Saturday, March 03, 2007

Frank's a Class Act, Joe's Pix,
and Cine-Ketchup

A public thank you to Frank Miller.

You know, in my 30+ years in comics, I've had a number of films linked to work I've had a hand in. The obvious ones -- Return of the Swamp Thing, From Hell, Constantine -- came and went without any special treatment or invites extended my way. I finally caught the former on video, rented from a tiny grocery store in South Newfane, VT, and a cold and bitter night of video viewing that was, too; the latter two I saw at the Kipling Cinema in Brattleboro, VT. None featured my name in the credits, so why expect anything at all? At least Constantine graced me and my family with royalties for my share of creating John Constantine in the first place (along with Alan Moore -- who deferred his share to co-creator Rick Veitch -- and John Totleben).

I've been invited to three premieres linked to my work in comics: the NYC opening of Steven Spielberg's 1941 (back in '79), which Rick Veitch and I attended happily, briefly basking in the release of our graphic novel adaptation of the movie before it all crashed & burned in the backlash against Spielberg's failed comedy; the Northampton, MA premiere at the Academy of Music of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze, which featured a character (Tokka) based in part upon my toy concept sketches for a snapping turtle monster -- the only premiere I was able to bring my daughter Maia and son Dan to, and hence of importance to this ol' pop; and Lance Weiler's cast-and-crew October 2005 closed debut screening of Head Trauma, which Dan and I were invited to (since we'd drawn the faux-Christian Comic, Too Much Grief, that figures prominently in the film) but couldn't attend due to work schedules.

[BTW, only Lance made sure there was a byline (for Dan and I, in this case) in the film's credits. The other films, in their way, are as much a problem as a point of pride for my now-adult children: when they tell their friends "that was based on my dad's work," the inevitable response is, "Oh, yeah? I don't see his name anywhere." It was a comfort, at least, to see David Lloyd's name on the V for Vendetta credits; all the other Vertigo-based movies feature creator credits that are a slight variation on the bylines the 1940s serials based on DC comics characters sported -- of late, an unexpected consequence of Alan Moore's insistence his name be removed from any films based on his work. C'est la vie.]

Now, I've nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Miller's work, or the films based upon them.

But I've just received my second invite to a NYC premiere of a feature film based on Frank's work -- the Thursday, March 8 premiere of 300 at the Lincoln Square IMAX.

Thank you, Frank!

Alas, I teach that day -- but it means a lot to receive the invitation at all. Frank had also extended an invite to me and my son to attend the NYC premiere of Sin City; that would have been terrific, but again, work schedules prevented the trip to the Big Apple. But it meant a lot to be invited.

Frank and I grew up about 20 minutes apart, though we never met until the mid-'80s, when we were both working with DC Comics. When you were a high school kid into drawing comics in the late '60s and early '70s, there were no mechanisms or means to meet, much less know one another even existed (oddly enough, it turned out we both had the same art teacher in high school, too -- Bill Cathey, who went from teaching at Union 32, the school Frank attended in Montpelier, VT, to Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, from which I graduated).

We've had precious few chances to get together, but there was a period in which we communicated with some frequency (in part over Frank's possible contribution to Taboo; there were two stories he was toying with, "Rats" and a vampire tale, but neither reached fruition). My first wife Marlene and I were once able to help Frank and Lynn out, and we did. I have fond memories, too, of our initial chats at Mid-Ohio Con, where John Totleben and I ran interference for Frank to ensure he could make it out of the building and to his plane, back when The Dark Knight Returns had crowds of fans blocking his escape route. Frank has always made time to talk to me the few times I've asked. It's been a real honor to have my work showcased alongside his original art in the two gallery shows to date dedicated to Vermont cartoonists.

In short, I love the man, his work, and it means a great deal to know I'm invited to his premieres -- it's a kind, generous and thoughtful gesture never extended on the films that were adapted from my own work, or emerged from my sweat in other capacities (e.g., From Hell and Taboo).

Thanks, Frank, and bless you.

Have a great premiere, sorry I won't be there (again), and please, take care of yourself.

I look forward to seeing 300 like everyone else -- at the local cinema. Good luck in all you do!

First pix from the Wednesday CCS St. Johnsbury trip are
  • here, compliments of Joe Lambert -- enjoy!
  • _____________

    Cine-Ketchup, the Saturday Edition

    * An Unreasonable Man (2006) - This is essential viewing, and about far, far more than Ralph Nader the man. Framed perfectly with the most caustic, scathing post-2000 election slams imaginable against Nader for running -- a caricature that holds remarkable sway throughout the country to this day -- An Unreasonable Man chronicle Nader's activist origins, campaigns, successes, failures and the man's true legacy, via comprehensive interviews, testimonials and a rich variety of archival materials from corporate commercials, propaganda and promo reels (particularly from the car manufacturers) to TV news excerpts, bytes and much more. Inevitably, the cumulative path of Nader's fearless four decades of activism addressing public safety, corporate malfeasance and other social injustices leads to the fateful 2000 election trail and all that followed -- at last presented and analyzed in its proper sociological, political and media context.

    En route, the filmmakers trace a sobering portrait of contemporary America and how we got here, candidly dissected and discussed by Nader, his associates and his detractors (Pat Buchanan's analysis of the post-1980 Republican agenda and successful campaigns to fragment the US is particularly concise and chilling: literally, the neocons divided and conquered). Actions speak louder than words, but this war of words is a genuine springboard for action, and that, after all, is Nader's true legacy. Whatever you think of Nader going in to this film, you will be reassessing presumptions, assumptions, spin, caricatures, chicanary and lies we've all bought into on one level or another throughout our lifetimes, big-time since 2000. An Unreasonable Man will prompt deep thought, discussion and -- best of all -- action.

    [Full disclosure: I voted for Nader in 2000, and I don't regret it -- it's one of two times in my life I've been able to vote my conscience in a Presidential race, instead of for the lesser of many evils.]

    * Bamako (2006) - Abderrahmano Sissanko's Bamako (2006) is an amazing film on many levels: African agitprop (staged with disorienting & deft sleight of hand throughout), pragmatic portrait of a world tribunal in a pauper's kingdom, a meditation on 21st Century colonization, a sheathed castigation of the World Bank, G8, IMF and the malign influence of Western capitalism -- once this cinematic machete bares its blade, it cuts deep. But Sissanko takes his sweet time getting to that unsheathing, and therein lies the tale. Insistently rooted in the banality of Mali's day-to-day village life's rhythms, the film focuses on what is to Western eyes a most unusual and ramshackle 'world court', taking place outdoors in a yard adjoining a family dwelling in which life is lived (and lived out: a young man is apparently dying in a room adjoining the courtyard). This in and of itself evidences the utter disenfranchisement of Mali in the wake of 20 years of World Bank "adjustments" -- Mali can no longer support a single communal space dedicated to a court of law, if ever it could -- though many viewers will undoubtably miss the point if they haven't the eyes to see, the ears to hear -- and that, too, is the point.

    Bereft of even a proper communal court space, the trial proceeds in awkward proximity to daily rituals and work: a wife (who sings at a nearby club each night) calls for her husband to tie the back of her dress each morning before the procedures begin; a toddler wearing squeaky infant shoes idly wanders about and picks up a court document; women dying fabric work endlessly in the neighboring yard; outside on the street, villagers sit beneath old-fashioned loudspeakers, connecting and disconnecting the wires depending on whether or not they care to continue listening to the broadcast trial proceedings; a lanky man wearing sunglasses checks his book and screens the trial witnesses, denying entrance to those not on the list. Before the title appears, we see an elderly man walk to the witness stand to speak, but he is denied -- he has to wait "his turn," which never comes (though he does, finally, bear witness, via a song, in the last act). Furthermore, Sissako's methodology is alien to Western audiences -- Bamako is absolutely linear in its narrative progress, but Sissako disarms with fleeting use of cinematic devices used once, and only once, sans the cohesion repetition brings.

    For instance, he graces one witness's testimony with what could be either flashbacks or glimpses of parallel events (of refugees stranded in the Sahara), but no other. 37 minutes into Bamako, we are suddenly amid what appears to be an African faux-spaghetti western (starring executive producer Danny Glover), A Death in Timbuktu, which staggers into a black-comedic-shootout -- until we see the grinning faces of villagers who seem to be watching this "film," and the subsequent trial witness eloquently castigates the colonization of the African imagination via imported pop culture, providing (at last!) a context for this bizarre parodic western intrusion.

    [An aside: this sequence consciously evokes an almost identical, but much less disorienting, passage in Perry Henzell's 1972 classic The Harder They Come, in which Jamaican audiences respond to a rousing sequence in Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western Django. Henzell presents Django as what it was/is: a film viewed in a theater, showing his protagonist and fellow audience members in their seats watching an actual import film seducing Jamaican viewers with its orchestrated violence and parable of revolution against a red-hooded, KKK-like oppressor; Sissako's invented faux-Afri-western functions similarly, but Sissako refutes the linear cinematic devices that "properly" frame the insertion within a more conventional narrative framing device. Thus, the colonization of the African imagination is implicitly rendered with more urgency: are we/they watching this film, or indeed imagining it? Is it imported, or adopted and absorbed, imagery? The differences between how these two films incorporate similar material is striking, calculated and consequential.]

    Similarly, the loose narrative frame most Western filmmakers would make central to such a film -- the mysterious disappearance of a handgun (which we never see), the incompetent 'investigation' (conducted, just barely, by a cross-eyed authority who appears as impoverished as anyone else onscreen), and the inevitable shooting (a murder prompting the funeral concluding the film) -- is relegated to a near afterthought. This fringe 'plot' has barely registered, even once it culminates in a roadside murder, coming as it does in the wake of the final act's concluding arguments from the dissembling lawyer representing the World Bank's interests and the piercing summation and final arguments of the attorneys representing Africa. With death so ever-present, thanks to the bankruptcy and privatization of Africa at the hands of World Bank policies, what does another death matter, really? The villagers, though, feel the loss deeply; the silent footage of a cameraman (earlier refused permission to film the trial) dwells on a lone, ragged man -- is he the murderer? Sissako provides no answers. What does it matter, given the explicit revelations of increased infant mortality, depleted life expectancy (now down to the age of 46 in Africa), gutting of any social or medical support network, lethal resurrection of diseases recently thought eradicated, the terrible toll of AIDS? Death is everywhere, its reign at best tolerated, at worst sanctioned by Western interests who deny their culpability with shameless abandon. In the end, it still means devastation and deprivation for Africa and its people.

    Bamako is a difficult film in many ways, but its beguiling pacing and imagery casts its own spells until the more overt political agenda of the film asserts itself with increasing clarity. The witnesses are, each in their own way, painfully eloquent, none more than the embittered ex-school teacher who introduced himself to the court, only to walk away without saying a word. My only real frustration was typical of many subtitled foreign films: the songs are not translated, and there are indeed two songs that are absolutely key to the film (the song the nightclub singer sings, twice, which frames the film, and the peasant farmer's song, which is at least partially translated when the female black prosecuting attorney references it: "Why can't I reap what I sow? Why can't I eat what I reap?"). This lapse is unfortunate, but as I imply, it's not unique to Bamako -- I've seen a number of subtitled films that simply don't translate song lyrics, however central they seem/are to the content of the film.

    This is the best African film I've seen in years, a brilliant, angry and poetic work.

    * Brick (2006) - I've recently screened this again, though I first saw it (with my son Dan) on the big screen at the Latchis Theater, and posted a review on this blog after that viewing. Anyhoot, upon revisitation -- I still love this film. It's a brilliant high school/teen noir, which is certainly its own genre (e.g., Over the Edge, The River's Edge, Heathers, Kids, Bully, etc.), though Brick goes the rest better via its complete submersion, sans irony, into its universe. One must steep in the film and engage on its own terms, or you'll be lost: the language (which, to oldsters, often sounds as outre as Anthony Burgess's invented nadsat language for A Clockwork Orange), the body language, the situations and mercurial play of confrontation vs. aversion, conflict and avoidance rings true throughout, and the performers never flinch. You will. Note, too, that unlike many of this breed, there's no pop or perverse adulation of youth (usually manifest in these films via overt sexual imagery and nudity): Brick's primary assertion -- the inherently fragile, often terminal nature of contemporary youth culture and subculture -- is its essence. Survival, with dignity, is fraught with peril, and many do not make it. It's a jungle out there, and nowhere is that jungle more lethal than in the realms well beneath the adult radar. For once, the bizarre vacuum of the teen universe is persuasively rendered, with mesmerizing, terrifying immediacy.

    * The Busker (2006) - Writer/director Stephen J. Croke's made-in-Boston drama focuses on a twelve-year-old Irish-American violin prodigy named Seamus (Alex Alexander) and his affectionate (non-sexual) relationship with Ruby (Ayla Rose Barreau), a 13-year-old Black girl, while while the city and family are torn with racial strife. Seamus's father is killed in a racially-motivated shooting, knocking the family on its heels and plopping little Seamus on to the street, busking (busking is street performing for donations via open violin case), which is indeed central to the film; his ability to transcend all this lies with a writer on a book tour who takes the kid under his wing and offers to get him into a music school in London. The film has all the right ingredients, but sadly falls short in the execution; too bad, as its heart is in the right place, and the whole is very well shot.

    Stephen Croke
    's visual and pacing sensibilities are solid, and some of the adult players hold their own; alas, it's stoic li'l Seamus and 13-year-old Ruby who do this in, or, more to the point, Croke's scripting of their roles. The young actors Alex and Ayla have onscreen presence and chemistry, but the dialogue is forever a stretch for them, hence I must hold Croke responsible more than the performers themselves; Alex in particular is to be commended for his onscreen violin playing throughout, Ayla has a grace and presence and her scenes with her father play well, and both young actors are likable and engaging until key dialogue exchanges continually falter and fail. Still, my affection for the characters kept me from resenting the cumulative misfires (I did watch it to its conclusion). I wanted to like this, as I suspect many viewers will, but there's no denying the air going out of the tire, and fast: the first 15 minutes pulled me in, but the inevitable toll of the earnest but flat central performances couldn't be ignored. However polished the production, the shortcomings overwhelm the films' qualities, including support characters grinning on camera at inopportune moments (e.g., the trashing of the pit, the tentative attempt by Seamus's friend to make amends, etc.) and ill-timed montages (to cover performance lapses too apparent to ignore?, one wonders) condensing key dramatic sequences to superficial skating over plot points. By the last act, the script is still working overtime, but the narrative flatlining has rendered one's emotional engagement moot and it feels utterly formulaic. Again, too bad; I look forward to seeing Croke's future efforts, and wish all involved nothing but the best.

    * Mind Games: A Love Story (2006) - Teo Zagar's affectionate documentary clocks in a mere 56 minutes (with a bonus short, Tom French's 1983 amateur film A Mutant Lobster's Tale), but there's no denying the relative rough-and-ready nature of the film itself: this is not a polished doc, by any stretch, but it is deeply affecting. Based on French's own written memoir, Zagar adheres religiously to the chronology of these people's lives, and Tom and Jacquie's story is engaging: best friends in high school, married "too soon," unable to have children (due to fertility issues for Jacquie) and further stressed by Tom's long hours in medical school and subsequently working as a doctor, separated after a decade and soon divorced, reunited three years later when Tom is diagnosed with "The Beast" (his term for A.L.S., Lou Gehrig's Disease), and their eventual remarriage and success at having a child before his death. That birth resulted in Tom's reversal of his prior "Do Not Resuscitate" order, which also lends this import given VT's current 'right to die' debates. The film is sentimental in an unpretentious manner: though the music choices are abrasively maudlin at times, the film itself doesn't reflect the treacly, mock-sentimentality of most TV product or bombastically so (like Disney Studios' America: Heart & Soul), but rather the earnest sentimentality of devotional bonds between partners, and their circle of family and friends living with and responding to that bond. This is balanced by the unflinching decision to present Tom's degenerative condition sans window-dressing (hence, the ever-present sound of Tom's artificial breath via ventilator: take it or leave it, it was a constant in their life). Indeed, a modest effort, but its story is genuine and heartfelt.

    * Vermont's George Aiken: Balancing Freedom & Unity (2005) - Rick Moulton is one of VT's treasures and a mainstay documentarian, producing and directing much of value for VT Public Television and other venues. However, efficiency and 'feel good' pleasantries dominate, which is fine when Rick's subject is the skiing industry, VT historical overviews, etc. Much as I hate to say it -- playing it safe, though, undermines the inherent value of his chosen subject here. Vermont's George Aiken may come across as a comforting eulogy for Aiken, the man and Senator, for those unconcerned with the meat of Aiken's life, times and legacy, but those seeking something of substance cannot help but be disappointed. This is regrettable for a number of reasons: by insistently avoiding contentious issues, the film doesn't honor Aiken's stature or legacy; it consistently softballs a career punctuated by hardball change, upheavals and politics (Aiken's 34 years as a Senator encompassed the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Presidencies and the entirety of the Vietnam War and the '60s); as the first documentary on Aiken, it squanders an opportunity that may not present itself again, in the near future or ever.

    Thus, the film soft pedals its times, its subject, and by proxy his career and accomplishments, skirting any confrontation with what were most certainly confrontational and controversial times. Sadly, this biography also fails to chart with any acuity or perceptiveness the essential shift in Vermont itself, from being the most die-hard Republican of states in Coolidge's era to its present Blue State status. This transformation was & is as reflective of Aiken as it is of fundamental changes in the two parties, Vermont, and the US as a whole. Missing that, Moulton misses his mark completely. Still, there's worthy archiving of interviews, news and newsreel footage and materials to be enjoyed here. Inoffensive in the extreme, but toothless and ephemeral -- gee, I would have thought that an impossibility for a film about Senator Aiken.

    * Waterbuster (2006) - This documentary worked in spades for me. Vermont (Quechee) based filmmaker and Dartmouth grad J. Carlos Peinado and producing/scripting/editing partner Daphne Ross mount an effective, personalized portrait of Peinado revisiting his Hidatsa/Mandan roots in North Dakota's Upper Missouri River basin, which were literally drowned in the 1950s by the Army Corps of Engineers and the massive Garrison Dam project. Uprooted from their prior self-sufficiency and peaceful relations with the U.S. Gov't, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation's American Indian community there lost 150,000 acres of fertile land and their geographic link with their ancestors and were thrust into an ongoing battle with Congress, Federal, State and local authorities that has only been aggravated by recent decisions to exploit the lakeside properties for their recreational and real estate values. This has further alienated the tribe and cut them off from the lake and their legacy and claims.

    But Peinado and Ross aren't simply intent on documenting the loss: this is more about cultural identity, a people's spirit and their bond with a river, the land, and their history. Thus, via footage of their own journey juxtaposed with extensive on-camera interviews, archival footage, and testimonials, Peinado and Ross explore their own bonds with all this, mounting a passionate, personal account with lyric clarity and intimacy. The current imminent domain debate raging at every level of gov't lends this an increasing timeliness: we can no longer just chalk this up to more of the same breaking of treaties with tribes -- Waterbuster is a template for corporate policies of the 21st Century and complicity with gov't officials directed at all citizens deemed "in the way" or otherwise inconvenient in property terms. Recommended.

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