Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fake News Dept.: Local view on Obama poetry slam (or jam. whatever)

Slam-dunk: Ms Sinema Goes to Washington

Sinema: Hot! Jones: Hoth Angelou: Poet Penn: Pothead?

State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema was invited to a first-ever Poetry Slam held at the White House on Tuesday, May 12. “I was thinking of sending my regrets, as that was the date of the special Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission hearing on the Biltmore PUD rezoning,” said Sinema, a Willo Historic District resident. “But then I thought, rezoning hearing, White House, rezoning hearing, White House, and I guess I just tipped in favor of the honor of an invitation to the official residence of the historic new leader of the free world and his glamorous but down-to-earth family.”
Even when the decision hung in the balance, Sinema said she didn’t consider flipping a coin, “Because they all still only have old, dead white men on them. Well, as I don’t have any Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea coins lying around, that is. Sue me.”
Featured attendee James Earl Jones’ poem was released in advance:
Barack, I am your father!
Come over to the dark side.
Forget those Kansas crackers;
We are your staunchest backers!
(stentorian intake, outrush of breath)
Many consider Poetry Slams the original, white “rap,” but a visit to the official poetry slam website reveals that isn’t so. While rap indeed had its origins as a kind of competitive, rhyming exchange, slam poetry is, like other expressions of an actual literary oeuvre or tradition, pre-written rather than extemporaneous. According to the website’s FAQs, what the difference is between poetry and slam poetry is “not the right question to ask.” [huh? An actual, “frequently asked question” is a wrong question?] The site adds, “There is no such thing as ‘slam poetry.’” [huh? ]
The site goes on to explain that slam poetry is poetry that is expressly written to be “heard” (as opposed to seen and not heard, perhaps) and that in competition, slam focuses on both the poem and the delivery, adding that “Winning a poetry slam requires some measure of skill and a huge dose of luck.”
Sinema, singing out that, loving people*, she is “One of the luckiest people in the world,” characterized the skill part this way: “For example, if you were not just a Beat poet, but a slam poet performing the Beat poem “Howl,” you would probably recite it while also doing an impression of Jack Nicholson in the Mike Nichols film “Wolf,” running around chewing up the scenery—literally—peeing on Rahm Emanuel’s shoes and having it on with a lifelike effigy of Michelle Pfeiffer.”
Sinema said she was really looking forward to meeting universal women’s and girls’ role model Michelle Obama, who at 5 feet 11 inches tall “is still not really Willo-wy,” the Willo resident quipped, in an apparent oblique—and rare—catty reference to the tall, stylish and shapely First Lady’s nonetheless “womanly” booty.
In further comments made in an interview before the event, Sinema said she was working on her poem, though she wasn’t sure she was being invited to actually deliver one, and, even if so, had her doubts whether doing so would show proper decorum. “I may have it ready, but decline to recite it myself and instead have it performed by Maya Angelou, like when Sarah Palin was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ last fall but Amy Poehler did her rap for her.
“That may give me a little more breathing room to chat up that cute Kal Penn,” the Indian-American actor who was recently appointed associate director at the Office of Public Liaison, as the point person for the arts and Asian-American communities in the White House, the pretty-hot-herself Sinema said. “Speaking of lifelike, he looks extremely vivacious—despite his having recently been killed off on the hit medical show ‘House,’” she added, forgetting (or maybe not???) that “vivacious” is almost exclusively used as a demeaning “compliment” to, or characterization of, a woman. (Like saying a black person is “articulate.” Or “clean.” We’re talking to you, Biden!) Sinema added she might be willing to nudge her openly professed bisexuality (*all people) lightly and briefly into a closet in some White House hallway in favor of a some meaningful “face time” with the dreamy Penn.
That is, “Unless I intuitively discern he’s open to a little three-way with Maya,” Sinema—who along with not being sexist, racist, ethnocentric, egocentric or concentro-centric, is also decisively catholic (*all people) in her personal, “romantic” tastes, and is certainly not ageist—said.
Penn also recently co-starred in the hit sequel “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay,” leading to speculation he is aiding in administration plans for closing down that facility by placing other, not-the-worst-of-the-worst detainees in largely symbolic White House positions like his own.
Meanwhile, “I wish I coulda got to go to the White House instead of, or even with, Kyrsten,” said Arizona House of Representatives Democratic Whip “Hanging Chad” Campbell. “But I’m already pretty ‘slammed’ here at the Legislature, anyway, what with the state budget crisis. Ha ha.”
—David Tell

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Branding the city: ‘I Heart Phoenix’

'Copper Square's' not good enough?

As in an old fairy tale, maybe Arizona's urban "heart" is made of flint — easily cracked if too much feeling wells up

Perhaps to try to make up for one of its editors recently disputing the validity of the designation “Midtown,” the Arizona Republic a couple of weeks ago had one of its reporters cover efforts to brand—or re-brand—downtown Phoenix. Apparently “Copper Square,” the branding for 90 blocks of shops, hotels restaurants and sports and entertainment venues in the city’s core, has lost its luster, so Downtown Phoenix Partnership, always busily trying to justify the special assessment monies it receives from those constituents, has been working recently on a new campaign.
Reporter Jahna Berry, in the March 2 cover story, also noted that Phoenix is not a pioneer in this kind of effort. She pointed out that Las Vegas, Austin and Omaha—home of iconic tourist draws Warren Buffett, Mutual of Omaha and the fictional “Schmidt” of Alexander Payne’s film “About Schmidt” (predecessor to “Sideways,” his homage to the lesser winemaking areas of California) have also embarked on similar branding efforts. Berry cited these facts as evidence of success in that kind of effort: A 5 percent increase in visitors to Vegas over eight years, or 0.625 percent per year (which, to be generous, was about the same as the rate of population growth in developed countries during this period of an especially weak U.S. dollar—a boon to foreign tourists); a purely anecdotal testament to Austin’s unique live music culture, which may be found there “in some unlikely places”; and the city of Omaha’s own embrace of its new slogan, “O! so surprising.” (What may not be so surprising is that would-be tourists hearing of the slogan assume it refers to O!klahoma, and later need rescuing from mazes in fields of corn as high as an elephant’s eye, where they get lost seeking that state’s urban heart, memorialized in Neil Young’s ballad “The Last Trip to Tulsa.”)
Officials at DPP and representatives of other stakeholders were encouraged in their efforts to rebrand central Phoenix with the phrase, “Arizona’s Urban Heart,” based on surveys they did of East Asian tourists planning the itinerary of their U.S. visit. Leon Wong of Hong Kong, once a champion at ping pong before his early retirement following his college days, was already bringing his family to America for two-week vacation this spring. When he heard of the opportunity to include Arizona’s “urban heart” in the tour, he was quite excited. “But Daddy,” said his youngest daughter Peony, “I thought the Grand Canyon was the place to see in Arizona!” “Ah, but I see here in central Phoenix, they have the Grand Canal,” Leon assured her. “Plus, there’s a brand new city hotel, where we might get to meet other fascinating out-of-towners, like conventioneers!” he enthused.
“But what about the Painted Desert?” protested Leon Jr. “Well, according to an item I saw on a blog about Phoenix—I mean, ‘Arizona’s Urban Heart’—that I found, the Drop In Center (made possible with the collaboration of Native Health and Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, and which provides youth ages 14 to 24 the opportunity to find jobs, get information and resources, meet with a life-coach, get involved in their community, and empower themselves to be better individuals in a safe environment) got a Fresh Coat of Paint recently,” said Leon, tentatively.
In addition to providing a low-key alternative to the crowds one has to elbow one’s way through for a glimpse at Arizona’s scenic wonders, taking in Arizona’s Urban Heart affords demographers and city planners, not mention regular urban appreciators of all sorts from around the world a thorough opportunity to take in a large and unspectacular urban area in a very specific—and special—stalled state of development, said Jim Flynn, DPP’s director of marketing. “You could visit many other cities—Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, Charleston, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas, San Diego ... even Omaha—for a sampling of a more mature, culturally vibrant American city. But only here in Phoenix can you find quite this precise mix of endless, near-identical strip malls, sporadic high-rise developments punctuating big-box retail and dining attractions, and dusty undeveloped lots in prime areas--all with a most amazing lack of shade and other pedestrian amenities conducive to the comfort of tourists, who would usually explore these phenomena close up, on foot.”
Plus, Flynn said, the city has perhaps the best preserved, most extensive—and youngest—officially designated historic residential neighborhoods, with dozens of styles ranging from Southwestern to Bungalow. “Isn’t saying the city has the youngest historic neighborhoods a little like saying someone is the world’s tallest dwarf?” asked Comedy Central’s vertically challenged Jon Stewart, upon hearing of the new pitch for Phoenix. “Well, I’m from Austin, and, as far as historic goes, well ... here I am,” said city Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin. “For now.”
Speaking of heart, “Arizona’s Urban Heart” takes on an entirely new meaning when you consider that between City Hall, the Legislature and even the state’s Congressional delegation, the city may have among the highest proportion of gay, lesbian and bisexual politicians anywhere! San Francisco’s Castro District, eat your urban heart out! (Even if you do have Rice-a-Roni, as part of your branding, keeping tourists coming back for seconds.—Wait—San Francisco’s part of Rice-a-Roni’s branding. Never mind.)
—David Tell

‘Stated income’ loans: Just a way to house homeless!

Subprime: When even the homeless could get a home loan!

Guess who’s coming to dinner! and for aperitifs!

A couple of alert readers noticed that three upscale Midtown restaurants were listed in Wine Spectator magazine’s annual dining guide last August. Durant’s even got recognition for its “inexpensive wine pricing,” while it, The Compass and Cheuvront Wine & Cheese all received the list’s one-wine-glass “Award of Excellence” rating (the lowest rating in the list: two glasses indicates the “Best of Award of Excellence” and three signifies the “Grand Award”).
After noting the “inexpensive” designation, Snatch and Scriff, Midtown’s most carefree and cultivated homeless couple, headed over to Durant’s, where they’ve regularly been enjoying their own special Happy Hour ever since. “They don’t have Thunderbird or Mad Dog, but we make do,” said Snatch. “I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” yelled Scriff, then noticing Snatch furiously scratching an instant lottery ticket to the usual disappointing outcome. “Hey, clean that gunk out of yer fingernails,” admonished Scriff. “You know we got to keep up appearances to sit at that nice bar we go to now.” “Yeah, well, you got potatoes growing out yer ears, so mind yer own bizness,” replied the lady. “Yeah, well, my hair covers ’em up, but yer fingernails show through where you wear those mittens with no fingers!” Scriff said.
“Yeah, anyway, we can usually make enough panhandling at the Arco over at 7th and Thomas to drink at Durant’s a whole evening,” he went on. “Although, they close too damn early; this whole town shuts down at like, 8! We started to check out that Cheuvront place, but we woulda had to roll a few junkies on top of our other earnings to drink there reglar. Plus, it looked like the Sheriff’s guys had stopped in there while transporting inmates on the light rail, so then we kinda didn’t feel that welcome. Plus, I did take a sip of some red wine and burned my tongue. Dude needs to keep it at cellar tempature, you know you can’t serve that good stuff at this city’s ambent heat!”
“So yeah, we headed up round the corner a bit to have some grub over at that My Florist eatery,” chimed in Snatch. “Did you know, it’s vertically integrated with that bread place next door?”
“How can it be vertical if it’s next door, my haggy honey?” interjected Scriff. “But yeah, everything on the menu is carbs, so we’re not going back. Snatch has to watch her figure; her boobs are already down to her ubiquitous. You know, her nagel.”
“It’s my bellybuppin, you boob, and you need a mansiere your own self,” Snatch retorted. “But yeah, that menu: bread this, bread that. They had a bread samwich--bread with bread in the middle I mean! They had a crouton omelet, bread pudding, pumpernickel soup. They had bread dip served in a bread bowl with toast points, French toast stuffed with bread crumbs.”
“Yeah, they had a lot of bread stuff,” Scriff agreed. “So, we also decided to check out that Compass place at the top of the Hyatt, but you know, it turns, and Snatch lost her cookies, so we hadda leave.”
“Bread cookies,” mumbled Snatch. “So, they was mostly able to sweep it up, chunks.”
“So, yeah, I’m kinda proud to be homeless where we got those three fine bars; that list was of dozens of places all around the state,” Scriff said, adding wistfully, “Maybe someday we can get a car and check ’em all out. I wanna get one of them Chevy Volts, when they come out—well, they were supposed to come out this year, now it’s next. So maybe when they really do, we’ll be able to get one.”
“Yeah, my stinky sweetie, when my AIG stock ever gets out of the dumper, we can,” Snatch soothed him. “But we can’t get a Volt, we got no place to plug it in! Ahh, too bad your investment guy’s feeder fund was invested with that Madoff a-hole.”
“Yeah, that sucked,” agreed Scriff dolefully. Then he perked up as they rounded the corner at 3rd Street and Monte Vista and noticed their former home, in the posh Los Olivos Historic District. “New owners seem to be takin pretty good care of it,” he said. “Course they are! Banks don’t let that stuff, nice property, go downhill, you know,” Snatch agreed, shielding her head from a rare sprinkle of rain with her tattered copy of Town and Country.
—David Tell

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reviews pre-'09 Oscars--read 'em and weep

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a good book & thou
“The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust, about Auschwitz, about German collective guilt or the guilt of complicit or evil individuals, even though it features a World War II war crimes trial. It is not about a love story, though there is a beautiful, sexy love story depicted in it.
It is about the transformative power of art, in particular, in this case, literature. And literature, a teacher at one point in the film says, is centrally about the control of information—the protecting, the withholding, the selective disclosing of information (whether by characters in the story or by its narrator). If we accept this thesis, literature is crucially about secrets, and “The Reader” is largely, primarily about the harm keeping secrets can do. When Michael (Ralph Fiennes) decides, after all, not to visit Hannah (Kate Winslet) during the trial he is observing as part of his training as a young law student, to press her to disclose to the court the information that would partially exculpate her from the worst, false accusation against her—which could lessen her sentence—it is hard to figure. But it makes sense if we understand, as above, what the film is about, and see that he has decided to let her harm herself with her pridefully protected secret just as she so deeply hurt him by her refusal to admit the same secret to him. That’s why he later doesn’t write to her along with sending the tapes. Why, when he asks whether she thinks about the past, he doesn’t mean their past, but her own guilty history. Why he is not more tender in that visit. In sending her the tapes, he thus clearly is not re-enacting a lover’s tender mercies. He is offering her an avenue to her own richer partaking in the kind of exploration of human moral experience, questioning of choices and, ultimately, self-examination that literature presents opportunity for. And, one surmises, it works—additionally prompted by the emotional distance evinced and moral query posed during his final visit to her—with the sad but perhaps just twist represented by her subsequent, final choice. He later unburdens himself to his daughter, as, earlier, the lifelong emotional distance he has held himself in in the protection of his own deep secret has been revealed to have harmed her (among others, we must assume), and his relationships with her and them.

‘Stepford Wives’—the prequel
“Revolutionary Road” is the other Kate Winslet vehicle of the season, based on an acclaimed novel by Richard Yates—whom I heard interviewed, drunkenly aggrandizing himself in an unearthed tape played on an NPR show. This one is clearly about something more focused than in all the broad hype: the hopeless, stultifying life that being a suburban housewife was in the ’50s and ’60s. Whether Winslet’s “April” had little talent as an actress or it was just wasted where it was exercised—pearls before and among swine—isn’t clear. (Though hubbie Frank, played by ol’ Leonardo DiCaprio, sure did go on about it in an annoying case of verbal diarrhea.) But, damn, I’d sure love the little woman to clasp me around the knees, and urge me to forsake gainful employment to “find myself” in Paris, where she’d support me—because I am just that wonderful thing: a man! But Frank only reluctantly buys in, and especially after he takes a mistress and is offered a promotion at the office, it’s clearer than ever that Paris is for April—it’s her only hope for an alternative to decades of Stepfordian drudgery. Michael Shannon provides great, dark comic relief, as the son of a neighbor on furlough from electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments) at a mental hospital. Nominated for a best supporting actor award, clearly he’s intended as one of the few voices of sanity in conformo-land.

Exploring the female psyche. Watch out for the Minotaur
Is the idea in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" supposed to be that human love and sexuality burst the bounds, overflow the banks, transcend the categories we try to set? That planning and aiming at what we want, or, alternatively, staying open to impulse and passion are both (and neither) the preferred approach? Or is it that women, even if they knew what they wanted, couldn't have it, being perennially dissatisfied and frivolous and labile—volatile and fickle? (As men are, but at least we hardly agonize over it anywhere near as much, and the film explores the women's interiority much more than the men's. Speaking of which, is this narrated in voice-over by the same guy as in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"? I'll have to check.) This is the best film of Woody Allen's since "Match Point," which itself was a high point in a major, decades-long dry period. At least Scarlett Johansson's put to much better use here than in "Scoop." But this film goes back to the heyday of "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," as a much more complex and nuanced look at relationships than much in between. Consider it a "Hannah and Her Sisters" meets "How to Make an American Quilt" (the latter being a film a former girlfriend urged me to watch, but said I wouldn't "get." Dumb cunt. Of course I got it; as here, or more than here, it's about how women are in fact thoroughly programmed, largely by their own mothers, to be unable to have, or enjoy, or keep, what they want—or think they want.) And, man, that Penelope Cruz, what a crazy, psycho bitch! But it's not so expressive a portrayal of a role resonating with or transcending my intimate, personal experience of crazy, psycho bitches such as to, for that reason, deserve an Oscar.

Life is like box of buttons
The odd premise is well-realized, technically, and "The Strange Case of Benjamin Button's" acting and production values are fairly flawless. But in its loosely episodic narrative with its patina of well-polished, folky wisdom, it reminded both of us independently of “Forrest Gump”—and that was before we found out it was written by the same guy. Tell you what: You want to watch Brad Pitt age backwards? Go rent “Thelma and Louise” and “Kalifornia.” Otherwise, watching Kate Winslet in “The Reader” aging in the forward direction—though largely without accumulating much wisdom in the process—is much more satisfying.

Gaza, shmaza. Even when they're the oppressed, don't mess with most Jews
As I’ve said in these pages before, notwithstanding the unique straits of those who were rounded up in the Holocaust, we Jews have no particular innate streak of meek subservience, as this film amply proves. Even in the scene in "Defiance" where the weakened crowd subsisting in the forest to hide from the Nazis and their henchmen kick and beat the stray German soldier to death, I realized it was right and proper, even though your first impulse is to think Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), their leader, is going to step in and stop it. But he doesn’t, recognizing that their murderous, mob rage is a just revenge for the ruthless brutalization of their loved ones at the Germans’ hands. I must say, I disagreed with Roger Ebert’s view that Craig’s character is flat while his brother’s, played by Liev Schreiber, is nuanced and evolutionary—he has it exactly backwards. It is Craig who gets to play the role where the requirements of leadership impose the toughest choices—choices he often wrestles with and resists, growing more resolute and decisive only when forced to; sometimes not soon enough. Directed by Ed Zwick of “The Last Samurai,” “30something” and “My So-Called Life.”

And don't mess with Clint Eastwood, even when he gets troublesome moral qualms
Indeed a great performance by Eastwood in "Gran Torino," with a lot of nice, politically incorrect touches. And he takes his archetypal characters’ vengeance theme in a new direction, which I won’t spoil further except to say, note the final pose, akin to Pete Postlethwaite’s at a clicheed but “crucially” symbolic point in Jim Sheridan’s great “In the Name of the Father,” which also starred Emma Thompson and Daniel Day-Lewis earlier in their brilliant careers. (A film notably, newly relevant in this our era of contending with terrorism "vs." our precious civil rights and liberties.)

Rourke's always been a surprisingly low-key, affable fella
With realistic-verging-on-real wrestling scenes that are difficult to watch, and scenes of wrenching and tender emotional interactions from which you can’t look away, this latest Darren Aronofsky film is a worthy contender for best film. As transfixing Mickey Rourke is to watch in his more emotive moments, what also charms in this film is his character’s easy, gentle friendliness, his natural charm and likability. He has a casual way with kids that you also see in the scene, re-watching the classic thriller “Angel Heart,” where he first approaches Epiphany Proudfoot. (And in "The Pope of Greenwich Village," where the perennial "kid" refusing to take responsibility is the estimable Eric Roberts.) The scenes where he is waiting on customers in the deli are priceless, but his exit from that gig is tragic, as is the film. (I thought I’d cry more at the theme of the estrangement from an adult daughter, but if you’ve read the review in our December issue of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, N.Y.” (which we were sorry to see did not even get a nod for best original screenplay or production design), you may realize we’ve already had our catharsis on that topic for the indefinite time being.) Noting that we heartily complimented Marisa Tomei’s protracted frontal nudity in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” last year, there’s more here, but even more in “Angel Heart,” which was kind of out there even for its time (featuring the boobs of Charlotte Rampling, Lisa Bonet and some other fetching babe). What’s also interesting is that this film was co-written by William Hjortsberg, we noticed upon re-screening it recently, based on his novel. He also wrote an interesting sci-fi tale published in an early Playboy formative of me in horny adolescence, about a future where we're all brains in vats being groomed for enlightenment and to then be deserving of a body to go live in paradise anew. But the first brain successfully kept alive, of a horny 12-year-old, finds his intellect aging backward as it consumes--depletes--his limited store of experiences while he is having hot virtual sex in an affair with an aging East European B-movie star. (Kind of like the "Ouroboros" theme in Kaufman's film "Adaptation," where the question is whether the screenwriter will ultimately overcannibalize his own life using self-referential material, and which may have gotten more awards than our predicted one for Chris Cooper for Best Supporting Actor.) Title of the Hjortsberg story: "Gray Matters." Kind of relevant to "Benjamin Button" ... "Benjamin Button" meets "Lawnmower Man" meets "The Matrix." Back to “The Wrestler,” it has an ending that disturbed Marci in a way similar to how the sudden blackout at the end of “No Country for Old Men” did. She wanted it to end up with Rourke’s character in the hospital bed again with Marisa Tomei there holding his hand, about to face their new life together taking care of his poor heart. But as I explained to her, he returned to the life he knew and probably fatal heart attack because, among other things, his heart had already been broken. "Trite," but true. (The daughter thing notwithstanding.)

(Not up for an Oscar this year. Or any year:)

It’s a mad mad mad mad mad mad dating world
I realized, watching "He's Just Not That Into You," the formula of its title isn’t quite right, requires some refinement. With so many new avenues for meeting potential romantic partners—and so many ways of juggling multiple prospects, for cheating, evading, dissing, blowing people off, putting them off, holding them off, keeping them in suspense, yet keeping them available—thinking they’re in the running, or are The One—it’s clearly more complicated than “Does he like me or not? Is he going to call or not? Is she into me or not?.” The real formula isn’t “He’s just not that into you”—it’s “He’s just not that into just you”! I should know. I’ve got a book in the works on my life dating, preying, dumping, loving and losing using the personals; in fact, I tried to interest Greg Behrendt’s literary agency in it, it being in somewhat the same vein as his original book the film is loosely derived from. That said, and as much as I’ve seen a fleeting write-off of the film as superficial, it’s not that bad. Ginnifer Goodwin, the ingenuous third wife in HBO’s polygamist “Big Love,” brings a similar energetic optimism to “Not Into You,” though it veers over into obsessive, self-deluded microscrutiny of every “signal” sent by potential partners, suitors, dates. A lot of the film is somewhat lightweight genre stuff, but it also offers characters who are in genuine non-farcical pain, such as Jennifers Connelly and Aniston. The film is admittedly full of false notes, with the monologue by Drew Barrymore about the number of tech channels through which you can hook up or be blown off being exactly as “exhausting” to hear in the film as it was when incessantly repeated in commercials and trailers. Justin Long as Alex is only believable in his jaded, insensitive, cynical-realist mode, as the vehicle for the disappointing clarity of insight Behrendt’s book purports to offer, and not in his transformation into the romantic lead. He wasn’t too likable in either mode, as much as I identified with him in the first one. (And Marci identified with Goodwin’s Gigi; and Long and Goodwin made improbable partners, just as—at least in others’ eyes—M and I do.) The set of dalliances in which Scarlett Johansson is the link displays some reprehensible activities, but worst of all ... what was up with Kevin Connolly’s hair? In one scene in particular, it looked like he had just been dipped upside-down in Grecian Formula and blow-dried on high. I kept expecting him to realize he was gay. You know, I guess this film was pretty bad, after all; it’s certainly not more than the sum of its often flimsy parts. Especially in that, at the end, it upholds the contra-premise: that it’s better in the end to be able to yearn, gaga- (Gigi-)like, eternally, hopefully, desperately wishing there is something there that may not be—and probably isn’t.

—David Tell

Friday, November 21, 2008

Fake News, the Politics of Punctuation Dept.

Ignored by Arizona’s main daily paper, it’s still a Capital idea

With the election over and Barack Obama’s pending advent to the presidency of the United States, Phoenix residents have begun to wonder whether their hometown rag, the Arizona Republic, will re-evaluate its capitalization policy for the terms for America’s two most recognizable races in low-light conditions, the whites and the blacks.
As an example, passages appearing in a pre-election article in the Republic read: “There’s utter amazement at the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president, the son of an African father and a White mother from Kansas who seems divinely favored with temperament, talent and timing. ... There is also apprehension over reports that Blacks are being unjustly stricken from voter registration rolls nationwide—an unsavory reminder that outcomes can be manipulated. ...”
Given that the article in which these sentences appeared came off the wire and were written by a Washington Post columnist, and thus must have followed Normal Capitalization Style, the Republic clearly would have had to employ all the resources at its disposal to actively and concertedly capitalize the words “black” and “white,” in order to bring them into compliance with the local paper’s unique, if not singular, style practices.
The paper’s archivist, fact checker and humor columnist, Clay Thompson, offered some history of the Republic’s style preference in this area. “Going back to a much earlier era, the paper didn’t originally capitalize ‘Black,’ because it didn’t think black people were to be accorded the dignity and distinction of capitalization. And we didn’t often have opportunity to capitalize ‘white’ in the olden days, because we seldom reported on the doings of whites as whites. The black residents of the city, few as they were, also preferred to go about their business unnoticed, so it’s a little hard to find examples of the old cap-W, little-b usage.”
It was difficult, interviewing Thompson over the phone, to miss his trying to adhere to the Republic’s current capitalization style in his mere pronunciation of “white” and “black.”
The paper’s longtime publisher, Sue Clark-Johnson, defended the style policy in a written statement before her elevation to more rarefied executive levels within Republic parent Gannett in 2005: “Of course, the reason for the policy is accuracy, plain and simple,” she wrote. “‘Whites’ aren’t truly white—they’re kind of a pale pinkish. A Shader Pale of Pink, so to speak. And ‘Blacks’ certainly aren’t black, thank Goodness! I’m so happy that they are usually some shade—often a very nice hue, in my opinion—of brown. If they were black, in fact, that would tend to validate racism, as black is universally and incontrovertibly known to be a yucky and evil color, while white is pure and holy. So, we insist on upholding the Equality of the Races in this way.”
Johnson added she saw the style standard as a sign of respect for the races, “analogously to the few newspapers around the country that still accord people identified or quoted in their stories the titles ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ on subsequent reference—not just by their last names.”
The Wall Street Journal still dignifies its subjects and sources with such titles; however, the Republic appears to stand proudly alone, or almost alone, in its capitalization of racial designations.
Johnson and her successors have had the sad duty over the past few years of slashing the paper’s staff while also overseeing a controversial redesign and reformatting of the publication into “Information Centers,” rather than news departments. However, the overhaul did not include a revisiting the racial-reference style question. But reports in other local publications on the controversial and demoralizing moves revealed that in the staff reductions, undertaken at the behest of Gannett, some high-profile departures at the time were voluntary, and coincidental. Former Willo neighborhood resident and Republic business columnist Jon Talton, a perennial scold who constantly urged the Valley to diversify its economy away from purely real-estate-related activities, actually left in protest over the capitalization policy. He tried to evade and undermine it, to no avail, Talton—known affectionately in the newsroom as “Cassandra”—said. “You know the caps-lock feature on computers? I tried fooling around with it to see if I could use it to automatically uncapitalize ‘B’ and ‘W’ when, in between my cushy three-times-a-week schedule as a columnist, I had to fill in on the copy desk. But the computers were apparently set up to just keep those letters capitalized, based on a ‘fuzzy-logic’ context-dependent determination by HAL-9000 up in the publisher’s office. It made it really annoying to edit copy where the article was in fact referring just to colors, not different racial groups, ‘fuzzy logic’ and ‘context’ notwithstanding. Open the pod bay door, please ... there’s no intelligent life here.”
Precocious Republic Executive Editor Nicole Carroll, who in the Gannett-ordered downsizing also has had to put in regular stints on the copy desk, made no apologies for the paper’s practice. In fact, “You’ll have to pry my blue pencil from my cold, dead hand before I personally stop marking up sloppy copy that fails to conform to our clear, consistent standard,” she said.
Longtime civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed the capitalization policy is obtuse and offensive, but said Obama’s ascension to the presidency offered no particular occasion or rationale for revisiting it. “He’s not Black enough for that,” Jackson said, the cap-B markedly more evident in his own enunciation than it was in Thompson’s. “He didn’t grow up the descendant of slaves like us authentic black Americans. He’s an African-American of a special, suspect kind—literally, since his daddy was Kenyan. I think William Ayres visited Kenya. Anyway, I say, if it’s a nation, it gets capitalization. No ifs ands or buts. And I still want to cut off his nuts.”
Jackson ran for the presidency in 1984 and ’88, but apparently the time was not—or his own nuts weren’t—ripe for a black man to become president.
The Associated Press, which publishes a stylebook used by most U.S. newspapers to achieve a consistent printed usage in matters large and small, has for years attempted to get the Republic to change its style in this area, to little avail. “It’s as if the Arizona Republic, even as the state’s main daily and the voice now of the fifth-largest city in the country, lives in a distant time and place of its own,” said AP spokeswoman Mary Ogilvy. “Maybe someday it will come into the 20th century. We’re considering fines.” It being pointed out that it’s already the 21st century, Ogilvy said, “Yeah, I know. One step at a time. One step for a Man, one giant leap for the Republic ...”

Political Shtick
As a side comment on the election: A caller to an NPR talk show following Obama’s victory said it now felt like an America where truly anyone could become president. Still, with the failed runs at the top spot by Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt and now Sen. John McCain, it’s only in Arizona that mothers still can’t tell their sons they could grow up to be president someday. On the other hand, who knows about daughters of the Grand Canyon State? Arizonan Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in Willo resident and state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who following her re-election Nov. 4 became assistant minority leader in the state House, we may have our very own answer to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Similarly bespectacled, with a not dissimilar mini-big-hairdo and a fair degree of comparable (if not superior) babe-itude, should we look for a Sinema leading a major party presidential ticket in, oh, say, 2020? She, at least, knows that Darfur is a region in the country of Sudan on the continent of Africa. She’s even been there.

-By David Tell

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The VIP view--not as press; Marci's bank was a sponsor

Some films most excellent, at ’08 Phx Film Fest

Tom McCarthy, also a ‘Wire’ actor, follows ‘Station Agent’ success with a new, top-notch offering

By David Tell, Messenger Editor

Here it is eight years later and the Phoenix Film Festival is a real Event. Has been for several years, actually, drawing credible, high-profile films, celebs, money people, stars and other players. And film buffs. (And glam chicks who regard the Event as the apotheosis of the Scottsdale clubs scene, with a chance to get discovered, too!) Robert Altman, rest in peace, would have a field day.
Much credit is due to Laurel and Hardy—uh, Lamont and Carney—the duo whose brainchild Phx Film Fest is. (We don’t apologize for the comparison: the pair ham it up quasi-comically in their appearances kicking off the event and the opening night film, etc.; not that there’s anything wrong with that—it could be more painfully pompous, as when dignitaries do de rigueur honors giving the event its official proclamations. This year it was Vice Mayor Peggy Neely, in whose district the festival takes place—virtually in Scottsdale, at the Harkins 101 Cine Capri, as we’ve noted ad infinitum. But what’re you gonna do? As much as we preferred the previous venue at AMC Theaters Arizona Center, the event has probably outgrown that space. Maybe not. We do know the downtown business community was irked at losing the event. So, they should have stopped the move. Shame on them.) Anyway. Reviews of festival film entries follow.

The Visitor
One pleasant surprise was the opening night film, by—who else?—another alum of HBO’s excellent, just concluded, urban Baltimore series, “The Wire.” (Readers of recent issues will know we rubbed elbows with a number of other players from that show, who were in town—downtown—for the screening at the Almost Famous Short Film Festival of an awesome movie they created, kind of ensemble: “Sympathetic Details,” by writer-director Benjamin Busch (Colicchio on “The Wire”). The opening PFF work was "The Visitor,” starring Richard Jenkins, late of HBO’s "Six Feet Under" (though we think of him fondly from his role in “The Witches of Eastwick”—in which he beats his wife to death with a fireplace poker—and from various installments in the Farrelly brothers’ oeuvre).
Tom McCarthy, writer-director of the phenom “The Station Agent” a couple years ago (set in Newfoundland, N.J., where yours truly hails from), played a disgruntled, overambitious reporter at the Baltimore Sun in the final season of “The Wire.” In that role, he not only gets caught up in cop Jimmy McNulty’s fabricated murders of homeless men (staged to get funding to resume investigations into other murders, put on ice due to city budget cuts), but, egged on by an out-of-touch mentor, goes on to completely make up spinoff “Dickensian” articles about the lives and travails of the homeless.
Needless to say, the guy’s likely got a lot more integrity than his “Wire” role, as his films display a humanity and sensitivity to the subtleties of character and situation that commends them highly, among other factors. We spoke briefly to McCarthy after his film’s screening, and told him it struck us almost as “Missing” meets “Year of the Dog.” “I was in ‘Year of the Dog,’” he replied. “Oh, yeah, you were the [Laura Dern’s] husband”—part of an overprotective, politically correct parental duo, and not the one who wears the pants—we acknowledged. We elaborated on our comparison, saying we found his and Mike White’s film to have had a similar affectionate, slight distance, yet a closely observant feel in regard to their characters, as well as a running, lightly humorous tone, even in the face of sobering realities. McCarthy acknowledged the point, while adding he still found the comparison strange. (That’s all right—we find his characters despicable ... though again, it’s probably a testament to his talent that they are so viscerally dislikable, as he’s probably nothing like them.)
More apt, perhaps, is the comparison to “Missing,” by Costa-Gavras. A political drama like his iconic “Z,” “Missing” is about events surrounding the 1973 coup in Chile that toppled popularly elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende, replacing him with the CIA-backed villain Augusto Pinochet. In the film, Jack Lemmon plays an American businessman called to Chile by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek), when his son gets caught up in the political turmoil. Lemmon plays one of his classic “dawning awareness” roles, as in “The China Syndrome,” where he goes from a implicit faith in the system to a grudging realization that the institutions he believes in are not always so benign. Likewise, that evolution loosely describes Jenkins’ character’s progress in “The Visitor,” as he deals with problems related to the immigration status of some new friends. But, like Peggy the bereft secretary (Molly Shannon) in “Year of the Dog,” Jenkins’ character, Walter Vale, is also experiencing a loss of connectedness to places, people, work that have barely been his mooring for years—and so he finds new sources of life, passion and belonging. From its soundtrack to the cinematography; pacing, casting, acting and story, “The Visitor” is virtually flawless. (Except, however, as to a technical musical detail: When Tarek is starting to teach Walter drumming, he warns him African drumming is based on a “three-beat,” not four. What he really means is, there is syncopation and other “exotic” tendencies; however, the rhythm he and Walter then start working with is a “four-beat”—actually, more or less a half-time meter, in which there’s two beats to the measure and a quarter note gets one beat. Or something like that.)
Speaking of casting, Danai Gurira as Zainab, reminds us, perhaps oddly, of Samantha Morton. Maybe it’s the shape of her closely cropped head, like Morton’s as the lead empath in “Minority Report”; then again, maybe it’s something in her eyes. But Morton in Jim Sheridan’s fine “In America" plays a role more similar to Gurira’s here, as an illegal in New York City. Too, Haaz Sleiman as Tarek is perfect as one of those eager-to-please, happy-go-lucky, live-for-the moment kind of people, who endears himself to the viewer every bit as much as he does to Walter. But we were fondest of Jenkins as Walter, who is a little formal, doesn’t smile much, is sometimes tough on others yet self-excusing, and so has to endure others’ (especially the female characters’) guardedness, even hostility, well after he has really shown himself to be kind, gentle, caring, generous—in his low-key yet self-respecting way.

The Life Before Her Eyes
The closing night film was also wonderful. It was directed by Vadim Perelman, from an adapted screenplay based on the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke. (Perelman directed the moving, tragic “House of Sand and Fog," released in 2003, which we raved about at the time.) “Before Her Eyes,” like last year’s Sandra Bullock vehicle “Premonition,” is what I call a women’s film—which is decidedly not the same thing as a check flick. It’s a serious look at issues women face, through a woman’s eyes, from women’s perspectives. That’s not to say men won’t like and be thoughtfully stimulated by it too. The film is visually poetic right from the credits, with images, close-ups of flowers melting away through lenswork or computer tricks or both. The film’s axis is a massacre at a high school by a disturbed young man—hardly an untopical event these days. It follows a couple of female, teen-age best friends up to and well beyond the bloody events of that day. Rachel Evan Wood plays “Diana,” one of the two girls—a restless, sexually active, smart, alienated, self-willed and somewhat confused young woman, whose friend Maureen presents a counterweight to those qualities.
Uma Thurman plays Wood’s character as a grown-up, an art history teacher with a husband, a child, and memories of the day that changed everything. We’ll avoid spoilers, since right up to the end of this film, the viewer has been led to look at the film one way, and it may not be the right way. That said, there’s a “Sophie’s Choice” element at its crux, though one less gratuitously in its framing and in its consequences than I’ve always considered that hinge of Styron’s book (and of the film made from it). However, against the decisive turning point represented by the massacre, the film examines what seem to be a number of uniquely female preoccupations and dilemmas: For instance, there’s the question of sex. Men are generally all impulse, expressing the conatus of Leibnizian philosophy; women are the gatekeepers of sex. Women, adolescent girls deal with the good girl-bad girl issue: They can say no, and are expected by parents, by society to do so; but how long can they and keep a man they may want? So they deal with guilt. They deal with the pressure, and then, often the rejection, even by the same source of the pressure—young boys who then taunt their conquests as “sluts.” The blood of their period is akin to, can lead to, the blood of an abortion: this is the blood of Christian-viewed sin, not of “the redemptive blood of the Lamb.” Men, for the most part, hold power of life and death over other living beings, the “born”—they send others to war, to their executions. Women hold that power over the unborn. Maybe it’s a fair division. But maybe few would like to have either power, if they could avoid it.
Women are taught, socialized to make a relationship, a marriage, a home. If those things fall apart, they are told, in myriad ways, to look first to themselves to blame. Even with a philandering husband. Even with a child who’s simply programmed to behave, act out, resist, rebel; among other reasons, as part of the eternal cycle of mother-daughter conflict. As Thurman’s Diana says, “I thought if I cared for my child, helped my students, loved my husband, everything would be all right.” But doing those things, the right thing, doesn’t necessarily control outcomes, bring ultimate happiness.
It’s interesting how as an art teacher, Diana’s lessons focus on Gauguin—like Philip Roth’s early, seminal novel Goodbye Columbus. I’ll leave the lessons of that reference, that inclusion for the viewer to explore themselves, as with the Blake poem Diana reads to her daughter to soothe her to sleep. Likewise the ubiquitous imagery of water in the film; while young Diana, looking at the spray from a fountain, wonders where the boundary is between its mist and the air it is dissipating into.
There are a few false notes, as in the somewhat hokey dialogue about “the heart being the strongest muscle in the body.” Some other witty exchanges reminded me of the improbably smart, ready-for-the Dorothy-Parker-book-of-quips utterances by Ellen Page’s precocious teen in last year’s phenomenon “Juno.” But they’re infrequent, and dissolve quickly in the potent, larger mix. The title and final plot twist are in fact a hoary clich√©—and a clue ... though one most people, I feel, are unlikely to crack. (The repetition of an old Zombies song, in various forms, is also a clue.) At least, I didn’t—the whole weight, momentum of the film are so forceful on behalf of a different supposition.
A gorgeous, thoughtful, disturbing film, one that—like “Being There,” last year’s “Perfume,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”—one can hardly imagine being anywhere near as effective in a non-visual medium. Which is why we have film these days, and why, in these pages at least, you’ll find it analyzed as the serious literature it sometimes is.

Then She Found Me
A film to have overlooked at our peril given its all-star cast, this was generally a crowd-pleaser—a well-made romantic comedy and to some degree a chick flick, and a female mid-life crisis film “with heart”—which is not to say it was great. Watchable, touching, funny ... ultimately, not my cup of chai. (But nowhere near as bad as “The Holiday,” that Nancy Meyers abomination of a couple of years ago, though that film could have some of the same nice things said about it, and has a similar feel ...)
I hate to be cruel, but it’s also about the only way Helen Hunt, who may be missing the days she seemed genuinely youthful and desirable—say, ca. “Mad About You” days, or even playing the two-timin’ Bree in “Dr. T and the Women”—is going to get to play the romantic lead to someone like Colin Firth: write and direct it herself (actually, she co-wrote the script with two others, listed first on IMDb).
I mean, this woman was never especially my kind of babe, but—nothing personal, no fault of hers, it’s her genes, she’s just not aging well—she looks awful. Occasionally, she rises to “pleasant-looking.” She’s just haggard, sorry. I’m sure she’s a nice person.
Anyway, —No, I’ll say this, too: Bette Midler plays her mom, and the actresses’ actual ages may even work. You could say, OK HH got more of her father’s genes. But, you know, I’d do Bette WAY before I’d do Helen. OK, got that out of the way.
This is a Jewy film, and of course, I like that. It starts out with a Jewish joke, which is the theme: People will set you up to trust them, then they will pull the rug out from under you, uncovering a trapdoor to a circle of hell you should subliminally have girded yourself to expect, to deal with, after all—but it’s still no picnic.
But the Jewish mother is wise, the Jewish brother is wise, the b’racha over lighting the Shabbat candles is heartwarming. (Interestingly, I think—I’ll swear, I’ll bet—that’s Salman Rushdie playing the ob-gyn in the film. He’s not in the credits, I’m sure he insisted he be left out. What, he wants another fatwa, a death edict from those crazy militant Muslims now, again, for appearing in a Jewy film? Examining HH’s private parts, no less? What’s he even thinking?)
Colin Firth is unaccountably smitten with HH, but he gets taken on a ride over her biological clock issues, her on-the-rebound issues, and, to top it all off, her “my biological mother, who is a major wack job, suddenly appeared in my life” issues. To the writers’ and their character’s credit, ole Colin does not suppress his anger over his mistreatment by HH, though he also apologizes for same and then lets himself in for more of the same. But he’s not totally contemptible.
Helen Hunt’s character kind of is, as she succumbs to the occult charms of her childlike ex, played by Matthew Broderick, just when things are getting seriously rolling with Firth. Anyway, there’s some nice lessons here, in the end: As usual, a woman has to acquiesce in the idea that she doesn’t know as well what she wants and needs and what’s good for her, and for everyone—rather than her being overweeningly selfish—as she thinks she does.
One cool thing is that Bette Midler’s character—who plays a kind of local-to-the-New York-market, Jewish Oprah—at one point alleges HH is a product of her union with Steve McQueen, and refers to his having been involved in the film “The Sand Pebbles” at the time of their dalliance. “The Sand Pebbles” is a now-somewhat-obscure film that was Candice Bergen’s first shot at fame, and is based on the novel of the same name by talented author Richard McKenna, who died untimely and whose novella Fiddler’s Green is the basis for our screenplay, “The Thirst,” which we have been trying to get produced since 2000. If they keep bringing up stuff of his, maybe someday my awesome sci fi-adventure-occult “’The Matrix” meets “Apocalypto” meets “Interview With the Vampire” etc. etc. will get produced.

Remarkable Power
Starring Kevin Nealon and Tom Arnold, and a couple of unknown kids in prominent roles as well, this was a clever, edgy film where multiple plot lines and disparate agendas on the part of various characters are neatly tied up, turn out by the end of the film to have been enmeshed all along. Be that as it may, the film still has the kind of low-budget, cavalier, in-your-face feel of a project a bunch of formerly high-profile celebrities got together to make because they miss the spotlight and didn’t have anything else particularly worthwhile going on at the moment.
Kevin Nealon plays a TV talk show host who learns his wife is cheating on him and who is being canned after a long successful run, by the new guys at the network. Tom Arnold plays a PI documenting low-level sleaze who bumps into a young woman making a living by ambulance chasing and posting the morbid photos she takes on a pervert website (she’s one of the unknowns). The other unknown is a kid—a stoner—who gets sucked up by a Tony Robbins-type infomercial success scam, and ends up committing manslaughter. Etc., etc., blah blab blah. It all comes out in the wash. This is not, however, of the caliber of the Tom Arnold vehicle that premiered at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2005—Don Roos’ “Happy Endings” (one of the approximately 2.8 million films that year calculated to remind me of the dispiriting midlife misadventure I’d gone on in 2004). So, apropos of that circumstance, I raced back to the Q&A following the film when my dear wife Marci chided me for not getting Arnold’s autograph for her. The Q&A was still going on. A last question was solicited by the producer. “Me me me, call on me!” my flailing arm said, quite eloquently, but insistently, for an arm. I got called on. “Tom, a few years ago a young woman tricked me into getting her pregnant, like your character in ‘Happy Endings.’ Did you do anything like that to prepare for that part?” Tom said no, and embarked on a rambling soliloquy about how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in that film was after his money, but his character didn’t care, and so on ... The producer volunteered he hadn’t done anything like that either to prepare for ... I don’t know what! Then, as a sly follow up, the kind President Bush recently tried to rule out at his press conferences, I asked Tom, “Hey, Tom! Aren’t you kind of young to pairing yourself up in your films with every young cupcake of a wannabe actress you can find?” He misunderstood the thrust of the question and started to say, “You mean, ‘Too old ...’” because he didn’t let me finish: “No, I mean, like Woody Allen has been doing the past dozen or so years: Tea Leoni, Mira Sorvino, Scarlett Johansson, Debra Messing ... you’re too young to have to prop up your fragile male ego like that, don’t you think?” But I really didn’t get to hammer that point home, in its full articulation. By then, I was able to just go up to him and get him to sign his autograph on a copy of The Midtown Messenger, to the dear wife who’d been mistreated by my 2004 perambulation ... he was very kind. And, possibly, stoned. But a nice guy. I asked him if he was still Jewish (he converted upon his marriage to Roseanne; there was coverage of his unit having to be ritually nicked, since, as a good hygienic American male of my generation, he was already circumcised). “Always,” he said. “All right!” I commended him. And by the time I got out to the party tent to bestow his autograph upon Marci, he had already meandered out there and signed her festival program. Drat!

Roman de Gare
This looked interesting based on the title, which seemed to me a pun on “Roman de guerre,” which—it seems to me, who faked it all the way to French IV in high school—to mean something like, “story of war,” as roman a clef means mystery novel, etc. Anyway. What is it with these French films with middle-aged murderous novelistas? Like “Swimming Pool” a few years ago, with Charlotte Rampling and the delightfully saucy, naked Ludovine Sagnier (who also played the saucy, retro-garbed, tiny little luminous Tinker Bell in the great 2003 live-action “Peter Pan”). This was clever, and well made, if no masterpiece. But the interesting thing besides the labyrinthine plot was Dominique Pinon as the male romantic lead??? The nasty, cretinous guy who played the assassin in “Diva” 25 years ago??? I’m not kidding. Oh, the other cool thing was the likening of “the Writer” to God. I can relate.

Another must-see, we realized, since it got made by the producers snagging Minnie Driver in a lead role. Great film; shot with lighting and/or film stock that conferred a washed-out, bluish graininess to reflect the drear, grim thrust of the story. Reminded me of the filmic feel of last year’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” reviewed in this space a few months ago; then we had to defend our dwelling on Marisa Tomei’s extended frontal nude scene in it in a later issue. “Take’s” gist was, crime victim (Driver) is on a road trip, on her way to witness the execution of the guy who caused her loss. That guy—what a loser. Much of the film follows his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Which gets worse and worse that way as a consequence of his bad choices, granted. Like in “Devil.” But. The narrative arc of convergence of convict on victim or victim on convict is paralleled by the story-within-the-story of the convergence of the two on the infamous day of the crime. We didn’t stay for the Q&A, but I wanted to ask the producer or director, did you see this as an anti-death penalty film? Because it seemed to me to say, “If the victim can forgive the transgressor, what business does society have insisting on its vengeance?” (As a hyper-rational guy, I recognize that’s an emotion-based argument, not a logical one. I have other, unassailable reasons for opposing the death penalty.) Anyway, an excellent film; maybe, along with “The Visitor,” the best of the fest. (Won “best ensemble film” at the Fest, which shows they don’t know what “ensemble” means. Even in English.) But, an awesome acting job by Jeremy Renner, as the down-and-out, reprehensible, hapless Saul. I’m just damn glad they didn’t name him that because he was going to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus come-to-Jesus conversion” as his execution drew closer. In fact, he put up a pretty good fight, argument, against the chaplain sent in to give him final rites, solace, theodicy, what-have-you. A fine film—almost caustic to watch, but full of integrity, intensity.

Uncross the Stars
Well, there had to be one film we couldn’t stand to sit though, like last year’s “Ten Inch Hero.” This, like the initial screening of that one (at which all the aging friends of the director’s Scottsdale parents, the McKays, dominated the audience demographic), was heavily attended by residents of a senior community where a lot of the film takes place, and was shot. There’s nothing that will kill your interest in a film quicker than all the old people laughing at the sexual double entendres by a “Golden girl” wannabe hungering for the buns of a hot young guy. Only about a quarter of the way into the film somebody playing with their fancy new wireless lapel mike or something had their “Let’s see how this works ... See how great it picks up?” etc. picked up by the theater’s sound system, obliterating the film’s soundtrack. Hooray! But they stopped it, were going to fix it and run it back to where it started getting messed up. For me, it was pretty messed up from the get-go. We’re outta here!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Almost Famous Film Fest hosts real celebrities

Good things come in small packages

Local film fest to screen shorts; one by, featuring guys from HBO’s ‘The Wire’

By David Tell, Messenger editor

In reality, it’s graduated from the “Almost Famous” to the “Kinda Famous Film Festival.” It’s the event that in previous years took the form of a 48-hour short film challenge, in which local teams stepped up and conceived, wrote, filmed and burned to disk movies of less than 10 minutes’ duration—all in literally two days.
It’s been fun, and the hoopla has brought some profile and credibility to the festival and its founder and organizer, Jae Staats of the Willo neighborhood. But, despite the inspired move of bringing a writing professor and short film diva to Phoenix College in advance of the ’06 festival, to conduct a workshop and hopefully raise the average quality of the submissions, results remained somewhat uneven. The best films tended to be pretty good, and admittedly, the poorer-type efforts of the first year or two fell off and the bulk of the submissions hovered around “funny,” “interesting” and “watchable.” (Some, barely.)
This year, pros and semi-pros have made the films, and they’re pretty awesome—including an hour-long feature by Ben Busch and colleagues from HBO’s “The Wire.” View our comments on Busch's film on here, and all our comments on films on the site here. Following, read an interview with Busch by The Midtown Messenger:

The MM-A3F interview: ‘The Wire’s’ Ben Busch

Editor’s note: After several e-mails and some phone tag, we finally caught up with Benjamin Busch for a stimulating interview while he was at the laundromat folding clothes with his 3-year-old daughter. Busch lives in Reed City, Mich., near Big Rapids, itself somewhere near Grand Rapids—a city we know fairly well. Our condolences to all, vis-√†-vis the climate (economic and otherwise) … Busch will be in Phoenix at the A3F for the screening of a film he made; actor Dom Lombardozzi (“Herc” on “The Wire,” “Dom” in “Entourage,” and “Vincent” in Busch’s film “Sympathetic Details”) may be with him.

MM: We have our theories why many directors start out doing horror films or mockumentaries. What made you choose an assassin film for your first writer-director project?
BB: Ryan Sands, my partner in crime, wanted to do that kind of film, wanted to play that particular role. So we wrote it around that idea, but I wanted to take the genre in a completely different direction. I wanted character to drive the action movie, so I was very particular in how I designed and edited it. I was thinking of Frank Reynolds’ “In the Bedroom,” which is a very slow film. I wanted to take what would easily be a fast-action film, slow it down to that speed, focus on things that mattered. Shoot-em-up is easy; what’s hard is drama and pause. It has a more European feeling as a film.
MM: Reading your director’s statement about the film, I felt vindicated in my long belief that many if not most directors approach films as a very conscious craft, in which the details and full box of the tools of expression in film are intentionally used to convey a subtext, an articulable idea, etc., beyond the topmost narrative level of the film—though also serving it, of course. When I first saw Jean-Jacques Beneix’s “Diva,” and I had this theory of Gorodish’s Zen-philosophical subtext of “stopping the wave” contrasted with the diva’s own kind of Zen-like refusal to let her performances be recorded (NOT stopping the [sine or sound] wave)—each coming at being “in the moment” in different way—my friends said, “Yeah, that’s logical, but we doubt it was all intentional.” I said, “You’re an idiot if you think it wasn’t.” [In his director’s statement and in e-mails, Busch had elaborated on his use of color, movement, vegetation, a significant photograph, overall environment, and other elements in weaving and conveying themes underlying the story in his film.]
BB: I can’t speak for many directors, although I’ve worked with a number of them. Not all are in tune with this kind of Gestalt filmmaking. I’m very interested in how sound and music go into it. I’m a photographer, so I frame a picture and then populate it. You’re stuck with the rectangle, so the rectangle itself becomes very important to me, the movement of the camera. With little money, it’s difficult with camerawork to do as much as you would like. I love to keep the camera moving; it sets a certain mood, if there’s motion which you use either for or against the characters. In “Sympathetic Details,” in the first scene, I’m just holding till we leave the first room. I storyboard very carefully. I had 12 days to shoot the whole film, so you have to know what you’re going for. There can’t be surprises. I wanted kind of claustrophobic interiors, up to the pigeon scene. I knew it was going to end in force, I wanted to have that symbolism throughout the film—you constantly see vegetation. Everywhere, somewhere, some place, there is encroachment of vegetation. It’s everywhere, just like people are. I moved all the plants in the hotel to make a corridor of black trees. Outside, you see a whole forest behind glass; inside you see an interior of vegetation.
MM: We’re thinking of other assassin-themed films: There’s “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “The Matador.” You mentioned you could watch Morgan Freeman read a phone book for an hour, so “Nurse Betty,” and the recent DVD release “The Contract” (with John Cusack), as well as “Lucky Number Slevin,” in which he plays a hitman or menacing mob guy, occur to us. We think of Jane Campion’s use of a specific color palette in “In the Cut” as paralleling your deliberate use of visual elements in your film. Speaking of “Slevin,” Bruce Willis’ banal speech to Lucy Liu’s hapless boyfriend before he kills him reminds us of Dom Lombardozzi’s (“Vincent’s”) monologue at the beginning of your film. Was that possibly an intentional reference?
BB: I did see that movie ... I don’t actually remember Bruce Willis in it that much, or that speech. It’s hard to say what rubs off on you, there are so many artists all rubbing off on each other. I was at war for two years. In the process we’ve moved a lot; in the past five years I’ve seen hardly any movies.
Films that have influenced me the most? “Blade Runner” has continued to blow my mind. I like the idea that it travels with, something about the existential message in that one. That movie has really been influential on me over the years. Although, I’m pretty small-scale. “The Professional” has also been an influence.
MM: How did you finance your project?
BB: We financed it ourselves, which means we’re in as much trouble as we can be! There’s that famous rule of the business, “Don’t do anything with your own money; use other people’s money.” As filmmakers, we promptly found that rule and broke it.
The actors did it for me, which was humbling. The crew came for cut rates. I begged the union for mercy, they were all people from “The Wire”; they were willing to do it for much less—all 12-hour days, pretty remarkable. They had such-and-such days to shoot an hour-and-a-half film.
MM: The film as submitted to A3F is about an hour; I assume you cut it?
BB: Yeah. I said, “I can’t knock more than a half hour off it.” I personally feel the scalpel marks on the script, we miss a few important moments to me. It’s hard to say how the audience will perceive it in its cut form; they’ll never know what the things are they’re not seeing.
MM: And, I assume, at an hour, it’s less marketable?
BB: Yeah, and anything less than an hour has no market at all. An hour can live on cable. There might be some love in the cable market for the film, especially with “The Wire” in its last season, getting attention again. I hoped to generate a little bit of buzz by submitting it to A3F. I’d like to get enough money to add the other half hour back in, reshoot and re-edit it, let it live a bigger life.
MM: Would it be disloyal of you to possibly agree with me that the hype around “The Wire” might be a little excessive? I love a lot of the original stuff on HBO, but I’ve only seen a few episodes of “The Wire.” However, I’m thinking of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” also about Baltimore and with “The Wire” writer David Simon contributing; “NYPD Blue,” to some extent; and “Hill Street Blues”—which I didn’t even glom onto till after its first couple years. Don’t they stand somewhat even with “The Wire?”
BB: I would disagree. The first three seasons of “The Sopranos” was brilliant, then it lost its way, except for maybe the last season or so. “The Wire” has never fallen down. But nobody watches it, it’s too smart for people. America’s gotten dumb over the last few years. It’s written like a novel; it’s not like episodic TV, which answers all the questions for you by the end of the hour, is kind of trite. You don’t just pick up a book and read a few pages and complain “I don’t know what’s going on.” It’s one of those great artistic travesties: “The Wire” has never gotten an Emmy. America is incapable of seeing itself; it has a complicated soul, it’s empire in decline. “The Wire,” its Baltimore, is kind of how we go out.
The language is also hard to follow, it’s really city language. [Playwright] Tony Kushner has said it’s like reading Shakespeare, “The Wire” is like a Shakespearean modern drama. The language is beautiful, but it’s hard to know what’s going on with it. It uses the slang of the time and place.
[Busch played Internet serial killer “Luke Ryland” on “Homicide: Life on the Street” for two episodes in 1999.]
MM: What led you to submit your film to the A3F?
BB: I think if you’re lucky the audience finds you. That’s why you do a lot of film festivals, they’re out there with the idea of getting filmmakers to talk to filmmakers. LA is kind of a veneer of something else. Festivals like Almost Famous are interested in what you did, why you did it, why is it important to the art of filmmaking.
I’ve had who knows how many conversations with journalists about my art shows—I have two traveling out there. It’s about the history of photography. One out of 25 understood anything about what I was talking about.
You’re our first interview about “Sympathetic Details.” It’s great to talk to someone who has a great grasp of the issues in film. In doing a hitman drama, I really am talking to the existential nature of life—the fact that nature is indifferent to us.
What I’m happiest about is that it was chosen to be viewed and it’s going to be seen. I’m not expecting it to pick up distribution just because it’s on the screen. I’m just happy that people like you are interested in it.

In an e-mail, Busch listed people from “The Wire,” etc., who appear in his film:
Ryan Sands is there with me in the back of the police readout room [in the first episode of the final season of “The Wire”]. Seth Gilliam is the police lieutenant who has to quiet us all down—he plays “Raymond” in our film in the pigeon room shootout. I cast him specifically because of his intensity and gift for projecting emotion. “Detective Lester Freamon” in the episode is reassigned as Major Crimes is disbanded and he plays “Carson” in our film, Clarke Peters. Clarke is television’s answer to Morgan Freeman. A magnificent performance. Domenick Lombardozzi, “Herc” on “The Wire,” in the bar scene with me and Seth, plays “Vincent” so brilliantly in the opening scene of our film. I rewrote that scene the most and it is one of my favorite scenes in film. I just play his bound and gagged partner. Can’t even get a line in my own film. John Doman, “Phillips” in our film, plays “Deputy Ops Rawls” on “The Wire” and gets to air some compassion after playing such a hard case for 5 years on the show. Jim True-Frost, “Prez” on “The Wire”, plays “Rogers” in our film. He dies by the tree at the top of the field with such wonderful disgust. I enjoyed casting him to play against his usual timid vulnerability. Edwina Findley played a doomed member of Omar’s crew on “The Wire” a few seasons ago and I brought her back from the dead to be killed again in the pigeon scene. Thuliso Dingwall plays one of the corner boys on “The Wire” and he did a brief, silent, and excellent job playing the pivotal collateral casualty in the pigeon scene that affects “Jonathan” too much and begins the end.
I cast all of them as I wrote the film and populated the rest with friends. The sniper, “Agent Money,” is Wayne McClam who was my team leader during my second combat tour in Iraq with the Marines. We called him “Money Gunny” until he was promoted from Gunnery Sergeant to Master Sergeant (a rank also known as “Top” for short) and then we called him “Top Dollar” so I named him “Agent Money” in the film credits. Somewhat of an inside joke if there ever was one. “Carson’s associate” is played by Daniel Silver who was my college roommate. Only Ken Arnold, who plays “Agent Chase,” and Marisol Chacin, “Lena,” were actually cast through auditions. Marisol gets to have the most fun. I would like to see then get some awards for their work. They donated their performances to me for this film and I am humbled by my debt to them.

In addition to his burgeoning film and TV resume and fine record of military service, Busch is also the son of the late novelist Frederick Busch. —David Tell