December 17, 2002

As I Lay Typing...


Scorsese's
Kundun is on, and it occurs to me that this is his most beautiful film. The opening, a sequence of details from a Tibetan sand mandala, is entrancing. Roger Deakins (cinematographer) rocks. Here's an interview with him and 13 other great DP's. If you've never watched Tibetan monks make a sand mandala, seek it out. There should be a Mandala Aggregator site, like PublicRadioFan, where you can find mandalas in process anywhere in the world. [Is this what Larry King's column'd be like if he knew XML?]

I stayed up too late last night watching that sycophant on In The Actor's Studio suck up to Mr. Scorsese (Oh, sorry. Marty.) for two hours. He had to mention their dinner together at Cannes three times. Anyway, I imagine a movie about the Dalai Lama'd be a little weird for a Christmas gift, but Amazon can't ship it in time anyway.

Blue, directed by Derek Jarman
An embarassingly bad collection of operatic shorts just ended on Sundance, including one by the late Derek Jarman. That, in turn, reminded me of Blue, his last feature. Blind from persistent chemotherapy treatments, Jarman had an unexposed reel of film printed as azure blue (apparently, there are no frames). For eighty minutes, dialogue, sounds, and music wash over you; by about half way through, you'd swear there are distortions, shadows, movement on the monochromatic screen. It's wonderful (and available on CD). Reading it is nice, but it doesn't do it justice.


Irish Hunger Monument, by David F. Gallagher, lightningfield.com

On his photo weblog lightningfield, David Gallagher published some photos and reviews of the Irish Hunger Monument which opened this summer in Battery Park City. The Monument is designed by artist Brian Tolle, whose idea was to create a 1/4 acre plot of Irish farmland in Manhattan. This patently artificial landscape recalls the British land policies which exacerbated the Irish potato famine of the 1840's. Critical response to the monument has been mixed, but I have to appreciate the work's solid conceptual basis. There's a cautionary tale here, though, about how to deal with constituent and political exigencies; according to one reporter's account, Tolle argued against several elements which have come under criticism. (When a monument brags about having "nearly two miles of text," feel free to worry.)


Last night was the filmmakers' reception for
Documentary Fortnight, which followed a screening of Family, by Sami Saif and (So)Phie Ambo (see below). The film was pretty good; the nervous Sami's emotionally high-pitched quest to find his Yemeni father. Arriving in Yemen, Sami tells one of many "uncles" how he, his brother, and his Danish mother suffered after his father ditched them in Denmark. With girlfriend Sophie behind the camera, the film has an uncomfortably intimate feeling, well suited to its raw subject.

Danchizake, dir. Satoshi Ono At the party, I met several of the other filmmakers, and we traded notes on the festival, the audiences, Sundance, and PR stunts (more on this later). One standout: Satoshi Ono, whose film Danchizake (Homemade Sake) screened last Friday. It's a contemplative story of his family's relationships which reveals itself as his father brews sake. Jeff Hatfield, friend/cameraman on my documentary/artist, came with me, and, wouldn't you know it, he's exhibited a fully functional moonshine still in a couple of museums, so they had a lot to talk about.

Ono's next film will be about his grandparents, (similar to my first project) so we definitely had a lot to talk about. When the Festival folks heard us speaking Japanese, they freaked out, wondering why I hadn't mentioned it before. (Apparently, there was only budget enough to get a translator for one day, and they'd been doing a lot of sign language.)

Anyway, when I told a couple of other directors about my film and the upcoming presentation of architects' designs for Ground Zero, they invariably suggested passing out cards for Souvenir at the World Financial Center event. Sounds good to me, so watch for the Kozmo.com jacket again. Remember: Souvenir is screening Thursday at 2PM...


Family, production still, dir by Sami Martin Saif and Phie AmboDocumentary Fortnight at MoMA is underway. The first event I'll be attending is tomorrow (sun.) night, a screening of Family by Sami Martin Saif and Phie Ambo. After the deaths of his mother and brother, Saif travels from Denmark to Yemen to find his father. There's a filmmaker reception after that. I'll give you a report. Let me know if you're going, or look for me there. That's me in the orange Kozmo.com jacket.

Blocking out the production schedule for Souvenir January 2003, the next short, which will be shot in Springville, Utah (aka "Art City"). Here's the script. For reference, check out the documentary in the Projects column at left.

In the Guardian, Duncan Campbell reviews 11"09"01, the collection of 11 Sept. 11-related short films produced by Alain Brigand, and loudly laments its lack of US distribution prospects. [The film's site has interviews will all eleven filmmakers. In French.] Frankly, I'm still pissed that I missed a screening last month at Columbia.

Ernest Borgnine, 11 09 01, dir. Sean Penn
image: bacfilms.com

Campbell mentions the Sean Penn installment I wrote about earlier (starring Ernest Borgnine, the new greg.org poster boy). Penn remembers that loss "occurs every day, and the suffering that follows." Here's the Read Google translation of Penn's director statement.
Still, 11 09 01, dir. Mira Nair
image: bacfilms.com

In her short, Mira Nair tells the true story of a Muslim New Yorker's unexplained disappearance on September 11. [Read about her latest feature, Monsoon Wedding, in Filmmaker Magazine.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's segment has repeatedly been singled out as the most powerful in the film; sounds and voices over a black screen punctuated by fleeting clips of people jumping from the towers. A question appears on the screen at the end, "Does God's light blind us or guide us?" It's a question Inarritu intends for both sides, since both invoke God in a battle of good and evil.
Kissinger and protege/war criminal Aug Pinochet
Kissinger sharing the spotlight with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet

Ken Loach must have found Henry Kissinger's brief appointment to a September 11th commission to be a cruel joke. His segment deals with the one of Kissinger's pet projects for Nixon, the bloody 1973 overthrow of the civilian government in Chile, which cost over 30,000 lives. [Read Seymour Hersh's <1982 Atlantic article about Kissinger driving the coup.] It took place on Sept. 11.

Nobody's Perfect, indeed. If Anthony Lane can't get beyond Jack's celebrity, fine. He saw the movie at the NY Film Fest opening. His unabashed pinky-extended criticism almost always gives an enjoyable read. (Need some holiday cheer? Get his collected reviews, Nobody's Perfect, today Don't even think you can stuff a stocking with it or take it on a plane, though.)

But Salon's review by Charles Taylor seems to be such a bitter, willful misread of the film, it defies explanation. So let me explain: Taylor actually misunderstands the audience, or more precisely, large swaths of the population of the US, including the hundreds of millions of excruciatingly normal people who fail to "delight (movie directors as) eccentrics and kooks and small-town oddballs" and who would never consider themselves "vulgar and naive and tacky," just the opposite.

In About Schmidt as well as his previous films, Alexander Payne proves that excruciatingly normal doesn't automatically mean boring. Just the opposite. In a long Times article, A. O. Scott tries to place Payne's (and Nicholson's) Schmidt in a grand tradition of the "mythic cinema hero, The Regular Guy." This tradition extends from the creations of Clifford Odets, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Miller, and John Updike to "just about every movie cop and sitcom dad." (Sitcom. Remember sitcom.) Although Scott cites Jimmy Stewart and Fred "My Three Sons" MacMurray, the only actual movie he cites is Marty, which Delbert Mann had originally directed on television. Mythic, indeed.

Marty is the classic immigrant affirmation story, which won Oscars in 1955, for its star (Ernest Borgnine, nee Borgnino, an Italian), writer Paddy Chayefsky, a Jew from the Bronx) producer (Harold Hecht, a Jew from Poland), and director (Mann, from...Lawrenceville, Kansas). Beset by his loud Italian mother and family and feeling fat an unattractive, Marty falls for a teacher; the mismatched couple overcomes the family's objections and their own insecurity on their way to their fairytale marriage. Sound familiar? It should, since it's the same damn plot as My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.

David Denby rightly called Greek Wedding on its big, fat sitcom roots, and the story of how its unexpected success among The Ignored caught Hollywood and the culture capitalists off guard is now accepted wisdom; Denby's own New Yorker review didn't even appear until September, six months after the film's debut, and presumably, after Denby's aunts and mother wouldn't let him off the hook for ignoring it any longer. For The Ignored, it's their own story, told in the style they were trained by television to expect. About Schmidt is a remarkable film about The Ignored that tells their own story in a powerful, serious way. It may never achieve the box office success of Greek Wedding, which is too bad. For the first time in fifty years, there's actually a good film about a Mythic Cinema Hero.

December 12, 2002

Here Comes The Sun

Score one for the little guys. Scrappy upstart NY Sun shows a knack for reporting, scooping the Liberal Establishment with news of the Souvenir premiere. (auteur paparazzi photo included)

You need movie ideas? Julian Dibbell writes in Wired about the physical world economies of online games like Ultima Online and Everquest.
The messy complex of characters and possessions that had been Troy Stolle's virtual identity was broken down into parts far more valuable than the whole. The priciest items were listed on eBay within a day or two, and one by one they went off to the highest bidder.

But the most valuable of all was the last to go. Not that Kiblinger lacked for house buyers in the month that Stolle's tower stood at auction. He sold one property to a single mom in Colorado, another to a manager for a database company in California. Yet another went to a woman in Virginia, who bought the house for her mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer whose last link to reality was her Ultima sessions with her daughter...

At first he thought the previous owner was a character named Blossom. She handed off the deed. But Blossom turned out to be one of Kiblinger's avatars - and not even Kiblinger at the keyboard but his cousin Eugene, who gets $10 an hour to run around Britannia doing the deliveries that used to take up most of Kiblinger's workday.

Wired must have a news bureau in Britannia. They also report on virtual Christmas parties and spontaneous post-Sept. 11 candlelight vigils. [party on, Travelers Diagram]

December 11, 2002

An Idea, If Ever There Was One

Steven Johnson writes about an idea he's had, how to do a movie about nanotechnology right. Turns out Michael Crichton had wondered the same thing, and wrote a book about it. Turns out that book, at least the good parts, are similar to ideas Johnson has been mulling over (and writing and publishing on) for a while, too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, "how'd that be as a movie?" is a question I'm always asking myself, too. Tonight on Dublog, was this sentence which captured one idea I've been wrestling with lately. From Jennifer 8. Lee's NY Times article about Google's Live Query display:

people who shouldn't marry

"she smoked a cigar"

mr. potatoheads in long island

pickup lines to get women

auto theft fraud how to.

Stare at Live Query long enough, and you feel that you are watching the collective consciousness of the world stream by.


You want to come up with some movie ideas, too? See how many movies you can make from this: The Weekly Standard's engrossing report from a Christian retailers' convention. There's a lot more to Church Merch than just the Prayer of Jabez brand family, after all. (You thought it was just the best-selling book of 2001? You need to repent, brother.)
The enlarge-my-territory prayer [of Jabez] also appears on wristwatches, bumper stickers, pens, candy bars, Jabez: A Novel, and much else. "It's from the Bible, so I guess they couldn't copyright it," muses one CBA exhibitor. Several others tell me that editors are scouring the Bible in search of another nobody with star quality.

Louis Begley spoke before a screening of About Schmidt last night. An extremely genteel guy, he explained why he's quite pleased with the film, even though it differs significantly from his novel. For Begley, "write what you know" means Schmidt ("known as Schmittie to one and all") is an Upper East Side lawyer, recently retired to Bridgehampton, something, presumably, a vast majority of the screening audience knows well, too. Consistently for Alexander Payne, "film what you know" means a studied exploration of the middle of Middle America: Schmidt is an Omaha actuary whose retirement plans involve a Winnebago.

Kathy Bates lettin' it all hang out in About Schmidt, from the official site image: aboutschmidtmovie.com

The only disappointment Begley voiced was the elimination of his saucy Puerto Rican waitress character who (brace yourself) teaches Schmidt to love again. Or, more precisely, she "teaches Schmittie the transformative power of sex. [audience titters] You laugh. It's true. Maybe you're just too young to understand." But then he gamely allowed that Payne may have been poking fun at this idea with Kathy Bates' hand-painted clothing-shedding hot-tubber. Um, yeah.

While I've heard it described as a comedy, the laughs were all at things that are quite real outside the culture capitals; if you've been there, or are honest about being from there, your laughter is slightly embarassed and at yourself. (I'm not talking about my own proto-mullet here.) Begley sounded a little resigned when he said he couldn't see the future holding anything good for Payne's Schmidt. As I did in September, I have disagree and side with Payne. If taken at the most superficial level, you could argue that Schmidt's transformative experience at the end is a pretty meager reward for all that preceded it. Why, it's practically a, um, a money shot. What it may be is the difference between sex and love.

[12/12 update: Alexander Payne will be on Studio 360 this weekend. AND he will be given the Work In Progress award by the MoMA Department of Film and Media next February. Stay tuned.]

December 9, 2002

On Productive Passion

viewing Rothkos at The Tate Modern

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones takes a while to get to an interesting story of Mark Rothko's masterful series of paintings, originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant. It seems Rothko painted them in contempt and withdrew them in disgust after checking out the Cafeteria of Power and deciding the moguls would be insufficiently cowed by the art. Two of Rothko's overt influences: the "bricked up windows" of Michelangelo's Laurentian Library vestibule, and Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries ("strange," "luxurious and hellish," a Dionysian attack on Mies/Johnson's rational order ) [12/12 update: The Times reports Vivendi Universal is preparing to sell the Seagram collection, which would have included the Rothkos in the Four Seasons.]

On another note, Laura Winters, long the NYT's and Washington Post's go-to journalist for a new generation of independent and foreign filmmakers (and Harvard alum), gives Vogue's celebrity coverage an upgrade with a profile of plays-a-writer-in-Adaptation Meryl Streep. Problematically, Ms Streep and the two actresses I'd pick to play Laura in the movie--Ms. Danes and Ms Foster--all went to Yale.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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