Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Get Lucas a Cattle Prod

Submitted by Melinda Murphy

God help us, the annual summer blockbuster season is here. Have you noticed it comes earlier and earlier?

In the stalwart tradition of an ex-movie critic, I decided to see a few of the new releases. I'm way too fond of my VCR - the relationship is becoming obsessive. So, I returned to big, dark places full of sticky floors and strangers who will not shut up.

It being May '02, I had to get the juggernaut out of the way. Juggernaut is what my favorite comic, Denis Leary, called Titanic. And he was right. Mainstream films are so bloated, so expensive and so over-done, they need a company logo, a dozen lawyers and good lighting just for the press junket. So I gave in and saw Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

The ass-numbing effort reminded me of carnie show rides. When I was 12, I got on a ride, liked it for about five minutes; but when it speeded up, things started swinging at my head and I started sliding out of my seat and then - I just wanted to get off.

The special effects in Attack of the Clones are like that. Things fly at your face and after awhile you just want it to stop before the headache starts. There's either a mechanical whatsit or an enraged creature lunging at the audience every five minutes for two hours and twelve minutes.
I'm not sure if Lucas' mid-life crisis, a hidden drug problem, or enough money to roll around in built the foundation for this film and its depressing predecessor, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

The dialogue? God, what happened, George? Where are the memorable one-liners like "Well excuse me, your worshipfulness?" I had no idea that Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson could be that boring. They do voice-overs on car commercials with more verve.

Character development? There isn't any. I was so annoyed by C3P0 and R2D2 that I hoped one of the angry grasshopper critters would finish them off. C3P0 was cute in the earlier films, but now his plumy Brit accent and incessant whining had me fantasizing about him getting stomped into the stadium ground by an angry whatsit. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen were no better, but it's not their fault. Everybody is wooden and dull; even the computer-generated characters have poor line delivery.

Plot? It's even worse than I feared. While in the first one, it turned out our heroes' struggles were precipitated by a trade dispute (NAFTA in space), this story stumbles from point to point. Politicians vie for power and somebody's lying, though it's easy to forget exactly who (think Watergate). The characters blather on in monotone; an assistant director should have randomly zapped the actors with a cattle prod just to get a screech out of them!

The romantic sub-plot is butt awful. Pull two socks out of a dryer and rub them together - they will have more energy between them than Anikan and the former-Queen-turned-Senator. At one point, they're frolicking - on I forget which planet - running in alpine meadows. For a second I thought I was watching The Sound of Music. Most of the time, Anikan utters forgettable, awkward lines that might as well have been written by one of Lucas' adopted kids; kind of how a fourteen year-old would imagine great love.

The only up side to this mess, is one of the last scenes where Yoda - that's right - Yoda takes on one of the heavies in a light saber duel. I don't think Lucas intended this response, but it was like watching Kermit the Frog do Kung Fu. The kids in the front row were howling with laughter.
Lucas decided that good writing and editing are needless details that would only hinder a story better suited to the Sci-Fi Channel on a Sunday night. Speaking of cable television, one of the characters even makes mention of "spice mining" - is Lucas scamming the venerable Frank Herbert?

Thank God I saw something coherent before I saw Attack of the Clones - the new Hugh Grant vehicle, About a Boy, which is a wonderful surprise, like a torte that tastes as good as it looks. Yeah, it's fluffy but it was fun, not an ordeal that you don't want to run out of water during.
Grant plays a useless, wealthy cad who has frittered away his life chasing chicks and shopping for compact discs. He meets a kid and the kid gradually weasels his way into the cad's life, changing him forever, and helping him develop empathy for someone other than himself. Grant's dead-on in this role, just like he was in Bridget Jones' Diary, and maybe that's not a compliment.

The plot and character development are good. Aussie Toni Collette is brilliant as a screwball London hippie who feeds her kid soymilk and "Ancient Grains" cereal for breakfast, tells him he's "not a sheep" and then sends him off to school in enough wool and organic fiber to make him look like a rainbow-colored lamb. Grant's character meets her through a self-help group that made me laugh out loud - S.P.A.T. or Single Parents Alone Together. The subtle pokes at contemporary life, which earn giggles and some serious laughs, are reminiscent of Fight Club. When Grant's character is doing a voice-over about a frightening ride to an emergency room, he doesn't hesitate to say it was scary "but driving really fast behind the ambulance was fun!" It's exactly this sort of black, poking-at-political-correctness humor that made flicks like The Opposite of Sex a classic.

It's sad that the entertainment biz continually disappoints with warring egos spewing crap like Attack of the Clones, when you consider that the movie's budget was bigger than Zaire's gross national product. Or, better yet - and this has been said before - for what it costs to make one summer blockbuster, Hollywood could produce two dozen independent films.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Filming What We Know

Submitted by Joseph Gaines

I'll start by saying that I am not a filmmaker. Rather, I am someone who finds himself in the right place at the right time with a story that tells itself. I am lucky enough to have all the resources I need to let this story be retold on film. I don't have to spend a dime on props, the sets are already built and the characters have no need to rehearse their parts. It's just myself, a circle of friends (who know far more about the nuts and bolts of film than I do) and a story that is screaming to be told.

It begins with an accident.

In the fall of 1989, something happens which surprises pretty much everyone in the entire world, especially those who are right in the middle of it. A series of nation-wide demonstrations to change one government's oppressive policies seem certain to provoke a violent response from the military and state police. If this were Tiennamen Square in Beijing, then the story ends here. The government brings the resistance to a bloody and indisputably final end. However, it is not Beijing.

A political and economic system which posited itself as the only viable alternative to fascism disintegrates rather suddenly under the weight of its own dysfunction. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic), the socialist dictatorship which had governed east Germany for the last forty years, collapses seemingly overnight. A "peaceful revolution" takes place, without one shot fired or one drop of blood spilled.

Perhaps "overnight" is an exaggeration. For weeks, protests and prayer vigils have been precipitating just such a collapse. But in one night the Berlin Wall, the ruling Socialist Unity Party's greatest symbol of its real and lasting power, is opened. And blood really is shed; by the time the border opens, three party chiefs have committed suicide. More will do so before the dust settles.

As I said, it begins with an accident. Towards the end of a press conference on November 9, Guenther Schabowski, a DDR Politburo member, lets slip a press briefing which should have been released the next day, announcing a relaxing of the DDR's stringent travel restrictions. Word spreads among DDR citizens even faster than it does to the state police. Hundreds of thousands cram border crossings and the border guards have no choice but to let them through.
And so it goes. More protests, revelations of wide-spread corruption, families and friends reunited - the beginnings of a real public dialog. All of this leads to the eventual reunification of east and west Germany in the following year.

This story is nothing new for Germans. They have talked and written this topic to death.
Why then would anyone want to make a documentary film about it? Who would even watch it?
People will watch this film for the same reason why, when I moved to Leipzig, I thought that the DDR was really just a puppet state of the Soviets and therefore really not very interesting in and of itself - I just didn't know what had really happened here.

I didn't know that many people here had forged a strong sense of independence, of a national identity independent of west German capitalism, of pride in the socialist ideal of equality and support for all citizens, however flawed that reality ultimately proved to be.

I didn't know that there were actually significant ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the DDR, some of which led to blunt political strife in the public arena.

I didn't know that, even though the socialist experiment failed, it wasn't all bad. Many people just lived their lives, left alone by the Stasi (the DDR secret police, often used by the government to terrorize its own citizens), confident that they would always have education, always have a job, and would be cared for from cradle to grave. In the end, everyone knew that the DDR had to clean house, that the ruling party had to go, and that the border had to be opened. Practically nobody expected the whole thing to cave in.

My trade and training is that of a classical musician. I am in Leipzig on a fellowship from the Rotary Foundation to study at the oldest music conservatory in Germany, the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy College of Music and Drama in Leipzig. I confess that I'm a news junkie and I have a serious love for the study of politics and history, but I have no formal training as a filmmaker. More accurately, I have no formal training to interview and translate for a film, which are my tasks in this project.

I have the good fortune to have already begun interviewing my subjects without even knowing it. All I had to do was ask my speech and vocal diction teacher here about what it was like to work as an artist in the DDR and the stories just came. I cautiously experimented with other local artists of various trades, casually asking what was it like back then? I just had to ask the questions. They did all the talking.

It's said that, as a writer, you should write what you know. I'm hoping the same is true of filmmaking, that you should film what you know. I speak the language of actors, musicians, and artists in general. I know them, so I will retell the stories of the DDR through their eyes. Most Germans have seen some kind of documentary film about the DDR, but they have never seen one told in the words of the artists who lived through it.

Who will watch it?

During my first few weeks in Leipzig last fall, I had the good fortune of being able to attend many screenings and events for the 44th Annual Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. I saw dozens of animated shorts, full-length features, and documentaries of all shapes and sizes. Our film being about the history of the DDR as experienced by Leipzig-area artists, this festival seems a logical first venue and a worthy goal. We hope to have wrapped up post-production by July of 2003, in time for submission to the Leipzig "Dok-Festival" in October.

We will keep the original audio (i.e., the interviewees speaking in German) but add English subtitles. On a practical level, this format will serve both English and German-speaking audiences well. Germans are accustomed to hearing films in their own language (virtually all American films shown here are dubbed), so this will be nothing unusual for them. Americans are used to seeing most foreign films in the original language but with subtitles, so we will be accommodating them as well.

Love, betrayal, innocence, violence, corruption, espionage, you name it, the DDR had it all. All I have to do is ask the questions. I don't even have to worry about a script. As the producer, I have to make sure I get my non-German-speaking crew flown here from across the Atlantic, housed, fed, and kept out of trouble for at least a week. I have to make sure all the interviewees will be in town and available, that we have the right camera and that we stick to a relatively tight production schedule.

In the interviews, people will say what they want to, what they need to, but thankfully I don't need to plan that.

Besides, like I said, it all began with an accident anyway.