Archive for March, 2009

Q & A with Henry Ferrini

Monday, March 30th, 2009

polisisthis

Interview by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Henry Ferrini discussed “Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place,” a fascinating portrait of the late poet that will air locally on Prairie Public Television as part of National Poetry Month.

HPR: Thank you for taking some time to share with us.

Henry Ferrini: First, on behalf of Ken and myself, we want to express to the people of Fargo our concerns and our hopes that the recent floodwaters will quickly subside along with the harms they’ve caused. But we know it doesn’t work that way. We know from being here in Gloucester that these devastations hang around for a while. But we also know that there’s a spirit in people (one that comes out every so often) and we know that the spirit of good will and good deeds will stick around Fargo long after the water returns to its proper place.

We also hope that the film, which deals expressly with the importance of place, will help soothe folks at this time and give them the encouragement to rebuild better than before.

HPR: How did your collaboration with writer Ken Riaf work? Was there a completed script first or did the project evolve as it was being shot and edited?

HF: The film was built from the inside out. We had a framework. We knew that the audience for the film was the person who never heard of Charles Olson and maybe never even read much poetry. With that in mind we set out to tell a story about a man and the place he lives and why that man and his ideas are important today.

Ken and I have worked together before so we know that our styles are very different and that we need to constantly reconcile our viewpoints. Neither of us likes to compromise so we’ve had some heated discussions about content that go on and on like a running gun battle. But we also see eye to eye on lots of things and we’ve got a lot of trust going and a similar workmanlike approach that recognizes the need to press hard for extended periods with no hope of reward. We’ve each brought different elements to the film, different topics and different people to the screen. We work well as a team. What we usually agree on winds up being things that make the film better, more understandable. Our challenge is always to avoid explaining things and instead let things explain themselves.

The best I can describe the process is that it resembles the principles in the film that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Do we have a form? Yes, but it’s elastic. Do we have content? Yes, but that’s also elastic. Do we know where we’re going? Yes, but we’re willing to take side trips and detours and to follow unmarked roads and plumb uncharted waters. We find out what the film is about in the making of it. It tells us, we tell each other, we listen and we argue. The film is the product of that tension, our differences of opinion, uncertainty, a flexible plan and most importantly, an openness to change that allows the content to unfold itself and reveal its form to us.

HPR: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach the visual design of your movies? How did you decide what kinds of images would be paired with the various poems?

HF: I had a great advantage in that I live on the set. When “The Perfect Storm” came to Gloucester, I was out shooting as much as possible and being told by security to get off the set. I’d just return the volley and say, “You are the interlopers on my set, don’t think you can kick me out. I’ve been documenting this town for 20 years.” Warner Brothers came and went and I remained shooting every time there was amazing light or when the atmospheric conditions made for magic. That’s why painters like Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley and Winslow Homer came to Gloucester – there is a quality of light that is powerful.

“Song Three” is an example of how things evolve. When we were going through all the stock footage, much had been shot in winter. We then came across a recording of Olson reading the poem. The tone and quality of the footage matched the tone of the poem. We where able to cobble it into a sequence that spoke volumes about Olson’s attitude regarding materialism, while exploring his hermitage.

HPR: “Polis Is This” does not follow the conventional patterns of a biographical documentary, employing instead a lyrical, impressionistic approach that allows for greater exploration of the subject’s philosophies, thoughts, and ideas. How difficult was it for you to find a balance between conveying the historical information about Olson’s life that curious audience members might want to know versus sharing the poet’s writings and feelings?

HF: The answer is that we did not want to make a biography, or a chronology like this happened, then this happened, then this happened. If you’re curious about Olson’s personal life you’ll go find out for yourself. By the way, that’s what Olson prescribes for the curious: go find out for yourself.

It’s easy to go off task and we wanted to get to the poetry part of it. Olson’s son Charlie, a carpenter, will tell you in construction, “If you want to get something, you have to give something up.” It means if you want that closet in the room you have to give up some floor space. It’s physics; no way around it. We wanted the floor space for the poetry and commentary, so no closet and the clothes of Olson’s life are folded in the corner on the floor if you want to look.

We gave up some of the personal for more of the poetic. It was a difficult and constantly shifting balancing act. You really can’t have it both ways, so we went with the work and used shorthand to inform viewers about his personal life. For example, we learn through his writings that his father was a letter carrier and shortly after that Olson’s son Charlie tells us about his dad’s upbringing. By that point we know Olson’s father, his son and the outline of his youth.

HPR: Along with several literary notables, we get to see and hear from Charles Peter Olson, the son of Charles Olson, several times during the movie. How involved was he during the production?

HF: It’s a fair question with a complicated answer that can’t be spun out here. But it’s sufficient to say that Charles Peter Olson is a remarkable individual who for sound personal reasons was very reluctant to engage with the film. Over time he overcame that reluctance but it nearly cost Ken, myself and Charlie our mutual and interlocking friendships. Gloucester is a small town, especially in the winter, and it’s very scary when one’s work spills over into one’s personal life and threatens harm to an intricate network of relationships. Charlie’s cooperation was vital, essential really, and hard to come by. His perspectives give new insights into understanding his father’s work that aid students and scholars in their interpretive pursuits.

HPR: Since you never had the chance to meet Olson, tell me how the archival footage of him affected you during your process.

HF: Olson’s personality comes straight through, as does the force of his intellect. It is powerful to watch on film and it must have been very powerful in person. I believe Olson could stand toe to toe with the best minds of any time.

We looked at hours of Olson outtakes from the American Poetry Archive at San Francisco State College. These were Olson’s “home movies.” They were taken at 28 Fort Square, the poet’s home from 1957 until his death in 1970. Seeing the rooms, his books, art, views from his windows overlooking the harbor, even the door jambs that were covered with writing gave us an intimate look at the man.

HPR: There are several fascinating concerns of Olson’s explored in the movie, from the observational powers of letter carriers to the devastation wrought by urban renewal. What thread interested you the most?

HF: The common thread is that there is no common thread. All are different, and all lead in divergent directions that have their own destinations.

For Ken I think it was that the local and the universal are the same things known by different names and that in one drop of seawater a person can know the entire ocean. For me it is similar. We all experience reality through the lens of the local, whether it is in Fargo, ND or Gloucester, MA. Olson calls place “the geography of our being.” It’s a map of our lives. To understand where we have been and where we are going we need the map. It provides us a way of knowing the world around us. Each of us has our own map that comes from our people and the place we live. We are in charge of the investigation. As Olson said, “You’ve got your own track, your own train, you can go anywhere.”

HPR: Both you and Charles Olson are identified closely with Gloucester, Massachusetts. How did the citizens there respond to the movie?

HF: As far as people in the street who talked to me, well they’re the backbone and glue of the film they are the living polis, they are the poem. And so the film would not be what it is without them. The UPS driver, the fisherman, the painter, the artist, the barber, the waitress reciting Emily Dickinson… I mean really, what a cast.

Folks in Gloucester are the finest kind of people and this is still a working place, a place to go fishing from, and for those who were interested in the film, most folks liked it. But most folks are pretty absorbed in their daily doings. They don’t always have the time to look up from the immediate things that press them for time. So I’d say the film was well received by those who received it and went unnoticed by most everybody else.

HPR: What projects are you working on now?

HF: I am developing a film about the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young. It is based on an audio interview that was done in a Paris hotel a few months before Lester died. The film is located in Paris, New York and New Orleans. I hope to use the interview as the spine of the film and wrap other stories around that core. I’m planning an upcoming interview with Sonny Rollins, who played with Prez in Detroit.

“Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place” will be shown on Prairie Public Television on Thursday, April 2 at 8pm and Saturday, April 4 at 2am.

A shorter version of this interview was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/30/09.

I Love You, Man

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

iloveyouman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Another pleasant variation on the male-centric friendship movie, or “bromance,” in the style perfected by Judd Apatow, “I Love You, Man” blends mock sensitivity with the more comfortable trappings of adolescent vulgarity to cook up a reasonably entertaining, if strangely familiar, story. While Apatow’s name is absent from the credits, several of his regulars appear in prominent roles, including both Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Directed and co-written by John Hamburg, “I Love You, Man” occasionally comes across as a little smug, too pleased by the running gags that range from the tedious (a character refuses to clean up after his dog) to the mildly amusing (a subplot involving the sale of the Lou Ferrigno estate). Only the chemistry of its leading duo makes the movie worth a look.

The basic premise of “I Love You, Man” is a bit of a stretch: sensitive, soon-to-be-married Peter Klaven (Rudd) desperately seeks a male friend to serve as the best man in his wedding. Following a few disastrous blind “dates,” which include embarrassments such as projectile vomiting and unwanted tongue kisses, Peter meets the oddly charismatic Sydney Fife (Segel), and a weird courtship begins. From “Superbad” to “Pineapple Express,” recent comedies have explored, to varying degrees, the nature of close male friendships, and “I Love You, Man” offers the most pronounced exploration of the mini-genre to date.

The buddy movie has been around for ages, but the Apatow-flavored variety moved the subtext directly into the text, transposing all the familiar expectations of the traditional heterosexual romantic comedy from a male-female to a male-male pairing. From the flush of excitement at first sight, to the montage-worthy bonding, to the conflict that demands a break-up, to the reconciliation in the final reel, “I Love You, Man” takes its title seriously.

Rudd does his best work snapping off withering zingers in supporting roles; to Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up”: “You look like a cholo dressed up for Easter.” Here he manages the lead with dexterity, charm, and tight comic timing, besting his recent performance in “Role Models.” Klaven lacks the guile Rudd normally applies in liberal doses, and it is refreshing to see him play someone without a dark edge or mean streak. Rudd’s Klaven is a tougher part than Segel’s Fife, a goofy, responsibility-free manchild who reeks of tragically hip slackerism in his vintage jazz tee-shirts and Venice Beach zip code.

One of the biggest problems of the male bonding film is the genre’s dismissal of women, who are generally utilized as shrews, nitwits, harpies, and emasculators – hindrances to the important matters that take place inside the testosterone-fueled man caves constructed by unrepentant bachelors. “I Love You, Man” earns a failing mark in the subject, and Rashida Jones, as Rudd’s bride-to-be, is stuck in a role that seems to have been written for a ghost. In addition to suffering the indignity of being unwanted baggage when the fellows attend a Rush concert, Jones must turn encouragement to annoyance and then acceptance as her very own wedding is upstaged by Sydney’s race to the altar. The passivity of her character is even more farfetched than the awkwardness of Peter’s “man-dates” en route to his hook-up with true soul mate Sydney.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/23/09.

Miss March

Monday, March 16th, 2009

missmarch

Movie review by Greg Carlson

There is almost nothing humorous about “Miss March,” a putrid road trip comedy written, directed by, and starring (as far as that word might go in this case) Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, a pair of bland goofballs best known for the sketch comedy series “The Whitest Kids U’ Know.” Raunchy sex comedies are not always expected to combine wit, sensitivity, and depth of characterization with the ribaldry in their arsenal of familiar situations, but “Miss March” is a complete black hole – a void that crushes everything the filmmakers so desperately throw in the mix.

In “Miss March,” a naïve high school kid named Eugene Pratt (Cregger) finally agrees to have sex with devoted girlfriend Cindi (Raquel Alessi) on prom night, but gets drunk and seriously injures himself before the act is consummated. He awakens from a coma four years later to discover that his sweetheart has left him to appear in the pages of Playboy. At the urging of his rubber-faced, oversexed best pal Tucker (Moore), Eugene resolves to travel to California to reunite with Cindi. Hilarity should ensue, but “Miss March” never gets a solid footing. It is the work of unseasoned feature filmmaking beginners, which emanates from every frame like body odor.

The movie only delivered two audience laughs in the screening I attended. One involved an unfortunate character bounced through the window of a moving bus and the other was a sight gag in which a terrier relieved itself into a champagne flute. The remainder of the (mercifully brief) running time was accompanied by an airlessness so complete one could hear the proverbial rodent peeing on a cotton ball. Bodily functions, including a gross running gag in which the protagonist voids his bowels – sometimes graphically and in view – form one of the unwanted leitmotifs of “Miss March.” Others include a lame subplot involving the pursuit of the heroes by an angry mob of vengeful firemen and the repetitious correction of boorish rapper Horsedick.MPEG’s idiotic name. Characters inevitably forget to add the “dot MPEG” and are corrected every single time. All of these things do not sound particularly funny and they are even less so when realized on the screen.

“Miss March” suffers all the marks of a bargain basement production: the dialogue looping is wretched in several scenes, the sound mix flat and lifeless, the editing clumsy and the pacing haphazard. The producers didn’t even cough up enough cash to land the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” – which is certainly an inspiration for the movie’s storyline – on the soundtrack. The pop smash, which spent six weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 beginning in February 1982, manages to convey in three and a half minutes what “Miss March” fails to do at feature length. Even the venerable Playboy Mansion loses any of the luster, glamour, and mystique it can demonstrate when photographed for smarter shows like “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Miss March” carries with it the essentially worthless stamp of official Playboy approval, which leads one to wonder whether the once mighty empire turns down any media requests these days. It seems like a student moviemaker could secure permission to shoot at the Playboy Mansion. Octogenarian Hugh Hefner, in trademark jammies and smoking jacket, appears in a painful extended cameo in which he mumbles through some condescending romance advice, looking more tired than ever. Like the rest of “Miss March,” the scene is as flat as soda without the fizz.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/16/09.

Watchmen

Monday, March 9th, 2009

watchmen

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Curmudgeonly cult hero Alan Moore makes mere mortals jealous with his super-powered ability to have his cake and eat it. Perpetually grousing about the ways in which Hollywood hacks butcher his source material, he drums up all sorts of extra publicity for projects that aren’t worthy of it, keeping his name in the press even as he removes it from the credits of the films. He has been called a genius for his dystopian visions, but a real mark of his intelligence is that he maneuvers into win-win situations any time one of his comic books makes the trek to the big screen. If the movie adaptation is terrible – which is often the case – Moore lands in the “I told you so” position, and fans snap up more copies of the printed material to see why the movie failed to measure up. If the movie works, critics credit Moore’s originals as the reason for the success.

“Watchmen” is the crown jewel in Moore’s oeuvre, and movie deals were in the works not long after the twelve issue comic book series concluded in 1987. Over the years, directors Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass all flirted, to varying degrees, with the material. Zack Snyder finally brings “Watchmen” to the screen, and in spite of scoffing and derision from many longtime devotees, he manages to present a vision largely compatible with the source. Yes, many have remarked that the episodic presentation of the original stories in monthly chapters might have been better served as a television miniseries, but Snyder’s uncanny reproductions of artist Dave Gibbons’ imagery are filled with grandeur well-suited for a giant frame.

Moviegoers unfamiliar with the Hugo Award-winning series might be initially disoriented by the sheer amount of information that begins cascading in the opening credits, a cleverly staged depiction of a revisionist, alternate American history in which costumed vigilantes are real, and engage with politicians to alter the outcome of the Vietnam War. It is during this sequence that we hear “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the first of three songs written by Bob Dylan to appear on the soundtrack. Moore quoted Dylan in the original text of “Watchmen,” and the great songwriter’s role as social chronicler mirrors the breadth of Moore’s own ambitious agenda.

As a movie, “Watchmen” is far from great. Characters compete for face time, inevitably leading to some being privileged while others get short shrift. Revelations of previously unknown paternity are a staple of soap opera, and rarely done as effectively as “The Empire Strikes Back.” Speaking of “Star Wars” lore, it was a very bad idea to include a wailed “Nooooooo!” reaction shot following a key character’s demise, since A) it does not occur in the comic book, and B) it will remind any nerd of the similarly laughable moment in “Revenge of the Sith.” “Watchmen” also chokes on another detestable cliché: a variation on the late Gene Siskel’s “fallacy of the talking killer.” The old age makeup worn by Carla Gugino is totally phony and distracting. The movie’s Nixon stinks. Composer Tyler Bates acknowledges musically quoting Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” score, but a few cues come close to plagiarism. The list goes on.

In the plus column, Snyder’s decision to chop some exposition, jettison most of the Minutemen story threads, ditch the climactic, H.P. Lovecraft-esque space squid, and relocate the entire “Tales of the Black Freighter” to an animated tie-in, makes a great deal of sense. Even though the movie’s tendency toward staged action and hyper-violence neglects the more cerebral dimensions of Moore’s fascinating examination of superhero mythology, Snyder’s “Watchmen” deserves some kind of credit just for crossing the finish line. In all likelihood, multiple viewings of the movie (something only hardcore fans will attempt, given its hefty running time) will enhance an appreciation of the adaptation, just as re-readings of the text reveal its “fearful symmetry.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/9/09.

Q & A with Don Hertzfeldt

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

hertfeldtheadshot

Interview by Greg Carlson

Independent animator Don Hertzfeldt is modest and approachable for someone with dozens of awards from many of the most prestigious film festivals and venues in the world. A Palme D’Or nomination from the Cannes Film Festival for “Billy’s Balloon” arrived when Hertzfeldt was only 21 years old, and that remarkable feat was followed by an Academy Award nomination for “Rejected” in 2000.

Seven years later, “Everything Will Be OK” won the Sundance Film Festival’s Jury Award for Short Filmmaking. “I Am So Proud of You” presents another chapter in the ongoing story of contemplative stick-figure Bill, and is currently playing in film festivals, including the Fargo Film Festival. It will be screened at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, March 7 during the “Best of the Festival” closing evening session, which begins at 7pm.

High Plains Reader: Your fierce advocacy of independence and do-it-yourself spirit has inspired many movie lovers and animators. How do you do it and still find the time to produce your work?

Don Hertzfeldt: It seems like lately the challenge isn’t to find time to produce the films, but just to find time for regular life. Every production is a 7-days-a-week thing, each one often taking a couple years. I only had my first real vacation since 1995 last year, but I feel so lucky to be able to do this for a living. I still feel like every day I’m not working on something is a waste of time, there are so many films backed up in my head to still make.

HPR: You save all your drawings and materials. Have you ever had to think about making room for everything that you produce?

DH: Every sketch and piece of animation art from all the films is just stashed into plastic bags and cardboard boxes. They see the light of day every now and then for DVD releases and archive material but by and large they just live in my closet now.

HPR: You continue to make your work on traditional, painstakingly photographed 16mm and 35mm motion picture film. Have you ever been tempted to use computers in your process?

DH: I try to work with hybrid film-digital methods to get the best of both worlds. It’s all drawn on paper by hand of course and shot traditionally on film, but I’m meanwhile editing and mixing sound digitally. There’s not been any temptation to introduce computers to the visual part of it simply because it wouldn’t look as good and often would be more difficult for me to produce.

There are endless misconceptions about digital filmmaking. It may often be a cheaper and easier route, but that’s not always the case. Of course you can produce many miracles that way, but film cameras produce miracles of their own. My last few films would have been visually impossible to produce without film; they’re composed so much through blended multiple exposures and experimental light effects.

HPR: On your recent tour to present “I Am So Proud of You,” did you visit anywhere you had never been before? What city surprised you?

DH: It’s kind of hard now to think of a city that didn’t surprise me in some way… I’d never toured to that extent with just my own movies before, and I had no idea what would happen; there’s always that rather convincing thought that only a dozen people will show up. Even when venues had sold out weeks in advance I was always still weirdly surprised the night of the screenings to see people actually there.

I think it’s a little harder for animators to be in tune with what their films are off doing in the world or whether connections are being made since we’re always just squirreled away in dark corners somewhere. It was a big contrast from making the movie in quiet, near-solitary confinement for about two years and then suddenly you’re jetting around and people are everywhere and there’s energy and excitement… I didn’t want to stop touring and talking to people. And also, Omaha has the most fantastic zoo I’ve ever seen.

HPR: You accepted an invitation from the George Eastman House to preserve the original film elements and camera negatives of your films. Had you done any preservation prior to this?

DH: I’d known Jim Healy at the Eastman House for years and I guess they must have a solid understanding of how difficult it can be for so many independent filmmakers to afford to properly take care of their stuff. It was really kind of them to make room. My old negatives were either getting the box-in-the-closet treatment or were stored at film labs, which are notoriously irresponsible… One lab destroyed the original camera negative to “Lily and Jim” and other elements were getting misplaced. That was kind of the signal for me it was time to gather up every last piece from around the world and find a proper home.

HPR: When the restoration on your films was undertaken, were high definition transfers made?

DH: Yeah, once we had everything together it was all re-mastered for the big Bitter Films DVD in 2006. The process took about a year and was very expensive, but again it’s just something that has to be done. Every film was transferred to high-def tapes from their original elements. I supervised all of the transfers and colors, and then every frame was carefully cleaned of dirt and scratches. Some of them were so damaged it was a bit like a silent film restoration, and when you’re working with old 16mm negatives, every little piece of dust shows up on there like a meteor.

So it’s a maddeningly meticulous job where they digitally “paint” out the blemishes one frame at a time… some frames requiring thousands of brush strokes to restore. After we finally got the films beautiful, we then dove into those artwork archives for all the special features and came up with hours of stuff. After all the years of support I really wanted to throw the kitchen sink into the DVD and make it as much of a fan’s dream as we could.

HPR: Are there any plans for your DVD collections to be offered on Blu-Ray?

DH: Well the high-def elements are all there – they were just down-converted for the regular DVD – but I wouldn’t hold my breath yet for a Blu-Ray version. I’ve got too many irons in the fire right now to revisit the old titles again and moreover, the cost of Blu-Ray production needs to go down quite a bit before you’ll probably see a lot of independent films throwing their hats into the ring. Who knows, by the time Blu-Ray is looking doable, the next format may already be rearing its head.

HPR: Hertzfeldt’s work is available on DVD at www.bitterfilms.com.