Saturday, March 31, 2007
FRENCH CINEMA—Jean-Luc Godard's 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her)
There was a time—not that long ago—when I would go to the movies and watch images projected large on the silver screen and return home to craft a written response, preferably a mythopoeic one. I'm not quite sure where the process inverted but these days I tend to read about movies at home and then go out looking for the film that matches the description(s). It's not always a perfect fit—aligning images to words and vice versa—often it's not even a comfortable one, as Godard professes in Two Or Three Things I Know About Her.
As I am fond of saying these days, paraphrasing Alice, the more movies I see, the behinder I get. The oeuvre of masters like Godard are daunting to a novice, and it's often just catch as catch can. But after being assigned by my SF360 editor Susie Gerhard to locate online resources for a piece that ran earlier this week on Two Or Three Things I Know About Her playing at the Castro Theatre, I decided to actually go see the film this afternoon. Imagine!
I found the film's maverick sensibility quaint, if that's a word that can be used with regard to Godard's iconoclastic adventures. Quaint and oddly nostalgic; dated enough to make it palatable but not so much so that I lost complete interest. All these concerns about subjectivity and objectivity, silence and words (and whispered narration somewhere inbetween), the social construction of spaces called cities, and the truth-defying limitations of language: all themes I anguished over and worked out through Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Having them be summoned once more and inflected in cinema recalled me to the frustrations and irritations of my 20s. Though they are no less valid or challenging as concerns, Godard's usage of them for this film—perceived as rebellious and daring at the time—now seemed familiar and well-worn, like a favorite baggy sweater scented with chainsmoke and caffeine, the two driving daimons of this film, which is to say the two most evident bad habits.
In a classic case of life imitating art, I knew within the first 15 minutes that I was going to doze off unless I ran to the concession stand for a cup of hot black coffee ("reverie and sleepiness are frequent bedfellows in the movie theater and never more so than here", Max Goldberg cautioned in his SF Bay Guardian piece on the film). Clinging to my mantra that "soporific is terrific", I returned to my seat in time to experience my favorite scene in the film: what I call the coffee cosmology scene. Carly Simon, considering the vanities of others and pondering the clouds in her coffee, might have done better to reach further than her grasp as Godard did here. As frothy bubbles coalesce, the swirling dark matter of a cup of coffee organizes and launches thought into both cellular and galactic space. At Strictly Film School Acquarello explores this abstracted image as Godard's attempt to express "the syntactical difference between an object's meaning and its significance. It is the filmmaker's personal quest to find the unifying root of this implicit duality that is captured in the recurring image of the attenuating vortex of a cup of black coffee—an allusion to organic genesis in its coincidental resemblance to spiral galactical formation and nuclear mitosis—a desire to return to the origin of the fracture: to reconcile one's abstract, intellectual knowledge with real, tangible, true human understanding." Or, as Max Goldberg entitled it: "Two or Three Things Godard Saw In His Coffee." Later, an intense close-up of the glowing tip of a cigarette likewise borders on the cosmological.
Goldberg defines Two or Three Things I Know About Her as "the eye of the storm of Godard's '60s, that crucial moment between impact and explosion." Susie Gerhard deftly synopsizes Craig Keller's 2003 Senses of Cinema profile on Godard, culling out Keller's keen observation: "In discussing the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, one inevitably arrives at the question of where exactly to mark this artist's own 'leaps forward' on the timeline of a long and prolific career; and in addressing that question, one first must decide how to make the distinction between 'before' and 'after,' and then how many times to make the distinction." Keller's A to Z intensive, Gerhard continues, locates Two or Three Things I Know About Her as one of the announcers of "the shift in Godard's methodology to a fundamentally Marxist social critique." My favorite Marxist reference was about how American shoes step on the toes of the Vietnamese, and the South Americans. That was back in the '60s. We're stepping on different toes now.
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw coins the description that Two or Three Things I Know About Her is a "cinema of ideas"—as one intertitle frequently asserts—and Bradshaw alludes to my other favorite scene in the film—when Juliette (Marina Vlady) prostitutes herself by walking around naked in a hotel room with an airlines travel bag over her head. Michael Hawley—ever quick on the draw—claims this as his next Halloween costume.
Cross-published at Twitch.
04/05/07 UPDATE: Via Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, Runa Islam recounts this treasure (among several) in a guest column at frieze.com: "During the filming of 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know about Her, 1967) Jean-Luc Godard fed his actors questions and lines through a concealed ear-piece and recorded their improvised responses. Their distracted and often contradictory replies and their casual address to camera are among the several approaches to filmmaking that Godard employed, along with disruptive sounds that fragmented the narrative in unprecedented ways."
Also via Dave, Kathy Fennessy reports to SIFFBlog that Two or Three Things I Know about Her made her feel "hectored" and "marks the point at which the rot starts to set in."
Friday, March 30, 2007
2007 SFIFF50—Press Notes
Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily has already done a fine job of compiling the press releases for this year's 50th San Francisco International Film Festival. Here's a few more since his last announcement.
In something of an unprecedented turn, members of the San Francisco Film Society (which sponsors the festival) can already access the festival mini-guide in pdf format for purposes of advance ticket sales. Naturally, I'm embargoed from releasing the program line-up until the official press conference next week; but, for SFFS members who can't wait for next week's members preview at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio, have at it.
Along with the titles already mentioned in Greencine's overview—Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door as the opening night feature; Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke in conjunction with his receipt of the Film Society's Directing Award; a revival of The Fisher King in conjunction with Robin Williams' receipt of the Peter J. Owens Acting Award; a revival of Stephen Frears' The Deal in conjunction with Peter Morgan's receipt of the Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting; the world premiere of Fog City Mavericks; Heddy Honigmann's Forever in conjunction with her receipt of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award (which Evening Class contributing writer Michael Hawley profiled in his report from this year's Palm Springs International)—the SFFS publicity department has announced that SFIFF will show Victor Sjostrom's classic silent film The Phantom Carriage with an original live score written and performed by local icon Jonathan Richman. The film is based on a Swedish folktale in which the last sinner to die before year's end is then forced to drive death's carriage. This event takes place at 7 pm on Friday, April 27, at the Castro Theatre.
SFIFF50 has also announced Notes To A Toon Underground: Animation and Live Music, featuring 15 animated films made between 1912 and 2005 by six different directors, with 11 musicians providing live accompaniment. This presentation of Notes to a Toon Underground will, in all honesty, never happen again. The filmmakers include Emily and Georgia Hubley; David Russo; Kelly Sears; Wladyslaw Starewicz; and Jim Trainor; and their animation ranges from a re-imagination of the book, The Joy of Sex, to the torturing of a man by a tower (Hubley/Hubley). The musicians include Marc Capelle; Devin Hoff (of Good for Cows); Jason Lyttle (of Grandaddy); Ches Smith (of Good for Cows, Xiu Xiu and Ceramic Dog); Jamie Stewart and Caralee McElroy (of Xiu Xiu); Carla Fabrizio (of Gamelan Sekar Jaya); Tommy Guerrero, Monte Vallier and Gadget (of Jet Black Crayon); and avant-garde legend William Winant. This event takes place on Saturday, May 5 at 8:30 pm at the Castro Theatre.
On Monday, May 7, SFIFF50 will present Guy Maddin's Brand upon the Brain! with special support for this program generously provided by the Consulate General of Canada. Brand upon the Brain! was a huge success at the last Toronto International Film Festival, where Twitch teammates Opus and Kurt reviewed same, and editor Todd Brown scored an interview. Joan Chen will narrate this faux-autobiographical masterwork, which mines the rich territories of his youth and spins them into a fantasy of familial discontent. The film's original score will be performed live by a 13-piece ensemble, with foley artists and a "castrato" adding to the fun. Brand upon the Brain! is Maddin's eighth feature-length film in nearly 20 years (he's made some 20 shorts during this time as well). Maddin received the prestigious Persistence of Vision Award at last year's Festival. This event takes place at the Castro Theatre at 8 pm on May 7.
SFIFF50 presents beloved local bands Halou and Tarentel at Mighty on Wednesday May 9. The bands will take the stage for contrasting and intense multimedia performances that merge electronic and psychedelic music with dreamy visuals. Videos made by the winner and finalists of the GreenWorld Contest will be screened as well.
Other films teasingly mentioned by the Publicity and Membership Departments of SFFS are Tom DiCillo's Delirious (which will be the festival's Centerpiece screening); Jon Else's local documentary Wonders Are Many on the making of Dr. Atomic, a modern opera about the making of the atomic bomb; Daniel Wu's "mockumentary" The Heavenly Kings that trails the popular Hong Kong band Alive; and Jonathan King's New Zealand horror flick Black Sheep, which likewise caused a stir at TIFF's Midnight Madness. Twitch teammate Mack reviewed Black Sheep, along with editor Todd Brown who likewise caught up with Director King for an interview.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
THE WIZARD OF GORE—The Greencine Interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis
Fate works in mysterious ways. Last December, I posted a response to a TCM broadcast of The Enchanted Cottage as a Christmas missive to my ailing mother. For some reason or another Tim Massett who runs the San Marco Theater in Jacksonville, Florida, picked up the piece for his newsletter and forwarded a response from a woman named Grace. Tim and I exchanged email and he informed me of a series he was programming called "The Talkies" wherein he was bringing directors to talk about their movies. The first in the series was with Herschell Gordon Lewis. To make a long story short, Tim got me in touch with Herschell and Greencine has published our conversation.
It pleased me that Twitch teammate Todd Brown likewise took note of Tim's series "The Talkies", promoting the upcoming installment in the series—John Waters on Polyester! Wish I could wing out to sniff that one!
Cross-published at Twitch.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
2007 SFIAAFF—"Down and Dirty Pictures" Panel Discussion with Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, Jon Moritsugu and Marcus Hu, Pt. 2
Hu: Okay, this question actually comes from Laura Kim. As Asian Americans I'm sure you get asked this question a lot. Why is it that your films generally—I mean, in Mod Fuck you actually address the Asian American issue and Gregg's film Totally Fucked Up does have an Asian lead but it's Jimmy [Duval], whatever he is, it doesn't count—have you ever wanted to, Gregg specifically, address that issue in any of your projects? Why hasn't it ever figured into any of your projects?
Araki: I say it half jokingly but Jimmy was the lead in three of my movies, the trilogy I did in the mid-'90s—Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere. Jimmy is half-Vietnamese, quarter Vietnamese, and also French and Indian, he's a melting pot kid. It's interesting because he's not viewed as Asian enough to be considered Asian American even though he was called a chink or whatever when he was growing up or whatever he was called and I think that's in a way kind of explanatory of the Asian American representation in my movies. My experience, growing up in a largely White neighborhood in Santa Barbara, which didn't have an Asian American subculture that a lot of larger cities have, I was always very assimilated in more mainstream White culture. I never really viewed myself as different. That's kind of an explanation of how race in general is viewed in my movies. The differences are not as important as the similarities.
Hu: But you pushed the button in The Doom Generation with Dustin [Nguyen] and Margaret [Cho] playing a pair of Vietnamese shop keepers that are really obnoxious and Dustin's head gets chopped off or blown off.
Araki: [Laughing.] Oh yeah. I forgot about that.
Hu: Dustin was actually the lead in your first student film.
Araki: Yeah, he was in a student film of mine. For me as a filmmaker, that seems a comment on something that's reinforcing a stereotype.
Hu: It certainly seemed like you were saying something.
Araki: It seemed like I was saying something? Everything in that film is hyperbolic. I was commenting on that stereotype in a surreal way.
Hu: Jon, in Mod Fuck, obviously you took a very different approach or a similar kind of approach that Gregg took in Doom.
Moritsugu: Making Asians look bad, right? [Laughter.]
Hu: Honestly, the thing about it is a lot of Asian Americans have asked me that question: how come you're not distributing more Asian American movies? Well, I'm not going to distribute an Asian American movie that stinks. I'm going to distribute an Asian American film that's really great. Honestly, the best Asian American film I've seen recently was Better Luck Tomorrow . That was a really great film. Really fantastic in so many ways. But there's so few of those. In fact, why don't you comment upon other Asian American filmmakers? Do you know of any young Asian American talent that are making the kind of films that you were making yesterday today?
Moritsugu: [Grinning.] We were totally original.
Araki: They'll never replace us. [Laughter.]
Hu: But honestly, I see so few vibrant Asian American filmmakers.
Araki: But that's true in general. You see very few vibrant independent films in general made in terms of the studio movies, independent movies, be it Asian American, be it Gay cinema, be it just regular Sundance independent. Most movie makers are not very good.
Hu: But why [is] that? In your opinion have the arts everywhere changed in such a way that artists are just not making that kind of work?
Araki: One thing, to rail against the Administration, the cutbacks of arts funding is a huge difference. I know that for me and Jon and I remember talking to Rick Linklater about this, those first grants that you get are so important. They're literally like $5,000, $10,000, but I remember when I got my first grant it was just the validation that you are a filmmaker and your work is supported. They were just so important and that's why it's really sad that arts funding is in such a bad state. As a young filmmaker [grants] are really the push you need. You feel validated that you really are a filmmaker.
Hu: There are still funding sources like Creative Capital. That's a really great resource for the no-budget kind of filmmaking.
Araki: And Rick has started on his own—because Rick is now a multi-millionaire—he's started film grant type organizations in Texas for Texas-based filmmakers. It's unfortunate that [resources] like the NEA and AFI grants have dried up.
Hu: Jon, where are you finding resources?
Moritsugu: I've actually heavily relied on the grants for my last few movies. My most recent Scumrock  was a Creative Capital grant. I spent my own money to shoot it. It was a cheap movie to shoot, like $5,000 in analog video for a four-month shoot, but I showed some of the rough material to Creative Capital and they gave me a bunch of money to complete it. I also got support from BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition) and a couple of other organizations [like] Chicago Underground Film Fest. My movie before was Rockefeller Grant-funded. Mod Fuck, Marcus produced it and there are a couple of other producers. I also got money from NAATA/CAAM for Mod Fuck Explosion. On my last four movies grants have played a crucial part in getting them made and getting them finished.
Hu: Jon, why don't you talk about what the budget ranges are for these projects and—in terms of the grants that you're getting—how you're able to piece these things together.
Moritsugu: Okay. Creative Capital was really cool. I shot the whole project for $5,000. They gave me an extra $15,000 for post-production, editing, sound track work, getting the bands, putting the soundtrack together, all that stuff. Then after that I requested an extra $5,000. The cool thing about Creative Capital grants is they're not government-sponsored. It's a private organization so they have this bunch of money they give out to filmmakers and—in the event any of these projects make a profit—the filmmaker returns the money to Creative Capital. They recycle the money and give it someone else. So, yeah, I got $25,000 from Creative Capital. That was a $30,000 movie. The Rockefeller Grant was $35,000 for my previous movie. That's sort of been the range for all these movies. They've been $30-$40,000 features. The grants have definitely been 75% of the budget.
Hu: Gregg, did The Living End have any grants?
Araki: Yeah, The Living End, Totally Fucked Up and some of my other films.
Hu: Do you apply for grants anymore at this point?
Araki: I haven't for a while. I can't actually apply for a $1,000,000 grant. [Laughter.] Marcus and I recently remastered Totally Fucked Up for dvd release and we're just doing The Living End right now. Seeing these movies—they're now 15 years old—going back to them [has been] very inspiring to look at them and how they were made. I would love to do a small film just because the mode of making them is so different, as Jon was saying, it's a different set of creative challenges.
Hu: What has stopped you from doing that?
Araki: This actually ties in to the question of why I haven't done a big studio movie. There's only so much time in the day and you only get so many movies to make. Every movie you make, particularly a really low budget independent movie where you're doing everything yourself is three years at least out of your life. I've made nine movies now. You can only make so many movies in your lifetime so that's why I haven't done a bad studio movie because I don't have the three years to spare to make something I hate or don't care about.
Hu: I'm sure you have it in you to make a bad studio movie. [Laughter.]
Araki: It's really finding the time. People say, "Why isn't such and such of your movies on dvd? Why don't you do this?" I do everything myself. I don't have a huge office and building assistants like you do.
Hu: Excuse me, who is your assistant? [Laughter.] Who is your assistant?
Araki: I don't have people to take care of my day so my days are spent developing my next project, writing my next script, now I'm working on this Living End remaster. There's always a lot to do.
Hu: Since Roddy isn't here, I would like to devote a little time for you to discuss your thoughts on Roddy's work.
Moritsugu: I remember when I saw Some Divine Wind , that was the first Roddy movie I had ever seen, and I think at this point Gregg and I had met in an Asian circuit, our films were being played at the Asian fests and we were the three freaks there. I remember seeing Roddy's film and being impressed with the fact that it approach[ed] these Asian topics but it was done in an almost European artsy way rather than a documentary style or styles that had been familiar with Asian films, having certain formats, so I was impressed with that. After I met him, I thought, "Wow. This guy's really fun." Some Divine Wind, definitely, just the way it was shot, the voiceovers, the structure of it; it was very Godardian, a very conceptual movie. It definitely stood out in the whole Asian scene in a cool-but-this-doesn't-fit-in way. That's why I really liked it.
Araki: Yeah, I agree with that. Both Roddy and Jon, I saw their work as very inspiring because they were dealing with these issues in a cinematic way. It wasn't exactly my style but it was a style I appreciated [that] spoke to me.
Hu: This comes from Laura Kim….
Araki: Laura writes all the really hard questions.
Hu: As long-time veteran filmmakers, do you think it gets easier for you?
Araki: No. [Laughter.] That's an easy question. To me, sadly, it gets harder and harder. There are more and more filmmakers. It's harder to get money. People always think, "Oh, people just throw money at you." But it doesn't work that way.
Hu: Here's another typical Asian American question from Laura Kim, what do your parents think about your work? [Laughter.] The kind of edgy work that you guys have done?
Moritsugu: Gosh. My early stuff was much more radical that my more recent work because there's no narrative, no characters. My early stuff is collages of sound and imagery. My parents are really open-minded. Especially my mom, she's like, "Hi. I'm very Western. I studied JFK and his family so we're going to be like the Kennedys." Sort of freaky stuff. She was very open-minded about my movies but not getting them. I knew they weren't really into my filmmaking because I'd still get the phone calls—this was when I was first starting out—like, "Hey man, there's law school. We'll pay for it. You can go to law school. Why are you doing this film stuff?" I made it a point of doing what I wanted to do. I remember at one point they even offered to produce one of my movies, Mod Fuck Explosion, just before we went into production my parents were like, "Hey…." It was a weird meeting. It was in San Francisco. They were passing through town. I was in their hotel room at Fisherman's Wharf and they're like, "We're going to take you out to dinner. Get a nice meal somewhere." It was probably a few weeks before we started shooting Mod Fuck Explosion. It was surreal. My dad reached into his coat and hands me this thick envelope. I'm like, "What is this?" It's full of money. I'm serious. I'm like, "I didn't know you had money like this first of all. Secondly, what is this for?" And they said, "Well, we hear you're going to make the new movie so we wanted to give you some money." Now I'm regretting it, but at the time I had my monologue, my manifesto, and I was like, "You guys absolutely don't understand what I'm doing. You're not supportive of me. So screw you. Take your money back." [Laughter.] I returned the money given to me by my parents! I was like, "I've got other people in the community who are actually putting money into this movie and they believe in this project, unlike you guys who are doing this out of guilt or something." So yeah, it was like a really weird relationship with filmmaking. Finally when I did Terminal, U.S.A., my big budget project, they were passing through San Francisco and this was a turning point because that was my only movie where I actually had a crew of lots of people, Panavision equipment, and I invited them to the set for an evening. They saw everybody there. They saw I was running the show. They have completely chilled out ever since then. I've tried to give them the impression that all my movies have been shot that way since. They haven't but, yeah, they're off my case now and it's cool. But they haven't offered me any more money like that, envelopes with cash. I don't know if that even really happened, it's so surreal.
Araki: It's great for the myth, the legend, of Jon Moritsugu.
Hu: So Gregg, tell us about what your family thought?
Araki: My whole family and my parents in particular have always been super supportive of me. They don't necessarily understand my films. I usually recommend that they don't watch them. [Laughter.] I always tell my family not to watch my movies because it will upset them. I remember in particular with The Living End, probably one of my most upsetting movies, I told them not to see it and they actually drove to Los Angeles…
Hu: And I was at the door.
Araki: Wait. You were…?
Hu: Yes, I was at the door and I looked at this Asian woman. I go, "And you're here for…?" And she goes, "I'm Gregg Araki's mother." I go, "Mrs. Araki, I'm Marcus!" And she goes, "Oooooooooh."
Araki: Was this the showcase?
Araki: I haven't heard that part of the story. I heard there was a manager or someone at the theater.
Hu: No, I was there.
Araki: Did you see the manager tell my mom that she shouldn't see the movie?
Araki: The manager said, "Mam, I think you're not here for the right movie." [Laughter.] She said, "No, no, I really want to see it" and he's like, "Ooooookay." So, they've always been supportive of me in general in terms of they know this is what I want to do and so it makes me happy. They've been great to me throughout the years. Very moving actually. When I got my lifetime achievement award from the L.A. Outfest people, my family was in the audience and it was nice to be able to acknowledge them in public.
Hu: Can you guys talk about what projects you're working on now and where they're at in terms of development?
Moritsugu: Projects. Right now I re-released one of my movies Fame Whore  on dvd from 10 years ago. So I'm right now in the process of going back to a lot of my old movies and early features and re-releasing them. I want to release a couple more this year. I have an aborted script. I finished a script when I moved out to Hawaii. I wanted to shoot a big budget movie in Hawaii. Everything got chaotic and fell through and I left Hawaii. I don't live there anymore. That script I put on a back burner because right now it would be difficult logistically to try to make a movie in Hawaii. It's never happened to me before I've actually finished a script. I like it and I've put it aside. I'm working on a brand new script. I'm almost done and I'm really excited about this. My movies have been sort of like punk rock/art house artsy, semiotic, whatever, and I feel my movies have walked this line but with this new script I'm definitely pushing things more towards the left. I'm trying to go all out and make a crazy ass action-packed almost exploitation type of movie. A lot of people through the years have come up to me and said, "Y'know, I like this movie but I like this one scene, that scene." I've been looking at all of my movies that way, picking out moments with a lot of energy. I think it's going to feel like my really really early work where the music and energy is totally fucked up.
Araki: I have a question for Jon, speaking of music. What do you do about your music and music licensing?
Moritsugu: Oh man, I try to work with bands on small labels rather than hiring lawyers and doing the eight different contracts you need for music release. I have one generic music release Andrea and I wrote years ago. I work with a lot more indie underground bands. My last soundtrack had groups like The Gossip.
Araki: Do they all own their own publishing?
Moritsugu: Yeah, a lot of small record labels are sort of like, "We'll put the band's record out but as far as publishing and copyright, the bands will do whatever they want." K Records is like that. Dischord Records is like that. You can actually talk to the band and get the rights from the band. They own everything, which is really cool.
Hu: Didn't you have a relationship with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon?
Moritsugu: Yeah, I assimilate a lot of Thurston Moore's stuff on Hippy Porn actually. I have a lot of New York stuff. Matador Records was supposed to put out this really cool soundtrack. They kept delaying and lying to me so I went to the office and I burned the contract and tore up all the art work. [Laughter.] They're a really small record company and I heard that, after this happened—my performance piece, I made a scene in there and I was like, "I don't want you guys to put out my record anyways because it's too late"; I destroyed all the masters and everything there—apparently, the next day the head of Matador Records was so freaked out that he installed a high-security system. He was like, "We can't have any more freaks in here." I've worked with a variety of bands.
Araki: Jon really is the bad boy. I'm just a mild-mannered Clark Kent guy. I've never done anything like that.
Hu: Gregg, tell us about your current project.
Araki: As I said, I'm a one-man operation so I always develop a lot of things. I have about six or seven things I'm working on right now. The worst part is trying to raise the financing for them. I have this horror/sci fi thing I'm working on. I'm actually working on this one idea right now of a low budget t.v./internet thing and it ties into something that we can talk a little about here because it overlaps with the next panel. One of the really exciting things right now is that filmmaking has become so accessible and so cheap. Jon and I when we started out making $5,000 movies, it was torturous to make a movie for $5,000. The only way I could make my movie in 16mm B&W film for $5,000, besides doing everything myself and nobody getting paid and the actors driving themselves to set, whatever, was through Mar Elepano, who Roddy mentioned, because Mar would process our stuff for pennies. It was like a nickel a foot. Whereas if we were processing it in a normal house, it would have 50 cents or a dollar a foot. Mar would do this labwork basically for us for free. That's how I made this $5,000 movie. If I had to pay a real lab to make something on film, it would have been $50,000, which I never could have afforded. But now with Final Cut, and these digital cameras that keep getting cheaper and cheaper, the tools to make interesting movies are more accessible than they've ever been. It seems to be the tools are now there but there's a lack of inspiration or ideas. That's something that can't be given. People just have to be really inspired or have great ideas. I agree with Jon, I really love editing. Particularly with the digital editing systems. It's such a creative process. You can go back and try things. It's so easy to go back to where you were or you can just try any idea. The interesting thing about digital editing is you edit more whereas when you're cutting film, the splices are so precarious that, literally, if you get it to work once it's like, "Okay, don't touch that anymore." Whereas with digital editing, you can go back and, "What will happen if we start with that shot instead of this shot? Move this shot over there. Cut this whole scene in half." You can play around with the footage. It's so creative and you don't need any assistants. I just literally sit there in my apartment and play around with the stuff. It's great. I love the writing and the editing. The production I didn't use to like at all because it was so chaotic; but, I've gotten better with it. I guess I've gotten used to it.
Moritsugu: I agree with Gregg completely about everything he's said. I'm trying to figure out a way—since I love the writing and the editing—I'm trying to figure out a way to shoot the entire movie in a weekend somehow.
Someone from the audience was curious whether maturity and experience had changed Araki's rebellious spirit? Or not?
Araki: I couldn't have made The Doom Generation when I made Mysterious Skin. I couldn't have made Mysterious Skin when I made The Doom Generation. As a person, and a filmmaker, you're continually evolving, continually changing, and hopefully getting more mature, better. I know with each film I definitely feel much more technically competent. You learn so much on every movie, especially when you do so much of it yourself, like what works, what doesn't work. Also, as you get older as a person your viewpoints shift and change. That's important as a filmmaker, to not make the same movie over and over and over again.
Impressed with the aesthetic threshold of Mysterious Skin, another audience member wondered how Araki inspired the trust and elicited the quality of performance he obtained from his lead actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt [currently in The Lookout]?
Araki: I get asked about that a lot, particularly Joe's performance in that movie and Anna Faris is in my new movie [Smiley Face] and she gives this amazing performance. People ask, "How did you get such a great performance out of her?" The cliché is that directing is 90% casting. I'd say it's 99% casting. I love actors. I love working with actors. You need to establish on the set a sense of a safe place. Not a chaotic place. A place where the actors can work and there's not bullshit going on. I hate people that fight on sets or people that cause friction on my set because it's really about creating a safe place for the actors to be able to do what they do. Joe's performance in Mysterious Skin is his. He brought that to set. It's not like I did that for him. As a director you tweak them ever so slightly—say this line a little bit faster, do it again in this way—you just give [them] nudges here and there but as actors they come prepared to set. They know and they have made choices. It's not like playing mind game method things. One of the quotes I love about acting and directing is something Julianne Moore said when she was talking about acting in movies. She said, "I don't want a director to tell me how to act. That's my job. It's their job to keep everything else in control around me." It's not like [I] say, "You're a kitten in a box." [Laughter.] That's not my style. It's just casting great actors and letting them do their job.
Hu: Jon, do you have anything to add to that?
Moritsugu: Okay, yeah, just three really quick things. [With the regard to the] question: How does Gregg make $5,000 movies? Three funny stories, really quick. One: Someone told me that Gregg was feeding [them and] their meal was microwave popcorn. In his early movies. The other story I heard was [that] Taco Bell used to have the 99¢ meal deals and Gregg would take cast and crew there and be like, "Okay. One item for each person."
Araki: That was the hardest thing about Totally Fucked Up because those kids were 18-19 years old and all they ever really thought about was food. They'd show up on set and go, "What are we eating?" Is this the third story? About Andrea and I used to go to the 99¢ store and literally buy pounds of cheap, crappy chips and cookies by the crate.
Moritsugu: The third funny story I heard—I think from Andrea—she was producing one of Gregg's movies and they're driving around L.A. running errands in preproduction and everywhere they're stopping there's parking meters. Gregg's like, "I've got to run in there and talk to somebody. Andrea, you wait out here with two quarters. Only use them if you see the meter maid coming." So Andrea said, "I spent the whole day sitting in a car holding two quarters keeping my eyes peeled and at the end of the day Gregg said, 'Give me my money back.' " [Laughter.]
Hu: Working for Gregg, he's the cheapest person I've ever worked for. Pathologically cheap.
Araki: That's how you make a movie for $5,000.
Moritsugu: I remember a story about Marcus! This is good. Bad boys time. He's the bad boy up. We're in preproduction for Mod Fuck Explosion and we're doing production charts and some of these production charts and boards, you have a lot of pens you use and liquid paper and sometimes on our production boards we had like ten different colors of liquid paper. We were just trying to save money so Marcus and Andrea go into a store on Haight Street and they come back out of there, "We got the liquid paper." "How much was it?" They're like, "Free for us." [Laughter. Marcus blushes charmingly.]
Araki: Isn't this being recorded?
Moritsugu: Isn't there a statute of limitations? I was like, "I'm the bad boy, man" and after Marcus did that I was like, "Whoooooa."
Cross-published at Twitch.
03/28/07 UPDATE: Sujewa Ekanayake, who identified himself in the comments section of the first part of this panel transcript as the artist behind one of the portraits of Jon Moritsugu, likewise has a September 2005 interview with Moritsugu for his Wild Diner Films blog, as well as a review of Moritsugu's Fame Whore.
2007 SFIAAFF—"Down and Dirty Pictures" Panel Discussion with Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa, Jon Moritsugu and Marcus Hu, Pt. 1
A late entry into the SFIAAFF line-up was a proposed panel—"Down and Dirty Pictures"—with the "bad boys" of Asian American cinema: Gregg Araki, Roddy Bogawa and Jon Moritsugu, moderated by Marcus Hu. Unfortunately, a storm back East prevented Bogawa from flying out to participate in the panel, but he did email a statement, which Hu read aloud. My heartfelt thanks to Marcus Hu for forwarding Roddy Bogawa's email missive so I could include it in this transcript: "To all—It's 4:53am Saturday morning and though it didn't look good yesterday, as of last night at 2am, I packed my bags, called a car service, and had hoped to escape to sunny California. I read that it will be in the 70s there. You guys all suck. But, as the way things go, I've been silenced by either my mother or mother nature and they've won out once again.
"I was looking forward to this panel for many reasons including seeing a lot of old friends to whom I now say hey. It would have been a great stew for all of us to get together. I'm also sad I'll miss Marcus' cocktail party.
"As to my end of the bargain, well here's a few muddled thoughts as I dream of San Francisco and that great curry plate lunch I'm missing from Over the Bridge in Japan town.
"To my long lost brothers Gregg and Jon, I miss you guys. I try to never be nostalgic but I am nostalgic for a certain moment when we met and it seemed like anything was possible. I'm pretty sure this moment can't be repeated as culture and especially filmmaking have so bottomed out. I respect and admire both of you tremendously as you know and would hold up your body of work as an example of a filmmaker who makes films because they love the form and have something to say, not that they're trying to fill up their fucking day planner. That notion of filmmaking seemed like a bore then and seems like a bore now.
"Asian American cinema rode the tail of independent films, queer films, African American films and the last gasps of experimental work and we screwed up not calling ourselves the Asian American New Wave—at least in the day planner sort of way. Did we influence anyone? Sorry, Gregg, Jon and Marcus, you guys will have to field that one live. I read in an interview a few years ago that when Jean-Luc Godard was asked about his influence over filmmaking, he responded by saying he felt like the gutter of cinema. What an old fart but what a punk! Look at our film company names—Desperate Pictures, Apathy Productions, Fallen Cinema. Down and dirty pictures. I guess if a gutter is good enough for Godard, it's good enough for us.
"If I were there in body and not just spirit, I would have probably tried to re-direct the conversation here to music. If anything, this is what I think led us all to want to make films. Punk rock at one time was political, anarchistic, destructive, and most of all exciting and I think led to the idea of investigation and questioning. And in the end what was most important was the gesture—that you had an urgency to try and say something. Problem is now, most filmmakers have very little to say. I always felt we had the opposite problem . . . too much to say with either no money, time, or support. But we also saw how punk fizzled, became commercialized, and went back underground so this is all familiar. I can't speak for all but I don't think we ever set out to be 'underground', did we? 'Underground' seems to be a romantic label of feigned respect for those who keep making work and no one knows what the hell to do with it. My last film had its premiere as the closing night program at the New York Underground Film Festival and at the Q&A, the first thing I remarked was how it took me 15 years to go 'underground'. In New York City, I'm told there's 17 rats for every human in Manhattan and believe you me, they're tired of living off of scraps and have made their way to the surface. 'Terminate the mission with extreme prejudice.'
"I know this is a panel and not a lecture so I'll shut up here. There are some people that were part of our cosmos that should be propped up in my stead . . . certainly Mar Elepano who I think processed several of our films and allowed me to do the black and white of my first feature on the tab of USC. Alberto Garcia. Andrea Sperling. Daryl Chin. And of course, your beloved MC Marcus was right up in there. Sorry, once again, you guys may have to explain.
"One last thing. If Spencer Nakasako is in the house . . . Spencer, remember, we had made a pact to stage a mock fight and smash prop bottles over each other's heads next time we saw each other babbling on a panel discussion. The bargain still stands. Love and kisses from NYC. Roddy Bogawa. Over and out."
Marcus Hu: It's funny to be moderating a panel with two people that I consider my much older older brothers; but, I will ask first a bland question, which is: can you give us some background about your schooling? Your backgrounds? Where you were born? What made you decide to become filmmakers?
Gregg Araki: I was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Santa Barbara, went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I have a degree in film studies and film criticism. Then I went to USC to get my Masters in production.
Jon Moritsugu: I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, grew up there, and went to school at Brown University and studied semiotics. I created my own major and studied film criticism, cultural theory, all that jazz.
Hu: I'm curious, Gregg, what made you become interested in film?
Araki: I wasn't one of those kids like Spielberg at age 8 with my first Super8 movie. I was always an artistic kid into drawing and comic books [but] it wasn't until I was in college that it evolved into this interest in cinema. Once I was in the film studies program—which was a great foundation in terms of cinema, film language, film history—that's when I began to take film and filmmaking seriously. All of us are part of a larger generation. As we get older, [we] see that we are this specific and finite thing. Through the years, besides Roddy and Jon, I met Rick Linklater, Allison Anders, Todd Haynes, various people, and we're all sort of a high school class in a way. We all came from [a common] background. Roddy was talking in his letter about this interesting time of naïve possibility. At that point we thought this was forever, but, we were a very specific generation of film school kids that loved cinema so much and were so excited by its possibilities. Now, it's a completely different generation and the influences of auteur pantheon filmmakers that were so important to us, are not the same for the kids that are the age we were when we started making movies.
Moritsugu: When I was in Hawaii I was teaching a class and I was talking to a fellow faculty member and we were talking about the students themselves and [interestingly] the reference point seemed to be 1993. Before that, [a lot of students] weren't really aware of the classics of the indie thing. It seemed like the reference point for movies in this film school department was Star Wars, pulpy gangster movies, and maybe throw a little Blair Witch in, and those were the reference point films that I'd say 90% of the students would base their work around. Yeah, I feel it's a completely different scene out there.
Araki: I thought [our experience of independent filmmaking] was something that would continue, that there would always be these film/cinema schools that taught cinema history and I think they still do, but, I remember a few years ago I was at a film festival with Amos Poe and he teaches somewhere in New York and he was talking about how it's completely different now. It's not like kids talk about Godard, Fellini, Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hawks, all of the influences, all of those people throughout film history. It's really become so specific and literally every kid in [Poe's] class wanted to be Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, literally [someone] they saw a year ago. Do you know what I mean? Without any sense of Eisenstein or [anyone] who went beyond recent memory. It made me feel old. It made me realize [our generation] was very specific.
Hu: Back in 1987, I saw Three Bewildered People in the Night at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles and I have to say it was a $5,000 feature made by Gregg [that] changed my life. It made me realize that film is printed on the same kind of stock as Zodiac and it could be a $100,000,000 movie but Gregg was able to tell a beautiful story that moved me, that made me cry, that made me think about my life, for $5,000. That made me become interested in doing what I do today as a distributor for independent films. Gregg, can you give some background on how you put together a feature for $5,000? And what actually inspired you to think that you could do a film completely with no sync sound?
Araki: That's why Roddy's letter was so interesting. I'm also not nostalgic. I don't really look back. But just remembering that time of being 25 years old or whatever, fresh out of film school, full of ideas, and full of that sense of possibility. It was right around this period when Strangers in Paradise came out, Chan's Missing and She's Gotta Have It shortly thereafter, where these low-budget movies were getting distribution. I remember seeing Strangers in Paradise several times. That film, amongst this generation, was really important. I know Rick Linklater, Allison Anders, everybody that I've met through the years, they all talk about that movie and how it was a galvanizing moment to see this grainy, strange quasi-European art film in a theater. It didn't make Blair Witch money but it made enough money, it made enough of a splash, that it was really exciting. It was that craziness of youth. Having the passion and the love of cinema and wanting to express yourself. Looking back on it, it was this insane thing. Similar to Jon and Roddy, I did everything on [Three Bewildered People in the Night]. I cut the negative. I had no crew. It was just me and this Bolex, these three actors, and we did it literally through sheer will. Roddy basically stole [our] thunder because he summed it all up in a letter.
Moritsugu: See you guys later! [Laughing.]
Araki: Yeah, just read Roddy's letter and that's it! Because it was not only that but it was also because we were part of this punk rock generation. I was in high school when the Sex Pistols came out and that whole idea of D.I.Y. and being able to be [a] garage band and make things outside of the conglomerate corporate world, it was a very exciting time. So there was this point of feeling, "Why not?" It was very much like, "This is what I do." At that point in my life, films were all that mattered to me. So it was sort of like, "I'll do this movie or I'll die trying."
Hu: Jon, I saw some of your shorts like Mommy Mommy, Where's My Brain? , Der Elvis  and My Degeneration . My Degeneration is what really got me hooked on you. And then I saw Hippy Porn  and that's when I decided I have to get involved and help you make Mod Fuck Explosion . Why don't you give some background about the process of what got you started in film, the kind of budgets you were working with, and where you are now as an artist?
Moritsugu: I started out just like Gregg, a one-man crew doing it all myself, making short movies for under a thousand bucks. When I finally made My Degeneration, my first feature, it was also a $5,000 movie with non-sync sound, color. I would occasionally see films that would inspire me like [Godard's] Masculine/Feminine , Chan Is Missing , films where I could actually walk away from the theater saying, "I saw the tape splices. I could sort of see how they put that together. I think I can do that." I felt empowered by these few movies I'd seen but there really weren't that many out there. This was before YouTube, before stuff on the Internet, before people are burning dvds. These days there are a lot of underground self-made art, especially film that you can get inspired from, but back in the day occasional films would inspire me. As Gregg mentioned, as Roddy mentioned, music [from] the hard rock scene, the punk rock scene, was much more inspiring for me. I've always felt the music scene was more cohesive, more of a community as well as interacting with different labels, club set-ups, clubs in people's garage[s]. There was a communication network with fanzines and whatnot but I was just really inspired by the fact that this music was being created so immediately, so cheaply. I took that as an inspiration as well as reading interviews with Godard. This might all be lies but [his] riding into the street and immediately shooting stuff with scenes not being perfect but with him doing these jumpcuts to cut out the bad moments, that really inspired me. Definitely it was hard. When I met people like Roddy, Gregg and Marcus, I suddenly realized there were these pockets of likeminded people on the face of the earth. That was such a cool moment to suddenly realize [I] was not in isolation in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in my dingy apartment making my films alone, knowing that Gregg was in his dingy apartment in L.A. making his movie, and Marcus was in San Francisco….
Araki: Marcus was in his mansion having his butler bring him caviar. [Laughter.]
Moritsugu: It was this weird community. You're home editing at 3 a.m. feeling like a loser yet sort of knowing, wow, Gregg's three hours behind, it's midnight in L.A., but he's probably editing right now.
Araki: I still have them somewhere [but] we also framed letters to each other a lot.
Moritsugu: Tons of letters.
Araki: Jon, Roddy and I would communicate, basically commiserating about being poor.
Hu: The only letters I got from you guys [were], "Where's my money?!" [Everyone laughs.] Jon spoke about music influencing his work, Gregg can you talk about how music plays a part in your more current films?
Araki: Music has always been a huge inspiration for me. Even though my experience of the music industry is that it is as corrupt or worse than the film industry, it's always been inspiring to me. I listen to music all the time and have a huge collection. It was always inspiring me also in a way not only in a general, rebellious spirit, but—and I guess this is where I differ a little bit from Roddy—in the sense that I don't measure my own success against box office and Blair Witch Project and Little Miss Sunshine or whatever the hit du jour is. A lot of the bands I've loved so much and have had such a huge influence on me have never been commercially successful. To me that's a real inspiration where my work's concerned because I've never set out to be the Justin Timberlake of cinema. The bands I love the most, most people have never heard of but the fact that their work resonates with me and speaks to me, that to me is successful. I've met now a lot of these people. Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins did the score of my last movie. It's funny because they don't even realize their own importance and he is also like, "I'm poor. I can't afford to feed my kid." He's still trapped in the same kind of struggling artist world that we're all in but to me that's what's more important: the work itself as opposed to the box office figures or how many cds you sell.
Hu: It's really odd because both of you—Roddy maybe less so—both of you seem very influenced by an odd mix of Godard and John Hughes. [Laughter.] That's what I found so engaging about how odd your pieces are.
Araki: [Grinning.] Is that a question?
Hu: Just in terms of pop culture elements other than music, artists, other filmmakers, what are the ones that have inspired your work? Even as close as I am to Gregg, I really don't know what [are] his inspirations and, Jon, I'd love to hear about what bizarre influences you have.
Araki: That's too hard to chew.
Hu: Jon, why don't you [start]?
Moritsugu: All right. All right.
Hu: Mod Fuck Explosion, where did you come up with these ideas? What inspired you? Are there other artists that inspired you or is that just out of your own insanity?
Moritsugu: What inspired me for Mod Fuck Explosion was West Side Story, some Derek Jarman stuff like Jubilee , his version of a punk-rock Marie Antoinette way before its time, that inspired me. Godard, obviously, we've been talking about. Liquid Sky —a hard-to-find movie that was pretty big in its time—that completely inspired me. I remember watching that about two weeks before we started preproduction for Mod Fuck Explosion and I was blown away from that and had to watch it every night three nights in a row. I really really liked that movie. Those were my filmic influences. I had one influence who was a painter, a crazy dude named Philip Guston. He kept reinventing himself. He's passed away but he started out as a realistic public works artist in the '30s then he completely freaked out and went completely abstract overnight and people were like, "Why are you doing this? You have a following and can make money." And then he had yet another freakout and went [to a] completely cartooney-style of painting. But I liked how he was doing what he wanted to do rather than listening to his people [who were] telling him the marketing trends and what would make money. Also, I read about his working method where he would paint literally for five days in a row, nonstop, chainsmoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Back in the early punk rock days, I was like, "Yeah, man!" He definitely influenced me through his work but his methodology way put stuff together. I thought it was a crazy way to do stuff. I was immediately drawn to that.
Araki: Hmmmmm. I stalled for time. [Chuckles.] I got this from Jon's answer. I really view myself as kind of a sponge. [I] just take in all this stuff and it's hard to even say what [my] specific influences are. I make my movies from storyboards and they've always been editorially precise. That's obviously lifted from Hitchcock but I don't really list him as an influence a lot. I just absorb everything I've ever seen. Godard has always been a conscious reference of mine because of his adversarial and outside-of-the-culture nature; but, the other influences—[addressing Jon] you talk about West Side Story and Mod Fuck, it's not like you said, "Oh, I want to make Mod Fuck [because of] West Side Story." Everything you put into your head, you consumed with your eyes, be it advertising…. My films, because of their gay nature, frequently because of photography like Bruce Weber, things that you see and things that you read, stuff on t.v., or music that you hear, it all gets stuck in your brain and then when you sit down to write a script or you're directing, it kind of comes out and you don't consciously go, "I'm quoting this or I'm doing that."
Hu: But if anyone watches the first few minutes of either of your films, immediately they're going to know it's your imprint as auteurs. That's a real credit. You're not regurgitating things like Brian DePalma. You guys have a great sense of style. I know immediately when I'm seeing one of your movies. With that in mind, I want to talk about budgets: the lowest you've worked and the highest you've worked and the limitations you've had to work with within those budgets. Has that ever been an influence for you to be more creative?
Moritsugu: I made a Super8 movie in high school that was probably $20 with a bunch of friends. That's the lowest budget. But as far as legit films in my oeuvre [chuckles], I made a two-minute, two and a half-minute short film called Braindead . I shot it all in a Bolex, in-camera editing. I did scratch animations so that was where it was labor intensive, it took about a year, but that was a pretty cheap film; with the print and with the sock it was maybe under $150. My most expensive film was $360,000. I did something with ITVS for PBS broadcast. As far as problems, limitations, etc., I had been making movies in the $10,000-$15,000 range and I remember I talked to you, Gregg, right before I did the PBS thing. You were mentioning that the budgets were just going to get harder. I had this thing in my mind, "I'm going to get this $350,000, [which] is 20 times more than anything I've ever had so it's going to be a movie 20 times better and Gregg was like, "No, actually if you get a lot more money, you're going to buy yourself into a whole bunch of new issues." I was like, "Whatever, man. I'm just going to make my 20-times-better-movie-than-the-last-one." He was right. We suddenly had to deal with union issues, insurance, all these major things. So as far as limitations, I sometimes do feel that money is a limitation. Lack of money is obviously a problem—not to be all that boho and romantic and too optimistic—but I sometimes feel that lack of money creates some really awesome solutions and really interesting things in movies that people have never seen before. I want to work with a bigger budget definitely, but there's something about not having everything. Being the underdog and making a movie, I like that too, being forced into situations where you have to improvise and come up with something on the spot.
Araki: My lowest budget movie was probably $5,000; the movie Marcus was talking about—Three Bewildered People. My highest budget movie was Splendor , which was about $3,000,000. I have a new movie coming out in the summer called Smiley Face; that was $2,000,000. That's my range. I've never gone beyond that. I kind of agree with what Jon says in the sense that [with] $5,000 I was literally doing everything myself and you do have to be extremely resourceful and creative. When you're in the millions of dollars range, it's completely different. Your set of problems are a lot different. You're dealing with unions and the logistics of it that—in a way—drag you back. When I made a film like Totally Fucked Up  or The Living End , we never had location permits, we just ran out and Andrea [Sperling] the producer would talk to the security guards and keep them busy while we were trying to shoot something. It's much more guerilla, more exciting; but, when you're on a regular movie that costs millions of dollars, with the trucks and the crew and the walkie talkies and the catered lunch and there's 50 people and you have to figure out where to eat, it's all just sort of a big machine in a way. It's definitely different. The way I started out making movies with these $5,000 budget movies where I did everything and everything was so under control, all of that translates. I do these storyboards of the entire movie following the script so basically every shot's planned. Because I edit my own movies, as I always have, I know where the shots end and where they begin and where I need coverage, where I don't need coverage, and I got that from making my $5,000 movies where I didn't have enough money to shoot coverage. I had to know exactly where all the cuts came. The structure of how I actually make a movie is almost identical, strangely.
Hu: So I guess in both of your cases—since you guys are the directors, one of the producers, editors—you oversee the DP's work. Probably the editing process is the second most important thing for you?
Moritsugu: I would say it's the firstmost. The editor is like God in a movie. A bad editor can ruin stunning, great footage and performances and a great editor can resurrect mediocre footage. I love editing. Post-production is where it's at. Whenever I wrap a production, I'm relieved. The editor is the most powerful person in a movie as far as shaping it really quickly, changing it, changing the meanings, etc. I'm really into editing and I like being able to have that kind of control of my movies.
Hu: Gregg, after Mysterious Skin and actually after The Doom Generation, you've had a lot of success. Why did you decide to stick with really difficult projects and not try to sell out like other Asian American filmmakers who have had some success and try to do really bad studio projects. [The audience laughs knowingly.] Why haven't you thought about….
Araki: Are you wussing out here? You're not going to do what you said you were going to do last night?
Hu: [Ignoring him blushingly.] Why do you want to stick with making these low-budget independent movies? You obviously would have the ability to make a piece of crap like Annapolis.
Araki: I really have nothing against making a bigger movie. I get asked this a lot because I've had so many movies at Sundance and the whole independent cinema thing. Would you ever make a studio movie? Blah blah blah. I don't have anything against making a studio movie. I've been attached to a studio movie with what to me would have been an interesting movie. I don't differentiate between a studio movie and an independent movie. I differentiate more between a bad movie and a good movie. There are good studio movies and bad studio movies and there are good independent movies and bad independent movies. Every movie has its budget and it's freeing in a way. That's why every movie I've made has been very independent under the bar of the $10-$15,000,000 movies, $20,000,000 movies, $50,000,000 movies. The bigger they get, the more homogenized they need to be. They have to have a guaranteed commercial audience. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. You can make a commercial movie and make it very interesting. That's what all the auteurs of earlier times had been doing. That's what Howard Hawks did. That's what Hitchcock did. That's what John Ford did. It's possible to work within that system but it's increasingly difficult. I get sent a lot of scripts and I do get offered a lot of bad studio movies but they're bad. But I would have nothing against doing something bigger if it was good.
Hu: Jon, have you ever thought about yourself as an artist, would you ever do a straightforward narrative film that had a big budget?
Moritsugu: Yeah, sure, I definitely would consider it. I feel like my PBS project I was pretty young, punk rock, chip on my shoulder. I burned . . . I nuked every bridge possible. [Laughter.] Seriously. For instance, I'll use names, James Schamus, big wig producer dude, works with Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain….
Araki: He now owns Hollywood.
Moritsugu: Yeah, he owns Hollywood, Focus Features. He was one of the executive producers for Terminal U.S.A.  because it was for ITVS. I remember there was this really weird meeting where we were having drinks at the Clift Hotel or something and he put his arm around me and he's whispering, "Stick with me. I'll give you a career. Asia America. You're the Asian independent dude." It just got ugly after that. I ended up threatening him, telling him to fuck off, just like these personal issues. [Laughter.]
Araki: That's a do not do.
Moritsugu: Do not do. But I've since made up with him so now we can say hi. As Gregg mentioned, I have nothing against a big budget, nothing against studio movies, nothing against commercial movies. I want to make a good movie ultimately. Even with something small like Mod Fuck Explosion, I remember when I was trying to get people interested in producing it and I had given Marcus an early version of the script. This is how anti-commercial I was at that point: I was sort of like, "This movie's about these two gangs, West Side Story, it's leading up to the big rumble in the end." I gave Marcus the script and in this early version of the script I did one of these Fassbinder endings where the movie just ends before the big rumble happens. And that's it! The movie's building up to this big event and Marcus was like, "You don't have a rumble in this? You don't have the big fight at the end?" I was like, "Yeah, man. We don't have to be there. It's somewhere else in time and space. [Laughter.] That's why we're going to be an art film because we don't have to know what happens. That's not important." And he was like, "Jon, rewrite it with a more commercial ending, with the rumble." And I did and I'm so glad. [Laughter.] Even with smaller movies, punk rock movies, art house movies, independent movies, my movies, whatever, there are these issues of commerciality and it might even be something like, "Hey, make this character stronger. Make this story easier to follow." That's still definitely an issue. It really doesn't matter what budget you have, these basic fundamentals of filmmaking you're wrestling with.
Hu: I remember you had sent us out to go to a meatpacking place and get rotted meat that was going to get thrown out and we made a meat garden for a fantasy sequence. I remember that it had been sitting out for a couple of hours and I walked in and I threw up. [Laughter.]
Moritsugu: We had gas masks and 800 pounds of meat. It was over a weekend and then we had to get rid of the meat. We were sort of like, "Where do we get rid of 800 pounds of meat in the middle of the night?"
Araki: You should have just fed it to the crew.
Moritsugu: I know, right? No, we ended up . . . there's like a police station on 22nd Street and my reasoning was, "This is the safest place to dump out meat in the police department dumpster because we won't get caught. And we didn't! We got rid of two pick-up trucks full. It was like myself and two other crew members and we were the only three people on the entire movie who would have anything to do with the meat at this point because it had been there for three days. We were driving around the city all night getting rid of meat.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
DAVID LYNCH—The Air Is On Fire
Via Michael Hawley, David Lynch's exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris (running through May 27, 2007) can be accessed virtually at the Foundation's website. Select English (a new window opens), select What's On, then David Lynch: The Air is on Fire, then Views of the Exhibition.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
The cinematic group hug is well under way. No sooner did I read David Bordwell's report on the latest triangulation of Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To (via The Greencine Daily) than the current issue of Film Comment (March/April, 2007, p. 7) announced that the Musée d'Orsay has commissioned Raul Ruiz, Jim Jarmusch, Oliver Assayas, and Hou Hsiao-hsien to make a series of features. "The one stipulation is the museum must appear somewhere in each film. The only factoids disclosed so far for Ruiz's project are the star, Juliette Binoche (who will appear in all four films), and the title Lapidatio—which everyone knows is Latin for 'the throwing of stones.' " Hou Hsiao-hsien's adaptation of the 1956 French classic The Red Balloon is his contribution to this omnibus. The working title for Assayas's piece is Family Souvenirs and info on the Jarmusch project is forthcoming.
Bordwell's report on Triangle, by the way, mentions that Twitch teammate Todd Brown accompanied Bordwell, Shelly Kraicer (Chinese movie expert), and Antoine Thirion (of Cahiers du cinéma), to a late-night shoot on Johnnie To's set. Not bad company, Todd!
Cross-published at Twitch.
MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET)—The Center For Latin American Studies Q&A With Director Jason Kohn
I went to Berkeley yesterday evening fully intending to catch a PFA screening of SFIAAFF's The Great Happiness Space: Tale Of An Osaka Love Thief and became distracted by boisterous posters announcing a free screening of Jason Kohn's Manda Bala (Send A Bullet) sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies promising the director in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions afterwards. Rationalizing that I could catch a screener of The Great Happiness Space, I crossed the campus to the Andersen Auditorium in the Haas School of Business to take advantage of this rare, welcome opportunity.
Manda Bala, you might recall, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Dave Hudson scooped up the immediate critical reactions for The Greencine Daily, where David D'Arcy likewise dispatched on the film, forecasting that the documentary's visual flair will earn Jason Kohn much attention. So it appears. Though I was the first person to arrive at the Andersen Auditorium, affording me the chance to converse with the CLAS AV guy while he was setting up, and though he was a bit concerned that attendance would be slim due to it being the first day of Spring Break, by the time the lights went down every single seat in the auditorium was filled; an amazing response to basically a word-of-mouth event.
In his Variety review of Manda Bala, Scott Foundas can't resist using the hook that it's a "frog eat frog world" (can you blame him?) and echoes D'Arcy's praise for the doc's "dark humor and cinematic flair" and adds: "Duly awarded by the Sundance jury, camerawoman Heloisa Passos' color-saturated lensing is a particular standout, as is the razor-sharp editing of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden."
Alex Billington nicknames the doc "a Brazilian Fahrenheit 9/11" at First Showing.Net and applauds its well-made, powerful theatricality. "Now I never want to go to Brazil for fear of being kidnapped or even being caught up in the incredibly corrupt political system," he admits. He's not confident, however, that the film on its own merits will attract audiences because of the disturbing content of its subject matter.
Though admittedly disturbing and not for the squeamish, I disagree with Billington's dismissal. This is a documentary that needs to be seen. Perhaps not so much as a story that "has to be told" as a metaphor that deserves contemplation. Protégé to Errol Morris, Kohn relays that Morris says the film is important not because it is about Brazil, but because it is about America in five years, which is to say it's a stern warning about the consequences of unjust distribution of wealth; a problem which Americans in power are gleefully ignoring (as if the remaining American populace are so many tadpoles down the drain). As skillfully as Kohn hopscotches between his seemingly disparate stories in Manda Bala, he can't keep still in front of his audience, reminding me of Shakespeare's Puck, playfully juggling his dark concerns. Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight) helped Kohn out with his introduction, explaining that their two films were in competition at Sundance but that, after watching Manda Bala, he considered it an honor to lose to Kohn.
After the film, Kohn answered a few questions. The film took him five years to make and—though it's like every indie film cliché you've ever heard of—it started out by his selling his car to get the seed money. Kohn is half Brazilian on his mother's side, his father is a rich businessman stationed in Sao Paolo. It was his father who first alerted him to the frog farm central to the Jader Barbalho scandal. If, as Strindberg once said, politicians are one-eyed cats, Barbalho is a fat one. Having held every political office in Brazil except the Presidency, Barbalho used a senatorial position to embezzle billions from a fund intended to foster economic growth in the Amazon. The subject frog farm was just one of the ways Barbalho laundered his money. That he then bought up media outlets—newspapers, radios, televisions—was an incidental if not strategically effective investment.
To Kohn's knowledge, no one in Brazil has seen Manda Bala so there has been no official response, though there have been plenty of disgruntled rumblings about the nerve of this young upstart criticizing and questioning Brazil when Bush is in power. Kohn swiftly positions himself as having a documentarian's right to criticize and question whatever he wants. He is inquisitive by nature, which is requisite for a documentarian. He hopes the film will be distributed in Brazil but it's a complicated process, the details of which he didn't feel at liberty to discuss. I could only imagine this would have to do with direct physical threats to him and/or his family.
Being a documentarian, Kohn is subject to having his access justifiably scrutinized. Most of the questions revolved around how he secured interviews or where he found footage. This struck me only because I had just read Paul Arthur's fine essay "Art of the Real" in the current issue of Film Comment (March/April, 2007), which I heartily recommend to anyone concerned with the aesthetics and ethics of documentary filmmaking. I feel Kohn has been straightforward about disclaiming his film as a political documentary. He suffers no pretensions. But this places him in a sensitive contemporary category, precisely because he won an award for best documentary. Though writing about Michael Moore's film Roger & Me, Paul Arthur's concerns seemed applicable to Kohn's work precisely because Kohn has defended Manda Bala by its entertainment value, or his wish to have it be entertaining. As I interview more and more documentarians, this keeps coming up, this wish to be entertaining, which Arthur argues is a hazardous trend in documentary filmmaking. Arthur writes that assaults on corporate arrogance raise "increasingly important questions about legitimate uses of 'dramatization' in nonfiction. In other words, when does factual or scenic maneuvering perpetrated in the name of social insight—or merely 'entertaiment'—the rubric under which [Kohn] defends his tactics—become something more than a clever stylistic wrinkle? When must we call it an infraction of reasonable codes of evidence or argument, a rhetorical weapon to be shunned rather than applauded." Kohn seemed completely up to the task of defending his first film on its own merits, recognizing the influence Errol Morris has had on his style of documentary filmmaking, and his own opinions about the marketability of documentaries. Elsewhere, in his interview with Reeler's S.T. VanAirsdale, Kohn has asserted he's been "stupid lucky" with Manda Bala and that the main importance of his first film is to allow him to make another film. It's telling, I think, that of the four or five ideas he has in his head, none of them are documentaries; all are fiction features.
Asked how he gained access to interview the kidnapper Magrinho and what it was like talking to him, Kohn categorized him as "a sweetheart" and explained they were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, a taxi driver whose palm Kohn greased a bit to secure his one-on-one with Magrinho. He had tried to secure an interview with a kidnapper through the prison system but so many documentaries had been made about the corruption of the Brazilian prison systems that they weren't letting any further documentarians in. Commiserating with the taxi driver about how he had come all the way to Brazil to get an interview with a kidnapper only to have no luck whatsoever, the driver then offered to set him up. It so happened that to make a little money on the side the taxi driver delivered packages for Magrinho, who comes off as something of a Robin Hood, robbing from the wealthy to provide medicine and food to his favela constituency). A proud father of nine, anticipating a tenth on the way, Magrinho's hooded disguise and gun costume economic necessity. If any evil is to be ascribed, one must point at need, and not the individual. As a poignant aside, Kohn indicated at his Q&A following the Sundance screening that Magrinho had been killed in a police shootout.
Asked why the rich in Brazil don't disguise their wealth so they won't be targeted, Kohn quipped that was his strategy but that it's not one that would be readily adopted by the wealthy who would, in fact, feel indignant about acting poor. This is a class struggle after all. It was difficult enough to get representatives of the wealthy class to appear on camera. You have to understand, Kohn explained, it's easy to get footage of the poor. You can walk into any favela and photograph the poor. It's privatized wealth that's difficult to capture. As Scott Foundas has astutely synopsized: "Manda Bala emerges as that rare film about the developing world that does not rub our privileged first-world noses in poverty and famine, but rather merely abides by that sage journalistic advice: 'Follow the money.' "
Asked why he preferred to use interpreters on film rather than subtitles, Kohn credited Errol Morris' influence. You can see it. Using a widescreen composition with his subject seated slightly in the foreground and the translator slightly behind, they both stare into the camera. Kohn wanted his film to be visual. He didn't want to distract his audiences by having to read subtitles. Americans, perhaps, are more willing to watch and listen to a translation than having to read one.
As for the translation of the film's title, "Send A Bullet", that's literal, which Kohn chose because it seemed more cinematic. But the actual slang term manda bala refers to finishing something off. If you have a little bit of Coke left in a bottle, let's say, you could say manda bala to indicate "drink it down." It's comparable to saying "shoot" if you agree to someone questioning you.
I was particularly interested in a bleak data point that stated that—despite the recognized corruption of political leaders—the public continued to elect them back into office. (Morris' admonition that the film is about America in five years was still ringing in my ears.) I asked Kohn if he had any explanations of what would fuel such folly? He had no answers, of course, other than to reference yet again Brazil's institutionalized culture of impunity. It's not that Brazil is not a democracy. It's not that there aren't laws in place that criminalize these abuses of power. It's not that there isn't enforcement that tries to go after these criminals. Barbalho was, in fact, convicted of his embezzlements but his sentence was rescinded by a convenient judge in his pocket. Upon his release he boasted that he could and would have any political office he desired. These officials break the law because they know they can and that nothing will be done to stop them. As for how such a "culture of impunity" could become so alarmingly entrenched, Kohn conjectures that a continuity of corruption extends back to the Portuguese colonialization of the Brazilian natives. These powers aren't granted overnight. It is precisely their institutionalization over centuries that make them so formidable. I asked Kohn if he felt screening Manda Bala in Brazil could effect any change. There's no way he could know, of course, and he felt it important to emphasize that he doesn't consider himself an activist. That's not why he made the film.
What makes Manda Bala so challenging to watch is its explicit visceral depictions not only of torture (I squirmed in my seat watching a big ol' knife cut off someone's ear)—footage Kohn secured from a police chief—but the aural reconstructive surgeries of Dr. Juarez Avelar, a plastic surgeon Kohn first read about in the New York Times. Dr. Avelar extracts rib cartilage to reconstruct ears that have been cut off from kidnapped abductees. The ears, of course, are meant to accompany ransom notes. Dr. Avelar is, as David D'Arcy puts it, the "odd hero" of Manda Bala because he has the "genius [for] rebuilding ears for wealthy abductees who have somehow managed to survive their kidnapping. If the judicial system can't reconstitute your world, at least you can have something that looks like the body part that was taken away from you, provided that you can afford the surgery."
D'Arcy's comment underscores the class issues at the spiraling heart of Brazil's corruption, what can and cannot be afforded, and by who. Hopefully America will listen up before it begins losing its own ears.
Photo courtesy of S.T. VanAirsdale. Cross-published at Twitch.
04/15/07 UPDATE: Dispatching to The Greencine Daily from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Cinetrix encourages readers to "believe the hype" about Manda Bala. "How did the filmmaker decide to tell this story? Affable, casually cursing Jason Kohn revealed during the Q&A that years ago he and his producer got high and watched some video he'd shot at frog farms while visiting his father in Brazil. With the profundity of one in an altered state, Kohn observed of the frogs: 'They look like little people.' And thus a film was born."
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