Wednesday, September 16, 2020

NOW STREAMING / NETFLIX—REVIEW OF THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (2020)

As synopsized, Jeff Orlowski’s Netflix original documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) “explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” 

In the 1970s, as one of the “heads” coming out of Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, I leaned into the poetry of Richard Brautigan and remember being particularly enthused about his poem “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”—what has since become his most frequently reprinted poem—for its utopian vision of a world where machines would improve and protect the lives of humans, leaving them free to commune with nature.

Needless to say, 50 years later, one has to ask: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Very little, unfortunately. It’s perhaps not surprising at all that documentarian Adam Curtis contributed three episodes to the television mini-series documentary named after Brautigan’s poem, and followed-up with his hard-hitting Hypernormalisation (2016)—which should have had some influence in the 2016 presidential election, but which was mysteriously (not-so-mysteriously?) thwarted in distribution (though generously awarded by Jonathan Marlow to participants of Camera Obscura). In Hypernormalisation Curtis proposed that the greatest blow to an informed citizenry protesting government policies was when—after the failure of the national protest against the Gulf War—everyone went online, thereby siphoning off the spirit of physical resistance, and instating a culture of barbershop mirror-gazing.

It has not only been their physical verve that adherents to social media have lost. Collective will has gone anemic in the age of surveillance capitalism. Orlowski (whose previous credits include the equally powerful documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017) employs straightforward talking-head interviews with tech luminaries Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier, among others, but reinforces their talking points with chilling animations that articulate visually how hands on a computer keyboard are equivocal to hands on the strings manipulating marionettes. Dramatized scenarios further illustrate the hazards presented on the screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) especially does a grand job (in triplicate) of representing the A.I. algorithims of engagement, growth and revenue that have served as the business model effectively steering social media platforms. With disinformation for profit becoming a lucrative endeavor, the role of social media in bringing the experiment of democracy to "a crisis of confidence" is laid out clearly, let alone the statistical success of technology overwhelming human weakness in a grand strategic checkmate move.

Indeed, strategic manipulations abound. Orlowski cleverly uses the theatrical poster for Chasing Ice as set dressing in one of the film's dramatized episodes, making me want to watch it again. The Social Dilemma is available for streaming on Netflix. I’ve already watched it twice. We’re all in danger of having our attention spans usurped, but I can vouch for this film and hope I can steer your attention to where it might do you some good. If you're a Facebook friend, however, I won’t know if you’ve even read these thoughts as I’m turning off notifications once and for all. Imagine if we all did.

 

Thursday, September 03, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW: THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND (2020)

Consistency is a quality I respect in the Fantasia International Film Festival. They are consistent in their commitment to inviting and supporting new talent in genre films—grooming them with the most enthusiastic audiences imaginable at a film festival—and they are consistent in their loyalty to the filmmakers they have introduced, allowing fans to follow the careers of their chosen favorites film after film. It was through Fantasia that I first experienced the particular genius of the McManus Brothers—Kevin and Matthew—when they attended the festival in 2010 for the international premiere of their directorial feature debut Funeral Kings, which screened to considerable acclaim. In stark contrast to a solemn backdrop of grieving mourners, foul-mouthed teens—thinly guised as altar boys—pilfered the communion wine, stealthily smoked cigarettes, and hungered to get to first base with girls way more mature than themselves. The film’s "wonderful vulgarity" (Scott Weinberg) shifted into poignance when the boys experienced the grief of becoming young men sooner than they intended. 

In 2015 the McManus Brothers upped their game by becoming producers for newcomer Victor Zarcoff's Slumlord, which had its world premiere at Fantasia. Slumlord focused on the jaundiced eyes of Gerald (the titular slumlord whose perverse voyeurism was creepily portrayed by Neville Archambault). Archambault’s intensity, as noted by Fantasia programmer Simon Laperrière, instilled fear from his very first appearance on screen. It was an honor and a thrill to subsequently program Slumlord (since re-named 13 Cameras) in San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head, and I remain forever grateful to the McManus Brothers for their generosity. 

Continuing in production, the McManus Brothers then steered two television series—American Vandal: Clean-up (2017) for Netflix (which earned them an Emmy nomination), and Cobra Kai (2019) for YouTube (and now available for streaming on Amazon Prime)—but then returned to their director chairs for The Block Island Sound (2020), wherein Neville Archambault once again set the bar for creepiness in his portrayal of fisherman Tom Lynch, father of protagonist Harry (Chris Sheffield). Harry’s concerned sister Audry (Michaela McManus, real-life sister of the McManus Brothers), returns home to Block Island where tons of dead fish are mysteriously washing up on shore, and dead birds are dropping out of the sky. Audry finds out that their father is suffering from hallucinations and blackouts and—when he goes missing—she and brother Harry embark on a horrifying discovery of a strange overlord force that has possessed their father and begins to threaten Harry similarly. As the emotionally volatile, often argumentative (yet vulnerable) Harry, Sheffield colors his characterization with multiple tones and hues, ranging from paranoic belligerence to mounting bewildered fear. 

As an admitted genre fan—and as much as I can appreciate predictable zombie rom-coms or yet another vampire squeezing blood from a stone—I am always hoping for a storyline or effect that is different than anything I’ve ever seen before, and The Block Island Sound turns all expectations upside down and delivers a sinister force that is never fully explained and, sagely, never actually seen nor personified. Only demonstrations of its force are experienced, by way of possession, electro-magnetic disturbances, radio static and mindblowing gravitations. Strengthened by this commanding quality of the unknown, the scares in The Block Island Sound are heightened by a spine-tingling collaboration between Paul Koch, whose music for the film coupled with sound design and editing by Shawn Duffy and Andrey Randovski create the unsettling sound of The Block Island Sound, which will have you gripping your seat, gritting your teeth, and fearing the worst. Of the 16 films I had a chance to screen at this year’s virtual edition of Fantasia, The Block Island Sound was the most unnerving. The film’s tense ambiguity is offset by commendable comic relief by Jim Cummings as Dale, the resident ride-bumming conspiracy theorist.

  

On their YouTube channel, Fantasia offers the virtual Q&A session following the film’s world premiere, moderated by Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis and featuring the McManus Brothers, sister Michaela McManus, and long-time associate Chris Sheffield. 

 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW OF LA DOSIS / THE DOSE (2020)

NOT FOR THE SPOILER-WARY!!!

How do you envision an angel of death? Is the angel gendered male or female, robed in religiosity? If male, is he young, handsome and kind, like Robert Redford in his role as wounded police officer Harold Beldin in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Nothing In the Dark”? Or is he burly and rotund, a seasoned male nurse in a palliative care ward named Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi), an Argentine Raymond Burr hiding in plain sight? 

 Like apples and oranges, I’m referencing two wholly different angels of death. Redford as Beldin is an angel of death whose responsibility as a psychopomp is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. His role is not to judge the elderly Gladys Cooper—so afraid of dying—but simply to guide her out of the apartment that she has refused to leave, to allow “the old to make room for the new.”

 Marcos, on the other hand, is a secular angel of death comporting with the euphemism used by criminologists to describe hospital employees who—for one reason or another—take it upon themselves to euthanize the elderly and chronically ill. Likewise branded as “angels of mercy”, Marcos administers “mercy” out of empathic pity; he feels for the suffering of the terminally ill. As arguably delusional as his empathy might be, it motivates him to behave as a casebook “malignant hero” when in an opening sequence he breaks protocol and takes it upon himself to revive a patient that the doctors have pronounced dead. He wants to be seen as selflessly making an effort even if he is criticized for overreaching bounds and his “heroism” allows him to judge and criticize his superiors who he believes care nothing about the suffering of their patients. His logic is circular. If the doctors will do nothing to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill—in effect, allowing them to die as animals—then he has the right to use their trust in him to schedule himself for late night shifts where he can put these poor souls out of their misery by giving them a special “dose” to edge matters along. 

Enter Gabriel, a new nurse on rounds, who—discovering Marcos’ secret—feels emboldened to mimic Marcos; motivated more, however, by pleasure than pity. Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers)—a dead ringer for Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s Psycho—shares Marcos’ eye about what should be done with the terminally ill, but begins to loosen the definition of terminal and escalates the practice to include the treatable, thereby personifying a true angel of death and less an angel of mercy. He’s not really practicing euthanasia—which requires a certain level of compassion—but murder, plain and simple, front and center, perhaps because he can and unquestionably because he enjoys it.  The film’s theatrical poster visually synopsizes how the two nurses share a perspective (a shared eye), albeit at risk of a conflict of interest. More accurately, however, theirs is not a conflict of interest at all, but a conflation of interest, articulated by the film’s theatrical poster. 

Argentine helmer Martín Kraut’s debut feature La Dosis [official website], in its North American premiere at Fantasia, is an effective psychological thriller that ramps up tension between the two angels of mercy and provocatively stages their tension as a merciless cat-and-mouse romance. Not since Baran Bo Odar’s The Silence (2010) have two men, compelled by a shared desire outside the realm of normalcy, been so passionately drawn to each other (though equally repelled). Kraut’s complicated script (he’s also the film’s producer) is strengthened by its exploration of how an empath falls under the thrall and manipulation of a narcissistic sociopath; an all too common dyad in today’s world. Suspensefully directed, palpably acted, and sensually portrayed on screen, this unpleasant subject is a slow burn narrative as chilling as a morphine drip, but rendered evocative through a blue and green color palette engineered by Juan Giribaldi’s art direction and Gustavo Biazzi’s beautiful cinematography. The screen capture at left is a compelling sample of their combined efforts.

Friday, August 28, 2020

FANTASIA 2020—REVIEW OF UNEARTH (2020)

“A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.”—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (1932). 

NOT FOR THE SPOILER-WARY!!

Boasting its world premiere at the 2020 virtual edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival (“Fantasia”), Unearth [official website / Facebook] is an American independent from Lyons Den Productions that gains traction as an eco-thriller in its first three quarters, then ramps up to full-on squicky horror in its final sequences. Billed as a “fracking horror story”, and co-directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, Unearth shuffles genre veterans Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York, Swamp Thing), Marc Blucas (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the TV series) and P.J. Marshall (American Horror Story, Luke Cage, Mindhunter) with newcomers Brooke Sorensen and Rachel McKeon to effectively nuance the tensions between two neighboring families in rural Silverthorn, Pennsylvania whose relationships become strained when one of them leases their land to a natural gas company. 

Sweeping aerial drone shots to connote emotional distance and a seemingly objective detachment are now nearly de rigueur for genre filmmakers to situate threats which, inversely, are frighteningly near at hand. From high above, cornfields appear green and geometrically ordered, but Unearth wastes no time joining the ranks of films that convert isolated American cornfields into sites of horror: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), The Children of the Corn (1984) and its numerous sequels, Signs (2002), The Messengers (2007), etc.—I’m sure each horror fan has their own list—Unearth, however, eschews the supernatural underpinnings of horror to reveal more relevant monstrous forces ripped from the headlines: environmental degradation, corporate manipulation and the psychological trauma of heartland farmers facing bankruptcy and the collapse of their way of life. 

"It’s so uncommon to see the plights of rural farming families depicted in cinema,” cites Fantasia Artistic Director Mitch Davis, “let alone in genre film.” Davis admires how Unearth addresses farmers’ vulnerabilities to being exploited. He opines that Unearth is “beautifully put together, vivid and compelling, with genuinely startling bursts of shock and atypical horror, and of course, the cast is just fantastic." Jenn Adams at Consequence of Sound adds: “Unearth is a timely metaphor in the midst of a pandemic which has crippled the US economy ... showing no difference between the threat lurking within the earth and the one that knocks on the door with a friendly smile and a clipboard." At Filmmaker, Jim Hemphill interviews the filmmakers and asserts unequivocally that Unearth is “one of the best films of 2020 in any genre.” 

As George Lomack, Marc Blucas portrays a farmer / mechanic, estranged from his wife and raising his two daughters on his own, down on his luck struggling to keep his farm and family afloat against a crumbling economy; but, despite his best intentions, he is failing them. The failure of presumed traits ascribed to gender is in itself a form of horror as men become demasculated by forces beyond their control. Equally, women who are complicit in the failures of men who are meant to protect and provide for them, enable that horror. It’s telling that Christopher Shy’s (Studio Ronin) theatrical poster design emphasizes three generations of women in this narrative whose beings are intimately connected to the land they live on. It is reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting “The Three Ages of Woman.” 

Lomack’s neighbor, Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), is the residing no-nonsense recently-widowed matriarch of the two neighboring families and is keenly aware that the remaining men in her clan are weak. Her son-in-law Tom (P.J. Marshall) is hostile to her daughters and ready to jettison the hard work necessary to maintain their farm. Kathryn likewise knows that Lomack is thinking of leasing his land to the fracking firm “Patriot Exploration” as a quick remedy to his financial woes. Once identified with her buxom sexiness, Barbeau has admirably evolved as an actor, delivering a sharply-chiseled characterization of a matriarch whose natural beauty is her fierce agency. It’s one of her best performances to date. Unable to convince Lomack to hold onto his land, and critical of his thinly-veiled affair with her daughter Christina (Allison McAtee), Kathryn can only watch in dismay as nearby drilling poisons the water table, pollutes the air and introduces parasites into the soil. 

Suggested in this tension between George Lomack and Kathryn Dolan is what might, arguably, be considered one of the United States’ growing horrors: the collapse of the common good (whether through the use of land, or in the ways people treat each other). As the current administration seeks to do away with Social Security and Medicare by eliminating the payroll tax, the Dolans and Lomacks reflect in microcosm the discontent, desperation, greed and shortsightedness of our nation and demonstrate yet again how social and political issues can find expression and come to catharsis through genre. 

Though Kathryn attempts to keep her family together by adherence to the land, emphasizing a collective partnership with her neighbors, individual needs undo her efforts to strengthen their community and commitment to each other. George entangles himself in a contract with Patriot Exploration and thoughtlessly threatens the livelihood of both families; Tom stumbles under the weight of his chores and rankles at his masculinity rendered ineffective by the independence of Kathryn’s daughter Christina; Christina, in turn, believes herself separate and superior to their farming lifestyle and—as evident from the film’s opening scene—fantasizes leaving the farm to become a professional photographer; George’s daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) struggles with her illicit feelings for Christina, while her younger sister Kim (Brooke Sorenson) seethes in resentment at the personal sacrifices necessary to save family expenses. Offering the metaphor of the querencia (defined by the Hemingway quote above), no one takes heed of Kathryn’s warnings and weaken themselves through selfishness. 

By referencing the querencia—a metaphysical concept in the Spanish language related to the bullfighting arena—Kathryn stakes out what she foresees as the families’ last stand (and, by extension, America’s last stand). The term querencia comes from the Spanish verb querer, which means "to desire." In bullfighting, the term refers to how a bull may stake out his querencia, a certain part of the bull ring where he feels strong and safe. Kathryn argues that—if the families stick together and fight the fracking company—they might be able to save their farms; i.e., their querencia. It’s a strong metaphor in an already bracing script co-written by Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg that uses smart character development to advance the narrative. If—as Kathryn suggests to Christina—that her aptitude for photography is intimately connected to the land of her upbringing, the intrinsic critique is that she might lose the fount of her creativity by moving away. 

Further, staging a scene at a demolition derby, the writers create a tense sense that a collision is about to happen, exactly like a broadside car accident; but—as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano has poignantly proposed—there is no such thing as a car “accident.” Instead, Galeano suggests they be called “consequences”. Concomitantly, it is no “accident” that vehicular emissions are ushering in global warming; that environmental disaster is yet another consequence of our culture’s misguided reliance on fossil fuels. 

Integrated naturalistic performances by the ensemble enhance the script and demonstrate that disaster does, indeed, ride on fear. A year after George leases his farmland to fracking, the land shifts—seeping poisons and a parasitic hazard into the water table—and the water becomes the transformative agent that provides the horror of the film’s final quarter. Earlier, I mentioned how Adrienne Barbeau’s performance revealed a maturation of her craft, but—allegiant to the excesses of genre—Barbeau bravely satisfies her fans by being the member of the cast who we witness transform into something that looks like a potato that has been left in a root cellar too long. This horrid physical transformation coupled with (or, again, as the consequence of) hallucinatory psychosis induced by the parasitic water and polluted air introduce a vagueness to this cautionary tale. Are these physical transformations actually happening or are they being imagined? I’m not sure it really matters. The horror is visualized. Through cross-cut edits certainties are unmoored in Unearth and physical trauma is layered upon and conflated with psychological trauma, compounding both. 

Although scholars of folklore discount as baseless the speculation that the childhood rhyme “Ring Around the Roses” references the Great Plague of England (1665), it is a presumption that has gained popularity since after World War II. Monica Wyche’s character Aubrey Dolan mutters the jingle several times under her breath as water poisoned by fracking begins to sicken the two families. In a scene where Aubrey is rinsing an infected wound on her hand, she begins to sing the jingle. It’s perhaps no more than a curious coincidence that—in March of this year, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom—the British current affairs news magazine Private Eye jokingly proposed that the traditional rhyme was the "ideal choice" of song to accompany hand-washing in order to ward off infection. It’s scriptural touches like this that make Unearth such an interesting film, leaving viewers with questions and thoughts hovering like gas fumes over poisoned cornfields, and adding menace to the simple act of harvested produce being transported to market. The film’s final shadow-dappled image proves disquieting.  

Unearth has an encore live screening at Fantasia on Sunday, August 30, before serving as the Opening Night film for Germany's Hard:line Film Festival on September 23. With its first screening at Fantasia, Unearth secured international representation by the Paris-based sales company Reel Suspects. The filmmakers retain domestic rights. Photos courtesy of Unearth Film LLC.

Friday, August 23, 2019

SUN BLOOD STORIES: "ALL THE WORDS IN MEANING"


Not only has the vinyl arrived for the much-anticipated Sun Blood Stories September release of "Haunt Yourself", but the searing second video for the album ("All the Words in Meaning") has been released today.  It's from the lyrics of this song that the album claims its name.

"All the Words in Meaning" exhibits Amber Pollard's impressive vocal control, ranging from soft-spoken and whispered to enraged and blistering, addressing any woman who has suffered the broken tea sets of childhood and the loss of innocence shattered by sexual abuse. An intensely personal offering, "All the Words in Meaning" hopes for the remedial redemption of music to counter the injustices of childhood and pleads for listeners to speak up and speak out.

As Pollard reveals: "This song is about my childhood. My awful childhood. My parents split when I was still a toddler. Maybe not even 2 years old yet. Around age 3, my mother started dating a man who would abuse me in every form of the word daily for the next 14 years. Escapism was my only reprise from the physical and emotional pain that was inflicted upon me. I often time found myself fantasizing about what my life could have been like if my parents had stayed together. That is what this song is about. Ben, Jon, and I just really hope this song makes you feel something. Anything. If you or someone you know is being hurt please call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline 1-800-799-7233. We love you."

Pollard does triple duty here, not only as troubador / town crier, and vocalist, but also the video's editor. She flexes a singular distinct DIY aesthetic exploring found footage and lo-fi imagery, with three edited videos under her belt and five to come. "All the Words in Meaning", directed by Thomas Newby and the Green Zoo Arts Collective, with Lighting/Set Design Assistance and Official Photography by Bethany Peterson, Pollard fairly gives credit to her son George Pollard for letting them use his room and personal belongings for the setting of this music video.

In a time of reflection when you realize
The sum of your parts don't make a whole life
Cuz some parts are broken, missing, buried
Hidden away in memories of pain
Never giving your eyes to to adjust. 

Like the Vision that
You had in the Garden

I can't forgive leaving, childhood you are stealing
Stood outside your doorway did you hear me?
Listened through the hallway did you notice me?
I just want to feel, I just want to feel
Why won't you let me feel something?

I have my mother's eyes, my father's nose
On my face is where they stayed together.
I've got to learn to hide or haunt myself
Red flower leaking remember how that felt?
How it felt?

With all the words...

... before I fly I hide my memories in the wild flowers...

With all the words in meaning.

© 2019 Sun Blood Stories

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

THROWBACK THURSDAY: THE MIX-UP—Revisiting The Evening Class Interview With A.J. Eaton

In the Fall of 2007 I was invited by Bruce Fletcher, a colleague from the Bay Area and then-programmer for the Idaho International Film Festival (IIFF) to attend the festival's upcoming edition. Although at that time IIFF's importance on the festival circuit was near to negligible, I had become interested in the regional cinema populating such overlooked festivals. For me, such regionality held a certain allure and a refreshing authenticity separate from the more valorized and publicized festivals.

Further, in an effort to remain "right sized" about my film reportage, I had adopted the ameliorative practice of balancing opportunities to interview "famous" celebrities with giving due time and attention to filmmakers who were just starting their careers. As a consequence, after interviewing an auteur like Bela Tarr at the Toronto International, something felt "just right" about interviewing a young 27-year old director at his second festival with his first short. At the time, nearly 12 years ago, it was important for me to include a conversation with A.J. Eaton within the body of my work. "Perhaps, down the line when A.J. Eaton is gathering his laurels," I wrote, "I can say I was one of the first to recognize his talent and champion his work. Believe it or not, such delayed gratification would give this old film writer much pleasure and satisfaction."

With his first directorial feature David Crosby: Remember My Name emerging as a Sundance darling picked up by Sony Pictures for theatrical distribution, I was touched by A.J.'s invitation to moderate the Q&A after the film's premiere in Boise, Idaho at The Flicks. Evidencing "a large dimension to small actions", as diarist Anaïs Nin once wrote, it was with genuine pleasure and satisfaction that I accepted the invitation. It was great to know that A.J. was still the affable, accessible young man I met so many years ago.

A.J. Eaton's The Mix-Up (2007) kicked off IIFF's "Local Heroes" program of shorts and set an unsurpassed bar for the evening. A perfectly pitched comedy, crisply edited, well-acted, and concisely written, The Mix-Up proved to be an intact professional piece of filmmaking, integral unto itself, putting the other entries in the sidebar to shame. Having already played at the 2007 Palm Springs ShortFest, IIFF was the short's second stop, on what I predicted would be a robust festival run. Sure enough, Eaton's The Mix-Up courted the festival circuit and worked as a successful calling card in helping Eaton secure editing gigs in Los Angeles. In addition, The Mix-Up ended up in a Japanese collection of short films frequently screened to a viewing public.

I revisit the friendly and informative conversation on shorts filmmaking that A.J. and I had over coffee and raspberry shortbread in the selfsame spirit that informs Crosby's revelatory presence in David Crosby: Remember My Name: it is sometimes only in looking back that we can actually look forward. To revisit this conversation is to likewise honor A.J. for his perseverance and tenacity in achieving his goals. I had no doubt that A.J. would eventually create a document like David Crosby: Remember My Name. Each time we conversed, he had leapt forward in experience and know-how. When we sat down at the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival to discuss the theme of cinematic disruption, he was already displaying major growth through his experiences in the industry. While looking forward to talking to A.J. about his first directorial feature, I likewise look back to our conversation on his first festival short.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Where did the idea for The Mix-Up originate? How did you develop this impressively tight script?

A.J. Eaton: It was a conglomeration of a few things. I wanted to do a well-done short film and so I started pursuing two ideas. One idea was a play called Sure Thing by David Ives where the same scene is played out over and over again. I phoned the author's agent and I said, "Hey, I'm trying to do a short film and I'm really interested in Sure Thing." She goes, "Well, you're about the fifth person to call this week on that. It's a really popular piece and the author's been adamant that it's going to remain in the theater." So that idea was gone.

I decided to go on an idea that my brother and I had worked up. We were just joking around in the car. My brother's a musician and we're both theatrical when we get together. I said, "What you need to do is get yourself a ball peen hammer and just beat the hell out of it" and then it just kind of evolved from there. I started thinking about my grandfather who's this little Italian guy who's had this hobby where he does construction. But the problem is that he's never quite done it right. The house that he and my grandmother live in is a 40-year conglomeration of bad construction projects. He took a deck one time and turned it into a TV room. The ceiling's sagging and all of that but it's his work and he's very proud of it.

Guillén: So your grandfather became the template for the character of Bill in The Mix-Up?

Eaton: Somewhat, yeah. But my main concept for the character was like a roly poly older Chris Farley. When I was starting to write it, I thought, "What's my grandpa's value?" Obviously, I love him dearly and his attitude is his value.

Guillén: At the Q&A you mentioned that the idea of the mix-up came from when you were working for a television studio?

Eaton: One of my first jobs in live TV was working at a local TV station in Pocatello, Idaho. It was an NBC affiliate and I was a camera operator and production assistant on this early morning show. We were on the air live at 6:00 AM every day. It was murder. We had to fill an hour's worth of news content every day and there isn't a lot of news in Eastern Idaho. I mean, there isn't that much news in Boise, Idaho. At least news that comes reaching out at you. The TV station didn't have the staff or resources to get reporters to actually do hard hitting news stories so we would find ourselves getting "experts" from a variety of different places. Some guy would show up about 10 minutes before he was supposed to be on the air. "Oh yeah," he'd say, "Duffy [the anchor] said I'd be on the second half, so just show up at 6:30" and his segment was at 6:40.

My job was to go into the break room where they had bad coffee and go get that person and bring him on to the interview set and I was like, "Now, what are you here for? What are you talking about?" "Oh," he'd say, "I'm going to be talking about fertilizer." "Are you from some kind of greenhouse?" "Oh no, I work for the school district. But I just met Duffy at dinner the other night and I told her that I'd been fertilizing my lawn…" and the rest was history.

Guillén: Would you say that early haphazard environment is why you now favor a tight, lean production style?

Eaton: Yes, absolutely.

Guillén: Among the shorts in the "Local Heroes" program, yours stood out for its fully-realized production value. Some of the shorts were being used to pitch for seed money for features, as the one filmmaker admitted, but what I admired about The Mix-Up was that it was complete; it was an intact universe. Clearly, you'd had some training in production?

Eaton: I started doing production when I was about 15. I was lucky because my dad is a songwriter [Steve Eaton] and he enjoyed some moderate success in the late '70s-early '80s. I spent a lot of time in his recording studio. That's how I got into film production. He was working on some TV music and the two filmmakers from PBS came to my dad's studio. He lived a Sun Valley lifestyle with a recording studio in the basement. We lived on an acreage where a lot of people would come to the studio and work. These guys were talking about sounds and shots and how the sounds work together. From that point forward I was addicted.

Guillén: Has that opportunity for early production training and access put you in conflict with peers who are operating off more of a DIY aesthetic? I sensed this last night. What I recognized as professional, I suspected others felt was privilege. Has this caused tension between you and other filmmakers your age?

Eaton: Absolutely.

Guillén: So what's the philosophy behind your filmmaking? What are you going for?

Eaton: I have a lot of films that I've made that were that DIY type of idea; but, they're not films that I feel comfortable showing in public. However, public feedback is always good; but, I would get the feedback after I showed it to a friend or family member. I've been involved in a few projects where I wasn't the director and I learned from the director's mistakes. A lot. I was so gung-ho by 21 to be a film director but I learned to be patient. I don't know all that I don't know.

Guillén: Let's talk about your directorial style. Your actors are natural. Do you have a way you work with your actors or do you let them bring what they're going to do?

Eaton: With The Mix-Up I took the approach that I was going to let the actors fill in the grout inbetween the bricks, if you will. I knew who was going to be right in the casting process. We went with something of an improvisational approach on this. But it all depends on the piece. I have another piece right now that I'm working on where I will be very strict with the actors because of the style of it. With this piece, I was so lucky to get all of the actors I got.

Guillén: You had a very good cast.

Eaton: They were. And thank Patti Kalles, who's a casting agent. Casting agents have become almost like executive producers these days. They have access. They know who's out there. They know who's not working. She was very encouraging. I was so concerned for our first day of shooting because even though Wally Dalton ["Bill"] and Rodney Sherwood ["the construction boss"] had worked together before, I hadn't rehearsed their scene. So I wasn't sure how these guys would gel. When I called Wally Dalton, I said, "I'm so excited to work with you, Wally. Your audition was amazing. I cast a guy named Rodney Sherwood to be your nemesis in that first scene…." He said, "Rodney and I used to tour on stand-up comedy together." The chemistry between those two was an absolute blessing; they had this unspoken communication. It was just right on. I rehearsed everything else, especially that scene where they take Bill into the studio and the people are pouring in and they're testing his microphone; I felt the timing had to be just right on that. I had the script. I had the group of people for the rehearsal. I said, "Here's what we're thinking. The camera's going to be here. You guys are going to be doing that." The actors would come up with ideas, they'd do stuff and I'd say, "Y'know, I don't think that's working for me. That's not right for the character." But they were all very detailed and so eager to work.

Guillén: The Mix-Up runs 13 minutes. How long did it take you to make the film? From the germ idea to writing the script to burnishing the script to actually shooting, which I understand took three days?

Eaton: Right. I started more than a year ago. My feet were on the ground where I decided, "I'm going to do this short film right away." There was a program On the Lot that Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett were producing. I thought, "That would be really cool to get my short on that program." The deadline for that was January 1, I believe, so I was gung-ho to get The Mix-Up done by January 1. We were going to make this happen. No one else was going to hire me to make the film. We shot 80% of the film in November in Seattle. Then we edited it. I put in temporary music and some of the temporary sound effects and then deemed that, okay, I'm going to do some pick-up shots, put in a few more insert shots, and set up the crew again to do some of the fill-in shots that I knew that I was going to need when I was shooting the first two days but we just didn't have the time to do them. So I went back to Seattle and shot. I completed the film after editing in July. There was always something that I wanted to do. "Okay, we're going to have to remix the sound because it's not right." I was really really picky on this. We did it on a full digital intermediate. We shot high definition and the digital intermediate process is becoming an essential part to every great film production. I was lucky enough to get some time with the top colorists in Hollywood.

Guillén: Where did The Mix-Up's central joke of using construction metaphors to represent relationships come from?

Eaton: That came out of thin air, I suppose, going on the theme of how can someone's bad work still be valuable? The last line that Bill says when he's on the show is a verbatim quote from my grandfather. We had this friend who was visiting, came to my grandparents' house with us, and he's kind of a makeshift construction guy himself, but he does things right. He's sitting in my grandfather's living room and says, "Boy, Johnny, this is quite the production you got going here," or something to that effect and my grandfather responded, tapping the side of his head, "Yeah, it's all about engineering." I worked backwards from that. Engineering, y'know.

Guillén: Let's talk a little bit about reception. You've shown The Mix-Up at the Palm Springs Short Fest and now here at the Idaho International. Have you confirmed any further festival appearances?

Eaton: Not yet. I've been invited to submit to five film festivals.

Guillén: Explain that process a bit. How does that work with a short film? I imagine most filmmakers would start with a short. How do you go about knowing where you want to place it?

Eaton: I'm learning a lot about this. I was reluctant to step to the director's chair until I knew that I was going to do a good short. I happened to come into contact with a lady named Kathleen McGinnis. She is a leading shorts programmer. I didn't even know that when I met her. Someone said she was a film festival consultant. She's programmed the Seattle International, was one of the programmers at Palm Springs, and is a qualified publicist and producer as well. She's so eager to help people, which is amazing. She said, "Well, send me a copy of the film and I'll take a look at it." I Fed-Exed a copy to her and she said, "I like it." One of the things that Kathleen and I talked about is that there are shorts film festivals that are all about shorts where the shorts aren't just a side thing to the features, which can be a good strategy. She said, "You want to premiere at a shorts festival and these are the festivals you want to go to." She gave me a list and said, "Good luck."

As they say in the business, it only takes one yes. I applied to CineVegas. I was so excited about CineVegas. I thought it was a huge growing film festival. We didn't get into that, but there's only 10 slots for short films. I applied to a number of others but got a yes from Palm Springs. They called me personally on the phone and said, "Is this Mr. Eaton?" and I was like, "It is." They said, "This is Alan Spano and we're from Palm Springs Film Festival and we just want to wish you congratulations." For a second I was like, "Congratulations for what?" They said, "We love your film and we love the character of Bill and we really think it's going to play well here in Palm Springs."

Guillén: Did it?

Eaton: It did! The audience was laughing out loud, which was validating.

Guillén: What's it like starting out as a director where you've been accepted into a program of shorts with five or six other directors? What are the dynamics of that? Do you find yourself interacting a lot with those other directors who are submitting shorts? How do you gauge yourself against your peers?

Eaton: I can see the problems with my film but compared with others here at the Idaho International. I can say, "We might have something." But in Palm Springs, I almost felt like I was the underdog.

Guillén: The caliber was higher?

Eaton: Yeah! Absolutely. These guys are coming from Great Britain and Canada and Australia where they have lottery funding for filmmakers. Budgets were up to $500,000 for a short film.

Guillén: So humility becomes requisite?

Eaton: Absolutely. The other thing I was really nervous about—because, I think, directors are type A personalities; I know that I am—sometimes egos can clash, not as bad as actors together, but egos can clash. When I went to Palm Springs—which was the first big festival of that caliber that I had been to—I was nervous to go into a room with all these other filmmakers because I was thinking it was going to be more of a defense mechanism where I was going to have to defend the choices I'd made in my film. But there were no egos. It was all congratulatory and other people giving points; but, it's from an artist to an artist, so it was really great. The British films that I saw absolutely blew my mind. They were deep, great directing, everything about them was perfect. I've seen movies that have been box office smashes that didn't have the technical prowess that these films had. There was actually one director—Mal Woolford—who had two films in the festival, which was remarkable. One was this dark moody piece called Redblack, a perfect short film, and the other piece was a comedy piece called Fluffy. He and I sat down and we started talking about styles and "How did you shoot that?" It was so inspirational.

Guillén: So shorts directorship then and these festival opportunities become a training ground for you?

Eaton: It's like camp.

Guillén: Is your intention to do a few more shorts before attempting a full feature? Do you want to film a full feature?

Eaton: I do want to go to full features, but when the time is right, when I feel that I'm ready. Even with this short film, I decided I'm going to wait a few years, save up some professional capital, before I'm ready. I feel like I'm getting ready to do a feature. I've got two that I'm really pushing for; but, a lot of people are saying, "We want to see the darker side of A.J. We want to see the angst-ridden A.J."

Guillén: Is there an angst-ridden A.J.?

Eaton: There can be; I'm a chameleon! I just talked to a producer yesterday about doing a short film that takes place in … either the first scenes would take place in New York or Los Angeles at a high-rise music corporation office and then it goes to the French district in New Orleans. It's a story that has a definite twist but it will be dark, it will be very moody, it will be the opposite of The Mix-Up. I want to do it to prove to myself that I can do it. I also want to show everyone else that I'm versatile because I think that's what makes a successful director these days, is versatility.

Guillén: Let's talk some about how a young first-time director like yourself markets a short like The Mix-Up. Marketing. Distribution. Do you have a gameplan of how you want to get your film out there or what you hope it will do for you? How it will pay for itself?

Eaton: I do. It's transformed as the production process has gone about; but, surprisingly enough, there is a fertile market for short form content right now. With media expanding daily, with iTunes. I've gone into debt, obviously, to do this. We built sets. The way that we shot The Mix-Up was to look a little bit Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque. My DP is from Curb Your Enthusiasm. I wanted it to look a little bit more on the video side rather than the film side; but, the construction scene … we shot on a practical location for that; but, the TV set and the TV studio, those are all sets. On the TV monitors we digitally put in the logo of my fictitious TV station. We built risers in a big movie studio and put curtains down and the whole thing. So I thought, "Okay, I'm going to spend some money on this and I'm going to use it as momentum to get me another piece." I've cut my teeth on commercials, working as a producer or whatever on commercials, doing the music for commercials, so I thought, "I can show them this piece to show I can direct a 13-minute movie pretty well. I know where to put a camera and I know how to mix things together." But now I'm finding that—I've been talking to a company in Toronto—they buy short form content and put it on airlines. I had done a lot of research before fully going forward on The Mix-Up to find out what are my options? HBO and Cinemax, they're dealing with odd-numbered content, movies that can be 105 minutes long, so they end up finding themselves needing 13 minutes. I thought, if we do it well enough, we can possibly sell it there. In Canada there's two short film channels, two! One's called Movieola; the other one's Channel Zero. In Europe Shorts International just launched their own shorts channel too.

Guillén: Are there money prizes for shorts at the festivals?

Eaton: Yeah, at Palm Springs the shorts that won—which were very well-done and now are Oscar contenders—one of the prizes was a $30,000 Panavision package. It's like, "You've done great, kid, now here's your Panavision. Go and shoot another." I think there were some prizes that went down to $5,000 or $3,000. That would be nice to win that. But right now, my goal is to get into AFI.

Guillén: When does that run?

Eaton: That runs in November. I'll hear probably in three weeks whether that happens. I'd also love to get into Toronto Worldwide Shorts or the Aspen Shorts Fest or Clermont-Ferrand, which is a big shorts film festival in France. In fact, right now, I'm working on getting the French translation of The Mix-Up, which has been a fun, amusing process.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

SUN BLOOD STORIES: "UP COMES THE TUNNEL"

Sun Blood Stories.  Photo: © Jenny Bowler.  All rights reserved.
A continuing tale of two cities. Sometimes I wonder if San Francisco is the silver backing to the mirror called Boise or if Boise is the silver backing to the mirror called San Francisco? Mine is a reflection facing in two directions, just as surely as I have coursed the conduit between these two cities for the past decade.

With the first video release "Up Comes the Tunnel" from their upcoming album "Haunt Yourself" (put a BIG RED CIRCLE around September 20, the album's release date, y'all!!), that conduit remains assured with Sun Blood Stories' Godardian use of lyrics and intertitled evocations laminated onto vintage forties footage of San Francisco. For those in the know, that footage starts out with an approach to San Francisco's Stockton Tunnel (deftly embracing the song's lyrics).

Photo courtesy of Sun Blood Stories.
Even as Boise's music scene shifts, my love for the creative talents of Sun Blood Stories (Ben Kirby, Amber Pollard and Jon Fust) remains steadfast. From first hearing Kirby growling "Barfly Blues" at Treefort Music Fest so many years ago, the band has morphed members and stylistic signatures over the years, having an undeniable influence on younger bands in Idaho's Treasure Valley. With the release of "Haunt Yourself", I anticipate their influence will range further.

I'm so pleased with the vocals on "Haunt Yourself" as the members of Sun Blood Stories step out from behind their mask of sonic texture (aka "high desert psych fuzz"), kicking off with Kirby's breathiness on this track, and spotlighting Amber Pollard's strong and sultry stylings throughout!! This is the album I've been waiting for from Sun Blood Stories, and--you might not know it yet--but, it's the album YOU'VE been waiting for!!

"Haunt Yourself" can be pre-ordered at Bandcamp. Boiseans, prepare yourself for an album release concert to beat all album release concerts as Duck Club presents Sun Blood Stories, Like A Villain, Chief Broom and Endless Atlas (plus some surprise guests) on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at the Neurolux.