Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Best of Everything Chapter I: Quantum of Solace

by Steven Boone
"The Best of Everything" is a book of essays about the first decade of movie culture in this new century-- except that I don't know how to write books, so here it is in video form.

The Best of Everything Chapter One: Quantum of Solace from Steven Boone on Vimeo.
Chapter One is about being down and out in New York City while still foolishly pursuing movie love and the love of a woman out of reach...

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz, Jason Zinoman, Jennifer Anise and Kevin Harvey for helping me get this part "finished"*. (*There's sure to be different edits and tweaks in its future.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

"When they are impossible to make, that’s the time to make them."

 Image © Miguel Macias
Excerpted from The Wrap.

IÑÁRRITU Corporations have a lot to do with it, and the marketing and the dictatorship of capitalism is the worst. It’s the worst f___ing dictatorship that we have ever seen, because there is no basis, there is no religion, there is no politics behind it. Their religion and god is f___ing money, in the hands of who we will never know. That’s a very scary thing.
And there is no analysis. Nobody is talking about cinema, or the language of cinema, the craft of cinema. Everybody's talking about power, celebrity, awards, boxoffice. That’s it. That game is played by everybody.

And it didn’t used to be?

DEL TORO There was a clear generation in the 1960s and '70s that grew up with a certain type of cinema, that broke with that and found the auteur theory, and for the next 20 years that was the discourse that was adopted. If you were a film lover, you were able to talk about Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Bunel, Godard in the same breath.
My problem is that in the last 20 years, the film connoisseurs have completely co-opted the industry language: demographics, opening weekend, boxoffice projections, easy to market. When you go to a blog or to a comments section and you have people adopting the lingo of the industry and talking about a movie by not discussing if it's good or bad or art, they're just saying "really hard to market, I don’t know what audience they're trying to reach," I get really depressed.

You couldn't make "Pan's Labyrinth" now?

DEL TORO I think you could, in a way, but you would have to make the movie different, and smaller. And not only do I think you could make it smaller, but I plan to make movies like that again. The fact that there are no structures the way we knew them doesn’t mean that we need to quit. F___ that. This is the time to make these movies. When they are impossible to make, that’s the time to make them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Righteous Megalomania: Creative Executive for Hire

It's simple math: Ho'wood needs me, and I need a job.

Those dudes over there in Ho'wood have no idea what makes a movie that the people will fall in love with, only how to front-load some lackluster ideas with massive budgets, multimillion-dollar print and advertising blitzes, and lame distractions like 3-D in lieu of good stories or capable storytelling.

Just as all it would take to get truly progressive social policies on the table are public officials who aren't spineless or sociopathic, all the movies need is a creative executive who makes the sane calls, pushes for real ideas instead of bait-and-switch schemes gleaned from the advertising industry. Pre-1966 Ho'wood (aka Hollywood) was full of such moguls. For all the racism, sexism, jingoism, and general dizziness that marks Hollywood history, it must be said that the businessmen who ran the show early on were at least in touch with audiences and filmmakers, not just baiting them with barrels of cash and empty promises of "awesomeness." (We live in the Awesome Age, where every scrap of popular entertainment is calculated to knock you down on your ass at every instance. The general effect, though, is similar to watching a hyper kid's melodramatic "death" during a round of cops-and-robbers.  "There is nothing so boring in life, let alone in cinema, as the boredom of being excited all the time"--Anthony Lane.)

I, S.C. Boone, am of the old mogul tradition. And, for whichever studio chooses to hire me, I will happily work for the going rate of a McDonald's franchise manager. I will labor as hard as any executive being paid seven figures, but with far more passion and personal conviction.

Since I'm making this pitch on a blog, one might not take it too seriously. But I am perfectly serious. Give me all your top-tier scripts, talent pool and development strategies for review, and I will tell you how to make classics that the people will welcome into their lives like family, for years to come. Your other boys can tell you how to turn a dollar, but I will tell you how to be great again, my lord.

A few conditions: I must be allowed to work far away from Los Angeles and New York, in my new city, Toronto. Send any materials for review by email, snail mail or FedEx.

This is the job I was born to do. And just as Walter Murch once invented a now-indispensable occupation, the sound designer, I envision an Imagination Triage Department installed in every major studio of the future.

That's my pitch, for  now. And just to give a sense, below is a freebie/sample note for... hm, let's spin the wheel... pick a studio.... okay, WARNER BROS.:

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (Currently in development)
DO NOT hire a new, young actor to continue the role of Max, in false continuity with the original trilogy. If creator-director George Miller has aged 25 years since the last "Max" right along with his fans, then why can't Max himself age, magnificently, crazily? Max has been wandering the wasteland all these years, and now, white-bearded, leathered, bejeweled, scarred and tatted down, he emerges like a granddaddy Hell's Angel. He now drives a modified Stryker combat vehicle, a barely-tamed hyena riding shotgun. A sexy, slightly androgynous (but not enough to scare off the fanboys) Feral Girl (Omahyra Mota) mans the machine gun turret.

Stick with the original plan of shooting the film in Africa, and give us some kind of African/ghosts-of-colonialism/Third World uprising plot. No, Max doesn't Save the Children this time. Let him get swept up in and overwhelmed by some kind of neo-tribal conflict. Let these Africans have a real, functioning, teeming civilization built upon the post-apocalyptic ashes of the one that once persistently sabotaged their progress. Let Max by turns be foe, wise, crazed counsel, and, finally, awed observer of the intrigues that unfold in this world unlike anything he knew in the Australian wasteland. All-new outrageous eye candy.

Now, anyone who thinks Mel Gibson's psychotic telephone rants earlier this year would harm the film's chances and Warner Bros.'s reputation is being knee-jerk naive. Let Gibson do a few weeks' penance with a press conference and some kind of rehabilitative reality series. Then get on with an action epic that ponders the clash of not only civilization versus barbarism but also of generations, in the brute-poetic manner of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, only far more balletic, as Miller's action stylings have always been grace personified. The world needs this. No one needs yet another youth-pandering franchise reboot that destroys all sense of continuity while exalting only rapid, juvenile, solipsistic consumption.--NOTE PRICE $14,000 WAIVED

Friday, August 20, 2010

Crazy Talk Part II: "Be part of a great conversation."

still from the film Idiocracy.
by Steven Boone (click here for Crazy Talk: Part I)

Scene from August Wilson's masterpiece, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom:

TOLEDO: Everybody come from different places in Africa, right? Come from different tribes and things. Soonawhile they began to make one big stew. You had the carrots, the peas, and potatoes and whatnot over here. And over there, you had  the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn... and then you mix it up and let it cook right through to get the flavors flowing together... then you got one thing. You got a stew.

Now you take and eat the stew. You take and make your history with that stew. Alright. Now it's over. Your history's over and you done ate the stew. But you look around and you see some carrots over here, some potatoes over there. You can't eat it all. So what you got? You got some leftovers. That's what it is. You got some leftovers and you can't do nonting with it. You already making you another history... coooking you another meal, and you don't need them leftovers no more. What to do?

See, we's the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers. Now what's the colored man gonna do with himself? That's what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers.

Now, who knows that? You find me a nigger that knows that and I'll turn any which-a-way you want me to. I'll bend over for you. You ain't gonna find that. And that's what the problem is. The problem ain't the white man. the white man, know you just a leftover. 'Cause he the one who done the eating and know what he done ate. But we don't now that we been took and made history out of. Done went and filled the white man's belly and now he's full and tired and wants you to get out the way and let him be by himself.

This series is called "Crazy Talk" because it is kinda crazy to suppose that African-Americans, who clearly have enough troubles of their own, should pitch in to help rescue something as trivial as the movies (see part I). As Toledo points out above, we's already done been ate and cast aside. Why fret over the fate of a popular art form that, in its prime, also helped cook, devour and digest us?

Because the movies remain our best hope of reaching those American ideals we often claim but rarely engage in daily life. The movie theater remains a temple, even if it has doubled as a slaughterhouse in its checkered past and is presently little more than a cattle car for blinkered superstore shoppers.

The darkened theater can still be a place where we all shed our petty concerns to share something unshakably true, spiritual, life-affirming. The benefit of restoring and keeping this practice, over time, is a society less obsessed with status, property and petty chauvinism, more mindful and appreciative of its freedoms.

I can't think of another public space that can produce such communion and understanding. Concert halls, arenas and public parks are all far behind the movies in that regard. Not everybody goes to see the Rolling Stones, but eerrrbody saw Titanic.

There is a way to restore the movie theater's status as a place of fellowship-- not in the Christian church sense, where you turn to hug the congregant beside you, but in the nondenominational, interfaith, hands-free sense of feeling the same jolt of spiritual chain lightning come down from the screen that your neighbors in the theater are experiencing. The visual language that used to produce this kind of magic is gone, but we can get it back.

The 1970's, the last decade that American mainstream commercial cinema flourished as an auteur-driven popular art form, was also the age when Black people came to know and celebrate themselves. It didn't matter that the FBI had spent the past two decades subverting virtually every movement dedicated to black progress (while criminalizing and dismantling a whole range of progressive causes); African-Americans were beginning to step out from the shadows and claim a grounded, self-propelled culture. It was a bold, proud time, even for the poorest of us. We finally had a sense of hope and direction that we'd always envied in our immigrant, WASP and Native American neighbors, who could draw from centuries of the kind of cultural continuity we'd been denied since the slave ships.

Fun while it lasted.

By the 1980's, the same era that, in the wake of studio-killing debacles like Heaven's Gate, Ho'wood passed ultimate creative control of movies from filmmakers to corporate executives, the mass of poor, under-educated black people were also feeling a certain rug slip from under them. There was a new drug in town, and, some say, the CIA played a significant role in insuring that it flooded the inner cities as efficiently as KFC franchises.

So, while Ho'wood spent the '80s outlawing art in the name of record box office, record numbers of Negroes fell into drug abuse, disease and incarceration (even as they continued to enjoy their still-novel visibility on the pop culture landscape). The '90s represented a holding pattern, for both Ho'wood and black people. The major studios continued to do steady business centered around tentpole movies; black people continued to languish in the rubble of the Crack Explosion and other disasters.

Here in the future, few are counting on the mass of Leftovers to contribute anything significant to society, but I have an absurd amount of faith in them (us, actually). In Toledo's era, maybe the Leftovers weren't aware of their status, but today I can testify that many of us do see the big picture, in all its frightening dimensions. We know what we're up against. We know, or at least sense, what we've lost.

Just as Robert Moses' single-minded urban planning determined New York City's destiny as a high-speed conveyor belt for tourists and commuters--locals be damned-- so has the movie business shaped a cultural landscape that exalts highly educated, highly specialized urban professionals. These are the folks who keep the machine running, our movies tell us, and we should all try to emulate their ethics and lifestyle-- or else get out of their way. As with Moses the master builder's efforts, the result is a mass of folks crammed together yet too busy working to fulfill their proscribed roles to indulge meaningful communication beyond their demographic profiles. Like an apartment building bordering a noisy expressway, the movies we have breed hostility and claustrophobia.

A popular NY Times commercial asks the viewer to "be part of a great conversation" by subscribing to the paper, but we Leftovers know he doesn't mean us. The higher you go up the social ladder, liberal or conservative, the less interest in cultivating a truly integrated civil society you will find.

As one crazy old man put it:

So, how can the Leftovers, of all people, mobilize against this trend, revive the American Dream (as something more than the longest "long con" in history), save the movies and save the world?

We'll get to that in Part III. It's time for my medication.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Crazy Talk Part I: Malcolm X vs. Cliffs Notes Cinema (or How Black Folks Could Save Movie Culture)

by Steven Boone

My big problem as a film critic has been getting past the fact that in mainstream commercial cinema, the visual language has broken down to the level of advertising. Jonathan Rosenbaum predicted it in 1990, and it has come to pass: classical visual storytelling is dead-- not of natural causes but from asphyxiation in the prime of its life. The big movies--high, low or middlebrow-- all flow in the manner of TV commercials. Individual shots and edits mean very little anymore. Cliffs Notes cinema.

Nobody seems to give a damn. Critics just go on reviewing the new releases as if they weren't hobbled by this insufficient base language-- debating the merits of this or that scenario, performance, production value when the flow of images, the very lifeblood of any movie, has become uniformly, insipidly manic. In a pan of the film Inception, a model of bloodless Cliffs Notes montage, A.O. Scott sez:

"The unconscious, as Freud (and Hitchcock, and a lot of other great filmmakers) knew, is a supremely unruly place, a maze of inadmissible desires, scrambled secrets, jokes and fears. If Mr. Nolan can’t quite reach this place, that may be because his access is blocked by the very medium he deploys with such skill."

Okay, so Scott mentions Hitchcock, a filmmaker who actually did deploy the medium "with such skill" to get at those allegedly blocked impulses, while suggesting that said medium is insufficient for such aims. Zoinks. Scott acquits cinema with a veiled insult while damning Nolan, an exemplar of the current filing cabinet style of montage, with high praise. This is because, among critics, film editing is the least understood and last considered culprit vis a vis why movies have become so arrhythmic and downright ascetic in effect. And I'm talking about the ones that indulge sex and violence most especially.

It's not about content. It's not about Sophia Loren sashaying down the street in a curve-kissing red dress. It's about the time, space and vantage point the filmmaker allows us to regard Sophia Loren sashaying down the street in a curve-kissing red dress.

Or a family dining with a murderer.

Or a man helping a woman brush the sand off her clothes and skin.

Or two friends visiting a grave when one of them is himself facing death.

Or a sensitive young actor listening to people ridicule him behind his back.

Scott focused on Nolan's lack of imagination, but that deficiency never posed much of problem on his early triumphs, Following and Memento, which were made when the dominant film culture was still in transition from a moviemaking outfit to a sweatshop for feature-length trailers. Go back and watch Memento now. You might be shocked at how much Nolan allows moments to accrue a certain weight and resonance in screen time; how relatively quiet the soundtrack; how close to actual, memorable feeling you get. Memento is a very spare film of nondescript interiors, back alleys, trailer parks, parking structures and storage sheds, but in the way it moves through time and space (with great sensitivity to the subjective experience of one character) it is the most sensual, groovin' flick of Nolan's career.

Sensuality in cinema is a fourth dimension that has little to do with what we actually, concretely see but what we feel in the moment; over time. We get to those feelings by the way a filmmaker moves our eyes around the frame and transitions from the universe of one shot to the universe of the next.

The audience that Cliffs Notes cinema groomed last decade is now too antsy for all that. Memento, released today, would be regarded as slow and too indulgent of character over plot. Yes, Memento. Yes, plot. Like cigarette addicts, Ho'wood's current clientele habitually crave plot delivered at a rapid clip from the lips of characters too busy to let you into their lives-- except where the scenario calls for some sort of emoting. These moments of pantomimed humanity are like the demographic pandering we expect from corporate billboards. Like those junk food or oil companies that  promote good health and clean living, they are a false front.

And just as a mask with no eye holes permits no window to the wearer's soul, these facades deplete the viewer's emotional intelligence, resulting in a more mercenary, bottom-line, smug, frivolous culture. Close ups everywhere, but very few faces.

Which brings me to my crackpot theory, that Black folks might just be the best equipped among us to save the movies, and pop culture at large.

Black folks know all about lost and stolen culture. We know all about living in the shadow of a disappeared history.

It took Malcolm X to awaken us to our own ignorance and unconscious suffering.

Who are you?
You don’t know!
Don’t tell me Negro, that’s nothin.’
What were you before the white man named you a Negro?
And where were you?
And what did you have?
What was yours?
What language did you speak then?
What was your name?

Where did it go?
Where did you lose it?
Who took it? And how did he take it?
What tongue did you speak?
How did the man take your tongue?
Where is your history?
How did the man wipe out your history?

These are the questions to ask filmmakers, critics, cineastes and regular moviegoers of a certain age. What kind of cinema did you have? Where did it go? How did you lose it? Who took it?

And how can you get it back?

[We'll have some answers in Part II.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

Composer Swap Series: Artificial Education

by Steven Boone

AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is one of Steven Spielberg's misunderstood masterpieces, a Stanley Kubrick dream project that he took on after Kubrick's death, to a worldwide chorus of groans. The fear was that populist Spielberg would mangle intellectual Kubrick's vision beyond recognition. Instead, he fused many of Kubrick's signature visual motifs with his own genius for scene choreography. Spielberg's A.I. becomes a Pinocchio fable of a cast-off boy robot whose search for his "mother" becomes a metaphor for the human condition.

The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) is a raw, poetic dirge for the 'hood's lost children. The titular character, based on Brooklyn activist Carson's autobiography, is like another "Sonny," the one sketched in James Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues:

These streets hadn't changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. . . . boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air, and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind.

What do these two films have in common? I will the let the composers of both films' emotionally charged musical scores answer that question-- by having them swap movies.

But first, here's my two cents:

There are some basic affinities in the way each director frames his lost boys with extraordinary empathy. Both tend a watchful, patient camera that holds its ground in dynamic tension with the taut editing and sometimes frenetic action. Studio pros Harry Howard and Edward Warschilka (The Landlord) cut Sonny Carson; Spielberg's longtime ace, Michael Kahn, could have just as easily ended up working on it, because, at that time, he was a blaxploitation/counterculture film workhorse. Both films show a respect for the frame and the movement/relationship/disposition of subjects within it as the prime consideration for making a cut. How quaint.

In terms of mise en scene, Sonny Carson director Michael Campus will never be mistaken for Spielberg, but his steady frame lends itself to Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's eclectic score the way Spielberg's accommodates John Williams' restless, searching, despairing cues.

And Campus, showing great ingenuity with a small budget, draws natural performances from his non-professional child actors; Spielberg, with all the resources of Ho'wood at his beck and call, pulls some eerie, unguarded moments out of professional Creepy Kid Haley Joel Osment. (It's the adult actors in both films that make them seem stiff and maudlin in places. Sonny's and the robot boy David's parents emote in ways that crudely underline some of each film's more melodramatic moments.)

While Pixote and Los Olvidados remain the gold standards among films about lost boys trying to either find their way home or simply survive in a world that's out to dispose of them, A.I. and The Education of Sonny Carson are powerhouse contenders, and spiritual cousins across Ho'wood's socio-economic divide. Watch what happens when prince and pauper trade coats:

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

FUNNY GAME: Messing around with the makers of CONTACT

Interview by Steven Boone

Like any good thing, Jeremiah Kipp's disturbing short film CONTACT is destined to be compared to other, more famous good things-- in this case, the collected "body horror" films of David Cronenberg. I can see the marquee blurb now: "CRONENBERG ON CRACK!"

But Mr. Kipp has his own vision, his own seductive style, and they're in full force for the duration of CONTACT. For one thing, I wonder if even Cronenberg has dared to create a film with such a steep ratio of visual to verbal content, stockpiling tensions steadily through precise actions (not studied dialogue), then toppling that pile over your head.

For another thing, this little movie shows something even rarer and more provocative than Cronenberg's gruesome orifices and eroticized wounds. You'll just have to watch the film to see what I mean by that, then read through a little game I played below with Kipp and his two stars, Zoë Daelman Chlanda and Robb Leigh Davis.

STEVE: Hello, CONTACT people. You've done the drugs. Now let's play SHOEHORN.

Each of you gets two quotes that you must read and respond to by making it relate, in whatever way, at whatever level, to CONTACT and your work in/on it. Be as terse or verbose as you please.


"What I remember myself from films, and what I love about films, is specific scenes and characters."-Harmony Korine

You have two characters, a married couple, in a scene together waiting for their daughter to come home. You cast actors in these roles and work with them in the rehearsal room to discover the relationship between each other, and between them and this daughter. You show them photographs and discuss their wardrobe, you talk about how much money these characters earn, what they do for a living, whether or not they drink alcohol with their dinner, and you listen to them. When you arrive on the set, you block out the scene with them, you observe their actions as they play them out, you respond. You suggest that they play the scene as if a bomb is ready to fall on them any second, or notice the little bit of business they employ with a piece of silverware and decide to highlight it in the frame. There is a knock at the door, and everything changes. This is a credit to the actors, Tom Reid and Katherine O’Sullivan, who play the parents in CONTACT. This is also a credit to Zoë Daelman Chlanda, who plays their daughter, Koreen, and worked with them in the rehearsal room. When her character encounters the parents at the climax, there is a gesture portrayed onscreen; it is specific. It was born out of developing characters with the actors; it was a gesture found by the actors as a result of the process. It felt correct to all of us. No discussion was necessary when we found it, because we simply knew. These gestures are moments in time, and the gestures form into incidents, and hopefully this string of incidents causes the audience to wonder what is going to happen next. This creates tension in the spectator. Then the movie no longer belongs to me, or the actors, but instead it belongs to the audience.

"Basically, I`m afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking."
-Lars von Trier

What a person is afraid to do, he does when possessed. This is the beauty of acting and writing. I was working with a writer not so long ago (let’s call him The Colonel) encouraging him to write from his subconscious. I felt like if he quickly jotted down some material without thinking about it too much, it would provide an X-Ray into his mind, which is a dark and unnerving place, filled with a kind of sad romantic yearning and a struggle with personal body image. The Colonel wrote a short script very quickly, and the central character is a woman, but it’s very much a portrait of himself -- uncomfortably so, but also very brave. He is afraid of many things in his life; he is not afraid of baring it on paper. I found the material repulsive and fascinating, certainly insightful and personal. His other movies, since he is a filmmaker, are kind of like this. He taps into a kind of sticky and unnerving, creepy adolescent place, and there’s a value in that. Movies allow us this opportunity, to tap into the demons and share them. When we watch such movies and connect with them, we feel less alone inside, or we recognize something we might not care to admit about who and what we are.

Filmmaking for me, though, is almost always a joyous celebratory experience; you’re free to explore all of the possibilities. Since it’s basically playtime, you throw yourself into a project with a kind of artistic, reckless abandon. When getting ready for a scene, sometimes I have actors jump up and down until their knees touch the ceiling, and this gets them very far outside of their heads, puts them more in touch with their bodies and the room, and more observant. It helps me too. This is a strange paradox, because my movies, which are really fun and loving experiences for cast and crew, are about situations where the characters are dealing with something you don’t want to have happen to you, or to someone you love. Movies are poetry, a way of placing a frame around life, which is in fact very dangerous, mysterious, threatening, beautiful and unpredictable. We never know what is right around the corner, which gives us very good reason to be afraid in our lives, but also excited by what can happen. We are slowly moving towards our own death, which is scary, but along the way we can feel wonderful things. I got mugged earlier this year, which was traumatic, but that led me to be bold and fearless since every moment is precious, and I fell madly in love with someone. Maybe my next film after CONTACT will have more hope for relationships, and yet there is hope somewhere buried in this film. Robb Leigh Davis, who plays Koreen’s boyfriend Westy, is searching for her in the final beats of their scene together, and Robb promised his character will never stop searching. Maybe someday he will find her.

"Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision." - St. Augustine

You decide what YOU can live with. Koreen couldn’t overcome her fear. Her bravest moment was what you saw in
CONTACT. She had left home and was exploring all that life had to offer. She was madly in love. It was magical...  A bad drug trip scared the life out of her, quite literally. She went back home -- where her story was figured out for her. No adventure, nothing unexpected, nothing out of order. No magic. A life not lived. Poor Koreen.

“Well, people got attatched. Once you cut the umbilical cord they attatched to the other things. Sight, sound, sex, money, mirages, mothers, masturbation, murder, and Monday morning hangovers.”-Charles Bukowski

Life is grand! What can I say?  Okay, so we get attatched. The trick is being smart and lucky. If you can make a few really good decisions and get a little bit of luck, perhaps you’ll find yourself attatched to something wonderful. Koreen was close. She made a good decision getting attatched to Westy [the character played by Robb Leigh Davis]. He was a prince. I might go so far to say experimenting with drugs doesn’t have to be a bad decision. Risky, yes. But some come away unscathed. Others die, some quickly, some slowly, but always taking pieces of other people’s hearts with them. Scary stuff. Horrific and heart breaking. But I dare say, and I do so knowing that it is irresponsible, drugs can be a lot of fun. At their best. Is it worth the risk? It certainly wasn’t for Koreen. She’s broken as a result of that decision. Perhaps for life.

"Your ethnic or sexual identity, what region of the country you're from, what your class is - those aspects of your identity are not the same as your aesthetic identity."-Stanley Crouch

At his core, what Westy believes in most is freedom. Freedom to love, freedom to experiment, freedom to be whatever it is that the world he was originally born into told him he couldn't or shouldn't be. It's his ability to find comfort in any situation that I most appreciate. To me he's someone who made a conscious decision that no one but him was going to dictate how he lives his life. And he does it without arrogance, or machismo -- just a subtle confidence that if you stay true to yourself, everything's going to work out just fine.

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."-Judge
Leon Bazile (before sentencing an interracial couple to a year's prison term for miscegenation in Virginia, 1959)

For me personally, love is love. If two consenting adults make a connection, and their only commitment is to each other's happiness, then who gives a shit what anyone else has to say. I think life is too short to concern yourself with what other people say about your love, or the expression of it. It's another aspect of CONTACT that I loved, and why I appreciated working with both Zoë and Jeremiah. I think in many other director's hands, this could've become a story about the slick Black guy and the unsuspecting white girl in all of its stereotypicalness. But instead, it's a story about two people on a journey; still a Black guy, and a white girl, but simply two people who made a connection, and want to share all the experiences of life together. And though Koreen retreated back to where she came from, I think she has a bigger understanding of the world, and the diversity of the people who inhabit it. And I believe she'll go back out in search of Westy one day. True love always finds its way back.

Friday, May 14, 2010


by Steven Boone

Two summers ago, I stumbled upon the set of Brooklyn's Finest, a crime thriller written by a local but produced by a major studio. I was impressed by the gargantuan production's effort to involve residents in the filmmaking but yearned to see a film actually made by the kind of kids who were acting as extras and assistants here.

I had no idea that Openmindz, a renegade bunch of Brownsville visionaries, was doing just that.

Bullets Over Brownsville, written and directed by Damon Diddit and Natural Langdon, has resurrected the 'hood movie-- whether Ho'wood or anyone else working in that genre yet knows it or not. The film leaves an epic impression on the big screen, in the high-art, high-octane manner of De Palma's or Scorsese's crime films. Not since Hype Williams' dazzling but too-slick druglord saga Belly has a 'hood movie showed such stylistic and thematic ambition.

And it has done so without a dime of Ho'wood money. The shooting budget: "Let's just say less than a semester's film school tuition,” says producer Anthony Richards.

The following e-interview (after the incendiary video below) won't tell you how they pulled it off, but I hope other young filmmakers in the so-called 'hood who happen to stumble across this page take it as a call to tell their own stories without compromise. There are no more excuses, young ones-- but I bet you know that better than I or even the BOB crew, because you were born in the age of digital democracy...

Brooklyn's Finest vs Bullets over Brownsville from Openmindz productions on Vimeo.

Who is this movie for?

DAMON DIDDIT (WRITER-DIRECTOR): In the beginning we weren't sure, because you subconsciously do it mostly for your age and/or ethnic groups but after multiple movie screenings with a wide range of age groups and nationalities, Bullets over Brownsville is for anyone who wants a compelling, thought-provoking story told from a unique perspective.

NATURAL LANGDON (WRITER-DIRECTOR): The movie is for everyone. We believe the content in the movie is universal. The target audience is youth 13 and above that lives in the inner city.

KHALIL MAASI (PRODUCER): The movie is for any one who is concerned or has been affected by the issues of violence anywhere in the world but particularly in urban areas.

VAUGHN "VONJEFF" JEFFERSON (PROJECT MANAGER): This movie is for the audience who have concerns about what goes on in the inner cities and social issues that people are dealing with within neighborhoods such as Brownsville, where crime, violence and drugs exist.

ANTHONY RICHARDS (PRODUCER): Anyone who wants to see it, anyone with an Open Mind (pun intended). Anyone willing to sit down and see a compelling story about people and a neighborhood they may or may not know…

For years I have been ridiculed by black filmmakers and theater professionals I've interviewed when I brought up the subject of so-called chitlin circuit plays and 'hood movies. The question was, "If y'all are so upset at the lack of attendance at your high-art films and classic negro stage plays, why not try something different? Why not make your own chitlin circuit-type play or 'hood movie, but bringing your artistry, intelligence and soul to it?" The general response was, "Impossible! And we're sick of the 'hood. There is nothing left to say in that genre. It's all been done."

What do you have to say to that?

DAMON: Negative. It's never all done when you have a unique perspective on telling a story. If that's the case then we should be creating NEW genres because comedies, action and drama films are all recycled storylines and themes...that's all been done! What we must do is continue reaching out to ALL audiences using ALL technologies available to us today and start promoting directly to the people. The most challenging and expensive part of pushing a product has always been advertising so we still have ways to go. But if you believe and the people believe then the support will be there.

NATURAL:  Everything has been done before there is nothing new but we all see things a little differently and have a unique way of revealing information. The hood as a strong rich history culture and way of life that many disenfranchised the world can either relate to or want to relate to. Think we should have all types of movies the represent different sides of Black culture. The chitlin circuit has always supported black art when no mainstream money is available. We are a global market, so let's make the world our chitlin circuit via Internet and in our neighborhoods.

VONJEFF: It has not all been done for the simple fact we all have seen the corruption that exists in "hood" films, but have we ever seen why? Have we ever seen a clearcut depiction of what the issues are? Have we seen how they exist? BOB shows the cause and effects of what exists in the 'HOOD'.

ANTHONY:  For those that say they is nothing left in that genre, they just have not thought of a different angle or twist.  Most so called “Hood Movies” suffer from poor production quality, poor story line and no promotion. With these straight to DVD films, the few good ones get lumped in with the bad ones, and you are placed in a category. The last movie that Dee And Nat did was called P.O.E “Process Of Elimination” and was distributed by Image Entertainment. Even though it got a distribution deal, I don’t think it was handled correctly. I remember seeing it bootlegged on the streets, before Image released it. So who did that! As for so-called Chitlin Circuit, it served its purpose. In the past it was the way to get your art out there. I think new model is a hybrid distribution model, where you will combine all new technologies and still physically take your movie around to theater screenings or any place that will have you. So chitlin circuit might not be dead, maybe it just got renamed.

I was struck, when watching Bullets Over Brownsville in the theater, and later when watching your video comparing Bullets Over Brownsville to Brooklyn's Finest, how indistinguishable it is from Hollywood product, in terms of what I'd call production value. Except that Bullets Over Brownsville, which has a budget maybe a fraction of Brooklyn's Finest, is more visually striking. What's up with that?

DAMON: Well, the time has come when talent mixed with skill and today's technology equips the DAVID's with the tools to finally challenge and/or beat GOLIATH. It just reconfirms that Hollywood will eventually loose their monopoly to the smaller independent filmmaker who tells a more compelling story with less resources.

NATURAL: With time effort know how and vision coupled with new technology everything thing is possible. Damon Diddit used a lot of great editing and effects that helped the movie reach a level of quality that is hard to create on a no budget movie along with all the care and style that was displayed through out the movie.

KHAHLIL:  Sometimes hunger and lack of resources produces greater work.

VONJEFF: The answer is attributed to the professionalism and talent of the directors, producers, and writers behind BoB. Only they can depict and capture what the essence of Brownsville or the 'HOOD' is because they come from it. The actors in the film come from it. You can not be taught to act as these actors/actresses did in BoB, they've intensified and enhanced what they already experienced through the direction of the people behind the production. Brooklyn's Finest is filled with actors trying to bring out characters from a mental perception of what they 'THINK' the 'HOOD' is like or how we carry ourselves.

ANTHONY: Technology and knowledge even out the playing field. I think the comparison just shows the level of talent.

What happens when Hollywood comes calling for y'all to make Brooklyn's Finest Reloaded?

DAMON:  Probably wouldn't be interested unless it was a way we can eventually fund the stories we're more passionate to tell. But uhhhhh...cut the check anyway!
NATURAL: We are creating our own path and if that's the story we feel we want to tell the that's what it will be. but we have so many other stories to tell and ideas that it might be best for some one else to tell that story.
KHALIL: Show me the money first... after then we can talk.

VONJEFF:  We're already prepared, just make sure the budget is correct and don't interfere with our creative control.

ANTHONY: Sit down and listen to what they have to say, and decide if it make sense to your current vision or goals.

What is selling out?

DAMON: When the box office is closed, DVD’s are flying off the shelf, and my bank acct is getting bigger….just kidding. Uhhhh, the game is always to be sold not told. So, not sure if there's really a such thing as "selling out" unless the individual is not true to himself and betrays the audience or people whom invested interest in his/her work by going against what made that individual successful.

NATURAL:  I think if you stay true to your self then you wont have to worry about that.

KHALIL: Tell me what is buying in first.

VONJEFF: Selling out is succumbing to or going against what you don't believe in or stand for just for the sake monetary satisfaction. Meaning you can be bought. Example: If BOB was offered a Trillion dollars for the film but the buyers want to change the lead characters for celebrities or take creative control and change the storyline for their personal liking despite the message being conveyed. If BOB took the Trillion dollars and didn't care how it would affect the people or the community, that's selling out or rather "being bought".

ANTHONY:  We all have morals. Selling out is doing something absent of morals.

What is success for a filmmaker?

DAMON:  First and foremost, completing the project. Anyone can start a production but the real challenge is to complete it! After that, success varies on multiple levels from great reviews to getting a lucrative distribution deal and beyond.

NATURAL: For me its going through the process each step of the way and overcoming the challenges to get the best end result possible.

KHALIL: The ability to live off of your art... just like any other artist.

VONJEFF: Success for a filmmaker is being able to continue creating more films and having the control to do it your way. Being able to employ your own staff to carry out your vision and teaching them to carry out their visions. then turning around to support them carry it out the same way they helped to carry out yours. Success is what you can do for people or how you can make a change in their life. Thats how you get our Blessings and success to continue creating more films

ANTHONY: The Best definition for success I heard is, setting a goal and working towards that goal. That’s what we as filmmakers do. If you decide to do something and you do it, you are successful. People confuse success with wealth all the time. I respect anyone who put’s a film together, because I know what that takes to do that. That person is successful.

If it were impossible to make more than McDonald's manager wages as a filmmaker, would you still do it?

KHALIL: We are doing that now.

DAMON: Yes. Because money is an after thought, it's all about doing what you really love doing in life first then everything else will eventually turn into money/resources.

NATURAL:  Starting out you may not make any money so if that's your only motivation good luck. If your a visionary you will spend way more money in the beginning then you make its about the hustle and being creative and money will come. You have to be committed to making an investment in your self.

ANTHONY:  Yes. Creative people face that dilemma everyday: "Should I get a job or continue with my dream?" Sometimes you need money to make your dream happen, and you need creative time to make your dream happen, meaning you don’t have time to work. There is your classic Catch-22.

What does the phrase 21st Century filmmaker mean to you?

DAMON: The next Next Wave! The next generation of filmmakers that will change the game as we know it today.

NATURAL: Taking risks, learning all aspects of the filmmaking business, telling great stories and be an Independent thinker

KHALIL: Openmindz.

ANTHONY:  I guess using 21century tools and techniques to make films.

Who inspired you to make films?

DAMON: Inspiration has come from many different sources. The initial reason to do it is because I felt like I can make a difference from the films that were already out there and certain stories weren't being told that needed to be heard from a different perspective. My favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino but the list goes on.


ANTHONY: I think all filmmakers are storytellers; it is something that is embedded inside our DNA. We see an image, we hear story, or we experience something that inspires us to tell the story, in our own unique way.

What is the most valuable thing people should have learned about Brownsville after seeing this movie?

DAMON: It's really hard because there's so much information in the movie you hope the audience gets, but ultimately, a better understanding of people dealing with oppression...worldwide!

NATURAL: That there is talent in Brownsville, that people need resources and outlets to help their creative process. It's a subculture of New York but still a reflection of the hoods around the world.

KHALIL: That flowers grow through concrete... Life is a struggle but what does not kill you will make you stronger.

VONJEFF: The most valuable thing people should learn from BOB is that independent films need to be supported. Who is going to tell your story without it being watered down? Hollywood isn't reality, it's entertainment. Learn from BOB how to face these issues that exist in 'HOODS' all over the world and create social awareness instead turning our backs on them.

ANTHONY:  There are other people and communities, who may or may not live like you, but if you come with an open mind you can understand their struggle and what they go through in their daily lives.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When I Grow Up I Wanna Be: Mattson Tomlin

by Steven Boone (title stolen from Odienator.)

I don't know much about Mattson Tomlin, but the basic facts that he's using to help promote his filmmaking efforts inspire me to keep making stuff and showing it to people. At 19, he has just raised a little over $12,000 on to shoot his film Solomon Grundy: Born on a Monday. A film student at SUNY Purchase, he has already made three feature films and a slew of shorts. His enthusiasm is reminiscent of young Spielberg. His resourcefulness and independence are what all this new technology is for.

What possessed you to start making films?

There is a mounting energy inside of everyone that screams to get out. Some people spend their whole lives searching for their calling. I was fortunate in finding filmmaking was an all encompassing release valve for this creative energy. From a very young age, performance of all kind was so enthralling. When I discovered writing and directing, a whole new world was opened up. Now, if I go even a day without doing some of that work, I really feel it. It's a total labor of love, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

What theme or interest or ambition ties all of your films together? What are you trying to express?

All of my work is very psychological. I didn't realize it until this year, but so far, most of what I'm drawn to filmically relates to the mind. Be it the way we perceive things, our dreams, our fears, or the way we store memory. Everything for me right now comes back to the mind. The films I shot in high school were all about perception and misconception. The films I tend to gravitate towards in my college years seem to be much more about inner demons and fears, and what happens when they get the better of you. I realized last year that you truly can be your own worst enemy, and unintentionally, my work has really been exploring that revelation.

What kind of audience do you seek? Who are they?

When you're a young filmmaker, the largest struggle after making the actual film is getting anyone to actually watch the damn thing. To this day I find it absolutely humbling when someone sits down and watches my work. In this day and age with everything available at a click of a mouse, it's much harder to get people to sit still for more than a 30 second clip. Once I get past that barrier, I suppose my audience is people willing to think. My favorite movie goer is the kind of person who will see a film, then three days later in the middle of the day still have the urge to strike up a conversation about it. If I can ever have an audience that will do that with my films, I will be more than happy.

What do you make of the phrase “21st Century filmmaker”? Does it have any meaning for you at all?

I think the term is quickly defining itself. The 21st Century filmmaker picks up a digital camera, edits on the train ride, and uploads to the internet at the end of the day to get a hundred hits by the time they go to bed. The technology is so different, and continues to change so rapidly. Very few things separate the students from the pros, when it comes to technology these days, and the new generation of filmmakers has never known anything else. It's not adapting, it's just existing.

Why do you think folks are supporting your film so readily? Not everyone on kickstarter gets that kind of response.

I think the source material speaks to them firstly. At least, I hope that's the case for the majority. I shot an 8 minute proof-of-concept film to help get my feet on the ground, and I think if people hadn't had the tangibility of seeing my abilities under a small budget under extreme constraints, it would have been a harder sell. I think the proof-of-concept also showed people a bit of the vision. The film is about a man with a violent imaginary friend. There are a few ways to go about it, and the way I wanted to attack it, it's much easier to show people than to tell people. Aside from the source material, I pushed it like nobodys business.  Back to what the 21st Century Filmmaker is- they also don't have to wait for someone to give them a budget- they can send out a tweet and a status update instead. I really believe in Solomon Grundy, and I think at the end of the day, truly believing in something still speaks to people.

What is success for a filmmaker?

Having fun. Not having to hold back. The filmmakers that I would consider have real success are the ones that don't treat it like a job, but treat it like their own life. I pray everyday that directing is never just a job that puts food on the table. The directors who can spend several years workshopping a project, something they truly believe in, and make a movie because it's the film they need to make are the ones who are truly successful from my point of view. If I can be a filmmaker who makes a film out of passion and not out of necessity, I'll consider myself successful.

What is selling out?

I think the only way someone can truly sell out is if they're willing to commit themselves to something they don't believe in. Every time a prominent director makes an awards movie, something they'll push on the academy, they're accused of selling out. I don't think that's true at all.  If there is true belief in the project, if it's something you care about, there's no such thing as selling out.  I suppose the ones who take on a directing gig for the paycheck before investing themselves in the content sell out. Maybe they have to.

Which filmmakers or artists do you revere?

The list goes on and on. Anyone who can take my attention and make me want to sit down and watch the film six times in a week really knows what they're doing, and there is a reason that Aronofsky or Fincher or Anderson continuously come up on peoples lists- it's because the degree of control over their craft is totally awe inspiring. I think most recently my attention has really gone to Mark Romanek. His next film, Never Let Me Go, will come out soon, and it's going to be very interesting to see its reception. 

If, by some nightmare scenario, you couldn’t be a filmmaker, what would you do?

Assuming the other modes of performance are out along with filmmaking- I think my next inclination would be to gravitate towards danger. I'd find an excuse to jump out of helicopters for a living. Not because I'm a thrill seeker, but that could just as well help exhaust that mounting energy that always needs to get out.  

What is the future of cinema?

Not 3D I hope. I look forward to that dying down again. I think the direction we've been going over the past twenty years is a good indicator. Less art, more franchising. In a way, this is a good thing, because the filmmakers who manage to burst through for their art will be able to write their own checks. There will just continue to be fewer of them. I would say everything is heading the way of the internet, but I certainly hope not. My hope is that, despite the instant gratification telecommunication cyber relations our culture is adopting, there will continue to be real hotshots who keep a distinction between cinema and movies.