Saturday, April 14, 2007

Stop Making Sense

I get asked all the time what is my favorite film and I never have an answer. One day it's The Graduate, another day Blow Up, and the next maybe Animal Crackers. It is always differnt, but I can tell you, without hesitation, that the movie I have spent the most money seeing is Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads concert film directed by Jonathan Demme.

I love this film and during the winter and spring of 1984-85 I dragged friends to the now defunct Fine Arts Theater seven times to see it. I bought the sound track album- cassette, then CD. I bought the VHS tape, the expanded soundtrack album on CD (twice), the film on DVD, and I have given the film as gifts several times. An unhealthy obsession? Probably.

Funny thing is, I wasn't a Talking Heads fan when I first saw the film. I became a fan because the film is so good. In years past I often showed the film on the first day of class. I felt it set a tone- if the teacher will play rock and roll on the first day, how bad can he be? It is also is a great example of a three act structure in a non-narrative film. In the first act the band members enter one at a time through the first four songs as the stage is built around them. The second act is the set of songs with the full band and their back up players. The act ends with the Tom Tom Club's song Genius of Love. The final act starts when David Byrne reappears in the Big Suit.

Unlike other concert films, the emphasis is on the band and the music. No crowd shots, no back stage interviews, just Talking Heads in concert. I think this is some of Demme's best work. Even though he won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, I still prefer his documentary and non-narrative films like Swimming to Cambodia, Cousin Bobby and Storefront Hitchcock- a must from Robyn Hitchcock fans.

So, for today, if anyone asks me what my favorite film is, my answer will be "Stop Making Sense." Check it out.


Friday, April 13, 2007


All of the news around Don Imus and the remarks he made has me thinking about race in film. Race, which I feel is the single most important issue in American politics, defines America, so it should be no surprise that the same issues that exist in the republic as a whole, exist in the film business.

Enter, Spike Lee. His 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It is a landmark in 1980s American cinema. While an entertaining film, it is flawed. What makes it noteworthy is that the film was made, distributed and seen by audiences in the first place. Consider this, with She's Gotta Have It for the first time in a decade American audiences saw black people on the screen kissing. I cannot imagine what it is like to go to the movies and not see people that look like me on the screen, but that was the reality for African-Americans pre-Spike. Name a mainstream American film prior to 1986 where there were positive black role models or ordinary, comical families? Lots of thugs, pimps, “ho’s” and second bananas but not many doctors, lawyers, mothers and fathers.

Cut to: 1989 and Spike’s film Do the Right Thing. It’s about black and whites, living together, patronizing the same places, yet not knowing each other. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s great, yet the Best Picture Oscar that year went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film with a different take on race.

So, you don’t like those films, how about these. Malcolm X. Warner Brothers didn’t give Spike a big enough budget so he hit up his friends Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan to get completion funds. Would Warners have done that to Clint Eastwood?

Is there a better film about the Birmingham, AL church bombings than Four Little Girls? Is there a better film about post 9-11 New York than the 25th Hour? How about Hurricane Katrina and When the Levees Broke?

Name a popular filmmaker who has done more to shed light on important issues in this country than Spike Lee? Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Demme? The only person I can think of is Ken Burns and his trilogy of films about race in America- The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz,

If the African-American experience is really the American Experience, then Spike Lee’s films are important to our cultural understanding. We might not like him or his films, but we need Spike Lee and his films.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

This American Life

I am a big fan of the public radio show This American Life. Each week the program chooses a theme and shares a series of stories on that theme. Usually, I listen while driving and often find myself at my destination, sitting in the parked car listening to the end of a story. Their choice of subjects varies; a couple of weeks ago they devoted the program to 24 hours in a Chicago diner. I recall a fascinating broadcast, which used scenes from a film called The Devil’s Playground about Amish youths who spend a year of their life embracing the modern world. They have a year to decide whether to join the church or leave it forever. It was riveting.

A few weeks ago This American Life began airing a television version on Showtime and I am not sure how I feel about it. There is such a difference between radio and film, I don’t get to use my imagination the same way. The word pictures the radio show paints are replaced by actual pictures and when those images don’t match my preconception it bothers me.

Ira Glass, the host- pictured above, says he has no interest in becoming a documentary filmmaker and I don't doubt him, but I wonder why he is making the TV show. Cashing a check probably has something to do with it. Below are some links where you can hear clips from the radio program and see scenes from the TV show. You tell me what you think.

I am also including a link to The Devil’s Playground it’s a great look into a culture we know very little about.


Oh Brother, Can You Paradigm?

Things are changing. Good, Fast, Cheap-pick two is becoming Good, Fast, Cheap- pick three, or worse Cheap and Fast- no good. It hasn't changed in the week since my earlier pick two post, but it has been slowly coming for awhile.

Jim and I have a package of production gear- camera, lights, sound, grip, monitors, backdrop, etc... that we take when we shoot interviews. This allows us to adapt to the location and get good looking images. That package, including us, costs some money. To do the smallest of interviews it takes us 4 hours from start to finish and that's pretty fast. We have had a standing shooting day rate for years, but over the last few we have been asked about half day rates, quarter day rates and "It will only take you two hours, I promise," rates.

We are in a position of having to compete with ourselves and our standards to get jobs. For us this is a no-win situation and a reason we prefer larger projects where we also conceive, write and edit the film. In addition we now have to compete with people who want to go straight to the internet- the You Tubing of America- and don't care how it looks. On the radio the other day I heard someone say, "You Tube, like TV only smaller and fuzzier."

I read Darwin. I know we must adapt or die, but I would prefer not to have to do it this week.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Second Acts

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives. I disagree. I would say just the opposite, that American lives are almost fully made up of second acts. I don't know if it is the times we live in or our peripatetic nature, but I know more people who have changed career and life paths (not always willingly) and are the better for it.

I began teaching only after I was fired from a production company. I would not say it was a blessing in disguise, getting fired is hell, but in the long run it worked out great. Teaching has made me a better filmmaker and a better person. The big secret about teaching is that we learn as much, if not more, from the students than they learn from us.

A former student of mine moved to Denver where she had a great producing job with the Starz network. She and her husband, also a former student, lived the film life for the better part of a decade. But that life wasn't enough for them and a few years ago they opened a pet boutique called The Wag Shop. They couldn't be happier. For pet shop owners, they are pretty damn good filmmakers.

I am thinking about second acts in American lives because I see students who are convinced at age 18 that they know EXACTLY what they want to do with the rest of their lives. How do they know this? I don't know, not from anything I have told them. Also, I have seen many comments, both on-line and off, from bloggers talking about what they really want to do. My suggestion is to start thinking about your second act, because Act III will be here before you know it.


Monday, April 9, 2007

To Be or Not To Be

Is film dead? That is the question.

I had lunch the other day with a former student. And when he is not being a tennis official, he works often in the Chicago film business. He told me that in the last year the only film (35mm) shoots he has worked on have been either $500,000+ TV commercials with celebrity talent, or big feature films. Everything else has been HD or some digital format.

More and more feature films, such as Zodiac, are shooting on a non-film format. Movie Theaters are converting to digital projection and soon there will be no film prints everything will be beamed in via satellite.

I have been trading e-mails with an Irish filmmaker who is about to make a film about backpacking through Australia. He has some corporate sponsorship- and is trying to get Canon to sign on as well- but he is shooting with a small HD camera, taking two laptops to do the edit and shipping his masters out of Australia. I think this model is the future.

So, again, the question: Why film?


Old School

My cell phone died on Saturday. Actually it only half died. I can talk into and can be heard, but I can't hear the person I am talking with. My last conversation went something like this, "Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Oh God Damn it!" Hardly "Mr. Watson come here," as famous phone conversations go.

So I went to the phone store where the combined age of the three employees was less than my age. I pulled out my broken 2002 Motorola phone and they looked at me as if I had just brought in a tin can and string. "I've never seen one of these before," "I have, it was my dad's first cell phone,"

After they finished their good laugh, the salesperson proceeded to show me phones starting of course with the most expensive model. I had to explain to him that I just wanted to make and receive phone calls. No text messages, no pictures, no video features. I have other machines that can do that. Just a phone please. As his commission flew out the window, he reluctantly showed me a simple $29 model.

All of this made me think of how rapidly technology has changed in the film business. I teach an intermediate class where students first learn how to edit digitally. In the late 9os when we started this course we took it very methodically. At first I had students work together to help themselves out. Today, 12 of the 16 students already know how to edit digitally- they have picked it up on their own. The other four took to it in a day or so. What had taken 1/3 of the semester is now covered in no more than two or three class sessions. The rapid changes are mind boggling. As a teacher it is really a case of keep up or be left behind.

Now, if I can only figure out how to retrieve my voice mail on this phone I will be all set.