Friday, June 29, 2007

Sicko: A Michael Moore Film

Sicko: Lions Gate Films / The Weinstein Company, 122 min, PG-13

A Michael Moore Film.. Indeed.

One of the last lines in the film has a bit of pontification. Moore says something like, other western countries have learned to think about “we” instead of just “me”. He shows the good life in Canada, Britain, and France, emphasizing that not only, particularly in France, is health care socialized and universal, but so is day care, with lots of paid maternity or paternity leave, college education, and so on. They pay higher taxes and seem to have their cake and eat it to. One economic explanation is much lower personal debt, and greater social stability. Of course, conservative critics will be able to find a lot of things that are not so good in Europe (the disenchanted and unassimilated Muslims). But he raises a good question. This movie is about a lot more than health care policy. It is about our fixation on individualism and where individual responsibility as a component of freedom must fit.

In fact, in the U.S., where we have our own special heritage of the division between rich and poor (starting with slavery), we’ve developed a mentality whereby the individual proves that he “deserves” to be better off by competing with other people. Particularly by proving you can “compete” to have and raise a family better than other people. At least, that is how I perceive a lot of the attitudes. Europeans, whatever their history of royalty, have gotten beyond this it seems.

In fact, as Moore points out, the American big business benefits from keeping working people in a state of fear – especially in debt. That theme seems to underscore how the American health insurance industry behaves, where, as he points out, it has an inherent conflict of interest with taking care of people. The companies actually hire physicians to break their Hippocratic Oath and deny claims according to a quota.

Now I had covered some of this with the previews that had been aired on Oprah and on The View, at this link:
Moore says that this film is for those who "have" insurance. Indeed, in 1998 I had to go through the run around with Health Partners in Minneapolis to get credit for all the proper referrals after my acetabular fracture and surgery (I was taken to the wrong hospital, for openers, by the ambulance), but eventually I prevailed (by talking about getting another lawyer) and the final total bills, after in network discounts, were very reasonable indeed for the whole episode (about $14000 total).

The film – long for a documentary -- is quite funny, with continual ironies and wisecracks, and one-liners from president Bush where he seems to make a fool of himself. Visually, the filmmaking picks up steam toward the end with the trip to Guantanamo and Cuba, where three 9/11 volunteers get first rate medical care at the Havana hospital in Communist Castro Cuba. It is all bewildering, or is it just show.

Of course, we need to ask the right questions. What about the waiting lists in Canada (where there is doctor choice) and Britain and France (where medicine is totally socialized). The problem with single payer is that level of care has to be politicized. It would give the state a legitimate excuse to meddle in private behavior (sexual, tobacco, drugs) etc. (In Britain, government-salaried doctors are paid bonuses for getting patients to kick the habit.) In theory, if you have individual moral hazard, government has no reason to meddle. You let everyone take care of the self. And of his family. (You get into filial responsibility as a moral issue – to keep expenses of eldercare off public doles). But Moore maintains western Europe (and Canada) have gotten beyond that. We wonder why. In France, for example. singles and gays don’t seem to be burdened with subsidizing the childcare expenses of families through the workplace and taxes, partly just because the workweek is shorter and many services (not just health care, but public transportation) are better.

There is also the question, just how do we get the accurate information on health care. K-Street lobbyist support companies hold their numbers and tables to the vest, and with all the wonders of the Internet, it is still hard for the average person to figure out what is going on, with basic information about exclusions, retroactive cancellations, denials, and in more socialized systems, the rumored waiting lists. Moore never mentions that health care for overflow Canadians is big business in rust belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

I wondered about the employees in the health insurance companies, making a living by doing what they know is wrong. One guy called himself a "hit man", paid to go back into a person's background and look for the most trivial mistakes in an application in order to cancel policies retroactively. Another woman who worked in a call center talks of knowing that many people will eventually be turned down. Something like this makes me glad that I am retired. Many people, it seems, have to do things they are not proud of to make a living and raise their families.

Maybe this is a good time to go back and rent the 1997 Francis Ford Coppola American Zoetrope (and Paramount) film of John Grisham’s novel “The Rainmaker” with Matt Damon and Danny De Vito, where Damon plays a young lawyer who helps a family with a teenager with cancer, after multiple denials set up by the insurance company.

The film did not cover two important ancillary areas. One is dental care, because dental problems can lead to major medical problems. Most employer-sponsored dental plans covered needed optimal treatment for many problems poorly.

The other is that Moore doesn't mention that even Britain and Canada don't cover long term custodial nursing home care for those with assets. Given demographics, eldercare has become potentially one of our most serious issues. It's easy to imagine a documentary on this, about abuse in nursing homes, problems in assisted living facilities, including the problems with staffing them given our immigration concerns. We do face the enforcement of filial responsibility laws down the line, and we haven't started debating that much yet.

Moore shows quite a but of the British National Health Service (NHS). It is remarkable that media sources now report a doctor shortage (despite the comfortable income and million dollar London flat of a British family doctor in the film), resulting in immigration of physicians without usual work visas. A few of the suspects in the London-Scotland plot and incidents this past June 30-July 1 weekend were Middle Eastern physicians or health care "professionals", supposedly adhering to a Hippocratic Oath.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

On the Lot: 6 Comedy Shorts (12 contestants left)

Tonight, On The Lot, six of the twelve remaining contestants submitted comedies. Jessica Brillhart was eliminated.

Here are the six films:

Dr. In-Law, directed by Shalinia Kantayya, makes fun of a proctology exam (the device is big and intrusive) with some Korean dialogue.

Discovering the Wheels, by Adam Stein, is a bit of a Flinstones sci-fi comedy. Some kids beam a Mustang back to the days of the Apes in 2001, and beam them back, and beam away the car.

Nerve Endings
, by Will Bigham. Here is a replay of the brain surgery during the dinner party in Hannibal, without Anthony Hopkins in public life. It’s bloodly and gory, with red paint splattering the operating room walls, as the doctor makes the poor hapless subject jerk his legs and arms. With his brains exposed, he was allowed to keep the hair on his legs, but not his chest. But it's the ultimate in humiliation.

Under the Gun, by Hilary Graham. Some bimbos rob a sperm bank, and even raid the Collections Department, with no knowledge of the FDCPA.

How to Have a Girl, by David May. The title has a double meaning, and the subjects roll around in bed.

Die Hardly Working
, by Zach Lipovsky, is a fantasy fight, without special effects, while clockwatchers wait for the 5 PM bell.

The contestants might want rent and look at Lars Van Trier's filmmaking exercise, "The Five Obstructions (2003, Koch Lorber)," which documents multiple remakes of the 1967 documentary short by Jorgen Leth, "The Perfect Man". These are discussed here.

Here's another nice short: "This Is Your Most Important Meeting Ever" is a nice one-minute commercial for Diet Coke with a real story -- a young junior executive insists on having his diet coke when he gets up in the morning and at the board room table, where as an invisible genie dresses him, complete with garters. Just a touch of PG eroticism. Remember the "Nissan Sentra" (by Marc Horowitz) commercials?

Monday, June 25, 2007

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama (2007, Monterrey Media, dir. Rick Ray, 85 min, PG) has filmmaker Rich Ray (his wife Sharon helped produce the film, too) tracing the life history of the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (1935- ), and then, in the second half of the film, posing questions to him, about, for example, why the poor often seem happier than the rich. The Dalai Lama gives common sense answers, like the poor have nothing material to lose.

The film starts by showing how monks search the Himalaya (with a predecessor called the Panchem Lama) for a boy whose answers to questions shows signs of reincarnation, and the four year old is brought to Lhasa and groomed to become the boy spiritual leader. His head is shaved (and there are head shaving scenes on camera). As a teenager, the Dalai Lama has to deal with Chairman Mao and the Chinese. First he trusts them and tries to work with them, but China turns on him, intending to eliminate Buddhism or any religion from Tibet and impose Communism and eventually “the Cultural Revolution” where intellectuals are brought low, although Tibetans already lived a humble life. Nevertheless, the Potala Palace remained intact, and eventually the Chinese would build a high speed rail link to Tibet. The Palace was one of ABC’s new Seven Wonders of the World.

The Dalai Lama, fleeing the Chinese in 1959, set up government in exile in Dharamsala, India, in another mountain monastery. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and gave the money away. The Chinese have kidnapped and secluded the newest Panchem Lama and apparently intend to install a fake Dalai Lama in Lhasa after Gyatso's eventual passing.

On Monday, May 7, 2001, I saw the Dalai Lama, in his usual brownish red garb, while waiting in line at Schipol in Amsterdam to board a KLM plane back to Minneapolis. The film points out that he usually travels coach with the public.

The film is shot in digital video, just in 4:3 aspect ratio.


There is another independent film review today of “Show Business: The Road to Broadway”, here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Mighty Heart: film about Daniel Pearl kidnapping in Pakistan

A Mighty Heart (2007, Paramount Vantage, dir. Michael Winterbottom, book (A Mighty Heart: The Inside Story of the Al Qaeda Kidnapping of Danny Pearl) by Marianne Pearl, 100 min, R, France/UK).

I am aware of a credible report from someone who claims that Osama bin Laden was present in Karachi, Pakistan at a social function late in 2000, less than a year before 9/11, with some connections to the family (whatever the reports about most of the family in the media). It always made sense. Karachi (Sindi, in the province of Sindh) is the big coastal city in Pakistan, of over 14 million, where as the capital Islamabad is in the interior. If bin Laden wanted to escape by sea, it’s obvious that a covert route could be set up. Of course, based on the backgrounds of the numerous videotapes we have seen over a few years, most major media sources believe that he (with fanatical Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri) is still in the tribal areas on the border of Pakistan (“the Land of the Pure”) and Afghanistan.

Much of this film was shot on location in Karachi (and looks quite breathtaking in Cinemascope), and some of it in Mumbai (Bombay), and in one line late in the film Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie) says that the city is teeming with terrorists. She also says that this will happen wherever there is a huge gap between the rich and poor and, moreover, where some people grow up expecting to depend on their religious, familial and even tribal structures to give their lives meaning, while others, in a global free society, trample it and rip away what gives people, in ways we would not grasp, their own sense of freedom. Dan Futterman (Daniel Pearl) told the NBC Today Show that some of the film was shot in Islamabad, too, but that didn't seem apparent in watching the movie.

The film's story of the January 2002 kidnapping and execution of journalist Daniel Pearl (that is, as played by Dan Futterman) is told from Marianne point of view, for the most part, with a few flashbacks of her life with Daniel. The script makes much of the fact that they are both professional journalists. He pregnancy is truly a product of their marital love, as it should be (the wedding in India is shown in flashback). Daniel sets up a clandestine meeting with someone (called a "fixer" in journalism circles) who may have had close ties to 9/11. At the meeting, he is told that the Jews were responsible for 9/11. Al Qaeda suggests that journalists are voyeurs, to feed the curiosity of people who do not want to share the shame and suffering of others. When the radicals ask Pearl if he is Jewish, he always replies calmly that he was born of Jewish parents, but does not claim to practice the faith. It is all quite moralistic in its own way, just as the far Left in the United States could be so moralistic in the 1960s and 70s.

But for most of the movie, she comes to the slow by inevitable realization that Daniel is kidnapped, and eventually that he is dead. One of the other Wall Street Journal correspondents, I believe played by Demetri Goritsas, looks enough like Futterman to cause some visual confusion. Jolie does some extreme acting when she is told, “Daniel didn’t make it,” and only later does she learn of the decapitation and dismemberment of the corpse (possibly by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed). She also does extreme acting when she gives birth to new life, Adam; one of the last scenes of the film shows her on a crowded street in Paris.

The film does not mention or show Daniel Pearl’s talents in playing the violin, which would have been an opportunity to bring music into the story. See the Daniel Pearl Foundation,

Like Babel, this ambitious film comes from Paramount Vantage, the renamed subsidiary of Paramount that used to be called Paramount Classics.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Digital Media Conference in MD shows Greenwald short films and other docs

The Digital Media Conference at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD today featured filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who has recently helped produce a number of short films on social and political issues in order to assist with political activism. His new group is called Brave New Films.

Two of these films were shown today during the conference. It certainly seems that a few of these short films should also have been screened in the AFI Silverdocs documentary festival the preceding weekend at the AFI Silver (look for blog entries June 13-19 on this blog).

Fox Attacks Black America featured some bites from Fox programming as well as commentary showing that the Fox network apparently, in the views of many people, makes hidden slurs at African Americans. One commentator claimed that white people need to “make more babies.”

Mission Accomplished was motivated by President George W. Bush ‘s appearance on an aircraft carrier around May 1, 2003, when supposedly Iraq had been “won” with the collapse of Saddam Hussein. History has, of course, shown that war in Iraq is anything but over. The film presents the suggestion that all United States flags be flown at half mast for one day on any day at least one servicemember is lost in Iraq or any other combat operation.

Greenwald said that his paradigm is to network with other organizations that will organize political petitions, as well as help with “viral” screenings of the films, through P2P, home theater or church showings, and other grassroots presentations.

Greenwald mentioned his participation in the Gay Arabic Linguists film (on this blog, June 18). I asked a question from the audience microphone if he was aware of the Dream Out Loud films project on “don’t ask don’t tell”, and he answered that he was not aware of it.

A later panel presentation, “What’s next for Web 2.0?” included two short films, one a rendition of “Second Life” (website) and another early 1994 presentation of “Promise of the Internet” compared the coming web to the growth of printing and newspapers late in the 19th Century. In 1850, the speaker said, the typical family had one hand-me-down Bible, and there were 250 daily newspapers. By 1900 there were 2600 newspapers, and the country store was like a “network neighborhood.” But remember that before and during the American revolution pamphlets had been critical in spreading ideas (taxation without representation, etc.)

The panel on Internet Video included director Nick Panagopulos, CEO if Brainbox (a Silver Spring MD film and video production company), and from the mike I complimented him on his film “Five Lines” (2001, with a showing at the AFI Silver in 2004; my review (look in middle of file). In networking afterwards, I mentioned to another Brainbox employee that one of the subplots of that film had involved homophobia in the military (a gay bashing by a soldier at the Iwo Jima Memorial, contributing to the riveting film’s tragic conclusion).

On “don’t ask don’t tell” it seems filmmakers could network more. I hope to help them do that!

In the opening panel, “5 Digital Media Trends to Watch,” three of the five panelists said that their favorite website was (Sorry, not

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Lot: 5 more short films, generally serious in tone

Tonight, The Lot had the strongest set of five films yet. Wes Craven, who directs a lot of horror but who also directed "Music of the Heart" was guest director.

Marty Martin was eliminated, and claimed he had been insulted by Carrie last time (as she seemed to think he was more interested in shock effects and auteurish style than story), and Carrie told him that he needed to walk a thin red line between arrogance and confidence. The fact that there is that much to say about a couple of these films is a testament that these filmmakers have a lot to say, as well as stories to spin. That's important to me, at least, since the judges (especially Carrie) are always emphasizing that the good film is first of all good storytelling (beginning, middle and end).

Glass Eye, dir. Will Bigham. A young man loses his glass eye, and we get to watch some of the ensuing search from the viewpoint of the eye. Much of the film is in black and white, and Garry Marshall thought that the color-off should have been witched. The dog poops on it, and this is one of the most charismatic dogs I have ever seen in the movies. I wondered how a cat would have fit. (When I lived in Dallas, I had a stray cat who hid my car keys – imagine that as short! It really happened!) The music background played "La donne e mobile" ("women are fickle") from Verdi's Rigoletto. Carrie suggested that Bigham try using some dialogue next time, even if film is "visual." Bigham’s wife produced the film.

Blood Born, dir. Jason Epperson. A young man, who has been a superdonor (of plasma, often needed by cancer patients) goes to a clinic and learns that many terminally ill people have recovered since receiving his blood. (Just before the AIDS epidemic broke open around 1983, there were calls for superdonors, and gay men were giving blood ien masse to make a hepatitis B vaccine; after the epidemic started, active gay men were banned from blood donation and they still are.) Yet, there are suggestions of his drug use, and an attempted drive-by at the end. Is he a hidden Christ? Epperson wore red (including a cap turned backwards) at the show, and expressed the strong view that movies do not need sex and violence to tell a story; he claims to be religious and apparently wants to make Christian films. His last short (“Getta Rhoom”), however, had some disturbing irony, to say the least.

Sunshine Girl, dir. Zach Lipovksy. This young Canadian says he doesn’t want to be known just as a special effects guy, and what follows is a real Spielberg-like tale. Ever wondered how people would react if something happened to the Sun? (Like in the disastrous TV movie “Ice”?) Well, a little girl is hunting for toys under her bed, then gets out a kindergarten drawing that looks like one of mine (I still have them in the closet), a picture of a garden on a hazy, milk sky day. Outside, she pulls a glowing globe out of the sky, and it really looks like a Discovery Channel model of the Sun as an average yellow star. Suddenly the world grows dark, and CNN breaking news tell us that the Sun has disappeared. She puts it back, and draws the sun into her picture. The sun comes back. The film title made me think of “Little Miss Sunshine” as well as a middle school operetta “The Sunbonnet Girl” that I was in during seventh grade. But he could also have called his movie “Solar Eclipse.” (One of the 2003 Smallville episodes was about a solar flare, broadcast on a day that a flare really happened.) Ancients used to quiver in fear from eclipses, and in 1963 we had the sky go black on Good Friday. The lean and handsome Zipovsky dresses curiously, in black shirt and tie with shirt tail completely out, as if ready for the disco floor. Maybe the next movie happens at a disco, with some dirty dancing? I can imagine some storyboards.

Lost, dir. Mateen Kemet. A man and woman meet for tea, and the woman tells the man she has gotten married, and that he has lost her, having spent too much time making his documentary film. The entire short is shot in excessive close-up, soap opera style. There is some dialogue from the woman about “real life” that seems contradictory. This is a sensitive personal subject, and I have been in this situation (like in 1978, especially), but the dynamics are more complicated than fit in a three minute film. Think about survival here.

The Orchard, dir. Jessica Brillhart. A man goes through a peach orchard, sawing down limbs, and the tree suffers from the amputations. I know that some of us speculate that plants have feelings, but this didn’t quite work for me. More needed to happen.

Carrie was booed by the audience after negative comments about a couple of the films. All three judges liked Lipovsky’s film the best. I liked Zipovksy’s and Bigham’s and voted for these two.

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Don't Ask Don't Tell and Gay Arabic Linguists" -- a new film on YouTube; Jason & deMarco

A group called Brave New Foundation has made a short film (about three minutes) called "Don't Ask Don't Tell and Gay Arabic Linguists." The film tells the story of Stephen Benjamin, who finished near the top of his Army language school (I believe it is at the Presidio in San Francisco), that must train 300 Arabic linguists a year. However, he is not allowed to serve because he is openly gay. SLDN reports that at least 58 Arabic linguists have been discharged since 1993 under "don't ask don't tell."

The web reference is this:

The site includes a petition.

I have reported earlier that Dream Out Loud films also has a project to make a feature documentary called "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Their web reference is this. I spoke to this group and told my own unusual story over a year ago (by phone).

Again, I maintain that this whole issue merits a much larger film, and I continue to work on this idea with my own efforts. I can only punt and say, watch for more details later.


I found a UK site that offers documentary films on various issues to rent online. It is called the Documentary Network, link here.


Jason and De Marco have produced a documentary film "We're All Angels." The link is here.

The screening formation for Los Angeles (Outfest) is:
Saturday, July 21st
Regent Showcase Theatre
614 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
3:15 PM (90 minutes)
Tickets: $12.00
Ticketing Tel:(213) 480-7065
To Order Tickets On-Line:

I met Jason Warner in Minneapolis a few years ago at All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church. I have attended concerts by Jason & De Marco in Minneapolis (there) and at MCC in Fredericksburg, VA. I don't know when this film appears on the East Coast yet.

Update: July 27, 2008

The documentary "We're All Angels" airs on Showtime. The next showing happens July 30. 2008. I will try to view it and review it as soon as possible.
The link for the schedule is here.

AFI SilverDocs: Shorts 5: Long Distance

The early Sunday afternoon (June 17) program of shorts presented four films dealing with long distance communication.

6 Conceptions of Freedom
(2007, dir. Thomas A. Ostbye, 19 min) gives a lot of shots of people in the streets of Oslo, with a look that resembles "Smilla's Sense of Snow."

Calcutta Calling (2006, dir. Andre Hormann, 16 min, Germany / India) documents the life of an appealing young man (who rather looks to be of British ancestry) working in a call center in Calcutta. The film shows their sales strategies and diction training. It also shows shots of places around the world where he calls, ranging from Alice Springs, Australia to a flat in London to Akron, Ohio. The film shows a chalk board comparing the relative job performance of the callers, similar to what is done in collection agencies.

My 9/11 (2006, dir. Tjebbo Penning, 12 min, Netherlands) shows video of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001 at various points during the tragedy, as the filmmakers gets messages asking if he is all right. Eventually his phone is cutoff when 7 World Trade Center collapses at 5 PM. Then the police lock him out of his apartment for six weeks. He can only go back with an escort.

Talk to Me (2007, dir. Mike Craig, 23 min) follows the messages on an answering machine in Britain from the 1980s to today, with stills and even maps of Britain, as the content becomes more tragic.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

AFI SilverDocs: Shorts 3: You & Me

The AFI Silverdocs Shorts 3 Program on Sunday was called “You & Me” and dealt with LGBT situations and issues.

I Just Wanted to Be Somebody (2007, dir, Jay Rosenblatt, 10 min, 4:3) tells the story of orange juice queen Anita Bryant, who led the campaign to repeal an ordinance in Miami / Dade County Fl to protect gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination. Early on, she is shown draining an orange in a grove near Orlando with a bizarre contraption. The campaign is presented as downright nasty, with Jerry Falwell weighing in, and as an effort to “protect our children” and “protect the family.” Of course, what they are “protecting” is the emotional sensibility underlying the family. Bryant won the battle and lost the war, eventually her marriage, and she would declare bankruptcy twice. The film has plenty of archival footage. In 1978, Californians would be back a referendum to ban gay teachers, and the then governor Ronald Reagan actually would oppose the Briggs initiative. That would make a good subject for another documentary.

Monsieur Borges and I (2007, dir. Jasmin Gordon, 22 min) is a testimonial of university professor Jean-Pierre Bernes, platonic companion of writer Jorge Louis Borges, of Argentina, and later Switzerland and France, known for bringing ultraism to Argentine writing. Most of the wide screen short is shot in the French home, quite gaudym where Berne describes his friend’s life and his marriage, and the desire of the widow to keep certain writing secret after Borges’s death in 1986 (he went blind from glaucoma in 1955). Bernes, however, plans to publish his own biography, according to the filmmaker, which legally he may do.

Freeheld (2007, Lieutenant, dir. Cynthia Wade, 38 min, 4:3) is a “reality TV” style account of the battle in Ocean County, NJ to win domestic partner pension benefits for Stacie Andree, lesbian partner of police officer Laurel Hester, as she comes to an agonizing death (depicted quite graphically with the chemotherapy, the loss of voice and breathing tubes) from lung cancer. Six other counties in New Jersey had voted to allow county partners full domestic partner pension benefits, but Ocean County “freeholders” held out, arguing that they could not change public policy out of sympathy. Yes, they talked about “sanctity of marriage.” The abstract arguments about “family values” do seem cruel here, but the bigger picture would allow more questions to be asked. The film does maintain a rooting interest and has that definite beginning, middle and end. As a living documentary, it is very well done.

Pictures: from DC Gay Pride June 2007 (no relation to film)

Nomadak Tx screened at AFI Silverdocs as music documentary award winner

Nomadic Tx (“Nomadak Tx” 2007, Barton Films, dir. Raul de la Fuente, 85 min, NR but sug, PG, widescreen HD digital video, transferred to 35 mm, Spain/Euskadi) (website) was screened at AFI Silverdocs as the music documentary award winner. The movie has an interesting paradigm: two Basque men, master musicians of the Basque percussion instrument called the txalaparta (constructed of carefully cut and cured lumber pieces), travel the world, looking for nomadic peoples and introducing their instrument, using a “rough science” approach to make their instruments for local peoples out of local materials. They visit India (around Mumbai), then Lapland (from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia), then north Africa (unspecified countries in the original French West Africa, perhaps Mali), and Mongolia, leading again into Russian Siberia. In cold climates, they make their musical instruments out of ice.

At the screening, the two men (Pablo Iraburu and Oreka Tx) gave a brief concert on the instruments.

The on location photography, in nearly full wide screen (it looked like a 2.0 to 1 aspect) is breathtaking, with remote areas of the world never seen before in a commercial film. Particularly effective were the subtle colors in the scenes with late autumn frost and snow in the northern areas, as were the African desert areas, with a kind of “Lawrence of Arabia” look.

There is, of course, a political context. The Basque people have been “fighting” for autonomy, although the ETA has apparently calmed down in recent years. The movie supports the need of other indigenous peoples around the world to be free.

I visited Bilbao and San Sebastian-Donesta in April 2001. The cities were very quiet, and my hotel (the Navaroo) on the Nervion river was a few blocks from the ETA, and I visited the Guggenheim museum. There is much written about the mystery of the origins of the Basque peoples and their genetic markers, but physically they are essentially indistinguishable from other people in Spain or in Europe in general (they may be taller than average).

An early scene showed the mountainous countryside (looking like the California coast mountains) near Bilbao, but the city itself is never shown. I think it should be.

One picture here shows the txalaparta.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, at AFI Silverdocs

Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe. (2007, Sundance Channel / Arthouse Films / Media GMBH, dir. Robert Crump, USA / Germany, not rated but probably would be NC-17, 75 min).

This documentary was shown in the Roundhouse Theater right next to the AFI/Silver at the Silverdocs festival (in Silver Spring, MD). The theater is normally a stage, with a 4:3 screen for DVD projection available. Some of the volunteers wore T-shirts that read "Independent Thinker."

The title of the film describes how it looks. There are a lot of stills, many of them by photographer Mapplethorpe, in black and white. Many of them are fantastic-looking industrial machinations from decades ago. Mapplethorpe’s reputation is, of course, well known: it drew the ire of Jesse Helms in Congress, and it almost got a museum director in Cincinnati prosecuted for obscenity. Just a few of the nude shots (that appear to have minors) do make one wonder about legality. Other shots simply show the more exaggerated aspects of the leather gay scene in New York.

The movie tells the full life story about art collector Sam Wagstaff, born to privilege, but coming of age in the 50s and forced to live a double life as a gay man. Born in 1922, he would serve quite honorably (if covertly) in the Navy during World War II as an officer, following a family tradition, and probably could have been a subject in Randy Shilts's book "Conduct Unbecoming" although I don't recall his being mentioned there. There is a lot said about the psychology of collecting things that I relate to; toward the end of his life, Wagstaff sold his collection, and started collecting silver! The photos show Wagstaff in time-lapse, from a young (quite handsome) to a middle aged man, quite gaunt, eventually to die of AIDS in 1987 at 65. His relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, 25 years younger, does seem to be one of love, and Wagstaff was very much the sugar daddy – and Mapplethorpe (who came from a working class background in Queens) was himself quite breathtaking to look at in the shots. Gradually, poet Patti Smith gets to know them.

Many other figures of the age (including Truman Capote and Andy Warhol) get shown, and some speak, especially Vanity Fair editor Dominick Dunne.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

AFI Silver Documentary Film Festival; film: Coma

On Tuesday June 12, 2007 the American Film Institute AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD started its 2007 Documentary Film Festival, which runs through Sunday June 17. About 125 films (many of them shorts) will be exhibited. The website is

At the same time, AFI Silverdocs and the nearby Discovery Channel (also located in Silver Spring, easily seen from the Metro) is sponsoring the 2007 International Documentary Conference.

Today I went to my own first event there, a screening of the new HBO Documentary Coma, directed by Liz Garbus (90 min). It is scheduled to air on HBO July 3 (and normally this would go on my “TV” blog, but since it was screened in the festival I put it here). The film is shot in old 4:3 aspect ratio (even though most cable films now are the standard 1.85 to 1 since more customers have widescreen TV). (The film should not be confused with other films of the same name, including the 1978 thriller on the novel by Robin Cook, directed by Michael Crichton. The AFI website for the HBO film is this.

It’s important to become familiar with the medical concepts of coma, persistent vegetative state, and minimally conscious state. A patient in a persistent vegetative state for more than one year typically has poor prognosis for improvement. A definitive site is the Brain Injury Association of America.

The film mentions Terri Schiavo and Terry Wallis, but mainly focuses on following four brain injury cases, all with different outcomes. Tom, a 31-year old sales manager, is injured in a fall from a balcony, but soon is able to show evidence of purposeful response, and soon is fully conscious, but has painfully show rebab. Sean, a 20-year-old college student, is thrown off a bridge in an assault (whether a hate crime or robbery is not said), and, while showing tears, is never able to progress out of the PVS. An African American auto accident victim progresses but then declines and dies. A young woman slowly progresses, and her mother takes her home. The film shows the team professional rehabilitation in great detail.

One aspect that goes with the visual communication of film: One could see these young people, what they had looked like, and how attractive they had been. This makes this particular film, especially in a theater, hard to watch; it is not so difficult at home on television. Yet, the audience laughed (inappropriately) or giggled at some of the clumsy attempts of Tom, especially, to speak.

After the film, we had a reception and panel discussion in the nearby Cinema Lounge in Silver Spring, while a backdoor thunderstorm exploded outside. An additional twelve minute film “Terry Wallis”, again directed by Liz Garbus, was shown. This is the case of the man who was injured in an auto accident in 1984, and started coming out of minimal consciousness in 2003. His grown daughter now helps rehabilitate him.

The May 2007 issue of Scientific American had an article on brain injury, including a diagram showing the non-linear relationship between conscious wakfefullness, sleep, rem sleep and dreams, minimally conscious state, and persistent vegetative state. Much Scientific American content requires hardcopy purchase or online subscription to see. Sites 2

When I had my acetabular fracture in Minneapolis in 1998, I spent one week in “acute care rehab” – a nice name for a skilled nursing facility – after surgery and a week in the University of Minnesota hospital. I dealt with the leg that just would not lift. I saw other people in the rehab room walk on artificial limbs for the first time. Finally, after about three days of rehab I started passing through an inflection point and got to the point quickly that I could get up and get around on crutches.

Update: June 28, 2007

The Dr. Phil show today mentioned a new film "Through Your Eyes" (2007, Hands Free Productions, dir. Donny Hall and Cory Hudson) about the only known deaf-blind triplets in the world. The link is this, and includes a pre-order purchase page. The mother was divorced, and the man who married her and took on this situation was on the show. There is also a YouTube excerpt at this link.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On the Lot: 15 semi-finalists, 5 films

On the Lot: 3-Minute Films

On Tuesday, June 5, five of the fifteen remaining contestants exhibited free-style 3-minute films. Michael Bay was the guest judge, and he was quite frank.

Sam Friedlander: Broken Pipe Dreams. You guessed it, a ring falls down the toilet. A gog intervenes, and some pipes in the underground have to be severed. Call the plumber. Sam has also made “Lazy Monday.”

Trevor James: Teri. A young man prepares for a blind date with a great deal of fantasy. I think he could have been opened up more.

Hilary Graham: The First Time I Met the Finkelsteins. The grandmother wants the female dinner guest to give her grandchildren, and its OK to do SIBM if necessary. Meet the Fockers! Garry Marshall talked a lot about needing establishing shots and “backing up” and Michael May talked about a line that sounded like a groaner.

Adam Stein: Dough: The Musical. A hungry man and unemployed girl meet in a variation of High School Musical for young adults. Could he direct Zac Efron?

Shalini Kantayya: Laughing Out Loud: A Comic Journey. A gentleman from India imitates Harvey Feierstein and prepares for New York comedy club in a non-linear skit. The gay aspect really was rather transparent. I think she could have spiced it up with a little SNL.

Update: June 12

Trevor James was eliminated from the competition.

Five more films:

Andrew Hunt: Polished. A janitor (custodian) tries to make friends with his overlings at work, and is ignored. He comes up with a devious plan for attention. He will offer free hamburgers and really polish the floors good, Army barracks style. The prada-like coworkers will all get replays of my wet-floor acetabular fracture in Minnesota in 1998.

David May: Love at First Shot. A geek talks to a girl trying to get a "My Date with Drew" while a shirtless Green Arrow (no Justin Hartley, please) takes potshots at him as part of the plan.

Shira-Lee Shalit: Beeline. A woman, to console her daughter about a marriage breakup, tells all of her pseudo-friends never to speak to her again. The Gift of Fear is said to be "no response."

Marty Martin: Dance with the Devil. A guy has a date with the bill collector. Rather choppy, and the guy didn't know his rights under FDCPA.

Kevin Luby: Edge on the End. A gay man (it seems) loses his lover (it's pretty graphic and looks like HIV) and goes through all kinds of winter fantasies about past lives.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Killer of Sheep

This week some arthouse theaters (Landmark E Street in Washington DC) began showing a 35 mm restoration of the 1977 16mm black-and-white film “Killer of Sheep,” directed by Charles Burnett. The Library of Congress includes this on its National Film Registry, and the National Society of Film Critics considers it one of the top “100 essential films” of all history. The film was restored with the help of the Sundance Project from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Shot on location in natural settings in the Los Angeles Watts neighborhood and presented in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, it fits some of the criteria of what is now Dogme filmmaking. However, there is some added soundtrack, including some Rossini, and especially the second ¾ time theme in the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G minor (relatively less popular than 2 and 3 but it works here).

The film is a “slice of life” of African American existence in the LA semi-ghetto. Stan is played by Henry G. Sanders, with Kaycee Moore as his wife. In an opening scene, he chides his son about family loyalty and protecting his brother. He works in a sheep processing plant, sometimes harvesting sheep body hair but more often slaughtering the sheep for mutton. The film becomes a series of reality scenes, one of the most earthy being the attempt to move an engine block and then losing it to gravity on a city street. Kids stand on their head and jump on roofs between houses. Life is about family, kinship, and extending yourself through kids, regardless of the constricted nature of your own life. You feel like the sheep you kill.

The film reminded me of a Minnesota independent film, Cut Glass (1998).

Update: June 4

I have another posting on a legal battle over an amateur film "The Teddy Bear Master" at this link (end of the posting).

Friday, June 01, 2007

Ben Affleck speaks at high school commencement , Falls Church VA

Actor Ben Affleck gave the commencement address at Falls Church High School in Fairfax County (the smallest high school in the county), near Arlington Blvd and just south of the City of Falls Church in northern Va. The team is called "Jaguars". I have substitute taught there. The event was reported on NBC4 today. Affleck had befriended a student (as detailed on NBC) when he was filming "Forces of Nature" (1999) "What wisdom do I have to offer, when after all, I am an actor?" he said. He went on to tell students that the next ten years of their lives will be their freest, and that while they may be able to watch themselves (literally by promoting themselves with new media), they should also watch their neighbors. The video of the speech is here on NBC. (It is under the "Streaming Video" banner on the NBC4 home page.) The story that he relates about the student who introduced him is quite touching and should be left to be heard in Affleck's words.

As a little "film", however, the video is pretty much an experience of "Being Ben Affleck." With a much nicer tone than any John Malkovich. We all have to struggle with contradictory social messages in defining our self-image, but only the individual can define his own purpose and self-concept. Affleck notes that, as an "actor" he has mere "pretended" to be a gangster or hit-man ("Smokin' Aces"), or astronaut ("Armageddon") or war flying ace ("Pearl Harbor"). He indicates that the experience leading to this address takes him closer to real life, as did actually writing (with co-author Matt Damon) "Good Will Hunting" (which starts in school as a story). Furthermore, my own experiences working with the acting groups in Minneapolis in 2003 was very much that acting is indeed a profession. Sometimes, in enforcing classroom management or "discipline" a sub sometimes has to become an actor (or bluff), it seems. (Affleck also co-wrote "Gone, Baby, Gone" with Aaron Stockard, due in 2007.) Affleck's new wife, Jennifer Garner, attended.

I have memories of my own graduation at Washington-Lee High School (now getting a new building) in Arlington June 14, 1961. It has been more common for some high schools to offer film (like journalism) as an English department elective for seniors, and this can provide the opportunity to teach the basics of screenwriting (as a literary form), pitches, the three-part structure that we saw emphasized (especially by Carrie Fisher) on "The Lot," two postings below. Script writing can be an important skill, as commercial filmmaking and advertising (as well as entertainment screenwriting) become important career fields.

In 2005, Langley High School (near McLean VA) had actor Chris Rock do an anti-drug assembly.

It should be noted that some actors did excel academically. According to imdb, Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam on Supernatural, was a candidate for the Presidential Scholars Program in 2000 his senior year in high school in Texas. Ashton Kutcher actually considered a career in medicine because of his fraternal twin brother's heart transplant.

Picture: A letter to me in September 1960 inviting me to join the Washington-Lee High School Science Honor Society.