4 Lessons on Video Storytelling from Pet Brands via Kaitlyn Smith and Business to Community

Stories We're Telling

Want four very concise and clear points on what works in pet brand storytelling?  And want to see those points illustrated by successful videos?  Then look no further than Kaitlyn Smith‘s 4 Lessons on Video Storytelling from Pet Brands, recently published on Business To Community.

The article goes into what Purina, Pedigree, Milk-Bone, and PetCo are doing right.

We may be a little biased because we did the Pedigree video Kaitlyn cites, but we think Kaitlyn is right on in her analysis, such as:

Storytelling requires a thoughtful balance of authenticity, humility, subtly, and, of course, a story to tell. And there’s possibly no greater story than the timeless bond between people and their pets.

Read the rest and see the other videos at B2C.

For more on Pedigree’s “See What Good Food Can Do” documentary series featuring Miranda Lambert, Josh Duhamel, and David Ortiz, check this out.

Broadcasting Board Of Governors Panel – Storytelling, Engagement, Audiences, Social, TV, Films, Everything Else

Stories Other People Are Telling

The Broadcasting Board Of Governors has released a panel discussion of media executives discussing storytelling, technology, engaging audiences, social media, and where a story belongs (vis a vis length and scope), amongst other things.

The panel includes:
Moderator Ben Silverman, former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment;
Frank Cooper III, CMO of PepsiCo;
Morgan Spurlock, documentary filmmaker and TV and film producer;
Soledad O’Brien, Emmy Award-winning producer, journalist, and anchor;
Charlie Corwin, co-CEO of Endemol; and
Howard Owens, media executive, former president of National Geographic Channels U.S.

It’s a long panel at almost an hour and a half, but has a lot of insight from these experts.

For example, Frank Cooper on a corporations’ Public Policy versus Commercial Activities – they must merge.

Morgan Spurlock on being authentic to your voice and to the mission of your piece, and why he’s pro-piracy.

Soledad O’Brien on her new production company, Starfish, and telling stories that connect with the audience.

Charlie Corwin explains how Endemol looks for not only global reach but depth, creating stories and messages that have impact.

Howard Owens on the change in the mission of National Geographic as the magazine business shrunk and the TV business rose.

Check it out on YouTube.

“An Evening at Angelo’s” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

In a brief running time, filmmaker Kara Mulrooney amazingly and intimately captures the picturesque texture of a neighborhood Milwaukee bar on New Year’s Eve – deftly satisfying the curiosity one briefly possesses as so many warmly lit corner taverns fleetingly pass within quick eyeshot: Ah, what is it like in there one wonders?  Mulrooney lets it be known as she takes us inside “Angelo’s Piano Lounge” and gracefully allows us to hang out for the evening.  The warm, embracing cinematography of “An Evening at Angelo’s” gently pushes us into the scene and endearingly allows us to figuratively partake in the intimate proceedings – almost, just almost, we’re able to share a cocktail or two with its small but amiable populace as it nears the hour of year‘s close.

It turns out that a few of those seemingly everyday people lingering about the warmly lit interior, one’s that would otherwise sink into the milieu of everyday ordinariness in the environs of a local watering hole – are actually magnificent crooners.  Well, it is a piano lounge of course.  And a few can really knock it out of the park – clichés aside, I could really feel some of those deep vocal renditions it in my heart.  As the evening progresses and as various personalities take the mic – whether respectfully cajoled or enthusiastically volunteering –  one can just sense the presence, the history of their lives as bygone songs come back to life in a magnificent present.

Angelo Mortellaro, the proprietor, and Ginni Smith, the house singer, make for cordial company as the nocturnal patronage increases.  In a heartwarming moment Mortellaro takes the stage, and despite obviously having weathered a long road, gives it what he’s still got and we’re all the more enriched for it as he belts out a soulful tune.

Throughout this magnificent film, the camera adoringly tracks by photos of the past as well as those faces in the present, a confluence of good times separated only by the ineffable nature of the clock itself, as the countenances of both eras realize that each moment is their moment in time.  “Live while you can” would seem to be an appropriate motto to the proceedings.  And I think the good people at “Angelo’s” got that understanding down pat.

Thanks Miss Mulrooney for inviting us in – we enjoyed our stay.

25 Most Influential Documentaries (According To Cinema Eye Honors)

Independent Film

What do you get when you ask filmmakers about the most influential docs they’ve ever seen?

You get a list of the 25 Most Influential of all-time.

The list includes American Movie, featuring About Face’s own Mark Borchardt and produced and edited by AF’s Barry Poltermann and directed by AF’s Chris Smith.

Check out the rest of the list at IndieWire and then get to watching.

“Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. The End of the World” Written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

The year is 2014 and we’re still here.  Should that be some sort of surprise?  It would be if you were the follower of one Harold Camping.  You see, he predicted the demise of it all – that includes you and me – on May 21, 2011.  And Mr. Camping was quite adamant about it.  So what are we still doing here?  That’s what this inquisitive documentary, “Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. The End of the World” intends to find out.

Who is this Mr. Camping you might ask?  Well, I’ll answer that in a round-about way.  I’ll have you know that I possess the occasional instinct to peruse the radio band to check in on the weird doings on the broadcast dial – AM most notably.  Sometimes on an overcast day as I drive the city streets or in the cozy environs of home on a dark and cozy night I’ll be beholden to tempestuous callers, avidly elaborated conspiracy theories, socio-political moralizing and that grand-daddy of them all: good ol’ preaching.  Preaching you say?  Right – that’s what brings us back to Harold Camping.  (Actually Mr. Camping, in our neck of the woods, is on the far left of the FM dial.)

Harold Camping on the set of Open Forum

And I have known about him, through that dial cruising, for years, far before I laid eyes on this even-handed film.  “Shall we take our next caller, please?“ – you know who’s turf you’re on when you hear that precisely repeated question.  Camping’s exacting, assured voice is a familiar one to so many.  And whether you’re a believer or not, his bassy monotone is one of solid comfort in the throes of a black night.

Harold Camping is the president of “Family Radio,” a Christian talk outfit, and the host of “Open Forum,” and with that show, he’s got quite a following.  I can see how some people are apt to fall into his legion, he’s not one of those crazed televangelists, rather he possesses a calm reserve that can intone reliability.

But it was the sheer absurdity of his righteousness that drew me in – as a passive observer that is.  He’s a steadfast Biblical literalist to the comma yet, he’s a benevolent soul, and one can see that he means well.  Too bad he just didn’t pick a different subject matter, other than the entire obliteration of this planet.

So how will the end-times be according to Camping?  A huge earthquake will off us all and those few who unfortunately somehow survive, will be treated to a “Super, super horror story” according to our man.  Gulp.  Sounds better just to join the rest tumbling down the super-chasms of splitting earth than to deal with that ominous unknown.

Camping comes up with an exact calculation from some 7,000 years ago to the forthcoming day.  I’m not a history expert, but I’m quite sure we didn’t use the same calendars back then, so getting to something precisely as May 21st, 2011 is a bit dubious to me to say the least.

“End-of-Worlders” have basically been with us since forever and the “Last Day” notion predictably makes its appearance every other year or so – people just can’t get enough of dramatically endearing their own life’s narrative arc with that most grandest of plot twists.  But that self-involvement with the Big Day can make for some uneasy moments.

One true believer queries Camping about what to do with the remaining money in his bank account.  It is an apprehensive scene for the viewer as well – especially to the majority of us who know far better.  Camping wisely defers the decision to the Big Guy himself.  Man, I hope God gave that poor soul the right answer.  Imagine the foolhardy rubes who bought into it hook, line and sinker – pity the psychologically vulnerable.  Camping himself doesn’t have any malevolent intent, absolutely nothing to gain, he’s just the messenger – no pennies are going into his personal piggy bank but they are going somewhere…

Bombastic billboards begin appearing all over: “The Bible guarantees it” they make clear in no uncertain terms.  But in reality, the Good Book has never given a clear date for the end of the world and in Matthew 24:36 it makes clear: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man…”  Now how in the heck can you get around that edict?  Somehow Camping does, and a huge ad even splashes the pages of the nation’s newspaper USA Today – they’re making darn sure no one can say they weren’t warned about this twisted assumption.  At least David Letterman gets a good national laugh from the proceedings.

Judgement Day Billboard

As to the fate of another show: Camping’s – the longest running daily program in history at fifty years – Harold matter-of-factly responds, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s all going to go up in smoke anyway.”  You can’t help but like the guy.

Some outside objectivity is sought by the filmmakers and a quartet of Biblical scholars weigh in, they’re not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but rather composed, contemplative gentlemen and none really address the Camping situation directly.  Their outlook on the matter is broader in terms and the film retains a respectful tone.

On the day of doom, groups gather outside the radio headquarters to protest Camping’s cataclysmic prediction.  Some mock his prophecy, while others are there in a more helpful mode to mindfully assist those believers who’re soon to get the proverbial rug pulled out from under their feet when 12:01 a.m. arrives on May 22nd.  Obviously the world continues to spin past the stroke of twelve, but Camping remains unstoppable: he now pushes the date up to October 21, 2011.  A minor miscalculation.  Indeed.

The second Second Coming doesn’t materialize either.  And after the highly inaccurate predictions he admits: “I was wrong, I have sinned.”  He reveals that millions of dollars were spent sounding the false notes of the apocalyptic horn.  Seated in the ethereal light of his home, after suffering a stroke, he definitely looks reduced.  Technically he’s a false prophet, and he admits that as well.  And as to any hint of when the world may end again any time soon, Camping makes repeatedly and resoundingly clear:  “I absolutely don’t know.”  He’s a changed man.

“Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs. The End of the World” was directed by Zeke Piestrup and produced by him and Carl King.  King is an active soul in the media arts and the author of the illuminating book “So, You’re a Creative genius…Now What?”  King doesn’t predict the end of the world, rather offers some good advice on how to have a productive life while you’re out and about in it.  I’d recommend it.


You can stream “Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping vs The End of the World” for free on Hulu here.

Mark Borchardt on About Face Director Manny Marquez’ “PSYCHOPATH”

Filmmaker News

Victor Marquez has a dream.  No, it’s not to retire one day and lounge around on some far-off beach with a tiny umbrella residing in a tall, bright drink; nor is it to hike the outback of Australia with only a backpack slung over the shoulder; neither is it to just slump forevermore in front of a big-screen TV after forty years of good service and a gold watch meet eye to eye.  No, nothing like that at all.  You see Victor’s one and only obsession is with conjuring some backwoods terror at almost any cost, his steadfast vision in life is to create a haunted theme park.  A haunted trail if you will.  And the heartwarming as well as heart-stopping filmic rollercoaster ride of “Psycho Path” (which is also the name of the trail) documents that perilous road of uncertainty to attain a very risky dream.

I had a chance to sit down with filmmaker Manny Marquez (Victor’s nephew) and his beautiful family.  His enthusiasm for life and his work was readily apparent but in short order he put a sinister spin on things when he revealed: “When I was a kid my dad had a best friend…who was a serial killer…and when I was eight years-old he tried to kill me.”  Whoa – how’s that for encountering the fear factor right out of the proverbial gate?  Manny wrote a script based on that fiendish incident and is still seriously considering making a film about it – he plans on making it a dark comedy.  Dark indeed.  And that incident leads to the road we find ourselves on now.

For it was while scouting locations for his “Murder Movie” based on that horrific encounter, that he came upon his uncle Victor’s land and as well as his vision to create the ghostly trail: “Psycho Path.”  Manny became enamored with the land itself and the quest to turn it into something more than a swamp. “The woods itself became a character,” Manny realized as he began to document the earnest proceedings.  He saw his uncle taking on his dream so Manny pursued his own as well.  Manny had been stuck working on truly bad reality shows of which he found had “nothing to do with cinema” –  his true calling.  Now finding himself back in his formative stomping grounds, Manny had something he could sink his real talents into.

It turns out that Victor and Manny both possess the same kind of pesky creative visions, the sort that just won‘t go away until something is thoroughly done about them.  And their interests both happen to fall into the realm of the visual arts.  Consequently, a neat symbiosis occurs as nephew documents uncle.  Victor even bought Manny an ARRI BL 16mm camera for film school – talk about tactile support.  “He’s been an enabler of cinematic mischief,”  he fondly says of his uncle.

In his youth, Victor himself touted around a Super-8 camera and then moved on to video, bringing about short horror films and the like to the small screen.  Manny was very inspired by his uncle’s formative cinematic adventures.  “I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if it wasn’t for Victor,” Manny attests, obviously carrying a deep affection for their relationship.

Initially, Victor wanted to go out to Hollywood to be a special effects make-up artist but the fickle fingers of fate had other plans for him.  Instead he found his calling in his own backyard.  Literally – well, five miles from his backyard.  On forty acres of dubious terrain.

And that brings us back to our story.  Sperry, Oklahoma is the location of said perilous property which one of Victor’s other nephews, David, poignantly deems a “shithole.”  Certainly no condos are going to crop up there anytime soon amid the tangled trees, snakes, mosquitoes and general swamp land.  The property is also near a Civil War battleground and it’s alleged to be haunted.  A neighbor, Robert Sisk corroborates, “You get an immense feeling that you shouldn’t be there…it’s like crossing a barrier almost…you get the feeling something doesn’t want you there.”

If other-worldly manifestations nipping at Victor’s heels weren’t enough, as luck would have it, the neighbors are very unhappy about other mysterious goings-on, those conjured up by Marquez and his colleagues.  And unfortunately the Sheriff owns some of the adjacent land.  His wife takes a petition around to the local residents to get Victor to stop whatever it is that he’s doing – no one seems certain – but they do know that they want no part of it.  A large clan, the Sisk family, doesn’t want any part of it either.  And there’s a lot of them.

Not only that, but Victor of course plans on opening for the Halloween season and that coincides directly with another season: hunting.  The film crew goes around querying the community at hand and they all seem none-too-happy about those parallel events.  One even plans on hiring a lawyer and speculates, “It’s going to get rough on them…it’s going to get real bad.”

I myself thought, man, if your neighbors are against you on top of it all, that’s really a rough, rough thing – my heart just broke.  And if there ever was a time to throw in the towel…but Victor’s got a will of steel and presses forward.  Yet, with the local’s ire stirred, he and his enterprise are summoned to the county board.  This is getting real.  But the local government lets him proceed, temporarily that is, allowing him to prove that his project won’t be a public nuisance, nor hazard.

Victor’s been a sanitation man for over thirty years but obviously that’s not where his dreams lie.  He puts whatever penny he can in the project and after a day’s work of slinging trash bags he looks forward to the only thing he wants to really do: work on that park.  Neighbors, government, weather and the like have not stopped him yet.  But it’s a long road to continuously conjure interest in all the work that needs to be done: lots of land has to be cleared, numerous props need to be built and a general cohesion of scare-worthy terror needs to be created in short order.

On the home front Victor has both his supporters and his detractors.  His father, brother and son all have their doubts and keep a safe distance.  And that son makes it clear to his father: “that’s your dream, not my dream.”  But it’s his wife Suezette, daughter Victoria, and best friend Mike Perry, who stick by him with much needed support, not only psychologically but hands-on, both very necessary to retain the course.  It’s revealed that Victor didn’t marry his high school sweetheart, but rather, his teacher.  Good for him.  And Suezette.  In fact they absconded into the proverbial sunset heading to California with Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” playing all the way.  Talk about a romantic vision made manifest.

But those glory days are long past and with the heavy financial strain bearing down on the family by the scare trail, they even consider putting the fate of their home in the mix as well.  Suezette is still a teacher and when she asks her current students if any of them has any interest in attending “Psycho Path” not one raises their hand.  Man, it’s disheartening when you can’t even rally the kids to your side.  And with familial contentions understandably brewing as well regarding the taxing project, one couldn’t fault the over-burdened Victor if he threw up his hands at any time and called it a day.  But iron-clad warrior that he is, he persists diligently through the storms of challenge.

Well, others do rally to the cause, and enter Kage Hunter, (not his real name but one he bestowed upon himself) a troubled youth from a dysfunctional family.  Suezette found him as a student to be an “Off-the-wall different-type personality.”  It becomes rapidly apparent that he’s really into the world of monsters and special effects.  Consequently, he fits into this project like hand-in-glove and becomes Victor’s ambitious right-hand man.  He’s an enthusiastic ally and carries with him the ideas and energies of the young man that he is.  But on down the line he’s found to be a bit too enthusiastic and rubs some people the wrong way, and after an unfortunate incident, he has to be let go – his own zeal doing him in.  And later on, Kage regrettably passes away.  But that sad note cemented a realization in Manny: “It wasn’t until that Kage died that I realized we had a movie.”  Mr. Hunter’s legacy has been ensured.

A local troupe of actors comes out to the spook park in-the-making, spear-headed by one visionary Tom McCay.  He’s a man of energy and imagination, too, and he wants to do more than just provide thespians it soon turns out as he puts his hand in the broader proceedings as well.  Victor is taken off-guard by this, for he himself is to be the sole visionary – but he can’t really knock what he’s damn lucky to have.  McCay even sets up a party to attract more interest to the cause, but all that’s really attracted is a rain storm and tornado warnings.  But the show must go on, hell or high-water.

Helping hands abound but that doesn’t erase the dire reality of how much more needs to get accomplished by opening night.  Suezette becomes increasingly worried by  the daunting due date and the ongoing stress puts her in the hospital.  Trooper that she is, once checked out, she gets back on-point.  Victor remains one lucky man.  And Manny and crew even put their cameras down behind the “behind the scenes” to help Victor out when it comes down to serious crunch time.  That’s the stuff.

But when Manny did have the cameras rolling over the course of ten years, he eventually shot over 250 hours of footage in nine different formats and he stressed that his film wasn’t any how-to video:  “We’re talking about a man’s life and dreams on the line.”  Ain’t that the truth.

October 1st arrives and so does the aforementioned hunting season.  Shots are heard in the ominous dark one night and the haunted crew surmise that those shots are probably intended for them.  And they are extremely disappointed by the abject turnout, only a few people trickle in.

But wait, hold on to your hats – we’ve come too far to let it all end like this.  Soon, people do start to arrive in gradually increasing numbers.  And even a large contingent of the Sisk family comes out – once the endeavor’s staunchest detractors.  In a surprising, heartwarming twist, they even offer to help out with “Psycho Path” next year.  Wow.

We cut to 2013.  It is the first year that the park has turned a profit, drawing close to 10,000 visitors.  Tom McCay is still on board and he embodies the role of “Trail Master.”  Victor Marquez and family have been granted their victory, albeit a very hard-earned one.

And Manny makes clear of his documentary’s intent: “It’s not a movie about a haunted house, it’s not a movie about zoning laws, it’s a movie about a man and his dreams and failures…and his eventual success.”  Yes, truly, “PsychoPath” the film glows as a loving tribute to his uncle, his family, his coterie of believers and their preternatural determination.

Ultimately, Manny puts forth to the audience at large: “I hope you’ll like the movie otherwise I just made the world’s most expensive home movie…”

Don’t worry, Manny, we all like the movie.

Unscripted Does Not Mean Unwritten via J. Ryan Stradal and the WGA West

Stories Other People Are Telling

There’s an old saying in narrative filmmaking that goes something like: you make three films – the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.  Almost anything can change from one stage of the film to the next, and what you end up with may or may not resemble what you started with.

In non-fiction, you have much the same process.  You do, despite public perception, write down what you’re planning to shoot.  It’s not a script necessarily, but it is a game plan (or proposal, or treatment, or pitch, etc).  Then you shoot, and as we all know in unscripted real life, anything can happen.  A subject can get cold feet and not want to participate.  Something unexpected can happen that sends the events of the day in a totally different direction.  World events can cause a change in the day.  Anything can happen.  A butterfly effect of sorts.  Then, whatever you’ve shot, you take back to your lair for the edit.  When you’re in the edit, you have to find stories, whether they are the stories you had planned to get or not, pull them out, and make them compelling.

Whether you’re making a narrative or a non-fiction piece, you’re a storyteller.

Even if you’re a writer on a reality TV program.

Yes – a writer.

Writers on reality TV programming are often given various producer credits as a kind of cover, but we’re starting to learn the truth.  They, in fact, most often serve as writers, and along with editors, perform a crucial function in fashioning the stories we all love or hate.

Here’s a great inside look at the actual work of a reality TV “writer” by J. Ryan Stradal (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch).  It may shed some light on the role of these storytellers in the reality (or non-fiction, if you prefer) game.

“My Kid Could Paint That” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Do you know your Monet’s from your Manet’s, your Warhol’s from your Wyeth’s, your Van Gogh’s from your Vermeer’s?  In any case, even if you don’t, you’ll still derive an immense amount of pleasurable intrigue into the wild world of art from this at times, fly-on-the-wall documentary.  So, not to worry if you‘re not that painterly connoisseur, because this is a very accessible human story that immediately draws one in.  And at the very center of it, is a very small human indeed, in this particular case, a cute, intelligent, precocious four year-old, one Marla Olmstead.

Seemingly an artistic prodigy, in a small sliver of time, Marla became an art world sensation, and then as quickly as it all gloriously, almost unbelievably transpired, it came devastatingly crashing down.  The story becomes as heartbreakingly tragic as it was formerly wondrous.  Not to worry, no physical harm to anyone, but none-the-less, ruinous revelations, or damaging speculations at the very least, shatter a dream and decidedly turn it into a nightmare.  Once the darling of the art world, it now views her as a pariah.  That is, her work.

Obviously, Marla took an early interest in painting and her parents encouraged that instinct, especially her father, Mark, an aspiring artist himself.  But unlike so many talented kids, her endeavors were rigorously given attention and not brushed off as a child-like aside.  There was a certain quality to those works and that began to attract attention and it caught the eye of a local art dealer, an acquaintance of the father.

As can be expected of such a young hand, these were works of a primitive abstract-expressionistic quality.  Yet, in some of them there laid a remarkable sense of heightened sophistication.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

A local paper does a piece on the child wonder and almost immediately afterward, the New York Times picks up the story and from then on, as they say, it all becomes history.  Thrust into the national limelight, little Marla, from Binghamton, NY, becomes said art world sensation.

“Marla’s paintings are cool,” her little brother, two year-old Zane, readily cites and on the other end of the critical scale the work is noted as: “…a competent execution of abstract-expressionism,” from an art expert weighing in.  But then to the latter critic it’s quickly revealed that it was done by a four year-old.  Talk about being put on the spot, especially of course when caught on camera as it is.  Yet, in reflection, that assessment may bear merit once more.

Local gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, hosted her premiere exhibition in 2004.  From there the family goes on to make several trips to the Big Apple and the dream intensifies.  And guess what?  At one of her shows, all of her paintings sell out.  A remarkable feat for any artist, Mr. Brunelli points out.  Even the owner of the Houston Rockets owns an original.  A growing waiting list for her work mounts and demand far outpaces supply.  Prints are being readied of her efforts so the masses can obtain them at an affordable price.  And the interests of such media luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey and Conan O’Brien are piqued by the tiny miracle-worker.  The whole thing is rolling into the big-time and grand speculations are being made to the ultimate arena her career could play in.

Laura, Marla’s mother, a dental assistant, wonders if all this attention is good for her child – and her family for that matter.  Call it maternal instinct, but could this all blow up in their faces?  It does, and we’ll soon get to that.

The whole of the circumstance calls forth the age-old question: is it the art or the artist that truly matters, or an uncanny alchemy of both considerations?  Many artists have been known to have assistants and a few have veritable armies carrying out their aesthetic commands.  See where we might be going with this?

Yes, the veracity of her work is brought into question.  And this brings to light another anthropological dilemma: to maintain public interest in the topic at hand, a narrative shift must occur.  And in the realm of our sensationalist media desires, that shift usually involves a turn for the worse.  And in the case of this story, it’s a seismic one, provided by none other than Charlie Rose during his tenure on “60 Minutes.”  It’s a devastating blow to all those involved, that is, to the inner circle who have the most at stake.  You see, Rose calls into question the authenticity of the paintings themselves.  And on the show a child psychologist supplies her insight, she doesn’t believe the work has been done by a child, at least single-handedly.  For what has been painted previously does not quite match what‘s being painted now, especially on the concealed camera “60 Minutes” installed in the basement where Marla had been consigned to do her work.  The parents’ faces go pale – remember this is on camera.  At this point, queasy would be the operative word.  Little do they know, their world is about to fall apart.

By the time the “60 Minutes” segment airs, Marla’s work has brought in over $300,000.  But after the broadcast, the sales stop dead in their tracks.  Nasty accusations are hurled at the parents.  Mark, is the prime culprit as it’s called into question if he hasn’t had a hand in all of  this – literally.  Laura regrets ever bringing their precious child into this now malevolent situation.

Then the filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev, himself, begins to lay claims to his own doubts and must make his feelings known on-camera.  Consequently, he enters the narrative arena and in questioning the parents in this new light, it again makes for some queasy viewing.

Overall, when works that we do know that Marla did herself are juxtaposed against ones that she “may” have done unassisted, there the tentacles of doubt begin to uneasily permeate.  One can readily see various levels of artistic impulses at play and an inverse chronology of sophistication reveals itself, for her contemporary attempts just don’t quite match the more intricate works of the undocumented past: renderings of a more cultivated type have given way to wide swaths of amateurish brushstrokes, a decidedly more primordial manifestation.  Has she somehow regressed just because there is now the presence of a camera?  We are given a chance to mull over what evidence we are given and draw our own conclusions.

Ultimately, this film calls into question our willingness to believe and the wonder, emotions and at times, finance that we’ll invest in that belief and the ensuing anger that resonates once we realize a possible betrayal.  But in this case, the jury’s still out as the film ends inconclusively as to its central mystery.   It jumps ahead to Marla at the mighty age of six and she’s back in the ring as well as the limelight, doing her thing and doing it well, a child prodigy once again in the spotlight of her painterly path.

Honey Maid “This Is Wholesome” Documentary Series

Stories Other People Are Telling

Honey Maid Presents a minimally-branded series of short-form documentaries, “This Is Wholesome”.

The series doesn’t explicitly state the message, but it seems to be along the lines that while there are a lot of different kinds of families these days, what defines them is their love and caring for each other – that’s what it means to be wholesome.

The episodes profile “different” kinds of families.



Rock N Roll Dad Often On The Road.

Gay Couple.


It’s a lovely series with a great message – especially for children growing up who may feel different and who may find comfort in knowing they’re really not all that different after all.  Also, if you can spot the Honey Maid products or logos in each of the videos, you win a prize!  (Not really, but they’re very minimal.)

For more on the campaign from Honey Maid brand leader Gary Osifchin and their overwhelmingly positive results, check out this interview at Adweek.

“Frost Nixon – The Watergate Interview” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when it’s others we intend to deceive.  And that is so.  Just ask the man who dominates the proceedings in “Frost Nixon – The Watergate Interview.”  He’s fidgety, defensive, remarkably abstruse, melancholically reflective, you name it, he dishes it out.  We’re not talking about Frost.

This televised special from 1977 had the largest audience for a news interview in history at the time, and it’s just as riveting to behold now as it was then.  It’s a pseudo-intellectual game of cat and mouse, a rollercoaster ride of perilous ideological twists and turns and takes one heck of a ride down an oblique set of tracks leading ultimately in a complete circle.  Somehow, knowing our man in the hot-seat, that’s not surprising.

Of course, as the title indicates, we’re talking about Watergate, the King-Daddy of all government conspiracies as its tentacles of deceit and corruption spread incredibly far and wide as then President Nixon and his cronies helmed a singular quest to achieve re-election and decimate anyone or anything that stood in their way.  The historic scandal involved many agencies including the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and most vehemently, the I.R.S. The former administration let loose the feared tax agency on those companies and individuals who dared oppose the regime (though we can’t say that doesn’t ring a recent bell).  And the C.I.A. was used in an attempt to stop the F.B.I. investigation of the Democratic headquarters break-in which started the whole snowball of illicit revelations rolling.

The interview plays as edge-of-your-seat drama.  And I have to admit I put it on pause twenty-five minutes in as Nixon’s non-answers got to be so exhausting that I had to call a time-out, overwhelmed from what I was hearing, or for that matter, not hearing.  It is safe to say, Frost and the viewer both are taken to the far reaches of frustration as Nixon micro-manages each question to the utter death of their very essence.  And he predominantly gets away with it because if Frost doesn’t move on to the next area of interest, he’ll only find himself caught up in an even deeper semantic quagmire.  So much for follow-ups that’ll do much good.

You can sense the extravagant push and pull going on in Nixon’s mind as he tries to straighten out the crooked road he saw fit to ride as he attempts to make it into an obligating straight-a-way for the public to ethically digest.  And he knows quite well that each and every time he must kick his imaginative machine into high-gear to counter the possible revelations that an actual straight answer may reveal.  It’s at times painful and bizarre to witness the contortions of his mightily rendered answers as he fumbles over his words in his struggle to design explanations that will convince no one but himself.

And at times, Frost’s countenance cannot hide his utter incredulity at these verbal acrobatics by the former president, and try as he might, if there is a clear answer lurking somewhere in the furthest recesses of Nixon’s mental landscape, Frost cannot push it nowhere near the surface of public admittance.  And if Nixon does come close to admitting anything of malevolent intent it’s doled out in such ambiguous terms that he himself avoids the glare of any true self-indictment.  As I said, it’s a rollercoaster ride.

As to Nixon’s cloudy explanation as to why he was worried about one of the seven men initially involved in the break-in talking, to closely paraphrase Frost, our interviewer responds, “That goes contrary to the normal use of language in 10,000 gangster movies” – there are tinges of exasperated humor in the proceedings.  Frost keeps pushing on until Nixon angrily and resolutely makes clear in no uncertain terms, “If I intended to cover-up – believe me, I’d of done it.”  Regardless of this tempestuous outburst, he did “done it.”

Nixon becomes his most human when he recounts, almost tearfully, the dismissal of Erlichman (Head of Domestic Affairs) and Haldeman (Chief of Staff).  These are his closest allies, the guys he’s been through thick and thin with.  Yet their dismissal is politically imperative if he himself has any chance of remaining afloat in this mess of messes.

Toward the end Frost asks for an apology to the American people for the whole sordid mess.  It almost looks like Nixon’s going to get away with this one, too.  But Nixon takes his time and then of his own volition famously reveals, “I let down my friends, I let down my country…Yup, I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life…”  But of course, to completely contradict that sentiment, he also makes clear that, “If they want me to get down, grovel on the floor – no.  Never.”  He’s a political warrior right to the bitter and enigmatic end.

We of course will never know the full story, of the vast reaches of the malevolent scheme, and the sorrowful effect it had on so many.  Watergate truly remains the greatest governmental conspiracy of all time and this historic interview remains a testament to that.

“Alone In The Wilderness” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Even though you may find yourself in the middle of a bright summer day, the mind can quickly conjure the cozy environs of a wind-swept fall afternoon or the ethereal dream-like quality of a winter evening just like that.

And it was on one such sunny day, while doing my weekly stint as a internet radio co-host, that one of my colleagues described a particular film he was rather fond of.  He explained it as a man alone in the wilderness who documented his existence out there in the wilds with a 16mm camera.  He also had me understand that it was the kind of film that you’d encounter on PBS or in the classroom back in the day.

And “back in the day” was when that 16mm projector used to be rolled into the classroom (yes, that time period before the advent of those huge top-loading VCRs) and all eyes would be fixed on the attendant reels of film.  And those eyes would do a quick calculation on the size of those reels to determine the duration of the movie at hand.  And I can attest to, and still feel, the euphoria when we got so lucky as to see huge reels – for that meant a substantial naptime to be had by those of us so inclined.  The teacher would give the usual prefatory remarks on the subject at hand, the overhead lights would go out and the head would hit the desk.

But jump ahead a lifetime later where interest is now piqued by those subjects that in the past would put one under.

Dick Proenneke

Dick Proenneke

Enter Dick Proenneke, 51 years old and taking on the world, literally.  At least the world of unabated nature.  The wilds of Alaska to be specific.  Even more specific: the Twin Lakes area.  It’s a loving tribute to a man and his relationship to nature and to his own means, not unlike something that you would come across in the “Foxfire” book series.

It’s the spring of 1968 as our man begins his year-long quest to conquer the challenges of solitary life.  And he’s as far removed from the social unrest of the times in the contiguous U.S. as possible.

His main mission is to build his own cabin.  Its dimensions will be 11’ by 15’.  He’s a good, steady worker and gets the cabin finished in concise, practical terms.  In fact, it’s really amazing to watch his diligent approach and observe the consistency of intent.  The precise fitting of the logs is an organic delight in itself.  If you’re a woodworker you’ll be especially interested in this film for it truly is a wonder to observe someone so handy with the materials at hand.  Proenneke even laments the fact that he has to use a man-made plastic tarp to seal the roof.  It won’t be an obtrusive eyesore for long though, for it’s quickly covered with a bed of moss.  And with his eye on a very necessary prize, he gets the project finished before the onset of winter.

The burgeoning migration of geese correlate this seasonal change, so next on the agenda is to build a fireplace.  He accomplishes that in good-standing as well.

Proenneke keeps a daily journal.  And the guiding script that forms this narrative coalesces his record with “One Man’s Wilderness” by Sam Keith.  And as a visual supplement, Dick’s got that Bolex camera to document the doings of his surroundings.  Luckily, he’s got a mean telephoto lens to capture wild-life in the distance.  The graininess of the film stock only confirms the era and lends to the organic quality of the setting and the laboring that goes on.  And his dutiful voice-over provides an even-keeled testimony to the proceedings.

If you’re one of the few who hasn’t saturated themselves with constant imagery from the TV, leaving little new to enjoy, you’ll experience these wonders of natural landscape with awe especially if you can temporarily forget your surroundings and really put yourself there.

A small plane on occasion brings in supplies but Dick also smartly plants a garden which provides rhubarb, potatoes, carrots and such.  The good, natural stuff.  He creates his own kitchenware and it’s fascinating just to watch him make a wooden spoon – something we all take for granted.  He doesn’t engage in much hunting but the one animal that he does kill he sure gets a lot out of.  It’s a ram which provides for plentiful food and stew.

Lyrical music, reminiscent of that late sixties/early seventies feel (haunting string and flute), is provided on Celtic harp by Lisa Lynne and on Bamboo flute by George Tortorelli.

“Alone In the Wilderness” isn’t a forced episodic march through culminating plot points, rather, like the seasons rolling along, it melds its time through the melody of necessity.  And it is even more mesmerizing in its earthen beauty especially when juxtaposed against today’s madness of ubiquitous phone calls, emails, idle socializing, job pressure, all of which can readily seem like acts of violence against the sanity of self.   Instead, Proenneke realized the sanctity of self, even in the pre-digital age, as he willingly shunned the madness that an enclosed society can wreak upon the soul.  Wisely, he took refuge in the palm of God’s gift, the vast, untouched expanse of wilderness.  One realizes that you can’t count your blessings if you’re too distracted to realize that they even exist.

Proenneke spent 35 years in his beloved wilderness until 1998 at age 82.  The cabin is now rightfully a historical sight in Lake Clark National Park.

And you’ll never look at a log cabin the same way again.


BBC’s Real Time Documentary Series

Stories Other People Are Telling

The BBC‘s Real Time “is a series for the BBC News website in which ordinary people tell their own extraordinary stories.”  It’s a series of short-form documentaries that exist somewhere on the spectrum between news stories and verite documentary.  Regardless of how these stories are classified, they’re pretty darned compelling little docs, generally focusing on light and/or quirky or odd subjects and events.

Take for example this short documentary on the Irish Redhead Convention wherein redheads from as far away as California and New Zealand come together for a weekend of celebration.

Or this doc about a history enthusiast who has fashioned his house to be a 1940s-era home (except for the refrigerator).


There’s also a doc on a very unique corner store where everything, from magazines to candy bars, is made out of felt.

This is perhaps the most fun in the series thus far, the story of one man’s quest to win the Worthing International Birdman competition.

Check Real Time out.  But beware – these stories can be addictive.

Dick’s Sporting Goods Sponsors Feature Length High School Football Documentary

Stories Other People Are Telling

In an auspicious entry into the grand tradition of corporate-sponsored documentaries, sporting goods retailer Dick’s last year put up the money for filmmaker Judd Ehrlich‘s latest documentary, We Could Be King.  King is the story of two rival Philadelphia high schools that, after severe budget cuts, are forced to merge schools and, consequently, football programs.

The deal was put together by Tribeca Digital Studios, a part of the Tribeca Film Festival family.  Dick’s put up the undisclosed budget, and Tribeca produced and handled distribution.  The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2014 and ran on ESPN2 shortly afterwards.  Tribeca Digital is hopeful that this will become a template for further sponsored docs.

The Dick’s brand is a perfect match with a football documentary, of course, since Dick’s is launching its “Sports Matter” initiative aimed at supporting underfunded school sports – and since it sells sports gear to all of those underfunded sports programs and kids.

See Variety for more on the film and the deal.

And check out the impressive trailer for King.  But be careful – it may make you hunger for a Rocky-style training montage or a football supercut of Varsity Blues, Friday Night Lights, and Remember The Titans.

King is available on VOD and digital platforms such as iTunes now.

“Notes On Marie Menken” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

I attended the film program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where there is a heavy emphasis on the experimental film.  Consequently, I got to experience a perpetual flow of avant-garde 16mm cinema.  Our syllabus’s were replete with titles throughout its history – I had gotten more than familiar with the genre.

So, in watching Martina Kudlacek’s “Notes On Marie Menken,” an insightful tribute to the life and career of the esteemed mid-twentieth century experimental filmmaker (Menken initially was a painter, turned filmmaker then as an aside, an underground actress), I got a chance to journey back in time a little bit to those bygone university days.  And Menken shot with the ubiquitously famous Swiss-made 16mm Bolex camera, the most respected spring-wound, go-to camera for shooting quality silent footage, the same camera we used in film school after we moved up from the Bell and Howell 70-DR.  It was nice to see an old companion back in action.

At the onset of the film we follow Marie’s nephew, Joseph J. Menkevich who leads us down a narrow hallway in an indoor storage facility and discovers heretofore unknown footage of hers.  Rusty cans of 100 and 400 foot rolls of film are uncovered and subsequently opened, a revelatory testament to forgotten work.

And in one fascinating reel, a rooftop cinematic jousting match between Menken and Andy Warhol is revealed, both prodding the other with a camera back and forth.  They are clearly having fun, two avant-garde idealists having a go at each other, entwined in a rare aesthetic understanding few others could share.  And Andy took a huge liking to Marie, he put her in some of his films and she inadvertently became an impromptu actress.  Menken also shot fascinating fast-motion footage of Warhol producing silk-screens and followed him out and about on the street as well.  Oh, and she also caught Andy wrapping up those infamous Brillo Boxes.  That’s some history in and of itself.

Menken’s camera roamed the terrains of her instincts, capturing her filmic musings on people, places and things.  She was fascinated by movement and the architecture of space and time that that movement created.  She was also enthralled by light and liked what it could do when altered in time for delirious effect.  Menken was also interested in sped-up flirtations with the outside world, street scenes, beach scenes, gardens, sculptures, the world was her canvas.  It becomes obvious how that experimental ethic of vagabond imagery from underground filmmakers bled into 1960’s psychedelic films and other assorted B-pictures.

Musician John Zorn and company provide an enchanting score to “Notes On Menken,” further enmeshing us into her dreamlike world.  Many of Menken’s contemporaries contribute insights into her illustrious career as do many Warhol colleagues such as Billy Name, who designed Warhol’s silver factory; Gerard Malanga, who collaborated on Warhol’s three minute screen tests; and actress/artist Mary Woronov who was one of his “Superstars.”  Woronov subsequently became an actress in a slew of B pictures and some Hollywood fare but what was most enchanting was finding out she had roles in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” and Ti West’s “House of the Devil.”

San Francisco experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger of “Scorpio Rising“ fame (his biography is a fascinating read) furnishes memories along with Jonas Mekas (his “Movie Journal” is an equally fascinating read and an exemplary diary of attending underground films).  We also get to see Kenneth Anger physically etching into film frame by frame as he weighs in as well.

But for me, the most compelling part of this documentary is the revelation that Marie Menken and her husband, poet Willard Maas, were the basis for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  That I did not know.  Or at least don’t remember knowing.  Before I lost track of it, I was reading a fascinating book on the history of that classic play and now I wonder if that amazing fact was brought up in the book.  Marie and Willard were notorious weekend bingers, going steady from Friday into Monday.  Often times they would be at college faculty cocktail parties and Mr. Albee would be there, enthralled by the couple’s intoxicated sparrings while making judicious mental notes to himself.  Marie/Martha.  Kenneth Anger confirms that, “They expressed themselves by drinking and shouting at each other.”  Well, we got a hell of a play from it.  Ironically Menken and Waas had a child that died.  And the dramatic subtext of “Virginia Woolf” is an imaginary child.  Albee was a voyeur of a real-life psychodrama and subsequently turned it into a revolutionary work on the stage.  Amazing.

Kudlacek has also made a film on Menken’s contemporary Maya Deren entitled  “In the Mirror of Maya Deren” (2002), and on another filmmaker Peter Kubelka in “Fragments of Kubelka” (2012).

Menken’s films remain a cultural time capsule seen through the prism of an avant-garde lens and included on the DVD are three of her works: “Visual Variations On Noguchi” (1945), “Glimpses of the Garden” (1957), and “Arabesque For Kenneth Anger” (1958-61).  Elsewhere, seek out “Notebook” (1962), her most famous film of her prodigious career.


Stories Other People Are Telling

Airbnb is doing it right.  Not only is the service great for travelers and hosts, it’s showcasing the benefits in a series of documentary shorts.  The videos are distributed online and make for a much more convincing case for using Airbnb or becoming a host than any traditional ad can do.  How?  They profile real people in real places, tell their stories of why Airbnb or how they got into it, and connect with the audience in an authentic way.

This approach fits perfectly with Airbnb, a service that espouses the value of community and connecting.

Each story emphasizes either the benefits of hosting (connections with diverse people, income, etc) and the benefits of having a host to stay with (insider tips from a local to the location, savings versus a hotel, tasty home-cooked food, etc), or both.

Here are two episodes that feature both traveler and host benefits.

This next episode shows the benefits of an income from Airbnb – in fact, Tama says that after the financial collapse, without Airbnb, she would have gone into bankruptcy.  It is highly personal and highly effective.

Here is a profile of a host, Yaeri, in South Korea that shows the upside for Airbnb users in the form of tasty food and knowledge of the area.

It’s a good series of docs and will certainly add travelers and hosts to the Airbnb community.

And anyone can be a part of the series, too.  Do you have a compelling story to add?  Check out the casting call. The emphasis doesn’t need to be on Airbnb, but should be about travel or hosting.

Compare those documentary videos of real people in real places to this one on Airbnb’s YouTube channel that has no people or places in it, just text and graphics, and see which makes you want to book through Airbnb and go.

“Bukowski – Born Into This” written by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

A documentary can be like a good friend.  Sometimes akin to someone that you haven’t seen for a while but increasingly have the urge to touch base with again.  And that’s why I pulled “Bukowski – Born Into This” out of the collection.

Writer Charles Bukowski’s work had a definite impact on my life. Through his novels, short stories and poems, he created a rich repertoire of missives from the front.  That front being the drinking and writing life on the mean streets of Philadelphia, New Orleans and ultimately and predominantly, Los Angeles.  These narratives came from a sub-blue collar level until he furthered his writing life into a paid-in-full vocation.  But even from that higher perch of consistent publication and the fame that went with it, he still remained street style in actuality and in instinct.

He opened up a world of literature for me that I otherwise had only caught a variation of from Hunter S. Thompson.  Both men were preternaturally bound to be only themselves at any cost, literary provocateurs, creating a whirlwind of consternation in the circumstances they found themselves in and the people who happened to be in their wake.  They wrote from the gut, in everyday language, not in the codified constructs of higher literature. Anyone could pick up one of their books and immediately understand what they were talking about and why they were talking about it.

But unlike Thompson, Bukowski liked to stick around the house for the most part, save for customary jaunts to the liquor store and the race track. Thompson, was of course worldly, he’d been around, Bukowski didn’t care to venture much further than the refrigerator to get the next beer.  Unlike Thompson, Bukowski brought the world to him, his arena was his living room for the most part, not the world stage.  If Bukowski hopped on a plane, it’d damn well better make sense – to him.  It was to do an intoxicated reading, bed some female fans and make damn sure to get that paycheck on the spot.

In “Bukowski – Born Into This” produced and directed by John Dullaghan, we get to meet the man who wrote and drank his ass off.  He’s got squinty eyes and he thinks meaningfully as he speaks, his words are testaments of wisdom and insight, not redundant time killers.  He looks tough with his pock-marked face, a result of damaging acne but he possesses a soft, contemplative voice.  Bukowski’s got the soul of a teddy bear, but if kicked, can take action like a grizzly.  A veteran of countless bar and back alley fights, and like in his prose, when it comes down to it, he can skip the metaphor.

We are treated to rich archival footage of the prodigious writer: whether he’s doing one of his popular readings (where he’s received like a rock star – and in one hilariously documented segment they’ve provided him with a refrigerator full of beer right up there on the stage) or merely walking to the liquor store, there’s a magic of presence in the air.

We’re shown the home that he was brought up in in which he poignantly classifies the “House of horrors,” where if his father spotted one blade of grass that the mower missed, young Bukowski would have to endure a brutal whipping from a razor strop.  But he said that horror had taught him the most valuable lesson a writer could learn, and that was: pain.

Bukowski’s interviewed driving in his car and he points out the various sights of his history along the way, including the post office where he doggedly labored for the man, but didn‘t allow the drudgery to cripple his aesthetic drive.  For immediately after his daily shift, he’d start hitting not only the bottle but the keys, banging away at his typewriter while puffing on a cheap cigar and engulfed in the rousing melodies of classical music.  The only music he really went for.  He had a meticulous work ethic and we as readers got to enjoy the literary fruit it bore.  Bukowski didn’t have trouble with writing, conversely, he found writing to be “…an easy, nice thing to do,”  not the painful challenge most authors find it to be.

Working in obscurity as most writers initially do, readers eventually caught on and publisher John Martin took Bukowski under his wing.  Martin offered him a hundred bucks a month for life if he quit his job and instead concentrate fully on his writing.  The prolific scribe took the bait and never let the publisher down.  When Bukowski quit his Post Office job, Martin looked forward to a novel from him.  He didn’t expect it within four weeks of Bukowski’s new found freedom.  That’s how focused he could be and now fully unabated, he continued to scorch the literary terrain like a Utah wildfire on kite-flying day.

There are no over-produced flourishes to muddy the waters of this documentary’s  clean outlay, for the subject matter is intriguing enough.  Bukowski led a rich life and it is compellingly covered in this film with glimpses of his bouts with various women, his trouble with myriad jobs and all forms of mayhem that came along with drinking and a defiant attitude.  And of course, it was all dutifully and delightfully chronicled in his prose.

I devoured his six novels: “Post Office,” “Ham On Rye,” “Women,” “Factotum,” “Hollywood,” and “Pulp.”  And of course I equally dug into many of his short story and poetry collections and a few biographies as well throughout the years.  His work was prodigious and highly addicting.  Not only was Bukowski a chronicler, he was a thinker, a philosopher, an observer and a participant.

Most importantly, Bukowski teaches us all to stick to our guns and take no guff while doing it; concentrate on the task at hand and most importantly: have a hell of a time while doing it.

Was “COPS” the Ultimate Documentary?

Things We Like

I watched “Cops” for about twenty years before I stopped watching TV altogether.  Sure the box gets fired up for the Packers, you can bet on that, but other than that hallowed ritual, it remains as a black monolith in my living room ala “2001: A Space Odyssey” (not counting VHS and DVD viewings).  Ask people who knew me, whatever it took, Saturday nights I’d find myself planted in front of the electronic fireplace for the two riveting back-to-back episodes offered 7 p.m Central time sharp.  And that’s when the “Bad Boys” theme would begin to reverberate in living rooms across the U.S.A.  I never was a big TV watcher but there was something definitely special about that show.

When “Cops” premiered in 1989 our television culture wasn’t yet mired in the miasma of the “reality show,” but soon came the likes of “Survivor,” “American Idol” and such, and the dam of forced perspective burst force.  The bulk of many of those reality shows spawned by those initial hits were ostensibly produced and consequently as fake as a three dollar bill.  Participants were coerced into contrived situations and cajoled to malevolently react against each other.  “Cops” of course remained sincere, how could it not?  It was the real deal and these were real police at work out on the streets, in the alleyways and within the kitchens of domestic disputes.  It was happening in the moment, no furtive cues from the sidelines, the officers were there to do their job.

Many people couldn’t understand my obsession with “Cops.”  What was it about the show?  Was it the heart-stopping, high speed car chases?  Not really but somewhat.  Was it the close foot pursuits through tight  alleyways and over precarious fences and through winding yards?  Not really but somewhat.  Well, what was it then?  Over time some people began to understand where my interest was coming from.  And that interest was in the show’s humanity.  Yes, its humanity.  And the humor.  Humor on a real police show?  You bet, lots of humor, often times sub-textual as it may be, but therein resides one of the clever conceits of the show.  It is about us.

For “Cops” is about the human condition, albeit one that predominantly takes place out on the streets of America.  It’s about people in heightened situations and how those people react toward each other, whether trying to candidly explain their circumstances or furtively cover up some wrong-doing.  It concerns the rhetoric of the streets and the way we communicate with each other and how some miscreants stealthily dole out disinformation.  It exemplifies the clever use of language between those trying to avoid arrest and the authorities justifying that arrest.  It is the ultimate documentary coming at us directly into our homes each and every week.

Often times the paradigm was patternistic: The police officer would get out of their pursuing squad and cautiously approach the stopped vehicle in question.  Brief formalities would be exchanged between driver and soon-to-be interrogator.  Both knew what was on the docket.  But the stage was set for the stage itself.  Someone trying to find out, the other trying to evade, both doing their jobs to the best of their ability at the given moment.  Rarely was it a draw but sometimes it was, for occasionally the skirmish with words was entertaining enough.  Yet, in most cases, the cuffs came out providing a finite conclusion.

“Cops” takes us into homes and situations we otherwise never had access to before.  When the series began it was a unique premise and it caught on readily with audiences.  And many people, not living the white-collar dream, saw their own people up on the screen for the first time, people that they could relate to, characters and circumstances they may have encountered in their own backyard, driving down the street or fixing a car in a back alley.  On-screen it was everyday people pushed from the sidelines into the momentary spotlight of the camera.  There they finally were, people we knew, in our living rooms, finally for all to see and experience.

Roger Ebert: “Life Itself” by Mark Borchardt

Independent Film

Roger Ebert lived a full life.  That is made resoundingly clear in the new documentary “Life Itself” based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name. Renowned documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters) gifts us with a loving, engaging tribute to Ebert’s robust life and its heartbreaking but inspiring final chapter.  Ebert left a rich legacy not only as an informed, impassioned film critic but as an old-school newspaper man and most importantly as a family man.  He led a distinguished life, pursued many interests and left the world a better, more informed place. He made us care about movies and showed us the amazingly deep impact they could have on our lives and the way we looked at the world.

James has set forth a vivid portrayal of the life and times of the great man without over-sentimentalizing or laying on the schmaltz.  Instead, as usual, he has created a classy production, placing a working man‘s halo over Ebert minus any dubious deification.  His life is what it is.

I, like many, was introduced to Roger Ebert through his weekly movie review show with Gene Siskel on PBS.  Well, that show exponentially gained in popularity and catapulted both to fame but Ebert more so.  Siskel was the critic at the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune.  The jovial, if not often times biting, bickering between the two critics drew us in like a curious, intimate fireside chat.  Viewers were pulled into the throes of the sporting, if not at times downright contentious, cinematic jousting.  Ebert and Siskel were acutely insightful but they kept their reviews within a populist understanding yet without ever dumbing them down.  That was the secret and the charm of their success: everyone could tune in and no one would be alienated, all were invited, they kept things at a comprehensive level while not losing an ounce of passion or insight.  That’s why the show worked. After all, they were just two guys from Chicago.

Ebert was always a newspaper man and he was already working professionally by his mid-teens.  And at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he became editor of “The Daily Illini.”  Ultimately, he landed at the Chicago Sun-Times.  But not as a film critic.  Sports and general reporting were essentially his domain.

Roger Ebert

Amazingly enough, the job as film critic came to him by default, it landed in his lap when a vacancy opened up in that department. Yet, in 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.  Not a bad result for an unexpected gig.

But there was a bit of a dark side to his continuing success as alcohol definitely had a grip on Ebert.  So he figured he’d better quit while he was still ahead.  And in August 1979 he did so.  With his talent for writing and the lust for life he persistently pursued, he didn’t need a crutch or an inhibitor like alcohol.  He was too large for life for that.

Friends and associates weigh in with valued memories.  They respect the man, that is evident, and as for any faults, there is nothing to hide. Venerated WGN Chicago broadcasting host Rick Kogan contributes his take on his beloved acquaintance.  For me, personally, it was great to finally see Kogan, the man behind that gravelly voice which delightfully haunted my early Sunday morning radio for years.  And Werner Herzog espouses Ebert’s life as well, in of course his own uber-famous tone.

And on our side of the fence, Frankie Latina’s Super-8 epic “Modus Operandi” caught the appreciative eye of Ebert and he put a hearty entry of it in his popular annual film book.  Yeah, that’s right, that down-home extravaganza shot out and about in Milwaukee.  That’s the kind of guy Ebert was. He gave many a fair shake.

I myself ran into Roger Ebert a number of times throughout the years.  The first was in Toronto, at the film festival.  I was enamored by the whole scene and who of fame I might spot.  Well, of all people, there was Roger Ebert.  He didn’t have a clue as to who I was when I enthusiastically called out his name; he looked decidedly perplexed, “Who the hell is that?” he must have silently wondered.  Years later he found out and invited me as a guest to his “Overlooked Film Festival” in Champaign, IL where I had the great honor of receiving Ebert’s “Thump’s Up” award with, of all people, Werner Herzog.  A heck of a legend to share the stage with.

Later, in the dark of the night, Herzog bummed a cigarette off of Mike Schank and announced he was heading back to the jungle early that morning to continue to work on a film.  There’s an anecdote in film history for you.  The year was 2004.

Then in 2011 I was invited back to the festival and Roger at that time was in the throes of his illness.  His wife, Chazz, was as accommodating as ever and Roger was glad to see us.  I had three out of my four kids in tow and it was one of the highlights of my life to share that experience with them. And the film that night at the palatial Virginia Theatre was an epic presentation of “Metropolis” with a stunning musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.  That was the last time I saw Roger but obviously that memory will always be with me.  And cherished memories of him will be held by so many, many others, for he made an impression upon the numberless.

I happened to see “Life Itself” on opening night at Milwaukee’s renowned Oriental Theatre by the kind invitation of my oldest daughter.  Initially, I went to watch a film but ended up, far more importantly, celebrating a life.  Thank you, Roger, for all that you gave us.  Thumbs up, my man.

“Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty” written by Mark Borchardt

Filmmaker News

Johnny Winter has just passed away.  We all loved him and wish him the best in the afterlife as well as condolences to all his family and friends.  He was a true, noble spirit and he will be missed dearly.  Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Greg Olliver who recently completed “Johhny Winter: Down and Dirty” before Winter’s passing.

Greg Olliver, whose last film, a documentary entitled “Lemmy” (co-directed by Wes Orshoski) – a penetrating look into the mad life and times of hard-rocking, trailblazing Lemmy Kilmister from the loud, proud heavy metal trio, Motorhead – once again has turned his concerted gaze to the realm of music.  Even though “Lemmy” was a multi-year odyssey to finish and get out, it didn’t deter Olliver from casting his eye back again on a venerated musician.  This time Olliver caught up with the one and only master blues guitarist Johnny Winter.  But what inspired Olliver to dig right back into the hard rock trenches for another wild ride?

Olliver confirms that the last outing was a “…long, exhausting process of heavy metal and Ozzy Osbourne, and these huge characters. When it was over I wanted to do another music doc.  I was working on some other projects, but I wanted to do more music, and I wanted to do something closer to my heart.”

He didn’t have to look farther than his own home state, “I am from Texas. I grew up in Houston and my dad used to wake me and my brother up by blasting ZZ Top and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and all this Texas blues stuff, so that’s stuck in my blood, whether I liked it or not.  I was looking for a new project to do.  I guess it was 2012 and Johnny was on NPR being interviewed, and I had totally forgotten about him…and he sounded rowdy and funny, and he just sounded like a fun dude.  Then they started playing some of his music and I just got totally psyched…that’s how it started.”

Like Olliver, Johnny Winter was also born and raised in Texas and also grew up in a musical household.   Born albino and nearly blind (his brother, Edgar Winter, also was born albino), Winter revealed that the near lack of one of his crucial senses exponentially ingrained another: that of an indelible ear for music.

Olliver elaborated, “Most people are born fairly normal and choose whatever path they choose, but this dude was born with…everything against him.  I guess that fired him (up) so much where he just knew he had to find a different way to succeed…even as a kid, he was practicing for hours a day on the guitar, and just knew he had to get good at it.  Once he was hooked on that, he was really cocky about it, saying that he always knew he would get out of Beaumont and knew he would become famous.  I feel like he really did know that all the way back then.  It was part of him, and I think his being albino and blind, helps him in all those things.  He said, ‘Fuck it, all those people against me, I am just going to make it and prove to them that I am (the) best, and get out of here,’ and it totally worked.”

Winter got right down to business playing music at an early age.  His first instrument was the ukulele and while still in his pre-teens switched over to the guitar.  He cut his first record at fifteen and started playing out.  He encountered regional success and before most knew him as the famed, long-haired, tattoed axe-man, he actually sported a pompadour back in those early days and was known as Johnny “Cool Daddy” Winter.  It’s an amazing juxtaposition seeing that bygone image of him and then as the Johnny Winter most of us know.

Greg further elaborated on that earlier history and the musicians that populated it, “Before Johnny became big, there was this blues scene down there, where they all played in the same clubs…there was Rocky Erickson, ZZ Top, Johnny, all these dudes hung out and played in these clubs, and partied back there in Houston.  Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) told me they had a lot of good times, but he wouldn’t tell me what the good times were.  I guess those guys knew how to party back then.”

He continued, “I learned a lot from Billy.  Billy and Johnny are both music…blues nerds. Those guys know so much about it.  There are easily five more documentaries in the stories I heard from those guys. There’s so much to it, man…I could barely even skin the surface…it’s really fascinating.”

Winter is renowned for an eclectic mix of blues and rock, though he makes no bones about it, it’s only the blues that he’s interested in.  The rock slant was put upon him for commercial reasons and he wasn’t too happy about that but it was the nature of the marketplace beast that he had to deal with.  Yet, I’ll admit personally, I was far more fascinated by that blues-rock combo, that witch’s brew of incessant intensity that basically eluded the airwaves of a populist radio.  It was a unique form and I appreciated its singularity even though Winter didn‘t.  Hey, I’ve got the records to prove it.

And along the way he got to play with his heroes such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters and even recorded with the latter.

Winter comes off as very likable in “Down and Dirty,“ possessing a southern drawl with an everyman’s outlook, rolling out off-kilter musings as readily as a gambler does dice, which could place him square at your kitchen table for a down-home hang-out session.

Greg attests, “Documentaries are never easy to make…they take forever and you spend a lot of time with the person.  If Johnny was not a fun guy to hang out with, I would have never made the film.  He was a great, fun guy…with this sparkle in his eye, and the stories he would tell (are) just like to me…from a different planet.”

But the hard-rocking life took a toll on Winter.  A two year heroin stint led to a three decades long methadone addiction.  He went through a pretty rough spell later in life while hooked on the alternative drug but with a new manager actually concerned about Johnny’s well-being, the guitarist’s life got back up to speed.  And in a very touching moment caught in a home movie during a Christmas celebration, it’s revealed that Winter’s been off the stuff, having been furtively fed placebo pills for some time.

Greg explained, “I didn’t really know much about that story at all until I was starting to hang with them.  I was already making the film and excited that Johnny was on the comeback and he seemed healthier than what I had read about him, and then that story started unfolding…that to me became the most incredible part of the documentary, like here’s how these guys battle to get him healthy out of this little group of people…and Paul his manager cleaned him up, it’s amazing.

In the world premiere we had in Austin Texas, (Winter was present) people were cheering during that part of the film.  Like crying and then cheering, like a standing ovation of electric applause happened when Johnny opened up the pill at Christmas. People were so into that storyline and were rooting for him.  Winter said it was his best Christmas present ever.”

And in another heartbreaking scene, Johnny Winter is driven to his boyhood home and is invited in by the accommodating current resident, yet he refuses to set foot into the house, it’s just too much.  Too many memories.  Too much time has passed.

Greg confirmed, “He just did what he wanted to do, and I think that’s what attracted me…and what attracts most people to those stories, is that it’s rare that anybody does live a life like that and did exactly what they wanted to do, and not sit in the cubicle and worry about their 9 to 5 jobs, which is much safer.”

I, myself, got to see Johnny Winter at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in the mid-Eighties while he was still in the throes of his almighty powers and what a performance it was – as if he too, had a little meeting at the Crossroads (i.e. as in Robert Johnson‘s mythological get-together).  And I also got to check him out in more recent times where he’d become frail and had to sit for the concert.  Yet he was as methodically possessed as ever before.

God rest your soul, Johnny!

“Giuseppe Makes a Movie”

Independent Film

Giuseppe Makes a Movie” is one of those rare, down-home gems of a documentary that allows one to experience a preternaturally impassioned soul in his far-out, no-holds barred, milieu.   The centrifugal power, the galvanizing dynamic that the documenting camera lays frames on is one Giuseppe Andrews, a singular force of jet propulsion, passionately wielding a movie camera as enthusiastically as normal people do a vacation ticket to Cancun.  But unlike ordinary people, Giuseppe doesn’t have to escape his circumstances, because he is nothing but his circumstances

This film showcases one of the bright-light personas in this universe of chance; a vicious interpreter of the surreal, a cinematic Hieronymus Bosch where the absurd and abstract amalgamate into an unyielding whole of imaginative debauchery.  Well, Andrews may not see it that way – for it could be the everyday in his own wonderful universe.

Directed by Adam Rifkin and sharing producing duties with Mike Plante, this is assuredly the kind of film that you don‘t want to end; at least I didn‘t.  I was immersed in its world and its determined energy and being the great documentary that this is, one doesn’t have the wearisome template of a contrived three act structure to slog through; this is cinematic existentialism at its best.

We’re hot on the trail of Andrew’s latest opus “Garbanzo Gas” and he’s determined to make this one at lightning speed.  And this compelling doc gets to the heart of the matter and the quirky but loyal community Giuseppe surrounds himself with to get the job done: his films – his way.  But these films are certainly not your everyday affairs and definitely not big-budget blockbusters.  There is a budget but instead of checks being handed out, in many cases bottles of beer are direct deposited to the actors-at-large.  He can get these distinctive masterpieces in the can for a grand or less.

Continuity understandably goes out the window, and rightfully so Andrews makes clear, for the viewer should be tuned into the vibe, the story of the film and not caught up in the technical details.  We come to understand that this philosophy is a necessary one as he cranks out a production in a few days, even donning wind resistant tights to cut through the air and make every minute count.

These are down and dirty movies – literally.  And some may be shocked by the content.  But that can be a good thing, because, as we all know, life isn’t just peaches and cream.  Andrews makes sure we get that point with far-ranging takes on the absurd, reflections of his infinite imaginings into the extreme defying conventional parameters of taste (i.e. bizarre diatribes and costuming, a naked senior citizen having sex with a ghost, etc.)  These films are not pornographic by any means, rather poetic musings with a lot of naughty language.

We encounter the colorful denizens that populate Andrew’s cinematic underworld such as “Vietnam Ron,” “Sir Big Foot George” and “Spit” (grabbed off the street for twenty bucks when another venerated actor fails to show).  It’s a wondrous and uncanny alchemy of family and friends, and it turns out that Andrew’s producer (read financier) is none other than his father, Ed, (Big Ed) who in turn was none other than a guitarist for the Bee-Gees during their heyday.  Ed also serves as driver, craft service and more, an all-around go-to guy.  It’s an amicable business relationship and it works well, along of course with some minor friction along the way, which is to be expected in such high intensity run-and-gun circumstances.  His father’s been with him all along and Giuseppe’s prodigious output in a tight seven year filmmaking period include: “Trailer Town,” “Grandpa,” “Oakie Dokie” and “Touch Me In the Morning.”  Yes – Andrews can crank out a feature film in literally three, even two days – take that Roger Corman!  (“Garbanzo Gas” comes in at a record one and a half days!)

But this story has an odd twist because Andrews doesn’t just come out of nowhere; film-wise, that is.  He actually was a child actor in such blockbusters as “Independence Day,” “Never Been Kissed” and was featured in the cult classic “Detroit Rock City.”  But the Hollywood system rubbed him the wrong way and he went back to the straightest, cleanest connection he could: himself.  Blue Chip sensibilities were laid to waste but we got blessed with one hell of a self-invented auteur instead.  And the cinematic world is a damn better place because of that.

This documentary is one of those films that transcends the form itself, content trumping context, the roller coaster is off and away, and we’re breathlessly taken along for the ride, allowing one into the lives and circumstances of others in a very raw, matter-of-fact way: too close for comfort for some and a delightful revelation to others.  It definitely joins the pantheon of documented dare-doers cranking out low to no-budget flicks in such ‘making ofs’ like “Demon Lover Diary,” “Overnight” and “American Movie.”

Andrews is an idiosyncratic genius whose determined spirit I have ultimate admiration for.  Thanks to almighty powerhouses like him, an iconic forge of individualism continues to be wrought providing us with compelling, visionary notes from the cinematic underground.  I walked away from this film deeply encouraged; not just in the possibilities of home-grown, throw-down cinema but most importantly by the ecstatic vision and gut-instinct of a true life-force, unstoppable in his quest for his own truth and community.  And “Giuseppe Makes a Movie” does what a good film should: invite us into its inspired world and inspire us in our own; for Andrews proves that anything, almost anything, is truly possible.

As an interesting footnote: I shared some scenes with Giuseppe in “Cabin Fever 2.”  It was enthusiastically predicted how great we’d get along, how much we’d have in common, etc.  So, there we sat in the van for our scene and as much as I can recall, we didn’t exchange one goddamn word.  There you have it.  God bless America.