The Cinema Guild, on of the country’s premiere non-theatrical distributors, has signed on to represent The Hill, a new documentary I co-produced with my wife Lisa Molomot that will be out later this year. Cinema Guild’s recent acquisitions include As Goes Janesville and Neighboring Sounds, and we couldn’t be happier to be in the company of such great titles. The Hill tells the story of a group of African-American neighbors who fight to save their homes from destruction when the City of New Haven proposes a huge new school complex in their neighborhood. Taking their case all the way to federal court, this unlikely group of crusaders band together with preservationists and civil rights advocates in this story about 21st century racism.
On Christmas Eve 2012, we closed our Kickstarter campaign funding the post-production for my latest film Tatanka with well over $13,000 in donations, well above our $11,000 goal. Thank you to all of you who helped make this a success! Tax-deductible donations are still being accepted through our International Documentary Association page.
Con Artist, a feature documentary I edited about one of the art world’s most outrageous provocateurs, is now available for online streaming and purchase. Check it out here, or by clicking on the graphic below.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild, an astounding first feature by my former thesis student Benh Zeitlin (Wesleyan class of 2004), opens in theaters nationwide today. Zeitlin and producers Dan Janvey (class of ’06) and Michael Gottwald (also class of ’06) showed the film at Wesleyan last month, and I think it lives up to the hype. The first weekend is incredibly important to its success–go out and see it!
Precious Knowledge, a documentary I edited about the furor over the Mexican-American Studies program in the Tucson public schools, will screen at the Speilberg Theatre at the Egyptian this coming Friday evening 4/27 at 7:30pm. I will be there with director Ari Palos and producer Eren McGinnis for the Q&A after the screening. Come join us and see the full-length (75-minute) version ahead of its broadcast premiere on Independent Lens next month!
Jon Stewart ran a great segment on the banning of Tucson High School’s Raza Studies program last night on The Daily Show. Correspondent Al Madrigal conducted new interviews with school board member Michael Hicks and teacher Curtis Acosta, but nearly all the rest of the footage in the segment is straight from Precious Knowledge, a documentary I edited that will premiere on PBS on May 17. The NY Times is also running a discussion about the issue on their ‘Opinionator’ blog.
The Destiny Of Lesser Animals (Sibo Ne Kra, Dabo Ne Kra), a narrative feature I co-edited with Lisa Molomot, will screen at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on March 27, 2012. Shot on location in Accra, Ghana, Destiny features a breakout performance by its lead actor and co-writer Yao B. Nunoo, and is the directorial debut of filmmaker Deron Albright. The film showed at Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films last year, and has also screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, and the Seattle International Film Festival.
For those of us who grew up watching Woody Harrelson as the lovably boneheaded Woody Boyd on Cheers, there is something irresistible about seeing him so fully embody the tortured characters he’s taken on of late. That winning smile that once seemed so innocent now hides something menacing and dangerous. This attraction fully in play, I contemplated spending two hours and twelve bucks to see him as an irredeemably corrupt cop in Rampart.
I then listened to Elvis Mitchell’s interview with Rampart director Oren Moverman on KCRW’s “The Treatment.” Moverman, who directed Harrelson in 2009’s excellent The Messenger, spoke of his unusual process in creating the film, one in which the script was used only as a loose guide during production and sometimes thrown out altogether. Harrelson and the rest of the cast were free to improvise, and sometimes came up with new dialogue—even entirely new scenes—on the spot. Amassing some 100 hours of material, they ended up with a shooting ratio more common to documentaries than to narrative features.
The result could, of course, be a mess. But it also sounded tantalizingly close to genius. Moverman promised that narrative would take a back seat to character, overwhelming convention and cliché altogether. Excited by his seemingly experimental approach, I was sold.
Too bad those promises aren’t kept by the finished film.
Rampart is not a disaster, but it’s a long, long way from genius. It’s a flawed experiment in which narrative is surprisingly, frustratingly intact, and often an albatross that holds the film back from its true potential.
The frequent deviations and omissions from the original script result in a story that is thin. The plot can be summed up in one sentence: an internal police investigation is uncovering rampant abuse and misconduct in the Los Angeles Police Department, and veteran officer Dave Brown (Harrelson), a bad man getting badder by the day as his paranoia intensifies, keeps getting hauled in to explain himself. That’s it. Brown is in trouble with his superiors at the beginning of the story, in deeper trouble in the middle of the story, and in really deep trouble at the end, but since the fine points of the plot have been scrubbed away the details no longer have any bite, and nothing really develops. Sigourney Weaver as an LAPD higher-up keeps getting madder at him, and Ned Beatty as a retired officer keeps mumbling ominous words about his future, but since we never grasp the particulars and the words don’t have any identifiable result, they feel remote and disconnected from Brown and his world.
With the right choices, this confusion could have been made productive. Moverman wants to create a subjective point of view in which we, like Brown, wonder what is real as the story progresses. Some of Moverman’s camera choices (which feature cinema verité handheld camera and many shots in which Harrelson is blocked from easy view) seem to reflect Brown’s paranoia. As we watch him, it feels like he himself is being watched.
But Moverman doesn’t take his own ideas seriously enough. In order to really enter Brown’s head, the background plot elements needed to recede much further into the background; they are portrayed too clearly to play as subjective, and are too omnipresent to allow us to get very far into Brown’s head. For the “throw the script out the window” approach to work, we needed to understand less about the facts of the investigation, not more. We needed to be put in a situation much more faithful to the principles of true cinema verité, in which ambiguity produces a tantalizingly partial account of a story in order to fully engage the audience in their own search for answers. There are so many hypnotic scenes of Harrelson—brooding in his car, drinking in bars, staring red-faced at his daughters in a tragically inept attempt at reconciliation—that the mundane particulars of the investigation are simply much less interesting to watch.
Another question: does a pure character study mix well with a script by James Ellroy? Judging from the result here, it seems the answer is “no.” Ellroy’s hardboiled dialogue is always one step away from pure silliness, and while there are some real winners here (“I’m not racist, Brown states matter-of-factly. “I hate everyone equally.”) there are far more losers. One also has the uncomfortable suspicion that the film’s ostensible condemnation of Brown’s brand of vigilante justice is laced with an undeniable glee in watching him perform it. Brown is certainly no hero, but neither is he an effective anti-hero, and the fact that the Rampart scandal is an all too real part of the LAPD’s history makes one all the more uneasy seeing it portrayed so casually. One only has to go back to the baldly racist portrayal of African-Americans in LA Confidential to find evidence of difficulties in translating Ellroy to the big screen.
I walked out of the theater still intrigued by what else was hidden in those 100 hours of footage. Was there a way to treat this film more like the hyper-subjective descent into madness that Moverman hinted was his intention? Would the omission of 15 minutes worth of exposition in the final product have helped achieve the same thing? Ah, playing armchair quarterback is so easy compared to the messy, complicated work of directing…
Last night a crowd of 90 gathered to watch the premiere of films created in Documentary Advocacy, a course I teach for beginning filmmakers at Wesleyan. The work this class did was extraordinary, and is already having an impact. (The film about WILD Wesleyan, a student group that is rebuilding a huge swatch of campus with environmentally sustainable landscaping, has over 2500 hits on YouTube and has led to a substantial donation of seed from a company that heard about the project online.)
Other films feature the teachers and scholars of the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, a championship wheelchair basketball team, one of the country’s oldest college radio stations, and Middletown’s own treasure of a children’s museum, Kidcity. Watch the films here!
Huge congratulations to three former students of mine, director Benh Zeitlin ’04 and Producers Dan Janvey ’06 and Michael Gottwald ’06, who have won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for their film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Fox Searchlight Pictures has acquired the film for distribution, and the film will likely arrive in theaters later this year. The stories I’ve heard from the production of this film are epic, but I’m sure I haven’t heard the half of it. In this little Sundance video, Benh describes auditioning 3500 children before they decided upon their 8 year-old lead Quvenzhane Wallis. This sounds par for the course for a guy who lived in an abandoned squash court (thus the title of their production company “Court 13″) at Wesleyan for months in order to shoot the stop-motion sequences for the making of his thesis film Egg.