Towelhead: Q&A with Director Alan Ball
By Diane Svenonius, DC Film Society Member
On August 19, 2008, a preview screening of Towelhead took place at Landmark's E Street Cinema. Director Alan Ball was present for audience Q&A; DC Film Society's director Michael Kyrioglou moderated.
Michael Kyrioglou:This picture is an adaptation of the novel Towelhead by Alicia Erian. What drew you to the novel? What made you want to film it?
Alan Ball: I’ve never seen a story about a young girl’s inappropriate sexual interaction with an adult that didn’t end without, well, ‘she’s destroyed, that’s the end for her.’ It’s such an incredibly common experience, and it’s one that we tend to really really simplify into black and white when we create our mythology around it. I loved how the novel refused to judge its characters and I loved the combination of the horrifying aspects with the hilarious aspects, with the sense at the end that it actually was really hopeful, that she not only really survived this ordeal but that had she not had this relationship, she would not have been able to extricate herself from an abusive relationship with her father. And you got the sense that she had really taken control of herself, and her body, her destiny, that was gratifying to me. When I was reading the book, in the last twenty pages I thought, ‘it’s not going to be good, it’s not going to be good,’ I was going to be really upset, really angry--and then when Melina fell on the steps I thought “What? Stop! Why? Why?” When the story turned out the way it does, I felt such a genuine sense of relief and hope and being so happy for Jasira. That’s very rare when I read a book. I thought it would make a good movie. I thought it wouldn’t be expensive; it’s fairly contained, it’s not a huge period piece, not a lot of special effects, no special effects, actually--something I can handle.
MK: Is there something in particular about--or maybe you don’t agree with this--the “underbelly of suburban experience”? You definitely have a little bit of that thread in Six Feet Under and in American Beauty too, on a certain level. But maybe it’s just real life?
AB: You know, a lot of people look at American Beauty, and now this movie, and they think it’s an indictment... I had another interview today and somebody brought up “my obsession with suburban malaise”. I live in suburbia, I love it, I grew up in suburbia. To me these movies take place in suburbia, they could equally take place in an urban setting, a rural setting. American Beauty is about the search for meaning in one’s life, and this is about the search for identity and power and pleasure in one’s life, and it just happens to take place in suburbia. I don’t look down on suburbia at all.
MK: I did like the resonance with multicultural experience, that was also in The Visitor, Tom McCarthy’s film, which I found really interesting, and also people of different spheres interconnecting where you wouldn’t expect that, interesting combinations, really kind of lovely; also people we didn’t think of becoming friends and having relationships. It’s a different way of looking at this multicultural world, this global community that is not so immersed in politics, just people trying to understand one another.
AB: I do feel like it’s in the suburbs and it’s in the small towns where people find themselves living together now. In American Beauty, there was the gay couple. One of the many disservices that Hollywood does for us is to create this idea that cities are places of great cosmopolitan experience and small towns and suburbs haven’t really changed since the forties, which is not true in my experience.
Q: Something that resonated with me was the suggestion of the JonBenét Ramsey phenonemon, and the idea that sexual abuse of prepubescent young girls is more prevalent in suburbia.
AB: It’s prevalent everywhere. It’s not limited to any particular geographical location or socioeconomic status or education level--it is prevalent everywhere. Why is that? I don’t really know. I know that in my research that people who are abusers have often been abused themselves. I know that we live in a culture that really fetishizes and worships youth. I know that as people get older, especially men, and if they’re going through a midlife crisis, they yearn for the days when they felt young, and maybe an experience with a young girl seems like that’s going to recreate something for them. I don’t know why it happens, I just know it does happen an awful lot. One of the reasons I responded to the story is because it felt very honest. Usually the mythology with which we can wrap our brains around child sexual assault is that there is no pleasure or curiosity on the part of the child. The perpetrator is some stranger driving around in a car who is kind of a subhuman monster. The truth of the matter is, way more often than not, it’s somebody the child knows and trusts. Children are essentially curious and when you live in a society that wants to pretend that sex doesn’t exist until you are twenty-one and, you know, we have things like abstinence only sex-education programs, and people want to ignore basic biology, and parents are too, for whatever reasons, uptight or ashamed to be honest with their children about sex, things like this can happen. To me, Jasira is a young girl, her life is devoid of power and pleasure. All of a sudden she discovers that she has this power over this handsome man next door, and that her body can be a source of pleasure. Of course she’s going to go there. That doesn’t mean she deserves what happens to her at all. What I loved about the story is that the story didn’t punish her for being sexually curious and allowed her to remain interested in sex afterwards.
Question: There is no love in the girl's family. The parents are completely wrapped up in their own issues. That could lead her to seek affection from another source.
AB: Yes exactly. They’re raging narcissists.
MK: I kept thinking “inappropriate, inappropriate.” The mother’s relationship with the daughter, the dad’s relationship with her. Everybody was sort of talking to her on a level that they shouldn’t be. I kept thinking that people weren’t thinking about who they were talking to and what they were saying to her.
AB: Or the responsibility that comes with bringing children into the world.
Q: Do you have a preference for writing for stage or screen? Do you get more enjoyment from seeing something performed on stage?
AB: I wouldn’t say ‘more’. I enjoy the differences between the mediums. When you write for the stage you can luxuriate in language a lot more than when you’re writing for a visual medium and I enjoy that, but I also love telling stories visually. I find myself very blessed in so many ways but one of those ways is that I can work in different mediums right now. I like being able to jump back and forth because I think it keeps you on your toes and forces you to grow.
MK: Are the writing and directing pulling you in different directions? Or do you like to explore both of them equally?
AB: I like exploring both of them. I love writing. I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. Even as a kid I was writing stuff. I wrote a play about the Easter Bunny in third grade. Directing is more recent, but to me it’s really just another aspect of storytelling. Directing is a curiously technical craft, because you basically are just trying to provide yourself with as much raw material as you can possibly have, so that when you’re editing you can sculpt scenes that are filled with subtext and unspoken moments. I love them both, actually.
Q: Did you experience obstacles in making a movie about sexual abuse? How did you deal with them?
AB: We experienced nothing but obstacles. This was an incredibly hard movie to get made. When I read the book, I optioned the book with my own money because I knew there was no way I could come up with a decent script if it was done in studio development. So I wrote the script on my own, and then I was as clear as I could possibly be in the cover page letter, that there would be no gratuitous sex, no nudity, all the sex would be implied. The camera was going to focus on the characters’ faces because that was the most important, with the exception of the girlie magazine models who would be topless. But the movie was about the emotional journey, not the sexual journey. Even so every studio passed on it. We heard two things, “we really love the writing but we don’t know how to market this” or “I can’t possibly make this movie, I have daughters.” At that point we searched around and we found an independent production company that was just starting and they financed the movie independently; once Aaron [Ekhart] attached himself to the project they put up the money. We shot it independently, all in Los Angeles. I spent several months editing it and getting it to the point where all the various people involved were ready to sign off on it. That was a big fight, because everybody felt, ‘it’s too long, it’s too long’. And it was too long at that point, but everybody had their thoughts about how to fix the length problem, which in my opinion would not have made the movie better, just made it shorter. It takes a long time to edit a movie and get it where it wants to be. Then we took the movie to Toronto last September. One major studio made a bid, and that was Warner Independent. When they bought it they said, “we love how edgy it is, we love the darkness, we love the moral ambiguity. Don’t worry about that.” Once they purchased it, everybody in their organization put together their notes. I got a seven page notes document that essentially said, “Could you remove all the sex and blood and the abuse?” To which I sort of said, “What’s the movie? A girl who meets a guy at school....?” I don’t understand how to do this and keep the movie. I fought, I lost my temper a couple of times and yelled, which is code in Hollywood for “having a strong vision.” Ultimately it was a really really positive experience. I was not forced to do anything I didn’t want to do. I’m serious. I am so thankful to Warner Independent. That was another obstacle. Right after we got the movie where we wanted it to be, Warner Independent was absorbed by “Big Warner”, which makes huge giant movies, and, I was worried at the time, wouldn’t know what to do with this, in terms of releasing it and how to market it. My fears have been assuaged. A lot of people who were with it at the Warner Independent stage are still with the movie. I think they are doing a real nice job of making people aware and marketing. So it was hard. It’s been two years since we shot but you know in this day and age of media consolidation, all content being controlled by seven or eight different companies, movies are so expensive and people are so terrified of making anything that might not be a surefire guarantee hit, or not really similar to something that was really successful before. Making a movie like this is always going to be hard. I’m so glad that I did it, that we did it the way we did it, and I hope it finds an audience.
Q: The movie was suspenseful, the growing sense that you don't know what's going to happen to Jasira. Did you intend to keep people wondering what would happen?
AB: Because this was adapted from a novel and I was very very faithful to the novel I can’t really claim authorship for the plot and the characters. I just know that I responded to the plot and it consistently surprised me with what was happening and where it was going, and it set up an expectation that it was going to go this way and then it went that way. I can’t comment on why I chose this to have this happen story-wise. It’s really a question for Alicia Erian.
MK: It sounds like she is quite pleased with the adaptation.
AB: She is very happy with it, yes.
Q: First I want to say thank you for Six Feet Under and for American Beauty, and thank you for making this movie under the constraints that you did. I know it’s hard to make with all the controversy and moral panic around sexuality. And regardless of what people agree with or disagree with, it’s still important to have in the discourse. My question is: I think that this is a story as much about sexuality as about race relations. We are at the frontier of a long-held conversation about race and I wanted to know if in the development stages there was any conversation about the adoption of Jasira at the end by the white family. In communications courses in college we talked about “white savior” films. There is still anxiety in certain communities that we live in an age when Angelina Jolie and Madonna adopt kids outside of context. As messed up as the parents were at the beginning, they don’t ever have a transformative experience (even after hearing about the violence that happened against her) or be able to have custody of their child as a result. I left having mixed feelings about the fact that to neutralize her situation. she had to be adopted by white folks and her parents were still left unresolved in terms of the pathologies that allowed them to treat her the way they did.
AB: Thank you for the question, it’s a very interesting and provocative question. I tend to see characters as characters regardless of the color of their skin or cultural background, so actually I never thought of that. That’s the way it was in the book and that’s the way I handled it. Melina and Gil are not meant to represent “white people”; Jasira is not necessarily meant to represent people of color, an entire huge section of society. These are characters, these are simple characters. I don’t think this way when I write, especially when I adapt someone else’s work. I didn’t think about the fact that “oh, a girl of color, of ethnic descent, is being adopted by a white couple”. I was just thinking, wow, the fact that her father realizes that this is better for her, not because they’re white but because they know how to take care of her and can be something that he is unable to be--that was a big transformative moment for him. Lots of people go through life with pathologies and they don’t get fixed; a lot of people don’t work them out before they die, people of every ethnic persuasion. I do understand that in the context of discussion of the ‘white savior’ film and there being that much of that, that you could look at this and see that, but it’s certainly not intentional, I was just following the author’s story.
Q: Her mother was white. She grew up with her mother too.
MK: It’s very complex.
AB: It is a very complicated thing. And it’s a really interesting conversation to have. I really appreciate what you said about it’s being good to have the discourse.
Q: Could you speak about the relationships on set, putting these young actors through these scenes?
AB: Well you know Summer was always the front runner for the role and then right before we filmed, the bond company got in touch with us and said ‘we’re not going to insure unless the actors playing Jasira and Thomas are over 18.’ Well, Summer was 17 and she was going to be 18 in two weeks. She was 18 and Thomas was 19. Summer is a very smart, sophisticated young woman; she knew what she was getting into. She was very prepared; her mother was with her every single day of shooting on set. We used a body double when there was even implied nudity. Frankly, it was tougher for Aaron than it was for her, and that may be because she’s so young. I asked her, ‘what do you think about this role, were you scared?’ She said “Are you kidding? This is like probably the best role I’ll ever play in my whole life!” It was a very respectful set. Of course, when there was any sort of sexual scene, there was closed set. She was just amazing. I think one of the reasons it was harder for Aaron is because he had much stronger feelings. He really despised his character’s actions. Even though he’s the kind of actor who loves playing complicated characters who do dark things, he was really, really uncomfortable with what the character actually did. Whereas Summer didn’t judge her character; it all made sense to her why she would do that, so she was in a different place. And it all translates, because Mr. Vuoso knows he’s making a mistake, he knows he’s doing something wrong; there’s a lot of self-loathing there. It’s weird to say this, but this was actually a fun movie to make, everybody really believed in the project, everybody was really excited to be working on it. It was done on a shoestring budget, there wasn’t any studio involved so there weren’t a lot of people running around questioning every decision that got made.
MK: It sounds like you really retained the humor that was in the book too.
AB: Well one of the things I told Alicia was, I promise I will keep the humor, this movie will be funny--I assumed she was getting a lot of offers at the same time--you can’t depend on that with somebody else. Little did I know it was the only offer she was getting.
Q: Jasira is an extraordinary role, because she had to carry the entire film and Summer was terrific. How did you know about her? What was her background?
Q: Well, her father is Saudi, her mother is American. She was born in America, she was raised in Bahrain. She had moved back to America I think just a few months before we started shooting. I didn’t know anything about her. Apparently she had done one TV movie on the Disney Channel called “Return to Halloween Town” in which she played a genie. You know, it’s not as if there’s a huge pool of actresses who can carry a film, who are 18 or older but look 13 and look like their fathers are from the Middle East. We hired casting directors in New York, in Australia, in London, in Detroit, thinking we’d have to scour the world to find the actress to play this role. Summer was living in Pasadena, came when her agent called her, she just came in to read. And thank God she did; we really lucked out. There would be no movie without her.
Q: In this film and in American Beauty the characters represent something so much larger than themselves, yet they never seem one-dimensional. How do you keep the characters realistic, when they represent large things, and avoid caricatures?
AB: Because I don’t think of them as representing something larger than themselves; I think of them as flesh and blood human beings. It’s some form of madness really. I think of them as people with hearts, minds, souls. I try to understand why they are doing what they are doing. What’s interesting to me as a writer has always been people who are making mistakes, people who are getting it wrong, people who are learning how to be the authentic versions of themselves. The only way I know how to do that is to treat them all as individuals.
Towelhead opens in DC on September 19.
The 62nd Edinburgh International Film Festival
By Jim McCaskill and Ron Gordner, DC Film Society Members
When last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival ended, an important decision had to be made. After 61 years of running this highly respected film festival at the same time that Edinburgh was awash with festivals (International, Fringe - the granddaddy of all fringe festivals, and Book) should it continue and be dwarfed by the others or stand alone? The decision was made to stand on their own two feet and run the 62nd Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. The jury is still out on that but the bookings from this year's festival increased. No word as to whether that was British folks booking or international. The international audience may be down because attendees blended bookings at all the festivals and now with just one that audience may diminish.
Film was still represented at the Fringe Festival as one of the hits was a stage adaptation of On the Waterfront. This is slated for a London opening and then, later, possibly New York. One of last year's Fringe plays is playing in New York, Black Watch. A friend who who has served on the EIFF Board said the decision for an August festival was made partly out of fear that the festival would be hijacked by Glasgow, whose city government could throw more money in the pot for more screenings there.
Like all festivals there are hundreds of films to choose from in numerous categories. The calibre of films did seem to increase. With Cannes something of a disappointment, there were expectations that 2008 films might not be up to the old standard. That fear did not materialize as there were a large number of British and international films of top quality to choose from. The Opening Night film, world premiere of The Edge of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008), has had good reviews with most everyone raving about Keira Knightly's performance--who knew she could sing?. This film is pencilled in for a US release during Oscar season. Will Keira be among the five finalists for this film? Or is she going to be running against herself in The Duchess?
This was Robert Carlyle's year. Not only did he have two films screening here, he picked up Best Performance for Summer, but was asked to join Sir Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton as patrons of the EIFF.
Best New British Feature Film: Somers Town, directed by Shane Meadows
Best Performance in a British Feature Film: Robert Carlyle, Summer
Audience Award: Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh
Best Documentary: Encounters at the End of the World, directed by Werner Herzog
Skillset New Directors Award: Marianna Palka, Good Dick
UK Film Council Award for Best British Short Film: Son, directed by Daniel Mulloy
European Film Academy Short Film 2008 - Prix UIP: Two Birds, directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson
The award for Best New British Feature Film was made by a jury headed by actor Danny Huston. The jury said Meadow's film Somers Town was "the freshest, most imaginative, maverick work" in the race this year. Stone of Destiny is a celebration of an important Scottish milestone, Glasgow University students taking back the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey will be the Closing Night's film at Toronto. Summer Hours was commissioned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The director was charged with bringing together the museum's pledge to preserve the best of French art and did so as of one family made a decision to preserve the family home and its treasures or sell them off. The film also looks at a situation many families are facing: what one generation treasures may not be wanted by the next.
Although Jim has lived in Edinburgh and attended several Edinburgh Film Festivals, this was my first visit to EIFF and Edinburgh. Press screenings were during the day, and the public screenings at night. EIFF also maintained a press VideoTheque, a room with about 25 DVD players in small booths for press to review.
Other than a few of the hyped presentations like The Edge of Love, I did not find long lines before screenings (unlike the Toronto Film Festival), and many times patrons did not queue up for films until 15-20 minutes before the screenings. So it was much more laid back than some other film festivals I have attended. Staff and volunteers were very friendly, as are the Scottish public in general. Filmhouse, where some films were screened is the premiere Art Filmhouse, and includes a cozy restaurant onsite. Another older venue was the Cameo theatre, not far away, and many screenings were at the newer Cineworld Multiplex (about a 10-15 minute walk from Filmhouse).
I also did some siteseeing at the local Edinburgh and Scottish Museums, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle (where we had a press conference with Keira Knightly and Sienna Miller for The Edge of Love), and a day trip that included Loch Loman and Sterling Castle. It is a beautiful city and country to explore. Lots of walking and jogging paths at the Meadows and other parks, and the architecture alone is worth a visit. I had to adjust to the jet lag and the long nights. Daylight lasted from about 4:00am to 10 or 11pm. Although I didn't have the fish, I did sample the wonderful chips at many of the stalls and take-aways. There were some studio and film parties, but not on the scale of the larger festivals.
EIFF is a showcase also for British films of all levels. Although very few films from the Cannes Film Festival were shown, we were pleasantly surprised by the number and caliber of the British and world cinema provided. An excellent selection of documentaries were also available such as Man on Wire and Of Time and the City.
So if you are looking for a film festival in an interesting locale, we can heartily recommend the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Must See Films
Captain Abu Raed
Let the Right One In
Man on Wire
Song of Sparrows
Alone in Four Walls
Bigga Than Ben
The Red Awn
Stone of Destiny
Time to Die
The Edge of Love
Just Another Love Story
Love and Other Crimes
Milky Way Liberation Front
Of Time and the City
Three Miles North of Malkom
New Ten Commandments
SYNOPSIS OF TOP FILMS
Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, Jordan, 2007). Abu Raed is a man who wanted to travel but whose life circumstance denied him the opportunity. His day is spent as a custodian at Amman's International Airport and night are spent in loneliness. His day is filled with random contacts with travellers and reading books on travel. That mundane life changes when he finds a discarded captain's hat in the rubbish and wears it home. By chance a neighborhood urchin sees him in it and mistakes him for an airline pilot. The next morning Raed opens his front door to find a gaggle of children all wanting to ask him about his travels. Happy to talk with anyone about travel Raed falls into a situation where he has to play out his fantasy of travel through colorful tales of adventure with the neighborhood youngsters. "And I sat on the wall where great emperors had sat 2,000 years before." His stories encourage the children to believe in their own dreams. At the same time Raed is developing a deep friendship with Nour, a female who is a real pilot. The director says, "Captain Abu Raed is the story of everyday people intersecting across social boundaries. it is a story of dreams, friendship, forgiveness and sacrifice." Fortissimo films provided the following information on the director/screenwriter: "Jordanian filmmaker Amin Matalqa spent more than half of his life growing up in Ohio. After a successful career in the telecommunications industry, he decided to start over again by moving to Los Angeles and making short films, while writing feature screenplays and attending the directing MFA program at the American Film Institute. After writing and directing 25 shorts in three years, Amin assembled a cast and crew of more than 200 people to make his first feature film, Captain Abu Raed."
Lemon Tree (Erin Riklis, Israel/Germany/France, 2008). Salma (Hiam Abbass, previously directed by Riklis in The Syrian Bride) tends a large grove of lemon trees that are her family's legacy. It is also on the Green Line border along the Israel/West Bank border and threatens national security as the Defense Minister builds a house just over her property line. It does not take long for the Israeli security forces to determine that the trees could offer cover to an enemy and the trees must go. Salma and her lawyer (Ali Suliman also seen in Syrian Bride) takes her case all the way to the Supreme Court to try and keep her trees from being uprooted. The Defense Minister (Doron Tavory, born in Haifa and leading actor in over 50 plays and films) and his wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael, veteran of Israeli stage and cinema) have an unhappy home life and find themselves as trapped as Salma. Salma's legal and personal tale lead her deep into the complex, dark and sometimes funny chaos in the continuing Middle East struggle. The director said, "The Middle East is constantly changing although when you really think about it, perhaps it isn't. Trees have always been around to witness what mankind has been doing. When I made The Syrian Bride, I thought it pretty much contained my view of the situation around me as I came to know and observe it as a filmmaker and as a citizen of Israel and the world. Lemon Tree is a simple story about people who find themselves fighting over matters that could have been resolved quite easily if they would just listen to each other. I try to take the absurd mix of humor and drams, tragedy and comedy and the impossible chaos that comprises the colorful yet very dark story of Israel and Palestinians."
Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte Komma in, Tomas Alfredsson, Sweden, 2008). World Premiere. While an outer suburb of Stockholm is plagued by ritual murders, 12 year old Oscar could use some help coping with bullies. Help arrives in the form of a new neighbor. A moving and confusing variation that also blows new life into the age old vampire story. At times gruesome, shocking and scary but also about growing up, friendship and fate. This was one of the top audience favorites at Rotterdam International Film Festival.
Man On Wire (James Marsh, UK, 2008) is currently playing in our area. See the review in the August Storyboard.
Mermaid (Anna Melikian, Russian Federation, 2007). The advertising tag line is: The incredible adventures of a mermaid on dry land. And it it that. The lead actress, Masha Shalaeva has been busy, appearing in 13 films since 2001. She won the award for the Best Female Role at the Kinotavr Festival. Director Melikian picked up the Sundance 2008: World Cinema Directing Award. Alisa lives by the sea living an ordinary life. She dreams about being a ballerina, she sang in a children's choir and is enrolled in a school for the mentally challenged. When she was six she stoped talking. When she turned 17 Alice moved to Moscow and upon turning 18 she met HIM ... and vanished. These thing happen in big cities. When asked where she got the idea for this film, Melikian said, "As usual, from everywhere--from notebooks, overheard conversations, snatches of phrases, pictures I have seen, dreams and a little of myself, as they say, 'If only you knew from what sort of dirt flowers grow'. Anderson's Little Mermaid was my favorite childhood fairytale, maybe because it is the only fairytale with a sad ending--I generally like sad stories. But I had no desire to adapt Anderson's tale for the screen. It's just that in places it coincided: the plot line, the girl with green hair, and Anderson."
The Song of Sparrows (Avaze Gonjeshka-hal, Majid Majidi, Iran, 2008). The Edinburgh catalogue says that this is "A delightful comedy from Majid Majidi. Reza Naji took home the Best Actor Silver Bear from this year's Berlinale for his stellar performance in this witty morality tale about an ostrich farm worker who loses everything thanks to one errant feathered charge. Out of a job, and forced to change his life, Karim begins traveling back and forth in the city, collecting passengers and second-hand junk. Along the way, he confronts the alienation of city life--and his own self-centered ways."
Somers Town (Shane Meadows, UK, 2008). It takes the genius of Shane Meadows to direct a film about yet another run away troubled youth and make it as outstanding as Somers Town. Tommo, played with great skill by Thomas Turgoose who stared in Meadows' This is England, just turned sixteen and released from social care, runs away to London from a lonely, difficult life in the Midlands. Marek (Piotr Jagiello), a Polish immigrant, lives with his father, who drinks with his friends most evenings after working on a construction site. Marek is a keen photographer, quiet and sensitive--he is not comfortable in his father's world. Somers Town is that part of central London between Camden and King's Cross and St. Pancras; this housing development was home to Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft, and where Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary Shelly was born. The area descended into slum housing and its 17th Century buildings were destroyed in the 1890s. Where once refugees from the French Revolution were welcomed today remains a culturally diverse community. Today the relocation of the Eurostar International Terminus to St. Pancras has led to a gentrification of the area. The film sprang from an advertising agency, Mother, as a project using fiction to examine the changes to the community. The film is seen through the eyes of two boys, both new to London. Meadows said, "It was amazing watching the changes happening around the St. Pancras area and the idea of making a short film that was set in the period of transition was immediately attractive. The fact that what was conceived as a short film and evolved into a longer piece has made the whole thing a really rewarding experience." Another reason that St. Pancras is featured in the film is that EuroStar, the express train between London and Paris, was the sole backer of the film. They handed Meadows one million dollars and said make a film with no sex or violence. As a result EuroStar owns the film and will reap all profits.
Summer (Kenny Glenaan, UK, 2008). If for no other reason see this film for Robert Carlyle's best acting in some time. The Edinburgh program says, "Combining an intelligent, moving story of loyalty and loss with an elequent critique of the effects of social exclusion, this third world premiere of a Glenaan film (Gas Attack, Kasmin) confirms him as a major British talent, his leading man has never been better. Watchful, damaged, fixated on his own past and fraught in his own efforts to be good. Carlyle's Shaun is a heartbreaklngly recognizable creation."
Summer Hours (Oliver Assayas, France, 2008). From the Edinburgh catalogue on this absorbing film: "When a family fractures who gets the heirlooms? This latest drama from Oliver Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Boarding Gate) observes the troubled fate of a priceless private art collection, as family members disagree as to its best use. Preserve or sell? Display or protect? with a stunning cast including Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Renier, Charles Berling and Edith Scob, this is a intelligent and tender assessment of the power of memory and the value of objects."
The Wave (Die Welle, Dennis Gansel, Germany, 2008) "So you think another dictatorship would be impossible in Germany?" asked teacher Rainer Wenger. The film is based on an experiment by history teacher Ron Jones at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in 1967. Morton Rhue's The Wave has been a classic youth novel in German schools for over 20 years, required reading in many schools. The film is set in today's Germany. During project week, high school teacher Rainer Wenger (played by Jurgen Vogel) comes up with an experiment in order to explain to his students how totalitarian goverments work. A role-playing game with tragic results begins. within a few days, what began with harmless notions like discipline and community builds into a real movement: The Wave. By the third day, the students start ostracizing and threatening others. After a fight at a water polo match teacher tries to stop the experiement but it is too late.
BRIEF COMMENTS ON THE EXCELLENT FILMS
Alone in Four Walls (Allein in Vier Wanden/Alexandra Westmeire, Germany, 2007) In this compelling documentary we look at life in a Russian reform school. Some of the young boys are serving time for theft, some for murder. Westmeire sees beyond their sometimes callous exterior to the scared boy within. All have dreams of life outside the reform school but sadly 91% will return to an adult prison.
Bigga Than Ben: A Russian's Guide to Ripping Off London (S.A. Halewood, UK, 2007) This hilarious film is based on the best-selling Russian diaries of former best friends Pavel Tetersky and Sergei Sakin. A rough guide to ripping off London, the book has been described as a cross between Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. It has become required reading for Russians applying for, and receiving, British visas.
The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, Australia, 2008) "As if first love and being the new boy in school weren't enough to worry about, young Thomas must also control and confine the behaviour of his autistic brother, Charlie. With his mother about to give birth to a late baby, and his father taking on a new job, it's left to Thomas to keep an eye on the brother he has come to resent." (EIFF catalogue).
Eden (Declan Recks, Ireland, 2008). With her marriage falling apart on its tenth anniversary, Breda (Eileen Walsh--who played Crispina in The Magdalene Sisters), tries to regain the affections of her husband Billy. Billy is having his own mid-life crisis, and takes Breda and their son for granted. This is an honest, emotional, drama about a marital turning point. (Adapted from EIFF Catalogue).
The Kreutzer Sonata (Bernard Rose, USA, 2007) A tale of sexual jealousy based on the Tolstoy story that was based on the Beethoven work. Rose said, "The Kreutzer Sonata is very dark, but it is not nihilistic. It says if you feel like this--this obsessive-morbid-jealousy--then watch out. You might end up like this--in the worst Hell of your own making. As such it is a cautionary tale--and hopefully an exciting one."
Paris (Cedric Klapisch, France, 2008). Klapisch said, "It's the story of a Parisian man who is sick and wonders if he's going to die. His condition makes him look at all the people he meets in a new and different way. Imagining death gives meaning to his life, to other peoples' lives and to the life of the whole city. Just like a metro map, Paris is a network of interconnections. To be able to create a portrait of Paris, you have to go in all directions--it mustn't be linear. You have to respect the complexity of the city. And it's also that fragmented shape that brings out the proliferation and the lively side of Paris. A film often tells the story of just one single journey, but here we follow many individuals and thus many paths. In this film, the individual journeys create collective emotions. And through the film editing, one person's problems feed those of another. Indeed, that's been the complexity of this film since writing began: how to make a story from all those fragmented tales."
The Red Awn (Cai Shangjun, China, 2007). This is the directorial debut of Cai Shangjun who was the screenwriter for films like Sunflowers and The Shower. Many of his screenplays or films deal with father/son or brothers familial bonding. This beautifully photographed film finds a long time absent father returning to care for his estranged teen age son, after his wife has died.
Stone of Destiny (Charles Martin Smith, UK/Canada, 2008) In 1950 Scottish nationalism was waning. Four Glasgow University students make a dramatic gesture to reawaken their coutry's pride. Despite having little money and even less experience, they cunningly break into Westminster Abbey in the wee hours of Christmas morning and "liberate" that most powerful symbol of Scotland's nationhood--The Stone of Destiny. They are finally captured and the stone taken back to London, their mission to renew Scottish pride and the call for independence a success. Today the Stone has been returned to Edinburgh and rests in Edinburgh Castle.This was the stone upon which Scottish kings were annointed before England carried it to London 700 years ago.
Time to Die (Pora Umierac, Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland, 2007). This sharply witty chamber piece is a near-monologue for its sensational lead Danuta Szaflarska, who at 92 has a 60 year history in Polish film. She plays Aniela, a spiky, intelligent woman whose advanced age doesn't deter her from fighting pushy property developers, or overweight little granddaugters. Beautifully shot in black and white, this film also features paws-down the best canine performance of the year. (EIFF catalogue).
Transiberian (Brad Anderson, UK/Germany, 2008) is currently playing in the Washington area.
BRIEF COMMENTS ON THE GOOD FILMS
3 Women (3 Zan, Manijah Hekmat, Iran, 2008). The cream of Iran's actors combine in a film that maps the lives of 3 generations.
Better Things (Duane Hopkins, UK, 2008). The capacity of love to transform and shape a humdrum life. Hard hitting.
The Edge of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008). Events from the life of Irish poet Dylan Thomas and much more.
Fujian Blue (Jin Bi Hui Huang, Robin Weng, 2007) Harrowing look at the effects of globalization on people illegally trafficked.
Just Another Love Story (Ole Bornedal, Denmark, 2007) A brilliantly bizarre, visceral, film noir from Denmark.
Love and Other Crimes (Liebe und Andere Verbrechen, Stefan Arsenijevic, Serbia, 2008). "What happens if you fall in love on the very day you inted to leave forever?" (EIFF catalogue).
Mancora (Ricardo de Montreuil, Spain/Peru, 2008). "Peopled by those unfamiliar with the ugly stick, and pulsing with restless life, this is a heat-seeking missle." (EIFF catalogue). This film will be shown at the 2008 Latin American Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theater in September.
Milky Way Liberation Front (Yoon Seong-ho, South Korea, 2007) "With a self-awareness not found in South Korean cinema, this is as funny, smart, and sassy as a film can be." (EIFF catalogue).
Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, UK, 2008) Davis paints a love story to his home town, Liverpool.
Off Hollywood (Szabolca Hajdu, Hungary, 2007) "Filmmaking and insanity become a shot/reverse shot pattern." (EIFF catalogue).
Pageant (Ron Davis/Stewart Halpern, USA, 2008) Five guys compete for Miss Gay America. This film will be shown at the 2008 Reel Affirmations Film Festival in October.
Three Miles North of Malkom (Robert Cannan/Corinna Vilari-McFarlane, UK, 2007) Looking for inner peace? A New Age encampment in the forest of Sweden may be the place to find it.
Tiramisu (Paula van der Oust, Netherland, 2007) A hilarious conflict between the abandon of art and economic responsibility.
Never Say Macbeth
By Leslie Weisman, DC Film Society Member
Theater lore is rich in tales of crossed swords (both literal and figurative), bad timing, bad reviews, bad weather — and sometimes, just plain bad luck. And no play, whether by coincidence or providence, has been plagued by more of these than the one that to stage actors has come to be known, out of fear or superstition (or maybe good sense), as “the Scottish play.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose “curse” is said to strike those foolhardy enough to utter its name in a theater, has been ostensibly responsible for everything from forgotten lines to untimely demise. The experience of legendary Russian actor and director Stanislavsky managed to combine both, when, during a final dress rehearsal, the actor playing Macbeth forgot his lines, turned to the prompter for help — and got none: The prompter was dead. (This was, we presume, an unfortunate accident, unlike the famed shaman curse placed upon the head of a critic by a drummer from Orson Welles’s storied “Voodoo Macbeth.” The critic never wrote another bad review — or any review.)
If there is, in fact, a curse (and who are we to argue with 400 years of legend and history), it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that its hoary fingers may extend beyond the floorboards. Never Say Macbeth, produced by the company that brought Hamlet 2 to area theaters last month, was just released on DVD — and when it comes to mishap and injury, the film’s production history arguably rivals those of its theatrical forbears. From strangely localized power outages and crashed PCs to second-degree burns borne of makeup allergies, from broken fingers to twisted ankles, to car catastrophes of every conceivable kind — the DP was especially bedeviled: he lost “almost everything he owned” when his storage space was ransacked, and his car was rear-ended while he was parking near the theater; to add insult to injury, he locked his keys in the trunk — in retrospect, it seems a miracle that the film, made on a shoestring budget 1/100th that of its Shakespearean brother ($90,000 vs. $9,000,000), ever saw the light of day, much less would go on to reap critical acclaim from nearly a dozen zines and trade papers.
Never Say Macbeth harkens back at once to the films of the forties and eighties and the theater of the 1880s, blending with warmth, wit, humor, a let’s-put-on-a-show and you’re-the-only-girl-for-me innocence with ancient witchcraft, New Age mysticism, astrological flummery and Simi Valley psychobabble. We find Danny (screenwriter Joe Tyler Gold), a young science teacher from Toledo, in hot pursuit of his girlfriend Ruth (Ilana Turner), who has taken off for a few months in pursuit of something less tangible but no less desirable, though for him, close to incomprehensible: her dream of being an actor. His sudden appearance at the theater becomes the catalyst for a series of unexplained accidents, some with a whiff of the supernatural, when he asks of the assembled hopefuls what to him is a harmless, and even logical question: “Are these the auditions for Macbeth?”
The gasps and wide-eyed stares that greet this (to them) unbelievably idiotic utterance are met with confusion and then dismissal by the scientist, who finds their conviction equally unbelievable. So Danny is given the particulars, a kind of Macbeth Curse 101, by a fiery veteran Russian diva, who heatedly excoriates him for his recklessness — and promptly drops dead of a heart attack. Disturbed but still not convinced, Danny continues on his quest, but is waylaid by the Star Wars acolyte stage manager, Jeni (rhymes with...) and taken to the man who, at least in theory, should know the whereabouts of his cast members: the astrology-crazed director Jason (Alexander Enberg), who mistakes him for an aspiring thespian, dubs him Pisces, and casts him as the First Witch. Not exactly what our smitten hero had in mind, but it’s a way to be near his beloved. Or so he thinks.
Realizing that the demands of preparing the role will leave her precious little free time, rather than fall into his arms Ruth scolds him as a teacher would a wayward schoolboy — and turns her attention to her leading man, the matinee-idol-gorgeous but dumb-as-a-post sitcom star, Scott (Mark Deklin), fresh out of rehab, with whom she herself is smitten. Observing from the wings is Tamara (Tania Getty), the classic girl next door (who also happens to be a wiccan) who is drawn to the lovesick Danny but does not attempt to take advantage of the situation. Instead, she offers to help him win his beloved back, with the help of her special skills: spells and magic potions. It is Tamara who has perhaps the greatest depth as a character, recalling the unexpected selflessness of the scorned but noble “other woman” that in films of yesteryear gave a new, richer dimension to supposedly “superficial blondes” such as Ginger Rogers and Doris Day.
But then, the film itself is filled with new dimensions — most arrestingly, the third. Seems that fifty years ago, a mysterious fire consumed the theater while three plays were in repertory: The Pirates of Penzance, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Macbeth. To the creep-out confusion of those who can see them, and the consternation of those who can’t, the apparitions of the plays’ characters pop in and out during rehearsals, declaiming, singing, and interacting with their living counterparts. Needless to say, this is just what the already stressed-out thespians and their operatically demanding director don’t need, and, with the tyro Danny’s two left feet, miserable memory, and apparent propensity to attract disaster, it begins to look as though everything that could go wrong, already has.
How, in the end, all’s well that ends well is one of the charms of this very enjoyable film. If you love Shakespeare, the theater, and those who made and make them come alive, you may want to check out the DVD. If you do, you’ll never say Macbeth the same way again.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
Now in its 19th year, the AFI Latin American Film Festival shows films from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Most are feature films, but also shorts and documentaries will be seen. See the website for titles and dates.
Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections is a documentary about election fraud, to be shown on September 9 at 7:00pm with director David Earnhardt present for discussion.
Three films by Michelangelo Antonioni will be shown in September: Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger.
Freer Gallery of Art
The US-ASEAN Film Festival 2008 is a series of films from Southeast Asia. On September 12 at 7:00pm is Gone Shopping (Wee Li Lin, 2007) from Singapore; on September 14 at 2:00pm is Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza, 2007) from the Philippines; on September 14 at 4:00pm is Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin, 2007), a documentary from Singapore; on September 19 a 7:00pm is Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat, 2007) from Thailand; on September 21 at 2:00pm is a series of short films by Apichatpong Weerasathekul; on September 26 at 7:00pm is Good Morning Luang Prabang (Anousone Sirisakda and Sakchai Deenan, 2008) from Laos and Thailand; on September 28 at 2:00pm is Chants of Lotus, a four-part film by directors Nia Dinata, Upi Avianto, Fatima Tobing Rony and Lasja F. Susatyo on women's social issues in Indonesia. More in October.
The Freer takes part in the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival with a program of 3 films on September 27. See the website for more information.
National Gallery of Art
The series "Manoel de Oliveira, Portugese Marvel" concludes in September with Belle Toujours (2006) shown with Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1961) the film that was Oliveira's inspiration on September 7 at 4:00pm. On September 13 at 12:30pm is Day of Despair (1992); on September 14 at 4:30pm is The Convent (1995); on September 21 a 4:30pm is Anxiety (1998); on September 27 at 12:30pm is The Letter (1999); on September 27 at 3:00pm is Voyage to the Beginning of the World (1997); and on September 28 at 4:00pm is Christopher Columbus, The Enigma (2007).
The "Afghanistan on Film" series concludes with Earth and Ashes (Atiq Rahimi, 2004) on September 6 at 2:30pm.
Filmmaker John Valadez will appear with and discuss his film The Last Conquistador (2007) on September 13 at 3:00pm.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
On September 2 at noon is Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a reenactment of the 1984 confrontation between striking miners and police near the Orgreave coking plant in England, and on September 2 at 1:15pm is Artur Zmijewski's Repetition (2005), a recreation of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. The films are repeated on September 4: at noon is Repetition and at 1:30pm is The Battle of Orgreave; and on September 6: at 3:00pm is The Battle of Orgreave and at 4:15pm is Repetition. Both films complement the Hirshhorn exhibit "The Cinema Effect: Part II--Realisms."
Smithsonian American Art Museum
For the "American Classics: Page to Screen" series is A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951) on September 3 at 6:00pm and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) on September 17 at 6:00pm.
On September 6 at 3:00pm is Running Fence (Albert and David Maysles, 1978), followed by a conversation with the artists.
On September 11 at 6:00pm are two art documentaries Aspen Projects (Dennis Oppenheim, 1970) and Spiral Jetty (Robert Smithson, 1970). A video art program is on September 25 at 6:00pm: Steina's Violin Power (1970-78) and Woody Vasulka's Vocabulary (1973) and The Matter (1974).
National Museum of Women in the Arts
This month's "Sisters in Cinema" screening is Eve's Bayou (1997) with director Kasi Lemmons present for discussion on September 23 at 7:00pm.
NMWA also takes part in the Asian Pacific American Film Festival, see the website.
Films on the Hill
Celebrate the Bette Davis centennial with Special Agent (William Keighley, 1935) on September 5 at 7:00pm. Bette plays a bookeeper helping to put her racketeering boss in jail. On September 11 at 7:00pm is the Civil War comedy Hands Up! (Clarence G. Badger, 1926) starring Raymond Griffith as a spy trying to prevent a load of gold from reaching the North. On September 12 at 7:00pm is Foreign Intrigue (Sheldon Reynolds, 1956) in Technicolor starring Robert Mitchum chasing all over Europe looking for clues to his boss's past.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On September 3 at 7:30pm is Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000), a comedy with Ben Stiller, Edward Norton and Jenna Elfman. On September 22 at 7:30pm is the American premiere of Amos Oz (Stelios Charalampopoulos, 2008), a documentary of Israeli author Amos Oz; following the film is a discussion with Professor Eric Zakim.
A three-part series of films written by Harold Pinter begins on September 2 at 7:00pm with The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1970) starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Michael Redgrave. On September 9 at 7:00pm is The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976) starring Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson; and on September 16 at 7:00pm is The French Lieutenant's Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981) with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.
A series of films by Alexander Kluge begins on September 8 at 6:30pm with Yesterday Girl (1966), introduced by Michael Jennings from Princeton University's Departmente of German. On September 15 at 6:30pm is In Danger and Deep Distress, the Middleway Spells Certain Death (1974); on September 22 at 6:30pm is The Blind Director (1985); and on September 29 at 6:30pm is The Power of Emotion (1983) which Kluge calls the key to understanding his work.
National Geographic Society
On September 23 at 7:30pm is the premiere of Killer Stress, which reports on wide ranging discoveries showing that stress is measurable and dangerous. The producers and writers John Bredar and John Hemingway will join Robert Sapolsky, neurobiologist and author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers for a discussion after the film.
On September 10 at 7:00pm is Didine (Vincent Dietschy, 2008), a new comedy from France.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On September 17 at 6:30pm is Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano) starring Takeshi "Beat" Kitano in a road trip with a young boy and an old man. Note that the September 26 show has been cancelled.
On September 24 at 7:00pm is Robert Kennedy Remembered (Charles Guggenheim, 1968) which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject. After the film there will be a panel discussion with Jules Witcover, political columnist; Peter Vogt, production assistant on the film, and Robert Wykes, who composed the film's score.
On September 17 at 8:00pm as part of the French Cinémathèque series is All Is Forgiven (Mia Hansen-Love, 2007) winner of the Gijon Film Festival award for Best Actress (Marie-Christine Friedrich) and winner of the Prix Louis Delluc Best First Film.
Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
"NSO Nights at the Movies" is conducted by Richard Kaufman. On September 11 at 8:00pm is "Classical Hollywood" with works from Sleeping Beauty, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raging Bull, Alien, Forrest Gump and others. On September 12 is "The Golden Age of Film Music" with selections from Lawrence of Arabia, Sparticus, Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, North by Northwest and more.
The Washington, DC premiere of Deep Sea 3-D is on September 17 at 7:00pm. See exotic underwater creatures and meet filmmaker Tony Myers who will discuss how the film was made. Call 202-633-3030.
Busboys and Poets
On September 8 at 6:00pm is Amilcar Cabral (Ana Ramos Lisboa, 2001), a documentary about the life and political leadership of Amilcar Cabral in the 1960s-1970s in the Cape Verde Islands and Guinea Bissau. A companion book Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral will be available and Ambassador Fatima Veiga from Cape Verde will be present for discussion.
Every Saturday through September 6 is "Henson Open Cinema," films by Jim Henson to complement the exhibit "Jim Henson's Fantastic World." The program includes "Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years" (1986), "Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting" (1989), and "Down at Fraggle Rock: Behind the Scenes" (1987). The location is the Smithsonian Associates Discovery Theater, S. Dillon Ripley Center, Room 3111.