Friday, September 29, 2006
"The Christmas Invasion" & "New Earth" by Russell T Davies
Doctor Who must be the only show that can dish up slaughtering Santas and killer Christmas trees in such a manner that you don’t instinctively reach for the remote, but instead surrender to its kitschy convictions: It tacks a silent “f” onto “universe”...
Read the rest of this double-sized recap by clicking here and heading over to The House Next Door.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
RR: Something you said to me in your very first e-mail: In Firecracker, David is Jimmy's father. That’s big, Steve. Now I'm no Firecracker authority (although I may be getting there), but I never got this upon viewing the film, and when I read that, it blindsided me. I asked my friend Don, with whom I saw the film, and it also escaped him. If this was your intention, I'm not sure it comes through – and yet it puts a huge spin on the film's events.
SB: It's less important whether or not a viewer consciously thinks "Oh, David is Jimmy's father" than it is he leaves the film with an unsettling feeling about the triangle of Jimmy, David and Eleanor. Viewers who watch closely will sense the fear and sexual tension that exists between David and Eleanor and will wonder if Jimmy is a result of that, given his age and the health of Mr. White. I didn't want the average viewer to be hit over the head with a hammer with respect to this tension and the possibility of David being responsible for Jimmy's paternity. That which is alluded to is far more powerful than that which is simply stated.
So many of our visual stories bash people in the head with statements and it's making people brainless. Televised sports are one of the biggest troublemakers. Studio films geared towards a younger audience are the second. From a very young age we learn to watch something and not think. While we're watching sports, announcers are shouting at us to tell us what we're seeing. As if that weren't enough, after we've seen it and been told what we saw, we're shown the exact same thing again, but this time in slow motion. The announcers once again tell us what we're watching and sometimes repeat this process two or three times.
Firecracker is filled with hidden meaning, symbolism and poetry. It's one of those stories that you can find something new in any time you watch it. I've had people tell me that they didn't start fitting it together until the third time they saw it. One person said it's like an opera, or classical piece of music - with each listen a person will hear new notes, new instruments, and gather new meaning. I'm very proud that the film confronts people having to think for themselves.
RR: Mike Patton offered to do the score for Firecracker, but you turned him down. Why? Patton has such a following, that in addition to his performance in the movie, it seems that having an accomplished musician doing the score would've been a huge coup, both from an artistic and a financial standpoint.
SB: This wasn’t Evita. To say that it would be a coup artistically is incorrect. Mike’s musical aesthetic was not what I was looking for. I appreciate what he’s doing and I’m a huge fan of his personally, but I don’t like listening to his music. Ironic, eh? He did send me a Cole Porter cover he did so I could include it on the soundtrack. If we ever release one, maybe I’ll include it. But in the film, it didn’t work. I needed to have what I ended up using. His participation musically would not have changed the outcome financially.
RR: Firecracker allegedly had a $2 million budget. You tell me now that since the film has been sold, you'd like people to know that the budget was actually a little over $300,000. I understand the logic at work there, but how were you able to make this film for so little? How can you pay talent like Karen Black, Mike Patton, Susan Traylor and indeed the vast size of your entire cast and crew over an 8-week period for that kind of money? And why inflate the budget to $2 mill? Why not $1 mill?
SB: Yes, it’s always a good idea to tell your buyer your product cost more than it actually did. Many people we spoke to in the industry said our movie looks like it cost $4M. I suppose had we shot it anyplace else, and had we hired all of the work done instead of doing it ourselves, it might have cost that much. But Kansas is a right-to-work state, we did a lot of our own labor for free, all the cast was paid scale and took deferred pay, the crew were made up mostly of interns, and all the props, cars, homes, etc., were donated. We paid key personnel a little something, but compared to industry people, it’s miniscule. Have you seen the making-of documentary? Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere shows how we did it for the most part. One of the gypsy wagon trailers only cost $158. I went scouring the junkyards for free materials and built them myself. I’ll send you a budget/expense report for Firecracker, which you are free to publish (click here and here).
Obviously we had above the line expenses. Such costs as actor travel, cast compensation, cast living expenses and such were a part of the film’s overall costs. However, we did everything we could to reduce these expenses and keep them low. From deferred compensation for actors and producers to a donated copy machine to make scripts, we squeezed as much as possible on above the line costs. All “above the line” expenses equaled $20,699. I have this figure combined because some actors received more than others and some none at all.
RR: You grew up in a small town. You live in a small town. You make your movies in a small town. Both films you’ve made are set in small towns. Do you have any interest in exploring big city life in your work? Most artists can’t wait to get out of the small towns they grow up in.
SB: Most artists can’t wait to escape themselves, regardless of where they’re living. When I learned to respect myself, I realized that the message of The Wizard of Oz is a truth: if you can’t find it in your own back yard you aren’t going to find it anywhere at all.
I’m interested in exploring realities and ideas that mean something to me no matter where they happen. Being where I am is always more interesting to me than being someplace I’m not. I do not desire to be not where I am. Basically, I understand that the grass is greener when I’m standing on it. Last fall when I spent some time in Europe, I experienced some pretty amazing things. Naturally I got my notebook out and decided to develop a movie to capture those feelings. I’ll shoot that in Europe. I’ve also recently been approached by a production studio in Germany who wants me to direct a surrealist film in Munich. I think it’d be a great experience and opportunity. I’m also kicking around some projects to do here in the USA, and of course, here in Wamego.
RR: How do the other residents perceive you and what you do in Wamego? What’s the general consensus of the movie by the rest of the town?
SB: Before Firecracker came out I had a private screening for many of the local people. Many of the people who were there on the alley when they dug up the body were still alive. Several of the supporting characters depicted were based on real people who were still alive. So I had them all to see it. I was nervous they would say, “oh I never did that,” or, “that isn’t what happened,” but they were stunned, emotional and loved it. I think they weren’t prepared for it to be as dark as it was, but they all knew the story just as well as any of us who made it—after all, they lived it.
RR: Is Larry the Cable Guy big in Wamego? Do they still play reruns of Mama’s Family on the local affiliate station? (Note to readers: Having myself grown up in a town smaller than Wamego, these are perfectly valid questions.)
SB: I feel like this question is meant to assassinate my character. I don’t watch television unless it’s the evening news or something educational, like History channel or PBS. So I’m not sure what reruns play. In addition to indoor plumbing, you can get Tivo in Wamego, too, so you’re able to watch what you want.
To explain why I live in Wamego, Kansas, let me tell you the story of one of the local businesses. Half a century ago, the blacksmith started up a construction equipment business and their steel supplier was in Kansas City. One day the steel supplier said to him, “You know, if you guys are ever going to be successful, you have to move to Kansas City”. His response was that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard, and, “we’ll show them!” Well, 40 years later when the company was sold to Caterpillar and became a subsidiary of a Fortune Top 50 Industrial Corporation, it was the largest designer, producer and seller of specialized mining attachments in the world. Today, fifteen years after CAT’s purchase, it is still headquartered in Wamego, Kansas.
RR: You seem to have an unusually supportive family, especially for a small town guy with a big vision. How much of your success do you owe to them?
SB: All of it! I was raised with these values and this outlook on life. I was taught to listen to myself instead of my neighbors, churches, governments or others. I was taught to be me and I was encouraged to trust my own instincts. Sure, there are always moments when someone’s childhood was shitty or their teen years filled with angst. But it was more interesting to be around my family and learn about my history. I come back to not having that grass is greener syndrome. Susan Traylor had the same kind of family growing up as I did. She always said her friends would beg her to go out and whatever and she’s say, “but it’s more exciting to stay at home.” And, I understand what she means!
My father has a remarkably bright sense of business and management but he has also been interested in the arts. There was a time a few years ago when he was president of the Kansas Arts Commission. When it came time for me to find investors, he knew the people to approach, and taught me how to build a business plan, find investors, and accomplish my goals. Without his help it would’ve taken me much longer. He knew how I could approach the woman in Topeka who ended up investing in Firecracker. Without that knowledge, I might not have found the financing I needed.
RR: It’s rare to hear a younger filmmaker talk about film with such disinterest. You seem to even dismiss the great films of the ‘70s - a decade that almost any film buff or critic will say produced some of the very best and most important films ever created. Don’t you think it would be at all beneficial to have your finger somewhat more on the pulse of what other filmmakers are doing and or to at least experience films that are considered the standards by which all should be measured?
SB: Mike Patton and I have discussed how people seem to miss this, but, when you are a heart surgeon and you spend all day in surgery, the last thing you want to do is come home and watch E.R.
I don’t dismiss what Cassavetes did, or the others. I think what they did was great! But the raw realism he’s known for is not what I’m going for. If they don’t speak to me, they don’t speak to me. Inspirations for Firecracker were found in art, religion and fantasy. I would rather be inspired by a Magritte painting so much so that I build an entire cinematic sequence about a kid seeing the back of his head in a mirror.
I don’t have to watch their movies in order to understand what I see and what I’m doing. Of course I’ve seen some movies made in the '70s. I appreciate any movie ever made but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sure, I can appreciate any movie, but to say they are the standard by which all others should be measured is false. There is no such thing.
My self-assurance often comes off like arrogance, but when people take a moment to really listen, they understand it’s simply self-assurance. I don’t need to apologize for it.
RR: OK, Steve…I forgot about the “other” elephant in the room: I really, really disliked your movie and wrote a scathing – even borderline cruel – online review. I’ve even gone so far as to say that I do not even see what other people see in your movie (although clearly many see quite a bit). And I like weird movies, Steve. From a conceptual standpoint, Firecracker should be the kind of film that I sleep with a DVD copy of under my pillow at night. Aside from me being a possible dullard, do you have any theories as to why I do not “get” your movie? Is it at all important to you that anyone “get” and/or like your movie? If Firecracker hadn’t gotten raves from people like Ebert and mags like Film Threat, would you ever put up with a guy like me?
SB: I don’t like enabling a “what if” frame of mind. The facts remain what they are. If you define Ebert’s praise as validation what you are really saying is that you would need Ebert’s validation as the gauge for a success or failure. But, I define my own validation based on the fact I listened to myself and no one else (I was my own critic). Ross, you have the right to see whatever you want – never let anyone take that away from you.
I don’t make movies to please people. I make movies to be true to myself. So while I love that you dislike my movie, the idea of constructive criticism, like I mentioned earlier, doesn’t exist. I respect that you have an opinion especially if it’s true to who you are, but it doesn’t make a difference to me what your opinion is of my work directly. Your strong reaction to my work is wonderful, regardless!
I am not ashamed of my work and I'm never going to feel ashamed. I do not regret my work, nor do I regret anything I've done; nor do I feel that I should be blamed. I'm never going to deserve any kind of blame for continuing the art and culture of our time. I feel very confident in who I am personally and what my vision of any given subject is professionally. I know what my capabilities are. So I try and just focus on that. I can’t really control what goes on in other people, or how their perspectives contrast based on their own experiences or prejudices. I can just do the best job I can. There’s nothing I can do about how you see the world, art, other people or yourself.
RR: You are bold and courageous, Steve; I honestly believe most filmmakers would have told me to fuck off – or even worse, ignore me altogether. What are we doing here and why are you giving me the time of day?
SB: If everyone understood the laws of individual perception, there would be no conflict. You and I can have a conversation, for instance. PETA would understand that the geese at a foie gras farm do not see the world the way they do, and they could stand next to the farmers without having to get him to “see it their way.” Pro-Life people hiding outside the abortion clinic waiting to murder the doctors would go home because they would understand their views weren’t the right way and only way. I can go on and on.
I wanted to talk to you because it’s important that people really understand that every single person on this planet has their own individual viewpoint. It’s also important for artists to understand that no matter what you do there will always be people who hate you and hate what you’re doing, as well as people who love you and love what you’re doing. That is truth. Sometimes it’s fun to stir things up to get people thinking.
Perhaps most filmmakers would tell you to fuck off or cry their eyes out because they are insecure about their own viewpoints. Perhaps they are living in a two-dimensional view of the world. Will they begin to grasp the idea of individual perception? Or will they still exist in a world where they try to please everyone, where they define their perspectives based on what other people tell them to see, and use whatever measures necessary to insist that their view is the only one out there? We’ll see.
“Your attitudes toward filmmaking are so far fucking out there that they deserve wider exposure.” – Ross to Steve in an e-mail dated Sept. 11th, 2006
There were probably a dozen different reasons I took Steve up on his interview offer, but chief among them was the above quote. You need look no further than the talkback for Part One of the interview to see that Balderson’s words can really piss people off. Most filmmakers are diplomatic in print or on a DVD commentary track; they may enlighten or bore, but they almost never make the blood boil.
Up until tonight, my intention was to write a third and final piece called "How I Learned to Stop Bombing 'Firecracker' and Love Steve Balderson". It would've been full of all sorts of philmic philosophizing and was intended to be about what I got out of this process...but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed pointless. I asked some questions, Steve answered them. The only thing that should be important is what the reader got out of it.
I still don't like Firecracker, and the Lynch accusations aside, I pretty much stand by my original thoughts. But after Steve dropped the nuclear bomb of its true cost, I've got a lot more respect for its visual aspects. For $300,000, it's a convincing looker of a period piece. And the talent he was able to get to rally behind his vision for next to nothing is most impressive. He's a true independent spirit successfully working outside the Hollywood system and he should continue avoiding that path. He's got a such a strong sense of what he wants, I'm not sure Hollywood would ever let him through the door anyway.
I do not consider myself a critic, even if others do. I live with a professional TV critic, and daily see the difference. I'm just a screenwriter with a blog and a desire to type opinions when I've got the time. Frankly, it's flattering that my words hit Steve hard enough to contact me in the first place. What's disturbing though, is it took an overwhelmingly negative review of someone's work to get a someone to contact me, as I don't particularly care to write negative criticism (which speaks of Firecracker's possible power). It's usually easier to pull something apart than it is to point out what's holding it together.
As entertaining as this has been, I'll be overjoyed the day I'm contacted by someone whose work I gushed about requests an interview. And if that person is Steve Balderson, I'll be even happier.
For some great thoughts on criticism, check out this recent piece from Jim Emerson's Scanners.
Thanks to Steve for hunting me down and offering the interview and to Don Walheim for dragging me to Austin to see Firecracker last November.
Friday, September 22, 2006
2. J.T. Street penned a rockin' piece on Gloria Steinem. Check it out and chime in.
3. Jackass: Number Two opens today. What does this say, if anything, about our culture?
4. Jackie Chan has admitted to once starring in a porn flick. Is it noteworthy that one of his co-stars in the film was Sammo Hung? Or that the author of the article is named Winny Wang? (You can't make this stuff up, folks.)
5. Church's, Popeye's or KFC?
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
My critique [click here to read it] more or less accused Steve of ripping off David Lynch, having no original vision, and of basically creating one of the worst independent films I’d seen in years.
The insistence that Firecracker was merely a pieced together jigsaw work of Lynch’s canon was central to everything I wrote, and the first half of the interview stems from that assumption/assertion.
Lest you think this is some puff piece or an apology, I told Steve the only way this could work is if I approached it from the same place as before – as someone who intensely disliked his film. He agreed, and without further buildup…
Ross Ruediger: Let's get the elephant (man?) out of the room right off the bat, Steve. In your first e-mail to me, you said "I haven't seen most of David Lynch's work. I saw 20 minutes of Blue Velvet when I was at CalArts because I had to dissect a scene for my professor." So what of Lynch's work have you seen?
Steve Balderson: I’ve seen Lost Highway and The Straight Story all the way through. I’ve seen bits of his other work, but not enough to have a complete grasp of what they’re about.
RR: Which 20 minutes of Blue Velvet did you see?
SB: It was more than a decade ago when I dissected Blue Velvet. The scene was the first moment Jeffrey and Sandy meet. I really loved the symbolism of Sandy appearing out of the blackness, glowing as if she were an angel. I always loved that. I liked learning about the motion of the backwards steadicam, the POV shots of the trees, the street, their dialogue. It’s a very simple sequence and one that I imagine is very good to show young film students. Instead of simply showing the characters standing still and talking, motion was the trick. As long as the camera is moving, we, the audience, feel a sense of going someplace, so we have calmness. When it stands still we begin to have anxiety. Understanding this effect and being able to apply it when you want to create calm or anxiety are good tools for any filmmaker.
RR: You said you'd envisioned a cameo for David Lynch early on in the scripting process, but cut the character before filming. Why would you be interested in using someone like Lynch at all if you weren't a fan of or familiar with most of his work?
SB: Because I could foresee people comparing our work. I’m going through a similar thing now. For instance, I’m putting together a screwball comedy starring, among others, Mink Stole. I love that woman and think she’s divine (no pun intended)! The character she is playing is based on my Aunt, who looks and behaves just like her! Never mind it has nothing to do with John Waters. But I know precisely what certain critics will say, so the idea has come to me to see about a role for John Waters. It just sort of shuts some people up. But, again, for every person who shuts up there will be another who hollers. So I’m not going to deliberately put John Waters in my movie unless he’s right for it.
RR: Since the release of Firecracker, why haven't you been driven to check out more of Lynch's work, given that your film has been so frequently compared (both positively and negatively) to his films?
SB: I watch a lot of films made from the 1930s through the 1960s, but very rarely will I watch a film made in the last fifty years. I’d rather experience a song, go to a museum or watch educational programs on television. I am curious about many things, but when someone says my movie reminds them of another film, I don’t desire to go out and watch that film. I am fully aware of my vision and have total clarity when it comes down to understanding my perspective on any given subject. I have no desire to see how I measure up with other people. I think a lot of people who are insecure with their perception will compare themselves to what other people are doing. The secret is to look inside oneself for the answers, not turn to text books, churches, governments, family or neighbors.
Some will say it’s important to take constructive criticism and to consider what someone else is saying. While I agree it teaches me much about how that person views the world, it doesn’t do anything for me as a filmmaker. You see, if I were to take into account how someone else sees my movie, and what I “could do better” – what’s that person is really saying is “here are the things you can do which will enable me to appreciate your work.” But that would mean I put my vision aside and focus on choices that will please him. By doing so, I’ve denied my own perspective of something and thus will alienate viewers who would have otherwise appreciated what I did originally.
In a broader scope, this is the problem with the world today. We are taught at a very young age to pick something apart and to describe what we would do instead. Or, how would we create something from our points of view. But if we enable that way of thinking, we are also enabling something in ourselves, which gives us self-doubt and fuels the act of second-guessing. Because we’ll always be aware that someone else would do it differently. I think that’s part of the problem. Too often people get used to letting other people think for them.
It is true that no matter what you do there will be a percentage of people who dislike it, hate you, and hate anything you do. If we understand that, we can, instead, focus on being true to our own ideas, without any outside input, and make the work as we see it. There will always be a percentage of people who love what you do and appreciate it no matter what it is. For every person who adores something there will be another who dislikes it.
RR: So obviously you’ve got definite opinions on criticism as an art form.
SB: If they are going to continue teaching Film Criticism, or Art Criticism, in schools, the professors owe it to human kind to also teach respect for what it is we’re looking at. Yes, we can do it this way or that way, but the fact remains we’re missing the work if we’re constantly thinking about how we’d change it. Instead of wanting to change something, we might try to learn about what it is. I did not design and build Fallingwater. I can make the choice to waste my time talking to you about how I’d have done it my way, or I can instead use that time to understand why it was made the way it was made. Maybe I’ll learn something new along the way.
If everyone understood this truth, there would be no conflict – no war. If the Muslims understood that their way wasn't the right way and only way, they would respect that the Jews had their own set of beliefs. And, likewise. But both parties must come to the understanding. If just one party believes it, they will get killed by the other. This can be explained further as art is concerned (to the artist who wants to please the audience): if you please the Muslims, the Jews hate you; if you please the Jews, the Muslims hate you. So what can you do? = Be true to yourself. That's all any of us have.
So instead of watching other people’s movies, or taking anyone else’s perspective into consideration, I’d rather just close my eyes and learn more about my own.
RR: What led you to cast an experienced actress like Karen Black in two major roles, but cast someone like Mike Patton who has no acting experience in two of the other major roles (especially when you had the opportunity to use someone like Dennis Hopper)? I understand that a big part of your vision was the double casting, and that Hopper wasn't right for David, but it seems as if it was a huge gamble to take on someone who hadn't proven himself as an actor.
SB: Any person who can take direction and project emotion can act. It’s as simple as that. Anyone who has ever performed on stage does this all the time. Musicians make fine actors. While some people might think Patton stinks, he did exactly what I wanted him to do. He wasn’t the one making the decisions. For every person who hates his performance there is a person who loves it. I got an email last week from one person who is so in love with Mike’s performance as Frank that he has tattooed his entire back with images of Frank from the film. The guy sent me several shots so I could incorporate them into our new documentary. You’d be amazed!
I picked Mike because he was the right one aesthetically and suited my vision in movement, voice and manner perfectly. There’s a myth in this business that celebrities will help you finance your movie. That isn’t true. Yes, they may help solidify a decent distributor, but that’s about it. Dennis was in the cast for more than a year. When I realized his name wasn’t going to bring us the financing, the only thing left to consider was whether he worked artistically. And, because I couldn’t do the dual roles with Dennis, he had to go.
RR: On the subject of filmic duality, what did you think of Lost Highway?
SB: I went to the premiere of Lost Highway and at the time I remember saying that it was fantastic. I loved the atmosphere of it. I haven’t seen it since, and didn’t do any dissection of it, so I can’t comment on specifics, but I appreciated it very much.
RR: I think you’re really missing out by not watching Blue Velvet, especially if you liked what you saw. There’s a pivotal scene between Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini that Kyle MacLachlan observes through a slotted closet door that is eerily similar to the big scene in Firecracker between David, Sandra and Jimmy – and the ending of your scene is also very similar (in concept) to a exised sequence from Blue Velvet. But then again, if your sensibilities are so close to Lynch’s, do you think maybe you’d ultimately be bored by his work?
SB: I don’t think I’d be bored by his work, or anyone’s for that matter. Perhaps one day I’ll watch David’s other movies and appreciate them, too. But on the other hand, I do a great disservice to myself as an artist by watching other people’s movies—especially ones made by people with similar sensibilities. Inadvertently, when any artist takes in the work of another artist, there will be, even if you are aware to never compare yourself, a slightly unconscious reaction to compare what you are doing to what they are doing. I think that is counterproductive. For instance, say I’m inspired by a surrealist piece of art where there’s a man wearing a giant stuffed-animal costume. Let’s say I wanted to incorporate that idea into my movie. Well, some might say I stole the idea from Donnie Darko, which features a person dressed in a stuffed-animal costume. Or, others might suggest I’m trying to be David Lynch because he did the same thing with Naomi Watts dressed in a bunny outfit.
By focusing on things like that, people will fail to recognize what it is that I’ve done. Never mind I’ve never seen the David Lynch scene with Naomi Watts. Never mind that my inspiration had nothing to do with Donnie Darko. What I think would be more interesting is if one would ask the question: What drives an artist to arrive at a similar conclusion? Where did the choice originate to put someone in a stuffed-animal costume? By answering that question, and appreciating what is on screen all in and of itself, the viewer will get more out of it. The person who constantly focuses on West Side Story being nothing more than Romeo and Juliet will miss something and limit themselves from certain experiences in life. If they make the choice to do that, so be it. I don’t have to limit my experiences just because they are.
I encourage all young filmmakers to stop watching other people’s movies—at least until they’ve made a few of their own. It’s a good way to remain true to one’s own perspective. This goes for any artist. If you’re a filmmaker: read a book or go to a museum, or listen to music. If you’re a musician: watch a movie or go to a museum, or read something. If you’re a painter: go on a trip to a place you’ve never been. Perhaps this is difficult for some people to imagine – especially aspiring filmmakers – but there came a time for me to move past being a spectator into being a creator.
RR: I am not the only person who’s made the Lynch comparisons, although I may be one of the few who was so belligerent with my accusations. There must have been some kind of filmic influence on Firecracker, Steve.
SB: In Firecracker my primary inspiration comes from The Wizard of Oz. For a dreamer and artistic person who grew up in Kansas, you can’t get more personal than that story. There are two worlds in the film with the same actors playing roles in each. One place is shot in black and white and the other in vivid color. One has geometrical simplicity and the other is irregular and misshapen. One world has a kid who is feeling trapped and in the other the kid experiences freedom (though the characters and situations in that place mirror the ones back home).
Again, one can spend all ones time comparing things in life (and, trust me, everything can be found in anything that preceded before it, everyplace else: Firecracker is a direct descendant of The Wizard of Oz, which is a direct descendant of Alice in Wonderland, which, in turn, is a direct descendent of certain dream-like stories Reverend Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, recalled from the Bible.); or one can appreciate what is there, enhance living and continue forward...
Is it noteworthy that Part One of my interview with Steve ends where the Yellow Brick Road begins?
David Lynch has often cited The Wizard of Oz as being a huge influence on his work – indeed, he even loosely remade the film as 1990’s Wild At Heart. (My simplistic interpretation? Nicolas Cage’s Sailor = Dorothy, Laura Dern’s Lula = The Ruby Slippers & Diane Ladd’s Marietta = The Wicked Witch of the West; take that formula into account and numerous other parallels fall into place.)
What is perhaps even more noteworthy, per my original critique, is that not only is Wild at Heart one of the Lynch works I didn’t explicitly see in Firecracker, but it also happens to be my least favorite work of Lynch’s career (yes…I prefer Dune; David, if you're reading - my sincerest apologies). Readers are free to decipher what that may or may not mean.
I have for years asserted that the The Wizard of Oz is the single most influential film ever made; not the best, not the most important, mind you - but the most influential. I’m seeing less of that these days. Due to DVD and VHS releases, the film isn't treated as the same sort of “event” it was when I was a kid, and therefore isn’t imprinting itself on young minds as it once did (although works inspired by it must surely be, so there's probably some sort of trickle-down effect at work where Oz's influence is concerned).
Going into this interview I believed it would be difficult for Steve to show that he hadn’t plundered Lynch’s work in order to create Firecracker (which isn’t to imply he was under any obligation to do so). While his words “prove” nothing whereas that’s concerned, he has provided a very compelling case for his defense, and as a result I’ve been left in a position that only allows me to take him at face value and believe what he says.
Next Tuesday my Lynch-nuttiness takes a back seat when the Morgue will publish Part Two, "There's No Place Like Home" (click here to read it). Steve will reveal Firecracker’s true budget, his feelings on being a filmmaker in the small town of Wamego, Kansas, why he opted not to score the film with Mike Patton's music, and his reaction to being confronted by my utter aversion to his movie.
Friday, September 15, 2006
Today the House unveiled a lengthy primer piece that I wrote for the uninitiated. Check it out and ready yourself for Season Two of Who.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
I’m notoriously non-partisan when it comes to politics, although if one put a gun to my head - which is about what it would take - I’d say I favor the Democrats (and I’ll soil neither party by whipping out the ol’ “lesser of two evils” cliché). But this week the Dems really shot themselves in the foot by taking their characteristic whininess to toweringly boorish new levels, making them look worse than they have in a good long while. And certainly if you've been outside for so long, it's always a good idea to reenter the building looking like a bunch of spoiled mama's boys.
I’m speaking of the furor surrounding the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11 and the near embargo the Dems vocally placed on the film prior to it even airing. Congrats, kiddos – you’ve finally succeeded by fighting fire with fire, and in doing so you’ve scored yet another goal for that great ol’ American pastime: Censorship. While ABC may not have backed down, you certainly fussed and bitched and moaned enough to get them to cut the “offensive” scenes. But there is a price to pay for your success. You’ve again allowed the Republicans to outclass and upstage you – the scenes in Part Two of the mini that discuss the Bush administration funding the Taliban were oddly in place on the Monday night broadcast, and they in fact aired mere minutes prior to Georgey Boy’s commercial interruption.
The Path to 9/11 was not only an indictment of both the Clinton administration and the Bush era that followed, but also an indictment of the American people, and their willingness to allow tawdry issues like blowjobs, cigars and semen-stained dresses to consume the political landscape. We will blame this President and that politician and that terrorist for the atrocities of 9/11/2001, but are we such victims that we cannot take any of the burdens on our own shoulders? Did we not as a country let minutiae rule the roost at a time when perhaps we should have been concentrating on bigger issues? Indeed, if the movie's assertion is that Clinton was distracted because he was having his balls nailed to wall by the 'Pubs, then perhaps the film isn't as anti-Clinton as so many seem to claim.
The movie presents a point of view – now it may not be a POV with which you agree or will allow yourself to see, but that’s irrelevant. Last time I checked, this country was all about the freedom of speech, and the content of this movie was nothing special in that regard. We had our United 93 and we had our World Trade Center – two movies that decided to not take points of view, and therefore generated no controversy. Isn’t it time we have a filmic point of view on this issue? Well of course it is, and people have had non-filmic POVs all along – but how dare Hollywood step in and try to offer up something that sparks debate and gets people thinking and talking? We live in a TV nation folks – The Path to 9/11 is the more remarkable film of the three because it dared to question and posit and address issues and say things that even Oliver Stone was afraid to address and say. That makes it important, not a lie. It’s a film, kids – film is deceptive by its very nature and about presenting points of view in order to achieve a bigger goal. Even so-called "documentaries" require that the filmmaker adopt some kind of POV - they certainly don't edit themselves.
So there we were, the day before the fifth anniversary of that horrible day, and my better half, Jeanne - whose deadline for her review (a positive one) of the movie was a week and a half prior to its airing and several days before Clinton's cronies began their silly censorship campaign – starts getting deluged with dozens of e-mails from scads of whiny Dems telling her she’s ignorant, towing the Conservative party line and that she should for all intents and purposes have her license to critique revoked. And none of them had even seen the movie. They blindly followed, once again allowing tawdry issues to take precedence. So we’ve learned nothing I guess, and it seems that another atrocity could be perpetrated against our country whilst people complain - because clearly the contents of a docudrama are the most important issues du jour. You can read Jeanne’s saga here, here and here – and read them in that order, too.
If you happen to be one of the San Antonians (or from wherever you people came) who spent Sunday and Monday, the 10th & 11th, e-mailing Jeanne - a TV critic - and/or e-mailing and calling her bosses and editors, then I really want you think long and hard about what exactly 9/11 means to you based on those actions. My guess is that the families of the victims and the victims themselves were not first and foremost on your mind. And for the record, a friend of Jeanne's, Dora Menchaca, was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
And to those of you who still insist that the movie was “only sent to conservative bloggers and people like Rush Limbaugh”, I’ve got news for you. Jeanne is neither and she had numerous copies of the film sent to her over the past 6 weeks. Indeed, the movie’s been on the TV radar since the middle of this summer – why did you wait so long to make your little fuss? You claim that the Clinton administration was denied copies of this film. BULL. SHIT. All one of those cronies would need to have done was contact any of the hundreds of the nation’s TV critics and they could easily have scored a copy. I guarantee you that a single call placed to Jeanne would have resulted in her gladly sending a copy their way, just to be able to print a reaction, if for no other reason. What could possibly have been more of a journalistic coup for a TV critic? But no such calls were ever made to her, making any such request, nor did ABC ever send out a memo forbidding critics from sharing the materials with politicos of either persuasion.
So why am I sorry for using the 9/11 graphic novel as a means to bag on Borders? Because I now feel that despite Borders’ crass marketing ploy, the creators of the comic did not deserve my scorn and that I pulled a real Democratic maneuver by using one issue to fight another. And perhaps the point of the graphic novel itself is not all that far removed from the miniseries. My apologies – from here on out, this apology will link to the previous entry.
And in the event my words have left a bitter aftertaste in your mouth, the Morgue highly recommends you check out these words o' wisdom by the mighty J.T. Street.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
I hadn’t seen the movie from start to finish in at least 10 years, and what’s most shocking is how well Treatment has aged; it was made in '81 and the DVD release marks its 25th Anniversary. I’ve never heaped scorn on the movie the way many seem to, but I’m also not sure I’ve ever found myself loving it as much as since giving it a spin over the weekend (and again last night with my kid).
Originally titled The Brad and Janet Show, Shock Treatment went through numerous revisions before ending up as it is today. At one point it was to be a direct sequel, featuring the return of Dr. Frank, who was somehow resurrected and stalking a pregnant-with-his-child Janet Majors in Denton, U.S.A. When that idea was scrapped and Frank written out of the script, it edged closer to the current version, although it was still intended to take place in Denton and revolve around Brad and Janet. Denton, Texas was in fact heavily scouted for location filming and only a SAG strike forced the radical reinvention of the script into what it eventually became – a prescient skewering of reality TV set entirely within the confines of labyrinthine television studio, located somewhere within the heart of Denton itself.
The story revolves around a much different (and now married) Brad and Janet than seen in Rocky. For starters, two different actors play the couple: The lovely Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria) takes over for Susan Sarandon (who allegedly wanted a cool mill to reprise the character – money the film didn’t have in its budget), and Cliff De Young fills in for Barry Bostwick (who was simply unavailable at the time). One might wonder how the film would have played had Sarandon and Bostwick both returned, but once you move past that, Harper and De Young make for more than adequate replacements. Certainly they’ve both got far better singing voices than their predecessors, a fact that’s rather important for a musical. (Personally, I find Harper to be considerably more sexy and fun than Sarandon and would love to have seen her play Janet in the original.)
The couple seem burdened by the events from the previous film – almost as if nothing’s been the same since that fateful night (although this is unspoken; indeed, there is nary a mention of their encounter with the Transsexuals from Transylvania). Brad is in the dumps – an unresponsive, deadened soul, blindly following his wife and almost asking “How High?” whenever she says, “Jump!” Janet’s been reduced to engaging in near passive-aggressive type behavior. She’s lost any and all confidence she may have discovered at the end of the last film and seems bored with her life and new union.
All this changes when they end up on a bizarre TV show called “Marriage Maze”, hosted by Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna [ironically sans cross-dressing]). Here, Brad is labeled an “emotional cripple” and sentenced to rehabilitation on yet another reality show, “Dentonvale”, hosted by Drs. Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn, reprising their incestuous brother-sister act from the previous film). Behind all the madness is Farley Flavors (also played by De Young), Dentonvale’s slick commercial sponsor, who harbors ulterior motives and a hidden past connected to Brad. Also onboard from the previous film are Charles Gray (The Criminologist) as Judge Oliver Wright, Nell Campbell (Columbia) as Nurse Ansalong (looking far sexier than she ever did in Rocky) and Jeremy Newson - the only Rocky actor/character reprisal - as Ralph Hapschatt. And keep an eye out for Rik Mayall (The Young Ones), Christopher Malcolm (The Empire Strikes Back, Absolutely Fabulous) and comedienne Ruby Wax while you’re at it.
Getting into the finer details of the plot would not so much spoil the movie, as possibly put you to sleep. Like its predecessor, what really makes Shock Treatment sail are Richard O’Brien’s catchy songs linking the absurd plot pieces…and the tunes are really, really good – arguably superior to Rocky Horror’s. No less than Sal Piro (President of the Rocky Horror fan club) admits to listening to Shock’s soundtrack with far more frequency than Rocky’s. YouTube’s got videos for most of the songs, although the sound quality doesn’t compare to the DVD release. Check out “Bitchin’ in the Kitchen”, “Little Black Dress”, “Lullaby”, “Look What I Did to My Id”, and the crowning achievement, the title tune “Shock Treatment”, a song I’d easily put up against “The Time Warp” any day.
The songs are lyrically far more complex and dark than Rocky’s innocent little ditties, which is as they should be. Whereas Rocky was a celebration of the sexual freedom and liberation of the ‘70s, Shock Treatment is a nasty little indictment of the equally unique excesses of the sterile ‘80s. What’s particularly noteworthy are the films' contrasting endings: Rocky Horror, for all its good times and great oldies, ended on a note of bleak finality; Shock Treatment, dark though it may be, finishes with our superheroes finding new lives, outlooks and senses of self. Through Shock Treatment, Brad and Janet at last discover the "home of happiness" that so eluded them in Rocky Horror, and if that film ever meant anything to you, you owe it to yourself to see these characters end up in places they very much deserve.
The new DVD is a swank little piece of work, marred only by a couple flaws. The sound oddly dips down for about 30 seconds during the final chorus of the film’s opening number, “Denton U.S.A”. Those who owned the film on videotape will notice that O'Brien's solo reprise of the title song – which plays over the end credits - fades out when the credits end; the VHS release allowed it to finish over a black screen, even when the credits were over with. But these complaints are minor as the rest of the sound and visuals are stronger than they've ever been. Supplementary features include two informative documentaries, two trailers for the film (domestic & international) and a commentary track hosted by Shock Treatment fan club Presidents Mad Man Mike and Bill Brennan – two guys who clearly know far more on the subject than I could ever hope to and treat the material with a shocking amount of respect and insight.
The movie is available as a standalone disc or - for those of you who never got around to picking up Rocky Horror on DVD - in a special [science fiction] double feature three-disc set that’s quite the bargain given the amount of material you get for your buck. Perhaps you need to pad out that Amazon order to get some free shipping? The Shock Treatment soundtrack will be a necessity once you view the movie.
Shock Treatment’s Current Status? Insanely Underrated.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
According to the Boredoms listing:
Using every skill and storytelling method Jacobson and Colón have learned over the decades, they have produced the most accessible [easy to read and lots of colorful] pictures version of the 9/11 Report. Jacobson's text frequently [i.e. only sometimes] follows word for word the original report, faithfully captures its investigative thoroughness [in cartoon fashion], and covers its entire scope [as only panels can deliver], even including the Commission's final report card [which was a C- by the way]. Colón's stunning artwork powerfully conveys the facts, insights, and urgency of the original [keep an eye out for Waldo]. Published on the fifth anniversary [for maximum effect] of the terrorist attacks on the United States, an event that has left no aspect of American foreign or domestic policy untouched [by manipulative hands], The 9/11 Report puts at every American's fingertips [wash hands before reading!] the most defining event of the century [the season finale of American Idol aside].
Oh man...I know I'm being brutal here, but when you put yourself out there (much like I'm doing right now)...
About the Author: Sid Jacobson was the managing editor and editor in chief for Harvey Comics, where he created Richie Rich, and executive editor at Marvel Comics.
The artist, Ernie Colón, has worked at Harvey, Marvel, and DC Comics. At DC, he oversaw the production of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Blackhawk, and the Flash; at Marvel, Spider-Man.
So let me get this straight - 9/11 is being brought to me by the guys who gave depth to Richie Rich and Diana Prince?
What might Borders offer (at a discount) next week I wonder? Perhaps a Desert Storm Little Golden Book? Or maybe a JonBenet Ramsey Colorforms Gift Set? How about a Lynndie England Choose Your Own Adventure novel?
If you got the same e-mail as I, then you also know the comic book wasn't the only 9/11-related merchandise Borders was pimping...
...but I don't have the energy to give them further publicity.
Speaking of benchmarks...according to Blogger this was the Morgue's 100th entry. Thanks muchos for hanging in there, despite entries like this one.
Update! Read the apology for this piece by clicking here.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Wicker Park isn’t a bad movie, but it appears toxic by default. It does, after all, star Josh Hartnett, and his presence is by no means a guarantee of quality (although his track record is fairly sound all things considered). It co-stars Matthew Lillard (Shaggy from the Scooby Doo “movies”), an actor whom I used to consider toxic. I’ve chilled on that opinion, maybe even due to he of all things Shagadelic – it cannot be a simple task to so perfectly recreate a cartoon character in the flesh, especially when the material so blatantly sucks (then again…what can one expect from movies based on a mumbling, talking dog?).
Wicker Park was released almost exactly two years ago, during the dreaded early-September timeframe when there's a lot of crap at the cinema (go check your current movie listings). I saw it when I was doing radio movie reviews, and the pickins were slim (the only other choice that Friday was the Mel Gibson-produced Paparazzi). Aside from bad marketing, Wicker Park’s got a few other things in common with The Weather Man:
1) It takes place in Chicago and is mostly set during winter.
2) One of its stars, Diane Kruger, was in National Treasure with Nic Cage.
3) Like The Weather Man, Wicker Park also has nothing to do with Cage’s most recent film, The Wicker Man.
Ok, so it’s got more in common with my Weather Man review than The Weather Man itself…six degrees is feeling mighty chilly, isn’t it? Forgive the obvious padding: Wicker Park is all about the surprise twists and going into too much detail wouldn't give you as much reason to check it out.
It's about obsession – not a stunningly original concept…but again, go back to the Weather Man review and check out the Roger Ebert quote about halfway down. Wicker Park succeeds in that it completely avoids the standard clichéd trappings of violent repercussions stemming from obsession. Nor does it ever threaten violence, which when dealing with the concept, is something of a rarity (the trailer even sold it as a Single White Female/Fatal Attraction type of film, which it isn't).
Hartnett, who sometimes looks like a young Anthony Perkins, plays Matthew, a successful businessman, who - - - wait a minute…allow me to go somewhere else, as this could get revealing. I cannot know whether Morgue readers have ever felt intense obsession for another - I have, and a couple different times, too. I've never gotten violent with anyone, although it may have appeared I was on the verge…that Scorpio intensity is a helluva thing. When my ex and I parted ways years ago, the emotions I displayed at the time could easily have been viewed as obsessive, and indeed, they probably were. I did some stalking, made dozens of painfully pathetic phone calls, wrote letter after letter - I put more pen to paper with thoughts of the relationship than I'd ever done in the collective years prior. I thought of her just now because she had an Anthony Perkins obsession (ahem…"fixation" - clearly I am not one to judge).
Obsession is both an ugly and a beautiful thing: Ugly to the obsessee, but beautiful to the obsessor. When you’re smack in the middle of it - despite all logic and reason - what you’re doing is the only thing that makes any sense. You pour so much passion and thought into it that you can’t see any other way to go about things. It’s only years later that you look back and think, “Now who was that sick fuck, again? ‘Cause I don’t see him/her today.” Yet existing in that state makes you feel so damn alive, and an obsessive is a hell of lot more interesting to observe than a passive. (After all, that's why you visit the Morgue, right?)
There are two different types of obsessions displayed in Wicker Park, and I was down with 'em both. They’re obsessions I understand – and wager others would, too, because they don’t require resorting to boiling rabbits and wielding cutlery for fulfillment. Somewhere around the halfway mark, due to Rose Byrne, Wicker Park seduced me. She’s an actress of whom I was unaware at the time, but these days keep an eye out for. Her character, Alex, is the fourth and most pivotal. Because she was unknown to me (and probably still is to most) her casting was ideal, as the story requires that Alex exist on its fringe. She has a scene near the end that’s crucial to emotionally bringing the entire affair together in one fell swoop. If you’ve ever experienced obsession as I have, you’ll understand Alex in a way that makes you love her more than the other three characters. Hartnett's Matthew understands her, too - and as well he should.
For a period of time after seeing Wicker Park, I became obsessed with Rose Byrne herself. And brave readers will now fill the talkback with their own sordid, pathetic tales of obsession.
FYI: Wicker Park is a remake of the 1996 French film The Apartment, a movie I haven't seen, but wish I had...because '96 is coincidentally the very year I went all psycho-obsessive. The Apartment has nothing to do with the Billy Wilder film of the same name, Nicolas Cage or The Wicker Man.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Since last night, we’ve been having some unexpected weather shifts here in S.A. - nice rain last night & today and the temp is dropping this week as well. I say unexpected because summer typically (painfully?) runs throughout the month of September in South Texas. In general, it might as well still be August when the calendar switches months…a fact making this week pretty sweet.
This probably has nothing to do with The Weather Man, but it seemed like a mildly appropriate intro regardless. I bothered to see the movie twice during its theatrical run (something of an anomaly for this type of film whereas I’m concerned) and I finally picked it up on DVD this weekend and gave it a third spin.
Nicolas Cage is as frustrating an actor to follow as any working today. Sometimes he guides us to glorious places we didn’t know he was capable of (Adaptation); sometimes we go places with him that weren’t worth the journey (National Treasure); and sometimes he leaves us wondering why we were taken there in the first place (Matchstick Men). The Weather Man - depending on your tastes - could be any of the above three… but for me it squarely falls into Adaptation territory.
The film was wildly mismarketed upon its theatrical release; to imply that I’d have known how to market it successfully would be just as off. Sometimes the inability for studios to market their fare is actually the sign of a good movie and the best films are difficult to sum up in a 2 and a half-minute trailer. That cannot be truer than in the case of The Weather Man (which, by the way, has nothing to do with Cage’s latest movie, The Wicker Man).
Cage plays David Spritz, a Chicago weatherman…but not a meteorologist. He’s begrudgingly separated from his wife Noreen (Hope Davis), has two kids, 12-year old Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña) and 15-year old Mike (Nicholas Hoult) and a Pulitzer Prize-winning father, Robert (Michael Caine), who’s dying of lymphoma with only a few months to live. Because of all the above factors, Dave’s life is in a bizarre state of flux. It’d be too easy to label what he’s going through a mid-life crisis. Maybe it’s more of a painful mid-life awakening?
He wants to be seen as a success by his father. When someone throws a Wendy’s Frosty at Dave, Robert quizzically wonders why this would happen and states, “But David…you just read the weather.” He wants to be seen by Noreen as someone with whom things need to be worked out, never minding that she’s already got a new boyfriend and already seems much happier. We’re shown two very different flashbacks to their past. In one, Dave fails the simplest of Noreen’s requests: “Don’t forget the tartar sauce!” In the other, he fails the simplest of trust exercises in couple's therapy by reading words of Noreen’s that he was told not to. He also wants to be seen by his kids as a hero, due mostly to his feelings about Robert and Noreen.
And Dave spends most of the film trying to breach the numerous gaps, whilst also trying to secure a million dollar a year job in New York on “Hello America with Bryant Gumbel”. The movie, undeniably a cohesive work, consists of a weave of moments of aching heartbreak and gut busting hilarity (<------ Sounds like I wanna be quoted on the one-sheet, doesn't it?). The bits and pieces add up to form a bigger idea. The idea itself isn't always original, but the moments certainly are. As Roger Ebert says, "It's not what a movie's about, but how it's about it".
The Frosty is only one of numerous foods thrown at Dave Spritz. In a moment of clarity, after totaling the items flung his way, Dave realizes that it’s always fast food. He ponders, “Food that people would rather throw away than eat…that’s what I am - fast food”. Indeed, The Weather Man is fast food, only it’s been put through a blender and turned into something more appetizing. There are recognizable brand names like Arby’s and McDonald’s littered throughout the film, but never in a way that adds up to what we’d normally think of as product placement; you certainly don’t come away from it wanting to head to McDonald's for a Hot Apple Pie. There’s stuff going on here that doesn’t belong in a studio movie like this, and maybe that’s a big reason why it's so easy to adore.
Gore Verbinski directed it after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but before tackling the other two. If Verbinski’s got the clout to make this kind of stuff in between the big moneymaking bonanzas, then more power to him. It’s a trend he should continue. If he was able to pull this off after Pirates, I can only imagine the sort of big budget subversive fare he could unleash after the success of Dead Man’s Chest (at the time of writing, the film is closing in on a billion dollar worldwide take). His direction is spot on, but a huge part of the film's success is also due to Steve Conrad's pitch perfect script.
In addition to Cage’s flawless performance, also noteworthy is Caine’s Robert. We’re supposed to see him through Dave’s eyes as a cold man, but often we see him through our own, and he isn’t always as Dave sees him - and we begin hoping Dave sees those parts before Robert dies.
The most surprising performance, however, comes from Gemmenne de la Peña, an actress whom I predict much greatness from in the future. After Cage, she probably has the most screen time and most of it’s with Cage. They pull off a touching, funny and sometimes even dark father/daughter double act - a huge part of which is rooted in the phrase “cameltoe”, a name Shelly’s often called at school, but doesn’t seem to understand why. When David finally confronts her on the issue, her explanation is so weirdly heartwarming you almost hate yourself for having spent so much time laughing at the ongoing gag.
Friday, September 01, 2006
What I presume to be the teaser trailer is here on YouTube, or you can check it out here on the movie's official site. The site is a weirdly haunting and yet simplistic experience. It's refreshing to wade through a film site without battling pop-ups and the loads of other crap with which studios tend to burden these sorts of advertisements. Both the site and trailer tell nothing about the movie...and yet they also seem to say plenty.
Lastly, and the item that spurred this quick entry, is this review from David Poland. Can the movie be this good? Please tell me it can and will be.