Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Wasn't Born to Have a Bad Time

THE BRIDESMAID / La Demoiselle D'Honneur
(Claude Chabrol, France/Germany/Italy, 2004, 111 mins.)







"The family is
one of the big-
gest frauds ev-
er invented...
the family tree
is a monstrous
invention.
People boast-
ing of one of
their ancestors being the Pope's official mustard-supplier! It's pathetic!"
-- Claude Chabrol on family life


***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Critics often compare Claude Chabrol to Alfred Hitchcock, and
the analogy makes perfect sense. Like his British predecessor, the
French helmer works in the suspense genre, and he's a master at his
craft, but while I don't mean to suggest that Hitchcock didn't have a
sense of humor--he did, of course, and a sly one at that--Chabrol's
films are funnier. Not everyone picks up on that. Those who don't
must surely see him as a pale imitation of Sir Alfred. Their loss.

At the press screening, for instance, the audience was as silent
as the grave, except for two jokers in front (one of whom was me).
Sure, Chabrol's humor is perverse--but that's what I like best about
it. I think that's also why it flies under the radar of the more literal-
minded. Or to be more charitable: it may not be to their taste.

As for The Bridesmaid, it isn't Chabrol's best film, but it may be
the funniest (and his movies are always worth a look). No one would
confuse it for a standard comedy, but there are humorous bits woven
throughout, most revolving around the family bust pictured above.

The fact that the entire cast plays the material straight adds to the
enjoyment. In short, Phillipe (Benoît Magimel, who starred in Chab-
rol's The Flower of Evil) lives with his widowed mother, Christine (the
ever-radiant Aurore Clément), and two sisters. The eldest, Sophie, is
preparing to get married. No one in the film questions why a gainful-
ly employed man in his 30s would still be living at home, but Chab-
rol hints that he's more like a husband to his mother than a son.

Though theirs
isn't a physic-
ally incestuous
relationship,
there's some-
thing vaguely
creepy about
it, like the
proprietary
looks Phillipe
often throws
at Christine
or the way
they stand so close together when they speak that they practically touch.

Into this hothouse environment enters the enigmatic, Iceland-born
Senta (Laura Smet), a last-minute bridesmaid at Sophie's raucous
wedding (the two barely know each other). Phillipe and Senta dev-
elop an instant rapport, and he starts spending all of his time at her
dank basement pad. It's clear to everyone that something isn't quite
right with Senta, who claims to be an actress-model. Phillipe doesn't
seem to care, though he does hide the relationship from his family.

One day, pace Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Senta suggests
that Phillipe kill to prove his love for her. She'll do the same for him.
He's horrified by the idea, and doesn't plan to follow through, but he's
concerned that Senta will. And who's to say she hasn't asked this par-
ticular favor from a lover before--or that she won't do so again?

The end of the film, when it arrives, is disconcertingly abrupt. Any oth-
er director of a psychological thriller, even Hitch, would build to a big-
ger, more dramatic climax, but that's not the Chabrol way. As usual, he
raises more questions than he answers, but the somewhat inconclusive
conclusion makes sense in retrospect. This is Chabrol's second Ruth
Rendell adaptation after 1995's La Cérémonie. While that one may
be the superior effort, The Bridesmaid is more fun. Sexier, too.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

"I prefer people to say that it [The Bridesmaid] reminds them of Hitchcock but that
it's not as good than for them to say that it reminds them of a film by Alan Smithee."

--Claude Chabrol on the comparisons to Hitchcock




The Bridesmaid plays the Northwest Film Forum Oct. 27 - Nov. 2
at 7 and 9:30pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill
between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can
also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The World According to Whitehead

THE FALL
(Peter Whitehead, UK, 1969, BetaSP, 120 mins.)


thefall.jpg
Whitehead in 1968

I am not capable of experiencing the real and never have
been, which is why I have had such an amazing life...I even
married a Swedish girl so I could come to terms with Bergman.

-- Peter Whitehead

*****

Ten years after wrapping up The Fall, Peter Whitehead (b. 1937) dropped out of the cinematic rat race to become a falconer/novelist. Dividing his time between England and Saudi Arabia, it's the unique career path he follows to this day. It's no wonder, then, that his movies has become more and more obscure with each passing year.

Into the breach steps the Northwest Film Forum with the first US retrospective
of Whitehead's cinema verité-style filmography (some works are non-fiction,
others a hybrid of genres). From November 3-12, the NWFF will be screening
eight films. Three are between 30-33 minutes long and five range from 60-120 minutes, including the ninth entry, Pop Films, a compilation of music promos
or what we now call "videos," although I would imagine all were shot on film.

Beginning in 1965 with series selection Wholly Communion, Whitehead hung
up his camera a mere 12 years later, although he considers 1969 the true
end. (He had a breakdown in the wake of Robert Kennedy's assassination).
Consequently, he dismisses Daddy (1973) and Fire in the Water (1977) as "after-thoughts." Subjects include Pink Floyd and other bold face names from the worlds
of music (the Beach Boys, the Animals), movies (Michael Caine, Julie Christie), theater (Peter Brook, Glenda Jackson), and poetry (Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg).
Peter_Whitehead_in_the_Fall1.jpg
Whitehead in The Fall
As programmer Adam Sekuler notes, Whitehead intended The Fall as a
statement on the decline of democracy (the director also describes it as "the
first totally post-modern film"). Though set in the aftermath of Martin Luther
King Jr.'s assassination, I would argue that it's as much a statement on the
rise of democracy -- an ineffective one perhaps, but a democracy, nonethless.
Whitehead roams around New York between the volatile years of 1967 and
1968, capturing dissent from all sides: famous and not-so-famous protesters against the Vietnam War, along with those for the conflict, holding up their "Bomb Hanoi" placards with pride. Ordinary citizens engage in street-corner throwdowns,
like a high-pitched, orange-lipsticked dowager, who accuses her working class compatriot of Neo-Nazism. Amazingly, they don't come to blows. With the exception of a disturbing performance piece, Whitehead isn't as interested in violence as its after-effects. Just people having their say. If that isn't democracy, what is?
Not everything works. Our entry into this now-alien world is through the eyes of
a British photojournalist, played by Whitehead himself. He resembles Terence Stamp, who appears in Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, and enjoys the "chic" lifestyle -- to quote Gloria Steinem -- of tight-trousered David Hemmings in Blow-up,
a role inspired by Brit shutterbug David Bailey, lover of Catherine Deneuve, Jean Shrimpton, and other lovelies. (Whitehead, in turn, has been linked with Bianca Jagger and Nico.) He's joined by Italian fashion plate Alberta Taburzi, his girlfriend
at the time. They meet when he snaps her modeling a "peace dress."
[According to the press notes, Whitehead arranged a screening of 1966's Charlie Is My Darling for Antonioni. It's believed that this ultra-rare 'Stones doc, not part of
the NWFF series, had a profound influence on the director's era-defining film.]
Beyond following this duo around Manhattan, that's pretty much all there is to
The Fall. But that certainly sets it apart from most other non-fiction portrayals
of the 1960s. Like Blow-up, Petulia, and especially Medium Cool, it's a provocative snapshot of a particular time and place. And like those films, it's shot in the style
of the day. That means swirling psychedelia, pulsating montage, disorienting
close-ups (mostly of Alberta's false eyelash-clad eye) -- even a dance sequence.
fall.jpg
Taburzi in The Fall
For viewers tired of being talked-down to in docs, this is the film for you. There's
no narration/commentary, and the dialogue between man and muse is superfluous (I'm guessing it was improvised). In other words, Whitehead doesn't say what to think. Nor does he identify the subjects who appear on screen. Consequently, if you don't know who they are, RFK aside, you may be at a loss. A short list includes Paul Auster, Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Arthur Miller, and Robert Rauschenberg (much less obnoxious than the kook in Who Gets to Call It Art?).
I found The Fall to be self-indulgent at times (some have dismissed it as "narcissistic," an accusation Whitehead strongly denies), like the aforementioned
bit in which Taburzi dances around in a short, silken robe. Time and time
again, Whitehead tries to look up that wisp of fabric, but she draws the material around her hips whenever he gets too close. On the other hand, it's rather
sexy stuff -- and I don't think you can say that about many documentaries.
Misgivings aside, The Fall whet my appetite for more Whitehead, and I'm particularly looking forward to essential 1960s document Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, featuring his Cambridge contemporary Syd Barrett, along with Roman Polanski
and other leading lights of '60s pop culture. Best of all: No tennis-playing mimes!
*****
I had a nervous breakdown because I had become film.
I could not walk down the street without editing, panning,
zooming...so I gave it up totally and went into falcons.

-- Peter Whitehead
*****
Quotes from a 1997 interview with Whitehead in Entropy. The Fall plays the
Northwest Film Forum 11/11-12, Sat.-Sun., at 7 and 9:30pm. The series LET'S
ALL MAKE LOVE IN LONDON: THE FILMS OF PETER WHITEHEAD runs from 11/3-
12. Passes available. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill
between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also
call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Admiration and Poverty - The Coleman Miller Interview

experimental2.jpg

As Coleman Miller is fond of noting, European cuisine during the Age of Exploration must have been bland as shit or else the aristocracy wouldn't have spent years of effort and piles of gold sending men halfway round the globe to fetch cumin. Using his own arsenal of cinematic seasoning, from old-school darkroom trickery to computerized manipulation, Miller takes musty bits of forgotten film and simmers them into cinematic bouillabaisse. The words 'funny' and 'experimental film' are not often found in the same sentence, but his latest piece, Uso Justo, transforms a Mexican medical melodrama into one fucking funny experimental film.

The 87 minute program will be presented at the NWFF Tuesday evening at 8:00pm.

Coleman Miller will be present.

ESF: Your films are credited to Scott Miller and Coleman Miller. They are both you, correct?
COLEMAN: Yes, that's me. My full name is Scott Coleman Miller. When I was a kid I hated my middle name, but now I kind of like it. If somebody Googles 'Scott Miller' there are 846,000 of us so, three years ago, I decided to use my middle name.
ESF: That was a good idea. Coleman is much more distinct.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I like it. Once I changed it everyone said, "No, you've got to go with Cole!" No. I'm not going to keep changing it. I'll be like P. Diddy.
ESF: Coleman is a good name. It's formal. It's got a solidity to it. It reminds me of Coleman Hawkins.
COLEMAN: That's nice. However, I live in Minnesota and we have a Republican here named Coleman. Norm Coleman. So, sometimes I run into that association.
ESF: Although he might not be in office in two years.
COLEMAN: Probably. Well, you never know. You never know what's going to happen. I have a great idea for a PSA for the Democratic party if maybe somebody has an elephant I could use and a donkey. I need to find an elephant and a donkey and have them side by side taking a shit. Maybe they don't have to do it at the same time, but as long as they're standing next to their pile of shit, just say, "As you can see, there is definitely less shit with the Democrats." So, I need to get an elephant. And I'm pretty sure an elephant shits bigger than a donkey.
ESF: Maybe you could arrange that with somebody at the zoo.
COLEMAN: Instead of asking my filmmaker friends.
ESF: Could you just go to the zoo and say, "Excuse me, I'd like to film your elephant taking a shit?"
COLEMAN: I'd still need to get them in a white backdrop.
ESF: You'd probably have to matte that in or something. So, for people who have no idea who you are, and there must be one or two, can you say a few words about yourself?
COLEMAN: I grew up in Elgin, Illinois and went to film school at Southern Illinois University. I initially went there because I wanted to make films like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Monty Python and then I took an experimental film class and that all changed. I saw films by Bruce Conner and Peter Rose and I realized, if you make narrative films you could create this whole new world, but with experimental films you could almost create a whole new universe, so it seemed like it was really opened up more. So, I went to film school, moved back to Elgin for a year, saved up my money, went to San Francisco and worked at a film lab for ten years, where I was able to experiment like crazy. I was in the print department and soon I was the head of the print department, so I could use all the contact printers, the Bell & Howell continuous contact printers, whenever I wanted. So, that was a great time, to be young, to work at the lab, to come up with an idea one night, shoot it, and get it processed the next morning.
ESF: Were you shooting negative or reversal?
COLEMAN: I was shooting primarily color negative. Sometimes I'd shoot color print stock, which is, like, 4ASA, so you'd shoot a white cat on a white picket fence in bright sunlight and maybe you'd get something.
ESF: Was Fixated Whereabouts shot at this time?
COLEMAN: Fixated Whereabouts was a college film I made. It was stuff I had shot on Super-8 and then, at the University, they had an optical printer, so I took quite a few of those shots and blew them up to 16mm and then edited that with black in-between. I had just seen Bruce Conner's Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and was pretty affected by it. I liked the idea of shots separated by fading up from black and each shot was very different. I thought I was creating this sort-of dreamscape.
ESF: I thought I noticed the Transamerica Pyramid in one shot.
COLEMAN: I had visited San Francisco. That was a still photograph that I just panned across with the Super-8 camera. It was a pretty nice photo and I just had it there, so I guess I was destined to move there.
ESF: How much time did you spend in San Francisco?
COLEMAN: A dozen years.
ESF: And then you moved to Minnesota?
COLEMAN: I moved out here with my girlfriend of the time and we were both like, okay, maybe it's time for a change. Well, I worked at the lab for a bunch of years and I finally said, "Okay, let's see if I can make some money on the side," so I sent a tape of stuff to MTV. A buddy of mine, Fran/ssois Miron, said he got $500 for just doing one of those MTV logos, so I said, "Well, I could use some of that cash," and sent them a tape. They called me back a couple of weeks later and said they'd rather have me do an opening title for a show and it paid, like, five times as much if not ten.
ESF: What show was it?
COLEMAN: The Big Picture. Chris Connelly was the host. The opening they originally used was shots of klieg lights or something turning on and off and they saw Step Off a Ten Foot Platform that had all these sprocket holes and scratches and dirt and shit and they hired me to do something like that. They sent me all the kodaliths for shooting the MTV logo and their titles. That was the first place I sent anything and I got a job out of it, so I was like, "I'm going to quit my job!" And then the phone didn't ring. So, I had another job at a still lab and then it was like, "Minnesota really supports the arts," so we said let's go there. Since then we've both gotten grants here.
ESF: How was the effect of the exposed sprocket holes done?
COLEMAN: You know how to make a contact print of a photograph? It's that same effect. I had an eight foot piece of glass in the darkroom and I took a piece of 16mm film, emulsion up, in the dark and laid a piece of black 35mm diagonally across that six foot piece of unexposed negative. I'd flick the lights on once, boom, and I would have these sprocket holes that would slowly creep across. And that was just to make the matte. Then I had a piece of black and clear and I would make a negative of that and put whatever shots I wanted over that.
ESF: A lot of those effects tend to be associated now with digital effects units, so it's interesting that you were doing those things earlier on film.
COLEMAN: And even then everybody was saying, "God, your optical printing is great" and I never used an optical printer. It's all done on a continuous contact printer.
ESF: At some point did you switch to doing effects on video?
COLEMAN: I never really worked on video. Once it got digital, I took it up. But I never worked in video much. I was a film snob for so long, you can imagine, working at a lab and seeing sprocket holes and dirt and edge numbers and frame lines every day. So that's why that stuff is in my films. I like exposing film for what it is, letting people see things. I was just cutting some stuff together for a grant I'm writing and I looked at every piece and every one has some sort of film reference. Even Fixated Whereabouts. It's all this kind of dreamscape, but in the last shot you see me walking straight into the camera. I can't seem to get away from making a film about film.
ESF: Have you ever physically treated the film, like scratching or bleaching?
COLEMAN: Yup. I have a film that's going to be screening in Seattle called Hans Motherlode. That's all shots of hands. I realized when I got the computer that I wasn't using my hands as much and the computer would break down and I would get frustrated and I'd start working with my hands again, making sculptures, and it felt good. Then I realized, my apartment is loaded with all these educational films and almost every one had close-ups of hands doing something. So I cut up all those shots and kept them around the apartment. You know, I had some in my bathroom sink and I would spit on them when I was brushing my teeth or they'd be on the floor and I would step on them, etc. And I'd run them through sandpaper or bleach them a little bit. Sometimes when I'm editing in the summertime, barefoot, a film piece on the floor will stick to my foot and I'm like, okay, that's the shot.
ESF: Have you ever seen the 1934 film Hands? It's on the Unseen Cinema set. I think it was done for the WPA. It's just one shot after another of hands, opening a book or threading a needle or working a jackhammer.
COLEMAN: No, I've never seen that!
ESF: So, at a certain point you just gave in a started working with a computer?
COLEMAN: I finally broke down and got a computer around 1999. Well, once I didn't work at the lab anymore I couldn't process stuff as cheaply, so I got a video camera and Final Cut Pro and all bets were off. It's like editing and optical printing all in the same program, it's pretty sweet.
ESF: Has that affected your work?
COLEMAN: Well, I can put out stuff really quickly now. The local PBS station here has this thing where once a year they show short independent work from Minnesota and the due date was a couple of days away and people were asking me what I was submitting and I really didn't have anything new, so I just cut something together in a night. I can do that now. Back in the day I could still do that, but it was on a flatbed editor and I would take found footage and splice it together in some semblance of order. I don't consider that a film as much as, well maybe not an exercise, but as a little thing to do. It's not something I would submit to festivals, but it's all mainly found footage. There's one called Opening Titles. Educational films all have opening titles with very dramatic music, so I just spliced them together and it was pretty funny to watch. I grew up watching these films. I don't know how old you are, but...
ESF: I'm [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL].
COLEMAN: So, when you were going to elementary school or junior high they'd bring out the projector and show the films?
ESF: Yes. The best were the driving safety ones, which were kind of ghoulish.
COLEMAN: Red Asphalt. I remember the anti-drug ones, of course.
ESF: There would always be somebody taking acid and flying through a window.
COLEMAN: Or staring at a doorknob and tripping out on their reflection.
ESF: Have you ever seen the NY public access show, Concrete TV?
COLEMAN: I haven't. I love cable access in NY, though.
ESF: It was these really dense montages of found footage that were so quickly cut that, after a few minutes, your eyes would hurt.
COLEMAN: Were they doing anything to it or just showing it as it was?
ESF: It was just rapid cuts from one weird thing to another with usually some metal riff blasting away.
COLEMAN: When I look through my educational films I generally don't grab the really dramatic stuff, like I know people are always looking for car crashes or something like that and I'll end up taking a shot of somebody on the corner looking at the sun. The more banal stuff seems more interesting to me.
ESF: Although you do have some shots, I think in Step Off A Ten Foot Platform, that appear to be from a fire safety film.
COLEMAN: Yeah, it's like a house burning and firemen are coming.
ESF: Yes.
COLEMAN: Okay, there is that stuff. So, it's not all banal.
ESF: On the other hand, your films definitely have a meditative aspect. It's not just one thing zinging at you after another every split second.
COLEMAN: Maybe near the end of Step Off A Ten Foot Platform it gets kind of crazy. In that one I was trying to introduce this footage and there's six or seven shots that I introduce just the way it was shot and then I go into this weird place where it's all printed weird colors and cut in with sprocket holes.
ESF: I'm curious about Take The L. It seems like a bit of a departure.
COLEMAN: That was the one I cut in a night to get the $500 for the PBS screening. I had shot this stuff on the L in Chicago and I was putzing around with Final Cut Pro, trying to get different kaleidoscopic effects.
ESF: Oh, so that was done in post. I was trying to figure out if it was done with the camera.
COLEMAN: No. I tried that with mirrors, but it never looked good. And that's something I couldn't have done in a night if I was doing that on film. It would be a lot of matting and things like that and so sometimes that stuff works out pretty nicely and I think it's kind of mesmerizing. It's nice to do a kaleidoscopic effect with a nice, smooth, panning camera, either right to left or up and down and that L track stuff worked perfectly.
ESF: I also liked the music you coupled it with. It was a good choice.
COLEMAN: That's a band called Electropolis and I acted in and crewed on a film they were used on and I know one of the guys in the band and I just called him the night before and said, "Hey, can I use your music?" and he said, "Yeah, sure."
ESF: How about Hashbrown, the band that did the music for Hans Motherlode?
COLEMAN: Hashbrown is a guy. He's a friend of mine. That's his moniker.
ESF: So, being in Minneapolis, have you had much to do with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival?
COLEMAN: Yeah, I've shown there and when I first got here I helped the guy do the trailer. I helped them design it and this past year I made the trailer myself. I did it in two weeks. It was an Uso Justo type thing using the same film and I just made it all referencing the festival.
ESF: So, do you have any good stories about Jamie Hook?
COLEMAN: [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL]
ESF: How about Adam Sekuler, do you have any good stories about him?
COLEMAN: Oh, that guy! Well, all I can say is you have to see him karaoke sing or else you haven't seen Adam.
ESF: I have not yet had the privilege.
COLEMAN: Well, his version of Toto's Africa, if you can see him do that, it'll make you smile for a week.
ESF: So, what can you tell me about Uso Justo?
COLEMAN: Uso Joosto! I love that film
ESF: I don't suppose you're willing to tell me what the source of that was.
COLEMAN: Only if you don't print it. I have some rights issues. I never got rights to that, but Uso Justo is Spanish for 'fair use'. Are you familiar with 'fair use', copyright law?
ESF: Yes.
COLEMAN: So, I just decided to call the town 'fair use' and thought that might look good at my impending trial when I'm sued. So, the original name of that film was [REDACTED -CONFIDENTIAL]. What it was, I told my friends that I wanted to make a foreign film and they were like, "What does that mean?" And I said, I don't know, but I'm going to figure it out. A month later I was in a little video store, a one guy operation, in a strip mall outside Minneapolis and he had a foreign section. He had a VHS tape, it was $7.95. I had him pop it in. I watched the first five minutes and there were no subtitles, it was all just Spanish and I said, "I'll take it." I took it home and watched it a bunch of times and then just started to put some scenes into my computer and started typing up some new subtitles for it. I just kind of grew on its own.
ESF: It looks like it was an odd film to begin with. Does the film in it's virgin form have a weird feel?
COLEMAN: Well the plot was [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL]. But Uso Justo kind of wrote itself, once I started doing it. The first scene I wrote was an operating room scene and it kinda worked, but didn't really. The more scenes I wrote, the better I got at writing lines that you'd think these characters might actually be saying just by their inflection and expressions. It took me two or three scenes before I got that. Once I got that down it sort of wrote itself. And once I realized, okay, these people are going to get stuck in this film and they realize they're in this film, it was a lot of fun to write.
ESF: It's really a fun piece.
COLEMAN: It definitely catapulted me up a couple of levels. You know the rest of my films would show and people would be like "Oh, that's very interesting. How did you do that?" But now I'm getting invited to festivals all over the world.
ESF: So when did you initially show Uso Justo?
COLEMAN: It premiered at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2005. I had had a film or two at Ann Arbor and a couple of years ago I went there and did some installations for the festival in their lobby. So, I had a connection with them. And to me the Ann Arbor Film Festival has always been like, in film school they would tell you, "If you can get into the Ann Arbor Film Festival, that's the best one." It's been going on for forty years, its one of the oldest film festivals in the country for short, independent films. So that was always the film festival to get into. So, I submitted Uso Justo. They had a new festival director. I knew the old director, Vicki Honeyman, for years and they had a new guy in there, Dan, and so I submitted Uso Justo. He loved it. It went through their screening committee and they rejected it. They were like, "No, it's derivative." And that drove my producer, Rick, up the wall, because he thought it was anything but derivative. So, he wrote Dan an e-mail and I talked to Dan and said "Man, I'm really disappointed, because this thing was almost made for Ann Arbor." And he ended up making an executive decision and screened it at the festival. And then it goes on and wins the best of the festival. So, screening committees, pfffft, go figure.
ESF: Was that where you encountered Isabella Rossellini?
COLEMAN: God, how do you know that?
ESF: There's a quote from her on your website.
COLEMAN: A friend of mine was dating her for a while.
ESF: Really.
COLEMAN: So we hung out a couple of times. It was just when I was finishing Uso Justo, we were having dinner in Chicago and I gave them a DVD of it and she left a couple of messages on my phone machine saying nice things.
ESF: What did she say?
COLEMAN: She just said she liked the film and thought it was kind of original. And then my friend Charlie piped in and says she told him I would wind up being poor and damned, so Isabella called back and said she didn't really say that. What she said was that it was tough being original and that I could look forward to a life of admiration and great poverty.
ESF: Really.
COLEMAN: Yes, that was it. Admiration and great poverty.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Slimy Rodents and Shiny Roadsters

TALES OF THE RAT FINK
(Ron Mann, US, 78 mins.)

edhead_fink.jpg

"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement-a surrealist in his designs."
-- Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)

*****

You've got to give props to any documentarian who steps outside the Ken Burns
box of archival footage + omniscient narrator + soporific soundtrack = high-minded hagiography. Granted, I found his Jack Johnson doc to be a powerful thing (and I've enjoyed other works), but the Burns family style-see Burns, Ric-is getting stale.

As befits a film about an unconventional character, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Toronto's Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) kicks the box to the curb, although not so far
that he reinvents or destroys the form. Tales of the Rat Fink is constructed from the expected documentary elements, but they appear in unexpected configurations.

ratfink2.jpg
Roth with the "Rotar"
First of all: the narration. Although Mann takes advantage of third-person commentary, most is first-person-despite the fact that Roth, AKA Mr. Gasser, passed away in 2001. While it's becoming commonplace to string together old
interviews to create an eerie from-beyond-the-dead monologue, as in the Oscar-
nominated Tupac: Resurrection (A.J. Schnack's upcoming Kurt Cobain doc utilizes
the same technique), Mann does something a little different. In this case, Roth
fan John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) recites Big Daddy's life story as the man himself. Goodman's dry, gravely pipes are a perfect fit for Roth's eccentric image.
Mann moves further away from the box with the color commentary. Since Roth
was a car customizer, the picture is packed with hot rods and roadsters. They contribute to the narration. You read that right. Although the documentary includes lively animation, zippy graphics, and boffo sound effects, these are actual cars.
Celebs from the worlds of art, literature, music, movies, and television provide
the voices. The cars don't move, but their headlights pulsate as they speak.
Kudos to Mann for such an original idea. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as Goodman's low-key narration. In fact, I found it distracting at first, but I got over it.
It's just as well, since the voice talent can't be beat: Wolfe, Ann-Margaret, Paul
Le Mat, Brian Wilson, Robert Williams, Matt Groening, and Tom and Dick Smothers. Huzzah! Further, Tales of the Rat Fink corrects a problem I have with many documentaries and docu-dramas-it provides context. So much so that it serves more as an overview of an era, Southern California in the 1950s and '60s, than a portrait of a personality. Sure, I learned a few things about Roth-and Goodman does his bit to bring the guy to life-but I never got a feel for what made him tick.
When Tales played Seattle this fall, the consensus seemed to be: If you're a gearhead, check it out. If you're not, take a pass. I beg to differ. As a Dr. Fiberglass of the chassis, Roth was an artist as surely as Von Dutch, Sailor Jerry, and other California cats who inked, airbrushed, silkscreened, etc. Whether the surface is a
car, a T-shirt, or the human skin, it's all still art, and I enjoyed the film on that level.
Along with Vancouver instrumental quartet the Sadies, Mann goes out of his
way to fill his frames with an irreverent look and sound that reflects Roth's gonzo aesthetic. It may not be "fine art," but I prefer films about outsider artists anyway, like Sick (about "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan) or In the Realms of the Unreal
(about Henry Darger, whose work is currently on display at the Frye Art Museum). Tales of the Rat Fink may not top those two, but it's a welcome addition to the fold.
*****
"The big paintings that are sitting in the art
galleries now...they're hanging on a wall and
they're not groovy. If you can apply that grooviness
to what's happening now-that's where it's at."
-- Ed "Big Daddy" Roth on Kustom Kar Kulture
bigdaddydruid.jpg
Roth with the "Druid Princess"
Shout Factory releases Tales of the Rat Fink on 11/03/06-just in time for Christmas gift-giving. And who wouldn't want a green, warty, bug-eyed rodent in their stocking? Because that's exactly what Roth's mascot Rat Fink, the anti-Mickey Mouse, looks like. Granted, I'm a bigger fan of the Mouse than the Rat-especially in his Sorcerer's Apprentice guise-but I'll take the Mighty Fink over the Minnie Mouse anyday.

Slimy Rodents and Shiny Roadsters

TALES OF THE RAT FINK
(Ron Mann, US, 78 mins.)

edhead_fink.jpg

"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement -- a surrealist in his designs."
-- Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)

*****

You've got to give props to any documentarian who steps outside the Ken Burns
box of archival footage + omniscient narrator + soporific soundtrack = high-minded hagiography. Granted, I found his Jack Johnson doc to be a powerful thing (and I've enjoyed other works), but the Burns family style -- see Burns, Ric -- is getting stale.

As befits a film about an unconventional character, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Toronto's Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) kicks the box to the curb, although not so far
that he reinvents or destroys the form. Tales of the Rat Fink is constructed from the expected documentary elements, but they appear in unexpected configurations.

ratfink2.jpg
Roth with the "Rotar"
First of all: the narration. Although Mann takes advantage of third-person commentary, most is first-person -- despite the fact that Roth, AKA Mr. Gasser, passed away in 2001. While it's becoming commonplace to string together old
interviews to create an eerie from-beyond-the-dead monologue, as in the Oscar-
nominated Tupac: Resurrection (A.J. Schnack's upcoming Kurt Cobain doc utilizes
the same technique), Mann does something a little different. In this case, Roth
fan John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) recites Big Daddy's life story as the man himself. Goodman's dry, gravely pipes are a perfect fit for Roth's eccentric image.
Mann moves further away from the box with the color commentary. Since Roth
was a car customizer, the picture is packed with hot rods and roadsters. They contribute to the narration. You read that right. Although the documentary includes lively animation, zippy graphics, and boffo sound effects, these are actual cars.
Celebs from the worlds of art, literature, music, movies, and television provide
the voices. The cars don't move, but their headlights pulsate as they speak.
Kudos to Mann for such an original idea. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as Goodman's low-key narration. In fact, I found it distracting at first, but I got over it.
It's just as well, since the voice talent can't be beat: Wolfe, Ann-Margaret, Paul
Le Mat, Brian Wilson, Robert Williams, Matt Groening, and Tom and Dick Smothers. Huzzah! Further, Tales of the Rat Fink corrects a problem I have with many documentaries and docu-dramas -- it provides context. So much so that it serves more as an overview of an era, Southern California in the 1950s and '60s, than a portrait of a personality. Sure, I learned a few things about Roth -- and Goodman does his bit to bring the guy to life -- but I never got a feel for what made him tick.
When Tales played Seattle this fall, the consensus seemed to be: If you're a gearhead, check it out. If you're not, take a pass. I beg to differ. As a Dr. Fiberglass of the chassis, Roth was an artist as surely as Von Dutch, Sailor Jerry, and other California cats who inked, airbrushed, silkscreened, etc. Whether the surface is a
car, a T-shirt, or the human skin, it's all still art, and I enjoyed the film on that level.
Along with Vancouver instrumental quartet the Sadies, Mann goes out of his
way to fill his frames with an irreverent look and sound that reflects Roth's gonzo aesthetic. It may not be "fine art," but I prefer films about outsider artists anyway, like Sick (about "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan) or In the Realms of the Unreal
(about Henry Darger, whose work is currently on display at the Frye Art Museum). Tales of the Rat Fink may not top those two, but it's a welcome addition to the fold.
*****
"The big paintings that are sitting in the art
galleries now...they're hanging on a wall and
they're not groovy. If you can apply that grooviness
to what's happening now -- that's where it's at."
-- Ed "Big Daddy" Roth on Kustom Kar Kulture
bigdaddydruid.jpg
Roth with the "Druid Princess"
Shout Factory releases Tales of the Rat Fink on 11/03/06 -- just in time for Christmas gift-giving. And who wouldn't want a green, warty, bug-eyed rodent in their stocking? Because that's exactly what Roth's mascot Rat Fink, the anti-Mickey Mouse, looks like. Granted, I'm a bigger fan of the Mouse than the Rat -- especially in his Sorcerer's Apprentice guise -- but I'll take the Mighty Fink over the Minnie Mouse anyday.

Friday, October 13, 2006

NWFF Production Fund and other notes.

A year ago I attended the NWFF's announcement of the new Start-to-Finish project, David Russo's #2. On that occasion I was suffering from the onset of a cold. A year later I am happy to report than not only is my health good, but two days ago I received a glowing review from my dentist on the state of my oral hygiene. So, it was with a sense of vigor and a fresh mouth that I attended the NWFF's announcement of the beginning of a new production fund.

Before the meeting began, I chatted with Adam Sekuler and Peter Lucas about last Sunday's panel discussion 'Is There a Northwest Aesthetic'? In particular we discussed the issue of slanting light. Namely, what did Charles Mudede and Sean Kirby mean by that term? The consensus was that it had to do with our latitude. Being somewhat north of the equator the sun does not travel directly overhead from East to West, but at an angle. Not being a science-geek, I have no idea if this is correct, but it sounds reasonable.
At the meeting Michael Seiwerath announced the beginning of a new fund to help finance the NWFF Start-to-Finish projects. As he described it:
As many as you know our flagship program at NWFF is the Start-to-Finish grant program. It's a program we've had for about seven years, we've made five feature films through it and there's no application process...

With this grant we throw the entirety of the resources of the organization behind it, offering free office space, editing space for as long as the film takes, all of our gear, I act as an executive producer on the film, anything our organization can do to make it better we will. For past films there have been countless screenings of rough cuts, fundraising screenings, anything our theaters can do to help. Unique to the program is the funding model where we fundraise as a 501(c)3 nonprofit seeking donations on a film and then the production starts a limited liability corporation seeking investments. This is two prongs going to the same goal, which is making a great work of art that gets out into the world and gets seen. Non-profit money and for-profit money and we've had films of varying budgets over the years from as low as $60,000 up through over $300,000...

The big glaring hole with this program has always been, it's a grant program that comes with a lot of sweat equity, a ton of emotional support and professional expertise, our resources and willingness to raise funds, but with every single Start-to-Finish program, without exception, we've started with zero. We've been fundraising from scratch and that's meant it's longer to raise funds and some easy work that could be done at the beginning is always stalled till we get the funds raised and we can be at the mercy of really lengthy grant cycles and the fickleness of investors and donors. Tonight we're here to launch a new program that will change that. We're launching a production fund that will raise money holistically for the Start-to-Finish program and will pay out direct cash grants to the productions from multi-year gifts and individual gifts. So instead of just raising money piecemeal for every film and being dependant on connections on an individual filmmaker and an individual script we're providing donors a way a to support filmmaking in Washington state holistically and know there's an organization behind it...

The donors who would support this a lot of times have been asked to support films in the past and film is one of the messiest, most expensive art forms out there. It's hard to know how to support it. Many of you have been asked to support a film by anybody from your nephew in film school to a very accomplished filmmaker. And you're not sure what a big budget is, you don't know what's an appropriate amount to ask. Is enough money being spent on cast and crew and producers or is it all lopsided? Will the film ever get finished? So many great films in this town get started and then stall in post-production and go nowhere. With this project it allows a donor to put money into our fund, we have a very strong vetting process for Start-to-Finish films, and the donor puts in the money and then basically shows up at opening night to kick off the film. With this fund we're seeking single and multiple year donations, we're going to national foundations, national funders and looking locally for funds to help start it. We have the goal of raising $200,000 annually for the production fund and it would pay out to the individual productions.

After a few more comments, David Russo, the director of the current Start-to-Finish production, was introduced and gave a little background on himself and his project, which he described thusly:
#2 as a straight narrative is a janitor story and this motley crew of janitors gets surreptitiously, secretly experimented on by a product research firm that they're hired to clean. As it turns out they become addicted to this cookie that's been designed to simulate oven freshness by getting warm in the mouth when eaten. This addiction to the active ingredient in the cookie complicates their lives with mad visions and spectacular mood swings, which end up destroying their relationships. And the most unforeseen, unintended consequence is that each of them, by film's end, has to give birth to an immaculately conceived semi-animate life form that lives mere moments after birth. And did I mention that this only happens to the male janitors?

After the meeting, I encountered Grant Cogswell, writer of Cthulhu, and asked him how the film was going. He said it was done or, as he put it 'done, done' and that there would be a screening for family and friends and members of the production in several weeks. I asked him if he was still planning on moving to Mexico City and he said yes that, in fact, he was moving there next week. I mentioned the Northwest Aesthetic panel and said that Charles had outlined three points which could be used to identify any film made in the region. Wondering if they would apply to his film, Grant asked what they were.
--The proximity of the urban and the natural.

--Check.

--A quality of diffuse/slanted light.

--Two out of three, not bad.

--A theme of reinvention.

--Holy shit!

Our conversation concluded I wandered out into the night air, a stack of Peter Whitehead screeners under my arm, fit as a fiddle and looking forward to a host of future Seattle productions.

NWFF Production Fund and other notes.

A year ago I attended the NWFF's announcement of the new Start-to-Finish project, David Russo's #2. On that occasion I was suffering from the onset of a cold. A year later I am happy to report than not only is my health good, but two days ago I received a glowing review from my dentist on the state of my oral hygiene. So, it was with a sense of vigor and a fresh mouth that I attended the NWFF's announcement of the beginning of a new production fund.

Before the meeting began, I chatted with Adam Sekuler and Peter Lucas about last Sunday's panel discussion 'Is There a Northwest Aesthetic'? In particular we discussed the issue of slanting light. Namely, what did Charles Mudede and Sean Kirby mean by that term? The consensus was that it had to do with our latitude. Being somewhat north of the equator the sun does not travel directly overhead from East to West, but at an angle. Not being a science-geek, I have no idea if this is correct, but it sounds reasonable.
At the meeting Michael Seiwerath announced the beginning of a new fund to help finance the NWFF Start-to-Finish projects. As he described it:
As many as you know our flagship program at NWFF is the Start-to-Finish grant program. It's a program we've had for about seven years, we've made five feature films through it and there's no application process...

With this grant we throw the entirety of the resources of the organization behind it, offering free office space, editing space for as long as the film takes, all of our gear, I act as an executive producer on the film, anything our organization can do to make it better we will. For past films there have been countless screenings of rough cuts, fundraising screenings, anything our theaters can do to help. Unique to the program is the funding model where we fundraise as a 501(c)3 nonprofit seeking donations on a film and then the production starts a limited liability corporation seeking investments. This is two prongs going to the same goal, which is making a great work of art that gets out into the world and gets seen. Non-profit money and for-profit money and we've had films of varying budgets over the years from as low as $60,000 up through over $300,000...

The big glaring hole with this program has always been, it's a grant program that comes with a lot of sweat equity, a ton of emotional support and professional expertise, our resources and willingness to raise funds, but with every single Start-to-Finish program, without exception, we've started with zero. We've been fundraising from scratch and that's meant it's longer to raise funds and some easy work that could be done at the beginning is always stalled till we get the funds raised and we can be at the mercy of really lengthy grant cycles and the fickleness of investors and donors. Tonight we're here to launch a new program that will change that. We're launching a production fund that will raise money holistically for the Start-to-Finish program and will pay out direct cash grants to the productions from multi-year gifts and individual gifts. So instead of just raising money piecemeal for every film and being dependant on connections on an individual filmmaker and an individual script we're providing donors a way a to support filmmaking in Washington state holistically and know there's an organization behind it...

The donors who would support this a lot of times have been asked to support films in the past and film is one of the messiest, most expensive art forms out there. It's hard to know how to support it. Many of you have been asked to support a film by anybody from your nephew in film school to a very accomplished filmmaker. And you're not sure what a big budget is, you don't know what's an appropriate amount to ask. Is enough money being spent on cast and crew and producers or is it all lopsided? Will the film ever get finished? So many great films in this town get started and then stall in post-production and go nowhere. With this project it allows a donor to put money into our fund, we have a very strong vetting process for Start-to-Finish films, and the donor puts in the money and then basically shows up at opening night to kick off the film. With this fund we're seeking single and multiple year donations, we're going to national foundations, national funders and looking locally for funds to help start it. We have the goal of raising $200,000 annually for the production fund and it would pay out to the individual productions.

After a few more comments, David Russo, the director of the current Start-to-Finish production, was introduced and gave a little background on himself and his project, which he described thusly:
#2 as a straight narrative is a janitor story and this motley crew of janitors gets surreptitiously, secretly experimented on by a product research firm that they're hired to clean. As it turns out they become addicted to this cookie that's been designed to simulate oven freshness by getting warm in the mouth when eaten. This addiction to the active ingredient in the cookie complicates their lives with mad visions and spectacular mood swings, which end up destroying their relationships. And the most unforeseen, unintended consequence is that each of them, by film's end, has to give birth to an immaculately conceived semi-animate life form that lives mere moments after birth. And did I mention that this only happens to the male janitors?

After the meeting, I encountered Grant Cogswell, writer of Cthulhu, and asked him how the film was going. He said it was done or, as he put it 'done, done' and that there would be a screening for family and friends and members of the production in several weeks. I asked him if he was still planning on moving to Mexico City and he said yes that, in fact, he was moving there next week. I mentioned the Northwest Aesthetic panel and said that Charles had outlined three points which could be used to identify any film made in the region. Wondering if they would apply to his film, Grant asked what they were.
--The proximity of the urban and the natural.

--Check.

--A quality of diffuse/slanted light.

--Two out of three, not bad.

--A theme of reinvention.

--Holy shit!

Our conversation concluded I wandered out into the night air, a stack of Peter Whitehead screeners under my arm, fit as a fiddle and looking forward to a host of future Seattle productions.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Local Produce: Local Shorts

Local Produce: Local Shorts
Saturday, October 14, 12:00pm
Harvard Exit
Local Shorts 3.jpg
Still from To Be A Heart
www.seattlequeerfilm.com

This 92-minute program of shorts features the queer related works of Pacific Northwest filmmakers. The films vary greatly in genre, format, subject matter, production value and overall quality. If you want to see what local directors are up to and view a couple of really good films while wading through some mediocre, and some down right bad, films this is the program for you. If you want to see shorts of a more consistent quality then check out some of the other short programs at the festival like The Young and The Breathless.

Several films had either strong production values but weak stories or strong stories with weak production values. To Be A Heart had a great premise- it's a clever meditation on gender- but the acting and production design were a letdown. Another worthwhile entry was the four-minute short Bedfellows, which had a clever premise and a great amusing script. Drafting Dimensions had an interesting sci-fi/metaphysical concept, some great art design, but the second-rate cinematography and special effects along with wooden acting undercut the big ideas in the script.
The first film that stands out in this program is The Sisterhood of the Night. It's not a perfect film, the pacing drags a bit and the story was a rehash of The Crucible with a modern Buffy/The Craft/Ginger Snaps view of teenage female sexuality. However the narrative structure, the acting and the visual style of the film are first rate.
The best of the lot by far was Free Parking. The story is simple, two sisters are sent out to pick blackberries, but the complexity of their relationship is conveyed in a brilliantly naunced script and two realistically complicated performances by the young actresses playing the sisters. Frankly, I felt it was worth the whole program to see this short. It'll be interesting to see where the director, Laura Jean Cronin goes as a filmmaker.

2006 Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

SLGFF_2006_Art.jpg

2006 Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
October 13-22
http://www.seattlequeerfilm.com/06/index.html

It is time once again for the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival which consistently excels in its programming. Over the past six years of covering this event, I have seen the festival grow in number of days, venues and films without losing its quality of programming while pursuing a higher quantity of films. This year's festival, the eleventh one, opens with a real programming coup, screening what will probably be the most controversial film of the year, James Cameron Mitchell's follow up to his brilliant directorial debut, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the sexually explicit Shortbus. The characters include a dominatrix, a sex therapist, and a gay couple looking for a third partner, all of whom are dealing with a variety of sex and intimacy issues. This film reflects the spirit of the rest of the programming, one of true diversity.

The diversity of the programming this year shows in the range of genre: documentary, comedy, romance, erotica, political satire, musical performance, and the ever popular annual sing-a-long musical, this year it's Funny Girl. Funny Girl is one of several archival screenings this year, they are also presenting Ken Russell's lush epic, The Music Lovers, a film about the life of Tchaikovsky (one of a series of films Russell made about great musical composers.) Both are being screened at the Cinerama. The festival is also screening the late Russ Meyer's ode to big-busted women and the violence they do, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Its iconic star, Tura Satana will be in attendance.
The festival will also have a diverse range of subjects in its feature length and short documentaries and narrative films. The subjects include some of the most pressing issues in the current human rights battle: marriage and family, religion, race and transgender issues. The films also cover non-political subjects like the humorous and tragic travails of love, the perils of music fandom and gay zombies.
Yes, gay zombies! Creatures from The Pink Lagoon, produced right here in Seattle will be playing at the festival. (This shameless plug brought to you by a minor crewmember of the film.) Also for the locally minded there is Boy Culture, which was also shot here in Seattle. (Click here:http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/boy_culture_003516.html# for a full review of it.) Plus there is an entire program of locally made shorts called Local Produce: Local Shorts that is also screening at the festival. Check out the schedule for show times and ticket information: http://www.seattlequeerfilm.com/06/schedule.html

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Boy Culture

boy culture.jpg


Sunday, June 15th, 9:15 p.m. Harvard Exit
Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
http://www.seattlequeerfilm.com/06/index.html

Please take advantage of Seattle getting this great film a second time. This review was originally written for its screening at SIFF.

Here's my problem with most gay dramas; they usually fall into one of four categories Coming Out, Dying of Aids, The Loves and Travails of a Group of Friends and Hustlers. Granted Boy Culture technically falls into Hustlers, but within the first five minutes of the film it satirizes this fact in a wittily self-reflexive way.

Admirably, director and co-screenwriter Q. Allan Brocka was able to incorporate several of these self-parodying jokes; as well as use clichéd gay film scenarios like the gay man secretly in love with best friend; and the usual stock homosexual characters- older mentor, hustler with the heart of gold, and humorous sluttish twink with secret depths; and still manage to come up with an original smart and insightful drama about three dimensional characters behaving in a realistic manner. In other words, he gives us the best of both worlds and challenges the audience to look at gay interrelationships as they are in the real world. Plus, impressively, he makes Seattle, where the film is set, look like Seattle-there are days when it doesn't rain and there are locations other than the Space Needle.
Brocka also wisely cast the wonderful character actor Patrick Bauchau, whom you've seen a half a dozen times playing the wise mentor to numerous heroes, as, well, the wise mentor to the high paid hustler/hero of this piece the self-named X. Bauchau's character, Gregory, gives X, (insightfully played by Derek Magyar) much needed lessons in human connection and risk taking which in addition to living with his two roommates, Blowey Joey (the twink and X's surrogate son) and Andrew (X's potential love interest) may or may not lead him successfully down the rocky path to romance. Gregory winds up not being quite what he seem which again pays tribute to the cleverness of the screenplay and direction.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Is There a Northwest Aesthetic? Excerpts From A Panel

Is there a Northwest aesthetic? When I saw this listed as a panel discussion at Local Sightings I thought, what are they going to talk about for an hour, rain? I mean, what could possibly tie such a diverse region together? To my surprise and delight the panel, which consisted of Charles Mudede, Nick Peterson, Sean Kirby, Sean Porter, Megan Griffiths and Peter Lucas, was quite cogent. Over the course of the evening several themes emerged. Whether you agree with them or not [and it would be much more interesting if you didn't] they were quite compelling. Here then are some excerpts:

Geography and Light
Charles: When I first came here I met a local writer, Jonathan Raban, and I asked him what he liked about the Northwest and he said the texture of the light. It slants. It slants sharply. And I looked around and saw he was right. In Africa the light is more direct. And here there is a sharp distinction in the slanting of the light. The way shadows fall, the way rain falls. So, when I met Rob Devor, I hadn't really seen a film that focused on the region's beauty and light quality. There had been great films that had been done here, but I couldn't think of one that did it with muscular intention and that was something I definitely wanted to do.
Sean Kirby: When I first read Police Beat I fell in love with it. And I think part of it was that Charles and Rob were in love with this place in terms of the light and the general mood here. I'm not from here myself. When I first came to Seattle I was taken by the slanting of the light and the almost constant cloud formations. As well as being a town that sits right between two mountain ranges. My first memory was taking the ferry ride from downtown Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and on the way thinking, I can't believe a city the size of Seattle is in the middle of nature to its strongest degree. That's why I like shooting here so much and why I think it's a powerful place to shoot. Unlike the East Coast where nature is such a small part, the reminder that nature is bigger than us is right there; however you want to look at that, in terms of volcanoes or the size of the mountains or the expanse of the sky. The other thing that struck me about Seattle, and it's always felt to me and it still feels this way, is that it's like a frontier town. Obviously, Seattle is no longer really a frontier town, but it's not that long ago that it was. And with that is the mystery of the unknown. Even in the middle of the city. And when you get out from the city, it's really strong. And so, when I met Rob and we were talking how to shoot Police Beat, it was that love and that awe and that mystery that we wanted to bring to the film as much as possible. One of the ideas we worked with, which I always try to work with a lot, is the idea of the figure in the landscape. From painting and visual art throughout history, the figure in the landscape is the strongest way to make a statement about not just physically where a character is, but psychologically. And nature here is bigger than us.
Sean Porter: I think Northwest writers and directors and cinematographers are all a part of their environment, more so than elsewhere. I think living here you're so taken by the landscape, whether it be the metropolis or the mountains or the desert, that's only a couple of hours away, that you're automatically inspired by it and so naturally write to reflect that. And I think if we were to begin a discussion on whether there is an aesthetic and where it comes from, I think it would start in the writing stage. That informs what Sean Kirby and I do, the blueprint in the script. And I think writers are definitely taken by the space and react to it.
Influences
Charles: What really inspired me, what really got me thinking, "I'd love to make a film that looked like that in Seattle," was the X-Files. The early seasons were shot in Vancouver. They were meant to be Washington DC and other parts of America. I loved how the mood was so clearly Northwest. And you looked wherever they were, wherever they were hunting aliens or whatever,AeP it was clearly Vancouver! And I loved that so deeply. I mean, every week I was addicted to the show. The minute they moved to LA I stopped watching it. Then I was exposed to the story and I had to deal with the fact that they were bad stories and the acting was kind of funny. Also Millennium and Dark Angel. All these shows were shot in Vancouver with moody cinematography to try to capture something sad or rotten, this effort to shoot this condition of yearning. So, they would take advantage of the quality of the light, the shadows, the dusk, the trees and if you look at them, particularly the first few seasons of X-Files, you can't feel like you're not watching your own world.
Sean Kirby: I don't feel like I have used previous Hollywood or Independent films shot here for reference. I do respond a lot to European and Asian cinema and I think some of the Russian filmmakers have used things that make sense to me in the Northwest. I've looked at a lot of Tarkovsky and Kieslowski and I think the landscape/environment of Western Russia and Poland have a similar feeling of light. Or, at least, in my mind it relates. The one film I thought was very Northwest in terms of the quality of the light was The Piano. And I know when Rob and I were talking about how to shoot Police Beat Campion's film, at least in terms of the quality of the light and the quality of the colors, made a lot of sense. The other thing that's a Northwest aesthetic is the overall work sensibility. I live in NY now and filmmaking there is so different than filmmaking in Seattle. I see a freeness with the writers and the directors here that I don't see a lot of in NY. Of course, there are exceptions. But in general, there's maybe more space to think in the Northwest.
Summing Up
Peter: We've certainly seen a lot of films that are written as much about place as about inner-conflict and the stories are sort of unresolved in their endings. These kind of endings tend to reference more European films than American ones, especially Hollywood. I wonder if that's a product of the kind of smaller, more secluded scene here. Is not resolving things a reaction to Hollywood or is that something that's part of the storytelling attitude here?
Charles: Okay, there are three things you can always look for when you deal with with cinema here. First, it's going to navigate between the urban and the natural. Lynne Shelton does it in We Go Way Back. It's in June & July. It's also in Police Beat. You get these sudden breaks between urban space and very rural, natural spaces. This sense of movement towards total wilderness from cosmopolitan space. And there's no shock to that. It doesn't surprise the Northwestern viewer to see those transitions, because they're normal here. You can go from concrete to total wilderness in a matter of minutes. The second one is always going to be the light and the texture of the light, the effects that come with it, the mystery, the beauty and all that sort of thing. And the final thing is the sense of reinvention. The reason why stories never end here is because they can't end. The minute anyone enters filmmaking in this part of the world they're in a situation of invention and in a situation of starting and that's the frontier mentality. We still have enough room to be in the inventive stage. In New York City you can have an ending as much as you want. Here it makes no sense to have an ending because everyone would laugh at it. It's such a boldness. Were in an environment where nobody has settled on any ideas. We're given coffee drinking as the ideal activity. So, we react. We react. It's all these desperate stabs in the dark. We're in a situation of invention. And there you have it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Three for the Road

FREE ZONE
(Amos Gitai, Israel/Belgium/France/Spain, 2005, 35mm, 90 mins.)


free%20zone.jpg

People will basically crawl, when they're completely exhausted and shaken,
to stretch their arm out to the other side. I had hoped that people were al-
ready sufficiently drained by this violence, but apparently not. They still have
the energy, and determination, to create more suffering and inflict more death.

-- Amos Gitai to The Village Voice (2000)

*****

The first question I had about this film, after noticing the star and the setting,
was this: How did Natalie Portman become involved with an Israeli production?
So, I did a little digging around, and came across Caveh Zahedi's GreenCine interview with Amos Gitai. Here's what he said when Zahedi asked him about this:

Natalie Portman wrote me a number of emails and then when I didn't answer her, she
sent me faxes, saying that she would like to make a film with me in Israel. And then
after several months I called her and suggested we have a meal together, which we
did. We had dinner in Tel Aviv, and she told me a little bit about her family background --
the fact that she is the daughter of an Israeli father and an American mother. And I
thought I should include her in this project I was preparing called Free Zone.


So, there you have it. Hers may be the most famous name, but there are actual-
ly three leads: Rebecca (Portman) is American, Leila (Hiam Abbas) is Palestinian, and Hanna (Hanna Laslo, who won the best actress award at Cannes) is Israeli.

free%20zone3.jpg
If the film sounds schematic, that's because it is. Upon breaking up with her Israeli fiancé (in flashbacks, his mother is played by Almodóvar favorite Carmen Maura), Rebecca just wants to get out of Jerusalem, so she persuades Hanna, a taxi driver, to take her to the Jordanian Free Zone bordering Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Hanna is headed there anyway. Once they arrive, Hanna tries to track down "The American" who owes her money. When he proves elusive -- a reference to Waiting
for Godot
, perhaps -- she attempts to negotiate with his business partner, Leila.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story, but Kippur's Gitai dresses it up in a number
of different ways. Some of them work, some don't. For instance, the above in-
formation is doled out very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I wondered if he hadn't blown the feature up from a short. Like many films these days, it would've work-
ed better at 60-70 minutes, as I don't believe there's 90 minutes of story here.
I liked it anyway -- the performances, at any rate -- but some scenes are allowed to
run on for too long. The 10-minute opening is a prime example. The film begins
with a close-up of Portman's profile. She's sitting in a vehicle, but it isn't clear where she is (the location is later revealed as the Wailing Wall). As a mournful version of
the anthropomorphic traditional "Chad Gadya" plays in the background, she be-
gins to cry. And cry and cry. Till the mascara runs down her face in rivers of black. Because I didn't know who she was or why she was so upset, it felt more like Gitai was trying to exploit Portman's acting abilities than to advance his narrative.
free%20zone4.jpg
Portman rises to the challenge, but the more seasoned Laslo and Abbas have her beat. The girl in the pink mohair sweater is simply less interesting than Hanna and Leila, so they end up leaving more of an impression. In the case of Abbas, that's particularly impressive, since she doesn't enter the scene until the second half of the film. Then again, I could watch Abbas read the phone book -- she's that magnetic.
Free Zone ends as it began with a scene that goes on and on. In this case, how-
ever, it's clear that Gitai is going for allegory -- and that was the point at which I realized the entire film was an allegory. (I hate to sound dense, but most of the action is so naturalistic, extraneous exposition aside, I honestly had no idea).
Plus, the end credits play over this part, so it feels less like an acting exercise.
The implication is that this sequence, standing in for Israel's relationship
with Palestine -- and vice versa -- could go on forever. Yes, it's a cynical no-
tion...probably pretty realistic, too. But what makes the film equally humanist
is the fact that all three women are essentially likable. There is no hero, but
nor is there a villain. Nonetheless, the American has options that aren't avail-
able to the Palestinian and the Israeli. Sadly, that seems pretty realistic, too.
free%20zone2.jpg
The Seattle premiere of Free Zone plays the Northwest Film Forum Sept. 29-Oct.
5. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here.
You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times. Incidentally, if the name seems familiar, you may have also seen the Palestinian-Israeli Abbas in The Syrian Bride or the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now. To bring
things full circle, E. Steven Fried interviewed Zahedi for Siffblog earlier this year.
Images from New Yorker Films, Rotten Tomatoes, and Spirituality & Practice.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Sleepy Science: Part Three

On Directing vs. Drumming

thescienceofsleeppubc.jpg
Alain Chabat and Gael Garc/<>a Bernal in The Science of Sleep

In this section, Michel Gondry talks about his Directors Series DVD,
Dave Chappelle's Block Party, and his passion for the drums.

*****

Fennessy: When I was in college, we did layouts with-we cut things out and stuck them on wax and then put them on paper. And that's how they're doing layout in the movie [Stephane works at a calendar company]. Did you do that kind of layout?

Gondry: So, you cut out shapes?

Fennessy: Yeah, when we did the campus newspaper, we were doing that
old-style layout, which is in the movie. And now...it's all on computers.

Gondry: Any computer has a program to do composition...but at the time it wasn't like that. When I was doing Stephane's job...I would guard this huge prehistoric machine. At the time, it wasn't prehistoric-I mean, it was in '82-'84-so it was optical at the most, certainly not digital. They had a computer in the middle of the part I worked in-1983-but they just used it to store customer information. So, everything was done like that in the back room with sticking little numbers on things...

Fennessy: And you still have nightmares where your hands are getting bigger!

Tyler: Do you know when you'll have time to do another Directors Series DVD?
Gondry: I'd like to do another one... It was the best thing that happened to me-
to put out this DVD-because after that people think of me as a creator. Whereas before, they said, 'Oh yeah, he's a video director, so he just likes the visuals, but doesn't care for the story.' But when people from the movie business looked at that-who are a little bit close-minded-they started to open to me. They would
say, 'Oh, you can do good videos, actually; he did some good ones, so maybe he's
not so bad.' It helped a lot with Eternal Sunshine. So, I'm really pleased with the way that turned out, with the book, and all the menus-everything was exactly the way I wanted it-and it was very nice. I wish it was always the case, that everything was like that. We've sold 200,000-300,000 copies... [For the next one] I already have 15-20 videos, and I'm doing a subject on my auntie this summer, who has been a school teacher all her life in the countryside in a little town, and on my son, which is to be called 'Paul Gondry is My Son.' It's going to be about his painting.
Fennessy: Does he have any work in The Science of Sleep?
Gondry: No, he was at school all day, he couldn't... Later, we will work together, but he's doing his painting now, and it's really brilliant, so I want to show him at work.
hpmainimage.jpg
Mel Stuart's 1973 concert film with Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, and Richard Pryor
Tyler: Do you think you might do a short film-collaborate on a single project-
with Spike Jonze or Chris Cunningham? You could all work on one project.
Gondry: We did some stuff together. We did kind of an "exquise" little film. We were hanging in a hotel room with one of...those cameras...[indistinguishable]. So he was starting a story and then I would carry on, and then he would carry on after me, and we didn't know what was going on, because we just saw the last frame. [pause] I don't know, maybe. Or maybe we're too close. I think he's more willing than me to collaborate... I fear too much to lose my individuality. I think my personality is maybe not so strong, so I really want to establish myself-and maybe [I'm] selfish.
[I think Gondry was talking about Jonze, but this part was hard to make out.]
Fennessy: We're bouncing around here, but I guess it's hard not to... When you were making Dave Chappelle's Block Party, were you thinking about Wattstax?
Gondry: Well, we mentioned it, but...it's not the same context. I don't think
I have to...pretend I'm doing a movie about an African-American rebellion.
More, everything we have to do our own way, so I strongly recommended we
stop thinking of that. I watched it, and it was great, but I didn't try to emulate it.
Fennessy: Yeah, the tone is completely different. It's a little similar [structurally], but I read an interview where you said you made the film right after the election, there was a lot of anger, and you wanted to sort of get away from that.
Gondry: Actually, we made it before; the election happened during the editing, and we were all...nausea. [laughs] So we didn't want to put too much political context because it was too-the best way was just to show the humanity of the people that were in the movie-more than...the anger. Everybody was happy to be there anyway.
[The film features Dave Chappelle, his favorite hip-hop artists, some
regular Brooklyn folks, and even a few fans bused in from Ohio.]
Fennessy: How did that come together? Did Dave Chappelle approach you or...?
Gondry: Well, we were joking around. We were doing some festival together, and
he said he...called Spike Jonze, and then because he wasn't available, he asked
me. So, I wasn't sure if it was serious or a joke, so I said to him I wanted to do a documentary with Chris Rock, and since he wasn't available, I'll ask you. [laughs]
But we had the same agent, and when he saw my DVD, he was a fan and when I
saw his DVD [Chappelle's Show], I was a fan. So as much as we are different, we have a lot in common, which is a creative process. As well, he was in a good place. He wanted to give back to the people who helped him...and now he was becoming a big star, he wanted to give back. I liked that gesture, so I wanted to be a part of it.
blockparty3.jpg
Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor T-shirt under his jacket,
with Ohio's Central State University Marching Band
Fennessy: There are a lot of drummers in the film. Did you have a rapport
with them? Even Mos Def has that scene where he's drumming-that's a great scene-and Dave Chappelle is telling the "Your Mama" jokes. And Questlove from the
Roots and Chappelle [who also drums] seem to have this great rapport...
Gondry: In the "Making of" on the DVD that's out now,
you can see me drumming with them. We did a mini-tour.
Fennessy: It came here.
Gondry: I wasn't with them when they came here; I was there for the East Coast.
In Charlotte, we did a gig and it was Erykah Badu's birthday, and she asked me
to come and play...and I played 20 minutes. It was my big dream-I was [living
out] my dream in some way-because I've been playing drums for years in bands, but they were always like new wave or very stiff, and I always wanted to play more like funk music. And with her, she has a great bass player and a backbeat...
Fennessy: And you're on the Kanye [West] album, which I just read.
I didn't know that. I was really impressed-that's a great song.
[He appears on "Gold Digger" off Late Registration.]
Gondry: It's a great showcase, but I have to admit, I played over a song
that he had recorded, and they looped me. I'm there, but it's not like I supported
the song. But yeah, I will do any drummer job for anyone. It's really nice to be
a drummer-as long as you don't have to carry the drums around.
Fennessy: Would you drum for the White Stripes if Meg was ill? [laughs]
Gondry: I don't know-she's irreplaceable. I would rather play the triangle.
04.jpg
In Stephane's dreams, he's a cat suit-wearing drummer
Next: On New Projects and Old Favorites
*****
The Science of Sleep continues at the Egyptian Theatre (801 E Pine).
For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Photos
courtesy Rogue Pictures and -(c) Warner Independent Pictures.

Sleepy Science: Part Three

On Directing vs. Drumming

thescienceofsleeppubc.jpg
Alain Chabat and Gael García Bernal in The Science of Sleep

In this section, Michel Gondry talks about his Directors Series DVD,
Dave Chappelle's Block Party, and his passion for the drums.

*****

Fennessy: When I was in college, we did layouts with -- we cut things out and stuck them on wax and then put them on paper. And that's how they're doing layout in the movie [Stephane works at a calendar company]. Did you do that kind of layout?

Gondry: So, you cut out shapes?

Fennessy: Yeah, when we did the campus newspaper, we were doing that
old-style layout, which is in the movie. And now...it's all on computers.

Gondry: Any computer has a program to do composition...but at the time it wasn't like that. When I was doing Stephane's job...I would guard this huge prehistoric machine. At the time, it wasn't prehistoric -- I mean, it was in '82-'84 -- so it was optical at the most, certainly not digital. They had a computer in the middle of the part I worked in -- 1983 -- but they just used it to store customer information. So, everything was done like that in the back room with sticking little numbers on things...

Fennessy: And you still have nightmares where your hands are getting bigger!

Tyler: Do you know when you'll have time to do another Directors Series DVD?
Gondry: I'd like to do another one... It was the best thing that happened to me --
to put out this DVD -- because after that people think of me as a creator. Whereas before, they said, 'Oh yeah, he's a video director, so he just likes the visuals, but doesn't care for the story.' But when people from the movie business looked at that -- who are a little bit close-minded -- they started to open to me. They would
say, 'Oh, you can do good videos, actually; he did some good ones, so maybe he's
not so bad.' It helped a lot with Eternal Sunshine. So, I'm really pleased with the way that turned out, with the book, and all the menus -- everything was exactly the way I wanted it -- and it was very nice. I wish it was always the case, that everything was like that. We've sold 200,000-300,000 copies... [For the next one] I already have 15-20 videos, and I'm doing a subject on my auntie this summer, who has been a school teacher all her life in the countryside in a little town, and on my son, which is to be called 'Paul Gondry is My Son.' It's going to be about his painting.
Fennessy: Does he have any work in The Science of Sleep?
Gondry: No, he was at school all day, he couldn't... Later, we will work together, but he's doing his painting now, and it's really brilliant, so I want to show him at work.
hpmainimage.jpg
Mel Stuart's 1973 concert film with Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, and Richard Pryor
Tyler: Do you think you might do a short film -- collaborate on a single project --
with Spike Jonze or Chris Cunningham? You could all work on one project.
Gondry: We did some stuff together. We did kind of an "exquise" little film. We were hanging in a hotel room with one of...those cameras...[indistinguishable]. So he was starting a story and then I would carry on, and then he would carry on after me, and we didn't know what was going on, because we just saw the last frame. [pause] I don't know, maybe. Or maybe we're too close. I think he's more willing than me to collaborate... I fear too much to lose my individuality. I think my personality is maybe not so strong, so I really want to establish myself -- and maybe [I'm] selfish.
[I think Gondry was talking about Jonze, but this part was hard to make out.]
Fennessy: We're bouncing around here, but I guess it's hard not to... When you were making Dave Chappelle's Block Party, were you thinking about Wattstax?
Gondry: Well, we mentioned it, but...it's not the same context. I don't think
I have to...pretend I'm doing a movie about an African-American rebellion.
More, everything we have to do our own way, so I strongly recommended we
stop thinking of that. I watched it, and it was great, but I didn't try to emulate it.
Fennessy: Yeah, the tone is completely different. It's a little similar [structurally], but I read an interview where you said you made the film right after the election, there was a lot of anger, and you wanted to sort of get away from that.
Gondry: Actually, we made it before; the election happened during the editing, and we were all...nausea. [laughs] So we didn't want to put too much political context because it was too -- the best way was just to show the humanity of the people that were in the movie -- more than...the anger. Everybody was happy to be there anyway.
[The film features Dave Chappelle, his favorite hip-hop artists, some
regular Brooklyn folks, and even a few fans bused in from Ohio.]
Fennessy: How did that come together? Did Dave Chappelle approach you or...?
Gondry: Well, we were joking around. We were doing some festival together, and
he said he...called Spike Jonze, and then because he wasn't available, he asked
me. So, I wasn't sure if it was serious or a joke, so I said to him I wanted to do a documentary with Chris Rock, and since he wasn't available, I'll ask you. [laughs]
But we had the same agent, and when he saw my DVD, he was a fan and when I
saw his DVD [Chappelle's Show], I was a fan. So as much as we are different, we have a lot in common, which is a creative process. As well, he was in a good place. He wanted to give back to the people who helped him...and now he was becoming a big star, he wanted to give back. I liked that gesture, so I wanted to be a part of it.
blockparty3.jpg
Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor T-shirt under his jacket,
with Ohio's Central State University Marching Band
Fennessy: There are a lot of drummers in the film. Did you have a rapport
with them? Even Mos Def has that scene where he's drumming -- that's a great scene -- and Dave Chappelle is telling the "Your Mama" jokes. And Questlove from the
Roots and Chappelle [who also drums] seem to have this great rapport...
Gondry: In the "Making of" on the DVD that's out now,
you can see me drumming with them. We did a mini-tour.
Fennessy: It came here.
Gondry: I wasn't with them when they came here; I was there for the East Coast.
In Charlotte, we did a gig and it was Erykah Badu's birthday, and she asked me
to come and play...and I played 20 minutes. It was my big dream -- I was [living
out] my dream in some way -- because I've been playing drums for years in bands, but they were always like new wave or very stiff, and I always wanted to play more like funk music. And with her, she has a great bass player and a backbeat...
Fennessy: And you're on the Kanye [West] album, which I just read.
I didn't know that. I was really impressed -- that's a great song.
[He appears on "Gold Digger" off Late Registration.]
Gondry: It's a great showcase, but I have to admit, I played over a song
that he had recorded, and they looped me. I'm there, but it's not like I supported
the song. But yeah, I will do any drummer job for anyone. It's really nice to be
a drummer -- as long as you don't have to carry the drums around.
Fennessy: Would you drum for the White Stripes if Meg was ill? [laughs]
Gondry: I don't know -- she's irreplaceable. I would rather play the triangle.
04.jpg
In Stephane's dreams, he's a cat suit-wearing drummer
Next: On New Projects and Old Favorites
*****
The Science of Sleep continues at the Egyptian Theatre (801 E Pine).
For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Photos
courtesy Rogue Pictures and © Warner Independent Pictures.