Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Equus" (1977 film): how important it is to us to be right, sometimes

It isn’t that often that a “Hollywood” (or London-wood or Toronto-wood) film approximates a major episode of my life, but Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film (for MGM-United Artists) of Brit Peter Shaffer’s famous play “Equus” (1977) does recall my own period, after my college expulsion, as an “m.p.” in 1962, dealing with cigarette-smoking psychiatrists (right out of X-Files), and six months on the “mental health” experimental ward at N.I.H., in the same building that would be a center for AIDS research 25 years later.

In the play and film, Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist played by an aging Richard Burton, treats a mental hospital teenage patient Alan Strang (Peter Firth), who has blinded six horses in a brutal act that sounds like an act of relativistic compulsion. The film is given to long existential soliloquies and discussions to punctuate the progress of Alan’s treatment and the solution of his mystery.

Dysart does engage the parents, who set up a religious conflict within the home. He exploits the divisions between them over religion that help set up the boy’s belief system and conflicts. I did not undergo hypnosis (I did once in a dorm but not in treatment) and fake truth serums, something that leads to the film’s horrifying (and NC-17) climax and violence (imdb categorizes the film as “horror” among other things). In my case, the therapist would ask, “how did you see yourself …?” In the play and movie, there is a definite solution to the mystery; in my real life case, it is much more subtle.

The story makes the psychiatrist deal with his own potential demons (in fact, in real life psychiatrists have to deal with it – just consider “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)). Alan at one critical point asks-back why Dysart hasn’t had kids himself (he is nominally if heterosexually married), as if to anticipate Phillip Longman’s (or even Allan Carlson’s) idea of a “social contract” and “demographic winter” thirty years later.

In fact, to me, the notion of a “social contract” seems critical: one needs a belief system, and to “believe” that one’s world is somehow “right” (that doesn’t always mean “just”) before one’s own capacity to love (or to exude power) can be released. For many people, that means that the family is an intermediate unit of identity through which need sharing is really experienced, as part of a bigger idea of “rightness” (as well as “righteousness”, with which both psychiatrist and patient confuse it). For others, it is the idea that one’s erotic attractions express an idea of “rightness” in those who are chosen. (My own therapy got into this; the therapists wrote in their typewritten reports on me – which I got through FOIA – that I tended to extend the visible evidence of the “external trappings of manhood” in my contemporaries as mapped to evidence of moral superiority, as if Nietzche were keeping score. (The psychiatrists made the disturbing allusion to 1930s Germany, not me.) The most important line in the film is something like, you kill a man if you “take away his worship.”

Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Providence Effect": a private school gets inner city kids to colelge

Here’s a great indie documentary about “the kids”. Specifically, kids from grades K-12 from the inner cities in Chicago getting the change to go to a private school called Providence St. Mel (link) (there is a second school) that has almost 100% college admission. The film is “The Providence Effect” (link here), directed by Rollin Binzer, from Slowhand Releasing (and production company with the ironic name “Dinosaurs of the Future”).

The history of the school goes back to the late 70s, when the Archdiocese wanted to close it and then sold it at below market price to ambitious investors. Much of the film shows principal Paul Adams and administrator Jeanette DiBella. There are plenty of classroom scenes, especially of mathematics, including integral calculus (integrating trigonometric functions, hard to motivate, pretty advanced for high school), trigonometry, and matrix algebra (or linear algebra). All grades are shown, and the classes always emphasize heavy participation. DiBella enforces a policy that kids cannot work on another class’s homework in a class, and gets after a young white male math teacher for not watching each kid more closely doing classwork. (In ninth grade algebra, I remember that we had “classworks” that were graded as quizzes – like ten factoring problems.) In another scene, a young male is shown conducting a second grade class on language skills, and already they are talking about college. In still another elementary English class, students learn to spell some less common words like "cardigan" and "shawl"(probably from "The September Issue"). In kindergarten, kids sit on a rug and interact with a teacher who guides them into behavior and socialization skills, much as I saw in public schools. Some kids arrive at school not knowing how to hold a pencil or sit still.

Almost no one pays full private school tuition; for many kids, several extended family members share reduced tuition. Parents must come to conferences once every two weeks, and even must sign up for community service, or get fined.

The film does make me regret the breakdown of my own substitute teaching experience from 2004-2007, where there were discipline problems with certain kinds of students (in northern Virginia). At Providence, classroom management and discipline is built deep into the program. Teachers must roam and engage students continuously.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Surrogates": robots, puppets, Second Life, the Internet, and viruses

Jonathan Mostow’s swift sci-fi thriller “Surrogates” for Touchstone Pictures certain provides a clever metaphor to what has happened to our culture since the 1990s. We could look at our profiles on the Internet (in social networking sites, maybe even “Second Life”) as our “surrogates”, and we can get addicted to our virtual activity.

But “Canter” (James Cromwell) had invented “surrogacy” as a way to give handicapped people good lives. But corporate America (VSI) picked up on it, and pretty soon every middle class person owned a surrogate, financed the way autos are paid for (maybe surrogacy takes us out of this recession – good for our “love story” with capitalism; it also supposedly ends racism and discrimination). And like the Internet, anti-virus software (probably McAcfee, Norton and Webroot) protects the “operators”, until one day a hacker places a virus in the system that causes an owner to die if infected. The analogy would be your getting infected by a real virus by typing on your computer (maybe H1N1 is on your laptop), or somehow the virus comes from the Internet application into your brain (like in David Cronenberg’s 1983 horror film “Videodrome”).

In Boston, in the Southie back alleys, there is this colony for “humans only” that seems to be deploying the virus. We’ll face the idea that if all the surrogates are disabled, macro-society will have a big smashup (just like in “FlashForward”).

Bruce Willis, as detective Tom Greer, is less hard-edged than usual, even as a real person; his surrogate looks downright foppish. In fact, all the surrogates have Pixar-like faces (Touchstone is Disney, after all), and in a disco with dirty dancing, all the men’s chests are hairless. It’s not the real world, even the real straight world – and we have the term “meatbag.” (The “don’t ask don’t tell” phrase comes up once, cleverly.)

The closing credits have some disco music that I've heard before upstairs at the Town DC. But I don't think that disco is populated with surrogates, despite aspirations to physical perfection.

After the show, I said, within earshot of who I think was a military officer in civies at an AMC theater (well attended for a Sunday night), “I hope this doesn’t happen to the Internet.” No doubt, his job at the Pentagon was to protect the “surrogacy” of the Internet.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Arriaga's "The Burning Plain": more layered storytelling

Sometimes storytelling really works best out of sequence. The latest film from Magnolia and 2929, directed by Guillermo Arriaga, “The Burning Plain”, demonstrates that, in a layered drama involving several people in two generations. As the film opens, we watch a mobile home is desolate desert mountain country (near the Mexican border) burn up, and pretty soon we are engrossed in a drama involving a woman Sylvia (Charlize Theron) from present day Portland, Oregon (somehow reminding me of “Birddog”) and Gina (Kim Basinger) from the past, a woman who shows the scars of breast cancer. Sylvia is quite troubled about the past as her current partner Santiago (Danny Pino) faces loss of a leg, and then we learn about a somewhat forbidden and tortuous romance a couple decades before near the border (J. D. Pardo is quite powerful as the young Santiago). Gina had done some brazen things, like branding herself and Santiago on the arm, which rather gives hint to her nature.

The film is a smaller concept that “Babel”, which Arriaga conceptualized and then wrote, but it has some of the same techniques and vision as that film, as well as “21 Grams”. We experience the film in “psychological sequence” rather than chronological; the scenes are short and jump between decades very abruptly. Yet, this kind of narrative really works with this kind of mystery to solve.

The film, unlike the previous two, is shot at full 2.35:1.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Impromptu": 1991 film cover the Chopin-Liszt-Sand "triangle" with music

Impromptu” is a French-British-American film made in 1991 about the supposed replationship between pianist/composer Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) and novelist George Sand (Judy Davis), aka Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin. Somewhat like English novelist George Elliot, “Sand” had to pretend to be a man to get anywhere with her life as a writer. (I don’t know if her ideas are quite as challenging, as Elliot’s novels really generated beaucoup period-piece movies and often dealt with troubling ideas like the “dead hand”).

The movie has many of the plot elements of period-piece court dramas, this one filmed entirely in France, and reproducing the world of the 1830s that was just beginning to see that some day the class distinctions would lead to more than just a “Michael Moore” style rebellion – and revolution. (There’s a curious scene where kids are playing “it” in the woods, with the trees in perfect French alignment.)

The Countess Marie d’Agoult, mistress of Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), wants to stop Sand from having this “pseudo-gay” relationship, and intercepts a letter from Sand. The movie then uses a plot device known from Hamlet, the “play within a play”, as a satire (of the decadent bourgeoisie) by Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin).

The plot twists lead to a couple of stylish duels, which are not friendly wrestling matches. Sand steps in and finishes one for Chopin.

Hugh Grant, however, makes Chopin seem a bit more robust than Liszt; it’s hard for someone like Grant to seem frail. There is a lot of Chopin, Liszt (the Dante Sonata, during a duel) and Beethoven (a four-hand reduction of the Pastoral Symphony) in the music score. The best Chopin music is the G minor Ballade, which Chopin himself “practices” (verifying his manual composition process) in a salon in a crucial scene. That music, remember, figured in a climactic scene with Adrian Brody in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” (2001), as well as in the 1961 Dutch horror film “Mill of the Stone Women”.

Certainly, the movie leaves the impression that some of Chopin's music is virile; it's not always the manipulative salon music that sometimes it sounds like when performed artificially. I once suggested that the EB show Everwood should have let the prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) audition after all, and should have opened a season with his performing the passionate G Minor Ballade (or maybe the first movement of the B-flat minor Sonata, or maybe the C# Minor "Scherzo"). Or maybe WB finally makes a movie based on the show, and opens with Ephram's friend Kyle getting the audition.

The DVD is distributed by MGM and the original picture was an Orion Pictures release (with Governor Films and Sovereign Productions).

Attribution link for copyleft picture of Lourdes, France Cathedral, Wikipedia. I visited Lourdes in May 2001.

Update: Sept. 28, 2009

Here is the CNN account (by Maureen Miller for Anderson Cooper's 360 Program) of the situation regarding Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland and possible extradition to California for an offense in the late 1970s. AC360 gives you the chance to join the blog and make comments (you can make them here, too, as long as they're "constructive").

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Earth Days": a kinder, gentler PBS-style documentary about the history of environmentalism

The historical documentary "Earth Days" (website ), directed by Robert Stone, distributed to theaters by Zeitgeist, turns out to be a PBS film made under the auspices of WGBH in Boston, for the “American Experience” series. The style in historical storytelling about the environmental movement is more relaxed than many documentaries, but the use of actual film footage mostly from the 50s and 60s is quite effective.

Stuart Udall, astronaut Rusty Schweikart (a character in Apollo 13) congressman Pete McCloskey, Paul Ehrlich, and Hunter Lovins appear frequently.

Early on, the film presents Rachel Carsons and the effect of her 1962 book “Silent Spring.” Politicians are shown making grim predictions about future global warming and pollution (although in 1979 there were also concerns about a new ice age).

The film discusses and shows (especially with ribbon cutting on interstate highways and fin cars) the materialism of the 1950s, but also suggests that people were turning to material things as social relationships and families got weaker, perhaps the result of industrialization. That’s a “pro-family” argument known from writers like Allan Carlson (“The Natural Family”).

But the 1968 book “The Population Bomb” by Robert Ehrlich focused attention on what at the time sounded like exponential population growth, leading to a mentality, especially among educated women (and then gay men), that there were better things to do with one’s life than have large families, setting up today’s culture wars.

The film has a few impressive shots of Earth as seen from the Moon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Darius Goes West": a teen with DMD makes a road trip with his friends

The independent film “Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life” (url for (site ), directed by Logan Smalley, takes 15 year old Darius Weems, with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) (wiki), across the country on a road movie with college students, with the aim of getting on the MTV program “Pimp My Ride” to have his wheelchair customized. The disease is the most prevalent genetic killer of children and young adults in the world. Darius’s brother had already died of the disease.

The film chronicles the warm relationship with his friends, and the many stops at places like Carlsbad Caverns (which I visited in April 1980, in snow, ironically). A couple of the kids get tattoos and take a little humiliation “for the team.” The survive an RV breakdown in the rain, and get royalty treatment at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

There is a comment that our society overvalues “independence” when interdependence is inevitable and necessary. Later, there is a comment that disability will increase as baby boomers age and eldercare becomes a challenge.

The kids go hot-air-ballooning, and then white rapids rowing, apparently in the Colorado River.

They have to deal with places and facilities that are not easily wheelchair accessible.

The DVD is available in different “entertainment region” formats (NTSC, PAL), and a middle school version is available with a campfire scene deleted where the one sexually explicit conversation in the film happens.

The proceeds from the film go to "Charley's Fund" (link).

On Saturday, Sept. 27, 2009, Frederica Whitfield on CNN interviewed Jason Rzepka from MTV. Then Darius himself appeared.

The MTV link for the showing on that cable channel is here.

Picture: Atlanta (mine, from 2004).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Spanglish" gently nudges at the culture wars

The Sony-Columbia film “Spanglish”, directed by James L. Brooks, came out over Christmas in 2004, but it sounds more recent, maybe because the cultural issues in this long but gentle comedy stick to the ribs. The story is told by the bilingual daughter Cristina (Shelby Bruce), who accompanies her mother Flor (Paz Vega) across the border to settle in a kind of little Mexico: Texas isn’t quite as homey to them as LA, where they settle.

Cristina longs to assimilate, a major concept of the film. (In fact, one of my novel plots, a young “European” Hispanic boy from Texas is already “assimilated” as he interacts with the life of a covert CIA agent, so the concept registers). Flor takes a job as a domestic in a well-to-do family of a chef John (Adam Sandler) and his rather narcissistic wife Deborah (Tea Leoni). We have the elements of misbehavior and love triangles (PG-13), which Cristina narrates almost in the style of a “Gossip Girl”. She makes astute comments. For example, American women give up their femininity and natural maternal instinct in order to compete, an idea that would resonate with social conservatives (like the authors of that book “The Natural Family” that I reviewed recently). Or, how in any family there has to be a social pecking order, and how people have to interact whether they want to or not. Sometimes you want to be left alone to do your own thing, and family members won’t let you.

The title of the film refers to the jargon of “American” Spanish, where English and Spanish words are used interchangeably, with false cognates sometimes taking on new meaning. High school kids, for example, know that “la tarea” means homework.

Sandler, except for one bedroom scene, is not quite as over-the-top as in Waterboy and “Big Daddy.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Fuel": Peak Oil bypassed in a Veggie Van

The film “Fuel”directed by Australian born Josh Tickell (website) won the best documentary audience award at Sundance, and traces the director’s own journey to explore and promote biofuels, starting with a “Veggie Van” run on leftover cooking oil from fast foods.

The film interleaves his own story with a documentary that loosely summarizes the problem of “” and the lobbying lock held by big oil companies. The film includes many historical clips and lively animation elements to make its points, including footage of 9/11, and then Katrina, to make his points. The U.S. is a debtor nation that has to go and take its resources, like a man who can’t pay his bills; 9/11 and the following war in Iraq taught us that. Hurricane Katrina was followed by an oil spill bigger than the Exxon Valdez, but the oil companies didn’t have to clean it peak oilup. The film shows how much of the biofuel potential was known in the 19th Century because of the inventions of German engineer Rudolf Diesel.

The film also has a strong autobiographical component. The director’s journey started with a high school science fair in 1991. He makes a strong physical presence (especially on the movie poster); tall and lean, blond, and balding, he still has the face of a teenager as he approaches 40. He does become the “star” of the film, and some critics might see this as author intrusion, but I personally did not. In 2008, he was disheartened when “enemies” published reports saying that biofuels would compete for fuel; but then he developed the idea of using algae and tree farms for biofuels rather than government-subsidized corn. He does trace the geopolitics of fuels and food both.

Ironically, the film makes a good complement to “The Informant!”, a much larger film reviewed yesterday from a conventional studio and from Participant. This film was made with previously unknown companies (Open and Blue Water) but is very professionally photographed and edited and appears to have had ample resources, including actor Woody Harrelson. Participant could have made this film! I think that this movie that an “ordinary person” (in this case, an engineer) with a good story or script and ability (“people skills”) to sell his or her ideas can raise the money for an important film.

Harrelson makes the point that he is willing to pay more for things for our future because he has kids.

I could not find this film on imdb, but I found several other films with this title, including two in 1999.

It played to a fair crowd Saturday night early show at Landmark E Street in Washington. It would have been nice had the director been there.

On Sunday Sept. 20, at a church service at Trinity Presbyterian in Arlington VA, I heard about a concern that large corporations were expropriating land from "peasants" in Colombia to build palm plantations for biofuels. It would be nice if this could have been covered in the film.

Picture: Flint Hills in Kansas: a source of biofuels? (My picture, 2006)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Matt Damon doesn't look so good as "The Informant!"

Matt Damon’s latest acting venture as “The Informant!”, directed by Steven Soderbergh, may be his first act of self-effacement. His face is fatter than ever as, at 38, he had to gain thirty pounds for this role. He looks far cry from the building-climbing Jason Bourne.

The film tells the true story (based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald) of Mark Whitacre (Damon), as the scientist turned whistleblower and informat at ADM, or Archer Daniels Midland in Illinois. Whitacre has found himself drawn into corporate kickbacks and price-fixing (of lysine), and his wife (Melanie Lynskey) encourages him to play informant. Whitacre gets into a long sequence of gumshoeing for the FBI, including Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), wearing a wire (we’re spared the chest shaving scene that occurs before the wire taping in “Se7en” with Brad Pitt), a polygraph, and various hit-or-miss meetings around the world.

Whitacre claims he is above board, bragging that he adopted two children to pay back his karma for being adopted himself. He says he is being chased an falling despite being the good guy. But as time goes by, we’re less convinced of his innocence; he seems to have developed a flim-flam element of his own, despite his advanced degrees and origins in science. In a final scene, from prison, we get to imagine what Damon might look like if he really did go bald, partially. As a whole, the movie gives a pretty good account of how a man who thinks he is “good” can slip into trouble with the law, and rationalize what he does, Dr. Phil style.

The film was produced and distributed by Warner Brothers, along with Participant and Groundswell. It’s shot in regular 1.85:1, a lot of it on location around the world, some of it in HD video to give it an indie look.

Back in the 1990s, I remember a booklet that promoted Matt Damon, along with his "best friend" (Ben Affleck). And Matt still insists that hos own original for his "Good Will Hunting" shooting script still its on an early 1990s hard-drive in his home. Damon once posted an essay on Miramax's "Project Greenlight" contest site discouraging people from going into the movies. "Don't do it", he advised.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strand offers feature-length documentary on making of gay-related "Time to Leave", covering filmmaking techniques; script fight over "Love Happens"

Today, I have a couple of items that are more about filmmaking and filmwriting.

First, I recently rented the French film “Time to Leave” (“Le temps qui reste”) by Francois Ozon, distributed by Strand Releasing, known for its library of LGBT films, in 2005. The story concerns the life path chosen by a gay photographer Romaine (Melvil Poupard) when facing a non-HIV-related terminal cancer diagnosis. Although his behavior is then boorish and maybe reckless, he fathers a child, providing some moral irony, before his “letting go” on a beach in Brittany.

But the DVD contains a 66 minute “feauturette”, “The Making of 'Time to Leave'” that is a documentary feature itself in gay-related filmmaking. Unlike most “making of” bonuses on DVD’s, this is a well-structured complete film (worthy of inclusion in an AFI Silverdocs festival) that analyzes the script writing and direction issues for each major character and each major setting. So the bonus amounts to a “Time to Leave II”. It’s in 1.85:1 whereas the original is 2.35:1, and still in French, with some subtitling. It’s a lot easier to get understanding from the film if you speak French and follow it without titles, however. Particularly interesting is the material on the makeup and touchup of the actors, and of the body mechanics and body language in directing the gay intimate scenes (even the use of the “sling”). In a scene near the end, Poupard demonstrates shaving or clipping his own head for a shoot. (Sorry, he’s not quite like Aaron Eckhart in “Meet Bill”.) In a few scenes, the director questions whether Poupard, with his bony, naturally hairless torso, looks "skinny." The lighting and look of the final beach scenes get attention. I wondered here what the scene would look like if filmed instead at the famous “circle beach” in San Sebastian, Spain.

There’s a curious news item today about “Love Happens” (not "Love Actually") with Aaron Eckart (again – he can’t get over “Thank You for Smokimg”, where his bod was duly mauled in the van scene) and Jennifer Aniston) which opens this weekend – there seems to be a complicated legal fight over the copyright ownership of the script. There is a blogger entry on it here. Remember, Hollywood has a “third party rule” when looking at scripts (even loglines), and situations like this explain why Tinseltown enforces it. It seems silly to indie filmmakers and writers, who “know” that nobody else could really use their “idea” and make anything of it. (And, given the world of the Internet and search engines, who can enforce a “third party rule” anyway?) Commercial “mall” cinema and independent cinema still seem to be in different worlds, but they are coming together more again.

Attribution link for p.d. Bayeux Tapestry photograph. Bayeux is near Brittany, more or less; I visited it and saw the tapestry in May 1999.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"One Day You'll Understand": another moral parable about Nazi-occupied Europe

One Day You’ll Understand” (or “Later” or “Plus Tard Tu Comprenderas”) (2006) from Amos Gatai, based on the autobiography by Jerome Clement, is another moral fable about Nazi Europe early in WWII. Clement examines the life of his mother, a Jewish woman Rivka (Jeanne Moreau) who married a Catholic priest before the War and escaped the roundups.

The story is told, largely through flashbacks as well as conversation stirred by the discovery of letters, by the grandson Victor (Hippolyte Giradot), who somehow feels he must struggle with ancestral karma. I can now understand the need to deal with it. His sister (Dominque Blanc) does maintain that it was the only way to save her life. You can extend to from this to discussions about how the Nazis hid under Christianity and Catholicism, that looked the other way and pretended not to understand what was happening.

The movie is low-key, brief and quiet compared to larger films that deal with this kind of subject matter, such as "Sophie’s Choice" (1982, novel by William Styron), where Meryl Streep plays a woman who, retrospectively, must deal with betraying her daughter in the concentration camps. Another film that comes to mind is "Julia" (1977, Fred Zinnemann) where Jane Fonda played Lillian Hellman.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"It Might Get Loud": 3 electric guitar players

“It Might Get Loud”, directed by Davis Guggenheim and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, is a documentary on Irish electric guitar players The Edge (U2), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and Jack White (the White Stripes). As such, it is not quite as imposing as real concert movies like the recent one from Disney (“The Jonas Brothers: the 3D Concert Experience”). Nevertheless, the film does trace the different styles of the three artists.

Instead of immediate concert experience, the movie gives us some true grit: some graining images of the Dublin harbor, of NYC in the 1970s with big cars and Mama Leone’s; of the catastrophic results of IRA violence, reminding us of “The Crying Game.” The opening scene shows one of the trio improvising a guitar with simple tools; later scenes show the work of making real guitars at home, in a family with ten siblings. There’s a lot of familiar music from the 70s and 80s, bringing back old memories.

The soundtrack, in the theatrical performance in an older AMC theater in Arlington, was a bit tinny; the credits mentioned Dolby, without the Digital. And it does get loud with a little acoustic feedback; too loud for garden apartments.

This film was also previewed last June in Silverdocs.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"The September Issue": Vogue and fall fashions

The September Issue” sold out quickly at AFI Silverdocs last summer, so it’s good to see that Roadside Attractions picked up this entertaining documentary (from A&E) about the stages (measured in days until cutoff) for the production of Vogue’s leadoff fall issue. The official title of R. J. Cutler’s film is “The September Issue: Anna Wintour & The Making of Vogue” . September is the fashion world’s January, and “fall” is when it happens and the real world comes to life. The issue is here.

Anna Wintour is the impersonal boss, but she hardly comes across as running a reign of terror like Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”.

The documentary waltzes to Paris, Rome and London as well as New York, and almost reinvents the fashion world of the 50s.

The film shows the intimacy of the work, as with duties like the dressing of models. Designer items for rather minor and personal items are shown, imparting a sense of the world of personal care.

The film also covers commercial photography, and the world of editing of pictures. In one amusing sequence, the editor is asked not to remove a pot belly and present the “thin male look” of the photographer.

Picture: Woodcut by Robert Adsit, 1981, purchased by me in San Antonio then.

Update: May 30, 2010: Anna Wintour portrayed in "60 Minutes" segment

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Birddog" (Kelley Baker) echoes "Fargo"

Kelley Baker, who presented the topic of low-budget filmmaking at DC Shorts, had, back in 1999, made his “cult classic” comedy “Birddog” (from Angry Filmmaker), set in his home Portland OR. He uses that as an example of old-style guerilla filmmaking, as it was shot on 35 mm, in a time when digital video was starting to be accepted. The terse story takes an over-educated user car dealer Tommy (Jim Cuevas) from business intrigues back to uncovering the mystery behind the 1948 flooding of Vanport, Oregon. This city was built between Portland and Vancouver, WA for WWII shipbuilding and defense efforts and housed mostly minorities and low income people. The flooding, with the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers, makes an apt comparison with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans (Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke “ on HBO) and the "Johnstown Flood" (as in a film of that name narrated by Richard Dreyfuss) in Pennsylvania in the 1880s.

The car salesman is a complex character, wanting to break through as a writer (a talent that helps feed his gumshoeing); there’s an early scene where a “professor” advises him and other classmates on how to make their fiction more personal.

The script has some great lines, like “you have to play it straight with your car dealer and your bail bondsman.” In fact, there is a scene where Tommy is arrested, not read Miranda rights, but in the next scene calling for the Kiwanis club in jail jumpers. The film has that kind of black comedy and satire that recalls the Coen Brothers and “Fargo”.

Another device in the film imagines not only the effect of police and D.A.’s but also of the newspapers – yet by 1999 the Internet and Web were already starting to become a real threat for unwanted publicity.

Attribution link for Vanport Flood picture on Wikipedia. Picture above is of Johnstown PA, 2007.

DC Shorts Show 6 ("Remote" and "Disarmed")

Today, after fighting through single tracking on the Metro and the Washington Tea Party to get to Landmark’s E Street, I saw “Show 6” of DC Shorts. All films would have been suitable for PG-13 except one (mentioned below), but there were plenty of potential teen filmmakers in the audience.

Thick as Thieves” (USA, dir. Chris Demarais and Marshall Rimmer, 9 min) has young professional men, when waylaid in a back alley in Austin, TX, joining a crime crowd to make an easier living. The concept is pretty cynical, but it’s supposed to be funny.

The Leap to Happiness” (“El Salte a la Fellcidad”, Colombia, dir. Andres Cuevas, 8 min) contemplates “risk taking” in deciding to swim across a dangerous river and “let go” of things.

Boo” (USA, dir. Michael Goldberg, 12 min). On Halloween, a woman has to wonder if trick-or-treaters are from the beyond. It reminds me of Sony’s “Baghead”. This film won the "filmmaker's favorite" vote for the festival.

Remote” (Canada/Quebec, dir. Marc Roussel, 20 min) is the main attraction of this set and is a bit of a take-off on “Videodrome”. This time, a man, when losing a cable connection, sees in the snowy images a woman who had lived in his apartment 30 years before. Party through the TV and partly through his laptop (Macintosh), he sees that the woman is about to be victimized by an unsolved crime. The time machine effect looks forward, as he is in jeopardy, too, as part of the coverup.

Disarmed” (USA, dir. Justin Dittrich, 18 min) seemed to be the most popular with the audience, but it is a bit of a manipulation for its own sake. A young white man hides his arms in a shirt and pretends to be armless to win the affections of a young lady, with the help of an Asian friend. Why is she attracted to him? The climax is grabby and gets the R rating.

Deadline” (USA, dir. Lisa Marie Wilson and Stuart Altman). A woman with cancer meets the teenage son she had given up for adoption before she faces her own terminal situation.

A Little Chart” (Netherlands, dir. Jeffrey Elmont, Cinemascope, partly black and white) Two men have a chat about some pretty serious stuff going on “while Europe sleeps.” The film seems vaguely related to some assassinations that would follow.

Missing the Boat” (Australia, dir. Pietre de Graeve, 14 min). Plenty of funky costumes, the Melbourne skyline, and a FitzCarraldo-looking getaway boat.

Desert Wedding” (USA, dir. Alexander Fisher) A young bride-to-be tries to held her chauffeur after a tragic accident, with an irony, which her marriage cannot afford.

Friday, September 11, 2009

DC Shorts opens with workshops for newbie and low budget filmmakers

Today DC Shorts sponsored some free workshops for newbie filmmakers at Landmark E Street Cinema in downtown Washington DC (across the street from the FBI Building).

Sonia Feigenbaum gave a talk on how to apply for grants with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The basic URL link is here although the Aug. 2009 deadline for 2010 projects has passed.

Grants can be considered for films “in the humanities” that present multiple points of view and that do their best to present academic expertise in the humanities subject area.

Advocacy films cannot be funded (or even considered for funding). For example, a film telling people not to drink and drive or text and drive cannot be funded, but a film showing the history of MADD might be suitable, because it is informative and not political advocacy as such.

From the floor, I asked if “don’t ask don’t tell” and “online reputation defense” could be “humanities” subjects, and she said most definitely yes, as long as they were developed in an educational fashion, presenting all points of view from credible (and preferably academic) sources on the relevant issues (like “unit cohesion” or, say, controlled industry or academic studies on how employers check the online presence of applicants (probably a sociology dissertation subject).

She differentiated between academic and professional sources, as suitable, and other journalists, as not sufficient in themselves (like a book likely written by a professional journalist) unless backed up by actual academic research and findings.

She also said that it is very helpful (almost mandatory) to have a fiscal sponsor, which will usually be a non-profit or 501c3. In some cases, filmmakers might be able to instantiate themselves as 501c3’s. There are some sponsors like The Center for Independent Documentary (link), “Women in Film and Video” (link) and the “DC Film Alliance” (link) connected to DC Shorts.

You can apply multiple times over the years for grants, and short films can get grants, although few apply.

At 1 PM Kelley Baker, filmmaker from Portland, OR and founder of “Angry Filmmaker” (link) gave a presentation of “Making an Extremely Low Budget Feature.” He mentioned networking with others and making friends as among the best filmmaker behaviors. It’s important to have insurance and to feed actors and crew, but often many will take deferred compensation. You can write scripts in such a way as to tell as story with lower cost. For example, consider cross-country running instead of wind sprints at Beijing or car chases. You can deal to film at appropriate times, as on weekends and in the winter, when crews are more available and some public properties like schools are available.

With regard to insurance, Baker mentioned that it is better to work with an agent with whom one has a personal/business "relationship" rather than buy it on the Net. There is a place for insurance agents and "salesmen" after all, ironically, in his world.

Baker showed is 7-minute short, “Stolen Toyota”, which does consist mostly of talking heads outdoors (talking about loss of their cars to theft), and he says it has indirectly made him some money. But his “Birddog” led to a long fight with the IRS, and he advises filmmakers not to run up credit card bills (so does Suze Orman in her smackdowns).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Videodrome": a VHS-days view of "Second Life": maybe too much TV really is bad for you

On the same day that MSNBC aired a report about cell phone use and the remote and undocumented possibility of brain damage, I watched this old David Cronenberg film “Videodrome”, which is predicated on the idea that the television video screen turns the retina into the “mind’s eye.” The film dates back to 1983, carries the full Universal brand, and came out just as VHS and Beta were coming into being and creating legal copyright issues.

I remember back in “junior high school” in the 1950s that teachers said “read, don’t watch television” – maybe afraid, to quote this movie, that “public life on television is much more real than private life in the flesh.”

Max Renn (James Woods, always a tense actor in his time) gets interested in the hardcore stuff, maybe even snuff, that he thinks is coming from Malaysia. He gets into cahoots with this weird professor Brian O’Blivion (Peter Creeley) who drags him into the world of video-induced brain tumors. Pretty soon, and after wearing some head contraptions intended to immerse him into a humiliating alternate reality, he pretty much loses it. His torso is opened up to play the video itself, and for this purpose it must be hairless. (His torso can also store weapons. And eventually, well, it becomes receptively female, like in the Roadside Attractions horror film “Teeth”.) Pretty soon, we learn that there is a “plot” to infect all the “riffraff” of society with videos in order to get them to self-destruct.

What’s interesting about a film like this now is the boxy technology, in the days before CD’s, no less the Internet and Second Life. We have touch tone phones but no cell phones or blackberries.

There’s a great line, “See you in Pittsburgh” – but not at the Andy Warhol Museum. The film, if classic Cronenberg and Canadian horror, has elements of David Lynch and even Warhol himself. The film, in one climatic scene, even expresses the concept of body parts integrating with tumor to produce weapons (an idea that occurs in the “Alien” franchise).

I remember that Roger Ebert gave this film a curious review back in the 80s. I would see Cronenberg’s “Spider” at a special screening with the director in the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis in 2002.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"Welcome to Macintosh": even if you use Windows Vista

Netflix offers the documentary “Welcome to Macintosh”(2008) by Robert Baca and Josh Rizzo. The website is here and the film calls itself “The documentary for the rest of us.”

It’s perhaps a challenge to make film out of a lot of stills of old hardware, but actually old Apple computers (from “Apple Computer” before it was “Apple Inc.”) with the engineering diagrams (for EE majors) can be interesting to look at. Lots of the principals of the company over the decades are interviewed, and the younger Steve Jobs and Wozniak are shown, and the return of Jobs in 1997 is shown (his recent liver transplant is not covered). Brit-sounding Leander Kahney does a lot of the talking, and at one point he mentions that recently bloggers have been sued for giving away Apple (and other software vendor) trade secrets. A couple of the engineers were also accomplished musicians, like Andrew Hudgins.

The name “Apple” was inspired by – you guessed it – Sir Isaac Newton and his experiments, common to high school physics.

The film also covers the relationship of Apple to Microsoft. One of the speakers says that Windows (especially Vista) is an operating system for people who want to “feel superior” that they can understand quirky error messages designed to make users feel stupid.

I bought an iMac in 2002 and used it for Movie maker, but have not found it perfect by any means.

I recommend that the visitor also check out “Revolution OS” (2001, Seventh Art/Netflix/Wonderview, dir. J.T.S. Moore, 89 min), about the open-source movement.

Monday, September 07, 2009

"Splendor in the Grass": Finding strength in what lies behind

In the fall of 1961, during my eleven weeks at William and Mary, I saw the film (prescient, for me) “Splendor in the Grass”, now a classic WB movie directed by Elia Kazan, written by William Inge.
 The story is inspired by a passage toward the end of the famous poem by William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (link).
The famous words about bringing back the moments of “splendor in the grass” refer to young love, forbidden love, a bit of Romeo and Juliet. Here, the girl Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) is from a poor family in Kansas in 1928, whereas the boy Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) comes from the rich side. Deanie’s mother fears that her not remaining a “nice girl” will cause her any chance to get married, and Bud’s pa fears the opposite, that he’ll have to marry a tramp. The story builds up considerable tension (just within what we call PG-13 today), including a scene where Bud “teases” her into worshipping him and then apologizes.
 Finally, when Deanie hears the poem, she cracks, and winds up in a mental institution. Bud’s family goes broke in the Depression, but both marry someone else and wind up, in a final meeting, wondering what might have been.

In my mindset at the time, there was plenty for me to “emote”. In my own way of thinking that previous summer, I had known a kind of psychological “splendor”, and already “found strength in what lies behind”. I would wind up in a “mental institution” of sorts, NIH, in 1962, in an episode I’ve discussed on my main blog (look at Nov. 28, 2006). An episode in Season 3 of Smallville retrospects back to 1961 and shows a marquee for the “Splendor in the Grass” film as if it had shown in Smallville, KS that year. Another controversial film that I saw that fall in Williamsburg was “Goodbye Again” (aka “Aimez-vous Brahms”, United Artists), directed by Anatole Litvak, based on the novel by Francoise Sagan, with Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman, and a famous use of the Poco Allegretto from Brahms’s Symphony #3. This latter film does not appear to be available on DVD yet (logically, it would belong to MGM).

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright": a real theater piece (1950)

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950), for Warner Brothers, is a “transitional” film, one of the last before his style would open up into more international and American settings. And it is a “theater piece” in the sense that Leonard Bernstein would have called his “Mass”. The story, totally character driven, moves in and out of real life into the actors’ roles as “actors”, with much of the movie taking place in performance venues – the home where Eve (Jane Wyman) impersonates a domestic, doing the physical work, at the garden party where the evil Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich) sings the special Cole Porter song, “The Laziest Gal in Town”; and on the formal rehearsal stage, where the conniving (we find out) counterparty actor Cooper (Richard Todd) shows himself a future Norman Bates – before his own “stage fright” leads to his gams, balding or not, being whacked off.

OK, high school students – if this is really a theater piece – it’s fair warning – for your first English literature test this fall on Julius Caesar or something like that, you need to know the eight parts of the Elizabethean theater, including the proscenium doors. At least I had to memorize this in tenth grade.

Charlotte – well, will she become the precursor of “Hush Sweet Charlotte” or will she morph into Katrina, the evil grandmother of “Days of our Lives”?

The movie is noted for having a narrating character (Jonathan Cooper) actually lie in a flashback or backstory, as he has to get Eve’s “trust”.

A friend of mine, who composes and sometimes performs, tells people that he has “state fright” – but not to the catastrophic end of this film. Jonathan, it turns out, is really chilling, whispering, dissolving, becoming chopped into pieces.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Logan Lerman ("The Kid") rules the world (again) in "My One and Only", a 50s period indie comedy

Logan Lerman again proves that, at age of 16 or 17 now, he can dominate a movie or show. His latest is the ambitious indie 50s period comedy, “My One and Only” (2009; site) directed by Richard Loncraime, from Herrick Entertainment, Merv Grffin Productions, George Hamilton Productions, and Freestyle Releasing (which appears to be related to Lionsgate). Once again, we have independent film with big and upcoming A-list stars: most of all, Renee Zellweger as Anne Deveraux; Logan as her teenage son George, Kevin Bacon (who, at 51 and grizzled, seems to have grown some chest scraggle since that June 1999 “Weekly Standard” article by David Skinner, “Notes on the Hairless Man”) as the hubbie (Dan) New York band leader (aka Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy – the movie actually excerpts 50s sitcom “Life with Elizabeth” without that punchline “aren’t you ashamed?”) ; Nick Stahl as Bud (Nick has aged since “In the Bedroom” and Bud does remind me a bit of “Bud Stamper” from “Splendor”); and Mark Rendall as George’s “obviously gay” brother Robbie.

The movie is told from George’s point of view as narrator, and here the narration works because George is on his way to becoming a writer, storyteller, and actor. When hubbie Dan bolts, Anne takes her two sons on a long roadtrip, with stops in Boston, St. Louis, and eventually in Hollywood. Early on, there is a line that George must be the “man” of the family because his older brother is so nelly (always knitting). It’s like a baseball roadtrip all right, without a losing streak. When they get separated and a hitchhiker tries to rob Anne, Robbie rises to the occasion and plays “pink pistols”. We root for Robbie to continue his career as an actor after a tornado cancels his play, but once on the set in Hollywood he doesn’t have the poise to render his lines. Superman brother George steps in with the acting career, and Robbie becomes a costume maker. But you get the felling that Robbie got "bumped" by his younger but dominating brother (nevertheless, Robbie can handle a gun).

That’s how Lerman plays it: he is kind of Clark Kent without the buff bulk, but the same kind of moral intelligence. But he is like that in all his films. Even at 13, in the WB series “Jack and Bobby”, he protected his mother from a suitor on a camping trip when he says, “just because I’m a kid you think I don’t see things. Well, I do.” He uses big words (“aphorisms”) when buying a Cadillac for his mother in the opening scene (I loved the forced negotiation sequence, having just bought a Focus myself). Remember how he manipulated the banker played by Aaron Eckhart in “Meet Bill”. He’s almost the same character here, “The Kid”.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"The Union": Canadian indie film makes libertarian case for decriminalizing pot

There have been several indie films about the evils of our drug laws, but a Canadian film, directed and written by Brett Harvey, co-created by Adam Scorgie, called “The Union: The Business Behind Getting High" (2007) (link), available from Netflix, makes an even more interesting argument. That is, in Canada (here, around Vancouver), the police don’t care very much what people do, allowing rallies where people smoke marijuana in the open, yet they’ll take serious an extradition order from the United States for Internet activity carried out completely within Canada.

The film describes how the “business” works, the with landowner protected (what he doesn’t know doesn’t hurt him), but with other carriers plainly in the position as “fall guys” as the stuff crosses the border.

The film covers the usual political arguments pretty well: politicians cannot afford to challenge the drug laws, and nobody with a public career will speak out against them. Well, don’t “blame Canada”. The “organic chemistry class” arguments are interesting, too: a drug that can be prescribed legally is an allotropic form of cannabis that does not grow naturally and is marginally less psychoactive.

The film talks about hemp, which apparently cannot be grown legally in the US, as a product that is green-friendly and could help us deal with global warming.

Maybe upper middle class stuffiness about lawn management is warranted: you never know if some wild weeds growing in your yard or garden are illegal until the choppers show up.
 Update:  must confess that in Sept. 2013. I viewed it again, as Netflxi doesn't keep track of films you forget to rate.  I note that Jesse Ventura appears.    I also note the "Grow Ops" in Vancouver neightborhoods, and the resistance of neighborhood wattchhes.  A Canadian, named Emory, gets extradited and prosecuted in the US for selling drugs over the Internet;  another American is prosecuted simply because is name is connected indirectly to US drugs. American presidents (especially the first Bush, and Reagan) are shown as especially intransigent on the topic.  Remember Nancy Reagan's "Just say no!"  In 1973, New York State passed a particularly stiff drug law.

Sanjay Gupta has a riveting report on how he changed his own mind about marijuana on CNN, review on TV blog, Aug. 11, 2013.

The plant below is "only" wild grape.  But illegal plants probably grow in people's yards all the time!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"Trumbo" shown by PBS on "American Masters" (story of blacklisting by Hollywood)

The 86 minute film “Trumbo”, about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, directed by Peter Askin and written by son Christopher Trumbo was originally distributed to arthouses by Samuel Goldwyn films, but tonight (Sept 2), many PBS stations played the film free as part of the “American Masters” series. The MPT link is here.

Trumbo and his family were living on an isolated ranch in Colorado when a rare car approached their Drohega, and the occupant was a process server. He wounded up testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and going to prison until 1951 for contempt of Congress. He would be blacklisted and go to Mexico, but gradually beat the blacklists by using pseudonyms (films like “Roman Holiday” and "The Brave One" ["Robert Rich" as front]). Later, writers would escape jail if they pleaded the 5th, but would still be blacklisted, and be manipulated into “naming names” (of other supposed “Communists” – a witch-hunt process resembling that taken in modern times against gays in the military).

The government jawborned Hollywood studios as being the chief enforcers of McCarthyism "Tall Gunner Joe"), as Hollywood as seen as "royalty". Private employers were enforcing government policy in a manner that resembles the Chinese corporate state today.

The blacklists would be lifted in 1960, but it would take time for most writers to come back, if at all. Dalton Trumbo would become known for “Spartacus” (with its “love scene” at the end as well as the “I am Spartacus” scene) and “Exodus”.

His wife and son describe the witch-hunts as throwing one into survival mode (very much like in today’s recession for many people), and “getting ready to become a nobody.” The describe government plans to reinvent the Nisei detention camps as concentration camps for political radicals.

The film, in docudrama style, has many well known actors speaking dialogue (alone) as it might have happened (with relatively little in the way of props), a style of writing common with some Colonial Williamsburg historical plays. Son Christopher Trumbo apparently wrote the material in thus style as a stage play around 2003. Technically, the film was relatively simple to make. The actors include Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, Kirk Douglas, Brian Dennehy, and David Strathairn (from “Good Night, and Good Luck”).

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New Line's "Final Destination" franchise: 3-D doesn't add that much

New Line has brought back its notorious “Final Destination” franchise with simply “The Final Destination” in 3-D – for which I had the privilege of paying $4.50 extra at a Regal today.

Everybody knows the theme: Death keeps stalking each of the characters, an invisible enemy that would fit into a Friday the 13th if materialized. Really, I wonder how many get the supernatural, almost religious meaning: your karma follows you, and nature seems to arrange the stacks (perhaps taking advantage o f quantum mechanics) to make you face your just desserts.

Except the most of the victims are likeable. Bobby Camposecco plays Nick, the enterprising teen who does figure out that there is a “List” in the netherworld, and that saving just one person in the chain (there’s hope after a car wash drowning is avoided) could stop the process. Don’t get your hopes up.

There’s enough that goes wrong with technology in this movie to make you a Luddite. But it’s old bricks and mortar machinery, winches and cables, the kind of stuff that was around even when silent films were made.

The 3-D effects are gruesome enough, with all the poking (I don’t mean a Unix poke). And the story uses dreams (Nick’s prescience) as a way of adding to the most explicit carnage. One dream sequence has a movie theater blowup like that of “Inglourious”. But no scene is so graphic was one in F.D. II, where a man is bisected by a trip wire, and actually stands for a moment after being cut in half, only then to topple over.