Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Roman Holiday": Trumbo was blacklisted when this classic was made

Back in September, PBS stirred up some interest in the onetime blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and one of his most famous stories that made it to film is “Roman Holiday”, from Paramount, in 1953, directed by William Wyler. Trumbo was not credited at the time because he was on the “Commie” blacklist. In those days, Hollywood made romantic comedies in black and white but made them look stylish and artsy, somewhat like today’s indie films. Imagine the Coliseum in black and white (compared to how it looks in all those 50s Fox Cinemascope spectacles).

The film was the first (for Americans) with Audrey Hepburn, as the spoiled princess (on tour in Rome) who first (with some nihilism) tells her servant she thinks she is dying and then “escapes” to be a real person (“Ayna Smith”). (Imagine if Prince William or Harry wanted to become “ordinary people.”) Having gotten it “in the muscle” from the nurse before escaping, she falls asleep outside, and is found by a wayward journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). He takes her to his apartment , where she wakes up in a potentially embarrassing situation (by 50s standards). But then he needs his “people skills” to get a real tabloid scoop for his editor (Hartley Power), who has been on the verge of firing him.

There is a class-conscious bit of dialogue when Hepburn rides on the motorcycle with Peck through streets in Rome, "I can do just what I want all day long; you have to work." Yes, a princess runs away and finds out she could have to work too. Just a tad of Marxism maybe.

The movie speaks to a lot of the cultural standards of the day, as to how “public relations” is hard work. In one funny scene, Ayna takes her first cigarette. Later, screenwriters would feel “guilty” for making cigarette smoking glamorous!

The DVD has a stort "Remembering Roman Holiday" which explains how Trumbo wrote many screenplays under pseudonyms during the blacklist. The short also explains the concept of a princess running away to the real world, and who at the same time Princess Margaret had an affair with a commoner, Mr. Townsend, but at the end, just as in the movie, had to go back to her "official duties." This more or less is the ending of the film, upbeat as it is, especially with the music score by Georges Auric.

There is also a short "Restoring Roman Holiday" which explains the difference between preserving films (less than 25 years old) and restoring them. The name "Dalton Trumbo" was added back to the credits during the resoration.

The DVD also has a short about Edit Head.

Eventually Ayna has to deal with her "loyalty" to her "family" and unnamed "country". Some choices you don't get to make.

The film was remade for television in 1987.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Paranormal Activity" - a real "Dogme" horror film

After seeing the Lars Van Trier film Monday, Tuesday I saw a true “Dogme” horror film, done with all the handhelds and close-ups in the limited space of a suburban San Diego home (in 2006, before the real estate collapse). I’m talking about “Paranormal Activity”, which doesn’t leave much room for Heterosexual Activity between Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston. Yup, like “AntiChrist” this is a “He and She” movie (“Bugcrush” at least was “He and He”). All too soon, the geeky Micah (an about-30 very likeable guy) sets up webcams over the house to photograph the Happenings, hoping to see the ghost. The Ouija board scene is clever, and reminds me of a Ouija session I had in Brooklyn New York in 1978 (it moved), or even of being hypnotized by a roommate at the University of Kansas in 1967 (my arm levitated).

A lot is made of the fact that the movie was produced (by Blumhouse Productions, written and directed by Oren Peli) for between $11K and $15K and yet has made tremendous profits. It’s odd that Paramount and Dreamworks both used their full-corporate trademarks on billboards to distribute the movie (rather than using Paramount Vantage). But the film itself had no rolling credits and no distributor marks. It merely had the opening and closing typewritten narratives about the fact that this was a real event as discovered by San Diego police. “Napoleon Dynamite” (with Jon Heder) was distributed under the full Paramount label, as I remember.

In fact, Film Bloggery has a story that Peli is looking for a distributor for “Area 51”, link here. Other sources say that Steven Spielberg picked up this HD film (sounds like it could have gone to Magnolia’s HDNet).

The very ending, the last ten minutes or so, yes, they are scary, and brutal. Micah had such a nice – bod – until. I love the stepladder scene – to the attic, it reminded me of the attic in my Pulte Townhome in Dallas.

I’ll add here a link to an appeal from IFP Minnesota, link here. I networked with them when I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003.
Here is a video review on YouTube from MBish84.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lars von Trier's "AntiChrist"

There has been a lot written so far about Lars von Trier’s new film “AntiChrist”, and, despite its explicit character (is is not rated but would surely get an NC-17), it is not far from Von Trier’s more obviously cerebral “dogme” work. Like many of his other films, it is structured in parts (here, grief, pain and despair, with a prologue and epilogue), and uses woodcut-like illustrations to introduce the movements.

Furthermore, most of the film has an otherworldly, extraterrestrial quality. The prologue, where Willem Dafoe and wife Charlotte Gainsbourg are celebrating the Song of Solomon, is in black and white, and the fall of the little boy to the snowy pavement has a slow-motion, abstract quality to it, as if it were part of a drawing. Then in the movie proper, the couple is in the woods, presumably in Germany, but Von Trier gives the fern-laden forest a misty, bluish tent, almost like vegetation imagined to grow on a small planet around an M-star. This road trip and apotheosis in the cabin take on an other worldly quality.

Some of the things that the couple do to each other are among the most explicit ever seen in the legitimate art market, and they may satisfy voyeuristic curiousity. The music is interesting: Handel in the prologue and epilogue, and horror fare in the three main sections, especially in the scenes involving the deer, fox and crow.

Has the couple slipped into evil? Has "He" out of lack of forgiveness? At least he is "opposed to Christ."

The earlier film of Von Trier that comes closest to this is probably “Breaking the Waves”; remember that Dogville and Mandalay are laid out on mapped stages. Many of Von Trier’s films, including this one, are filmed in 2.35:1 even though that supposedly violates the concepts of Dogme.

The film bears comparison to the gay horror road-movie short "Bugcrush" by Carter Smith, where there is some conceptual similarity.

I have a screenplay script called "Prescience" where the "aliens" have laid out a set of civilizations along a circular railroad track, radially identical but representing different time periods in history, where the characters abucted from earth go on a "treasure hunt" bringing artifacts back into the earlier "civilization" segments, as the entire planet prepare to evacuate because of an approaching brown dwarf. Since this would be laid out on a stage, it sounds like a Von Trier concept.

The website for "AnitChrist" is here. The distributor is IFC Films.

YouTube Trailer from "TheIndependent" about Cannes:

Note: May 19, 2011: In the heading, the last name had been misspelled with an "a" instead of an "o", as well as in a few places in the text. It's fixed now.  It should have read "Lars von Trier" everywhere.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Crude": about an environmental catastrophe, not about peak oil

The film “Crude: The Real Price of Oil” (2009), by Joe Berlinger and from First Run Features (and Red Envelope) is not, as the title could hint, another film about peak oil (like “A Crude Awakening” in 2003). Rather, it focuses on the specific “Amazon Chernobyl” case in the Amazon region of Ecuador (at the eastern foot of the Andes), regarding pollution of native lands by Texaco going back to the 1970s, leading to litigation against Texaco (in Ecuador) and then against Chevron after it took over Texaco. Chevron would argue that a local petroleum company was responsible for the pollution, but the film documents that this cannot be the case. Chevron would also argue that it was a target for litigation because it had the deepest pockets. The website for the film is this.

The film shows many interviews with native people in their Amazon homeland, with horrifying shots of children deformed by the pollution, and many on-location shots of Quito.

The inauguration of a new Ecuadorean president was expected to reduce the corruption that allowed oil companies to intimidate or pay off judges and officials. An environmental scientist speaks for Chevron and swears she would not work for the company if she could not vouch for its integrity.

The environmental damage is said to be larger than that of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.

The film played to an almost full house at Landmark E Street in Washington on a Sunday night.

Wikipedia link for NASA map of Amazon river.

Update: July 22, 2010

This film may seem more timely now in view of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident. FirstRun provides a link to a July 15 story in the New York Times by Dave Itzkoff, "Appeals Court Rules Filmmaker Must Give Some Footage to Chevron", link here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Boot Camp": an indictment of "Tough Love" programs for teens? Gregory Smith dominates the film, as usual

Even liberal state politicians have run on the idea of boot camps for drug-abusing or otherwise delinquent teens, so it makes some sense to make a movie about it, especially the possibility that these places could abuse kids. Such is the case with Canadian director Christian Duguay’s “Boot Camp” (2007), recently available from MGM and 20th Century Fox DVD (I’m not sure why it took two studios).

The setup is frightening enough. A kid is in bed at a suburban home at night, and suddenly a tactical squad bursts in and hauls the kid away, with the consent of the parents who now say they had no choice. Actually, that happens to a teen who makes a phony “fictitious” sham threat on the Internet (a lesson about the danger of joking around online about certain matters), introducing the concept. Then a teenage girl Sophie (Mila Kunis), with a bad relationship with a stepfather, gets whisked away out of the arms of her boyfriend Ben (Gregory Smith), drugged, and wakes up on a Fiji Island boot camp called the Advanced Serenity Achievement Program. The program sort of reminds me of “Special Training” in Army Basic, maybe (“Tent City” at Fort Jackson SC in 1968). The kids go through stages of rank: from “black shirts” to “yellow” to “white.” When one person misbehaves, everyone is considered responsible for a group and is punished.

The plot, at this point, seems a bit contrived. Ben is a very good kid, and checks the “online reputation” of ASAP and finds its shady history, explaining why the owner set up his “Tough Love” program out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So he fakes being a bad kid so he can get sent there and rescue Sophie, after a couple false starts. I’m not sure how believable that is, but it leads to a great climax where Ben gets to give a Holden Caulfield-type speech.

Gregory Edward Smith (who has dual US-Canadian citizenship) played the precocious Ephram in TheWB series “Everwood” and Holden in “Kids in America”. He is the same character here, the noble rebel right out of Salinger, the ideal role model for the (physically) “average” nerd kid. In most of his other films (going back to “Small Soldiers” and “Just Ask My Children”) he plays a similarly spirited character. I’ve always wondered how “kids” who start acting in movies in grade school deal with all of it. I know they have studio teachers, but how is there ever enough time? Gregory Smith has always been able to “carry” a feature film as a lead and very dominating character, even as an early teen.

The film producers maintain that “Tough Love” programs often abuse kids and have resulted in about 40 deaths in the past decade. In this film, there is one character who abuses underage girls at the camp.

In my own novel draft (and one screenplay), I imagine a “right wing” “re-education” program in West Texas called “The Academy”, which is used as a lynchpin or pivot in the plot to explain (in my novel) the arrival of aliens.

Picture: Gregory Smith and Chris Pratt appear at King of Prussia PA, August 2005 (where I met them in line and talked about DADT and EFF).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"An Englishman in New York": memoir of the later years of Quentin Crisp

An Englishman in New York”, a tribute to Quentin Crisp (aka Denis Charles Pratt) opened the Reel Affirmations Film Festival in Washington DC Oct. 15. The film is directed by Richard Laxton and written by Brian Fillis. The production and distribution company, Leopardrama, uses the MGM roar as part of its trademark. Crisp is known for his memoir, “A Naked Civil Servant”.

John Hurt plays the controversial gentleman and raconteur. He would be denied entry into the British Armed Forces during WWII because of his homosexuality, and would emigrate to the United States in 1981 at the age of 73. Hurt’s appearance changes little in the film, up to his death at 90.

Crisp was famous for his little proverbs and aphorisms, some of which created offense, as when he said that “AIDS is a fad”, which his publicist wanted him to retract, not explain. But most of his sayings ring true with appropriate feminine brutality. “Beauty is in the eye of the possessor.” He saw sex and art, for gay men, as separate from “real life” but saw gay men as a people “looking in from without” as if to keep score on heterosexuals. (Again, the “gays are spies” theme from Mulligans.) He had little “ideological” respect for fundamental rights, and said that if most people got what they deserved they would live and die in rags. But his cynicism could be funny. In an opening interview he says he wore drag in order to disguise himself from attackers as who he was.

John Hurt had played Crisp in the Thames Television production of “The Naked Civil Servant” in 1975.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Brood": David Cronenberg's concept of conception by imagination (the kids look like Greys)

Some of David Cronenberg’s earlier films have some neat visual concepts to go with his concept of horror, and his 1979 film for MGM, “The Brood” (“obviously” set in Toronto) has one of his neatest concepts, an “alien autopsy.” The “Grey” is a minimalist dwarf-like creature without many features, especially without reproductive organs, and it can get mean (whereas UFO grays don’t), banging its victims to death. It’s usually well clothed as a kind of Little Red Ridinghood.

The “brood” is created by imagination, a neat concept, as “m.p.” Nola (Samantha Eggar) goes after her enemies with her “children”. (There is a scene that shows her “parthenogenetic” pregnancy.) There is a certain savagery to a few of the scenes, reminding one of “Psycho”, and this is not in black and white. In one of the early killings, the create comes through a pantry, throwing trash on the kitchen floor first. Real Greys never do these things.

My own concept, in my novel draft, is that “angels” could be accumulated from people, with the akashic information carried by viruses with unusual radioactive isotopes.

The film opens with a scene in a play with a father and son talking, with the father telling the son he wished the son had been a girl, so that the son’s weakness would be morally acceptable.

Attribution link for Wikipdia picture of a Grey in p.d.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Mr. Right": British comedy of male relationships, with a Malthusian touch (Reel Affirmations)

I got to the Harman Theater today to the Reel Affirmations LGBT film festival to see the 2007 UK film by David and Jacqui Morris, “Mr. Right”.

I seem to remember a book around 1990 called “A self-policing code” for gay men, saying “I’ll give up the search for Mr. Right and settle for what’s reasonable”.

But in this British comedy, there is a ménage of young men most unwilling to do that. There are several “couples” (in the style of a “Bob Ted Carol Alice” movie) but the film seems dominated by Harry (James Lance), a TV producer who doesn’t like his job, and particularly Alex (Luke de Woolfson, who looks younger than the age given in imdb), who longs for the limelight of showbiz. Yes, he wants to be an actor, put perhaps he wants to be more like a self-promoting artist.

There is, about 2/3 through the movie, a dinner scene where Alex and others entertain the question as to whether “being gay is wanting to be famous” (like in the previous film “Mulligans”, whether “being gay is being a spy”). Then Alex, whose tall, thin but extremely muscular form (particularly cute in a Union Jack tank top)and articulate manner dominate the film, enlists in a one-man play, “Malthus”, where he will justify an ideology of “Mr. Right”, that is the survival of the fittest (perhaps more related to Herbert Spencer than Charles Darwin) – put in Malthusian terms (related to overpopulation, which many people see today as a canard, given the concerns about “demographic winter”), to the point that Nazi Germany gets mentioned at least once. Alex also tells his boyfriend that his home is finally the first thing he has created by himself in his life.

The Reel Affirmations link for the film is here.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Mountain Top Removal" from Haw River Films, little known documentary about Appalachian strip mining

I had to hunt down the site of the documentary film titled prosaically “Mountain Top Removal”, from Haw River Films, produced and directed by Michael Cusack O’Connell. The site is here.

The 74 minute film mixes full screen and standard wide screen, depending apparently on how it was originally shot; but the views of the “badlands” south of Charleston, W Va (for example, the Kayford Mine) are breathtaking. If they weren’t polluted and occurred naturally, they might make for a national park like what we have in Utah.

The process of mountaintop removal starts with clear cutting of forests, followed by blasting, removal of overburden with draglines (like “Big Muskie”) and valley filling. Typically several hundred feet of elevation are removed, in a few cases up to 1000 feet, as with open pit mines in the West. Waivers are usually granted to coal companies excusing them from old rules requiring restoration to original contour. Mountaintop removal lends itself to a clever metaphor: permanent epilation or alopecia.

Another enormous issue is contamination of water supplies. Coal seams have a lot of heavy metals, but until they are disturbed, the do not dissolve out, and mountain water remains clean. But after mining, the water (often in slurry) becomes toxic. People living in mined areas are reported to have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease as well as the usual coal-mining related ails.

Cofferdams can break, as with the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972, and one sequence involves an elementary school (Marsh Fork) that may be at risk from a dam above it. Yet, spouses of some mine workers say that their children play outside near the school without evidence of dirt or contamination. Visit “Pennies of Promise” (here) for more.

About 800 square miles, or about 450 peaks, have been affected by mountaintop removal, mostly in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Most Americans are unaware of how dependent their electricity supplies are on stripmining for coal. This is particularly true of people in the “Appalachian megapolis” from Atlanta to Columbus. Author Jeff Gordell (“Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future”, 2001, Mariner Books) says that this was his experience.

The film shows protestors being arrested for trespassing, with "I Love Mountains" T-shirts. I was almost arrested in July 1971 for tramping and taking pictures in a strip mine near Mt. Storm, W VA -- I got a tour in a coal company truck.

Picture above: Virginia, Kentucky border (mine, July 2005).

Update: Nov. 5, 2011

See "International Issues" blog today for information about a project with Bimblebox Nature Center in Australia on stripmining in Australia.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Mulligans": A Canadian film following the pattern of "Making Love"; what happens to the marriage afterward when hubbie is outed?

If you posit the idea that every man owes society generativity – getting married and having a family as part of a social contract – then the Canadian film “Mulligans” (2009, directed by Chip Hale, written by Charlie David) explores the consequences. Actually, the film follows the formula of the Fox film “Making Love” back from 1982. Here, the “husband” Nathan Davidson (Dan Payne) is youthful enough in his mid 40s (he married and had Tyler (Derek Baynham) right out of high school but “made it” economically, with Stacey (Thea Gill) as the Mrs. ) to seek some sort of second male rite of passage. OK, he had been gay all these years, but what he really wants is a Maslow-style peak experience.

That’s set up when Tyler brings his best friend from college, Chase (Charlie David), a budding artist, but clean-cut and all too buff, satisfying some stereotypes. Chase, after awkward moments at upper middle class parties, “tells” Tyler, and when Nathan finds out through the grapevine (here the Internet isn’t the fuel), he gets interested and hungry. The critical intimate encounter occurs about 50 minutes into the film; the unbuttonings occur, but they shot at a distance.

There follows the question of what happens to the marriage, as Stacey will surely find out. Ultimately, the resolution may be happier than it might have been. Perhaps Nathan can have his cake and eat it too. But he would need to have more going for him.

The title of the film comes from a word used to describe “Second chance” in golf; the early scenes in the film have Chase and Nathan getting to know each other socially a bit on the piney golf courses.

The film appears to take place around Lake Superior, perhaps around Thunder Bay, in the north woods, as Ontario license plates appear (but other literature says the film was made around Vancouver, BC); the Davidson family has a sumptuous forest estate comparable to that in “The Proposal”. In this film, the vegetation looks as pure green as possible, contrasted with perfect blues of the lake scenes.

There's a particularly pointed line in the script, where Chase says, "Being gay is like being a spy. People talk with brutal candor around you because they think nobody's listening." Rather than father a family with children, Chase expects he will be watching and judging others who do, rather like kibitzing chess games rather than playing them.

The website for the film is this.

The film, from a company called “Border2Border”, has distribution by “Warner Brothers Independent Pictures” (WIP officially doesn’t exist any more), TLA, and Wolfe, as well as Logo for TV; it is fairly ambitious; and plays in full widescreen on equipped computers.

I couldn’t make it in to Reel Affirmations opening night today, so this was my personal replacement.

There is another film called "Mulligan" (singular), no relation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lumet's film of Levin's "Deathtrap" (1982) seems to fit today's debates

Sidney Lumet as a director is certainly fond of irony, and his 1982 film-adaptation "Deathtrap" for Warner Brothers of Ira Levin’s 1978 play of the same name, is a witty exercise. I do recall seeing the play near the end of the time that I lived in New York.

The plot is ironical in a couple of ways. On one level, the idea that a writer would kill another for his work is, well, funny. That is, in a pre-Internet world of typewritten drafts, carbons and xeroxagraphy, it’s clever. But of course there’s more. Sidney (Michael Caine) wants to get rid of his heart-weak wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), and run off with his student Clifford (a young Christopher Reeve, of the Superman type, long before his tragedy). In the end, Clifford can outsmart the old “f”—or does he?. To watch the film today might seem appropriate (or maybe warped) given the gay marriage debate and the times, such as the recent National Equality March.

The play has other minor characters, like a psychic, that give it a kind of Shakespearian flavor.

And the script has funny lines about what kind of writer has the right kind of imagination to pull off a perfect crime. Somehow a playwright is more talented in this regard than a novelist, although I don’t think that’s the case.

And the play-movie does test the concept of art predicting or creating life – the whole problem of “fiction” being too close to or inciting real events, that I discussed elsewhere as on my main blog (as with the Bindrim v. Miller case in California in 1979). Here, when writers plot a play, they may or may not be plotting getting away with real murder. And there is the squabble over who really “owns” the idea. That’s why I like to work alone!

The DVD is presented full-screen, and it looks more like a play than a movie.

The film includes a snippet with Gene Shalit discussing “Murder Most Fair”.

The very end is a “surprise” and it encapsulates the rest of the film (with the play).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"A Serious Man": there's more than one of them, and they all face wipeout

The Coen brothers have come up with a smallish satire on Jewish life in “A Serious Man” (Facebook site here). This time, an overly accommodating physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Sthulbarg) has to deal with his perfunctory wife (Sara Lennick) and incompetent brother Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), the latter of whom drives his wife into the arms of another man Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Actually, two of the characters (Larry and Sy) qualify as “a serious man”, but I wonder if the comedy could have been titled “A Straight Man”. The setting is suburban Minneapolis in 1967, and it’s interesting how quaint the world still looked then—after all, we hadn’t experienced the oil shocks yet (and Vietnam was just winding up). The film, distributed by Universal’s Focus Features, comes (ironically) from production company “Working Title” with the help of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, which I got to know when I lived in Minneapolis.

There is a scene—a pantry conversation-- a third the way through where his wife approaches him about the divorce. It is a fleecing every straight married man dreads. She wants a “Get”, a religious divorce, to seal the new marriage. Now, this might be the place to mention the way the Coen Brothers toy with the characters by introducing disasters: auto accidents, and later approaching tornadoes and medical catastrophe—demarcating rather than building a plot with intrusive, border-drawing calamities. In the end, all will come to nothing. The film script constantly needles at the manipulative conformity and automaticity of married life in any religious subculture. The advice is to “see your rabbi”, and the film is filled with clever images of Jewish ceremony. A lot of this centers around the Bar Mitzvah of likable (if overly adventurous) son Danny (Aaron Wolf) who may get caught up in the wipeout at the end. Danny calls his father "Dad" and it doesn't seem to phase this bookish "serious" professor.

My own father used to call me "a serious boy."

My favorite Coen Brothers film is still "Blood Simple," and perhaps "Fargo" ("all for a little bit of money").

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Witch Hunt" examines overzealous prosecutions in Kern County, CA

Although I know the term “witch hunt” from the military purges under “don’t ask don’t tell”, the film “Witch Hunt”, (website) narrated by Sean Penn (who is also executive producer) deals with ordinary parents caught up in and trapped by a “most dangerous game” set up by a zealous young district attorney, Ed Jagels, in Kern County (Bakersfield) CA in the mid 1980s. On some questionable tips the sheriff’s office went after a group of parents, storming into their homes and yanking their kids into child protective services. A number of parents, including John Stoll and the Kniffens, were convicted and sentenced consecutively to a few centuries in prison. One family left Bakersfield and fled for the Midwest to escape what they thought was an almost certin impending false arrest.

Gradually, as the supposed victims grew up, they questioned what had happened. By the time they were teenagers, they realized that police and “social workers” had “coached” them into ratifying pre-imagined crimes. Eventually, the convictions were vacated and the parents were gradually set free, the last by 2004, after twenty years in prison. The state would compensate some victims.

The film is directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman (the writer), and is produced and distributed by MSNBC, KTF, and Good Machine films. The tagline is "some convictions are criminal." Look at "Innocence Project" here.

The story of the Kniffen family (Scott and Brenda) is also told in the 2001 film “Best Intentions: Just Ask My Children”, from Firebrand and Starlight films, directed by Arvin Brown. In the film, Gregory Smith (Ephram in “Everwood”) plays the 16 year old Brian who helps clear his parents.

There is a joke about Kern County, CA: you come on vacation, you leave on probation. I drove through it in February 2002 while I was coming down with the flu.

Wikimedia attribution link for Bakersfield picture.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"The Anderson Tapes" foreshadows Nixon tapes, pre 9/11-law enforcement

Given the public perception and perhaps paranoia about security cameras (particularly in Britain) and even “red light running” and speed cameras (especially in Washington DC), a review of Sudney Lumet’s 1971 film “The Anderson Tapes” from Columbia (based on the novel by Lawrence Sanders) seems in order. Movie buffs may recall that Sean Connery plays a bad guy this time, John “Duke” Anderson, getting out of prison and engineering a Labor Day weekend heist of an upscale apartment building in New York City. The crooks are determined to get in, thankfully when people are away at the Hamptons, and all kind of 1970s tape recording technology and human intervention tries to stop them. But, just as with today’s pre-2001 environment, government fails to communicate and trips up over itself. They don’t even know what state Wichita Falls is in. Citizen watchdogs don’t help. The movie is strangely prescient of Nixon’s tapes, and the ending of the film has the government destroying them. I wonder if Richard Nixon watched this movie!

Christopher Walken makes his first appearance here as the good disco-looking “Kid”. There is a clever chase scene at the end, and some other odd images, as a man wearing a wire under his leg garters.

Monday, October 05, 2009

"Ancient Aliens": a redo of "Chariots of the Gods"?

On Monday, Oct. 5, the History Channel aired a 2009 documentary film by Kevin Burns, “Ancient Aliens"”, (website) from Prometheus Films; this may been developed independently for the indie market and sold to the History Channel. It is narrated by Robert Clotworthy, whose voice often appears on the History Channel and on NatGeo.  This film generated an entire series on the History Channel.

The content of the film is pretty standard 1970s “Van Daniken” stuff. The book “Chariots of the Gods” by Erich Van Daniken, a cult classic in the early 1970s, actually had trouble getting published (viewed as {not professional") until it was presented in leaflets, a precursor to today’s e-publishing on the Web. The film (directed Harald Reinl) was made in Switzerland and West Germany by Constantin and distributed then by Sun International.

The film presents the usual material about the Egyptian Pyramids, the Maya ruins, Stonehenge, and particularly Tiahuanoco (Bolivia) as presenting evidence, either from construction (huge stones fit perfectly without mortar) or religious artifacts and alignments, of knowledge that could only have come from aliens. One of the most curious examples is Pumapunku in Bolivia, close to Tiahuanoco and the Gate of the Sun. This monolithic remains seems to have been torn apart by a huge force, but the whole structure was supposedly built by Indians with no system or writing, maybe 15000 years ago.

Another interesting artifact occurs with the Nacza lines, which move across flattopped buttes that look like mountain ridges that underwent “mountaintop removal”, although there is no evidence of overburden. The film claims that the monuments in Tikal are arranged in exactly the same configuration as a set of “monoliths” on Mars.

The film shows an early mechanical computer found near Greece (like the astrolabe), as well as the Baghdad Battery.

The film makes a lot of the similarities of the pyramids and monoliths at different sites, as if to suggest their very shape has some common universal meaning, like that of the “slab” in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The Van Daniken theories fit well with the Star Trek shows and movies, as well as Frank Herbert’s Dune novels (and movie in 1984).

The film asks, if alien visitors have come before, would they come again? What could they do? Maybe get mad (“The Shock of the Gods”) and blow us back to a Dark Age with an EMP blast in the upper stratosphere. From aliens, there would be nothing we could do about it.

In the summer of 1974, I had made reservations to go on vacation in Peru, take all the altiplano trains and visit Thahuanco, or Tiwanaku , on Lake Titicaca, at 12000 feet, the highest major lake in the world.  But I got a new job in New York City, so I cancelled, scaled down, and went to Mexico for Labor Day weekend and saw the pyramids at Teotihuacan
The film notes that in 2008, the Vatican stated that the finding of extraterrestrial life (or even intervention) would not invalidate Christianity. The film makes considerable reference to Enoch, one of the "prophets" covered only in the apocrypha, and sometimes writing in the first person. The film produces art from all over the world, from cultures with no communication, that purport to show human-like travelers in small space ship capsules. 
Attribution link for Pumapunku stone cutting, pd, from Wikipedia (public domain, aurhtor Mattcorbitt). 

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Retrospect: MGM's "2001: A Space Odyssey"

I saw Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in Cinerama at the Uptown Theater in Washington DC in June 1968, maybe two weeks after finishing Basic Training in the Army. Yes, the movie somewhat predicts the direction computers would take by then. But Pan-Am and HoJo’s are gone; we do not (yet) have commercial airline travel to the Moon, and we don’t have hotels, restaurants and shopping malls on the Moon. Our technology – and its very topology – took a different direction than we had expected then.

So has international politics. No one could imagine the catastrophe that would occur on September 11, 2001.

The “sunrise in space” opening, with the climbing of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” was a surprise when I saw it. Later, the Blue Danube Waltz would seem a bit laid back as we were introduced to the space modules.

The “Dawn of Man” presents apes as learning to use tools when they encounter “The Slab” in prehistoric Africa. But in fact, apes have always used tools; what makes Man different is the ability to pass on past learning to future generations.

But the “middle” of the story, with two astronauts played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, is socially the most curious. By all sense, the characters David Bowman and Frank Poole come across as urbane gay men (I forget if they had families back home; but really, could a man with school-age kids go on a journey like this?) OK, the relationship is platonic in the film, but it’s what they have – until HAL (=IBM) intervenes.

But it’s what happens when they approach The Slab near Jupiter (they had found one on the Moon) that provides the psychedelic trips (“Star Gate”). I imagined, maybe that’s what it would look like to go through the atmosphere of Jupiter for a “landing” – and wouldn’t it be a great idea for another film, in animation, to show us what the metallic hydrogen layer of Jupiter really would look like. Arthur C. Clarke has them going through a brane-gate into another dimension, maybe – as David winds up in a bedroom as an old man, reviewing his venturesome Life (another good reason that a married man not go). He will be the first to know what’s Out There, or Up There.

The sequel 2010 has a leprous Jupiter (getting covered by Slabs) getting turned into a star (maybe a brown dwarf) and Europa becoming an “Earth II”, which must be left alone. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994 didn’t quite accomplish this.

I’d love to see Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” become a movie (maybe it would get MGM going again). I wonder if anyone has a screenplay for it lying around. Check Matt Damon’s hard drive.

Attribution link for NASA illustration of cross-section of Jupiter.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"The Baader Meinhof Complex": the indignities of violent urban communism

"The Baader-Meinhof Complex", (dir. Uli Edel, 2008) originally made as a three-hour TV miniseries for German TV by Constantin, has been made available in theaters by Summit Entertainment and Landmark Theaters. At 150 minutes, the film seems like a cross between a “Godfather” gangster movie and Summit’s own “Hurt Locker”.

The correct name for the Baader-Meinhof Gang is Red Army Faction, which operated in Germany (West Germany or the German Federal Republic before re-unification) and it “operated” from the 1960s until 1998. A lot of us today, in our concerns with radical Islam, forget that in some parts of the world, geurillas tried to impose communism on the streets. The ideology, while secular, is ultimately similar: Communism worships “egalitarianism” or “perfect justice” as almost a god in itself, and is willing to “expropriate” from anyone who has not “paid his dues” to the people. That seems to drive the fanaticism of all the violence in the first half of the film. Gradually, however, the RAF becomes political in more contemporary manners. Once some if its members are in prison, it coordinates with various elements in the Middle East (mostly dealing with the Palestinians, but also with Iraq and Iran) to stage hijackings to get prisoners released. The last half of the film telescopes a lot of history in docudrama fashion (but without a narrator; a “Michael Moore” voice here would amount to author intrusion), covering the attack at the Munich Olympic games in 1972 along with the tragic outcome, as well as the Lufthansa “incident”. The protests against American policies in Vietnam are also brought into the story. The emotion of the communist radicals, in calling people "pigs", sounds rather similar to the "emotion" of Al Qaeda recruits today.

I last visited Germany in 1999, but Berlin and the former Eastern part, taking a day train to Dresden, and then a night train east to Krakow. But in the summer of 1972 I landed in Frankfurt and took the train north to Hamburg, seeing the armed border with East Germany at one point. There was no sign of any of these tensions when I was in Germany.

Wikipedia attribution link for Stammheim Prison.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Michael Moore's "Capitalism" is not a "Love Story"

Back in 1972, just before I “came out”, I had consorted with the very leftist Peoples Party of New Jersey, partly founded by Benjamin Spock, because I “liked” their congressional candidate. Then in December, in a drafty tenement in Newark, NJ, his girl friend said, “I don’t know why we need to live with capitalism.” The Party was drawing up platform positions like a maximum income of $50000 a year. I, as a computer programmer with Sperry Univac, was already on the fringe of the predatory or parasitic enemy, mooching off real workers.

In the beginning of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” (Moore's website), Moore interplays America with the Roman Empire (not the Holy one), and suggests nifty parallels about its intending fall. Toward the end, Moore, in a black and white FDR speech, recounts FDR’s proposal for a Second Bill of Rights (I have used the term “Bill of Rights 2”), but these rights could not be fundamental rights in the strict sense, but rather social rights, that could only exist when there is some appropriate level of sacrifice or even expropriation from some people so that all people have something. This speech is surprisingly little known; Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”, which also hint at social rights, are much more often mentioned. (Wikipedia, however, does have an article enumerating FDR's Second Bill of Rights, here.), also incorporating an "Economic Bill of Rights".

Moore also makes the point that the countries that we defeated in WWII did implement this “second bill of rights” without that much controversy, even if modern Europe is having difficult today with its welfare state (and with Muslim lack of assimilation). And the America of the 1950s more or less had this stability, with the proper support of unions – although Moore adds that the 50s were prosperous because America did not yet have competition from the areas that had been ravaged by war (the Soviets came up first). But, what we had in the 50s was capitalism. Moore describes “democracy” as the antonym of capitalism, but modern European democracies are usually viewed, with some envy, as “modern democratic capitalism”, capable of offering great opportunity to talented individuals just as does the US. The level of opportunity in Britain, Canada and the US are all more or less comparable (look at how many young actors today come from Canada). On a mid-term in government in high school, I had to write an essay comparing "democracy" and "communism", as if "they" were "the" opposites.

Moore does build his long film up to a great climax with the collapse of 2008 and the phony Bailout, which he describes as the last great coup by the Rich to keep what they have (Paulson is almost presented as a Democrat). Elizabeth Warren, after admitting “I don’t know” as to where is the money, says that the TARP funds all came with a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for the banks. A clever metaphor indeed, for a similar level of evil.

Moore also describes how The People can resist, as especially the case with the workers at a Chicago window factory to win their severance benefits with a sit-in strike, or with Miami homeowners able to resist foreclosure (a sheriff’s foreclosure-attack in Illinois earlier in the film is quite chilling, almost like the Gestapo coming to the farm in the opening of “Incredulous”). He also goes into the business of "foreclosure sharking", and presents the practice of companies buying "dead pesasnt" life insurance policies on their workers.

In the final analysis, though, rights and responsibilities don’t just lie with groups. Allan Carlson, as I have written elsewhere, has this clever idea that the Family should be an internally socialistic or quasii-Marxist basic unit of an outwardly capitalist society, in order to answer the moral contradiction implicit in reconciling capitalism and modern ideas of individual freedom with the Bible. Ultimately, I think, everybody has to deal with the subtlety of justice at an individual level, and how interdependent we really are. What can rightfully be expected of us can become quite shocking.

There are some curious details in the film, as the girl who is busted and put in a “private” juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania for making fun of school administrators on a personal Myspace page (online reputation again!), or the mention of the possibility of marital law in the US if Congress didn’t pass the 2008 Great Bailout. Remember Suze Orman wanted the bailout!

Attribution link for Wikimedia picture of Wall Street. The best visual scene in the film is Moore’s putting up the police line around Wall Street. Too bad you can’t shoot video in a theater.

The film is a combination effort of Overture Films, Paramount Vantage, The Weinstein Company, and Moore’s own “Dog Eat Dog Films”, a suitable combination for a "large" indie film. Curiously, TWC's trademark does not appear in the credits. I would have preferred to open the film up with 2.35:1 instead of te standard 1.85:1 which is used here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

In the midst of the flap about bad “boy” (now 76) director Roman Polanski, Netflix has offered for instant viewing the HBO Documentary (theatrically released by ThinkFilm) “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (directed by Marina Rittenband) with link here. The title is descriptive: He is “wanted” again in California, after his arrest in Switzerland for possible extradition, to finish a phony sentence for what sounds like a pretty egregious crime involving a thirteen year old girl (who as a woman wants this put behind her). In 1978, the case was plea-bargained, with Judge Laurence Rittenband manipulating the sentences to avoid appeal and to make them look to the press as more severe than they were – a 90 day diagnostic incarceration at Chino. Today he would get 40 years and be on the registries for life, probably living in a trailer in the desert. Rittenband even told the DA’s what to argue in his hearings so he could manipulate the light sentences.

Polanski was probably shocked originally by learning what it is like to be arrested in the United States. One could "excuse" his behavior on the grounds that European countries generally have low age-of-consent laws, but some of his behavior went beyond even normal "consent" by European standards.

The filmmaking style is basic, sometimes as simple as typing scripts (as in FinalDraft) or descriptive sentences in white on a black screen. There are plenty of excerpts from Polanski’s earlier films (I rented “Knife in the Water” somewhat recently and remember “Rosemary’s Baby” (pray for it!) pretty well; there are many graphic sequences from “Chinatown”). As a young man, he was dashing, flamboyant, virile, arrogant. Remember, though, his psyche was certainly affected by the loss of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, eight years before in the Manson murders (as documented in Helter Skelter).

On Oct. 3, Wolf Blitzer on CNN grilled retired LA district attorney David Wells about "lying" to HBO in claiming that he recommended jail time for Polanski, because he thought that the film would be shown only on French TV (fat chance!) Wells offered to take a polygraph to say that he tells the truth now, but the LA District Attorbey's office says they have no control ove him. Here is a Los Angeles Times blog entry on the issue. I guess Wells doesn't take documentary film seriously, or maybe he takes it too seriously. Blitzer also interviewed California Governor Schwarzenegger on Polanski's recent arrest. The governor was asked if Hollywood is out of touch with moral values on matters like this. The governor was asked if he would consider a pardon for Polanski.