Sunday, November 28, 2004

More Morals

By now many of you have been beaten to death with the “moral outrage” of Nicolette Sheridan’s bare back on Monday Night Football. You haven't? Well, tune in to the evening news in case your kids missed it during half time. Rush will probably be showing it, too (or, at least, moaning about it).

Haven’t these evangelical types learned anything from controversies past? When you raise a stink about something, it only brings it front and center for all who missed it. The “offensive” becomes an issue that is re-played and analyzed like a Zapruder stag film. See the furor over LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or the recent pair (no pun intended, Ms. Jackson) of Monday Night Football incidents for how far a tempest can can be taken out of the tea cup.

Thanks to Seattle’s own Harry James Connolly, I was sent an article by Frank Rich of the NY Times that shows the crooked lengths the moral majority will go to in order to save our souls. Thank God (the true God, not Pat Robertson) there’s someone out there like Mr. Rich to give us these statistics:

"The F.C.C. and the family values crusaders alike are
cooking their numbers. The first empirical evidence was
provided this month by Jeff Jarvis, a former TV Guide
critic turned blogger. He had the ingenious idea of filing
a Freedom of Information Act request to see the actual
viewer complaints that drove the F.C.C. to threaten Fox
and its affiliates with the largest indecency fine to date -
$1.2 million for the sins of a now-defunct reality program
called "Married by America." Though the F.C.C. had cited
159 public complaints in its legal case against Fox, the
documents obtained by Mr. Jarvis showed that there were
actually only 90 complaints, written by 23 individuals. Of
those 23, all but 2 were identical repetitions of a form
letter posted by the Parents Television Council. In other
words, the total of actual, discrete complaints about
"Married by America" was 3."

"Such letter-writing factories as the American Family
Association's also exaggerate their
clout in intimidating advertisers. They brag, for instance,
that the retail chain Lowe's dropped its commercials on
"Desperate Housewives" in response to their protests. But
Lowe's was not an advertiser on the show; the advertiser
who actually bought the commercial was Whirlpool, which
plugged Lowe's as a retail outlet for its products under a
co-branding arrangement. Another advertiser that the
family-values mafia takes credit for chasing away, Tyson
Foods, had only bought in for one episode of "Desperate
Housewives" in the first place. It had long since been
replaced by such Fortune 500 advertisers as Ford and
McDonald's, each clamoring to pay three times as much
for a 30-second spot ($450,000) as those early advertisers
who bought time before the show had its debut and became
an instant smash."

I think what’s more scary to these moralists is not that indeceny is on the airwaves, it’s that most of the people like the indecent. It’s hugely popular on the airwaves. People flock to stuff like reality shows, Howard Stern and, well, Monday Night Football (hardly a bastion for family values). We enjoy it for what it is...entertainment. It doesn’t mean we are morally bankrupt. It means we have a sense of humor and a moral perspective incapable of being shaken up by Janet’s boob (although the nipple ring went a little too far). Look at the success of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, as Mr. Rich illustrates yet again:

""Desperate Housewives" is hardly a blue-state phenomenon.
A hit everywhere, it is even a bigger hit in Oklahoma City
than it is in Los Angeles, bigger in Kansas City than it is in
New York. All those public moralists who wail about all the
kids watching Ms. Sheridan on "Monday Night Football" would
probably have apoplexy if they actually watched what Ms.
Sheridan was up to in her own series - and then looked
closely at its Nielsen numbers. Though children ages 2 to 11
make up a small percentage of the audience of either show,
there are actually more in that age group tuning into Mr.
Cherry's marital brawls (870,000) than into the N.F.L.'s fisticuffs
(540,000). "Desperate Housewives" also ranks No. 5 among all
prime-time shows for ages 12-17. ("Monday Night Football" is
No. 18.) This may explain in part why its current advertisers
include products like Fisher-Price toys, the DVD of "Elf" and the
forthcoming Tim Allen holiday vehicle, "Christmas With the Kranks". "

Sadly, as I’ve stated before, the moral cranks have been empowered and, whatsmore, with their puppets in the White House and Congress, we have a new breed of pit bull watch dogs out there. The problem with pit bulls is that they are known to maim and kill the innocent.

A Reasonably Short Review of A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is a beautiful film. Over the last 10 years, we’ve had many films that have called themselves epics (TITANIC, TROY, and COLD MOUNTAIN for example). While some of these films were the biggest Hollywood had to offer, they were a long way from the magic of David Lean. It took a Frenchman to remind us how.

(Interesting note: As of this writing, France has decided that this film is too American to compete in any French film competitions. This is due to its funding by Warner Brothers.)

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is based on the French best-seller. It is a story of undying hope in the face of horror. In this case the horror is World War I. Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) fiancé has been pronounced dead. Since the armistice, Mathilde has refused to believe this. She has searched for clues and survivors to prove the official death notice wrong. Why? Because her whole existence is based on hope. A hope forged by love.

Sound too simplistic? Perhaps to some, but to me it is one of lives basic truths. Hope is the emotion that keeps our gears turning. At its simplest it is like the flip of a coin. Either the glass is half full or half empty. Life is either impossible or full of possibility. In fact, hope can be so simple in its workings that it has taken on a mystique as abstract as the meaning of life itself.

Jean Pierre Jeunet knows this and he fills his frame with magical sights befitting such mystique. Children who are about to fall in love climbing a lighthouse to find it. The new lovers carving their intent to marry om tree, stone and church bell. Mathilde’s wager games to keep her hope alive like betting herself that, if she can make it to the bend in the road before the car that is taking her love to war, he will come back to her alive.

Throughout her search, Mathilde encounters other people who have fought to keep their hope in the face of a brutal war (and be forewarned, this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war. Not so much with gore, though there is plenty, but with the sense of human loss). Through their failures and successes, we learn that hope is not reserved to any one person. We all strive to attain it. For those of us who lose it, the despair can drive us to mad things much like the film’s Corsican courtesan and her vendetta against those who robbed her of this basic need.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is Jeunet’s follow up to AMELIE, another film about how hope can lift you up. The two films even share the same style of storytelling even if one is a period drama and the other a tale of whimsy. Jeunet knows the threads that connect his two works. They are the threads that connect us all whether we are trying to recover from the War To End All Wars or just trying to live.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Shining RAY

Jamie Foxx is Ray Charles. This is no wild boast. The former “In Living Color” cast member has already proved himself to be a good actor. The film RAY proves that he may be a great one.

Having been fortunate enough to have seen Ray Charles perform at the Hollywood Bowl, I know how the real Ray moved and sang. Having the complete Ray Charles CD box set also gives me some familiarity. Foxx masters the first level of a bio pic portrayal with uncanny ability...that being impersonation. The next level is where actors sink or swim. Can you make us believe in the film’s subject not just as an impersonation, but as a human being we can be invested in? To RAY’s strength, the answer here is "yes". We feel Ray Charles Robinson’s joy. His guilt. His fears and love. It’s a blessing for this movie that Jamie Foxx succeeds.

Because the rest of the film (story, direction etc.) displays some typical flaws. I say “typical” because we’ve seen film biographies make them before.

A person’s life is made up of hundreds, even thousands, of stories. To tell them all in a 2 and 1/2 hour chunk will do many of those stories disservice. They’ll either be rushed, omitted, or merely ticked off like a laundry list. RAY, under Taylor Hackford’s watch, does manage to skirt most of these pitfalls, but in choosing to do a “tell all” film, you get the feeling things are being rushed. This is especially so at the end. We see Ray battle racism, blindness, drug addiction, temptations from life on the road and childhood guilt. Once we get to the 60s, however, we have the obligatory title cards that sum up the remaining 30 years in Cliff Note size bites. Did Ray Charles not have any life worth a dramatization after these early years? We do have a brief stop off in 1979 to tie up one of these threads, but the rest...well, it seems the filmmakers felt there wasn’t enough time. Maybe it’s because Ray Charles had a live so big even the wide screen couldn’t contain it. For the sake of Jamie Foxx’s masterwork, we’ll accept this reasoning.

Another (albeit minor) flaw in RAY is another of those pesky pitfalls: the way too precious scene. You know what I’m talking about. It’s those scenes that depict key historic moments like when John meets Paul walking home from school one day. Both carry their guitars and, from the second they lay eyes on each other, are compelled to drop their books and start jamming to the delight of all their schoolyard mates and a closeted record department manager named Eppy. One mate will invariably say, “You lads should play in a band or something.” “Indeed.”, salivates Eppy to himself. These moments are usually depicted with a large dollop of artistic license (i.e. gravitas). An example in RAY’s case is the invention of his fire breathing success “Hit The Road Jack”. We can believe that the song was born out of romantic strife. That’s evident in the lyrics. Are we really supposed to swallow that Ray and his “Mrs. Charles on-the-road” lover, in the crisis moment of falling apart, felt so compelled to author those lyrics on the spot as if from divine intervention? It might have happened, but it sure smells of contrivance. I don’t mind condensing things for the sake of narrative shorthand, just make me believe.

Contrary to these lengthy quibbles, RAY succeeds because Jamie Foxx does just that. He lets you discover (or rediscover) a legend as a human being. That’s no small task and it is RAY’s biggest asset.

Can I get an “Amen!”?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

They Want Their MTV (Morality Television)

And they want it now! Bush isn’t the only one throwing their “political capital” around like a drunken Texan at the Billy Barty Foundation (a dwarf tossing joke...proud to be a source of humor since 1888). As I’ve written here before, the moral majority has been feeling empowered lately, too.

Based on the election, these Crusaders feel that America has spoken up for their side. “They believe as we do!”, these apostles hosannah-ed. It didn’t take them long to rub it in our secular faces either.

By now many of you have heard about the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN incident. Many ABC affiliates refused to air the unedited/uncensored film for fear of FCC retaliation. I was very proud of them. It forces the FCC’s hand to either make up a set of decency rules or shut up. You know they won’t because the Immoral Minority (which isn’t so minor) will poo-poo any government censorship. I mean this isn’t Russia.

It’s ridiculous to think SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is indecent just because of a little language and a lot of true violence (the kind we should be reminded of the next time we elect a pre-emptive President). It’s about World War II and all the blood that was shed for that last, great act of heroism. It should be remembered. Yet a startling number of people, many part of the American Family Association, complained anyway. Maybe they took offense at the scene where Ryan goes on and on about his brother trying to lay the local ugly chick before being shipped off. Now I, for one, agree this scene should have been lopped off, but purely so I don’t have to watch Matt Damon fumble through a subpar monologue.

What’s next? Making some trims to SCHINDLER’S LIST because the AFA feels too many Jews die in it (or that there are too many Jews in the film at all)? I'll bet they won't complain about a single drop of gore when THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST makes it on FOX.

Meanwhile back at the Capitol (or in the Capitol, as I’ve been lead to believe), a bishop-type brought his flock to protest Arlen Spector’s possible involvement on the Federal Judiciary Committee because he’s pro-choice. “This would be like a slap in the face to the people that elected this President and this Congress.”, whined the bishop. Time will tell if this political capital will be cashed in to keep honest differences of opinion to exist in Congress. Unless of course that difference of opinion is a pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, anti-gay marriage and just all around good Christian one.

When are we as separation of church & state Americans going to wise up? How are zealots like this bishop guy and the puppet masters behind the FCC being allowed access to the Capitol building and our lives? Well, I don’t have an answer. I’ve been up since 5 AM. If anyone comes up with something, let me know.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Festivals Are For Lovers

BODY ELECTRIC played to its biggest audience yet at the 13th Annual St. Louis Film Festival. Over 80 people came to the evening of shorts titled “Weird Science”. A full house. Though the film felt well received and there was applause, it was difficult to gauge reaction considering the late hour didn’t allow for a Q&A and that we were the first in a line of 8 short films. “An audience isn’t sure whether or not to applaud between films or not.”, my producer / long time friend Bill Janczewski reminded me. That may be the case. This is the spin I’m putting on it, though.

We were before our time. The audience wasn’t ready for the artistic revolution we brought them and, though intrigued, they were confused how to voice it. (of course it was our beloved Orson that said, “I know what being ahead of your time is. It’s called being in trouble.”)

Regardless of my personally disturbing need of affirmation, it was an honor to be included in a week of wonderful cinema from around the world (and here I want to give a special thanks to Andrea Sporcic and Bobbie Lautenschlager for their warmth and support). Some of the best works had to do with love. Love of film.

In 1980, a Los Angeles cable channel received a new programmer in the guise of Jerry Harvey. Z Channel became one of the best champions of cinema ever known. In an age before video stores, HBO (as we know it today) and DVD, if you didn’t see a film in the theatres you didn’t see it. A lot of what we now know as great films would have been lost to obscurity and undeveloped tastes if not for Jerry Harvey’s love of movies. Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION tells the story of his love...a love that, though it saved film, couldn’t save Harvey’s own troubled life. He died in a murder/ suicide. Though Z Channel essentially died with him, Harvey’s legacy carries on. He touted filmmakers such as Peckinpah, Altman, Cimino and other foreign giants by having on air film festivals. He restored films like HEAVEN’S GATE, THE WILD BUNCH, DAS BOOT and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA so he could broadcast the unadulterated versions on Z Channel. In essence he introduced the idea of a director’s cut long before DVD. I know I’ve been ranting more about the subject than the film itself, but the subject of this documentary was the passion for movies. That is what you will be talking about as you leave the theatre. The film ends with a quote from Louise Brooks, which I’ll paraphrase here: “It’s not the work you leave behind that matters. It’s how you inspired others to continue forward and experience life that means anything.” Director Xan Cassavetes’ work on Z CHANNEL inspired me to discover more lost films and share all I discover about them. The fact that this documentary inspires discourse makes it an effective one.

Two other documentaries sought to spark discourse on slightly more serious topics. FUNDAMENTAL FAIRNESS is produced by the aforementioned Roberta “Bobbie” Lautenschlager, grande dame of the St. Louis film scene and a cherished friend, and directed by Patrcia Scallet. It reveals the plight of the “second man” in a famous St. Louis murder. One implicated purely so the “first man” could lessen his sentence. The problem is that Bill Hanes may not be the man he was convicted as. Was Hanes wrongly accused? Did he have fair council as is guaranteed to us by law? This film addresses these questions, but on a grander scale, it brings into question the entire justice system, potholes and all. Though times have changed and death row cases such as Hanes’ require the defense attorneys be scrutinised as to their experience with such cases (another question in Hanes’ case), time may have run out for Bill Hanes to regain his life. The case is 22 years old and outside of the statute of limitations. The Missouri governor has been asked for clemency, but fairness is something we should not always expect from our courts as the Honorable Jimmy Edwards revealed. “The only thing different between us (the innocent) and the convicted is that they got caught.” What would Kafka make of that, I wonder?

THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE wanted to talk about sex. Specifically, women, sex and the pleasure they are supposed to get from it. Filmmaker Maryanne Galvin interviewed 6 women who found freedom in sexual pleasure. Not just the act itself, but the right to examine it. Despite women’s lib, a woman is made to feel outcast or “dirty” if she even appears interested in her own pleasure. This documentary strove to lift the topic out of the taboo.

As far as narrative films go, I was only able to attend one. Fortunately for me, CUBA LIBRE is a magical gem. Through the eyes of a movie loving boy we look back on Cuba in 1958, the year before the rise of Castro. It was a year when the lights went out, but darkness did not prevail. First time director Juan Gerard (and I eagerly await his next work) was strongly influenced by his love of movies and family here. With his wife and writing partner Letvia Arza-Goderich he has made more than a Cuban CINEMA PARADISO (although, by his own admission, Juan was more inspired by HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and it shows). The film opens with the colors of nostalgia. All is lush and clean like the stuff dreams are made of. As the passion of revolution takes hold of the lives around our narrator, aspects of real life come in. Real blood. Real tears. Real emotion. It shatters the movie inspired world and enriches it. The cast is lead by Harvey Keitel (also a producer as he was when he shepherded Tarantino in his directorial debut) but it is the fresh faces of Latin cinema that make the film live (including an early turn from Gael Garcia Bernal).

A real amateur is someone who acts out of love. I had the pleasure of lunching with Juan and Letvia and found them to be true amateurs. Their love of cinema is only outshined by an obvious love of each other. They reminded me of why a festival can be the warmest place to experience new films. Not just because of the fellow artists you meet, but the fellow lovers as well.

Friday, November 12, 2004

When Johnny Goes Leaving Home Again

On my flight to St. Louis, there were 10 soldiers on their way to Iraq. Dressed in desert fatigues, they were what one would expect from an American soldier and more. They were young and fit. They didn’t seem scared in the least. They were cut from strong cloth. They were friends, laughing about sports.

They were being sent back. They had already served in Iraq for 10 months and were being sent back for 2 more. “That’s the plan anyway.”, quipped Corporal Brown from seat 21D before me.

Not all of them appeared fearless. Private De Marco (as it said on his uniform) hung back from the others as they were about to board. I wondered if he was just the odd man out. Or if he was contemplating making a break for it. There were no MPs around. His troubled expression would have been reason enough to try. Whatever was on his head, though, he soon got back in line with the others.

What struck me as sad was not that these young men (and one woman) were being sent to fight one of the sloppiest offensives in American history? A war that should never have happened this way. It was how people around them paid them no mind. As if they were just other strangers on the same flight. Not soldiers being put in harm’s way. There was almost a gallows sense to how people stayed wide of them. Maybe it was because no one knew what to say anymore. It made me feel for these soldiers in a new way. I was relieved when the pilot announced their presence on the plane. This was met with a smattering of applause, weak but truthful in its support. I wish them the best. I thank them for serving this country for better or worse. I pray our flawed leaders bring them home in the promised 2 months. All of them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Seen SAW

There’s been a trend of late to label some horror films as thrillers. The thought being around the studio marketing department is that if there isn’t anything supernatural in the movie, you can get away with calling it a thriller. Since serial killers are, scarily enough, flesh and blood, their yarns can fall into this real life category.

Make no mistakes, though. SAW is a horror film. A gruelling experience of watching people mentally and physically tortured to the point of madness and all the blood, sweat and tears that comes with.

Jigsaw is the preacher serial killer of the film. Not an all together original character. We’ve seen preacher killers in films such as SEVEN and 8MM. The original twist comes from the fact that Jigsaw doesn’t actually kill his victims. He puts them in puzzles where they either have to kill themselves or walk away scarred but alive. All this is an effort to make his victims appreciate life more.

This film is effective in the horror department. My bones and muscles ached with tension after leaving the theatre. But does that make it good horror or even a good film?

Sadly, not so much. The acting was surprisingly bland though I must congratulate Cary Elwes. Without his convincing breakdown, we would never have believed his ultimate sacrifice. It’s also due to his performance that the horror aspect even succeeds. Outside of the original concepts for torture and Mr. Elwes, however, SAW is what has become standard serial killer fare.

Red herring suspects, obsessed cops, and killers who love those voice box scramblers are all on deck here. (By the way, is it me or do these red herrings all come in the forms of mentally challenged custodian types? As if the filmmakers expect us to readily buy into these people as possible killers just because they’re slow. Are we the audience that dumb? Politically incorrect? In light of the recent election...never mind. I’ve strayed off topic.) It’s a tried and true formula, but you wish that a film like SAW, which has a strong concept going for it, would do something with their gifts.

True, as a horror film (not a thriller, kiddies), SAW does horrify. But that’s not so hard to do when a wife and kids are held at mutilation’s door or a saw is there just for the hack of it (Sorry. Had to do it.) Horror films, to paraphrase Clive Barker, are supposed to break taboos, but there are some taboos that are so fragile, breaking them takes little effort. That’s why I was not surprised by the effect of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. How can we, as human beings, not tear up at a man being flayed before our eyes? (I know what you’re saying. “Come on, Frank. THE PASSION and SAW?” An odd comparison, I admit, but it follows).

My point is that the horrific effect SAW’s (and THE PASSION’s) torture scenes have on us is a no brainer. I, for one, would like to see my horror films earn their chills a bit more craftily. Not just go for the taboo reflex like a class clown for the whoopee cushion.

Monday, November 08, 2004

St Louis Dates and Times

Almost forgot to tell all those interested when BODY ELECTRIC (BE) would be screening at the St. Louis Intl' Film Festival.

Friday, November 12, 2004 @ 10 PM
Tivoli Theatre
6350 Delmar Saint Louis, MO 63130

Admission is $9. We're the first short film in an evening of shorts titled "Weird Science". I will be there wearing my Kangol. Come if you can!

My First Blog

St. Louis is upon me! This will be the third festival BODY ELECTRIC has been selected for and, possibly, the most significant. The St. Louis International Film Festival is an Oscar qualifying festival. Even though BODY ELECTRIC is ineligible for an Oscar nod (it wasn’t released on film) my being a part could attract other festival interest. I’ll be wearing my special filmmaker Kangol just in case. I’ll be posting a report when I return from the weekend.

It seems the Moral Values Brigade isn’t wasting any time. After condemning us to four more years, a town in Wisconsin has hopped on the religious bandwagon.

"GRANTSBURG, Wisconsin (AP) -- School officials have revised the science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism, prompting an outcry from more than 300 educators who urged that the decision be reversed.

Members of Grantsburg's school board believed that a state law governing the teaching of evolution was too restrictive. The science curriculum "should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory," said Joni Burgin, superintendent of the district of 1,000 students in northwest Wisconsin."

Since when did a bible story become science? Clarence Darrow is doing a Tilt A Whirl in his grave. Not to be outdone, the city of Atlanta has added this little disclaimer to science texts today:

"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

If Jesus or Mohammed came back and saw the offences being committed in their names, they’d seriously consider atheism.

To cheer myself up after the continued slaughter of our education system, I went to see THE INCREDIBLES. A different direction for Pixar, this film is much more action driven and all the more mind blowing for it. For fans of THE IRON GIANT, it’s good to see Brad Bird at the helm of another pulp story. He is a perfect match for Pixar since both have been able to craft character enriched stories like the good old days. In fact, genre films in general have been delivering on all fronts for audiences this year. The geeks are the new artists as my in the works Best of 2004 list indicates:

Top Ten:
Spiderman 2
Shaun of the Dead
The Incredibles
Incident At Loch Ness
The Motorcycle Diaries
I (Heart) Huckabees
The Grudge
Garden State

Runner Ups:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

That’s all for my first official blog entry. I’m off to do some work on my latest horror piece, CENOTE. I’ll also be posting scenes from my proposes fantasy series TERRARIA so keep checking in.

Oh, yes...and a hearty welcome to Leo Douglas, the 8 lb. 4 oz. addition to the Thesing / Readinger household!