipedia attribution link for the Commons photo of the Old Palace that I remember seeing.

Before the screening there was a showing of the micro-short “Strappers” from Stone Soup films, about the importance of prophylactics in preventing HIV transmission.

One other thought regarding "Politics on Film" comes to mind. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was contemplating traveling to New York (from Minneapolis) in October for a symposium on political films. I had written down the phone number of the contact before I left the apartment for work around 7:45 CDT that morning. How much has changed since then!

Friday, May 08, 2009

"Outrage": Kirby Dick's new documentary about closeted (allegedly) gay politicians


Kirby Dick’s new film “Outrage” (featured at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York) started today at Landmark E-Street in Washington DC, and the 1:45 show on a Friday afternoon was about half full. I think some people wandered over from Capitol Hill.

The film, distributed by Magnolia and produced by Chain Camera Pictures, Sundance and Red Envelope (Netflix) was shown right off a DVD (without previews), and I think it’s interesting that Magnolia’s usual trademark did not show. The film has lots of simple gray frames with black and white text to introduce concepts.

The film starts with the sound bites from the media coverage of the arrest of Idaho Senator Larry Craig in a men’s room at the Minneapolis airport. Remember all that “I’m a fairy wide guy” and then “I am not gay, I’ve never been gay!” The film traces Craig’s childhood to the days of the “boys of Boise” scandal in the mid 1950s, when he would have witnessed homophobic hysteria in his own home town, heavily Mormon.

It moves on to the story of Florida governor Charlie Crist, the “bachelor” conservative Republican governor. He had married in 1979 and divorced soon, but he married in December 2008 after a short courtship, which was made to look like a heterosexual relationship of necessity.

The film went on to cover another of supposed closeted and mostly Republican politicians, showing their voting record on ENDA, gay marriage, gays in the military, and particularly gay adoption. The film gives accounts of gay congresspersons meeting men in bars and sex clubs, with the partners being paid off to remain quiet.

The film covers the activity of blogger activist Michael Rogers and his “Blog Active” (“Real Truth, Direct Action") which often features playwright Larry Kramer, who also appears in the film. Outing people can be dangerous; you have to know what you’re doing.

Barney Frank appears and makes the interesting comment that most people who believe that homosexuality is wrong believe that because their leaders tell them to believe it. The movie then goes into the history of the growth of the religious right in the early 80s when Reagan came in (and Ronald Reagan could not say the word “AIDS” until 1987). The beginnings of that “morning” period is also covered by the book Perry Deane Young. God's Bullies: Power, Politics and Religious Tyranny (1982, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, ISBN 0030597064). Young’s book, as I recall, reinforces the idea among closeted conservatives that the closet is cool, that it’s about privacy and being “smart” enough to lead a double life and beat the system. Barney Frank comes back at this idea and says that the idea that people can pass laws that will not be enforced on them undermines the whole process of democracy. Frank also discusses the difficulty of being a public official and leading a “private” gay life, which inevitably becomes public (even before the Internet came along).

Another anecdote concerns the story of New York City mayor Ed Koch. I remember his inauguration speech, “Come East”, on January 1, 1978, my last year in New York City (and a very eventful one, it would turn out). Koch, when a congressman, actually favored the idea of filial responsibility laws, an idea left out in the film but which I remember from living in New York in the 1970s. The film covers his supposed relationship with a man who would die of AIDS in 1996, but whom Koch allegedly blackballed to keep him out of New York once Koch became mayor.

The film shows a Biblical commercial for Florida’s Amendment 2 (about how God made male and female to be joined as one, etc), which Crist supported. It also maintains that President Bush’s support of the attempted Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004 helped fan anti-gay violence in some parts of the country. I think back to Barney Frank’s comment about homophobia, and it seems to me that some people need to believe that other people will share the sacrifices they make and that the universality of heterosexual family values makes their own marriages more sexually meaningful, when otherwise they might tend to lose interest.

The Miami Herald has an article (by Beth Reinhard) "Is Republican Party united behind Charlie Crist? The Republican primary battle between Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio reflects the party's broader struggle between its moderate and conservative wings", May 13, 2009, here. If he really is (as this movie insinuates) gay after all, well, that's interesting. Is Crist the "moderate" candidate, mapping on to Log Cabin Republicans? Why not go libertarian?

Former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey (his book was called “The Confession”; his ex-wife’s was called “Silent Partner: A Memoir of My Marriage”) appears. He says that it is more important to honor one’s own version of the truth than other people’s ideas of the truth. That is a challenge. I did not see Robert Baumann ("A Gentleman from Maryland") whose story is interesting, to say the least.

The film also interviews Richard Tafel ("Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual"), Patrick Guerrero, and the Washington Blade's Kevin Naff. I would like to have seen Steve May, an Arizona state representative who challenged "Don't Ask Don't Tell".

The film does mention McCarthyism and covers Roy Cohn, but curiously skips J. Edgar Hoover.

As I noted, the marquee for the film has the phrase “Do Ask, Do Tell” underneath the title, but that is not part of the official name of the film and does not appear in the film. Imdb lists the phrase as a tagline.

Visitors will also want to explore the “Politics on Film” festival in Washington May 7-10 here. "Outrage" is not part of that festival, but it could have been.

Please see other links for this film on the May 1 entry on this blog.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Lies" ("Gojitmal"): an adult film reduced to a thought experiment?


Wellspring and Fox Lorber offer a curious Korean film from 1999, “Gojitmal” (“Lies”), directed by Sun-Woo Jang and based on the novel by Jung-II Chang. The film is officially not rated but obviously is intended as a legitimate NC-17 experience. The film seems to have an informal tagline, "Pain is their pleasure."

What is curious is the “meta-film” format. The central story concerns an affair between a 38 year old engineer and an 18 year old graduating high school senior, with all the “strange ideas” therewith. This includes the straw whips, that take too much of the screen time. There is a subplot involving relatives who might retaliate. The characters have abstract names, “J” and “Y”, to show that this is just a “thought experiment.”

The film begins with the actors talking about the movie they are making, and gradually the talk or “docudrama” merges into the story. Is this technique designed to make the material more socially acceptable?

The objectification does make the whole movie rather clinical, and curious. There is nothing “exciting”. Everything is too smooth, too slick, so much so that you don’t even wince when the Y gives J (the engineer) a tat on his leg. There’s plenty of college dorm talk (or Army barracks talk) copied into clinical terms, too, even in the chapter headings.

The outdoors scenes show modern South Korea, and we can see that even in 1999 it looked wired. The smog is noticeable in some scenes (reminding me of the Malaysian film “I don’t want to sleep alone”.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"The Most Dangerous Game": 1932 classic became a "pun" for me when I saw it at a school


When I was substitute teaching, back in the fall of 2005, I attended a freshman English class where the students read Richard Connell’s famous short story “The Most Dangerous Game” and then watched the 63 minute film from RKO Radio Pictures. The students had to draw a Venn Diagram showing the similarities and differences between the original story and the movie.

I won’t make it easy and go into detail on that here, but it’s very common for studios to change novels and stories when filming them for effect or audience sales. It’s controversial. As a boy, I thought that the practice was wrong, But here the story and movie are important for other reasons.

The original story was also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. The movie was directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedstack. The screenplay adaptation was done by James Ashmore Creelman. Joel McCrea played the hunter Bob Rainsford, is shipwrecked on a remote island run by a mysterious Russian count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). The opening of the story includes a discussion of the relationships between the hunter and hunted (the prey was to be a South American jaguar – now that would be more objectionable). In the story, as I recall, there is some hint that the ship is disabled intentionally so that it will have to beach.

On the “Ship-Trap Island”, Rainsford finds there are other “guests” from previous wrecks, which might well have been intentionally set. The guests in clued Eve (Fay Wray) and her brother (Robert Armstrong). Pretty soon Rainsford has reason to become suspicious (I remember a particular scene with a huge lock and key and a chamber). There is discussion of what “the most dangerous game” is, and it may not be hunting wild beasts (tigers in the movie). Guests seem to have disappeared, and Rainsford (in the film) is presented with the choice of being the hunter or the hunted.

Of course, this sounds like a bit of a reference to a political problem: if you don’t join up with somebody, you become the enemy. You can’t just remain harmless or “neutral”.

English teachers cast the story in terms of the “brains vs. brawn” problem. To escape, Rainsford must use his brains, much as would a prisoner of war. But this is more than just an issue of having been captured from an invading force. Rainsford has had to make a moral commitment. If he will not become the hunter again, he becomes the hunted.

The story had some language about prejudice and some passages that relate to what fascist ideology was about (perhaps tough stuff in ninth grade). So it’s easy to imagine that the Count Zaroff has his “social” agenda – to create a fiefdom where morality is recreated by survival of the fittest. (It sounds like a bit like modern reality television – Lost). Money and social position mean nothing. There is only one’s karma, his ability to save himself. Or course, this is counter-religious.

The movie has had many retellings, such as “Bloodlust” in 1961, which wound up on a Saturday night series called “Chiller” in 1964. I think Warner Brothers may own the original rights, and would be in a position to consider a modern remake of the original.

But the concept itself is antiquated. The movie brings back a genre of adventure story telling with scenarios safely remote from the everyday world. Science Fiction in those days came from the style of Jules Verne – with “The Mysterious Island” perhaps making a comparison. Is Zaroff comparable to Captain Nemo?

Of course, one can imagine ways to develop this story today. Your sci-fi scenario would have space voyagers, Star Trek style, marooned on a hostile planet. Or perhaps ordinary people get abducted and taken there. Then there is the opportunity to explore the likely political systems in worlds 30 or so light years away. They are likely to be authoritarian, based on social rank and merit, perhaps Spartan in their values, maybe even without our concept of money, which could be replaced by “karma”. One can even imagine the idea that a body in our solar system, say Saturn’s Titan, is actually inhabited by a bizarre or “angelic” micro-civilization that could put members of our Earth to such tests. That sounds like fodder for more screenplays (like my “69 Minutes to Titan”).

There have been some horror films based on the overall plot structure. Of course, the obvious example is “House of Wax”, or perhaps “Mustang Sally”. In some cases, the “prey” is led to go to his reckoning with a semi-voluntary road trip, as in Carter Smith’s now notorious gay horror short “Bugcrush”. There has been some talk that the "Zodiac" (the subject of the big 2007 film directed by David Fincher) has “admired” Zaroff. It’s important to remember that the 1932 film, and that better films of this sort, are character driven. The individual characters get to be themselves regardless of the ideological setting.

The Most Dangerous Game” ends happily and morally enough, for school settings anyway. But during the time that I saw it at a school, I was involved in my own “most dangerous game” with a situation where a screenplay that I had written and posted on my own domain had been found. In fact, I was writing my old review of this movie for my main site (doaskdotell.com) when I got a cell phone call from the school after hours (see my main blog, July 27, 2007 for the details). That call came despite the fact that just a couple hours earlier I had been invited to explain to ninth graders how to do research on imdb.com. In my case, my “fiction” was too close to reality for comfort – but it was fiction.

That is one advantage of remote settings, as in old, periodical-associated swashbuckling adventure stories from early last century. You could recreate yourself in such a story but no one could confuse it with reality.


Update: Dec, 4, 2012

I see that I had written about this film on my main "Bill Boushka" blog on on March 6, 2007, in conjunction with a traumatic even that had occurred when I was substitute teaching.


Friday, May 01, 2009

"Hillary: The Movie" (with unseen footage from "Path to 9/11"): outside the campaign finance reform law?


"Hillary: The Movie" (directed by Alan Peterson) was distributed by a group called “Citizens United” (and made with the “Lincoln Group of Orange County”) in early 2008, as the presidential primaries were beginning. It seems apparent that when the movie was made, she was considered much more likely to become the nominee than Barack Obama or anyone else (like John Edwards), and bid to become the first female president. The film, though apparently from conservative and GOP sources, appears to want to see another Democratic nominee than Hillary, probably because she was thought to be the strongest at first. The website is this. Another related site is "No Hillary Clinton" and this site describes many of the "characters" in the film.

The opening of the movie says that she will not say what she believes. They say she is more liberal than she lets on, but that she has a superiority complex and wants to make ordinary Americans dependent on big government.

“That’s how she will get to power: by accusing the Republicans of running a plantation.”

Tony Blankley from The Washington Times appears, to accuse the Clintons as being ruthless against enemies.

Then the event of the travel office firings (“Travelgate”) is presented, with the travails of Billy Dale and his family members (one references is here).

Robert Novak appears to say that the Clintons used the IRS to go after political enemies.

Jared Stern talks about being hired to perform a clandestine operation (the Kathleen Willey affair).

The movie talks about her “Machiavellian Behavior” as related to her helping her husband cover up his affairs or “disturbing behavior”.

Conservative author Mark Levin appears to say that the media always gave her a pass.

Then the film goes into the Hollywood fundraisers and the recruiting of “rainmakers.”

There is a humorously conceived picture of a check written out of a Merrill Lynch “Cash Management Account” or CMA.

Aaron Tonken, a former Clinton fundraiser, gives an interview from prison (source) It’s odd that a felon makes a comment that Hillary did not check or care about his character. The film then says that Hillary’s conniving take plot turns that “no screenwriter could imagine”. The polygraph of Peter Paul is shown. Hillary thanks Paul and Tonken for their “hard work” on a Hollywood fund-raising gala.

The film goes on to interview residents of Clinton, NY.

The movie briefly discusses her 1993 health care plan, and characterizes it as European style socialized medicine with long waiting lists and probable rationing. It is probably a right-wing’s answer to Michael Moore’s “Sicko.”

Cyrus Nowrasteh, writer ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” ((David Cunningham is director), discusses how the Clintons got his movie censored by ABC, and three minutes of deleted footage is shown here, claiming that Bill Clinton blew it on the chance to get Osama bin Laden. The DVD is not yet available on Netflix.

The movie covers the bombing at Fraunces Tavern in New York, from the FALN (a Puerto Rican radical group), in 1975, against “capitalist pigs”. Hillary was approached in 1999 to get her husband to pardon the FALN terrorists.

There was a legal debate over whether financing and advertising the movie before the 2008 election violated to McCain-Feingold Finance Law. There is a story in the Washington Times, “’Hillary: The Movie’ case spurs free speech debate,” March 24, 2009. Was the advertisement campaign for the film part of a political contribution, or a “campaign” to sell tickets? Similar questions about political blogging had been raised in 2004. What about “political” movies? What about a political movie marketed as fiction?

At the end, the film maintains that family dynasties are not good for democracy, and it admits that this would be true even of the Bush “dynasty.”

I'm surprised that the film didn't cover the Vince Foster case.

“Character is defined by what we do when we think no one is looking.”



Special News Update: May 2

CNN has been discussing the new documentary called "Outrage" from Magnolia Pictures, starting May 8, 2009 in theaters. The movie, directed by Kirby Dick, deals with closeted Congressional aides and politicians. The movie poster has "Do Ask Do Tell" (the title of my two books and the domain name of my largest website) underneath the title, but it sounds apt. I'll review it here as soon as I can see it. The Magnolia link is here. The movie link (from CNN) seems to be here.

Don't confuse the Kirby Dick film with an unrelated thriller from Ace Cruz and Spirit Films, "Outrage", with Michael Madsen, website here. (The domain name doesn't have the article "the" in the text.) I'll try to track this one down and see it, too.