“Vampira the Movie” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

A carpet of eerie mist pervades a narrow, gothic corridor; a mysterious figure appears in the distance.  It soon becomes obvious that this is a voluptuous woman, but something is askew, for it is no ordinary woman, as we realize that her face is stark white, sinister.  She saunters up close to the camera, dominates it and then lets out a blood curdling scream.

Television horror hosts have become popular underground icons over the decades as their schlocky intros to grade-Z scare films are comic allegiances to campy nightmares.  The most well-known might be “Elvira” – because she’s been our most contemporary incarnation of vampiric vixens – but she certainly wasn’t the first.  That distinction belongs to one such tele-vamp known as “Vampira.”  And this cheapie-video doc (but with a heart of gold and fascinating insight) “Vampira the Movie,” a 2007 release from director Kevin Sean Michaels, allows us a delicious intimation into her life and career.

Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, was the first “Scream Queen” – literally.  With high-key lighting shimmering on her high cheekbones for ghastly effect, and impenetrable, crawling fog from loads of dry ice lapping at her legs, a lasting template was born.  And this ghostly milieu was the distinct intro to the “The Vampira Show” which ran for one year starting in 1954 on a local Los Angeles station, KABC, airing on Saturdays at midnight.  But in one short year, that part of the story was all over.

 

This fascinating narrative had real humble beginnings – namely, a log cabin in Lapland.  But by the age of two, Nurmi had said goodbye to Finland and found a new home in America.  She was always afraid of the outside world and opted to find solace within a rich inner life and would take to such alternate worlds as the fantasies to be found in comic books.  Maila didn’t have friends as a child and took up drawing, eventually becoming a decent artist in her own right.  Yet, even as an adult, she still felt like she was from another planet and was always far more comfortable onscreen than in the real world – finding a healthy firmament in the collective psyche of viewership.

The show found quick popularity as Vampira was an erotic, catchy draw.  Film historian David J. Skal (“The Monster Show”), describes her onscreen persona as a “…strange combination of sex and death.”  She appeared on telethons, cut ribbons at store openings, (even mentions parachuting from a helicopter), and as she puts it: “I was everywhere, like horseshit at the turn-of-the-century.”

And she sure wasn’t short on bravado, just three weeks into the brand new show, Nurmi reveals that she had the audacity to call Life Magazine out of the blue to have them come out and photograph her.  Bizarrely enough, it paid off when soon after, a photographer did show up and she got in the pages of that venerated publication.

Vampira 1954 / Los Angeles

Vampira 1954 / Los Angeles

Amazingly, Nurmi was secretly ashamed of her looks – but luckily the viewing audience wasn’t.  Incidentally, I caught a glimpse of a newspaper clipping in this film and saw her measurements of 37-19-36: yes, you’ve definitely seen that incredibly thin waist caricatured out and about.

Yet, this wasn’t the whole of the story, for Nurmi’s true desire was not to be a television star.  Strangely enough, what she really wanted to be was an evangelist.  She just saw this TV gig (at $75 a week which wasn’t too shabby back then) as merely a way to finance that dream. Maila became fixated on the sum of $20,000 – for that was what she felt she needed to preach on a self-sufficient basis.  And since the dough earned as a hatcheck girl just wasn’t going to fiscally cut it, it was in television that she found a better means to that end – but as for preaching the Good Word, she never got there.

Maila had based Vampira as a hybrid of Morticia from “The Addams Family” illustrations (before it became a TV show – we’ll get to that) and a character from a bondage magazine – to fashion what she called a “Glamour Ghoul.”  Her husband at the time, a screenwriter, came up with the name “Vampira” and later went on to create “Dirty Harry.”

She got pretty popular and at one point she had three movie studios courting her.  When Ed Wood Jr. came calling she was less than impressed by the weird guy and thought that he really possessed some nerve expecting that someone like her would appear in one of his cheap, off-the-wall films.  She thought that he was a “brazen, foolish idiot.”  But that distinct coupling didn’t end there as…

Her life took another turn when “The Addams Family” was headed for a TV screen near you and Vampira’s character cut too close to the bone of Morticia’s and that ended Nurmi’s television career in that role.  (“Vampira” was invisibly blacklisted – ironically, Nurmi unsuccessfully tried to sue Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson because she felt her image was too similar – talk about the pot calling the kettle black).  Consequently, Maila found herself on unemployment at thirteen dollars a week and living with her mother.

And it was in those lean times that Ed Wood reappeared in her life when one of his colleagues appeared with a stack of 200 one dollar bills (for dramatic effect I’m sure) to take the role that she’s also quite famous for.  Living low to the curb now, she took the bait at this very serendipitous time.  But she found herself so appalled at the dialogue, finding it so moronic, that she insisted on playing it mute.  For the one day shoot at a studio behind a girlie pick-up bar, she rode the bus in full costume.  So, yes, that’s her in “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” haunting the cardboard graveyard like only she can.  She remembers Wood “Directing his no direction,” giving no other advice other than how to get from point A to B, and that was it.  But in later reflection she found herself admiring Wood’s persistence and the miracle of what he managed to get accomplished.

And in a definite departure from the likes of Mr. Wood, she was acquainted with both James Dean and Marlon Brando (who had a crush on her).  Now that’s a heck of a swing of the pendulum.

Jerry Only, from the punk band “The Misfits,” recalls that their song “Vampira,” being a tribute to the ghoul queen, had literally lobed their album over the transom of her home in hopes that she would show up at one of their appearances.  And much to their delight – she did.  He fondly remembers, “She went way above and beyond the call of duty to come out for a bunch of punks…”

The  musical score for this documentary is from Ari Lehman, who played the character of “Jason” as a child, rising spookily out of the waters in the original “Friday the 13th.”  I actually ran into Ari on one occasion and he handed me his CD.  He’s a good musician and a charming guy with positive, productive vibes.

And horror luminaries Lloyd Kaufman, Sid Haig, and Forrest Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine) help round out the proceedings as well as famed horror host Svengoolie from Chicago and actress Julie Strain.

All-in-all, Maila Nurmi now comes off like an amicable, chatty grandma (I don’t know if she actually has kids) who just so happened to be the founding mother of horror hostesses.  She’s a smart, aware, tough cookie, yet is keenly aware of her vulnerabilities.  She’s had a full life and by the time that she was 31, she had made it into the venerated book, “Who’s Who in America,” and at the time of the documentary at age 82, Nurmi still finds that, “Life continues to be fascinating.”  It sure was back then and I’m glad that she’s still finding it that way now.  Scream on…

“Vernon, Florida” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Summer has come upon us.  For many, it is a seasonal time to rejoice.  For others, it is a year-round attribute in the location that they live; in other words, the warmth is nothing new under the sun.  States such as California and Florida immediately come to mind and the latter one is where we find ourselves.

Vernon, Florida” is a film by Errol Morris from 1981.  He of course went on to find greater fame with “The Thin Blue Line” and found Roger Ebert’s ecstatic favor with “Gates of Heaven.”

Ned Burgess, who served as the director of photography, provides clean, accessible images of this small town and its quaint, interesting inhabitants.  These are the people we usually see from a distance as we’re just “passing through.”  We never get to know their names, their circumstances, nor their stories.  But this time we stop by and get to check in.

The first shot is of a small, battered road either leading into town or out of it, depending on which way you look at it.  A pick-up truck creates slow trails of immense, billowing smoke behind it.  Seems like some sort of fumigating going on.  And that temporally extended shot sets the tone of a slow, easy feel to this film – just like its residents.  The blinking yellow traffic lights of this one-horse town signify the lack of the finite dictates of a hardcore green and red.  It’s just ease on through with leisurely caution.

If people are not born in a locale, then there is another reason that they live there.  Usually, there may be the comfort of friends or relatives to settle by or the lure of employment; romantic as it seems, rarely does one close their eyes and blindly let a haphazardly planted finger determine their new homestead.

We first get to meet a retiree with his inexpensive house paid off.  He’s come to reside in this laid-back town from the urban grip of Chicago.  From his perspective, he got out while the getting was good.  He’s an unassuming guy and later on, he shows us a photograph of a star and explains his good fortune of getting the shot: “When something turns out, you say, ‘Gee, I’m lucky.’”  Good things can be simple things and he inherently realizes this.

An older gent asks us, “Ever see a man’s brains?”  He goes on to explain the complexities of our own mental operating system as he exhibits a cacophony of hand and foot movements to illustrate the ability to do more than one thing at once.  It’s a sublime sort of chicken-dance we get.  Yes, it is those small moments in life.

But it can be argued that the real star of this film is a sleepy-eyed turkey hunter.  We first meet him from the backseat of his truck with his hunting partner “Snake” as they traverse a dusky road in the middle of the boonies.  There is an ethereal quality to morning twilight, an unbroken quietude as most of mankind is still fast asleep – save for these persistent guys.  Our man is more than willing to discuss the science of turkey hunting to the nth degree.  And we’re on board for every word, for there is a sort of hypnotizing quality to his obsession, and his soft droll.  Snake, is mostly silent, but ever watchful, always listening for turkeys himself.  They are backlit by the amber glow of the early morning sun against the lush green of the Florida foliage.  Our hunter can determine the weight of turkeys by the depth of their footprints.  Humorously, he lets it be known of an inconvenient ailment: “You hear a turkey gobbling and you forget about diarrhea and everything.”  We also get to spend time with him on his porch, while behind him on the outside of his house hangs plaques with turkey beards and feet.  His obsession is complete.

There are other denizens of this town that the film touches base with and among them we get a trio of elder gents comfortably sunk into a bench outside a gas station.  An iconic, Rockwellian image if there ever was one.  You may observe those seniors now at a comfortable remove but someday you’ll be joining them on that bench.

Essentially, these townsfolk are a God-fearing people and we even get to spend some time in a church service.  We also find ourselves floating on ethereal waters with an old-timer in a boat explaining that God made everything as opposed to: “It just happened.”  And along those Godly lines, another explains how divinity granted him a plot of land to build on and a $5,000 van just when he needed one.  I have an admiration for those who are content with their assured connections to life.  I’m sure it gives one a sense of place and peace.

I found one of the most endearing portraits occurring outside a repair shop as three men change a large tire.  The mise-en-scene is of a basic, workingman’s realm; the beauty of the everyday captured on film, something in real life that’s usually passed over with nothing more than a half curious glimpse.

And so, the simple grace of “Vernon, Florida” reflects the simple grace of the lives it portrays.  And these once invisible lives have been made manifest for all to see by the magic of celluloid.  And it is a film, shot in simpler times – that is for documentaries.  There isn’t any frenetic editing or hagiographic espousing.  It is a quiet, dignified portrait both in its temporal quality and compositional study, serving as a relief, an antidote from the distracting bombast of contemporary offerings.

“Vernon, Florida” closes as magically as it has begun, this time drifting along a lake as our turkey hunter does a count of birds majestically perched atop high trees.  He counts about three dozen in all, but lets us know that they are just buzzards.  Ultimately, it’s all in the details.  These may not be big stories but they are idiosyncratic ones to each of these lives.  And without this documentary we wouldn’t have gotten to know some of them.  Yet of course we’ll never remotely comprehend the infinite constellations of countless existences out there.  We are thankful for what we get here.

In “Vernon, Florida” it is in the specific that we find the universal.  So, as we gaze upon our maps this summer, at the thousands of towns throughout this country that we’ve never heard of, it truly becomes a waking dream of wonder as we ponder just who resides on those dusty back roads, those quaint main streets, those clapboard houses?  What are their lives like, what are their secrets, their histories, hopes, desires, failings and achievements?  All in all, what are their stories?  Everyone’s got one.

“Chronicle of a Summer” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Chronicle of a Summer” is simply that. This 1961 release which won the “International Critics Prize” of that year at the Cannes Film Festival, is a sociological survey of a Parisian summer in 1960. But it is a Paris of the people itself and not a typical white-washing of the city, riding the surface illusions of iconic sights and romantic imaginings. Rather, this is about the real residents of the urban labyrinth and they understandably see it in a completely different way. Cinematically, the film is a gritty mix of 16mm reversal film (film students should be quite familiar with that stock) and 35mm, and in true to psychological form, in austere black and white. It’s co-directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

Rouch and Morin, at the outset, discuss the problems of attempting to capture something real from their subjects, yet knowingly with a camera present. A camera inevitably alters the biochemistry of the characters under its spell, but for the most part, the participants adapt pretty well. These are actual people discussing the real circumstances of their lives, and they certainly experience Paris in a dramatically dissimilar bent than a tourist would, for they are in the trenches of the day-to-day. It is a film about “how people live” and “what they do all day,” yet it evolves into more as it seeks to explore colonialism, race, and living on the fringes of life from paycheck to paycheck.

“Chronicle of a Summer” finds itself absolutely prescient in light of today’s socio-economic challenges. For many, that paycheck-to-paycheck existence did not just pop out of the blue as it’s seemingly portrayed in the current media, but rather, has been with us all along; only now, it’s affected much more people and consequently has dominated the zeitgeist. The individuals illuminated in this filmic survey see work as a quasi-enslavement, as they are mere cogs within an oppressive machine, victims of an economic stranglehold that remains a startling analog to today’s climate of fiscal extremes.
At first, the film is an on the street examination regarding the state of random passerbys’ happiness. It’s conducted by two women, microphone in hand, bluntly asking citizens: “Are you happy?” Surprisingly, they are brushed off by many people but then others get into the groove and we get a variety of responses.

One woman asserts, “I am happy to be alive even if I’m 60…I’m healthy, I have a kind husband” while another elder finds that at 79, he’s not happy because he’s too old.

Extremes in circumstance are captured on film as a gentleman is caught on the wrong day when he reveals that his sister just died at age 44, whereas a policeman cheerfully claims that he can’t answer the question because he’s on duty.

A wisely woman equitably sums up her experience with life: “I’ve been happy, I’ve been sad. I’ve had a bit of everything.” And as a joyful coda, two girls beamishly chime that, “We’re young and the sun shines.” How about that?

As for queries into the quality of life that the denizens lead, we spend some time with a couple living hand-to-mouth, as the man reveals that they do a lot of “cheating” to get by. The wife doesn’t seem too comfortable with that on-camera revelation and understandably so. Another subject reveals that she and her friends doctored furniture to sell as original antiques. Obviously this is the less sunny side of the street. Yet – another couple reveal that they don’t have much but find happiness in their books and records. Amen.

Being poor, a couple residents talk about cheap apartments they’ve encountered with bugs, no running water and walls so thin everything can be heard by everyone. But in their current situation they admit that they are “almost” happy. But in order to be completely happy, she needs: “money” and he needs to “do what he likes.” Money buys freedom, so that would take care of two birds with one stone. But both are thankful for what they do have and that’s a very smart thing.

A troubled soul, Mary Lou is introduced, who obviously has mental health issues, and has arrived in Paris from Italy only to find herself living in a cold attic with no water. She came to France to get away from the ghosts of the past only to be haunted by new ones as she falls into drink and sleeping around while seeking “…a job that doesn’t scare me.”

As to the city itself, a grungy auto mechanic surmises, “Paris is no fun…the bad air, no sun.” That definitely serves as a corrective to the dreamy perceptions one conjures of the cherished city.

As for the working class predominantly displayed, they essentially disparage the monotony of their jobs, the deadening routines. To complement their helpless laments, we are given a gritty montage of grueling, dirty machine work allied with the constant drone of those industrial sounds and get a quick idea of just what these guys are rightfully grousing about.

We move on to Landry, a young black student from Africa studying in France. He smartly declares that he wouldn’t dream of working in a factory – to be shut in all day. He’s questioned about colonialism in his continent, specifically the Belgium presence in the Congo. He of course does not approve. He’s a bright presence in the proceedings and hasn’t been brought down by the work-a-day situations that the others have found themselves trapped in.

During an outdoor gathering with Landry, another African and others, that Belgian-Congo situation is discussed. But they’re not the only ones who have encountered intense circumstances of oppression, for in an uneasy episode, the Africans are questioned as to what they think a woman’s tattoo of digits is on her arm. One mirthfully declares, “not a phone number” – because it is too long. It’s revealed that it’s from a concentration camp and the smiles quickly vanish.

As noted above, the film ventures outside of idiosyncratic lives and examines broader social issues – and involving young, new faces, issues such as the Algerian war are raised. Their opinions certainly count for they are ripe for the draft. A 20 year old student declares in general, “If I agree to getting screwed, I’m fine.” All will be peachy if he just goes along with the machine.

“Chronicle of a Summer” stands as a fascinating insight into the urban human condition, revealing the vicissitudes of identity painted by circumstance and how it can be sadly lost in the grind. And it’s about enduring that menial labor before it can ultimately destroy one’s spirits; a vivid account of the working class, those people essentially doing whatever they can to stay on track – and intact.

Unfortunately, hardly any of these people really seem to relate to the art of self-potential, of passionately and pragmatically pursuing a life beyond their current circumstances. They seem to be devoid of any meaningful aesthetic instincts, possessing little creative drive to give themselves some sort of interior salvation – at most, some trite hobbies to obfuscate dull existences as they remain in soul-deadening hell-holes. These are definitely shoes I’d rather not walk in. In the film someone confirms, “If you’ve got an inner life, you’re never bored.” That’s what I’m talking about.

The penultimate scene is a screening of this film for the documentary’s subjects, and that screening becomes part of the greater film, the one that we of course see. There, Mary Lou falls prey to the most scrutiny when one woman harshly judges her onscreen revelations: “I’d be horribly embarrassed. She said too much, she stripped herself bare.” While another woman humanely counters, “I thought Mary Lou was wonderful and I’d like to get to know her.”
Finally the film ends with the two filmmakers discussing the results of their experimental project. They wonder – did they succeed in their goal? I think they did.

“Overnight” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

“Ever since I was a kid I knew that I was not meant to do what other people do…I hope to conquer the world.”  Obviously, when it comes to confidence, filmmaker Troy Duffy’s got what it takes – and then some.  And it’s that incessant bravado, which at first brings him to the big time – also instigates his demise; and the havoc wreaked is quite impressive.

Troy Duffy is the man who ultimately, through a hard-fought process, brought the cult action film, “The Boondock Saints” to the sliver screen –  well five screens to be exact, at the time.  And “Overnight,” (written and directed by Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana) a 2004 release from ThinkFilm, covers the trials and tribulations of that boisterous auteur and his attempts at maintaining a simultaneous movie and music career during the late Nineties.

Not only is Duffy an ideological bull in a china shop, but he’s a true-blood Renaissance man: he’s a writer, director, guitarist, bartender and heck, a bouncer to boot.  He carries his Boston bravado with him all the way to the West coast when a deal to make his film is cut with Miramax.  And with that, the big man himself, Harvey Weinstein is on board.

Initially Miramax sets the budget at $15 million and Duffy is given $300,000 for the script.  Troy’s band “The Brood” will provide the soundtrack and Harvey even enters a deal with him to co-own a bar out in West Hollywood called “J. Sloan’s.”  Duffy and his colleagues (about a half dozen friends known at “The Syndicate”) head west to the promised land.

They set up a production office in Tinsel Town and everything seems gloriously on the rise, all horizons promising.  Troy Duffy is featured on the news, in USA Today and the Hollywood Reporter and such.  He points out his unique position in history, that he’s one of the few, if not the only one, to have a movie and recording deal at the same time.  The way he persistently puts it, it seems like he and his boys are on the very verge of conquering the Western world.

Sure enough, they find themselves living large at Hollywood parties, hanging out with the likes of Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman.  There’s even a clip of Duffy in an intense talk, walking a Hollywood street with Patrick Swayze.

But then something strange begins to happen.  Well, “not happen” for that matter: instead of diving right into production, Troy and crew find themselves instead doing a lot of waiting – and not for “Godot” either.  Make that “Harvey.”  It seems that the once robust relationship with the independent movie mogul has unexpectedly cooled down a bit.  And with all that unforeseen time on their hands they begin pondering their fate, which leads to a growing atmosphere of animosity.  And that animosity is unwisely directed right at Mr. Weinstein along with others.

A lot of vitriolic things are declared about their would-be benefactors and potential thespians, bad-mouthing a bunch of notables by name – ouch.  But it’s that queasy specificity that gives this documentary a scandalous bite.  I’m telling you, at times it would even make a fly on the wall wince.  It’s no small wonder that would-be participants took to the hills.  And not surprisingly, “The Boondock Saints” goes into turnaround as that short-lived honeymoon with Miramax turns into a pungently growing hate-fest.

Troy comes up with explanations and accusations to cover his own tracks and capricious mouth, but that can only stem the mounting tide of doubt for so long.  Understandably, dissension within the inner ranks arises, as his own guys are starting to grow wary as well.  And that includes his brother Taylor; blood is thicker than water but it too has its limits.  It’s an uneasy scene as Taylor informs his sibling that he’s reached his breaking point and that he can’t go on like this.  All this amid a lot of heavy drinking at night and a lot of tough talk during the day, as at times Duffy seems to be holding his colleagues ideological hostages.

Mr. Duffy can come off as a pompous rock-head, but he’s also got the blind guts to say out loud what other people are understandably afraid to express; albeit, a lot of what he says is under the influence of alcohol – but a lot of it is not; and that only goes to prove that his thinking is consistent.  Actually, that brash arrogance can be taken as a refreshing antidote to all the false self-deprecation one is exposed to.  But the truth is, Troy Duffy’s probably got more drive and potential in his pinky finger than most people will posses in a lifetime.

Duffy carries an uncanny admixture of bombast and self-deprecation, and as he points out, he’s a guy in overalls amid a bunch of “suits,” living heroically in the ambitious narrative of his own uber-confidence.  He’s eminently quotable and I found myself putting my pen down – I couldn’t keep up with the boisterous axioms of a wild-bred chieftain of bravado who’s only seeming claim to fame at times is constantly making that claim.  .

But with the Miramax deal a bust and recording contracts disappearing, all is yet not lost in this compelling story.  As fate would have it, Franchise Films gets in the ring and offers Duffy half the budget he was promised by Miramax.  Something is definitely better than nothing.  That deal is made and Troy is off and running again, and consequently we have “The Boondock Saints.”  The film is shot up in Toronto in the summer of 1998 with Ron Jeremy and Willem Dafoe joining the cast.  On set, Dafoe cheerfully advises: “Troy, keep your mouth shut.”

Unfortunately, “The Boondock Saints” gets scant distribution and Duffy’s deal doesn’t include ancillary rights which covers the home video market where most of the business was drummed up via an enthusiast fan-base.  Yet, “The Boondock Saints” has since gone on to be a cult item and even a sequel has been made.

And at the end of “Overnight,” just as Duffy’s career appears to be systematically torn apart in front of our eyes, so is the tavern, “J. Sloan’s,” as the interior is ripped up and the once emblematic sign taken down: a brutal, fitting metaphor for Duffy’s relationship with Hollywood; his staunch arrogance having a tendency to decimate all that otherwise could be accomplished.

A distinct lesson is to be learned here as “Overnight” examines the complexities of ambition, the reaction to those ambitions, the hierarchy of intent, who owns the power and why, and the hall of mirrors created by various perceptions and the effects they have on individuals and projects as a whole.

Wherever your conclusions about the man rest, Troy Duffy and his ilk continue to ensure that the world of filmmaking remains a fascinating place to do business in.

“I Am My Films: A Portrait of Werner Herzog” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Werner Herzog is a cinematic mystic, a shaman of the silver screen whose restless and curious spirit has gifted us with the lush and unnervingly poignant imagery of his idiosyncratic cinematic determinations.  His career has been expansive and he himself, has become a recognized and revered icon in the cultural zeitgeist.

1978‘s “I Am My Films: A Portrait of Werner Herzog,” by Christian Weisenborn and Erwin Keusch, is a lesser known documentary about Mr. Herzog, existing in the shadows of the far more celebrated “Burden of Dreams.”  The latter film explores the painstaking effort to make “Fitzcarraldo”; yes, the one about getting that huge boat over the daunting hill, while “I Am My Films” sets its sights on Herzog’s overall career up to the point of “Stroszek” in which the making of that film is highlighted.

There have been a number of films about Werner Herzog including the aforementioned and most famous “Burden of Dreams” by Les Blank and “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” also directed by him where Herzog loses a bet to Errol Morris regarding Morris’s completion of his reverently lauded “Gates of Heaven.”  Werner literally cooks and eats a shoe ala Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” to atone his defeat.  Even a fictive documentary entitled “Incident At Loch Ness” directed by Zak Penn emerged in 2004.  It’s a cozy romp around the famed, moody lake with the alleged monster thrown in to boot.  Herzog comfortably plays himself amidst the forced shenanigans, not falling prey to overacting or the like; and it’s a tribute to his renown and strength of personality that a contrived (and wonderful) narrative such as that was based around him.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

The works covered in “I Am My Films” span 1962’s “Herakles” to “Stroszek” which was released in 1977.  Along that timeline are amazing offerings such as: “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (1970), “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972),  “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner”  and “Heart of Glass” where many of the actors Herzog had hypnotized.  It’s a remarkable body of work in a short period of time.  And as for “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner,” that intoxicating opening shot in extreme slow-motion of the airborne skier accompanied by the haunting synthesizer score of Popol Vuh will forever stick with me.  The same goes for the beginning of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” where the explorers descend the steep mountains like slow, determined ants, and also accompanied by the musical enchantment of Popol Vuh.

In “I Am My Films” Werner’s primarily questioned in what appears to be his office.  But he’s concerned that the interview is beginning to feel too much like a “talk show.”  They get that resolved and move on.  Herzog explains his love of maps; makes sense, the world is definitely his oyster – albeit, a cantankerous one.  And that attitude goes for the documentary itself, for it possesses a gritty, and at times, murky look.

Herzog explains that he was raised in a small farm area in Bavaria and was pretty much given free reign from adults.  He despised institutional rigors and being forced to read “Faust” in school made him want to vomit.  He hung around with a group of kids, yet at the same time he was also used to spending plenty of time alone.  And that comfort with solitude played out later in such episodes as a three week foot trek to Paris from his home land.  He believes in engaging in the physicality of life, and that goes for his filmmaking as well.  And he learned that art of filmmaking himself, hands-on; no film school.

Highlights of the documentary include a bemused Herzog playing a secretly captured audio tape of a hysterical Klaus Kinski ranting and raving on a film set.  And then there’s an uneasy confrontation between one of the brutish lead actors (who appears intoxicated) and Werner Herzog on the set of “Stroszek.”  Herzog dutifully but playfully stands his ground.  Nothing more comes of this but as Herzog has reminded us, filmmaking can be a very physical process.

As for myself, I believe that the first Herzog film I ever saw was, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.”  And if memory serves me correct, it was from a video rental store in Cedarburg, a small town north of Milwaukee, an area lingering in the hinterlands of my own waking dreams.  But first I came across a still photo of “Aguirre” in a film book: of Kinski as the demented leader, in a serious pose with his onscreen daughter, the iconic image of that film.  It was a very dramatic, realistic portraiture, and that’s what indelibly hooked me.  But even before that I had encountered Herzog in “Burden of Dreams” on 16mm at a university screening.

Back to “I Am My Films.”  It covers “La Soufriere,” the title being of one of his documentaries and also that of a potentially explosive volcano.  This is a threatening situation but it does not stop Herzog on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe where the impending disaster might take place.  75,000 citizens have been evacuated from the area but Herzog heads in the opposite direction right to the nexus of peril.  In doing so, he sneaks through military barricades to get up close and dangerous.  Ultimately luck is on everyone’s side for the volcano doesn’t explode.  It’s amazing to think that our heroic filmmaker put himself in such a precarious crisis.  But that’s his bread and butter after all.

In far more subdued worlds, “Land of Silence and Darkness” concerns people who are both deaf and blind.  With next to nothing for money and a two man crew, one of whom is Herzog on sound, he documents this almost unthinkable life-situation brought to bear on those afflicted.  It gives one good pause to appreciate one’s own fortunes: for nothing in life should be taken for granted.  These challenged souls continued to make a go of it – shouldn’t we?

“Stroszek” is one of my favorite Herzog films, partly shot in Wisconsin and some of it in Plainfield – the infamous town where Mr. Ed Gein did his business.

In this film, a trio of disparate comrades flee the perils of Berlin to seek the solace of rural Wisconsin and our state’s landscape is portrayed as both an eerie and beautiful firmament.  And for a few brief seconds, the film reaches spiritual transcendence with the opening melody of a mournful Glen Campbell tune as Eva Mattes cradles Bruno S. in a mobile home with wood paneled walls – a classic Midwest Americana is felt in this heartbreaking scene.

All-in-all, Herzog’s oeuvre contains a wondrous terrain of soldiers, dwarfs, high-flying skiers, rural landscapes, mountainous peaks, restless volcanoes and everything else in between.  It is a dreamlike tapestry of fiction and reality – an uncanny admixture of the real and the realized.  And it stands as an important cinema and one that recognizes that it is first and foremost a cinema and not at a forced remove from that fact.  And it’s in this knowing engagement that gives Herzog’s films a unique vitality.  Even though he admits that at times he manipulates reality in his documentaries for his own purposes, that does not dilute the overall experience of the matter at hand.  And his fiction films stand equally strong as well.

Werner Herzog waves the wand of a delirious magician, frame by frame, an adept in the conjuring of cinematic intrigue and importance. He makes us think deeply about the lands that we trek and the people that we encounter.  His alternate vision sidesteps the pedestrian, pulling back the veils of the preconceived and offers the world anew through the contours of an enlightened prism.

Each of us possesses our own singular adventures in the labyrinth of our psyches and within the throes of our souls; and fortunately for us, Herzog has turned his own internal wonderment outward and onto the big screen for all of us to revel in and absorb.

As Herzog emphatically states: “All I am is my films – I am my films.”  And we believe him.

“Cine Manifest” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

We gather with our friends, we come up with ideas: “We should make this film – we should make that film.”  We revel in our fantastic intoxications – the world is ours.  Until one day – it isn’t; time has irrevocably passed us by and we stumble tragically around the smoldering ruins of our days.

Well, it wasn’t always that way for everyone, so, let’s cut back a bit in time to quite a different version of that story.  In this particular case of rewarded intent, there was an ambitious organization called Cine Manifest.  Cine Manifest was a socio-political film group formed to pursue a Marxist philosophy accordingly where everyone pitches in both financially and work-wise – but in this case, with a lot of intra-office memos.

1975 photo of filmmakers in the Cine Manifest collective:

1975 photo of filmmakers in the Cine Manifest collective:

It was still a freewheeling time in the Seventies, riding high off the momentous crest of the Sixties, and this hands-on, socialist filmmaking commune turned ideas successfully into concrete realities, a feat which absolutely distinguished them from the idle clubs of inert pipe dreamers.  This fun, enterprising collective of cineastes and their work is illuminated in “Cine Manifest,” a film by one of its seven members, Judy Irola.  The co-op itself existed from 1972 through 1978.

We spend time with various members of the coterie as they reflect on amusing as well as purposeful times gone by.  Stephen Lighthill was an ace cinematographer in the group, consequently he pulled in the most amount of bread; his gig at CBS paid well.  But all of the coterie contributed what they could and would take on outside gigs such as a Don Ho special in Hawaii to finance not only their passionate cinematic work but their lives as well.  Spouses and children needed to be fed.

And with respect to all seven members, they were: Gene Corr, Peter Gessner, John Hanson, Judy Irola, Stephen Lighthill, Rob Nilsson, and Steve Wax.

The association made a documentary about mining entitled, “Western Coal” and the first of their two feature narrative films observed blue-collar life in San Francisco, entitled, “Over-Under, Sideways-Down” (1975).  In true commune style, these films’ directing and writing duties were shared by members who possessed those particular vocational inclinations.  But it was their second and last feature film that really put them on the map.

And that film, “Northern Lights,” was a rarely seen, but remarkable piece of Seventies art cinema.  And if you haven’t seen it yet – see it.  And try to do so while we’re still in the snowy throes of the cold season so you can find some wintry parallelism to what you observe onscreen.  I had become aware of “Northern Lights” about thirty odd years ago when it was shown on PBS.  I didn’t get to see it then but what I caught in the advertisements always lingered on as definitely a film to see.  And then, as luck would have it, within recent years I came across a VHS copy of it – I’m sure at a book sale.  Not unlike the delight I encountered when I came across Welles’ “Macbeth,” also on VHS.  Darn good finds if you ask me.

“Northern Lights” did not disappoint – far, far from it.  Taking place in the harsh, unrelenting winter climate of the foreboding plains of North Dakota in a time gone by, it was shot in beautiful, stark, grainy black and white in breathtaking compositions.  And with smart, vital editing, it becomes at times, a stunning visual poem of a hard-fought farming life.  It is, unarguably, a work of art.

At the time of the film’s making, it was still an era of continuing social evolvement on many fronts and Judy Irola found herself for a stint in Copenhagen with a group of feminist filmmakers.  She came back to the States and realized that she wasn’t just a camera assistant but rather, a full-fledged, extremely competent cinematographer.  Consequently, she took the reins as director of photography on “Northern Lights” and burned some of the most beautiful cinematic images ever on celluloid.  That feat did not go unnoticed as the film took home the “Camera d’ Or” at the Cannes Film Festival.

On a bizarre note, Cine Manifest actually housed filmmaker Nicholas Ray (check out the recent biography “Nicholas Ray” by Wisconsinite Patrick McGilligan – Ray was also born in Wisconsin), famed director of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” among other films.  At that time, in the Seventies, he was destitute and lived for some months in a sleeping bag on the editing floor of the co-op while piecing together some perplexingly esoteric film.  The members look back on that with bemused wonder – and rightfully so.

And on a lighter note, and in direct contrast to the heavy-hitting socio-political agenda they so doggedly pursued, Cine Manifest created outrageous, imaginative romps succinctly entitled, “Birthday Movies,” joyous free-for-alls of spontaneous filmmaking to celebrate member’s birthdays.

But don’t forget “Northern Lights.”

“Document of the Dead” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

A black screen.  Ominous, otherworldly moans permeate.  Thunder crackles.  But rather than opening on a scene of appropriate horror, we instead cut to Groucho Marx.  He proclaims: “This is like living in Pittsburgh…if you can call that living.”

And so we start on an unexpected, yet highly idiosyncratic note.  A localized note from Pennsylvania.  That’s where George A. Romero, rightfully crowned “King of the Dead,” or just as appropriately, “Auteur of the Dead,” if you will – well, I just crowned him myself (I think) with those two titles for this article – has done his business over the years.  And it is his “Dead” that are the true progenitors of the infinite invasion of zombies that we are now experiencing in all forms of media, most notably in visual and print manifestations.

I’ve been a devotee of Romero’s “Dead” films my entire filmic life.  That is, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,”  the first two and only ones for me.  But horror itself doesn’t especially appeal to me, for life can be scary enough.  However, with those aforementioned films, I’m talking atmosphere: that grainy film stock, stark grey skies, infinite landscapes of barren trees and the down-home dress of the people and the realistic locales.  This is not costume laden, backlot stuff.  And the essence of that particular reality will always be the attraction of those films for me.

So, it comes with great gratification that “Document of the Dead,” a film by Roy Frumkes (co-produced with The School of Visual Arts), re-enforces that atmosphere with a grainy 16mm look and a foreboding, monotone narration.  This documentary came out in 1989 when VHS was still rolling strong.  I don’t know when I first laid eyes on it, but it’s always been a treat to revisit throughout the years.

Frumkes is a “Dead” enthusiast and burgeoning filmmaker as well, and he and Romero stroll through the Monroeville shopping mall situated in the Pittsburgh area where “Dawn of the Dead” is being shot and talk all things “Dead.”  Chatting amicably about the overall moviemaking process, in these interviews George Romero possesses a down-home, easygoing style that is infinitely far removed from the soul-dead slickness of a caricatured Hollywood type.  Yet, he’s always passionate about his craft and his projects.  And that easygoing attitude is reflected in his casual dress accented with the ubiquitous scarf draped around his shoulders and his equally present cigarette: he’s one of those guys who makes smoking look like a professional necessity as he laments about the continuous struggles with financing and censorship; inherent beasts in the movie making machinery.

Before this documentary gets too deeply into “Dawn of the Dead,” a major spotlight is put on “Martin,” the more well-known of Romero’s early works populating the interim between the two essential “Dead” films.  “Martin” is a contemporary take on the vampire genre but instead of sharpened fangs, the method of attack is attained by that of an injection needle.  Queasy stuff.

The low-key rendering of the narration by Susan Tyrell adds to the eerie nature of “Document’s”  proceedings and the academic analysis of Romero’s cinema sounds like scholarly film school jargon – which one can get an intellectual kick out of.  And that dry aural tenor is a delightfully detached but assuredly pleasing relief from the hagiographic syrup doled out by the gallon in documentaries these days.

Romero’s films “feel” like films.  You’re “aware” of the shots, the angles, the editing.  Just like Welles, the camera itself is a character in the over-all-experience, the mis-en-scene if you will.  And he cites Welles as one of his defining influences. Romero’s cinema is replete with daunting close-ups, eerily canted angles, and jarring spatial juxtapositions.  And the accompanying music that poignantly contributes to his movies are not obvious, acoustic annoyances, rather contributory essentials to overall atmosphere.  In example, Goblin’s soundtrack for “Dawn of the Dead” is a haunting work of art and I’ve got the LP to prove it.  “Night of the Living Dead” had library music, but damn, if that wasn’t totally effective in-of-itself.

Roy Frumkes falls into service as a zombie as Tom Savini makes him up as a member as the walking dead.  It’s also a good time to get Savini’s take on things as the make-up master explains his gruesome craft and George‘s willingness to try various imaginative effects.

Director of Photography Michael Gornick explains the challenges of lighting the vast expanses of the shopping mall.  And in a key strategy, he hit the books heavily on lighting technique, tightening up his knowledge on that particular science.  The production got to use the mall only at night and had to clear out before the stores opened in the morning, so Gornick definitely had to know what he was doing.  And during the Christmas season they shut down the production instead of removing the decorations every night and resumed shooting after the holidays in January.

In post-production, we see Romero editing the 35mm film on 16mm work print and using an upright Moviola instead of a flatbed Steenbeck.  He really immerses himself in the tactile and wants to see those frames up close and in his hands.  And he shoots a lot of film (it’s figured maybe 15, 20 to one) and then likes to figure it all out in the editing process.  But ironically his shots don’t last long, for George makes a lot of quick cuts.  He learned that tight velocity of craft as a creator of local commercials.

“Dawn of the Dead” was released without a rating (which would most likely prohibit a lot of newspaper, television and radio advertising) and this was a risk that most distributors would never have dreamt of taking at the time.  And an X-rating was out of the question for them, it would only imply pornography, which didn‘t exist in this film.  Regardless, “Dawn of the Dead” became an unqualified hit and enthusiastic word-of-mouth trumped any lack of conventional advertising.

And it was part of the midnight movie phenomenon and ironically I got to see it at a shopping mall.  It was pretty surreal, to say the least, to come out of that cinematic intensity taking place in a shopping center and then directly entering one in real life in the middle of the night – one of the many pleasures distinct of an era more than three decades already in the past.

And if “Dawn of the Dead” was a metaphorical indictment of the soul-less, zombie-fied legions of mindless consumers roaming blankly through expansive shopping malls – that ain’t nothing compared with the catatonic states provoked by the exceedingly more widespread and invasive internet.

Neither of the “Dead” films had any stars, nor any recognizable faces for that matter, and that was a good thing because it didn’t take the viewer out of the films.  And being immersed in those movies was a key element as the audience fought for survival along with their onscreen counterparts in the perilous journey to stay alive.

Over time, I’ve met Romero, Savini and even Judith O’Dea ( (Barbra – as in: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”) as she arrived at Milwaukee’s Avalon theater (now reopened and refurbished) on a stretcher from out of an ambulance.  (Don’t worry – it was all in good Halloween fun.)

The original two “Dead” films have spawned many sequels and remakes.  Personally, my interest and loyalty remains steadfastly in “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” both works of undeniable horror genius.  And together they became an indomitable force in the realm of onscreen terror and the instigators of the ever-expanding and enduring zombie craze, a phenomenon unto itself.

But all-in-all, my vote will always go to the foreboding atmosphere and the cinematic art conjured apart from the obvious chills that those walking dead invoked.

The New York Times & Kickstarter Present

Stories Other People Are Telling

The New York Times and Kickstarter have teamed up on a curated series of short documentaries funded at least partially on Kickstarter.

The series is meant to showcase emerging filmmakers.  Films so far range in length from six minutes to about twenty and cover a broad cross-section of topics.

Starbucks To Produce Socially Conscious Documentaries via Fast Company

Stories Other People Are Telling

Coffee giant Starbucks is getting into the non-fiction storytelling game, launching a new venture within the company to make documentary-style content for TV (and possibly for feature length films).  From Fast Company:

The upstart’s focus will be on “social impact content,” which squares nicely with Starbucks’s efforts to keep up a socially conscious brand. But why would a company dedicated to slinging hot, caffeinated beverages suddenly shift to delivering media content?

Not much is known about the new venture, but Chandrasekaran has made it clear that the upstart will create works of nonfiction storytelling, not longform marketing copy to sell cups of coffee.

Lots more on the new effort at Fast Company.

“Moguls & Movie Stars” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

The spectacle of the movies as we know them as both an art form and a populist entertainment has been with us for almost 120 years as of this writing.  The first public exhibition of that miracle of motion occurred on December 28, 1895 and we‘ve been enthralled ever since.

Turner Classic Movies has bestowed us with a seven part series, “Moguls & Movie Stars” (narrated by venerated thespian Christopher Plummer), a fascinating glimpse into a wondrous, as well as, tumultuous history of this seventh art.  Covering territory from well before its existence as a tangible form – that is, celluloid itself, when it was still just a dream-like idea of linking still photography, movement and projection all into one – and meaningfully bowing out in 1969 when the film school generation was on its way to grabbing the reins of the trade, leaving the tight strictures of full-on studio control well in the dust: for this is a series on the old-school Hollywood system.

Hollywood partially came to be as an avoidance of Thomas Edison’s close scrutiny of his patents on motion picture equipment (and of course the welcoming and necessary sunshine to burn into film stock) – and the space put between independent (of Edison) filmmakers and Edison’s wrecking crew worked as a stop-gap until the dissolution of the patent enforcers.  As to that famous sign up in the hills, “Hollywoodland” was a housing development before the “land” was dropped and the remaining letters became a trademarked icon recognized the world over.

Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, the Warner brothers and Samuel (Goldfish) Goldwyn, to name some of the original lions of the industry are highlighted – many being tough Jewish immigrants from hard-scrabble lives who put their nose to the grindstone while casting an eye toward the “stars” as they produced the films that made Los Angeles famous.

I was already familiar with many of those moguls and “their” movie stars as an early teen when I haunted the shelves of the local library.  The black and white photos of times gone by were fascinating in those books of early Tinsel Town lore.  I’d read about the classic era of Hollywood and caught what I would on TV in those younger days; and as the overall immersion of VHS tape rental came to the fore, that of course opened up even more opportunities of cinematic indulgence.

The motion picture industry carries a fascinating history and has weathered many, many storms, some so mighty that they threatened the essence of the business.  To hit the highlights of the many intimidating fronts, there was: the advent of sound, the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, the 1948 de-monopolization of the studio production-exhibition chain, the end of “kept” movie stars on seven year contracts, and the HUAC witch-hunts – and then, if that wasn’t enough, the arrival of the greatest beast of all: Television.

And that imperiling invasion of the small screen in American living rooms could have been the death-knell of the motion picture.  But by then, the institution of the movies had been a half century old and it was not going to bow down just like that.  Ironically, just when movie attendance reached its all-time pinnacle in 1946, the post-war appearance of TV coincided.  But the big screen medium fought back with everything that it had with techniques and advantages that the small box just couldn’t provide: color, sweeping widescreen, drive-in theaters, movie stars that remained exclusive to the big screen and even a short-lived burst of 3-D thrown in.  Finally, the two worlds collided in a mutually beneficial way as the Academy Awards were first broadcast into living rooms in 1953.

Then another seismic shift occurred in the 1960’s as the cultural revolution took hold.  Strict censorial enforcement increasingly found itself weakening with the likes of the morally testy “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and such like fare.  While Sidney Poitier broke down racial barriers onscreen, the old code gave way to the MPAA ratings system in 1968, the same one that we have to this day.  And the dam holding back the freedoms of the new age burst completely when 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” a then X-rated film, took home the Oscar for Best Picture.  And it’s with that year, that the series appropriately ends as “Easy Rider” that summer pushed the underground above ground as it economically blazed in glory across mainstream screens and solidified the youth culture as an immense force to be reckoned with both socially and cinematically.

The vast machinations of the social tide played out across the decades in all of its challenges and upheavals from the Great Depression, World War II, teenage rebellions and social revolutions.  And the Hollywood screen captured it all.

This series certainly can’t cover everything and obvious gaps are substantial:  Florence Lawrence is acknowledged as the first recognized movie star but she’s not even mentioned in this series.  But as a basic indoctrination to the grand history of cinema, it’s a great start – now it’s up to you to hit the books and fill in the rest.

And as the fascinating saga of the motion picture continues to unfold, “Moguls & Movie Stars” provides an entertaining, insightful stepping stone in understanding its formative history.

“Tyson” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Almighty Mike Tyson.  He dominated the zeitgeist of boxing in his time just like Muhammad Ali did in his – like it or not.  Tyson was a brutal warrior, a hard-up street fighter turned malevolent mathematician of violent creed, trained to anguishing extremes to ultimately dominate the ring.  He took no prisoners, and on his way to the top, some opponents were so afraid to fight him, he faced an empty ring.  A stunning testament to the awesome power he possessed.

This film, simply and profoundly entitled, “Tyson” by James Toback, starts with a choked-up Mike Tyson recounting his days with his trainer, his mentor, his friend and savior, Cus D’Amato.  D’Amato made Tyson who he was and the ex-champ knows this to his dying breath.  Cus was someone who finally believed in the young kid from nowhere and gave him the chance he so desperately needed with some life changing know-how while turning the aspiring warrior into a heat-seeking missile of doom.

Cus D'Amato & Mike Tyson

Had it not been for D’Amato, Tyson more than likely would have ended up permanently in jail, or worse, a quick six feet under if he had continued to follow his errant ways.  Before Iron Mike had set his admiring eyes on great fighters in boxing history, his role models were typical punk street trash, thieves, hustlers, and killers – and Tyson, at a very young age, joined their deadly game.  But he was rescued from those streets and resulting detention centers and whisked up to the Catskills to escape the breeding grounds of certain ruin.

That’s where he was stripped bare of random thinking and wayward behavior as all of his fury, his fears, his myriad weaknesses and his brutal strengths steadily became galvanized into a professional killing machine of unabated destruction.  A machine that would annihilate his opponents – and that was his number one goal: to make others feel the anguish that he felt, for his whole life up to that point had been a furious, blazing black hole of pain – and Mike Tyson had so much of that pain to give back, and pity those on the receiving end.

D’Amato understood this youngster’s torment, his rage, bred from a lifetime of abandonment and devious street living.  D’Amato trained him hard, making him concentrate relentlessly while aggressively building up his confidence.  At first Tyson didn’t buy into it, this old guy was telling him he could be champion of the world – how could that be?  What nonsense was that?

In reflection, Tyson realized that D’Amato was creating an impenetrable mansion of bravado within him, brick by mighty brick, day by hard-won day.  And all that intense, never-ending mental persuasion paid off as Mike Tyson did become the youngest heavy-weight champ of all time.  And to sweeten the pot, he ultimately unified the heavyweight belts as well.

Along the way, D’Amato and Tyson continued to play it psychologically smart, getting acquainted with the venues that he was to fight in well ahead of time.  Cus had Mike take in the feel, the vibe, the physical nature of the places where the gladiatorial bouts were to occur, for it’s harder to fear the familiar and it paid off in continuous victories.

And with those astounding triumphs, Tyson sucked in all that attendant glory as fast as it arrived and money flowed out of his hands as furiously as water out of a broken dam.  His intake of women was stunning and his use of drugs horrifying at times.  That carnal onslaught bred problems of all kinds and his life became a caustic hybrid of rapturous delight and bewildering despair.  Believe me, beyond the film, read his memoir, “Mike Tyson – Undisputed Truth“ written with Larry Sloman – you’ll be blown away by the perpetual craziness.

That obsession with women was inimitable, he was like a kid on crack cocaine in an all-night candy store, and he dearly paid the price in many ways for that insatiable cavalcade of heedless conquests including but not limited to: public humiliations, assorted venereal diseases, imprisonment, divorce – the ugly gamut of a senseless game.  A notoriously ill-fated marriage to Robin Givens was fully exploited by a shameless media and his tryst with a Miss Black America contestant, Desiree Washington, rewarded him with several years hard time.

When Cus suddenly passed away, Tyson’s North Star was eradicated.  The esteemed trainer had provided his young protégé with focus, determination, and most importantly, a distinct sense of self.  Now all of that was gone and Tyson felt as lost as one could feel.  Promoter Don King took the reins and Tyson went into another direction.

But that relationship ended in a cacophony of malevolence and in a brutal public display, Don King received a physical stomping in Los Angeles from his client.  Tyson ultimately recovered 20 to 30 million dollars from King but thought that was nothing compared to what Mike believed was taken from him.  However, and wherever all that dough went, about 300 million of it was blown.  Let the good times roll – and then some.  But Tyson says that doesn’t bother him, that money means nothing to him.  Truly, bless his heart, for that unbelievable squandering of such astronomical cash could keep others of a different philosophical bent up for an eternity of nights.

As the years marched on, Tyson got so full of himself that many times he barely trained for fights and carelessly partied instead.  That eventually and devastatingly caught up with him when he was shockingly whupped by Buster Douglas, thereby humiliatingly losing his world heavyweight title to a stunned public.

And with Lennox Lewis, Tyson just couldn’t get over the hump.  There were three fights with him and the once mighty Iron Mike just couldn’t beat him.  At the age of thirty-nine, he had his last fight and forthrightly stated he was just doing it to pay  the bills.  And just as exciting as the battles were themselves, if not even more so at times, were those post-fight interviews with Tyson.  He was not one to hide behind a veil of calculated coolness but rather extemporaneously spilled the beans of whatever he was thinking at that exact moment.  And he can be overtly, and quite surprisingly, self-loathing, and this humanizes him to greater depths than most of us would care to publicly plunge – and he dives in head first without looking.

Those crazy media rap sessions filled my heart with abundant joy as I can well remember being caught up in the Mike Tyson phenomenon.  (We’re also the same age.)  His fights were cultural events and people would eagerly chip in for those pay-per-views, gathering  excitedly around the electronic fireplace.  There was an exhilaration in the air not afforded by anything else at that time, such crazy energy was conjured in those bouts.  Anything could happen in that ring and many times it did, such as the mayhem that occurred when Tyson bit the ear of opponent Evander Holyfield.

And when Mike Tyson bowed out of the scene, so did I, and the sport has never been the same since.  His presence was a golden era of boxing that has not been revisited yet.  All-in-all, Tyson scorched the terrain of the profession and left an awesome, as well as calamitous legacy like few could ever remotely dream of doing.  He is a searing testament to the raw brutality of man in all of his twisted, out of control, rage filled glory.

His post-boxing career has taken some surprising turns with some successful stints including the popular “Hangover” films and a well received one-man Broadway show.  He’s the proud father of many wonderful children but tragically his beautiful young daughter, Exodus, died in a bizarre mishap.  It’s an eternal pain that will forever haunt him, but it has also made Tyson take stock of his life and he lives in her honor.  Mike has mellowed with age and he reflects deeply on a densely led life.  He had it all and then he had nothing.  He succinctly identifies himself as an “extremist.”  Ain’t that the truth.

Amazingly, it’s revealed that Tyson has asthma, such an ironic contradiction for a man who needed all the air he could get to feed the infinite physical resources his body demanded to endure the savage beatings and mete them out.  And the labored breathing at times is a vivid metaphor for his chaotic, yet somehow, rhythmic intake of life: Oxygen.  Life.  Oxygen.  Life.  Chaos.  Reflection.  Chaos.  Reflection.

The film ends with that labored breathing, the airy wisps of that tumultuous life still moving headlong into the unpredictable and the unknown.

“Anvil: The Story Of Anvil” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

If Heavy Metal had actually died out, our boys in question in the fascinating documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (directed by Sacha Gervasi) would find themselves in an even more surreal state of flux.  Fortunately there exists a steady fan base for the music and the ranks of the devoted are continually replenished with the blood of the young.  The hard rockers in the cinematic spotlight here, the aforementioned “Anvil,” were at the crest of the head-banging movement in its formative years; they had a catchy anthem “Metal On Metal,” and for a while it seemed like all-systems-go.  But the winds of fate had other ideas for them and their brief notoriety petered out before it could hit the shores of success all the while other Heavy Metal acts flew fast and furious over them and grabbed the body thrashing glory, leaving our boys from Canada unwittingly in the dust.

Two original members remain and they are the fascinating core of this film: Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the lead guitarist and vocalist and drummer Robb Reiner.  They’ve been blood brothers from the get-go, having met in their early teens and have been rocking together since the late Seventies.  Kudlow is a very enthusiastic fellow but at times it seems like he’s a one man army pushing the band forward – and he just can’t do it all himself as he still craves the fame and glory that has eluded them for so long.  Instead of 24/7 rock star status, it’s salt-of-the-earth jobs now and a far cry from their glory days.  Kudlow laments as he works delivery for a catering company: “For all this horrible shit that I’ve gotta go through I’ve got Anvil that gives me happiness…it gives me the joy and the pleasure that you need to get through life.”  Amen to that.

Both are likeable gentlemen who are life partners in work and any hard-edged disputes lead to tearful reconciliations: they’re in it for the long haul.  I felt a real sense of growing sentimentality and admiration for these guys.  They really are into their craft and create a contagious sense of camaraderie that any one with a beating heart could ally with.

In the early Eighties Heavy Metal erupted onto the rock scene and it dominated that decade until it fell into the shadows of popularity as the likes of Nirvana, Sound Garden, Pearl Jam and others of early Nineties Grunge music overtook the scene.  And for a while it seemed like Metal was all but dead.  But truth be told, it never did meet its maker and it now resides comfortably as an enduring genre with a dedicated legion of followers.  And those fans haven’t forgotten Anvil, they just have to be reminded that they still exist.

Anvil has all the talent and determination in the world but the proper support system just doesn’t seem to be in place.  Attempts at renewed rockin’ life are made with such enterprises as a European tour which has plenty of good intentions but ends up with too many mis-firings.  The multi-country five week gig financially yields nothing.  Lips even attacks a club manager in Prague when he doesn’t get the payment that he expects and the full brunt of his anger and frustration with the whole scene bursts into full fruition.

Consider the potential disaster someone like Ozzy Osbourne would have to face without his wife/manager Sharon dutifully at his side.  A musical career, not unlike the management of any other successful organization, needs proper leadership, vision and marketing in place.  Without that necessary overseeing, it’s a boat without sails in a tumultuous sea of anything goes.  I’m not saying someone like Sharon Osbourne could make Anvil superstars (that’s up to the dice of fate) but someone possessing her wherewithal could most likely ensure a consistent living and a better status from their obvious drive and  talent – and that’s all they ever wanted, a fair shake at things.

Finally, a respected veteran music producer who’s worked with them in the long ago past comes back onto the scene and gets them over to England to produce their thirteenth album entitled fittingly enough: “This Is Thirteen.”  Yet they end up with those boxes of CDs in their van and not in the record store.  They decide to sell directly to the public and it would behoove you to order one on their website.

Not only is Kudlow still a musician at the height of his prowess, he’s also an unabashed fan boy of other hard rock musicians and bands.  He loves the world of Heavy Metal music and the people in it.  At a Swedish rock fest he hangs around a tent hoping to run into Ted Nugent but then is quickly distracted by another hero of his, Tommy Aldridge (from Osbourne‘s band), and runs over to revel him with his enthusiasm.  And there is a contagious joy in “Lips” fevered interests, he‘s got a big heart and really rides the vibe of his obsessions, undoubtedly drawing us in as well.

Top hard rockers pay their respects and reverence to Anvil: Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, feels bad that they didn’t make it further then they have and Slash, from Guns and Roses, concludes of their marginal destiny: “Sometimes life deals you a tough deck.“

The film ends with a performance in Japan, a place which they haven’t been to for about a quarter century.  They are extremely happy about the overseas gig but upon arriving they find out that they’re the first act on at 11:35 in the morning and are noticeably concerned that no one will show up.  That’s a heck of a long way to travel to face sincere disappoint just after breakfast.  We’ll leave that up to the viewers to find out for themselves as to how many people actually show up.

I really, really respect Anvil’s talent, drive and attitude and it really breaks my heart that a better support system wasn’t in place to fully recognize what they had to give.  If anybody deserves success, these guys do – their heart is definitely in the right place.

Anvil have been in the game since the game existed and now these guys have hit their fifties at the time of the documentary and they realize, like anyone else, that time waits for no one.  They still possess the spirit of warriors and pray that they’ll still get their due.  This film only can serve to bring their quest for deserved acknowledgement closer to possibility.  Regardless of how the story continues to play out, I admire these guys immensely and continue to wish them only the best.

As Lemmy from Motorhead succinctly states, “They got my vote,” and I couldn’t agree more.

About Face Senior Editor and Filmmaker Michael Vollmann Premiering New Film At Sundance 2015

Our People

About Face Media’s Senior Editor Michael Vollmann is going to Sundance!  He’ll premiere his newest short film, “The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers” in Park City this January.

Produced by About Face director and frequent Vollmann collaborator Chris James Thompson (ESPN 30 For 30 MECCA, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files), here’s a bit about the film.

Read more about the The 414s here.

The short documentary traces the story of the 414s—a group of Milwaukee teenagers who, in 1983, broke into dozens of high-profile computer systems, resulting in a media frenzy that terrified a nation previously ignorant to the capabilities of computer interconnectivity. By unearthing a little-known story that is increasingly pertinent in 2014—when hacking makes the news nearly daily—the film considers the power young people have to use cutting edge technology to revolutionize the world.

If you’re on your way to the Utah mountains in a few weeks, you can check the schedule and see Michael’s new film at the Sundance site.

Congratulations to Michael and Chris and we’ll see you on the slopes!

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Roger Corman had only one financial failure: “The Intruder,” a social issue film featuring of all people: William Shatner.  Corman remains proud to this day of that early Sixties attempt at moral illumination and feels that it’s his best, most meaningful work.  Shot in the tumultuous South, it concerned race and the citizens down there weren’t too happy once they caught on to as to what the film was actually about.  He took a bold chance, withstood an increasingly hostile environment in that testy terrain south of the Mason-Dixon line yet, it was the only movie where it didn‘t prove a fiscal satisfaction.  Bless his risk-taking heart, but Corman never went that route again and fell right back into the pattern of successful returns that he‘s most famous for.

Roger Corman

A cinematic hero to so many, Corman had a winning formula: keep the budgets low-to-the-ground and the concepts high-to-the-sky.  Westerns, rock ‘n roll, monsters, counter-culture all fit the bill.  Add to that: sea monsters, biker gangs and acid freak-outs with a touch of gun-toting molls, juvenile delinquency, scantily-clad vixens, cars crashing and blowing up whatever he could get his hands on, on the cheap.  He’s a template for maverick low-budget enterprise, a hero to those in the trenches of lo-fi filmmaking looking to crawl out and onto the larger battlefields of sustained success.  Welcome to the wonderful world of Roger Corman.

Not only did Corman glom onto the current trends of the time, he also created them whether in the role of director or producer.  He rode the wave of “Jaws” with “Piranha” and conversely his “The Wild Angels” led the way to “Easy Rider.”  Corman, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were already in cinematic cahoots so it was successful inbreeding yet, Corman wasn’t affixed to the latter project and consequently never got a piece of that financially delicious pie.

And it was the amazing success of “Easy Rider” that opened the doors of Hollywood to the counter-culture auteurs and they were granted about a three year opportunity before “The Godfather” and shopping mall screens put the drop on that brief “anything goes” run.  But it was Corman who continued on his own trajectory because he wasn’t beholden to Tinsel Town directives; it remained his money and consequently his way.

His directorial debut was in 1955 with “Five Guns West” and he also assumed producing duties as well, including that year’s “The Fast and the Furious.” Does that ring a bell?  You bet it does, and Vin Diesel has been ringing it ever since.

Additional formative efforts included seeming absurdities such as, “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The She Gods of Shark Reef,” and “Carnival Rock.”  And he churned out the infamous “The Little Shop of Horrors” in a few days – literally.  And with the equally infamous, but highly intangible “The Terror” he used the sets of a previous film on the quick when the opportunity presented itself.

He knew his art house films but he also knew the marketplace so, he put two and two together and combined aesthetic vision with fiscal savvy.  Even though his earlier films possess a garage movie mentality he upped the aesthetic ante with his half dozen offerings of Edgar Allan Poe interpretations.  These were colorful, elegant offerings.

Corman is famous for giving some of the Hollywood royalty their start including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola (“Dementia 13“), Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha”) and Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets“).

Jack Nicholson made his screen debut in Roger’s 1958 film “The Cry Baby Killers.”  And Nicholson tearfully breaks down as he recalls those formative years when  Corman gave him his start, and even got to write some of the scripts himself.

This 2011 documentary by Alex Stapleton also features onscreen appearances by the prestigious likes of Ron Howard, David Carradine, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles and Robert DeNiro.  They all weigh in with relevance for the man.  And Martin Scorsese’s succinctly observes of Corman’s work, “They’re art in another way.”

Corman ultimately formed his own company, New World Pictures, and distributed European art gods such as Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman, including the Swedish master’s “Cries and Whispers.”  He also served in various producing capacities on such cultural classics as: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter,” “Death Race 2000,” “Jackson County Jail,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

Corman truly seems like a nice guy as he possesses a smooth, even-keeled, everyday demeanor all the while being a steadfast master journeyman who has dutifully plied his craft and stayed within his own budgetary terrain.  It appears he was never interested in the bigger leagues of the Hollywood dynasty, he was just fine where he was hitting homeruns on 42nd Street and on rural drive-in screens.

Corman's World

I’ve got a few books on him and those would give any burgeoning filmmaker an advantageous view into the world of hands-on gusto and real-world attitude, playing it smart and having fun while doing it.  He’s nobody’s fool and gets while the getting is good, locking onto the current trends, if not creating them with blatantly exploitative offshoot content and titles.  Buy hey, he’s an exploitation filmmaker.  And that’s what he’s best at, reading the marketplace climate like one does the ease of a cheap dime-store novel.  He’s got his finger firmly placed on the pulse of what works and he’s successfully kept it there throughout his career.

Check out one of those books, his autobiography, “How I Made a Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” and get it straight from the horse’s mouth.  And Corman, even though he’s in his eighties, is still on set, clipboard in hand and astutely at it.

Combining cinematic imagination and a smart business sense, Corman created a virtually unerring track record of filmic success.  And most importantly, his films hold their richest value in the light of retrospect, providing for a rich tapestry of America’s below-the-radar terrain and the cinematic excesses of the time.

“Tales from the Script” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

I own a number of screenplay books.  Nonetheless, on occasion, I like to peruse the shelves of our wondrous library system to engage the world of chance and discovery.  To borrow a book is a temporary flirtation with another world and not of the specific lands of your own shelves.  And it was on one of those magical perusals that I came across “Tales from the Script.”  It was one of those “experience and advice” books on screenwriting that’s accommodatingly broken up into very doable segments.

Cut to the present.  Again I found myself in the good company of an embracing library.  It was the rebirth of the Milwaukee Eastside branch.  Once a low-lying ode to days gone by, it has since been succinctly demolished and on the exact site has been wondrously reborn.  This time it has taken the form of an ethereal cathedral with a high ceiling and expansive window walls allowing a large view to the outside world and all the light of that world to fall back in.  Description enough?

Moving on, a man of business, I eagerly and diligently scanned the documentary shelves and if you had an fMRI hooked up to my calculating mind at that point, you’d see it light up in brazen excitement as I came upon some titles that noticeably piqued my interest.  And one of them happened to be “Tales from the Script” directed by Peter Hanson.  A documentary, it turns out, in adjunct with the book itself.  The tides of coincidence struck.

So, now to that film.  This isn’t one about the techniques and craft of writing but rather the Hollywood reactions that you’re going to encounter once you‘ve got that script to bandy about.  But before you proceed further: if you’ve got the psychological resilience comparable to the substance of mush, you may not want to tread the waters of this film just yet.  Or, on second thought, maybe you should.  Maybe you need that blatant and impact-ful wake-up call that awaits you if you dare to enter the Hollywood ring.  Make no mistake about it, if you do decide to walk out onto that precarious mat, script in hand, you’re going to take some heavy-weight punches, and the robust assembly of hardened scribes collected in this film will thankfully do a little warm-up sparring with you.

This is a string of talking heads, but a fascinating, if not necessary one, as one screenwriter after another allows you the privilege of imagining the dutiful horsewhipping you’re about to get if you go the Hollywood way.  Enter at your own risk –  you’ve been dutifully warned.  And these are all hardcore writers present, so the quotable aphorisms they provide are ubiquitous to the extent that I’ll skip the lot and let you enjoy the cavalcade yourself.

Notable bigwigs check in: Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) and Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to name a few.  They’ve made it to the top but they know where they came from and still appear feet planted firmly on God’s green earth.  But, hey, where’s Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”) in this bombastic mix?  I had the distinct pleasure of reading his thick tome regarding his wild adventures in the Tinsel Town screenwriting trade, “Hollywood Animal.”  A Hollywood warrior through and through, and if I were you, I’d dig into those sordidly hard-won yet always insightful pages.

And those big boys can inherently warn about Hollywood but they are of Hollywood, like it or not – for they are as deeply entrenched in the game as anyone else is in the impetuous business; they’re just coming at it from a different vantage point – as the ones doling out the words.

And make no mistake about it, Hollywood screenwriting is not writing for yourself, you‘re last on the list on that one – you may think differently in a flightier moment – but the clamps of ironclad groupthink will come down hard on you with a resounding “thunk.”  Makes that poetry book you’ve always wanted to write sound just a little bit better at this point, doesn’t it?

And other writers contribute with their humble origins, such as Antwone Fisher (“Antwone Fisher”) a security guard on the Sony lot before becoming a part of its hallowed halls, or Mick Garris, who was on food stamps before Steven Spielberg got him on board with his television series “Amazing Stories.”

Adam Rifkin (director of the forthcoming and wonderful peek at low-fi guerilla filmmaking, “Giuseppe Makes a Movie”) lets us know that you’d better take your writing career as seriously as a full-time job.  Ain’t that the truth.  Middling will never be a match for merciless.

Writer/Director/Cineaste Paul Schrader (former film critic and writer of “Taxi Driver”) is always an appreciated presence and guru William “Nobody knows anything” Goldman offers his prestigious insights and advice.  Check out his “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” a benchmark book of tales from the front.

Amid the sage advice and harrowing tales are slight but juicy clips of films that relate to the trade: “Bowfinger,” “The Last Tycoon,” “In a Lonely Place” and such. Make a list of the many films they offer and check them out or give them a necessary revisit.

All in all, this (inspiring?) film decidedly lets you know that your script can be chewed up and spit out in the blink of an eye, and in some bizarre instances, only the title may remain.  Yes, that has happened.  It’s the furthest thing from poetry and playwriting, a form where every sentence, word and syllable down to the comma is sacred text and only the author – and only if they so choose – has the authority to change one previously indelible word.

It’s a wild gambit out in Hollywood land but the pay-offs can be incredible.  Yet the reality of it is, you’re only hearing from those who’ve made it – the other 99% are the silent majority sulking in the unsung shadows with tails firmly returned between their legs.

So, warning shots have been fired.  You can still take cover in the safety of your own living room, and avoid the volley of fire that awaits you out in the City of Angels.  Or you can go for broke and either end up curbside along the road of disheartening rejection or find yourself at the top of the plaza thanking whatever god you got that you took the chance.

Personally, I’d recommend getting the sincerest amount of joy from writing for yourself first.  If you expect that joy to come from others – you’d better check in with Vegas first.

“Herb & Dorothy” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

In “Herb & Dorothy,” a film by Megumi Sasaki, a lifelong married couple embody the true love of collecting art – and once a piece is bought and brought into the loving, curatorial confines of their cramped apartment, that work is never sold again.  This has been going on for decades and their humble abode is packed floor to ceiling as a no-holds-barred indicator of that passion, stuffed with books, boxes and of course art –    filling every nook and cranny literally.

So, meet Herb and Dorothy Vogel.  They are a diminutive couple in physical stature but a revered powerhouse team in the realm of aesthetic appreciation and to whom artist Chuck Close concurs, “I always thought of them as mascots of the art world.”  The lifelong New Yorkers rigorously collected art (mostly works concurrent of the time) with minimal money, yet over the decades their collection has acquired an astounding depth and even includes the likes of Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel

They’ve been married for 45 years at the time of this 2008 documentary and the  first place they headed on their honeymoon in Washington D.C. was the National Gallery of Art and that’s where our story also ends – but we’ll get to that.

Throughout their illustrious career of collecting they’ve fostered lifelong relationships with prominent artists in the city, have been written up in many newspaper and magazines and have even appeared on “60 Minutes” and Charlie Rose’s show.

Herb was raised in the city and Dorothy was born upstate in a small town.  They don’t have any children “but a lot of cats” – add to that – aquariums full of fish and turtles as well.  Along with the art and the love of animals they also share an affinity for films, theatre and restaurants; so as we encounter them, we know that they’re on the same page and any slights of bickering possess the soft contours of a loving couple.  And Dorothy reveals you could count the times they’ve been apart on one hand.

In his earlier years, Herb frequented the famously storied Cedar Tavern, the boisterous realm where enclaves of artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning held buoyant court into the wee hours.  Mr. Vogel not only hit the pages – a high school dropout, he more than made up for his disinterest in general education by a preternaturally autodidactic one pouring over art books in the library – but the streets as well.  Artist Lucio Pozzi points out about Herb‘s intensity of studying work, “He comes in and points to the art like a hound.”

It was Herb who introduced Dorothy to art and together they even took courses to take it up for themselves.  Both became set on careers as painters.  But soon they realized that the art that they had created was coming off the walls and being replaced by the ones they were purchasing from others.  And in one uncanny scene, Dorothy pulls their work out of a chest, the canvases having been folded up and laid by the wayside of their lives.  It’s pretty weird if you think about it, that they had stuffed their own careers into a trunk and never looked back.

They enacted a financial strategy to go about their fervent acquisitions.  With Dorothy’s salary the rent and bills were paid and with Herb’s, the art was bought.  Susanna Singer, an artist’s rep, makes clear, “Herb and Dorothy’s passion for art was equal to the passion that artists have for art.”  And as we pay a visits to artists such as James Siena, Richard Tuttle, Larry Weiner and Robert Mangold, they also verify the couple‘s fascinating fervor.

Initially, on their budget they could only afford Minimalist art – good thing because at the time, no one else was much interested in it.  But they never let finances  deter them and Chuck Close notes of the earnest couple, “They came cash in hand” which was a damn good thing for starving artists at the time.  Another artist recalls that when seeing the prodigious buyers approach it readily came to mind: “It’s the Vogel’s, we’re going to pay the rent.”

On a quick intrinsic note, I appreciated Julie Salamon’s brief appearance at an art opening.  A writer for the New York Times, she had written “The Devil’s Candy,“ a fascinating book on the making of Brian De Palma’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”  A read I  thoroughly enjoyed.

Back to it.  During bouts of financial hard times, the Vogel’s could have sold a painting or two to save themselves but they never went that route.  It just wasn’t an option for them; what they brought home, stayed home and it wasn’t going anywhere else.  Until, that is, they eventually chose to donate it.  And that’s what brings us back around to the start of our story.

They decide to gift their immense collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  And when the vast archive of aesthetic treasure was hauled to the venerated institution for assessment, people couldn’t believe the density of the trove; there was just so much of it – and the movers couldn’t fathom that so much could fit in so little of a space.  The apartment was truly a pressure cooker of art.

More than 2,000 paintings, sculptures and the like were received but the institute realized it could only accommodate half that amount so the remaining work was distributed to a select art museum in each of the fifty States.  Their life’s work was generously given for us all to enjoy.

And the streets of New York, the impassioned arteries of conduit that led Herb and Dorothy on their insatiable quests to galleries, openings and the studios of artists, continue to be their home as they dutifully hobble forward now in their determined elder years.

“Winter Soldier” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

The Vietnam War will remain an eternal point of contention to many.  And we’ve been exposed to much footage of it, as it was the war that was brought to us in our living rooms via the evening news for the first time.  Yet, graphic as some of that footage may have been, it was surely a censored version of events.

So, it’s with 1972’s “Winter Soldier” that many jaw-dropping atrocities committed by American soldiers are brought to light.  I won’t describe them here and some are quite shocking.  This is not an “anti-American” film, but rather an upfront documentation of horrors perpetrated by our own boys.  And what’s made more startling is that we are face-to-face with these guys, real guys, our guys, as they straight-forward describe their macabre misadventures and lament their misdeeds in the name of their country.  These are not dramatic puppets in a pre-coordinated narrative show contrived to make an ideological point but there to unabatedly tell it like it was.

This riveting film takes place in Detroit during the “Winter Soldier Investigation” in January and February of 1971 and is put on the Congressional record that spring.  It was  created to allow testimony of returning troops and of the hidden atrocities that took place in that war-torn country.

It’s filmed in grainy black and white 16mm and that look gives it an ironic feeling of detached being there.  Color segments of village burnings, interrogations and such are menacingly interspersed throughout the film in stills and footage.  These are to compliment the various retellings of horrid situations and these breaks from the general b/w feel offer an unsettling alternate reality to what‘s being verbally described.

A fascinating array of ex-military personnel give testimony.  They are civilians now and most sport long hair, a direct contradiction to the strict militaristic appearances they once possessed.  And they are free now – of duty that is – but not really free at all as visions of their past misdeeds will always haunt them.  You’ll even get a quick glimpse of now Secretary of State John Kerry in his younger version, as he gets a few seconds of screen time querying the anguished troops.

They are trained killing machines and hardcore military discipline has made them so.  And many of them, at the time, truly believed that they were committing all of that mayhem for the ultimate good of their country; even if it included the blind murdering of civilian men, women and children.

Some soldiers break down, others remain controlled.  And overall, it’s startling to encounter the environment of realistic confession in an actual circumstance, and not in the generic context of drama for drama’s sake.  And it’s all the more unsettling that many of these guys can relate these circumstances in matter-of-fact tones; these are some of the most riveting talking heads you’ll encounter.  Man’s inhumanity to man is made resoundingly clear in these harrowing series of sadistic stories and it’s a crash-course in hardcore psychology and what it takes to turn a blind eye and a stone heart to that fellow man.  And the trick was that the military convinced them that they weren’t actually their fellow man.

Assuredly this was a hard film to come across at the time and most likely found safe harbor in universities across the country.  The Kent State killings had just occurred a few years before its release so the campuses were still quite rife with the memories of that tragic event.

For the cineaste, this documentary really possesses that early Seventies feel with its stark black and white look.  And it’s a hell of a time capsule to witness real people in real times using real language.  So, anyone interested in the presence of that murky era, while indulging some brutal revelations of a dividing war, would do well to check out this rarely seen film.

Open Source Online Mythology – The Slender Man

Storytelling

Today I read an article about the horrifying Wisconsin attempted homicide case wherein two 12 year old girls lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times.  A passing cyclist intervened, and thankfully the victim lived, even having returned to school this fall.  So why did two little girls try to murder another little girl?  Because they wanted to impress The Slender Man.

“Who the fuck is The Slender Man?” I wondered.

Thus began one of those internet deep-dives we all have into topics we know little about when we want to know everything.  I wanted to know why this thin dude would lead two little girls to savagely attack another.  This all led me to find out about the origins of The Slender Man and his growth into some kind of monster capable of reaching into the minds of little girls.

There are better places to get the specifics on The Slender Man’s story, but for brevity’s sake…  Basically, The Slender Man was created by a Something Awful user named Eric Knudsen (aka Victor Surge) in 2009.  TSM was an image of a tall, thin man, with a white, featureless face, wearing a black suit.  He was inserted into a couple of photos of groups of children.  Knudsen added quotes attributed to each photograph (which you can read at Wikipedia) that imply TSL is some kind of supernatural force that abducts children or kills them or worse.  So a new bogeyman was born.  But so what?  How did this particular incantation of a familiar monster land in Wisconsin middle school girls’ minds?

Apparently the original Slender Man - he's in the back.

The answer is that TSM developed in an entirely new way – his characteristics (impossibly tall and thin, sometimes with tentacles), powers (teleportation, mind-reading, ability to compel), motivations (ambiguous and morphing, but always dark), and mythology all being essentially crowd-sourced openly online.  Like any of our fearful creations, his story and abilities were defined.  But rather than the top-down way we’re used to, such as the basics of Dracula (and thus all subsequent vampires) being defined by Bram Stoker or the framework for Frankenstein’s Monster coming down from Mary Shelley on high, TSM was fleshed out by online stories and memes by users with no ownership or authority over the original idea.  It was open source creation.  And it’s new to us.

Or is it?

Growing up with the authoritative power of mass media, really since the invention of the printing press, we’ve been conditioned to learn our heroes and villains, or monsters and slayers, all the mythology around our favorite worlds and stories from the all-powerful creators, be them Disney, George Lucas, JK Rowling, Guillermo del Toro, or Stephen King.  But before the rise of easily-made books and eventually radio, TV, and films, our stories and their heroes and monsters actually were crowd-sourced.  They were told orally, interpreted and reinterpreted, added to and subtracted from, and retold with details or even broad concepts changing based on the perspective and preferences of the storyteller.

That’s very similar to the way TSM developed into his current state.  Aaron Sagers even parallels the growth and development of Santa with that of TSM in a great read at The Huffington Post.

(The video above is a Slender Man send-up from online prankster superstar SA Wardega that has over 26 million views.)

The late literature professor and historian Walter J. Ong, PhD, asserted that this type of crowd-sourced mythology is the norm throughout human history.  A very smart Danish college professor named Thomas Pettitt agrees and posits that we have just ended the Gutenberg era – a time period starting with Gutenberg’s printing press, leading us to massive amounts of literature being easily and affordably available and, essentially, the end of oral storytelling being dominate and the beginning of top-down, authoritative storytelling.  But now with the advent of the digital age, we’re going back to the old way.  It’s not that we’re only going to be telling stories orally, or that we’re going to lose stories being crafted and protected by Hollywood film studios or major publishers, it’s that we’re all now able to be actively in on the creation of our myths and characters and worlds and the stories that take place in the same way that the oral tradition allowed anyone to hear a story and then retell it making whatever changes or add-ons or edits that person saw fit.  Pettitt calls the period of time we’re coming out of The Gutenberg Parenthesis, meaning that it’s a short exception to the rule, a blip in the history of human kind.

So who the fuck is The Slender Man?  He’s a crowd-sourced monster, not all that dissimilar to any number of monsters past, present, and future.  Why did these Wisconsin girls try to get on Team Slender Man by murdering a friend?  Most likely, these girls are severely mentally ill.  Most likely, they’d have found inspiration for their heinous crime in one form or another with or without this one particular bogeyman.  This attempted murder of a child by two other children is horrific and sad, but the focus on TSM is unwarranted.  Yes, he’s been cited by the two girls as motive, and he’s been pointed to as inspiration in other terrible crimes, but like other “causes” of criminal behavior and warped minds (when I was a kid rumors of satanism due to heavy metal music were rampant, then came the Matrix movies and Marilyn Manson and shooter video games and, well, you get it), it’s most likely he’s less a cause than a fascination of a mind in need of treatment.

What I’m saying is that The Slender Man is not exceptional in any way.  He’s a pretty standard monster.  And he was created and developed in a way that harkens back to telling tales around the campfire.  The only exceptional thing about this creature is that he’s made me and likely others really look at the way storytelling is changing – or rather returning to its roots.

I hope that in the story of the two little girls who attacked their friend, and who reportedly still believe The Slender Man is real, the ending is one that involves mental health treatment for the perpetrators and a happy future for the victim.

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

At the beginning of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” the venerated actress bombastically declares:  “…”Look, I’ve got a certain amount of fame, I’ve got money, wish I could fuckin’ drive…then I’d really be a menace.”  86 years old at the time of this film, she certainly knows her circumstances but hasn’t yet set limitations on her horizons.

This is a film about indomitable spirit, unflinching integrity – yet playful buoyancy  in the daunting, accumulating shadows of time and age which are undoubtedly beginning to infringe upon her sun-strewn days.  She’s always been a feisty soul and that zest has paid off in some vibrant roles, enjoying the spotlight of both the stage and screen.  “A Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity, and genius,” an acquaintance describes Stritch as.

She’s been on stage since 1944, appearing in numerous productions including Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance.”  Also, in the renowned musical “Company” which sports its own documentary and which she’s featured in.  Her career recognition culminates in a Tony as well as an Emmy Award for her solo show in 2001’s “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

Stritch possesses a storied history with many notables and relates an encounter with a yet-to-be president.  During the next act of a date with John Kennedy, he responds to her: “If coming up for a nightcap means listening to Glenn Miller records and eating scrambled eggs, I’m not interested.”  She got a kiss, he disappeared into the night and she surmised: “That guy’s going someplace.”

In more contemporary times, she has a guest spot on the TV show “30 Rock,” and being a sucker for real life snippets, I especially enjoyed the brief lunch-time exchange between her and Alec Baldwin.  And even though she’s a show business entity herself, she retains an awareness of its, at times, artificial firmament: “Everybody’s just loving everybody too much for my money.”

It’s rollicking lifestyle, she’s a recovering alcoholic and at one point she hadn’t had a drink for over twenty years when she decided that just one a day wouldn’t kill her.  “One drink is too many and a hundred is not enough” stands true for the rest of the population yet, somehow, she has the determined psychology to persist in her strict regimen; it‘s amazing to possess that kind of self-control.  In addition she also has diabetes to which she reflectively puts forth, “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks.”

“Getting old is not for sissies,” she reiterates Bette Davis‘s famous observation.  Stritch is aware of the slow but inevitable disintegration of her physical being as well as the loosening of the mind‘s biochemistry to which she responds, “Why not enjoy (life) because there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it.”  When she contemplates retiring she wonders what it may be like if she leaves the world of pretend and face that cold, unimaginable realm that we call “real life.”

Yet she’s remains a determined performer so it’s especially heartbreaking to witness her forgetting her lines.  She’s outwardly scared of what age and her condition are doing to her, especially when she temporarily loses her ability to speak properly.  Yet, she also admits: “There’s something exiting about being afraid” – she’s got a knack for finding gold dust in some precarious situations.  But once recovered, she gets back on board with her work and continues with her latest solo show: “Elaine Stritch Singin‘ Sondheim One Song At A Time.”

Fortunately for her, hindsight wasn’t the clearest vision granted, for she had spot-on 20/20 all along the way.  She ennobled her craft with vibrant performances, lighting up the room with her firebrand personality as she blazed a trail of can-do philosophy.  And she’s still got a great set of legs to boot and has no qualms about showing them off as she regally struts down the street.  Born in Detroit, that’s where she ultimately settles again after over six decades in show business.

Watching this film only serves to inspire and is a good kick-in-the-seat if you find yourself piddling around with your time in half-gear.  So, whatever age you are, it’s a good time to assess where you’ve been and where you’d like to go – and most importantly, what you’re doing to get there.

She wouldn’t have it any other way, nor should you.

World Of Warcraft: Looking For Group Documentary Now Online (and free!)

Stories Other People Are Telling

Blizzard Entertainment, the game designer behind the incredibly successful World Of Warcraft series, has just released a documentary on the game.

If you don’t know World Of Warcraft, it’s a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) full of quests in a fantasy land called Azeroth.  The game has around 10 million players subscribed worldwide.  WoW features heavy immersion into the world it creates, and it relies on strong story lines to hook and entertain players.

The doc tells the story of the origins of Blizzard and the history and influences of other games that led to WoW.  Then the film goes on to show the growth of Blizzard from a couple of dozen people to hundreds, and the smash success and evolution of WoW – plus some of the culture around the game and the players.

It features the core Blizzard and WoW team and such outsiders and fans as CEO of Legendary Pictures Thomas Tull, professional baseball player Hunter Pence, and actors Brandon Routh and Felicia Day.

One of the interesting things about the game is that players play together online, joining up to accomplish goals, and often end up being friends both online and out in the world.  Marriages have also sprung from these relationships.

This is an hour long documentary, released online, where most content over 5 or so minutes doesn’t get watched, and in two days it has nearly a half million views.  It goes to show that if you give your core audience what they want, they’ll watch it wherever it is, however long it is.

Even if you’re not a gamer or a WoW player, the documentary may be worth a watch.  It throws you into a gaming subculture you may not have seen before, and, from a storytelling perspective, delves into how the WoW team develops the new stories that new versions of the game rely upon.