Saturday, February 24, 2007
Having just watched the live broadcast of this year's Independent Spirit Awards, I wanted to offer a few comments. First, to close off this year's program host Sarah Silverman joked that Felicity Huffman would be hosting next year and whether it's Felicity, or whoever else, I hope Sarah Silverman lets go of the stranglehold she has on this program. Vulgar, insulting and monumentally unfunny, I say enough already. Don Rickles has already played this schtick. Who the fuck cares what kind of cheese she wants to fuck? It felt like a moment of joy to consider that she won't be back next year.
Little Miss Sunshine and Half Nelson scored big time. LMS won Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin), and Best First Screenplay. Half Nelson walked away with Best Actress and Best Actor.
From the moment I watched Ryan Gosling's riveting performance in Half Nelson, I knew he would be nominated for both an Independent Spirit and an Academy Award. The moment Forest Whittaker's performance in The Last King of Scotland entered the arena, I knew that the most graceful tradeoff conceivable would be for Gosling to win the Independent Spirit and Whittaker to win the Oscar. So Gosling's won his and now we'll see what happens tomorrow (as if we don't know). Even Gosling himself seemed to accept the limitations of these processes with good-natured sportsmanship. He joked that Forest Whittaker had phoned him last night to ask if he wouldn't mind winning at the Independent Spirits since he was so tired of winning everywhere else. Gosling thanked his producers for greasing the necessary palms to secure him his nomination. This was the one recognition I really wanted to have happen at the Independent Spirits and so I am happy and content with the ceremonies. That Shareeka Epps also won Best Actress for her smoldering understated performance in Half Nelson underscores just how essential teamwork is at pulling out the best in everyone.
Little Miss Sunshine's win as Best Feature might again be an elegant tradeoff with the Oscars. It seems a more appropriate win here within the independent filmmaking milieu whereas if it wins at the Oscars it will feel more of a dark horse upset. That might be said of its Best Directing award as well. Though Alan Arkin has certainly paid his dues and deserves whatever accolades come his way, I would have really much rather seen Channing Tatum deliver an acceptance speech, but that's just a preference of erotics over aesthetics. Notwithstanding, Tatum looked gorgeous whenever the camera glanced his way. Yow. Silverman's barb that Arkins' acceptance speech was well-done held some truth, though you couldn't help going, "Awwww" when Arkin said that he felt as small and humble now winning this award as he did at the beginning of his career. Michael Arndt, hiding beneath the brim of his military cap—the same one he wore to his Codys Bookstore appearance, I think—expressed his gratitude that Film Independent had created such a specific category as First Screenplay because it respects the writer in his early stages and encourages him forward. Having just spoken with him, his win felt good.
The musical spoofs that accompany each nominee in the Best Feature category were, likewise, the best for LMS and Half Nelson. Taylor Dayne belted out, "Messed up family / that's what mine has turned out to be…." and Rosario Dawson crooned that the only one who could ever reach her was the "crack smoking, hard toking teacher man." Though an honorable mention must go to Neil Patrick Harris who has long shed his Doogie Howser scrubs to reveal one of the best voices treading the boards.
I was thrilled that Quinceañera won the John Cassavetes Award. Wash Westmoreland expressed that it would be a note for the diary to be handed the John Cassavetes award by Angelica Huston and was keen to point out how blessed they were to be nominated in this category where they had a chance of winning against Little Miss Sunshine. Richard Glatzer paid due acknowledgment to Emily Rios, Jesse Garcia and the heart of the film, Chalo González.
Although he didn't win, Guillermo del Toro's turn before the camera introducing Pan's Labyrinth amused me to no end. He was given a knapsack and asked to crack a joke about what was inside but all he found were three large suppositories. Pan's Labyrinth did win an Independent Spirit for del Toro's compadre cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro.
The Lives of Others continues to draw praise and awards like a magnet and I continue to be pleased about that. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck won the Independent Spirit for Best Foreign Film and this helps ease my conflicted feelings about who should win the Oscar in this category.
Finally, the two other joys of the broadcast for me were the Special Distinction award granted both Laura Dern and David Lynch for their work together over the last 20 years, most recently on Inland Empire. With his cow on a leash, David Lynch lobbied for Dern's nomination for Best Actress. He didn't succeed. But at least the film community has taken notice with this special award.
Finally, by way of an eloquent tribute, Robert Altman was given a posthumous Independent Spirit and Robert Downey, Jr. and Lily Tomlin (my dream ménage-a-tois) announced that beginning next year Film Independent will honor the most collaborative ensemble with the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award.
Next: The Oscars.
02/25/07 UPDATE: Dave Hudson gathers together the post-awards commentary at The Greencine Daily.
No sooner do I joke about being Clark Kent working alongside Lois Lane at The Daily Planet than I discover that I might actually have the chance to meet Noel Neill, the actress who played Lois Lane on the Superman television series!
Ms. Neill, who originated the Lois Lane character on the big screen in Columbia Pictures' Superman serials and went on to star in the George Reeves TV series, will be attending this year's WonderCon to talk about her career as a comic book character come to life; moderated by Larry Thomas Ward, author of the definitive book on Miss Neill's career, Truth, Justice & the American Way: The Life and Times of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane. This welcome opportunity is 2:30-3:30 on Friday, March 2, 2007, at the George Moscone Convention Center, Room 220.
The Northern California inflection of San Diego's infamous Comic-Con, WonderCon is an embarrassment of riches. Because of the "Witness to War" programming, I'll be dividing my time and will only be able to skitter away with a sampling from WonderCon, but oh what a sampling! Big Movie Saturday will include preview clips of Ratatouille, The Reaping, 300, Resident Evil: Extinction, and Spiderman 3 with on stage appearances by Brad Bird, Hilary Swank, Zack Snyder and Ali Larter.
On March 1-4, 2007, The International Center for the Arts / Doc Film Institute of San Francisco State University is presenting a four-day event—"Witness to War—Documentary Perspectives: WWII to Iraq" that will feature two consecutive evenings of onstage appearances by acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns. Burns will be previewing two different programs from his epic work-in-progress, The War, to be aired this Fall on PBS. The Castro program will be a 90-minute compilation from the seven-part series, followed by an onstage conversation with Thomas Sanchez. The following evening the first installment of The War will be shown in its entirety, moderated by Burns at the Premiere Theater in the Letterman Digital Arts Center, in the Presidio. I've never been in that theater? Has anyone else?
The next two days of screenings will be at the Koret Auditorium in the M.H. deYoung Museum and will include a tribute to filmmaker Humphrey Jennings introduced by David Thomson, Sergei Loznitsa's Blockade (2005) introduced by Tom Luddy, and the North American premiere of Bertrand Tavernier's four-hour documentary An Undeclared War (1992). Amazing, in a way, that it has taken 15 years for this film to reach Stateside and it has just recently been announced that Tavernier will be in attendance. Mark Danner, whose pessimistic eloquence recently impressed me at the World Affairs Council Ghosts of Abu Ghraib screening will introduce Tavernier's documentary and, hopefully, engage the director in conversation. Danner will likewise be introducing a screening of James Longley's Oscar-nominated Iraq In Fragments (2005).
"Witness to War" promises to be a thought-provoking series on one of the most entrenched archetypes of the human psyche.
03/02/07 UPDATE: Hannah Eaves writes up the program for The Greencine Daily.
Friday, February 23, 2007
This is my official announcement that Susan Gerhard, editor at SF360—co-published by the San Francisco Film Society and indieWIRE—has offered me an internship! How could I possibly refuse? Especially with SFFS veering into its grand 50-year anniversary festival and so much happening film-wise in the San Francisco Bay Area. Susan has a fine reputation in the Bay Area as being one of its best film editors and I get to work with a dashing young Chilean director Miljenko Skoknik who is likewise interning at SF360. We have bullpen sessions every Thursday in the Writers Grotto down in South Park where we graph out what we're going to do for the week and—for someone who has been working alone at his computer for a full year now—this is a welcome respite, to sit outside in good weather drinking coffee and talking film writing. I consider it a dream come true.
Oddly enough, I keep thinking about the comic books I used to love when I was a kid—Superman and Spiderman—and how their alter-egos were newspaper reporters. Mild-mannered Clark Kent working for Perry White at The Daily Planet alongside Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson. And Peter Parker working as a freelance photographer for J. Jonah Jameson at The Daily Bugle. As a kid, I was as caught up in their everyday lives as in their heroic exploits. All these years later I find these comic book fantasies swirling around in my head and serving as psychic templates: a roving reporter by day and a fearless dreamer by night! Never throw away your comic books, kids!
My first assignment for SF360 was a two-question interview with Michael Arndt, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine. The Evening Class will continue to be the nexus for my freelancing ventures but I'm happy to tighten the weave with online venues like SF360. Later dudes! My spider sense tells me there's a new movie opening up over at the Century 9!
As something of a companion piece to my Greencine interview with Rory Kennedy regarding her documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which premiered last night on HBO, I offer up this report of her onstage appearance at San Francisco's Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, with Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, sponsored by the World Affairs Council. It was an evening made memorable—not only because of the opportunity to speak with Rory and to watch her hard hitting documentary—but because the RMS Queen Mary was gliding underneath the Golden Gate Bridge lit up like a brilliant tiara sailing out to sea. I love San Francisco. Living here is the best of many worlds.
Dave Hudson's introduction to my Greencine interview astutely associates my concerns with Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece on Joel Surnow, producer of t.v.'s popular thriller 24, and Alessandra Stanley's comparable criticisms for The New York Times. I admire Dave's range and grasp. He sets the standard for attentive journalism.
After thanking her World Affair Council audience for watching the film and acknowledging the parties responsible for the evening's event, Rory Kennedy introduced Mark Danner who kick started the discussion by commenting that the events at Abu Ghraib constitute an extremely complicated story when talking about torture and the Bush Administration. "It's an ongoing story," he emphasized. "As one of the final points of the film said: as of October 2006 the Military Commissions Act was passed by Congress, which was an extraordinary law that—among other things—removed the rights of habeas corpus and also gave the President the power to determine what were violations of the Geneva Convention. It's one of these laws, I think, that will be studied in law school in the future like the Dred Scott decision and other disgraces." His audience burst into applause.
Danner continued: "I mention it to point out that—though the film seems to be about events that have happened—this film is about events that are happening. It seems to me very important to remember that, rather than deformations of the norm—which is what the Administration has called these things—in fact after 9/11 a new norm was created. It's a norm that happens to be the torture and abuse that the American public has known about at least since the end of 2002, which is to say almost five years. So, in effect, the country has accepted this. It hasn't been secretive. A lot of the information has been public and—as people in the film said so compellingly—at only one point when these pictures were published did it become a national issue. If the pictures hadn't have been published, it wouldn't have been a national issue and, as recently as October, a pro-torture law was passed and was indeed introduced by President Bush in the hope that it would help him in the mid-term elections. I'm trying to make the rather simple point that this film is about us, not simply about people at Abu Ghraib, soldiers who were put in very difficult positions, and policy makers in Washington that we love to hiss at."
Danner likewise thanked the film's audience and the sponsors of the evening's screening but added his thanks to Rory Kennedy for taking it upon herself to approach this complicated story and presenting it in such a compelling narrative. He considers Ghosts of Abu Ghraib an extraordinary achievement and hopes it gets the recognition and the attention it deserves.
Opening up for questions, the first came from a heated young man who, bolstered by the recent Democratic reclamation of Congress, wanted to know how we could get a 9/11 commission-style investigation started, if the Military Commissions Act could be undone, and if President Bush could be tried for war crimes? Though the audience applauded supportively, Kennedy and Danner looked at each other as if neither wanted to touch the question with a ten-foot pole. Kennedy deferred to Danner, which made everyone laugh. "I'm going to get all the hard questions," Danner quipped. By way of response, however, he stated, "First of all, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont who is now Chairman of the Judiciary Committee has said that he's going to pay very close attention to reworking, revising, redrafting the Military Commissions Act. We'll see what happens with that. It's important to realize that—though the gentleman put this forward in a positive way, how we have control of Congress—in fact, the passage of the Military Commissions Act was a statement that, if presented the right way, politicians will be afraid to oppose anything that seems to be a law against terrorism and will seem to be a law that justifies empowering terrorists. It's critical to realize that Americans in general do not seem to be that worried about this kind of stuff." Danner asked if anyone in the audience ever watched 24? "It's a remarkable series," he explained, "that very often has torture at the heart of it; torture committed by the hero. It bears asking ourselves why this is popular? Why it seems to be, in some ways, consoling to Americans to think that their leaders are torturing people, are willing to do this? Because I think that's true. In a way, with the atmosphere of fear after 9/11, a very powerful emotion of fear, and a response to it with the idea of untrammeled government power that is exemptible from anything to protect it. That seems to be very reassuring to people. As Dirty Harry was 20 years ago. The liberals are going to stand in the way of your protection. That political dynamic is still in place. It isn't going to be the case, unfortunately, that—simply because the Democrats are now a majority—all of this stuff will be undone. As it isn't the case that the war is going to be stopped. Because the political dynamics that are supporting [these] are still to some degree in place. Will we have a true investigation of Abu Ghraib? I doubt it. I think you would answer that as no. Will the Military Commissions Act be rewritten? I think the answer to that is possibly. Some of it will be. Will Bush be tried for war crimes? No. He won't. You're having cases in other countries—there's one in Germany—that's developing to try Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes." The audience applauded, to which Danner added, "I hate to be the wet blanket here but I don't find that, as an American, very satisfying to have the Germans trying our Secretary of Defense for war crimes."
Kennedy expressed that she was slightly more hopeful than Danner. "Obviously," she asserted, "we deserve a full investigation of what happened at Abu Ghraib. There are people who are in the new leadership who are talking about taking that on." Agreeing with Danner that Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is not just about looking back at what happened at Abu Ghraib, but looking at the policies that were put into place after 9/11 that might have contributed to Abu Ghraib and are still in existence today—the Military Commissions Act being part of that—Rory believes there are many leaders and the public who are emboldened to speak up against these issues in a way that they haven't previously been able to in the last few years. In terms of concrete ways that people can get more involved, Rory reminded that there are several organizations who are active on these issues—Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, ACLU and Amnesty International—and she encouraged her audience to visit their websites, insisting it could make a significant difference.
Someone wanted clarification on which committee would start an investigation regarding Abu Ghraib. Danner reiterated that the committee that is looking at the Military Commissions Act is the Judiciary Committee, headed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The committee that would be investigating Abu Ghraib, however, would be Armed Services, which is now headed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. Insisting he is not a complete pessimist, Danner nonetheless said it bears stressing that even though he's quoted in the film as saying we will never know what happened unless we get a true investigation, which he believes—"We don't know what happened in the interrogation booths. We don't know a lot of things that went on at Abu Ghraib."—the fact is that what has been lacking is not exposure of what was happening; what has been lacking is a will to do something about what was happening. Though one of the prime tenets of journalism is that a journalist needs to reveal information in the hopes that revelation automatically leads to investigation, expiation and punishment, often that is not the case. "It's not the case here," Danner punched. "[Ghosts of Abu Ghraib] is an incredibly compelling portrait of this, and I hope it will have a great effect, but the basics of what happened at Abu Ghraib, large parts of it, and the basis of the policy decisions that led to it that—as Rory said—are still in effect have been known for four years. These are the knowns. They are not a secret. More things are coming out but what has been lacking is a societally-sanctioned telling of the story and only a court or a congressional committee can do that; a journalist can't."
Following up on that comment, however, one individual opined that film remains a powerful medium to reveal information. He wondered if Kennedy had arranged to screen the documentary to members of Congress? "How could Senator Feinstein see this film and sit on her hands?" he posited. "It seems to me that HBO and you with your wonderful outreach should make sure that as many congress people see this film as possible." Kennedy announced that a screening has been planned for Capitol Hill in about a week with Senators Leahy and Kennedy hosting a post-screening panel. Extensive outreach on Capitol Hill to help create awareness, to get legislators to see the film, and to generate discussion on these issues is fully intended.
"My concern," another fellow spoke up, "from the European perspective is that people will say, 'Ah, the prison is closed. It's history.' Would you consider please putting a tag on this film saying, 'It continues at Guantanamo today. Demand accountability.'?" Kennedy countered by detailing how hard she tried to pull back and simply report the facts and not do a partisan film. It required a great amount of restraint on her part. She didn't want to create a sensationalist perspective in any sense. She wanted just to present the facts, let the Administration speak for itself using archival footage of direct quotes, letting the documents speak for themselves, letting the MPs and the MIs who were involved in the abuse, and letting the detainees speak for themselves. That is the film, which she feels is powerful precisely because of that balance. Kennedy explained that she felt she had to be careful about what kind of advocacy work was attached to the film itself, though she places hope in the campaign developing around the film to distribute Ghosts to the public, to provide panels that focus attention on the issues and generate discussion, so that ultimately it is the public's initiative to continue educating themselves. "Hopefully this will speak to their hearts," Kennedy said, trusting audiences will then research information and become more actively involved.
Kennedy was asked to speak about her experience of working in Iraq and reaching out to the detainees. "I was able to reach out to the prisoners through a woman named Susan Burke who is representing a number of former detainees in a class-action suit against the independent contractors who were involved with Abu Ghraib. I talked with her about it and she then approached a number of detainees to see who might be comfortable talking to us on camera and identified six who were willing to speak with us. We then tried to make arrangements to film in Iraq but all of them felt the situation there was too dangerous and asked that we fly them outside of the country. We then arranged to fly them to Jordan and had their visas and airplane tickets and we got to the airport and were told they were on a security list and weren't allowed out of the country. We couldn't get to the bottom of whose security list they were on or why that was the case. We then arranged for them to fly to Turkey. They were able to get to Turkey but then they were detained in the Turkish airport. We were able to get them out of the airport and ultimately into Istanbul into a hotel there. But it was an extraordinary experience for me to meet so many of the detainees and talk to them. They had so much dignity and grace and were so open and able to talk about this obviously tremendous difficult subject matter. They really made me feel that the photographs were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was done to these guys. Susan Burke, the lawyer, was able to come to the Sundance premiere, which happened a couple of weeks ago. I was talking to her about the detainees and how they felt about the film and she said that she had just spoken to them about the film and they said, 'This gives us our dignity back, having this shown to a receptive American audience and for them to understand what we went through and to empathize with us. It gives us our dignity.' "
Kennedy was then queried on what it was like getting the MPs to talk about their experience at Abu Ghraib? "It was a challenge to get the MPs to talk to me," Kennedy responded. "All of them had recently gotten out of prison where they served time for the abuses and I think most of them felt this was an experience that they wanted to put behind them. They wanted to move on with their lives. At the same time they felt that the true story of what happened at Abu Ghraib really hadn't gotten out to the world. They trusted that I was going to do a much more balanced approach to what happened, which took a lot of trust building because there were a lot of interviews that they had done prior to me where people had told them the same thing that ended up being very sensationalist news coverage. It took a lot of relationship and trust building to get to a point where they were willing to speak to me on camera. Again, I think they were very courageous to participate in this film and, whatever you might think about them, it took a certain amount of courage to agree to tell their stories. They were so honest, I felt, in so many ways about what happened. I'm grateful to them. I'm also grateful to John Yoo because he obviously comes from a perspective that I don't agree with but he gives insight into what happened at Abu Ghraib and what policies and what their mindset was within the Administration, which I think is important for all of us to understand. He was the only one who was part of that Administration willing to talk to us."
Noting that the detainees' names were in quote marks, indicating they were not real names, one fellow was interested in why they wanted to be anonymous? Kennedy confirmed his deduction that they were pseudonyms. "I assumed that when they went back home there was going to be retaliation in their neighborhoods and their communities but what they all told me was that they were scared of retaliation from Americans. There was one detainee who was not just willing but somewhat insistent on speaking to us and showing his face. He felt that he had been so humiliated by the Americans and had been through such torture that he just didn't want to go through the rest of his life in hiding. He said, 'Even if I die, I'm not going to spend the rest of my time trying to run away from these people.' He was very insistent on showing his identity. Throughout the editing process I kept going back to him and saying, 'Are you sure?' "
Danner noted it was worth saying that—months before the pictures came out—awareness of American retaliation against Iraqi civilians was strong. "The first time I went to Iraq after the combat phase of the Gulf War in the Fall of 2003, it was very well-known among the Iraqis that stuff like this was going on. I heard it frequently, 'They're torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Horrible things are going on at Abu Ghraib.' " Even though the Americans hadn't yet (and still haven't) restored electricity to the region, there was a joke circulating to the effect of: "I always knew the Americans would eventually restore electricity, I just didn't know they'd be shooting it up my ass." The audience tittered nervously. "You heard [that joke] on the streets of Baghdad and, at the time, I was fairly skeptical about it and I thought, 'Well, they couldn't be doing this on a wholesale level. It would be too stupid.' I look back on it and think it was completely believable to Iraqis, partly because they lived under a regime like this before—as horrible as it is to make that comparison—but also because to them this is a continuation of what they were seeing on the streets; that is, wholesale cordon and capture operations, smashing down doors, a general, fairly brutal approach towards the population. So it made perfect sense that people were being tortured."
One fellow wanted to broaden the context of the discussion to indicate that the United States has been exporting torture for some time in the form of places like the School of the Americas and that Abu Ghraib was a continuance of a policy whereby we export our techniques and knowledge to people to do our dirty work. What makes Abu Ghraib shocking, he surmised, was that this was us actively engaging in the torture. He wondered if Kennedy and Danner could address the broader network of torture prisons throughout the world that are run by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, among other organizations, and if there is any move to expose those and to investigate them further?
"Those are big questions," Danner replied. "Just briefly, I covered Central America. My first book was about El Salvador so I know very well about the School of the Americas. But I always resist that comparison and the notion that [Abu Ghraib] is just a continuance of the past. [Abu Ghraib] strikes me as something rather different. These are decisions made by all the responsible agencies in the U.S. government, documented decisions to change specific policies in U.S. military and other government intelligence agencies, meaning the CIA, to adopt torture. That's different. That is not the School of the Americas. I try to emphasize the difference here rather than the similarities."
Kennedy added, "We've never had the Vice-President of the United States arguing for torture before Congress. It's always been under the rug. It's always been something we've hidden. But to be so overt about it to say we want to adopt this policy in such a public way is a complete departure from the last 200 years of policy in this country."
Danner volleyed, "One could say that this is, again, a very complicated story. On September 6, 2006, when the President at the White House essentially gave a speech talking about alternative techniques of interrogation and telling Congress to pass a law legalizing these techniques—which in effect Congress did in October—on that very day the military came out with its new manual of interrogation, which made all of this stuff illegal within the military. So literally it was on CSpan One and CSpan Two. You had the President saying please make this stuff legal for the intelligence agencies and you had the highest intelligence officer in the U.S. introducing the new manual and saying waterboarding, cold cell, all these stress positions, all these things are illegal and you can't use them. So the story with this is a very complicated one, particularly in the military and what it has done to the military. The other question you asked about the secret prisons is very relevant because that has to do with the CIA and is a very different story. The Administration has been adamant in keeping the possibility of these things open. They claim now there are no prisoners in these places but we have no way of telling whether that's true or not. Fourteen of the so-called 'worst of the worst' were shipped to Guantanamo shortly after the President gave this speech and some of them were supposed to be tried. But the law which passed in October—this terrible, awful law—essentially made a lot of this stuff legal for all practical purposes."
Wanting to provide some historical perspective on these issues, Kennedy qualified that it's not just about going back to the Geneva Convention in the 1940s to look at the policy about torture in this country. You could go all the way back to the American Revolution. At that time the British were treating the American soldiers horrendously. They were beheading Americans and torturing Americans. The generals came to George Washington and said, "How do you want us to treat British soldiers, British prisoners of war?" and George Washington said, "Treat them with respect and dignity. If we lose that, we've lost the reason why we're fighting this revolution." "That policy," Kennedy explained, "determined the direction of this country for the last few hundred years and it's something that our leaders have fought for. There's a reason why you can travel around the world as an American and everyone looks up to you and says, 'I want to be an American. I want to move to America.' In four short years that has shifted dramatically so that [Americans are] now treated with disdain when people look at us as if we're the advocates of torture."
Another audience member expressed how appalled he was with American torture as well. "When I drive down the street and see the American flag, I see a swastika," he stated forcefully, "and it's just shocking to me that Americans know about this torture and they can live with it. They all just went back to sleep after the pictures. Seems to me that this was an education for America. This is what we're going to do from now on and Americans took the lesson very well and agreed to this: that America is now going to start torturing people." Struggling to narrow down his question, this fellow added that—since apparently the motivation for Americans is going to be "What works for me?"—he felt the strongest motivation to bring this point home is to remember that there weren't any Iraqis involved in the 9/11 attack that he knew of but now, after years of systemic torture, he queried whether Kennedy and Danner thought there would be any future terrorist attacks on Americans engineered by Iraqis? Someone else responded, "What about the last four years in Iraq?", implying the attacks on U.S. military personnel.
Danner took that one on. "It depends on your definition of terror. I don't particularly consider attacks on military forces [in Iraq] terrorist attacks." Addressing the comparison between the American flag and a swastika, Danner reiterated how complicated a story this is. "You have in this film people who try to bring [this torture] to the attention of commanding officers. There was a struggle within the military itself. Alberto Mora, who was interviewed in the film, was part of that profile in that very good New Yorker piece a couple of years ago by Jane Mayer. If you look at the collection of documents, which I collect in my book Torture and Truth, and which are available on the Internet, they record the debate over the Geneva Convention decision. You see a strong debate within the government, led on the opposing side by—as so often—then Secretary of State Colin Powell saying, "Don't do this. We need to follow the Geneva Convention." Referring to the tradition that, as Rory says, goes back to General Washington and the Battle of Trenton. The American military has always prided itself on not doing this stuff even though it has, on occasion, done it. The question that's important it seems to me is the official version, the rule, how do we think of ourselves? I think it would be unfortunate if one took from this—despite some of my pessimistic remarks—that this was all this horrible thing, this terrible disgrace, that there was no struggle over it. There was a struggle over it and there is a struggle over it, which is going to be in front of you in the coming days. There are going to be hearings. People are going to be talking about this. This is just a little chunk of a larger struggle about how the U.S. behaves in the world, how it treats prisoners, and how it fights the so-called war on terror. I guess I'm just disagreeing with the notion that this is the way Americans are and this shows how horrible this country is. I don't agree with that. But I do agree that when this country's attacked—you've seen these points in American history: the problems that were raised with World War I, the internment of the Japanese, McCarthy—you can see a pattern of reaction which is often very violent and usually involves taking away or ignoring the principles that supposedly underlie this country. It's happened repeatedly and it's happened here again."
The paintings used to illustrate this transcription are by Colombian artist Fernando Botero and are courtesy of the Marlborough New York website. Botero's Marlborough exhibition of his Abu Ghraib paintings were reviewed by Arthur C. Danto for The Nation and have been eloquently blogged upon by Mark Scroggins at Culture Industry. Further examples of this powerful series can be found at EastSouthWestNorth, with accompanying reviews from The Independent, The New York Times, Revista Diners (in Spanish), and The Washington Post. Botero's paintings have likewise been incorporated into a short film A Permanent Accusation available on YouTube.
Those in the Bay Area interested in Botero's work have the unique opportunity to view this exhibition at the Center for Latin American Studies on the UC Berkeley campus through March 23, 2007. Fernando Botero attended the opening and engaged Robert Haas in conversation late last month and webcasts of both their conversation and the "Art and Violence" panel discussion are available at the Center for Latin American Studies website.
Of related interest—and because I'm on their case—is Jana Prikryl's investigative essay on Abu Ghraib for The Believer. Free, of course!
Cross-published on Twitch.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
I am a person whose life has become completely governed by what I can get for free. What movies can I get for free? What books can I get for free? Which friends will take me out for lunch or invite me over for dinner? Which publicists have the best swag? Which doctors' offices have the best candy on their counters and magazines in their waiting room racks that I can shovel into my pockets to nibble on later and smuggle home to read at my leisure for free? And being such a fan of magazines (they're so shiny, pretty pictures, perfect for my attention span), I frequently scour the Internet to find out which magazines offer online content for free, because you know how some of them are, they offer a paragraph or two, they get you hooked, and then they rap your knuckles with required registrations and necessary subscriptions. Or they offer it for one day and one day only between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. and just about the time that some friend has told you that there's this great article on Joni Mitchell's new ballet in Saskatchewan, bam, it disappears just like the Holy Grail and you feel like Galahad wanting to take it out on Guinevere. This is beyond marketing; this is human cruelty that veers into Geneva Convention territory or at least some hopefully-enthused pro bono legal advice. Because of these insidious tactics, I won't even bother with an article on line unless it is free from the first word to the last. Call me a purist if you will.
Why am I telling you this? Because I hate The Believer. Do you know this magazine? They publish only interviews. I like to read interviews. Not only do I like to read interviews but I especially like to read my own interviews, published on shiny pages with pretty attention-grabbing photos (or, in the case of The Believer, pastel caricatures by the gifted Charles Burnes). And I very much wanted to read one of my interviews in The Believer because their interviews are very well-written and I thought it would be kind of fun to be included. So I contacted them and they said absolutely we are not interested in any of your unsolicited interviews. Go away. Scram. Well, I thought. So for weeks now I have been having these reoccurring fantasies where someday, somewhere, somehow The Believer magazine is begging me for one of my interviews and I really rake them over the coals before agreeing to let them publish it. I dangle it in front of them until they're about ready to strangle themselves with the telephone cord or—for those way into the 21st century—gagging themselves to death with a cellular while it's in vibrate mode. The pleasure of this petulant fantasy evaporates when I realize that—to get back at me for raking them over the coals—the editors over there at The Believer will insure that my interview (with whoever) gets published in their magazine but is not offered for free on their website.
The very thought of that makes my face go red and my knuckles white. Grrrrr. So to get back at them waaaaaay ahead of the fact (ha! Neener neener), I have scoured The Believer's online fare and have pulled out each and every film-related interview that is completely intact and free. Because sometimes an embittered cheapskate's gotta do what he's gotta do just to keep his sense of humor. Enjoy!
In their August 2006 issue The Believer invited Scott Indrisek to interview Steven Soderbergh. Indrisek, you might know, is the New York editor for Anthem (who I'm probably going to hate next), and he also writes regularly for BlackBook, the New York Observer, and Clear. Apparently Mr. Indrisek has a self-inflicted mullet and has lingering memories of when the interior of his apartment was turquoise. You can't blame him for that. When all is said and done, turquoise is a memorable color. In this clever interview Soderbergh discusses who he would cast as gay cowboys, addiction to reality t.v., porn as a third political party, the difference between a movie that has failed and a movie that is bad, Bubble, Schizopolis, Full Frontal, how garden-variety frustrations seep into dreams, how everything is the director's fault and how hard it is for a director to create a film that's good and clear.
In their May 2005 issue, The Believer invited Meghan Daum to interview Steve Martin. Martin opines on situational depression, the usual criticism of his work from Germany, the preparatory nature of relationships and how the failure of one guides you into another, the unique nature of mental aberrations, his essays for The New Yorker, and how you can be too famous when it's better to be "just right" famous.
At this point I have to say that you don't get all these synopses for free. Huh-uh. You're going to have to read these interviews yourselves but, trust me, each interviewee has something to say. I mean, they always do. Which leads me to a café conversation I was having with my SF360 editor Susan Gerhard the other day where she basically stated that interviews really aren't that hard to conduct, especially when folks are on the press junket and want to talk about their movie. Most come primed with pat answers and all you have to do is jog their memory a bit with brief questions. That might be partly true, but if it were wholly true I would be bored in no time flat. I feel I have failed as an interviewer when I hear my subjects saying things I know they've said a million times over.
Anyways, the rest of the Believer film-related interviews that I found notable are with Todd Solondz, Errol Morris, The Simpsons' producer and writer George Meyer, and Amy Sedaris.
Eschewing interviews for a moment, there is a great essay on film critic Manny Farber by Franklin Bruno that warrants an entry all in itself but for now here's the source material.
Finally, Salman Rushdie drafts up an onstage conversation he had with Terry Gilliam at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival. More bang for your buck. What am I talking about? This is all free!!
Don't say I never gave you anything.
Illustrations courtesy of Charles Burnes.
Taro Goto, Assistant Director of the upcoming San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, was kind enough to help me out with translation services recently when I interviewed Kumakiri Kazuyoshi (Green Mind, Metal Bats) for this year's San Francisco IndieFEST. Now Taro's turned around to show me how an interview should be conducted by engaging my fave rave Kiyoshi Kurosawa in a discussion about Clint Eastwood, his Oscar-nominated Flags of Our Fathers and Sands of Iwo Jima, and the problematic Japanese concept of gyokusai.
Cross-published at Twitch.
The March/April Pacific Film Archives calendar just went on-line. As ever, their offerings are tremendous, not the least being three days with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a 19-film Antonioni tribute, and a retrospective tribute to the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Two animated programs likewise caught my eye, tucked away into more comprehensive programs. The first is part of the Alternative Visions program, When A Stranger Comes To Town: Recent Animations, screening Tuesday, March 13, 2007, with the animators in attendance to discuss their work. I recently caught Suzan Pitt's weirdly brilliant El Doctor at this year's SF IndieFEST and look forward to hearing what she has to say about the piece.
The second is a matinee presentation of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies on Saturday, March 24, 2007, hosted by Russell Merritt, author of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies: A Companion to the Classic Cartoon Series as well as Walt in Wonderland.
Having just been roughed over by Eddie Muller—the Czar of Noir—and his one-two punch, first to the chin, then to the gut, you'd think I'd be nursing my noir bruises right around now; but, no. I guess I like it rough.
In steps Vanity Fair with their 13th annual Hollywood issue, which pays tribute to the Oscar hopefuls via a killer portfolio designed by Michael Roberts and executed by photographer Annie Lebovitz with help by Oscar-nominated Vilmos Zsigmond (The Black Dahlia). You'll have to buy the magazine to see Killers Kill, Dead Men Die, a storyboarded tour de force that pays tribute to the noir films of the 40s and 50s, "starring" Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Jessica Alba, Pedro Almodóvar, Alec Baldwin, Adam Beach, Jessica Biel, Abigail Breslin, Jennifer Connelly, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Robert De Niro, Robert Downey, Jr., Kirsten Dunst, Aaron Eckhart, James Franco, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Hudson, Anjelica Huston, Rinko Kikuchi, Diane Lane, Derek Luke, Tobey Maguire, James McAvoy, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, Jack Nicholson, Bill Nighy, Ed Norton, Peter O'Toole, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, Kerry Washington, Naomi Watts, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Patrick Wilson, Kate Winslet, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Quite the cast, eh? And, believe me, quite the photo spread.
Though Killers Kill, Dead Men Die is not available online, Vanity Fair does offer up a behind-the-scenes slideshow by Vanity Fair photographers Kathryn MacLeod, Krista Smith, and Nick Rogers, as well as Annie Lebovitz's essay on "The Big Shoot" and Krista Smith's overview of the films associated with the "stars" of Killers Kill, Dead Men Die.
Then to place this neo-noir enterprise firmly within its historical setting, Vanity Fair appends Nathaniel Rich's guide to the top 10 classic noirs, the top 10 noir films you've probably never heard of, and (to cap it off) the top 3 worst noirs you've never heard of. Author of San Francisco Noir from 1940 to the Present, Nathaniel Rich is obviously writing to the unwashed masses who live outside Noir City, whose residents invariably have their own top 10, best and worst.
Regrettably, Vanity Fair's online offerings don't include the companion essay "Day Into Noir" by Ann Douglas, author of Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, who opines—as Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter synopsizes—that the film noir genre "remains vital as an anecdote to American self-infatuation and is especially evident at times when a 'take-sides, either-or mentality' is in force."
Or related interest in the March 2007 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair—and still another reason to slap down a five-spot for the physical magazine is a "Masters of Photography" reprisal of images of Oscar winners taken by Herb Ritts and remembered by Ingrid Sischy.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Just a tickler that today and tomorrow the Balboa Theater is offering free screenings of the Oscar-nominated documentaries. See my previous post for details.
Monday, February 19, 2007
I don't subscribe to Logo (I barely have time to watch t.v. as it is!); but, if I did (and if somebody out there does and wants to tape it for me), Jenni Olson will be participating in a group discussion of The Queer Year In Film along with Alonso Duralde, Angela Robinson, John Polly and Craig Chester come Oscar weekend, Saturday February 24 and Sunday February 25. Apparently the fab five sat around "rabidly chit-chatting" about the designated topic "on a cheesy talk show set for four grueling (but fun) hours." Jenni assures, however, that the footage has been trimmed down to less than a half-hour of absolute highlights and they will be playing little clips all weekend.
Not only that but Jenni's Joy of Life, the subject of our interview some time back, is being screened for free at SFCamerawork this week along with Jem Cohen's Chain and Natalie Zimmerman's Islands, as part of SFCamerawork's exhibition: traces of life on the thin film of longing. The free screenings are Tuesday, February 20, 2007 through Saturday, February 24, 2007 from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM at SF Camerawork, 657 Mission Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, California.
If that doesn't satisfy you, then go check out Jenni's blogsite, Butch, where she lists her dozen websites! And I thought I was treading water….
Saturday, February 17, 2007
The gears are starting to grind as the buzz revs up for the hotly anticipated or dismissively loathed (your pick) premiere of Quentin Tarantino and Richard Rodriguez's Grindhouse, scheduled to open nationally April 6.
The Twitch team is, of course, all over it. They started reporting on the project back in May 2005 and have continued right on putting up Troublemaking Studio's teaser posters, The New York Times preview article, the latest trailer and some recent Grindhouse art.
Not only that, they've got the YouTube trailer of Hobo With A Shotgun, one of the popular leads in the South By Southwest's "Make Your Own Grindhouse Trailer" competition. They also focus on another entry in that competition, Too Dead To Die. Tarantino and Rodriguez will handpick their favorite fanmade Grindhouse trailers to screen at the SXSW panel discussion on the film. Ain't It Cool News has rounded up several of the entries that are already up and "splattered" on YouTube.
Tarantino and Rodriguez promote their interest in this sticky four-minute Yahoo clip.
Meanwhile, over at IMdb's profile on the flick, there aren't any external reviews up, of course, because the film hasn't opened; but, check out their miscellaneous offerings!
If you're craving some historical context on grindhouse films, Wikipedia has about as succinct a summation as you're going to find but over at Greencine Eddie Muller's online republished installment's of his study Grindhouse rubs your nose in it. So far there's an intro and (count 'em!) one, two, three, four, five installments!
Cross-published in a slightly-condensed version at Twitch.
When I was a collegiate thespian I scored the lead in the College of Southern Idaho's production of The Lion In Winter and mimicked Peter O'Toole's every intonation and gesture. Sure enough, I got rave reviews. Or really, I should say, O'Toole continued to receive his.
Last September at the Toronto International the possibility arose of interviewing O'Toole for Venus. At the last moment, unfortunately, he had to withdraw from appearing due to frail health. I was crestfallen, knowing that would most likely be the last chance I would ever have to meet O'Toole face to face and to acknowledge the influence he had upon me as a young actor.
Fortunately Gary Meyer had that opportunity at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival where—in his capacity as part of the programming team—he helped host a retrospective of O'Toole's work in honor of the actor's 70th birthday. In conjunction with the Balboa's screening of Venus this week, Gary reminisces on interacting with O'Toole at Telluride at his Balboa Theatre website and it's well worth the read, along with his synopsis of Venus and his rich hyperlinks.
Friday, February 16, 2007
Back in 1982, The San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival offered 13 films to its fledgling audience. The festival's exponential growth in 25 years now caters to an expected audience of 30,000 with a line-up that includes 128 films from 20+ countries. At the press conference held earlier this week in the Dolby Labs screening room, Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Festival Assistant Director Taro Goto took turns delivering an immaculate and confident audio-visual presentation wherein they walked the press through the festival's line-up, which is now accessible online at the festival website.
SF360's Susan Gerhard has aptly synopsized the highlights of the festival this year, including its opening night feature Justin Lin's Finishing the Game, its closing night feature Chen Shi-Zheng's Dark Matter, a seven-film retrospective of Korean filmmaker Hong San-soo, a spotlight on Spencer Nakasako in conversation with Justin Lin, and—as the festival's centerpiece—the world premiere of Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese.
Chi-hui emphasized the importance of timing when it comes to pulling together a festival. Having Arthur Dong's new documentary Hollywood Chinese for the festival's centerpiece is both fortuitous and welcome. Hollywood Chinese is a film that's been long in the making and is a project close to home as the Center for Asian American Media is one of the film's funders. Dong is likewise close to CAAM and several of his films have shown at previous festivals. The film itself, Chi-hui explained, is almost a perfect way to showcase the festival's history in that it embodies a lot of the ideas, spirit and community that the festival stands for. A warm history of Chinese in Hollywood, from Anna Mae Wong to Ang Lee, Hollywood Chinese is further noteworthy because—during the course of Dong's research—he discovered fragments of what we now know to be the earliest Asian-American film ever made, a film called The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916), a silent film by Oakland filmmaker Marion Wong. From what Chi-hui understands, once The Curse of Quon Gwon was completed, it was never distributed and now nearly 89 years later Dong rediscovered three reels of the film, about 35 minutes worth, of which he has used a few clips in Hollywood Chinese. Sadly, however, the rest of the film is lost. Nonetheless, as a special event the SFIAAFF will be screening the existing 35 minutes of The Curse of Quon Gwon at the Oakland Museum during the run of the festival. Recently selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry, this will be a rare opportunity to see this footage. Apparently, several members of Marion Wong's family still live in Oakland.
A new section to the festival being introduced this year is "Out of the Vaults" where films from the silent era to Hollywood's Golden age will be explored. Though these films pre-date Asian-American film, they provide historical context. This year's entry will be German director Richard Eichberg's Pavement Butterfly (1929) starring Anna Mae Wong. This is another rare screening of a print on loan from the British Film Institute and will be accompanied live by the Japanese-American pianist Robert Israel on the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer.
Recalling that much of the audience wanted to sing along when the festival screened A Flower Drum Song at their 20th anniversary, CAAM has decided to bring the film back to the Castro Theatre, this time with subtitles to help people remember the lyrics.
Another fun revival, co-presented by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks and his Midnites for Maniacs series, will be John Carpenter's 1986 cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Chi-hui emphasized that—as we look back at this film—we see it's a smartly scripted film that introduced a legion of Asian-American actors to audiences. Surprisingly, it has been quite difficult to track down a film print and so this will be a rare screening of this cult favorite.
Taro announced that SFIAAFF will also be paying tribute to the great Japanese-American actor Mako who passed away last July by showing The Wash (1988), one of his finest performances set in San Francisco's Japantown and written by local playwright Philip Kan Gotanda. Mako received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his 1966 performance in The Sand Pebbles. He also co-founded L.A.'s East-West Players, which was the first Asian-American theater company in the nation. He was always fighting for better roles for Asian-American actors and some might remember his eloquent, firm testimonial in Jeff Adachi's The Slanted Screen shown at last year's festival.
Chi-hui expressed his delight in sharing SFIAAFF's 25th anniversary with the PBS series POV, which is celebrating its 20th year. POV has been a strong supporter of Asian-American documentaries, having broadcast dozens on public television. SFIAAFF will celebrate their ongoing collaboration by presenting Nerakhoun: Betrayal, a work in progress, by famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras who began working on the piece 15 years ago. Funded by both CAAM and POV, Nerakhoun: Betrayal is co-directed by its subject Laotian refugee Thavisouk Phrasavath. Both Kuras and Phrasavath will be attending the festival and, in addition, Kuras will be teaching a cinematography master class at the festival. Though most might not be familiar with her name, they're certainly familiar with her camerawork. Her credits include Incredible Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Summer of Sam, Swoon and I Shot Andy Warhol, just to name a few.
The heart of the festival, Taro pointed out, is the juried competition sections. These are the showcases for the best Asian-American features of the past year. To provide perspective regarding the Narrative Competition, Taro recalled that in 1997 the festival had four Asian-American narrative features. All four were remarkable, groundbreaking efforts by young film school-educated Asian-American filmmakers. They were telling very different stories than the usual identity stories or the generation gap family dramas that were so common up until that point. The films that came out that year were hip, edgy, and were telling more universally appealing stories without compromising the authenticity of the Asian-American experience. The press at the time dubbed it "GenerAsian X" and hailed it as a watershed year. Ten years later the festival once again has four world premieres in the Narrative Competition but also eight additional features, totaling a dozen. Last year's explosion of twelve narrative features is now revealed to be neither fluke nor anomaly, as initially feared.
There's a tangible sense that the filmmakers are trying to achieve a wider audience beyond the Asian community. This is true of such a film as Shanghai Kiss, one of the four world premieres. Shanghai Kiss is a crossover romantic comedy starring Ken Leung and Kelly Hu. A kind of Lost in Translation set in China but with an Asian-American experiencing the culture clash, Shanghai Kiss has its protagonist choosing between two loves and two homes.
Another world premiere is American Pastime, a beautifully shot drama about the Japanese-American internment camps and also baseball. The film finds a fresh way to tell the story familiar to SFIAAFF audiences. American Pastime is directed by Desmond Nakano who directed White Man's Burden about 12 years ago.
In her SF360 overview, Susan Gerhard points out that "[i]n an era when many festivals are championing virtual filmgoing experiences, [Chi-hui and Taro] stepped outside the box to emphasize the festival's value in on-the-ground community-building, speaking about longterm relationships not just between the festival and filmmakers, but also of filmmakers amongst themselves in the early stages of their careers."
Cognizant of the impact of the so-called Class of 1997, Oliver Wang has written an informative overview for the festival program, and Taro recalled that Jacqueline Kim, one of the three jurors for the Narrative Competition, was at the festival where Eric Byler—hearing about all the big films that were going to be premiering that year—came up to the festival though not associated with any particular film; but, he and Jacqueline and her writer went to a lot of the screenings, did a lot of drinking afterwards to talk about what they were seeing, and on the drive back to L.A. they discussed the different characters they wanted to see on the screen; a conversation that turned into Byler's Charlotte Sometimes which screened at SFIAAFF in 2003. Last year SFIAAFF also screened Byler's AMERICANese.
Also in 1997 Justin Lin brought Shopping For Fangs, co-directed by Quentin Lee, and met Jason Tobin who was acting in Yellow. They hit it off and Tobin ended up acting in Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, which was SFIAAFF's 2002 Opening Night feature. And so on and so forth. The anecdotes amplify. I have my own. Eric Byler liked my write-up on last year's AMERICANese and ushered me into a print gig with a Los Angeles weekly Entertainment Today where he was guest editing. So I can only shout "Amen!" to the warm and productive networking that characterizes SFIAAFF. Taro admitted that he and Chi-hui are excited that the festival is not just a collection of screenings but a place where people meet and congregate.
One of the most highly-anticipated sections of SFIAAFF is, of course, its international showcase where the festival brings their favorite films from Asia and the Diaspora from the past year. Catering to the diverse tastes of their diverse audience, SFIAAFF is offering 13 features in this category, including the South Korean blockbuster King and the Clown, a spectacular period piece that was the highest-grossing film in Korean film history at the time (before wicked American scientists started ordering their underlings to dump formaldehyde into the Han River). King and the Clown controversially addressed such taboo subjects in Korea as free speech and homosexuality.
On the opposite spectrum is an art film like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and A Century (but more of that in a separate post) and the lighter, uplifting Australian story of Footy Legends, an underdog tale with plenty of rugby action. Also, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a Japanese anime feature whereas fans of Johnnie To's action films will love his latest Exiled. There are several other notable features in the international showcase but hopefully this provides enough of a sample to intrigue further research on the festival's website. If you still can't decide, Chi-hui and Taro will be hosting a Festival Public Preview, further pointing out highlights and recommendations and answering questions on Thursday, February 22, 6:30 p.m. at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, 145 Ninth Street, Room 104, San Francisco.
One major difference this year will be the festival's temporary location at the AMC 1000 while the Sundance Kabuki is being renovated. Macys will be sponsoring an audience lounge in the AMC 1000 where festival goers can rest and discuss films between screenings. Tickets will go on sale to the general public February 19 via online, mail, fax and phone.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
2007 INDIEFEST—The Evening Class Interview With Kumakiri Kazuyoshi, Director of Seishun kinzoku batto (Green Mind, Metal Bats)
Having now seen two Kumakiri Kazuyoshi films—Antena (2004) and Seishun kinzoku batto (Green Mind, Metal Bats, 2006)—I've bumped Kazuyoshi's breakout shocker Kichiku Dai Enkai (Kichiku: Banquet of the Beasts, 1997) to the top of my Greencine rental queue. In town for this year's IndieFEST, I arranged to hook up with Kumakiri-san, taking him out for Mayan pozole and cerveza at Mi Lindo Yucatan. I'm indebted to Taro Goto for his indispensible translations.
Kichiku was Kazuyoshi's graduation project at Osaka University of the Arts. It became a big hit in Japan and received the semi Grand Prix at the 20th PIA Film Festival in 1997 and the Grand Prix at Taormina. The film was invited to many international film festivals including Berlin. In 2001, Kazuyoshi followed up with Sora No Ana (Hole in the Sky, 2001) as a scholarship production of the PIA Film Festival. The film was screened at the film festivals of Berlin and Rotterdam, where it gained the Special Mention of the International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI). His third film, Antena, was officially invited in 2003 to the Venice (section Upstream) and Toronto film festivals. Other films include Kihatsusei no onna (The Volatile Woman, 2004) and Tadareta ie zoroku no kibyo yori (The Ravaged House: Zoroku's Disease, 2004).
As IndieFEST programmer Bruce Fletcher synopsizes Green Mind, Metal Bats for the festival program: "[Kazuyoshi's] latest film comes (literally) out of left field: It's a baseball movie. However, with one of the most provocative talents in new Japanese cinema behind the camera, it's not going to be a traditional sports film by any stretch of the imagination.
"From the incredible opening sequence's errant pitch to the head until the inevitable showdown between the former teammates, Green Mind, Metal Bats is more about the effect of the game on three psychologically wounded people, and how baseball can be a force for healing, than in the game itself.
"Nanba is a shunned outcast who doesn't have a girlfriend, any money, or prospects—a turnaround from his glory days in high school when he played on the baseball team. His former teammate Ishioka used to be their ace pitcher; now he's a policeman because of an elbow injury. Then there's baseball fanatic Eiko, a hopeless alcoholic who spends more of her time drunk than sober. The three share an intense love of baseball—and their destinies are forever intertwined."
* * *
Michael Guillén: Green Mind, Metal Bats is having its U.S. premiere at this year's SF IndieFEST but had its world premiere last year at the 35th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). I'm assuming you went? How was it received by its Rotterdam audience?
Kumakiri Kazuyoshi: I couldn't go last year to the premiere because I was shooting my next film.
Guillén: Ah, too bad. Then I guess you don't know how the Rotterdam audience received it; but, I asked because I was wondering if its audience reception differed from its critical reception, which—to date—has been conflicted, though not necessarily negative. Critics don't quite know what to make of Green Mind, Metal Bats. They're somewhat confused by the genre mash-up. When Juan Manuel Freire reported on the film to Greencine from the Barcelona Asian Film Festival, he called it "an enjoyable rarity which shakes surrealist humor, thriller action and sport-film motivational spirit into an impossible mixture." I'm wondering how much of that is your responsibility or your vision? Or if you were more a hired gun to direct Takashi Ujita's adaptation of Tomohiro Koizumi's eponymous manga?
Kazuyoshi: In terms of the genres being mixed, I'm not interested in being pigeon-holed into any particular genre. I'm more interested in seeing something that people haven't seen before so I think Green Minds, Metal Bats is the product of my vision. But it may be true of all of my films that about half of the audience is probably confused by them.
Guillén: I certainly was by Antena, I can tell you that, but I went with it anyways.
Kazuyoshi: Antena's probably the film that does confuse people most.
Guillén: So not being familiar with the original manga of Green Mind, Metal Bats, can you talk about how your film adaptation differs, if at all? I'm aware that with your current feature, which is also based on a manga, there has been some controversy about how much the film adaptation differs from its original source.
Kazuyoshi: Freesia is the new film that just premiered at Rotterdam and in that one certainly the result of the film is very different from the original. With Green Mind, Metal Bats, I felt that I had used quite a bit of artistic license and took a lot of freedom in making the film that I wanted to but—after I saw the completed film—I realized that much of the original taste of the original manga was very much intact in the film. I could say, of course, that the original is a little bit more dry, whereas the film version tends to be more emotional; there's more impact.
Guillén: It's my understanding that you tend to write your own scripts but in the case of Green Mind, Metal Bats, the manga had already been adapted into a script by Takashi Ujita. What prompted you to work with someone else's treatment?
Kazuyoshi: Takashi Ujita is actually a screenwriter that I work with quite a bit on all my films and with Green Mind, Metal Bats, we started at a very early stage rewriting the treatment together.
Guillén: Juan Manuel Freire, who I quoted earlier, likewise found Green Mind, Metal Bats to be a confounding "dramedy" that plays with conceptions of what is heroic and what is criminal and that it's infused with your directorial obsession with exploitive violence. Your violence is disturbingly comic. Can you speak some about that?
Kazuyoshi: There is a good amount of depiction of violence in my films; but, with the film I made before this—Antena—I had the sense that there was something a little bit too serious and heavy-handed about the approach to violence. I wanted to take a lighter approach to filmmaking and that was the result you see in Green Mind, Metal Bats. In regards to the heroes and criminals in my films, I believe that a hero in my vision is somebody who does what is right regardless of what society believes. In regards to criminals, I'm often drawn more to the villains in films rather than the typical heroes. I tend to be more drawn towards the villain who might have been lonely. I tend to side with them. The extreme version of that is what you see in Green Mind, Metal Bats.
Guillén: In this week's Nichi Bei Times Ben Hamamoto praised your directorial balance. He said that even though Green Mind, Metal Bats is "a bleak portrait of aging urban degenerates", it is "also an outrageous comedy. Somehow, its zaniness never undercuts the 'realness' of the characters and the bleakness never undercuts the comedy." Elsewhere the film has been described as "gentle" even in the face of its exploitive violence. Hamamoto, again, says that the film causes you to root for these losers and to like them; a guilty pleasure. You offend and you fascinate. Can you speak some about how you achieve this balance or why you seek to balance these seemingly oppositional energies in your themes and your characters?
Kazuyoshi: I'm happy to hear those comments. What drew me to this material to begin with is that the characters are hopeless people and yet I wanted to treat them with a lot of love. That was the challenge that I took on.
Guillén: Some years back in your interview with Tom Mes for Midnight Eye, he noted that your earlier film Kichiku had drawn comparisons to the early work of Kôji Wakamatsu and Mes wondered if you felt a kinship to Wakamatsu. You replied that—though you weren't particularly fascinated with his films—you liked their underground feel. Kôji Wakamatsu has now ended up acting in Green Mind, Metal Bats as the alleged son of Babe Ruth; one might say the spirit of Babe Ruth. What was your thought behind casting him in your film? Were you striving for an underground aesthetic?
Kazuyoshi: It's a long story, but basically when I was a college student I had already been a fan of Wakamatsu's films. When there was a retrospective of his films at a nearby theater, I went to go see them. I went up to him afterward and told him how much I admired his films and he said, "Fine, let's go drinking together." So we went drinking. Towards the end of it, when we were saying good-bye, he basically shook my hand and said, "Good luck, kid." Several years later when I finished Hole in the Sky, my second feature, he took a look at the film and apparently enjoyed it. He invited me to be on the radio show he was doing at that time. He talked about the film quite a bit and he told me, "You look like a director now. Your face looks like a director's now." I really enjoyed hearing that so I wanted to bring a part of that into this film. When you see the scene where Nanba is practicing his swing, and the Babe Ruth character played by Wakamatsu comes along and says, "Your swing is looking good now"—that's our personal interaction coming into the film.
Guillén: Whenever Wakamatsu speaks as the Babe Ruth spirit in Green Mind, Metal Bats, the subtitles are rendered in an American drawl. I'm not a sophisticated enough linguist to know if this is also being rendered in Japanese in some way for Japanese audiences to pick up on. Is it?
Kazuyoshi: Wakamatsu is actually from the northeast region of Japan and they have a heavy thick dialect there. It wasn't until the day before we actually printed the screenplay to go into shooting that we locked in Wakamatsu as the Babe Ruth character. So I had to basically go in very quickly and rewrite all the lines to be more in Wakamatsu's dialect.
Guillén: But why was his speech translated into American slang? [At this juncture my translator Taro Goto admitted that he wrote the subtitles for Green Mind, Metal Bats so he responded directly to my query.]
Taro Goto: Wakamatsu is speaking with such a thick dialect that in the U.S. or in the English language, the closest thing I could find was a slightly Southern drawl. I tried not to make it too Southern but again just a touch of it so that there is the sense that he's from somewhere other than this city. There's an element that he's coming from somewhere else. It's a little more rural.
Guillén: Your choice intrigues me because, I guess, it does distinguish him as being more rural, which in effect is saying American. Which leads, I guess, to my true question for Kazuyoshi: what is the role of this American sport of baseball in Japanese sensibility? What's the weight of its fantasy for Japanese people? And what are you trying to say by showing how it has damaged the emotional lives of these three young Japanese individuals—Nanba, Ishioka, and Eiko?
Kazuyoshi: First of all, in the original comic, in the manga, the character is not Babe Ruth at all. He's actually a famous Japanese baseball player who was a well-known alcoholic. It felt too provincial for me to use that in a film that's supposed to go out to an international audience so I decided to use someone more universally recognizable and that was Babe Ruth.
I myself actually played baseball through middle school. In Japan it's not so much baseball itself that has a lot of weight, it's high school baseball. High school baseball in Japan is very big. Almost every kid aims for being a high school baseball player in national tournament. There are many people like the Ishioka character in the film who basically reached their life peak when they were shining in the high school baseball national tournament world. Then everything else is downhill. I felt a lot of sympathy for that type of character.
Guillén: So that high school baseball becomes a symbol of lost youth or the golden days of youth?
Kazuyoshi: In today's Japan it may be soccer that's gaining more popularity, but in my generation it was baseball.
Guillén: Ben Hamamoto relayed an interesting claim of Wakamatsu's that he "sent his teenage daughter to live with guerillas in Beirut after she came back from study abroad in America with 'absurdly self-centered notions of individuality'." I found that hilariously intriguing about Wakamatsu. What was it like to work with him?
Kazuyoshi: [Chuckling.] I haven't heard that story. Filmmakers understand what has to occur on the set because they're the ones who have to direct actors. Wakamatsu understood what I had to accomplish on the set. He allowed me to be self-centered and I had no problems getting him to do what I wanted him to do. For example, in the scene towards the end of the film where you see the Babe Ruth character in his briefs watching the city on fire, that's a tough thing to ask someone like Wakamatsu to do but he had no problems with that.
Wakamatsu is known for being a great low-budget guerrilla-style filmmaker. He has a reputation for being able to get more than 20 shots in a single hour. I tend to work slower. I take my time with my shots. There were a few moments during the shooting where the sun would be going down, we would be losing light, and Wakamatsu would be the one panicking more than me.
Guillén: What does the "green mind" portion of the film's title refer to?
Kazuyoshi: The initial translation was supposed to be just simply Youth and Metal Bats. That's the direct literal translation from the Japanese title. But "Green Mind" is supposed to refer to something about the bittersweet pangs of youth. I happen to be a big fan of a Japanese group called Dinosaur Junior. They had an album called "Green Mind." The original comic book author was also a big fan of Dinosaur Junior and he had suggested "Green Mind." There's something about green youthfulness in the mind that seemed to work together and we decided to use it.
Guillén: Passivity and aggression play into your films a lot and you've gained a reputation for keenly chronicling relational obsessions. Eiko's alcoholic aggression is distasteful but fascinating. Are you trying to say something about Japanese women? Because it's not a role I would associate with Japanese women. What's Eiko about?
Kazuyoshi: Rather than saying something about Japanese women generally, it's simply my personal taste. I love women that are violent and cute.
Guillén: I loved the scene where Nanba told her he didn't have any more money and she said, "No problem" and went outside and beat up the girl on the bicycle and stole her money. It was terrible but funny.
Kazuyoshi: That's my ideal woman.
Guillén: So let's shift briefly to Freesia, if we may, which just had its world premiere at Rotterdam. Although my Twitch teammate Ardvark was not so enamored with Freesia, Mark Schilling's review in yesterday's Japan Times was fairly enthusiastic. So, again, we'll have to rely on Bruce Fletcher to bring the film to us so San Franciscans can decide for themselves. This is another film based on manga, this time Jiro Matsumoto's Furîjia. Initial reports are that fans of the manga are upset with your treatment because you've strayed so far from the story. Some have wondered why you even bothered to get the license. Any thoughts?
Kazuyoshi: Basically, the producer asked me to do this. I hadn't heard about this project before. When I took a look at it, I found that the Furîjia series wasn't complete yet. It's still an ongoing manga series. There were many episodes that fascinated me but there wasn't a complete plot so I felt it was an opportunity to improvise.
Guillén: Your films are dystopian and dispassionate. Do you think it's important as a filmmaker to disappoint anticipations? Or to subvert an audience's attachment to expected outcomes? It can be frustrating but is also mesmerizing.
Kazuyoshi: Thank you. You're pretty much right on. Many people have noted similar things about my films. There is this conventional expectation that a character has to somehow grow in the course of a film and I never really fully bought into that. I often see many people who gain quite a bit of experience and yet never really amount to anything or never learn something from it. Those are the people I respond to. In Green Mind, Metal Bats specifically, the two characters at the very end, after the film is over they'll probably get arrested, that's what I think. But though the film doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, I didn't want to show that part of it. I wanted to show them at their brightest moment.
Cross-published at Twitch.