AFI Film Festival: Worldly Pleasures

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[Waltz with Bashir]

The AFI Film Festival is that rare chance to look at some of the early contenders for Best Foreign Film Oscar, as well as upcoming American fare. Among the most impressive—and most overrated—at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood recently:

Waltz with Bashir (France-Germany-Israel, Dir: Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. Folman punctuates the search for truth with surreal, startling, dreamlike imagery, like a soldier swimming away from danger nestled into the body of a naked, giant woman or matter-of-fact war atrocities to the accompaniment of heavy metal guitar. The film has garnered fury in Israel among hawkish elements but Folman has courageously and ingeniously created a plea for conscience in the world’s most troubled region.

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O’Horten (France-Germany-Norway, Dir: Bent Hamer) Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer has a way of creating elegantly crafted and subtly offbeat character studies that stir the heart. Here, a shy, lonely train engineer (Espen Skjonberg) reaches retirement and in traipsing around Oslo, finds himself opening up to life possibilities that would never have occurred before. With sly humor and a willingness to embrace the loss of family and a newfound and wacky friend, the titular character pulls us into his expanding world and makes us delighted for the chances he finally is willing to take.

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Everlasting Moments (Sweden-Denmark, Dir: Jan Troell) Oscar nominated for his direction and adapted screenplay for The Emigrants, Jan Troell has returned with heartfelt story, inspired by his own family heritage. In the early 20th century in Malmo, Sweden, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) battles the pressures of a growing family, a philandering brute of a husband and the love of a man she cannot be with by exploring her creativity with a still camera. Troell captures the passage of time brilliantly, through the First World War and technological inventions, as the captivating Heiskanen anchors this lovely, aching tale.

Adam Resurrected (Germany-USA, Dir: Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

The Brothers Bloom (USA, Dir: Rian Johnson) Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody portray two brothers who are inseparable, despite friction, and survive by pulling major cons. However, when Brody’s character falls for a daffy but brilliant, heiress (the marvelous Rachel Weisz) who is their next mark, allegiances are tested. Rian Johnson muddies the logic of some of the actual scams but what works best here is the camaraderie, the stunning locations and droll, visual jokes that make the scams take a back seat to the characters and dialogue.

The Class (France, Dir: Laurent Cantet) A winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The Class is curiously overhyped. It is a competent though claustrophobic examination of a teacher (Francois Begaudeau) who grapples with tough, multicultural kids in Parisian public school. Director Cantet has smartly used an actual teacher and his students in recreating this world and their work on camera is never dull. But long scenes in classes and teacher conferences makes the work less than exciting and shaky camera work, to emulate the feel of a documentary, does not help.

Time Crimes (Spain, Dir: Nacho Vigalondo) A little mind-teaser of a film that works nicely, at least for a while. A man stumbles into a series of accidents that are, in fact, created by multiple versions of himself, having traveled back briefly in time. His effort to eliminate other versions of himself, with the reluctant help of a lab techinician who got the whole mess rolling in the first place, is more of a puzzle that’s missing pieces than it is a fully-fledged film. But it does bring up some intriguing possibilities in the genre of time travel stories and might well please die-hard science fiction fanatics.

The Higher Force (Iceland, Dir: Olaf de Fleur Johannesson) We begin with an amusing premise, an incompetent mob bagman in Iceland who pretends he knows a powerful mobster, in actuality, a man who years before accidentally killed his brother in an auto accident But The Higher Force runs out of steam and ends with an uncertain flourish. Along the way, there are a number of laughs, including ridiculous clothes, absurdly fractured pidgin English and a self-motivation tape that never really helps the incompents in the story. Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos fame makes an out-of-left-field appearance as—what else—a mobster. What’s criminal is that Johannesson and his two co-scripters couldn’t keep the fun and twists going for more than half of the film.

The Joys and Confusions of Charlie Kaufman’s Brain

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Synecdoche, New York
Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Opens Oct. 24 (Sony Pictures Classics)

“Peculiar” or “avant-garde” do not seem to sum up the curious fixations that make up the screenwriting of Charlie Kaufman. Beginning with Being John Malcovich, filmgoers have come to expect no one else to come close to what he does, whether you call it “alternate reality comedic self-loathing” or “existential absurdist ennui” or anything else.

When he reached, thus far, the peak of his screenwriting powers with Adaptation–starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, both bravely assaying fascinating but extremely unflattering roles–one came to expect an event each time a new film of his reached release. With Synecdoche, New York, which began as a supposed horror film Kaufman was to write for his director of choice, Spike Jonze, all the Kaufmanesque qualities are present: terrific performances from top actors, dark, death-obsessed humor and a mindbending premise.

In this case, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden, a stage director in Schenectady, New York, who feels little passion for his projects and is more taken with his deteriorating health than his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) or his young daughter Olive. The dissolution of that union is coupled with Caden winning a MacArthur grant and using an enormous warehouse in New York City to recreate scenes from his life, with scores of actors, in an effort to understand it.

Scenes as they happen are recreated in the warehouse, including Caden’s seduction by the offbeat Hazel ( a marvelously idiosyncratic Samantha Morton), a later marriage to one of his actresses, Claire (Michelle Williams) and the use of a potentially non-existent cleaning lady-cum-actress (Dianne Wiest) who inevitably gives Caden directions at the end of his project and life.

There are many typically daffy visual jokes that Kaufman inserts, including a constantly smoldering house that Hazel lives in, and commentaries on Caden’s desperately unhappy life on animated programs on TV. As with Kaufman’s work in general, there is much to mull over but the great difference between Synecdoche, New York and the rest of Kaufman’s wonderfully warped work is that here, he is the director and no was able to help him prune and shape his hallucinatory perambulations or tonally unify the entire work.

Thus, we do not have the tightly knit internal logic of a film like Adaptation or the surreal but cogent The Truman Show, in which a seemingly impossible world unfolds with acceptable progress. The most basic problem is that a MacArthur grant would not fund a Caden or anyone else for a massive art project for the rest of one’s life. And Kaufman is not really interested in seeing how anything outside of Caden’s orbit might affect this utterly self-involved navel-gazing. By extending the timeline of the film to Caden’s entire life and never showing insight on the part of the character, the director-writer exhausts us and the titillation of his clever concept grows wearying.

What Kaufman does right is bring in excellent actors and Hoffman’s power onscreen, whether crying before sex or being unable to respond to the cruelty of Keener as his wife (And isn’t it time Keener stopped playing the uber-bitch?), makes the film work in small pieces. But as a whole, with cloying music and many scenes that smack of melodrama, Kaufman has lost what he so perfected in his previous scripts. There is no sympathy to be had for Caden, who bemoans his loneliness and creates his own world-within-a-world merely to examine himself and come up with no conclusions.

Being For the Benefit of Mr. Martin!

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George Martin, in 1962, long before he was knighted by the Queen of England, heard a demo tape at Parlophone Records at EMI in London. He was not impressed. But the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, insisted Martin hear the band live to understand their appeal. Martin agreed and when The Beatles performed for him in the studio, he was still unimpressed by their music. But he heard something particular and unique in the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But as Martin explained to a packed Bovard Auditorium at USC last week, had he known every label in London had already passed, he might not have agreed to meet them.

The Grammy Foundation presented Martin, the 82-year-old “Fifth Beatle” and most successful pop record producer of all time, with their Leadership Award the night after his Bovard presentation, on the creation of The Beatles’ ground-breaking Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The weekend tribute certainly acknowledged his unparalleled 50 number one hits over five decades in the US and Great Britain. It must certainly take into account not only his utterly innovative and fascinating work with the Beatles but with names like Jeff Beck, Peter Sellers and the Goon Show, Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, The Who, Stevie Wonder and on into the stratosphere. But the instantaneous standing ovation that greeted Martin upon his arrival and departure from the stage at Bovard testified to his reputation as a gentleman as well as creative force in music.

From being an oboe player and wanting to design aircraft, George Martin evolved into scoring music and engineering, when, as he described it, a recording engineer wore a white jacket and wax discs were cut with lathes, as masters. From this, he inevitably ruled the roost at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which he called “a wonderful, musical toy shop.”

His influence upon The Beatles and their eventual releases first took hold when he heard “Please Please Me,” suggested they play it at twice the speed and turned it into a number one hit. Martin shared, with video clips, many anecdotes of this special collaboration, including urging McCartney to use a string quartet on “Yesterday,” a result that Martin claimed “…didn’t do too badly,” wringing laughter out of the audience with his understatement. More chortling was heard when the crowd saw a clip contrasting the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” with Martin’s inspiration for their use, Bernard Herrmann’s staccato violin bursts in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho.

But Sargeant Pepper not only changed the direction of popular music; the process of recording and producing it was utterly novel and at times eccentric, experimental. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” took over 100 sound clips of steam organs and mixed them together in a crazy quilt bed of circus sounds. And when “A Day in the Life” was recorded, Martin and McCartney, to the befuddlement of the orchestra, insisted they improvise the crescendo that comes before a final monstrous, echoing piano chord at song’s end. Martin revealed he instructed them, “If you’re playing the same note as the fellow next to you, you’re doing it wrong.” The orchestra eventually got into the groove. Martin recalls one member wearing a red clown nose and another using a monkey’s paw to play his violin.

Previously reviewed in these pages is the Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas of The Beatles Love, which Martin and his son Giles worked on in secret for three years, remastering and mashing together their favorite Beatle tunes for inclusion in the technologically staggering show. It is precisely this kind of challenge to grow and to tinker and to explore that signified the work of The Beatles and George Martin. It is what made their partnership so musically magical. The first album The Beatles recorded took just under 600 minutes of studio time, according to Martin. Sargeant Pepper took over 700 hours.

And despite the joy and freshness of so much of The Beatles canon, it is both amusing and thought-provoking to hear Martin tell of a time after the Fab Four split up, when he was visiting John Lennon in the Dakota in New York City.

Lennon confided that he wished he could re-record all of The Beatles music.

“What, even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” asked Martin, citing a favorite of both men.

Martin said Lennon looked down over the tops of his oval eyeglasses and replied in his droll way, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields.’”

As Paul Valery said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.” Martin seems to have impeccable taste in knowing when to throw in the towel on recorded music. And he’s not ceasing his exploration. He’s currently working on an eight-part history of recorded music that he’ll be hosting. On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. on PBS in the fall of 2010.

L.A. Film Fest, Declaring Independence

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[The Girl Cut in Half, directed by Claude Chabrol] 

Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran June 19-29 at a variety of theatres throughout Westwood, also included a number of panels, poolside chats and a film financing conference, scattered about the its West Los Angeles radius.

The Girl Cut in Half, dir. Claude Chabrol

Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this clever work.

Choke, dir. Clark Gregg

Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and brilliant Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The marvelously whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, dir. Stefan Forbes

From a poor Southern boy who loved the blues, Lee Atwater climbed to the highest rungs of political power in America, ably shown by this attractively made documentary by Stefan Forbes. It follows the charming but cold-blooded Atwater, as his smear campaigns destroy Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The man who taught Karl Rove dirty tricks also loved playing guitar and this doc has the coolest blues soundtrack you will ever hear on a political documentary. Forbes did miss the opportunity to explain more fully the complex relationship Atwater had with Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager who gave Atwater his big break. But with on-camera interviews with Dukakis, Sam Donaldson, Mary Matalin, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman and others, it’s hard to quibble with a film that captures the elevation of no-holds-barred politics and the illness, swift downfall and strange legacy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Man on a Wire, dir. James Marsh

Winning an audience award at the L.A. Film Fest, Man on a Wire follows the illegal but stunning high wire walk of French aerialist Philippe Petit, between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is clearly an antic, fun-loving character who is quite engaging on camera, as well as in an audience, as he handled a Q&A after the screening. But director James Marsh spends a bit too much time with the logistics of the planning of this death-defying act. By the time these pranksters are about to let Petit take his life into his hands, the film certainly has us where it wants us. Significantly, though, Petit on camera talks of his love relationship dissolving, as well as the friendship with his best friend and planning cohort. The staggering dare that Petit took has been described as “the artistic crime of the century,” but it is fair to say there is a crime in Marsh not digging deeper into the psychological after affects of Petit’s high wire act.

The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, dir. Jeff Stimmel

Suffering a similar lack of depth is this upcoming HBO doc. It follows New York visual artist Chuck Connelly, who soared high along with names like Schnabel and Basquiat, only to hit rock bottom in marketability. His drunken rages and childish behavior are amusing, even endearing for a while. And the breadth of his artistic vision is most impressive. Where the documentary itself fails, though, is in showing us a deeper and darker place in this artist’s psyche, one that is only hinted at after his love relationship breaks up. While not wholly satisfying, the film does show a great variety of Connelly’s considerable work. But shedding a tear at the grave of your family is no substitute for a more soul-searching investigation of a great artist and his demise.

 [Choke, directed by Clark Gregg]

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George Carlin: Before and After

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The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.

“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say…” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.

That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.

George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM & AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.

I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”

George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”

The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.

I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.

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Fascination for Animation

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[Voodoo by Gobelins Studio, France]

No one can doubt my commitment to the art of animation. When most of the other graduating seniors at Burlingame High School went to Disneyland for an all-night celebration, my two best friends and I went to an international animation festival at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Judging by the reactions of those who went to Anaheim, we got the better of the deal.

For those who want to go beyond the Hollywood studio version of animation, there is an annual compilation known as the Animation Show, now in its fourth incarnation, playing June 13-19 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. Mike Judge, who so delightfully warped our minds with Beavis and Butthead Do America, has once again organized his favorite animation shorts from around the world. Among those to peel your eyeballs for are Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian, in which a whitebread dude is caught by his girlfriend with…well, the title tells it all, and the droll delivery of lines perfectly compliments the childlike illustrations. HBO is planning a series based on this and won’t that be something to enjoy…without the kiddies.

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[Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian]

Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker is from Germany’s Stefan Mueller and it is far and away the most hallucinogenic of the bunch. When a cop shows up after a noise complaint, three separate apartments and their tenants interact in the most surreal and wildly unpredictable of ways. Swiss filmmaker George Schwizgebel, working through the National Film Board of Canada, produced a dizzyingly complex, interlocking series of lovely imagery in Jeu, one that seems like it could have been made by M.C. Escher The French studio known as Gobelins has a richly artistic reply to the Indiana Jones saga in the colorful Voodoo, as a group of arrogant explorers force their way into the wrong ancient temple and pay a superbly supernatural price for their intrusion. And the British team of Smith and Foulkes make the topic of death awfully cheery with This Way Up. In it, two undertakers have the Devil’s own time simply burying a casket and one wonders whether they will meet their deadline or meet their Maker.

For those who are true animation cineastes—and those who like to extend the boundaries of their film knowledge in general—there is the incomparable Facets Multimedia in Chicago. They are the place to go when you can’t find it anywhere else and they have a really charming, unique four DVD collection of a highly inventive San Francisco animator, the Lawrence Jordan Album.

Jordan used many techniques but is best known for cutting out, colorizing and adding effects to engravings. Nowhere else is this technique used to such great impact as in his well-known and astonishing version of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Using Gustav Dore’s artwork, Jordan also managed to get Orson Welles to recite with undeniable power this epic poem. It reminds us of how Welles so assuredly took the stage and film world by storm.

Jordan’s shorter films are quite picaresque and the unpredictability of usually inanimate objects moving through detailed, engraved backgrounds is oddly relaxing, if one allows for a release of narrative and savors the visuals and the often classical music beds that Jordan relies upon. He shows too a willingness to combine animation and documentary technique in Cornell, 1965, during which Jordan worked as an assistant to artist Joseph Cornell and his technique of making boxed assemblage.

There is no better way to summarize the exacting nature and perseverance needed in animation than Jordan’s two year production on The Sacred Art of Tibet, found on the fourth and final DVD of the collection He overlays Tibetan painting and sculpture with live action images of natural beauty and a female voice-over serenely introduces us to major biographical figures in Northern Buddhist philosophy. It’s a reminder that animation was and still is so much more than cute little talking animals selling you a product, that it can and should be, at times, mystifying, hard to define and beyond the normal considerations of live action filmmaking.

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[The Visible Compendium by Lawrence Jordan] 

My Friends and Associates at Book Expo America

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You can learn about a person by what that person does and what that person says. But you can also learn a lot about a journalist by the company he keeps.

One of the great rewards in writing arts journalism, it seems, is to praise those who you admire with complimentary analysis. When the journalist has some kind of direct relationship with the subject, then it is obligatory to use the term, “full disclosure.”

While much of this column is generally reviewing, the time has come to simply honor good and talented friends and professional associates, so many of whom I ran into last weekend at the Book Expo America at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Let’s begin with T. Jefferson Parker, the always provocative and inventive crime novelist. I was fortunate enough to be on a lecture and signing panel with him some time ago, along with the late Dennis Weaver, actor-turned-author-eco-activist. Jeff was on his way to sign audio books and his latest work, L.A. Outlaws (Dutton), is the marvelous tale of an unknown female robber who goes by the name Allison Murrieta, claims she is a descendent of bandit Joaquin Murrieta, robs from the greedy and shares her largesse with charities, until she witnesses a mob slaying and is pressured to testify.

The greatest flash from the past came as I saw Will and Debi Durst, arguably the Lunt and Fontanne of the Bay Area comedy scene. Debi runs the comedy institution the Holy City Zoo and is in charge of Comedy Day in San Francisco. We were both in the Theatre Arts department at San Francisco State and shared some laughs with her husband, Will who as one of the finest satirists we have, knows how to make you laugh and then smack you upside the head and think differently. His latest book is The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing: Common Sense Rantings from a Raging Moderate (Ulysses Press). As for one of my favorite lines of his, found at www.willdurst.com, there is this: “Every time I hear the oil companies talk about solar energy, I worry they’ve developed a plan to block out the sun.”

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Then there is Brad Olsen, publisher, author and the foremost expert on sacred sites around the world, who I in fact met years ago walking down a crowded BEA aisle. His second edition of Sacred Places North America: 108 Destinations is out and features not only his insights on little known places of pilgrimage and vision quests but his own photography and maps. Brad introduced me to another explorer of things both arcane and mystical, David Hatcher Childress whose World Explorers Club details his global journeys. Childress’ books can be found at Adventures Unlimited Press, along with books on everything from ancient science and conspiracy and history to UFOs and Tesla technology.

Claudia Sloan at Tallfellow and Smallfellow Press is following in the publishing footsteps of her father, Larry Sloan of Price, Stern, Sloan and Mad Libs fame. It was my pleasure to previously cover a reading from Tallfellow’s Doing It For the Money: The Agony and Ecstasy of Writing and Surviving in Hollywood, featuring true tales from some of Hollywood’s most accomplished—and most despicably treated–screenwriters. Now, screenwriter-turned-psychologist Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year) is their latest author. From Crime to Crime has short fiction ranging from a group of suburban husbands who stumble into crime-solving to a poor patent clerk, named Albert Einstein, who tracks a turn-of-the-century serial killer.

My dear friend Katerina Makris (who studied writing with my mother, Mona) was herself a hit with Sophia, her irresistible rescue dog, as we walked the aisles of the South Hall. Co-authored with Shelly Frost, the book Your Adopted Dog from Lyons Press resonated with so many book publishing folks we met during our all-too-brief time together. In fact, we bumped into another good pal—and animal rescue advocate—in Jane Velez-Mitchell. The former L.A. news anchor and frequent cable TV crime news analyst has her own tome, now out in paperback; Secrets Can Be Murder (Simon & Schuster) covers 21 cases, from Hollywood horrors to Bible Belt brutality, but all with a keen psychological perception that makes her a respectful and brilliant expert on such shocking cases.

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After walking miles of carpeted concrete, I gladly partook of a party or two, during BEA. I dragged my happy, overstimulated and frazzled carcass to the William Turner Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica for a party co-sponsored by Los Angeles Magazine and Black Clock, the literary journal from the MFA program at CalArts. There I was pleased to see my old UCLA Extension instructor buddy Bruce Bauman, author of And the Word Was, (Other Press) and his wife, Suzan Woodruff whose mind-expanding paintings are repped by Turner. Bruce recently received a COLA grant for literature and I am hoping the film people who have optioned And the Word Was are actually going to do something with his awe-inspiring tale of two worlds, New York and New Delhi. There at the Turner, as well, I had a chance to congratulate Steve Erickson on the overwhelming critical success of his eighth and latest novel, Zeroville (Europa Editions). As the L.A. Times put it, Zeroville “manages to wipe clean the presumptions typically guiding the Hollywood Novel,” and how often does that happen?

Gore Vidal said, “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little something inside of me dies.” I appreciate Vidal’s honesty and his work, but every time a friend of mine succeeds, without fostering a conflict of interest, I want to tell the world.

Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “Bloodline”

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“I think I’m just a reasonable guy,” says documentarian Bruce Burgess in front of a sold-out, opening night crowd at the Laemmle Sunset 5, “who’s looking for the truth.” Normally, directors of documentaries do not need to explain or defend their film subjects. But Bloodline, Burgess’s first documentary feature film, has tapped into a societal fascination with the historical Jesus.

Burgess, along with his producer Rene Barnett, conducted a Q&A with an audience that was highly passionate, informed and participatory to such a degree that it would be the envy of most filmmakers. But then Bloodline, using researchers and experts, analyzing ancient scrolls and clues in artwork, strongly suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that the Catholic Church has known this all along and that there are members of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion who are trying to disseminate this information, sub rosa, even while being connected to the Vatican.

The Priory of Sion may be familiar to those who read Dan Brown’s international best-selling novel, The Davinci Code. And while that book plays fast and loose with many historical facts, it laid the groundwork for serious consideration of the central thesis in Bloodline, namely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, that they may have had children and that the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who was resurrected needs to now be viewed from a non-biblical perspective.

This remarkable documentary not only explores a burial tomb in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, where a mummified body and artifacts verified to be from the 1st century A.D. have been found, but it also follows Burgess and amateur archeologist Ben Hammott, who deal with unnerving threats to their exploration. Burgess, in direct address rather than voice-over, poses fair questions about what has been found and its ramifications. Without grandiosity and with marvelous dramatic tension, he exposes a series of sinister events during the three-year production. They include tapped phone calls, the suspicious death of alleged Priory member Lord Patrick Lichfield one week before a scheduled interview, the intimidation of an on-camera interview subject by an unidentified man and finally, someone cutting the brake line to Hammott’s van during his explorations in Rennes-le-Chateau.

The filmmakers have a spokesperson for the Priory in the icily imperious Brit named Nicolas Haywood, whose screen presence is not only subtly menacing but who confirmed to Burgess and Hammott that with The Davinci Code, and the 1982 nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, there will be more revelations regarding the historical Jesus. Burgess informed me that Haywood acknowledged, “There are definitely members of the Priory who are in the intelligence services both in England, in France and in the United States.”

The filmed discovery of that undergrown tomb in France, which could only be shot with a special camera through a narrow airshaft, will lead to an excavation very likely this summer, although it will require avoiding a collapse of the entire, sealed off tomb. “I’ve knocked around the Valley of the Kings a bit and other tombs,” Burgess says with charming English understatement, “and this will be a hard one.”

While Burgess has been criticized by religious groups, not unexpectedly, and has been humorously dubbed a “Ziploc bag archaelogist,” the crowds at the Sunset 5 and the East Village Theatre in Manhattan, where Bloodline opened, suggest a public hungry for re-evaluation of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Burgess’s previous television work has included mysterious topics like the infamous Area 51 at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada–where extraterrestrial-military complicity has been alleged–a series of Bigfoot sightings in a rural Oklahoma town, CIA assassins and yes, the search for the Holy Grail. “It’s gone on and on and on,” Burgess says of the Jesus-Mary Magdalene secrecy, “a bit like some of the UFO stuff, Area 51, where the secret is kept so long, no one knows why they’re keeping it.” He also cites historical precedent for the Catholic Church revising long-held truisms. “With Mary Magdalene, they did it overnight. In 1969, a papal bull was issued, and said there was no evidence she was a prostitute.”

Burgess feels that irrespective of the identity of the mummy–already verified as having a Middle Eastern origin–and whether the artifacts can be linked to Jesus or Mary Magdalene, that Bloodline and the movement for a more humanistic interpretation of these figures will eventually lead to doctrinal changes in the Catholic Church. He mentions the eventual possibility of women priests, gay priests and bishops and perhaps even a reconsideration of the requirement for priestly celibacy, a doctrine that many feel has impacted the sexual molestation scandals that have in recent years rocked the Church.

“If we can get to the true historical Jesus,” Burgess says, “I believe from what I’ve been told and from what I’ve ingested in doing this film that his true ministry would be far more powerful, far more beneficial, far more enlightening toward mankind than church doctrine. In other words, it would start to enable us to be all we can be.”

“The Ultimate Trip” Returns: 2001 in 2008

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(Actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood at 40th anniversary screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills)

I have a friendly disagreement with a journalist-screenwriter friend of mine, Mike Tunison. He thinks the movie that changed his view of life, the universe and everything, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, was Star Wars. For me, it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a sold-out event April 25 to honor the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s remarkable adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” hosted by Tom Hanks. After the presentation in 70 millimeter, six-track sound, as it was originally shown, there was a panel discussion with actors Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, effects artist Bruce Logan and Daniel Richter, a mime who wound up playing the ape known as Moonwatcher and took nine months to choreograph the animal movements in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.

Hanks delivered a long but charming speech prior to the screening itself, introducing celebrities including former astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. “I believe Buzz is called Buzz,” Hanks explained deferentially, “because everyone talks about Buzz when he leaves the room.”

Hanks recalled his reading the Mad magazine piece entitled “201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy” before actually seeing the film for the first time at a domed theatre near the Oakland Coliseum. He marveled at the transition Kubrick created between an ape tossing a bone—newly invented as a weapon—into the air, and its transition into a spacecraft: “In the history of cinema, there has never been as great a time cut…or one that has cut out as much time.”

After the screening, culminating with the still visually transporting “star gate corridor” and the otherworldly music of Gyorgy Ligeti—perhaps leading to the film’s original promotional copy of “The Ultimate Trip”—Trumbull elucidated many of the technical aspects of making 2001. He reminded the Samuel Goldwyn theatre crowd that there were no computers used in the making of the film, that sixteen separate16-millimeter cameras were synched up to project data screens inside the depicted spacecraft.

There was no optical printing to be had, as George Lucas did during the production of Star Wars. So, when Kubrick wanted to project an ancient landscape for the apes in the beginning of the film, it involved a mindboggling use of 20,000 watt arc lamps, front projection onto a surface that was 50 percent mirrored with reflective beads and temperatures in the studio that reached 130 degrees. Richter recalled bulbs constantly exploded and had to be replaced, especially whenever a studio door was opened and a jetstream of air entered the space.

Lockwood tried to dispel the legend of Kubrick as a director who shot numerous takes, pushing actors to the brink, insisting that the only scene that required a lot of takes was when he and Dullea were inside a pod and had their lips read by soon-to-be renegade computer HAL-9000. He contended it was 35 takes. But forty years did not diminish the memory of Richter, who as Moonwatcher had to kill a fellow actor-ape named Richard Wood 42 times. Perhaps Edmund Kean was wrong when he said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Dullea wrung applause from the audience as he explained the harrowing method of shooting him re-entering the spaceship through an airlock without a helmet. It was done with rigging and a leap from two stories high. A former circus stagehand had to grab the rope at a certain point to prevent Dullea from breaking his neck.

These details of jerryrigging equipment, 40 years ago, makes even the cinematic effect of 2001 even more monumental. The detail, the use of music, the sense of wonder, mystery, spirituality and yes, ineffable loneliness that Kubrick created in his “Ultimate Trip” is what sets it apart from other science fiction films that had the benefit of more advanced technology.

For those who wish to learn more about the production, the Academy will have Trumbull return with others for “2001 in 2008,” on May 21, a program featuring more information on the making of the film, as well as previously unseen photos and unused footage of—with all due respect to Lucas and my friend Mike—the greatest space-related motion picture ever made.

Errol Morris Doc “Reframes” Abu Ghraib

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I am sitting two feet away from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. He is screaming at me. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

Morris’s latest documentary feature, Standard Operating Procedure (released by Sony Pictures Classics and Participant Media in Los Angeles on May 2) is not just about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and its administration by the U.S. military. With the same trademark élan evident in The Fog of War, his Academy Award- winning doc on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morris’s S.O.P., which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, weaves together an overwhelming number of topical strands with remarkable clarity and artistry.

But it is the sentencing of seven soldiers–M.P.’s at Abu Ghraib–and the refusal of the military, US government and population at large to look beyond this “framing” of the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi detainees, that is the reason Morris, generally the most genial and polite of interview subjects, vented his frustration after a question of mine.

Specialist Sabrina Harman, as guard on the night shift for the 372nd M.P .Company, explains in S.O.P.  that she took photos not only of naked Iraqi prisoners but the dead body of a detainee named Manadel al-Jamadi, who was murdered after an interrogation by a CIA officer, whose name is known to the military. She insists the photos were not for perverse pleasure but because she felt compelled to document the repugnant activities in Abu Ghraib.

“Why wasn’t the CIA officer ever charged?” Morris shouted toward me with uncustomary vehemence. “Why was the only person ever threatened with imprisonment over the death of Al-Jamadi, why was it Sabrina, for taking a goddamn photograph that exposes the military, exposes a crime? To me it’s a metaphor for the whole goddamn war in Iraq.”

Among the interviewees, Morris surprisingly managed to capture on film six of the seven “bad apples” of the 372nd M.P., excluding Cpl. Charles Graner, responsible for arranging such disturbing, indelible images as an Iraqi with a hood standing on a box, with wires hanging off him or a pyramid of naked detainees. Graner received ten years, as the stiffest sentence of those charged, but S.O.P., upon careful scrutiny, points to culpability at higher levels.

For example, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, 800th M.P. Brigade, was eventually relieved of command and demoted by President George W. Bush. Morris selected clips of his 17 hours of interviews with Karpinski to reveal that Karpinski was responsible for rebuilding and running the entire, decimated prison system in Iraq. When she inspected Abu Ghraib, interrogation techniques used there were shielded from her view. Karpinski could not identify the staggering mix of civilian contract interrogators, CIA officers and, in military lexicon, O.G.A. (Other Governmental Agencies) going in and out of cells at the prison. Most damning of all, when Karpinski became aware of the systematic mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, she informed Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who promptly ordered her to do nothing. She became the highest-ranking scapegoat in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal and her onscreen gaze is suffused with cold resentment.

Morris’ collaborator on the book version of S.O.P, author and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, has stated that rather than wondering about finding a “smoking gun,” irrefutable evidence of the definitive culprit of Abu Ghraib, that “Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.” Morris opens his documentary by contextualizing the prison, which was emptied of all its prisoners in the Fall of 2002 by Saddam Hussein. Under US occupation, Abu Ghraib became the center of military intelligence, despite its legacy for torture and murder of prisoners under Saddam.

Conditions in the prison breached the Geneva Conventions. Military sweeps brought in detainees, often relatives of suspects, without any confirming intelligence. A prison population of 200 grew to an unmanageable 1500. Food was scarce and often contaminated. And in one of the most obvious abrogations of Geneva, Abu Ghraib was located in a war zone, within the bloody “Sunni Triangle,” where daily shelling of the prison made the psychological conditions inside even more volatile.

Photos were widely distributed electronically among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, beginning in October of 2003, which included images taken by Cpl. Graner of PFC Lynddie England and Specialist Megan Ambuhl, two women who posed with a naked, leashed prisoner called “Gus.” In a stunning parenthetical in this documentary, Morris delves into the fact that Graner was simultaneously having sexual relations with both England and Ambuhl, the latter now his wife.

Lieutenant-General Sanchez is not the only officer who escaped justice for a coverup. It was January 13, 2004, when Specialist Joseph Darby turned a CD of Abu Ghraib photos into the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. The result, as we learn in Morris’s work is this: Three days later, Colonel Thomas Pappas issued an amnesty for all military personnel who possessed the Abu Ghraib photos. In essence, this enabled the wholesale destruction of all evidence connected to the scandal.

Ironically, Spec. Harman had earlier attempted to disseminate the photos within the US media and with considerably lesser results. “You know, Sabrina burned a CD,” Morris explained. “Shortly after the death of al-Jamadi, she was sent back to the US on a leave. She tried to show the photographs to someone at CNN who didn’t really want to look at them.”

The evening I returned from the press roundtable with Morris, the news on television put S.O.P. into clearer perspective. The Associated Press revealed that a group within the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney, with the approval of Bush, labored to find legal justification for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques they knew to be objectionable and unacceptable under international law. Between 2002 and 2003, the Justice Department had issued several memos from its Office of Legal Counsel.

As I heard the news, I recalled Morris’s furious rhetorical question from just hours before: “How many torture memos does a government have to promulgate before you get the idea they might be interested in promulgating torture? How many? What would satisfy anybody?”

Morris mentioned that there have been 13 separate investigations on Abu Ghraib, what he refers to as “almost an investigative filibuster.” His reframing of the significance of those prison photos, those who took them and those who controlled how they were perceived, is a distillation of a million and a half words of interview transcript, along with thousands of pages of unredacted reports and about 270 photographs that shook the world but has left it materially unchanged.

“The photographs have stopped us from looking further and demanding answers,” Morris said, “almost as if we’ve gone into this state of shock and nothing more is needed. It’s a democracy still and I still have some residual faith in that democracy. And I believe that part of moving past the stain of Abu Ghraib is confronting what actually happened there. Not scapegoats but confronting what happened there.”

[S.O.P. producer Participant Media has created a social action network regarding human rights and the documentary, at www.takepart.com.]

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