Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"We're All Angels" -- a Jason and De Marco documentary film

Jason and De Marco (website) have made themselves Christian rock pop stars, sort of like a “boy band” duet – and they are also gay partners. They chronicle their story in the new documentary “We’re All Angels”, directed by Robert Nunez, from Telekinetic films, and runs 87 minutes. No rating is given; except for a very few words in some dialogue, it would probably qualify for PG-13. This is a very gentle documentary. It has been airing on Showtime recently. I mentioned this film in advance and published the link to Showtime on this blog on June 18, 2007 (see the archive links to the left on this page). We could ponder the word "angel" as meaning "messenger" and only then perhaps "supernatural being."

This movie seems more focused than another “gay Christian” film, “Camp Out” (see this blog, Dec. 28, 2007), or even than the acclaimed “For the Bible Tells Me So” (Oct. 14, 2007 on this blog). That’s because Jason Warner and De Marco let us into their lives with somewhat of a three-part storytelling structure, which is part of good documentary filmmaking,

The first part of the film does take on “religion and homosexuality.” A fundamentalist minister is quoted as showing that God accepts those who repent. But then some hateful demonstrations, with words that I can’t reproduce in a commercially exposed blog, follow (again, taking the movie towards R territory). Jason tells of his growing up in a Pentecostal background and his attending an evangelical college, Lee, in Tennessee. At one point, the couple comes to town at the college, and is not allowed to perform on campus, but draws quite a crowd just off campus. In the later part of the film, his mother Karen, and the mother of one of their friends take on what it is like for parents, especially with an evangelical background. (I think with a little more time, the film could have mentioned the group Evangelicals Concerned, which I interacted with in Dallas in the 1980s.) They talk about the usual religious absolutism, and the question of choice or immutability. They barely touch on their own psychological investment, which may include the need to see their children demonstrate biological family loyalty as part of their own marital experience, or some idea that the sexual restrictions of the supposed evangelical moral code make things fairer among members of any family.

Toward the end of the film, Jason and DeMarco do a concert at a White Party (or circuit party) at Palm Springs, bringing “church” to a secular partying crowd not realizing it. (Remember TLA’s film “Circuit” from 2001.) I often think there is a lot of classical dance music that could be played in a disco without the patrons realizing it (how about the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh). There is some other concert spectacle, with environs: outside the venue in Houston, TX there is a curious shot of a couple purplish d grackles (perhaps boat-tailed). I saw them perform at Fredericksburg VA Metropolitan Community Church in August 2006.

But it is the relationship between Jason and De Marco that forms the strong middle of the film. There is some conversation that could almost have come from a Ninth Street Center talk group in the 1970s about “the polarities” (from the writings of Paul Rosenfels). Jason uses much earthier, common vocabulary to describe the perspective of the relationship. As to “masculine” and “feminine” (or for that matter, “objective” and “subjective”) I suppose I should ask the visitor to watch the film and make up his or her own mind.

But Jason later says that if he does the dishes or washes De Marco’s clothes, De Marco takes that as love. At the Ninth Street Center back in the 1970s, I was encouraged to explore my “femininity” by washing the dishes after the Saturday night potlucks (complete with Paul Rosenfels’s chicken aspic – a great dish to show in another film someday, or to prepare on PBS). Jason celebrates the domestic partnership papers (the film doesn’t say if they got married after June 17 in California, where they live – the film probably was made before the California Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage); De Marco, not so much.

Here, let me add that I lived in Minneapolis myself in 1997-2003, where I met Jason Warner at All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church (AGCMCC) where they sometimes performed. I believe Jason grew up (at least partly) in this area, but I am not sure of the exact facts, and imdb doesn’t show them yet. I spoke about Rosenfels, the Ninth Street Center, and the polarities quite a bit around AGCMCC and elsewhere during those six eventful years, and Jason (as would many others there) would certainly know about them as an intellectual construct upon which to build a story in film. I recall Jason’s dancing at the Saloon, with great form and liveliness – at the locally famous and usually packed Hennepin Avenue club with the three “show stages” spread out on the dance floor (I don’t know if it is still set up that way). No matter, other celebrities (whom I won’t name here) came and danced at The Saloon, and even more so at the Gay Nineties down the street. Because of its physical setup, by the way, the Saloon would have made the perfect dance floor for up close-up 2.35:1 filmmaking (with all the necessary signed releases); the people there really dance. When Minneapolis had a 1 AM last call (until 2003), it could be particularly lively. (There is a similar Saloon in Kansas City, but I don’t know if it is the same ownership.)

The couple actually represents a cross section of cultures: southern and Midwestern (Jason) and sunny California (De Marco). Perhaps the couple will get invited to sing on "Ellen" or "Oprah" some day.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"The Recruiter" is a compelling look at Army recruiting and at Basic Training; DADT does come up

Well, join the Army and you may appear in a movie. You won’t get to join the jet set in Beverly Hills, though. In the film reviewed here, a few “ordinary” soldiers do get to see them portrayed in a movie.

The Recruiter (The Film Sales Company, Propeller Films, Sundance Channel, HBO Films, 87 min) directed by Edet Belzberg, aired on HBO tonight, and apparently it received some acclaim at Sundance. It is marketed as the story of the recruiting efforts of one Sgt First Class Clay Ulie (E-6) in Houma, LA, south of New Orleans in the famous Terrebone Parish. But it moves into chronicles of the experiences of several soldiers in Basic Training and at least one in Special Forces and provides a compelling commentary of the moral issues surrounding military service today.

Army recruiters operate like other sales businesses. They have to build lists of prospects and leads and contact them, and nurture the contacts. Ulie personally starts training a few of the recruits, who prepare to leave their families and go to Basic Training. Half way through the film, Ulie says that we should have “mandatory federal service” which would be national service, but that we should not have a draft per se. But he also says that one is in the military to protect the freedom of others, and to protect the freedom of one’s family. The later is true even if one (at 18, as are most of the recruits here) is too young to have married and/or had his own children. The film shows one male recruit getting married after graduating from Basic.

The sequences in Basic are quite visual and bring back memories. In one scene, the soldiers do pushups on a wet barracks floor and have to stay dry. Later they get bazooka and bayonet training. There is a graphic scene in the gas chamber, where they unmask and are unable to get their masks back on while tear gas pours on them. We had tear gas at Fort Jackson in 1968; sometimes Chlorine was also used. We also had a tear gas attack on bivouac.

Some of the characters, like Matt and Bobby are quite likeable. Matt will receive a purple heart in Iraq but survive. Bobby now serves in special forces in a classified location.

One female has a panic attack in basic while the soldiers are being clothed at quartermaster. Another female, Lauren, discloses to the filmmaker that she has a girl friend, and that her mother thought that the Army would “change” her. At home, she has an argument with her mother about it and goes AWOL. Eventually she is disciplined and discharged, and winds up working in a fast-food restaurant. The film is not really clear on this, but apparently the Army does not take her claim of being a lesbian as a reason for automatic honorable discharge under “don’t ask don’t tell.” At one point, Ulie comments that a few soldiers try to get out during Basic by saying they are gay when (he thinks) they are not. The irony is that “don’t ask don’t tell” could well be repealed, particularly in Barack Obama is elected and if there is enough political pressure on Congress to repeal it, as reported on my GLBT blog last week. One well made independent film on the topic could tip the scales on this issue. Then, someone like Lauren really couldn’t get out this way.

It's important to remember that the military does not have "employment at will" the way a civilian company does. A soldier is not free to go AWOL and not free to "leave" without consequences once in the service, even in an "all volunteer" Armed Forces environment.

I don't think the film showed the contributions of women in the Army in a positive way. Maybe more attention could have been paid to a "successful" female recruit.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Chris and Don": A 30 Year love story of two auteurs

"Chris & Don: A Love Story" [“The Hollywood Life of Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy”] (2008) is an engaging documentary about the 30+ year relationship between British author Christopher Isherwood (1904-1985) and American (California) portrait artist Don Barchardy (1934- ). Isherwood’s best known book may be "The Berlin Stories" (1945), which would become the basis for the Broadway musical and later film "Cabaret". The film (in HD video and projected from digital projection systems only) is directed by Tina Mascari and Guido Santi. The production company is Asphalt Stars and it’s theatrical and DVD distribution is from Zeitgeist. The film runs 90 minutes. Somehow, the title reminds me of Artisan's experimental "Chuck & Buck" (2000).

Much of the film is narrated by Don, who often appears as he is today, in his 70s. Other directors and writers appear, including John Boorman (“Zardoz”), as well as James P. White. Isherwood's life was shaped in some ways by his experience of the collapse of sexual freedom that had existed in post-Weimar, 1920s Berlin with the rise of Hitler. Isherwood devoted some thought to the question of when social justice should be pursued among "groups" and when it mattered most among individuals.

The film contains a huge wealth of video that appears to be reprocessed from film as far back as the early 1930s, when Isherwood tried living in Berlin, before the Nazi takeover. Before that, he had gotten himself expelled from Cambridge for rebelling against the establishment when he wrote his sophomore exams. Later the film shows clips of their life in Los Angeles in the 50s and 60s. Some of the scenes may have been recreated to look authentic, and there is a small amount of humorous animation in which Don compares himself to a cat and Chris to a horse. In terms of the “polarities” as in the theory of Paul Rosenfels, the younger Don appears to have been “masculine” (corresponding to seeing himself as a cat). Later in the relationship Don would struggle with wanting to break away and become freer and develop a domain of his own, which he has later in life.

Don’s older brother was manic-depressive, and there is a harrowing scene of the brother getting electroshock treatments in the 50s. Later, the brother is shown at the age of 75 living in a small rooming house in LA.

Chris considers himself a “father figure” to his male lover 30 years his junior, and Dan says that he started adapting Chris’s speech patterns as he got older. He felt that Chris had “reproduced himself” within him.

The couple wrote a number of screenplays. Their best known work is "Frankenstein: The True Story" (1973). They wrote another script where the “monster” starts out as an attractive male and deteriorates rapidly, following the concept of Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The Wicker Man" -- two films, and my own screenwriting project

It’s useful to compare one of my own screenplay ideas with something comparable in “the literature.” So, I’ll introduce the two films “The Wicker Man.” The title refers to a wooden effigy used by northern European societies in ancient times for human sacrifice. Both films have a policeman or detective visiting a remote location to track down a missing girl, with a tragic conclusion for the man that is not hard to predict, spoiler or not.
The 1973 film was directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer, produced by British Lion and distributed in the US by National General and later Warner Brothers. It is now thought of as a classic “art” horror film.
In the British version, Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) goes to the remote Hebridean island if Summerisle after receiving a letter that a girl Rowan has vanished. The island is run by a Lord (Christopher Lee) and the people seem to form a pagan cult. He is tempted by a dancer at the inn, Willow (Britt Ekland) and led to ponder his “Christian” moral beliefs about marriage. Later he will learn that Rowan (Gerry Cowper) had set him up to lure him to the island to the final sacrifice. There is a pagan parade in masks (reminding one of the May Day Parade down Bloomington Ave. in Minneapolis every year), and Howie is trapped by the lord. In the final scene he is stripped and sacrificed. In this version Willow is the daughter of the landlord and Howie has a fiancée back in Britain.

The 2006 version is directed by Canadian Neil La Bute (of the good old DGC), and is filmed largely in British Columbia, with Summerisle off the Pacific coast. Nicholas Cage (whose company Saturn Films is one of the production companies for Warner Brothers) plays the policeman Edward Malus. It has a back story to set up the conflict, where Malus cannot save a girl from a car hit by a truck before it explodes, in a scene in spectacular interior areas of British Columbia. This time Willow (Kate Beahan) is his ex-fiancee, and Rowan is his daughter. He receives the letter from Willow about Rowan’s disappearance. The island will turn out to be a matriarchy run by the Sister (Ellen Burstyn) whose role is like that of a queen bee. The cult is organized like that of social insects, with the males like silent “second class citizens.” They are used for “breeding, you know.” The stories converge toward the end with a pagan parade, and Malus is trapped. This time, his legs are broken (like in “Misery”) and his head is stung by bees poured into a canister. The back story shows him allergic to bees, but the Sister gives him a shot to revive him so that he can experience the final wicker sacrifice. Curiously, the shirt is never removed.

The films have lots of little clues and subplots. The incidents in the older film tend to have specific religious or cultural meaning. In the second film, the writing is more formulaic, posing crises for Cage to get out of – except that we know he will go to his demise. Once again, Rowan has enticed him to his demised, and here she even lights the wicker fire. The theatrical release has an epilogue in which he is out looking for the next sacrifice.

This reminds me also of a gay short “Bugcrush”, directed by Carter Smith (Strand), in which a high school student lures an attractive but impressionable classmate to a remote location for an ambiguous ritual (perhaps some bizarre “rite of passage”) than may lead to his demise.

So, I have a feature script myself that has a story a bit like this. My working title for this sci-fi film is “Titanium” but I may change it. Here, the protagonist is an enthusiastic late twentyish white male technology reporter Justin, with a pregnant fiancée that he plans to marry. She disappears near a rural commune, and at the same time the media has reported UFO sightings. There is initial evidence that really suggests she could have been abducted. He wants his boss to let him go investigate, and quickly finds that the police suspect him of arranging it because he has another girl friend (and African American) who already has a child, to whom he has somewhat bonded.

But Justin still has another streak, a curiosity about rites of passage, a desire that is a homoerotic, something that he wants to experience. He has befriended an older man and freelance writer Bill (like me), and learns about a right wing cabal with an “academy” near the site. He starts to travel out to the area and meets several different characters and pieces together the evidence that indeed an alien contact will occur, and that it will have a radical effect on the way Americans live. An interesting piece of evidence comes from an idea in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” when he received a mysterious beta hi-fi tape, which had to be made back in the 1980s and which provides an important clue.

There is perhaps not the urgency that commercial film investors want. The police threat remains, but the evidence is ambiguous. He could endanger himself legally if he keeps investigating when the police are willing to bug off, and he is more interested in the “story” than in his fiancée. The “friends” he makes around the commune question his motives and character, and the evidence on the “lost” tape helps him connect the dots, with the new friends and his own character. But gradually he learns more about the initiation ceremony which the commune members will attend, when the secrets of the alien visits are revealed and when Doreen (and her baby) will appear.

So, he, along with his new companions, have to undergo a rite of passage, leading to the climax that will take the last twenty minutes of a 110 minute film. But this is not a “sacrifice”. There is no “wicker man” even if there is a pyre (involving lightning strikes and perhaps a brief “abduction” after all) of sorts. Instead, there is a transformation, affecting several characters. For Justin, however, the "initiation" (on what I call a "Night Hike") is a kind of hajj, a kind of rite of passage and guilty pleasure that he has always craved to experience just once, or maybe just once more -- after all, he already has more than one woman. What happens to the characters becomes the clue to what must happen to everyone else in the world. If this is a horror movie, it is more like a social or political allegory than horror for fun or even for irony.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tinseltown's "Third Party Rule" for screenplays; and a wayward approach to submissions

While I lived in Minneapolis, I was active in the Screenwriter’s Workshop (link now is this) which would meet in various groups periodically to review scripts in progress, usually five pages at a time. The most promising scripts would be chosen for table readings, and then for performance with actors in a theater, like Kerasotes Block E downtown, or sometimes the Jungle Theater near Lake Street. One practical issue was that, to be accessible in readings, scripts generally needed to follow the accepted three-part structure without too much in the way of flashbacks or “back stories”, otherwise audiences, without actually watching the film, would just get lost.

The Twin Cities (where I lived 1997-2003) was actually a good place for indie film, with many projects, a chapter of IFP (now the Center for Media Arts) or Intermedia Arts with its “Flaming Film Festivals” showing one of my little clips, and particularly Josh Margolis’s gender bending comedies), and a Minnesota Film Board. It sponsored an Academy Awards AIDS benefit at the State or Orpheum theaters downtown on Hennepin, and offered local filmmakers a Mayberry award. It had indie comedy actor Jeff Gilson (“Great Lakes” with its great line “does this count as a job interview?”) and director Jon Springer with his Cricket Films (“Heterosapiens”, “The Hymens Parable”), and apparently good access to Canadian producers. I once tried out for a part in the indie war horror film “The Retreat” (dir. Darin Heinis, 2002).

When I came back to the DC area in 2003, I found much less, but the Arlington Public Schools has offered a series of screenwriting classes taught by Carolyn Perry.

The point of all of this is to ponder who an aspiring writer really can promote his or her ideas, often in the form of spec scripts. In practice, it seems like one of the most important components of any sales strategy has to be networking in the real world, and living in an area where this is practical, or figuring out the networking with meetup or social networking sites (like Facebook) which I am just beginning to look at.

That brings me to the next point: you can’t just send scripts to studios. Just like you don’t send book manuscripts directly to publishers. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it. Usually, you have to find and go through an agent to have something considered by people with “real money”. That’s what Hollywood calls “The Third Party Rule.”

I heard about this first in the Minneapolis groups, with accounts of unsolicited mail returned to sender, unopened. The studios can’t even look at the loglines or taglines of unsolicited manuscripts. I've also heard that anyone can set himself or herself up as an "agent", as the "third party." Maybe I should. Or does this just create a "mutual admiration society"?

I had seen the Pakastani film “In the Name of God”, directed by Shoaib Monsoo at the DC International Film Festival in April of this year (see Apr 29 on this blog). I wrote an email to Lionsgate’s general email address suggesting they look at it for distribution. The next evening I got this enormously long canned email about “unsolicited submissions” (which this was not, since this film has already been completed, although it could stand some technical editing). The film obviously ought to be distributed to American audiences, and it looks like a good match for that company, known for controversial releases. Imdb still doesn’t show a distributor for it yet.

The reason for the “third party rule” would seem self-evident: studios say they don’t want to run the risk of lawsuits for copyright infringement. Of course, generally, ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but the entertainment world is filled with trademarked comic series and characters, trademarked movie franchises of sequels, and a murky legal world where there is a sense of ownership of “cash cow” blockbusters and formulas that generally make money and sell to large audiences. The practical problem generally is much more serious with the “that’s entertainment” sort of material of large studio releases filling the mall multiplexes than with the eclectic material that one finds in the arthouse of independent market. But the studios think they have to draw the line somehow. After all, even the “idea” of Batman or Superman is pretty much taken and owned. Trademark law and copyright law come together in this world.

As a result, Hollywood (and New York) developed systems for vetting material through parties that get their cut and depend on the system for a living. This is always true of bureaucracies that provide people and middlemen a living: they develop with respect to the technology known at a particular time, and then could become obsolete later. That sort of thinking helps structure the way members of guilds (actors, writers) expect to be paid, and these systems again can become insufficient when technology grows, as with the Internet.

One way for aspiring writers to get their stuff seen is to enter screenwriting contests. There have been many of them, but perhaps the best known is Project Greenlight, which was sponsored by Miramax Pictures before it was reorganized and taken over exclusively by Disney. There have been three contests so far, and I don’t see any evidence of another one yet. But quite a community built up around them. Entrants must review other screenplays, and the composite ratings sift the pool of winners down in successive rounds. (There was also a director’s contest built on a script, rather like the “48 Hour Film Project”, and it has produced some impressive work.) Another contest was sponsored by Fox and Dreamworks, called “On the Lot” where the contestants took on a succession of varied small film assignments with each week of the contest.

I entered a horror screenplay called “Baltimore Is Missing” in the third Greenlight contest, with mixed reviews. I think the concept is promising. I then posted it on my own site. I posted several small scripts, and three other features, which were called “Make the A-List”, “American Epic” and “69 Minutes to Titan.”

The first of these was largely vetted in Minnesota at the Screenwriter’s workshop before I moved back. The use of flashbacks did cause confusion, as the other writers in the group were challenged with following the complexity of the material from week to week from 5-page segments. The first two of these are scenarios for bringing the material in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book to the screen, but would require large budgets. The third of these is a sci-fi story with very controversial social problems explored, and has attracted some comments.

The obvious, or at least logical question, is, have I end-rounded the “third party rule” by posting my own screenplays in a public space? If I then submitted them, would studios say that the story concepts or even loglines were compromised by their previous public posting? I honestly don’t know. Someone always has the legal right to post and distribute material he owns and wrote, as far as copyright law goes – unless there is another legal issue, such as disclosure of trade secrets, libel (which can happen in fiction), obscenity, HTM (which is no longer an issue because of the COPA rulings), or possibly, with some reasoning twists, enticement. It’s an interesting question that is created by the World Wide Web and search engines, and has been around for a dozen or so years, even before social networking sites were invented.

I do know that a few agents’ sites (at least one, apparently for horror films) say that they can work with material “online.” But I don’t know if this addresses the question of public searchability.

If a visitor knows, I would appreciate a comment.

I do have several other scripts which are not posted online and (except for one) have not been. However, I am planning to discuss the “story concepts” of one of them in comparison to a well-known recent film (actually one in more than one version) soon. It is helpful to me to see if I can put down on paper what would make a spec script “work”.

Much of the material is related to my books, at least in a non-linear fashion. The books are already publicly known, as are their basic arguments. What is less known is what storytelling techniques could really translate it to the screen, whether a conventional feature or conceivably a cable series. But how proprietary is something like this? It is still so “eclectic” that no one else could possibly “steal it” the way someone could “steal” a story from DC Comics. So the whole “third party” concept seems unnecessary to me.

One other point: I know that movie reviewers generally avoid giving away "spoilers" or revealing plot payoffs. With some movies viewed as "entertainment," that may be a big deal. I don't generally decide to see or not to see a movie based on knowing the ending. On IMDB, usually there are spoiler warnings in plot summaries, but the message boards below often discuss ambiguities or controversies in a movie's ending.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lindsey Williams: "The Energy Non-Crisis": does it make film?

Can a lecture make legitimate indie film? Well, watch the eight parts of Lindsey Williams talking about “The Energy Non-Crisis,” totaling about 70 minutes. The link giving an index to the eight YouTube segments is at "Educate Yourself", here.

Well, there are a few shots of men in the audience with coke cans, and of the Granada Hotel ballroom somewhere (probably California). I’ve seen it done before, as with “Blind Spot” with Hitler’s former secretary talking for an hour, or a culturally opposite meditation an monologue "The Life of Reilly", or a conversation movie like “My Dinner with Andre” (but that is a two-way dinner conversation). In fact, I have a DVD of my own 57-minute lecture at Hamline University in 1998 on my own first “do ask do tell” book. I suppose it makes some theater. I want to redo all of it and make it a docudrama and a “real” movie. Here, with Lindsey, we do have a story. He tells it, with little visual aid. We can imagine it as a documentary movie, maybe playing at Landmark, maybe from some group like Magnolia Pictures. It ought to be filmed that way.

The premise is that in the 1970s, American oil companies found a huge reserves on Gull Island, near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and the government “just isn’t telling us.” Williams says was employed by ARCO as a chaplain on Trans-Alaska pipeline project to the north slope (he apparently comes from an evangelical Baptist background but does not seem trying to sell his religious convictions). An ARCO executive shared the information about the size of the Gull reserve, and the information wound up in a book (by the same name) by Williams and Stanley Monteith. The government classified the information, and the executive was fired. He called Williams and asked to rewrite a portion of the book. In time, the information was somewhat suppressed, and the executive (Ken Fromm) was reinstated and continued his career.

Then Williams goes on to predict $4-$5 gasoline (apparently the lecture was taped about a year before), but says that releasing the Gull reserve could drive the price back to $1.50.

Then he starts talking about “the cabal” that decided how to rule the world back in the 60s. Part of the plan was to keep oil priced in dollars. Iraq and Iran would not agree to this, and, Linsey maintains, we know what happened. An man named Abner Dethrey was dispatched to communicate to Saddam Hussein in 1990 that the US would let him reclaim Kuwait. We know then what happened, as George H W “had” to destroy Iraq.

The sudden increase in Saudi production in the mid 1980s was part of the plan, to drive down the price of gold and actually bring the world under control.

The price of gasoline is a form of taxation imposed by Them,” like the giant radioactive ants in the 50s horror movie. “There is no they” is one of my own favorite proverbs, but I guess there is a “they”. It’s the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank. The gas prices are used by the IMF to pay off the “debts” of the Third World. I suppose in a way that makes sense. Look at the growth China and India, and inevitably most of the rest of the world. They want our standard of living and consumption.

At the end, Williams says that President Bush cannot afford to release Gull Island oil to American customers. He claims that Iran would flood the market with oil (as Saudi Arabia did suddenly in the mid 80s, resulting in the savings and loan crisis) and that Arab countries would refuse to take on American debt, leading to the collapse of the dollar and the impoverishment of the American economy.

It’s hard to make this compute. If we could produce all our own oil, why would we owe anything? But this was the plan in the early 60s, later developed by Kissinger. The only way this makes sense is that the "cabal" wants to bring everybody low and keep people dependent in order to stay in power.

He mentions what happened to JFK, and at the end of the lecture says what happened to most of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. It is a chilling close, and the lecture gets a light applause.

He mentions a book by John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (2005).

He does draw the lecture out (mentioning radio announcer Paul Harvey and his famous "the rest of the story"), as he keeps telling us that he is going to make a big revelation. And the “telling” does come out, in periodic blasts. This is a kind of exercise in “do ask do tell.” And, with some work, it could be pretty good showmanship.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Paramount's film financing deal collapse: a sign of trouble in studio debt financing? How about the indie films?

Earlier this week (July 15), the Associated Press reported in The Washington Post that Paramount’s attempt with Deutsche Bank to raise $450 million for new films had collapsed, link here.

Josh Friedman and Claudia Eller provided a short version of this story July 15 in The Los Angeles Times, to the effect that Paramount found the deal too difficult, link here.

Today (July 19), an expanded version of this story (apparently not available online) appeared in print on the Business Page 1, section D, of The Washington Post, credited to the Los Angeles Times (same writers). The story has the alarming title “Lights Go Dim on Film Financing: Studios to scale back as credit crisis adds drama to risky business.”

The general impression is that the credit crunch is affecting debt markets for films and raising interest rates or shortening the demand on the bottom line. The mentality would seem to apply more to the “shopping mall” genre films (summer action, comedies, etc) from major studios, using the majors’ standard trademarks in distribution.

Paramount has been concerned that some of its “Vantage” (e.g. “Paramount Classics”) films, while critically acclaimed, have not done as well at the box office as expected. These include “Babel,” “A Mighty Heart”, and “Into the Wild.” Films like these have been well attended when I saw them, as were “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood”.

Other studios, such as Warner Brothers, Sony/Columbia/TrisStar/ MGM, Fox, and NBC/Universal, and Disney seem to have reasonable co-financing deals for the next two years. Some A-list stars are working outside the system with foreign sources like Reliance Big in India. There are some rather rigorous steps followed in standard film financing, including completion bond. IFP in Minneapolis covered these in late June “producers’ conferences” in Minneapolis when I lived there.

Studios have tended to work with hedge funds in financing big pictures, and many pictures have more than one studio.

In my mind, there is a question about the role of social or political activism in films. Many independent films have been made about the “war in Iraq” (fewer about Afghanistan) or about various problems about the way government and business deal with the environment (Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” came from Paramount Classics). Individuals with enough personal resources (as from entrepreneurial success in "something else") can certainly invest in films that may have a social or political impact. I think a well conceived indie film with enough resources could put away “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Dream Out Loud Films has just such a project; check this link.

Sometimes, though, it seems that studios know some of their films are duds. Last week, ABC Family aired MGM’s insipid and formulaic “Picture This!” about a teenage girl outwitting her father’s grounding her and insisting on tracking her by cell phone pictures. No, the cell phones didn't look "reverse engineered." The title of the film happens to match that of an indie distributor of LGBT films. It appeared to be a genre comedy (it had the full MGM lion trademark) wasn’t worth putting in the multiplexes.

It's interesting that all this news about film financing comes out when Hollywood finds it is suddenly having a good year at the box office, with perhaps a record opening for "The Dark Knight" (above) and people looking to be entertained during summer staycations.

Picture: No, that's not Paul Bunyan in Minnesota; it's in a fairground near Annapolis, MD. But the figure looks like "The Wicker Man" to me.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Dark Knight" is a bit like the chess piece, probing Gotham

Well, if you play chess, the “The Dark Knight” means something. In King Pawn openings, Black brings out the King’s Knight to initiate Alekhine’s Defense, and in Queen Pawn openings, all of the Indian defenses. The Knight always moves two squares in one direction, and one in another, jumping over, and giving it the ability to penetrate a system from distance, somewhat like artillery in the Army.

I hadn’t heard of Batman referred to as a Knight, but I guess it makes sense. In this movie, it is a visual metaphor, but also a world into the way the director British Christopher Nolan’s mind works. Some of Nolan’s other films have included the palindromic "Memento", "Insomnia", and "The Prestige". Michael Caine (who explained “The Prestige”) appears here again as Alfred Pennyworth. Of course, we remember “Batman Begins” in 2005. (Warner Brothers had released an earlier movie franchise Batman trilogy from 1989-1995.) That movie now seems like a prequel, and this one seems like a “meat course.” As before, Nolan uses Roger Ebert’s Chicago for Gotham, more darkly this time, with fewer extraneous phantom landscapes. There is a diversion to Hong Kong, but I think now that directors (including Nolan) may look inland to Chongqing to dazzle viewers in future films. There is no batmobile; the "Dark Knight" stays on figurative horseback.

Christian Bale (youthful in “American Psycho” in 2000) is starting to look ripened as Wayne (Batman), and the mystery of who he is isn’t played up as much in the film as is the morality play started by all the lines of the Joker, who is rather like a playing card always at life. This is perhaps a memorial to Australian actor Heath Ledger, whose passing was senseless, careless and tragic. Here, sometimes the Joker seems to almost be in drag, even if the caricature never comes off. Some of the great lines (this one from the Joker) are like “if you’re good at something, you’ll make people pay for it.” Will bloggers do that? Later, one of the assistant DA’s says that some people are irrational and don’t care about fiat money or self-interest: “they just want to watch the world burn.” It’s not that transparent: the Joker’s rants sound a like Osama bin Laden’s videos.

As New York "Room 8" district attorney, Aaron Eckhardt is still the slicker from “Thank you for Smoking” but this time he becomes a half-face (or "Two Face"), literally like a phase of the Moon. Go see the film, and note that the actual makeup is pretty gross: it makes a good draw for the Joker in drag and becomes something logical in Nolan’s world.

IMDB lists the movie as being in 1.44 to 1 aspect ratio. That is for the Imax version. I saw it on a regular large auditorium at a Regal in Arlington VA on a Friday afternoon, and it was almost sold out. The aspect was standard anamorphic, 2.35: 1. There are a lot of “Hitchcock” close-ups that normally are more common in a standard aspect ratio film.

Warner Brothers shows its studio photo trademark in black and white and with the film’s opening music. I still think it should always use its Casablanca “piano concerto” music as part of its trademark., and not mix the trademark with the movie. (Other visitors know that I have a trademark law blog.) The orchestral music score in the closing credits (Hans Zimmer and/or James Newton Howard) is quite dramatic and could make a concert overture.

The film cost $180 million to make, and is on target to take in at least $100 million the first weekend. Blockbuster "mall" movies are doing well during this "staycation" recession, and some independent films have done well, as do film festivals.

Update: July 24

After his scuffle and arrest in London, Christian Bale said to the media "I never talk about myself or think about myself. I have no idea who I am, really." The clip was shown on Access Hollywood. I don't think this is true of the acting world in general. But is that what it's like to always play another persona? I remember his role in that film from Lionsgate in 2000.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Up the Yangtze" is a social documentary on Chinese society displaced by a new dam

Up the Yangtze” is a strong social documentary about China written and directed by Yung Chang. The film was produced by National Geographic, PBS Point of View, and Quebec, Canada broadcasting and the National Film Board of Canada, as well as Eye Steel Film in China. It is distributed by Zeitgeist (Germany).

The film documents a “pleasure” luxury cruise up the Yangtze by wealthier tourists from the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and other western countries. The cruise operates in the area above the Three Gorges Dam and Sandouping, which is being flooded to a depth of over 500 feet, to form the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. Politically, this project is very important for China because it wants to prove that it can generate economic growth in a responsible and renewable manner as well as by consuming more oil and coal.

The social impact of the film comes from the examination of the lives of some families who will be displace by the lake, as well as the young people who go to work on the boat. The families are poor. One is shown living in a ramshackle clapboard tin squatter house, next to livestock and poultry (and a most likeable kitten). The proximity of residences of poor people to farm animals increases the risk of mutation of diseases like avian influenza. The father in the family chides the oldest girl, who wants to college and become a doctor or engineer. He says she may have to go to work to help support her younger siblings. (That sounds counter to the "one child" policy!) Later the family will painfully carry its furniture up a birm to a town where it will live, but where it will need money to buy food.

The young people are treated like military recruits when they go to work on the cruise ship. The cadre mention that they are often only children and “the apple of their parents’ eye” and therefore “spoiled,” because of China’s “one child per family” policy. The workers live in bunked quarters similar to what the Navy would have on a ship, in conditions of forced intimacy. One girl cries at the “hardship” of working what looks like side sink duty in military “kitchen police”. A 19 year old boy works in a bar and socializes with German teens, and then says that he doesn’t like to work with very old people because they don’t tip much. He is fired on camera later after his three month probation and told to leave the ship, because of his surly and over-inflated ego, which is particularly objectionable in Chinese or Confucian culture. (The boss goes to the trouble to mention that the teen's behavior is particularly objectionable in an only child.) The workers are told not to discuss politics (particularly Quebec separatism, the IRA, or royalty or monarchy) around guests.

The photography of the gorge, the dam, the bridges, and the towns and cities (much of Sandouping must be razed and moved) is striking. Much of the time the view is obscured by fog or smog, giving the landscapes an impressionistic look. There are some urban shots which appear to be of Chongqing, up river, and the subject of Ted Koppel’s recent Discovery Documentary “The People’s Republic of Capitalism.” (link to my review).

This is a good place to mention the 5 minute short film “Aging in China” from the AARP, directed by Nick Francis, discussed in more detail at this link on my retirement blog. It deals with the Confucian value of "filial piety."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World"

Werner Herzog, recently known for “Grizzly Man” and “Rescue Dawn” has produced a stunning travel documentary about Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World,” from the Discovery Channel with theatrical release by ThinkFilm. The website for the film is this.

I say travel, because seeing this kind of film with first class projection (I saw it at Landmark E Street in Washington in the largest auditorium) provides an $8 substitute for a personal voyage that now is economically out of reach for most people. I could wish that we could see it in Imax 3-D, or at least 2.35 : 1 rather than the standard 1.85 : 1 aspect ratio which is used. The music is remarkable. There is original, atonal “computer” music by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley, and some a cappella contemporary Russian choral music. But the most remarkable music of all comes from seals hooting and calling while underwater (a think ice shelf that forms a ceiling for many shots), that actually comes across as a musical composition of sorts! Try performing it at the Dumbarton concerts.

The movie starts out at MacMurdo, which is a kind of space colony on the coast, with a bit of a sci-fi look. (It reminded me of John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars”). The scientists manage to craft cluttered efficiency apartment homes in their barracks. Life is intimate, but maybe not as much so as one expects. They have to be trained for all kinds of contingencies.

The movie then makes impromptu voyages to other places, including the South Pole, and most of all, the volcano Mt. Erebus (12451 feet) on Ross Island. This volcano provides one of the three places on earth that looks directly into a magma lake. (The other two places are in Ethiopia and the Congo.) The scientists look into Hades, which is constant throwing up lava and possibly splattering them. One of the scientists is the cordial Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge in Britain.

At one point, they scientists encounter the male penguins protecting their progeny (a lookback to “March of the Penguins”) and then there is one male penguin who strays and will march to his death in the inland.

There is little mention of global warming or the loss of ice shelf (or the possible split up of the shelf). One scientist describes the undersea life, and notes that animals got bigger and went on land to get away from the violent existence of the seabed.

The film has a dedication to Roger Ebert.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (review)

Another documentary that showed at the AFI Silverdocs is now in general theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures, actually, it seems, produced by Cuban’s company GDNET. This is "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson", directed by Alex Gibney (198). The Silverdocs link is here. It sold out the night I went to see the Arthur Russell film (reviewed on this blog June 18) in another auditorium.

First, it’s good to note what gonzo journalism is. It is a kind of personalized journalism, observations often written in first person with a lot personal perspective and an interest in “connecting the dots” or drawing together of disparate elements. Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) is quoted as having said “fiction is often the best fact.” I would call it "do ask do tell" journalism.

The movie has an arresting beginning, showing the elder Thompson in his (Colorado) home, suddenly learning about the 9/11 attacks in New York, some of which are shown in encapsulation.

The movie is as much a tracking of the history of the 60s and 70s, when Thompson became famous, as it is biography. The see the “Medium Cool” shots of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Kent State incident in 1970, scenes from both 1972 conventions. The film pays quite a bit of attention to the Thomas Eagleton affair associated with George McGovern’s 1972 candidacy. McGovern picked Senator Eagleton from Missouri as his vice-president, and for a few moments at the convention, it seemed as though leftist McGovern really had a chance, given the seeming dissatisfaction of the country. Then Eagleton’s history of mental illness was disclosed (even shock treatments). Thompson was one of the first journalists to point out that the rest of the mainstream media was overlooking Watergate, which had already started. I recall a radio interview with McGovern that summer, where even McGovern said that very radical proposals would “drive the Democrats to defeat.”

The movie does show a lot of footage of Thompson as a young man, in his thirties during the Watergate era turbulence, as a kind of mixed radical leftist and survivalist, comfortable with his Second Amendment rights. He was still a “man’s man”, however much he had enjoyed Haight Asbury in San Francisco. He ran for sheriff in Aspen Colorado in the early 70s, and shaved his head as a campaign gimmick. But, all the time, while sometimes exercising the demeanor of someone you would find on the right, he articulated his disdain for the Establishment, and for libertarian style freedoms, which in his case sometimes included substances. Much of the film is told through his son.

The movie shows a lot of fantasy excerpts from the Terry Gilliam (Universal) film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998) based on his infamous novel. Gilliam had already done "12 Monkeys".

At the end, he took his own life. His family somewhat “romanticizes” the event, and the monument to him built in the Colorado mountains. The movie reports that he wanted to quit when he was ahead.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Boyds Historical Society offers short film about past segregation in Maryland

The Boyds Historical Society and Montgomery County Historical Society offer a 26 minute short “Boyds Negro School: Historic Lives,” directed by Ric Wagner. Boyds is a small town 27 miles northwest of Washington DC, off of I-270. The last weekend in June, the one room school house, which had run a one-room segregated school (for grades 1 to 7) from 1896 to 1936, was open to the public for viewing. In 1936, the students were moved to a school in nearby Clarksburg, and then to Edward Taylor Elementary School, which would become integrated in 1961. Near the end, the film mentions the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

The film is narrated by Steven Hartgrove and interviews former teacher Lillian Giles. Until the 1930s, it was common for a teacher to live with a family of one of the students, as she did. (This fact is noted in the 1964 book by Bill Severn: Teacher, Soldier, President: The Life of James A. Garfield.) One time she was stranded for a week in the area by a blizzard (of which many pictures are shown). The film describes home life, with the large families, daily chores, and crank-up victrolas that were used to play mostly hymns. The boys would play baseball and girls would play dodge ball. There are many black and white stills and film clips, including one of a steam train. There are many stills and videos taken from inside the school.

The film mentions two nearby communities, Turnertown and Blocktown, which apparently had been awarded to former slaves as consideration for their past service (or of their ancestors). No direct mention is made of the reparations argument.

Montgomery County (Maryland), with borders the Northwest side of Washington DC and reaches a bit more than half way to Frederick, MD, is one of the wealthiest suburban and exurban counties in the United States. Today it is generally considered politically liberal and tends to vote Democratic. That it has this history is indeed interesting.

Update: Sept. 22, 2011:  A similar school in Ellicott City (Howard County) MD.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lifetime films "In God's Country", "Cradle of Lies" hit the "social issues"

It sometimes seems to me that films that wind up on the Lifetime channel do fit into a “genre”. Not only do they focus on women’s issues and tend to feature female protagonists, they seem constructed to explore some aspects of the law and social custom as they apply to modern women. Saturday (July 5) Lifetime aired “In God’s Country”, (Shaftesbury Films, dir. John L’Ecuyer) a fictional story about a woman in a “fundamentalist” polygamous cult taking herself and children out of harms way, circumstances that roughly parallel what could have happened in Colorado City AZ and Eldorado, TX .

Today Lifetime aired a Canadian drama “Cradle of Lies” (directed by Oley Sassone, from Blueprint Entertainment and Breakthrough Films) about a young woman who comes to learn that her husband must sire a male child in legal marriage to get an inheritance. This theme (called the “dead hand” in Victorian English literature) seems to occur with some frequency in the movies, maybe more often than in real life (at least in the US). In this film, the actual writing of the critical scenes is handled with some skill, as the circumstances in the individual scenes seem unusual. For example, at one point the wife (Shannon Sturges) arrives at a restaurant expecting her husband (Dylan Neal). He does not show up but another man does. The scene is written in such a way as to make the viewer realize that the husband actually wants something to “happen” but we don’t know why for a while. The scene where the trust lawyer tells the husband that he has only a year to sire the child is quite brutal, and creates the sense of urgency usually demanded in commercial screenplays. The story accumulates some plotting the wife, outwitting the husband who winds up in prison as we learn he had eliminated a previous spouse who had not “peformed.” Then, the police learn, that he “shoots blanks.” Finally, in the last scene, we learn visually how she has really outwitted him.

There is an interesting scene early where she is shown working as an assistant principal in an elementary school, hugging students and showing more rapport than some principals would want. The set design of the grade school classroom is quite colorful and accurate.

Toward the end, the movie takes the “moral issue” (the will trust document calls the conditions a “morals clause”) to its own absurdity, as the importance of family lineage and family name collapses into itself in a kind of dramatic caricature, taking the husband into the area of soap opera behavior.

Friday, July 04, 2008

"The End of Suburbia", a Canadian documentary on energy depletion, gives consumers a moralistic tongue-lashing

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream,” directed by Gregory Greene, from the Electric Wallpaper Co., (2004, 80 min) is an alarming DVD film from Canada, and it covers more (from a moral viewpoint) than what the long title says. The DVD offers a G-rated option that eliminates one bad word in the main text.

First, the film is certainly prescient. The sudden shocks from the blue against our way of life seem to be coming, most recently in the crude oil price runnup since the beginning of 2008 (It close July 3 over $145, although it didn’t make the $150 doomsday prediction by July 4). And the film was shot four years ago, during avid post 9/11 concerns but during relative economic confidence. The film refers to $4 gasoline as the beginning of doomsday, and in 2008 that has happened.

The film also recalls the Red Envelope (Netflix) offering “A Crude Awakening” but this film spreads out more into a critique of western lifestyles and values and covers energy from a broader perspective than just oil.

For example, it analyzes the August 2003 power blackout, that supposedly started when a tree fell somewhere on a power line in Canada, but bad software supposedly caused current to flow in a wrong direction. The film maintains that we are running out of natural gas as well as oil. (What about coal?) It dupes the idea that renewable sources (solar, wind), even captured into batteries or cells, can enable North America to keep its lifestyle. It maintains that there is not enough land to grow all the crops for biofuels, and would take too much fossil fuels to bootstrap the process. Various speakers include Matthew Simmons (author of “Twilight in the Desert”) and James Kunstler (“Home from Nowhere”). The film discusses Shell Oil’s M. King Hubbard, who predicted that oil production would soon peak as far back as 1956 (PDF link: “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels”) Wikipedia has a detailed discussion of “Peak Oil” here. The mid 1970s recession after the 1973 oil shock may have delayed the peak. The sudden price spike that occurs after a peak passes was compared in the film to how an ordinary house circuit fuse works.

The early part of the film traces the development of suburbia. The modern account is generally that this happened after World War II with communities like Levittown, but some of it started in the 1920s. Streetcar lines in many cities extended the downtowns and made near suburbs attractive in places like Pittsburgh, but in the 50s companies conspired to replace these with car and truck traffic. The film shows a lot of humorous shots of 50s suburban life, even people on typewriters (ironically).

Although the film doesn’t specifically cover this, much suburbanization was related to de facto segregation. Even in the early 1980s in Dallas, many families with children moved north (to Richardson and especially Plano) to get to better school districts. Close-in and dense neighborhoods like Oak Lawn and Oak Cliff would be gentrified, partly by the LGBT community.

Toward the end, the film makes a pitch for returning to higher density living. This itself is nothing new. I've lived in relatively high density neighborhoods (New York, Arlington VA, Dallas, Minneapolis) most of my adult life. The movie predicts that many of the current suburbs will become slums, or that McMansions will house multiple families (and become tiny local truck farms). But it’s the business social relationships that seem to under the most disturbing fire. Globalization will implode, they say. One speaker refers to himself as an author, and worries that trade publishing will be gone in ten years, and he ponders starting a local newspaper. Because we won’t be able to afford global transport of many goods (the 3000-mile Ceasar salad), more people will be involved in agriculture and producing their own food, and it will become more labor intensive. The film points out that it takes 10 calories in energy to produce one calorie of food, significant for the developing world.That development will affect many of our ideas about personal and social morality and basic virtues. One speaker insists that social obligation will come back in many ways, including reinstituting the draft (he even mentions a call for people to serve quietly on Selective Service local boards again), and the connection between this and oil prices is, well, the War in Iraq, isn't it? Or is it something deeper. People may have less privacy and may have to adjust personal expectations and accept social intrusion of others. One can speculate that these developments could reinforce traditional marriage and child rearing and be very troublesome for those who are “different.”

The movie criticizes the major media outlets for not coming clean about these grim problems of adjusting to less energy and downsized personal lifestyles. This isn’t what consumers want to hear. The film predicts social denial and "provisional, impromptu" solutions for doing with less. The film notes the practice of "irony" or self-parody popular with artists (we now know this with the Internet), and predicts that this practice will become intolerable as the problems become "real". I recall how Donald Trump had noted this when firing one of his candidates on "The Apprentice."

The DVD has two shorts. One is “In the Suburbs” (1957), from Redbook Magazine, and it seems to have a lot of home movies of consumerist suburban life and looks forward to the expansion of it. The American Petroleum Institute offers “Destination Earth” (1956), an animated film that shows earthly lifestyles, driven by oil, from the viewpoint of fictitious Martians, who seem to have their own exotic civilization. I believe that this film was shown in seventh grade science when I went to school.

There is a sequel, “Escape from Suburbia” for which I am on a Netflix waiting list.

Update: July 6 ("Escape" sequel)

The sequel is now available for online viewing for Netflix subscribers. I watched it online this evening, although Netflix and Microsoft made me download a new Windows Media Player and reboot (it even checked my machine for valid licenses).

The film (94 min) picks up from the last film and makes the same arguments. Matthew Simmons, Richard Heinberg (“After the Party’s Over”), Michael Ruppert, and James Woolsey all speak. They say it takes about 10 to 15 years for policy changes made now to start working. They discussed “petrogeology” and said that “peak oil” (50% potential production) will quickly lead to exponential price rises according to econometric models (that may be happening now in 2008). The United States uses 25% of the world’s oil.

They recapitulated President Nixon’s “Project Independence,” Jimmy Carter’s “Moral Equivalent of War” and Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” when Reagan took down the White House solar panels (shown humorously in animation). The film moves into the phase where it shows individual families or people making the decision to change to localized, decentralized lifestyles. They talk about the need to “power down” their lives and live with less activity and global ambition. Some of the families move to rural farms. There is a Rattlesnake Mountain, that may be in Ontario; when I was on my senior trip in High School I hiked up Rattlesnake Mountain in the Lake District of New Hampshire! Other people try to stay in place and farm in the City. There is not necessarily a physical migration from suburbia; some will change their lifestyles in place. There is one male couple (apparently gay), one member of whom lost his job right after 9/11. It seems as though one of the men is giving up a collection when he moves. The end of the film discusses the social and political aspects of decentralized living, without coming to conclusions; it accepts the idea that this would lead to new social experiments without ego-sustaining power structures, which may sound too Utopian. But the movie again stresses the wrenching process that the West may go through in getting unhooked from the “forever economic growth” ideology. Wall Street doesn’t get it, they say. The idea that economic growth itself (as a mathematical calculus derivative) is not sustainable is still not politically acceptable.

One of the people in the film has a blog here about the "escape" (see comment).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

WALL'E -- an animated look at our future, until we go green

First, before getting on with the review, I note that Walt Disney Pictures has one of the best movie trademarks in the business. I love the model kingdom and little train heading toward the Magic Kingdom. But I find myself wondering, what if the Kingdom were Yzordderrex, the towering city in the Second Dominion in Clive Barker’s 1991 novel “Imajica”.

There is enough magic of sorts in Pixar’s new movie WALL’E (or "WALL*E") (directed and written by Andrew Stanton). We’ve all seen the cardboard models of the robot in the lobbies of movie theater chains. I haven’t gotten around to getting a picture yet.

The movie starts 700 years in the future, where global warming has ruined the world, and the City (I guess it’s LA, or maybe Manhattan -- it's hard to tell) is covered with compacted waste that lines the skyscrapers, that the robots keep packing on. Sudden Santa Anna dust storms can come down at any moment. The atmosphere is thick and particulate, rather hard to achieve in animation. Then we have the story of Wall’e and the search robot EVE. They wind up at a space station somewhere around Saturn called Axiom, populated by bloated, decadent people, a bourgeoisie languishing in luxury with limited gravity. Even the captain needs water pills. The space station is pretty interesting, laid out like a Wet ‘n’ Wild water amusement park, with lots of specialized facilities for the robots. The remained of the story has to do with the discovery that green plants may grow on earth again, and that they can go home. They probably don’t want to, as they will live in a Maoist cultural revolution, becoming peasants again under Earth’s gravity.

I could have reviewed this movie under my “films on threats to freedom” blog (the mega-disasters blog), but this movie is so abstract as to be seen for its own art.

The film was accompanied by a 6-minute Pixar short, “Presto and the Hat.” This spoof was an answer to “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige.” Here there is neither. The magician can’t trust the animals helping him behind the curtain. He even loses his trousers, revealing IBM garters from the 50s and bald legs. What an embarrassment.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Segei Bodrov's "artistic" epic "Mongol"

"Mongol" is marketed as a must see epic “art” film (apparently platformed starting with New York and LA but now in most cities), directed by Sergei Bodrov (written by him with Arik Aliyev). It is part spectacle, part “Russian western” or perhaps “Eastern.” And the spectacle is muted by the plainness as squalor of much of everyday life on the treeless, often gray-brown steppes (in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan), constantly swept by lightning storms, with landscapes sweeping enough in full 2.35: 1 anamorphic photography. The overall visual effect, however, because of the modest living circumstances, seems very down-to-earth compared to what Fox and MGM got us accustomed to with the “historical spectacle” genre of the 50s and 60s. The original music by Tuomas Kantelinen, sometimes ethnic and sometimes symphonic with lots of Russian minor keys, never sounds a bit like Alexander Borodin’s famous tone poem. The film, in Mongol with subtitles, is distributed by New Line’s “boutique brand” Picturehouse Entertainment, which also often handles the theatrical releases for HBO.

We all know that this is the story of the “jeunesse” of Genghis Khan, how be became a famous warrior that would conquer much of Asia in the 13th Century. And we know that it hits on his character and personal courage in family and tribal matters, rather than in “politics” which hardly existed then in that part of the world was we know them today (or maybe they did; schools have beefed up world history in recent years). As a young man, he is known as Temudgin (Japanese actor Tadanabo Asano) As the movie starts, he, as nine year old (Odnyam Odsuren, is coached by his father in picking out a future bride, from the Merkit clan. Marriage (and subsequent children) was a tool in that society for healing tribal rifts, just as it would become in western Europe (as in Columbia’s “Marie Antoinette”). But Temudgin is distracted and “confused” by a girl Borte (Bavertsetseg Erdenebat as a child, Khulan Chuluun as an adult) from a smaller tribe. She, even as a kid, tells him he should pick her. In this culture, this was accepted practice. Eventually they marry, and she will save his life more than once.

The movie has lots of other raw visual images, such as a wooden yoke, a curious and menacing wolf, and interesting if subdue costumes and interiors of tent homes. The moral values of the culture come out, especially protecting the families of warriors already slain. Eventually there is a need for a legal code, which would be “simple” (even compared to the Ten Commandments). The movie opens with a saying that a small cub can still grow up to become a ferocious tiger.

Near the end, there is one of these massive battle scenes with fronts of warriors, engaged old fashioned style, before modern asymmetry. There is plenty of saber induced mayhem to account for the R rating.

Bodrov's epic film does nudge us to ponder the "moral ambiguities" of tribal values, emphasizing the stability of the tribe over the rights and choices of the individual, yet cherishing choice in certain circumstances. Their values may be necessary for survival in a harsh environment and can inspire personal virtue, yet lead to horrific wrongs on a larger political and social scale.

At the end, the movie tells us that a major monastery, shown in the last frame, survives.