Friday, August 17, 2007

On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road turned 50 the other day. When I worked at the Museum of Broadcast Communications we had a great clip of Kerouac reading On The Road on the Steve Allen Show as Steverino made a little jazz piano behind him. Can you imagine Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers appearing on Letterman reading as the band just played a groove behind him? It’s a different time.

But this blog is about film, and of my favorite sub-genres of film is the road move. (I am apologizing to my dad now because there will be no discussion of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby- and the film where Bob Crosby suddenly appears in the jungle because Bing promised him a role in the film. Great films, but not on topic.)

I often say to students, metaphorically, that the audience really wants a road map to where your film is heading. While not explaining everything, they do want to know where they are going once the film begins. The road film provides just that. We, the characters, the audience, the crew, everyone are going from point A to point B and we will meet new people and see new things along the way.

The other thing a good road film does is expose us to who we really are. Much like it took a French man, Alexis de Tocqueville, to write the definitive book about America’s first century, an outsider’s perspective to a culture is very valuable. All of this leads me to the definitive road film of my youth, Easy Rider.

Today Easy Rider is a relic of the 60s, both in its content and in its style, but it captures the zeitgeist of the times. Simply put, Captain America and Billy sell a pile of cocaine to crazy Phil Spector and set out across the country to find themselves. Along the way they go to a hippie commune, meet Jack Nicholson, a drunk lawyer from Texas, get harassed by rednecks for their long hair, take acid in New Orleans and come to an understanding that perhaps the American Dream isn’t what they thought.

The cinematographer of Easy Rider, Laszlo Kovacs, died a couple of weeks ago. He felt he learned a lot about America by shooting that film and going on the road with Fonda, Hopper, et. al. He said his biggest contribution to the film was to bring the perspective of a foreigner to the picture.

Here are a few of my other favorite road films.

The Wizard of Oz
Lost in America
Smoke Signals


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Keys to the House

Because of my sister I am very sensitive to portrayals of handicapped people on film. No matter how good Daniel Day Lewis is in My Left Foot, or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Sean Penn in I am Sam I still see the actor, not the character. Worse yet is when the disabled person in the film comes to some understanding at the end of the film, allowing us to leave the theater with a happy ending. My sister has never developed a new and better way to communicate just because we have been there for her. (The central premise of my film what's two+ three?- click on the link to the right if you are curious.) In some ways those other films are a bit offensive to me.

This brings me to this terrific little Italian film called Keys to the House. (So much nicer in Italian as Le Chiavi di Casa.) A man who has never seen his son takes him from Italy to a hospital in Berlin. The son, played by Andrea Rossi, has some mental and physical disability which is never fully explained, but is the reason for the entire journey. I haven't been able to learn much about Andre Rossi. According to imdb this is his only film. To me it seems as if he has cerebral palsy- he has a lazy eye, walks with a limp and has a withered arm. Now it certainly could be he is acting just like Day Lewis, et. al. but since he is not famous he became the character.

To me one of the best things about the film is that it doesn't try to explain everything. You don't (I didn't, but I am a dumb filmmaker) really know what his "problem" is or why the father is doing this, or what they are going to do at this hospital, or why they haven't ever seen each other. The film is simply about the relationship between father and son. I kept waiting for it to take a turn towards happy ending, but it didn't, though it is not at all sad. In fact the film ended sort of in the middle of things, leaving questions unanswered. It is by far the best film I have seen featuring a character with a disability and I encourage you to check it out.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bright Lights and Baseball

Yesterday's post about finding a path into the film business has me thinking about my own path and how I owe an unexpected thanks to my great aunt Amy. Aunt Amy taught me a lot of things one of which is how to love the Boston Red Sox (and to swear at the TV, and at slow drivers an appreciation of whiskey and blueberry muffins). The summer when I was seven Aunt Amy gave my dad and me tickets to see the Red Sox play- it was my first baseball game- and on the same day she got my mom the chance to see Julia Child tape her TV show.

The game was a wild one. The Sox won in extra innings. Rico Petrocelli hit a grand slam, twice players ran into each other going after pop ups. I loved it and thought all baseball games would be like that. When the game ended my dad and I went to the WGBH studios in Cambridge to pick my mom up. The taping wasn't over- Julia kept burning her sugar and had to do take after take- but they let us in to watch.

The bright lights, so hot, and the huge prehistoric looking pedestal cameras amazed me. And the colors! We only had a black and white TV so first with all the green at Fenway Park, and then all the colors of Julia's TV kitchen; it was if I woke up in Oz. I will never forget that day, and I am sure it was one of the catalysts that lead me towards the film business.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Navel Gazing

It was an interesting week for the dumb filmmaker. As you saw in the previous posts I was simultaneously shooting a film and teaching eight incoming students. If it was 3:30, I must be teaching, 4pm, filmmaking and back and forth throughout the week. It was all a blur but it went well.

I didn't even think about becoming a filmmaker until I was in college. There was no path, I didn't know anyone in the business. Filmmaking- whatever that was- was something that happened in a place called Hollywood and I didn't give it much thought. Today it seems everyone knows a little something about how movies are made. DVD extras, websites and those infotainment TV shows all illuminate some part of the process, and as I result I think the barriers to entry in the business are much lower and more accessible. This is a good thing, I think.

Yet, despite how much my students thought they knew about the business, they were taken aback by what really happens on a film set. I think it was Werner Erhard (I am not a disciple, in my first draft I originally called him William- but a good quote is a good quote) who talked about three types of knowledge. 1) There is what you know you know. You use that in your life. 2) Then there is what you know you don't know- that is why you learn and discover. 3) Then there is big other area about what you don't know you don't know.

One of my jobs as a teacher is to expose students to the idea that there is a lot more out there than what they know they know and what they know they don't know. I like to peel back the curtain to expose something they didn't know existed, and then let them learn and discover on their own. When it works, like this past week, it works well.