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A Call To Arms (I Mean Movies)

I see a potential PdD dissertation in MoveOn’s efforts to use film
(particularly Hollywood film) as outright political propaganda:

Here’s how hosting works: you just need to set up a party online, and invite your
friends. It only takes a minute, then we’ll invite other MoveOn members to join (if
you open your party to the public).

We’ll recommend some progressive videos for you and your guests to watch and discuss—documentaries
like “The Corporation”, “OutFoxed,” and “Roger & Me,”
as well as feature films with progressive themes, like “Wag the Dog” and
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Or, if you know a film that others should
see, you can show that one.

These parties won’t only be about watching movies, they’ll also be about laying
the groundwork for upcoming actions. At these parties we’ll give you what you need
to form a local team, so it’s easy for you and your new friends to continue working
together. We’ll also give you materials for a simple action your group can do after
the party around a likely Supreme Court vacancy. We need to be ready to act quickly
to have an impact on who President Bush appoints.

Beating the Bush agenda and electing a progressive majority will take the help
of everyone who agrees that the Republican leadership is out of touch with America.
Help us fight the right by hosting “Progressive Movie Night”.

How To Ruin My Jokes, Part 3

I have twice before lamented the ways in which my jokes have been ruined by others. First there was the lament over people not getting your jokes and thinking you’re the one who’s stupid. Then there was the problem of people not hearing your jokes and the inappropriateness of repeating them (can’t find it in my archives to link). Here, in part 3, we shall discuss situations where a person hears your joke, thinks it’s funny, and tries to add something to top it off, but the top-off is so lame it sinks, taking your original funny joke down with it. It happened twice last week at Silverdocs, but rather than incriminate any friends I will instead share a memorable example from a couple of years ago when I was on a tea date with my ARCH ENEMY.

My ARCH ENEMY is a funny guy of the stand-up comedian variety. A showman. I didn’t know him very well and this was only our second time hanging out and I was smitten and giggly. He was standing at the counter at Tealuxe and ordered our tea, and as I pulled out my wallet he said “I got your tea.” I smiled and fumbled to put my wallet away. Then he pulled out a $20 and said “Anyway I’m rich, I just robbed an old lady on the way over here. She yelled ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I said SHUT UP!” 

I saved this pseudo-joke by adding, “How rude of her.”

He laughed loudly, and so did the girl behind the counter, which made me happy, but unfortunately he couldn’t stop there. He added “yeah, I don’t know where these old people get off thinking they get to keep money.”


Frigid Movie Theater, Anyone?

Today is the kind of day when you walk out the door brimming with energy and a list of errands you plan to run … until about 45 seconds later when you start mentally lopping off all but the most essential errands on the list as the humid air presses down on you. “I really don’t need those Q-tips, I’ll stop at Brooks another time …”

At least, that’s what I did.

We’re Not Terrorists!

Here’s a mosque that sprang up in the middle of farmland near my parents’ house in Maryland:

When I took that picture the guy walking across the street yelled out “You takin my picture?” and did a little dance. Here’s a closeup of the sign in front:

Someone seems to be a bit defensive … considering the hick town my parents live in, I don’t blame them. I may think it’s silly that here in the Northeast I’m called a Southern Belle, but one spin around the radio dial tells you about the demographics of that town–mostly country music stations. Actually it’s about half country and half R&B, really not much else. Even the one alternative music station that existed when I lived there is now gone. It’s Merle Haggard or Isaac Hayes, not much in between.

Sorry if I have just insulted all you country music fans.

Silverdocs Wrapup, Revisited

I know I promised a final Silverdocs wrapup a few days ago but I have had trouble working up the enthusiasm to rewrite it after losing the whole thing through a crack in cyberspace. So I will just post a few points here.

  • Shorts. I like shorts. Possibly better than features. Because the short format is so useless commercially, it means there are no constraints on the artist and they are free to be as creative/weird/different as they want to be. So you’re far more likely to see something exciting and innovative when watching shorts than when watching features. That said, my favorite short at Silverdocs was Jay Rosenblatt’s Phantom Limb. Have you seen a Jay Rosenblatt film? They are not easy to see, but if you can, see some. Especially The Smell of Burning Ants. But his new one, Phantom Limb, is just as disturbing and emotionally wrenching as his others. There is one scene that I will remember for the rest of my life. The film is a meditation on the guilt he has felt his whole life over the death of his young brother when he was a child. Their parents never talked about it, and he thought it was his fault because he used to tease his brother. The film is very heavy and oppressive…until the sheep-shearing scene. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a sheep sheared (I haven’t) but the sheep is sitting on its hind legs, held between the shearer’s legs as he bends over it and runs the clippers over it. The sheep struggles now and then. In the film, it is one extended take, in slow-motion, of the man shearing the sheep, as a woman in voiceover reads a long list of the stages of grief. It sounds simple, and it is, but I was sobbing by the time the scene was over. Sobbing. The shearing is certainly something the sheep doesn’t want done, but in this context, in slow-motion, with the grief stages being read in voiceover, it gives the impression of someone flailing and struggling with grief while someone holds them, caresses them, forcibly sloughs off their pain and baggage, revealing the pink and tender skin beneath. And the sheep finally totters off, naked and vulnerable, like someone who has been through a particularly gut-wrenching therapy session, newly sensitive to everything around him.
  • My pick for best of the fest would be the same as the jury’s pick: Darwin’s Nightmare. It is an incredibly upsetting film that exposes the way Europe (and Russia, but there didn’t seem to be any Americans) exploits Tanzania for its fish. Perch, to be exact. Tanzania on the one hand is glad that the foreigners want their fish–it’s brought jobs to the area. But the Tanzanians are still starving, they can’t afford the very fish they catch and sell to the foreigners, and the film gets into all of the intricate ways the fishing industry is exploiting and destroying the area. It is a political film that focuses on the small, intimate details more than the big ones: the young boys savagely fighting each other for a handful of rice, in a town overrun by rich Europeans taking fish from their waters. The mother who is grateful for her job of airing out decaying fish carcasses (while standing in a pool of mud and maggots). The prostitutes visited by European and Russian pilots. The prostitute who was killed by one of them. The children in the alleys sniffing glue made from melted fish packaging. It goes on and on and on.
  • A few tips from a panel called “Working the Festival Circuit”. First, and this was actually one tip I knew from working with the Boston Jewish Film Festival: don’t make a film that is 50 minutes to an hour long. It is an awkward length and is difficult to program at festivals. Make a short film or a feature. That said, festivals do often show some hour-long films, but it better be good if it’s going to be that length. A short film can be run in a shorts package or before a feature, but an hour-long film is not going to be run before a feature and is too long to be part of a shorts package. Something to consider. Another interesting point that came out of the panel was some concern among filmmakers that festival programmers get all their films from other festivals and rarely accept films that are blindly submitted, therefore when they send in their $50 submission fee, they are really only subsidizing the festival. This is a legitimate concern that was sort of dodged by the festival people on the panel. I spoke with a festival director later in the week, and he admitted that filmmakers should be concerned. But he added that every programmer would love to get a great film in the mail, submitted blindly. It just doesn’t happen often. This is an interesting issue to me because it is currently a controversial issue in the poetry world as well, where some poets are criticizing poetry contests that they say are “fixed”–you send in your submission fee but usually the prize goes to friends of the judges or well-known poets. There’s a whole website devoted to it.
  • It seemed I gravitated toward foreign films at the festival, and among those there seemed to be a theme of divisions/walls/barriers. First there was Podul Peste Tisa, a Romanian film about a bridge between Romania and the Ukraine that was demolished by retreating Germans at the end of WWII and was never repaired, separating families for as much as 50 years. Some yell across the river to each other as their only form of communication. The film follows the saga of attempts to rebuild the bridge–so much red tape that the bridge, now built, is still closed and no one is allowed to cross. Another film about divisions/walls was Good Times, about the wall built by Israel in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem. Again this is a political film that focuses on the minutiae: the old muslim women struggling to climb over the first incarnation of the wall which was short and crumbling, the Israeli soldiers haphazardly enforcing the barrier, at times joking with the crossing Palestinians, the shop owners who depend on business from people of both sides crossing the border, and, finally, the silence and desolation after a new 8-foot wall with no breaks is built to replace the old crumbling one.

  • Grizzly Man. I have surprisingly little to say about this one. I was very excited to see him in person, but I was not bowled over by the film. Treadwell is clearly insane, but I was a bit irritated with Herzog’s treatment of him. Herzog acted as if he knew the man inside and out, kept comparing him to Klaus Kinski on the set of Aguirre the Wrath of God, claimed Treadwell was related to Aguirre–it was as if Herzog was claiming ownership, or paternity, and lamenting his child’s silly attitude about nature, an attitude that got him killed, and if he only were as smart as Herzog he would have survived. But in reality, Treadwell did survive for 13 years with the Grizzlies. That fact is not felt in the film. And he did know exactly how dangerous it was, he said it many times, he told loved ones that if he never returned, it was what he wanted. He had mental problems and couldn’t handle the world of people, and if he wanted to die with the Grizzlies, who is Herzog to say that’s wrong? Or worse, to claim that he didn’t understand the danger of his situation? Herzog’s pursuit of Treadwell and his claims to understand him better than anyone else (his exact words), to have a special bond with him, are much like Treadwell’s claims to know and understand the Grizzly better than anyone else. And both are equally naive, I think. Both overly romanticize their subjects. Treadwell studies and tracks the Grizzly, Herzog studies and tracks what Tarkovsky called the “holy fool”. The film is more like a letter to Treadwell than a work of art, a bit didactic and over the top, and not the mysterious work of art that Herzog’s older documentaries like Land of Silence and Darkness are. Maybe as artists age they don’t have time any more for subtlety.

That’s all I can muster for now, but I’m sure I’ll have Silverdocs spasms here and there in the near future.

More Patton Oswalt

know this is cultural suicide, for me to admit that I can’t stand the
fucking noise anymore. I have friends who are kissing their mid-40’s
who’ve decided, out of desperation and fear of death, that they’re 22
years old forever, and could ya turn it UUUUUPP??? Whoooo! They’ll
sacrifice clarity of thought and peace of mind and a lot of other shit
so they can fool themselves into thinking they’re still riding the
crest of the Youth Wave.

idiots. I can’t wait to be an old man. And to speed that process along,
I’ve got my pair of Howard Leight earplugs and a pair of Bose
noise-canceling headphones. ‘Cuz I’m in revolt. ‘Cuz I DON’T WANT TO

when you’re twenty, and still young and sexy, it’s a good thing to have
the music loud. ‘Cuz you’re not going to impress anyone by saying
something startling or original or truly funny. That’s the age when you
rely on your looks. Or, if you look the way I did at twenty, you become
a comedian, so you have a spotlight on you and a microphone in front of
your yap, so you have a fighting chance.

Comedian Blogger

Patton Oswalt has a blog. A real live frequently-updated personal blog. He’s the guy on the Comedians of Comedy tour with Brian Posehn and Zach Galifianakis (and also a regular on King of Queens). I learned of the blog when watching the film about them at Silverdocs, where in one scene Brian and Patton are poking around a comic book store in Portland, Ore., and Zach (who was not supposed to be in town yet) suddenly walks by. They ask him how he found them, and Zach says “I read Patton’s blog.”

I’m writing this in the van as we idle in the Comfort Inn parking lot, waiting for everyone to load up. Dave, Brian and Zach went out last night, but Ole Grandpa Oswalt was feeling sleepy-bye and went to bed. Not that I slept, since Comfort Inn fills their mattresses with random pipes, wrenches and geodes.

Later today I will have my final Silverdocs wrap-up post, assuming the Internet Gods don’t fuck me over again and eat my post.


I just wrote a looooooong post about several films at Silverdocs and
the Internet ate it. Gone. Every word. I am bereft. I must sleep now.

Silverdocs Wrap-Up, Part 1

It was a great gift running into my old friend D at Silverdocs. Not only is it wonderful to have a companion for the week when you are expecting to be solo (especially one who says things like “Oh Ceerock, I’ve missed that laugh…”), but also because it turns out he is now well-connected. After we chatted a bit he stood up and said “Are you ready to meet a lot of people?” And he wasn’t kidding. I met many people and did much more socializing than I would have if I’d been on my own. But the way he introduced me was always amusing. He may be well-connected, but he is not at all wired. He is yet another of my friends who doesn’t understand (or care about) blogs. He introduced me to Eugene Hernandez of indieWire, for example, and I said to him “I’m a blogger.” Simultaneously Eugene lit up and said “Really? Which one? I love bloggers!” while D said “Oh don’t be so modest … she also writes for Cineaste.”

A theme that seemed to emerge at the festival, at least in discussions with filmmakers and film subjects, was art vs. commerce. I spoke to South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane (Story of a Beautiful Country), who told me he had just shot a TV commercial and felt ashamed at how easy it was, how little he had to care for it, and how much money he got for it. I said that many artists use these kinds of commercial projects to subsidize the art that they really care about, and brought in the example of John Cassavetes, the “father” of indie film, who pioneered that business model by taking crappy but well-paying acting jobs in Hollywood to finance his wholly self-made films. But Khalo would not be consoled. “It stamps my soul,” he said.

The next day, on the aforementioned comedy panel (which, in in addition to Brian Posehn and Zach the great, included Paul Provenza, Gilbert Godfried, Judy Gold, and Fred Willard), the discussion turned to the commercial success the comedians have had in sitcoms and other TV shows. Posehn (who was on Just Shoot Me and who is possibly the most well-adjusted comedian I have ever seen) saw no problem with the kind of schizo art/commercial approach to work. “You do stand-up to save your soul, and you take other gigs to pay the bills.”

And I previously mentioned Penelope Spheeris’ struggles with her commercial success. She even said in her keynote address that she hates money and doesn’t understand why anyone would want it, it’s only given her more headaches than she had when she was poor. She at times preached the “do exactly what you want and don’t think about money,” gospel, and at other times sounded like a Hollywood pro telling the filmmakers in the audience not to ever start a film before having the money and plan in place for distribution. But even though she seemed pained about her commercial success, the millions it gave her have now positioned her to make exactly the film she wants. Soul-stamp or no.

Silverdocs Winners

Here’s the list of winners at Silverdocs. I am very pleased that Darwin’s Nightmare won the jury prize–it’s a compelling and very upsetting film about the Nile Perch fishing industry and the way it exploits Africans. Though it made me glad to see that at least America isn’t the only asshole country in the world. Europe can be just as bad. More on this film in a bit.
Short Film Honorable Mention
GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA directed by Kimberlee Acquaro, Stacy Sherman
FLAG DAY directed by Kristy Higby

Short Film Award
POSITIVELY NAKED directed by Arlene Donnelly Nelson, David Nelson

Honorable Mentions, Feature
ROMANTICO directed by Mark Becker
HOME directed by Jeffrey Togman

Sterling Award
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE directed by Hubert Sauper

More Comedians

I’m just back from the Netflix party at Silverdocs, where I got to shake the hand of my man Zach. Here he is on the panel after the film. Blurry. Netflix provided some financial backing for Comedians of Comedy, so apparently they are getting into the filmmaking game these days. They also sponsored the party for the comedians, which took place at the Silver Spring Moose Lodge, which had authentic Moose members sitting around the bar intimidating all us youngsters. We were also greeted at the door by tattooed men who demanded we sign in to their guest book before entering. And while four of us were sitting around a table, a large man in a cowboy hat walked over to us and reached across the table–far across it–and put his cigarette out on the plate of the guy sitting next to me. Actually he put the cigarette out on a half-eaten pork rib on his plate. Right on the rib. He had finished eating, but that was definitely a marking-my-territory move. He had to reach over the whole table to get to the plate. Then he walked away, leaving the half-extinguished butt blowing smoke into my face.

I skipped the closing night film, which was a documentary about James Dean that I’m sure we’ll be seeing on A&E or some such channel eventually. But I went to the after-party for it, (separate from the Netflix party) which took place at Discovery Headquarters and had all kinds of caviar and cheeses and other fancy stuff I didn’t recognize. No tattooed pissing contests here. This has been a fantastic festival and I’ve met a lot of great people, one of whom is a blogger. I’ll be returning to Boston with many new contacts and some great memories and a lot of films to write about. More to come…

Silverdocs: Closing Night

Comedians of Comedy

I have a thing for funny guys. I always have. So I just watched a film that for me is like porn: The Comedians of Comedy. I am now in love with Zach Galifianakis, who is a fucking genius, and the kind of guy I know I should stay away from but which still unfortunately draws me like moth to fire, flies to honey, insert cliche here. He is at this moment sitting a few yards away from me on a comedy panel along with Brian Posehn and Patton Oswalt, whom I also now have crushes on. But Zach, oh Zach, he’s got the crazy charismatic magic. He does a bit dressed as a white-wigged 18th century dandy who has lines like “Is this thing on? What is this thing?” or “Am I the only one who’s sick of Ben Franklin? Electricity? WHAT THE FUCK IS HE TALKING ABOUT?” I have pictures too, but they’ll have to wait until I can get home and upload them.

The film is no brilliant concert film–in fact I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t get into the darker side of comedy and of comedians. Zach a few times mentions that he thinks he has a mental disorder, that they all do, but the film doesn’t seem interested in getting any deeper than that. I don’t know if it’s because these are just very happy and well-adjusted comedians (there’s no such thing) or that the filmmaker just didn’t want to go there. Probably the latter. But as a showcase for some fantastic and really creative comedians, it’s definitely worth seeing.

Keeping Silver Spring Safe

Three Sold Out Shows

That’s the line going around the block…

More soon…

Notes From the Cinema Lounge

So much going on and so little time to blog. I’ve seen many films and
will see many more, and am still eagerly anticipating seeing Herzog the
Man tomorrow and his film Grizzly Man.
They added an extra screening of the film and both are sold out. But
the biggest news for me is that I ran into someone I know, someone very
special and someone I haven’t seen in 4 years, and got the biggest
longest bear hug I’ve ever had in my life. How random to run into him
here, though not so random since we do similar things. This is the last
place I’d expected to see anyone I know, but there his name was on one
of the conference panels. Meeting old friends again is a wonderful
thing. Right now I am hanging out in the Cinema Lounge in between
screenings–I’ve just seen the great You’re Gonna Miss Me and am off in a few minutes to catch Abel Raises Cain.
More on those in a bit. The Lounge has been outfitted as a disco for
tonight’s party festivities. I’ll say this–AFI puts on a fancy
festival. I’ve been well-fed and taken care of here. More film
discussion soon …

Silverdocs: Day 1

Greetings from the Silverdocs Cinema Lounge, with free food and free wi-fi and free tepid air conditioning. Opening Night festivities were pretty Big Time, with a red carpet and flashing lights and heavy police presence and everything. Half of the experience here for me is the experience of a “revitalized” Silver Spring–the town had for a long time been very neglected and run down was a bit of a cultural wasteland and social ghost town, but once AFI moved here from downtown D.C., along with The Discovery Channel, the city has a whole new face. I’m not convinced of the revitalization, though that may just be because I knew the old Silver Spring for so long. But to me the “new” Silver Spring seems to be a facade. There are many artificially constructed social spaces, and the city looks like one big mall now–Borders and every big restaurant chain in the world are all here in a 2-block radius, all with clean new brick and glass storefronts and cobbled-brick pathways. Maybe it’s just too new to feel city-ish, I don’t know. Maybe age is what makes a city. It needs dirt. Especially when I know of the dirt that is lying just beneath (or just 2 blocks away from) the polished new facade. To quote some Cassavetes film I can’t quite recall: “It’s like a good smell trying to cover up a bad smell.” And I think the main problem is that corporations aren’t what makes a city cool. It’s always the migration of artists that gives birth to a new “cool” area. If you start off with corporations you get the soulless sanitized city that Silver Spring now is. I think I will write to Doug Duncan and tell him to give rent breaks to artists if he wants to make his “revitalization” authentic. A bunch of yuppies sitting around a fountain outside Macaroni Grille does not a city make.

Meanwhile, as for the Opening Night film, it was an entertaining one, but it is exemplary of what is wrong with the current craze about documentary film. The film was Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, which takes a social/historical look at the rise of Midnight Movies, from El Topo to Rocky Horror. It’s a subject that I’m certainly sympathetic to, but as a film it is more like journalism or an educational film than art. It’s an entertaining but straightforward film, like so many documentaries today. The subject matter is what makes the film, not the filmmaking itself. I enjoyed the film, but I’m hoping to find at least a few exceptions to this trend in the festival this week. I’m hoping there are some emerging Fred Wisemans or Ricky Leacocks out there who are making documentaries with some vision. I’ll let you know if I find any.

Speaking of vision, I just heard Penelope Spheeris deliver the keynote address, and her story is like a careful-what-you-wish-for tale of the downside of commercial success. She is now a millionaire after directing Wayne’s World and a few other corny comedies, but her long pre-Wayne’s World history was all about independent vision and punk rock. She made The Decline of Western Civilization and many of the first music videos, but through her unfortunate friendship with Lorne Michaels was asked to make Wayne’s World. And after that, she was unable to ever do anything again but silly comedies. She got millions of dollars for each one, but it was the only work she could get. She told the story of her recent redemption, though–she went to Burning Man and someone slipped her some sort of drug and after a night of paranoid fits, she woke up and decided to change her life. She decided to go back to documentary film, and turned down corny film after corny film–George of the Jungle, Legally Blonde, Dr.Doolittle. Of course now she’s a millionaire and better able to make exactly the film she wants, so I guess success ain’t all that bad. She was very cool though–a scatterbrained old hippy with lots of funny stories to tell.

Back Online

Just back from Opening Night of Silverdocs, and finally have restored web access after an unfortunate incident with Logan’s free wi-fi network. Will blog more later about the night’s festivities. But a note about the weather: having a film festival in June in Maryland is not a good idea. It’s so hot here today that they closed D.C. public schools for the day. It’s over 100, with humidity so thick it’s more like you’re wading than walking. This is what I grew up with–completely air-conditioned summers and homeless people dying of heat stroke on the streets of D.C. This is why I have always hated summer. What’s to like? Only when I moved to Boston did I learn that summers didn’t have to be that way. Until this past week in Boston, that is.

Setting the Record Straight

In the film Overnight, which is a documentary about the well-deserved downfall of first-time filmmaker and raging narcissist Troy Duffy, there is a scene that takes place in a Boston University film class. This was a class taught by Ray Carney and attended by yours truly. Duffy is speaking to our class about his film, Boondock Saints, which he finally got made but his studio buried it and no distributors wanted to buy it. So he was bitter. And already had a working-class Boston chip on his shoulder, and a grudge against what he probably percieved was a bunch of privileged film students with opportunities he never had.

There is a shot in this scene where Duffy points to and insults a member of the class. The reaction shot after he lobs this insult is of a young male student. This is incorrect. The person he was actually insulting was *me*. But they had only one camera in the room and it was on Duffy, so I guess in the editing room they had to choose someone to be the recipient of the insult, and they chose this kid Elon. But don’t be fooled. It was me. There are no shots of me in the scene though. In one you can see my hair, but none of my face.

But beyond my own connection, it’s an interesting film. Partly for the schadenfreude, I suppose, but mostly because of the fact that the filmmakers started out as Duffy’s friends, making a happy movie about his good luck in getting a film deal, and eventually, as he begins to alienate everyone around him, the film takes a turn and we see the friends/filmmakers’ opinion of the man (and the tone of the film) change, in real time, as Duffy’s belligerence gets worse and worse. By the end of the film it’s clear the filmmakers are no longer Duffy’s friends. And I would hate to have been in the room with Duffy when he saw this film, assuming he saw it.

The structure or arc of the film is somewhat similar to DiG!, though I’d say DiG! is a better film. And the raging personality disorder of Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre is actually much worse (and more creative) than that of Duffy. And it follows that Newcombe is more of an artist as well. Newcombe is a hippy with a personality disorder, Duffy is a Masshole with a personality disorder. But somehow the music world is more supportive of its psychotics, and Newcombe is still making music independently. The film world, though, left Duffy blackballed and unemployable.

At least according to this film. I think a personality like that is, for better or worse, irrepressible, and we will be hearing more of him eventually.

Postscript: A good interview with the directors of Overnight about Duffy and his reaction to the film is here.

Herzog on Godard

“Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.”

Do I have to give back my master’s degree if I say I agree? I hate Godard.

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