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.

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