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Best Films of 2008

Milk wouldn't work without Sean Penn.

Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Something in the water? Or is it just the way the wind is blowing? Whatever the case, when our often-contentious quintet of film critics put their heads together about the best movies of 2008, they managed to agree (more or less) on a dozen they felt were deserving of that designation. What's more, two of those films — The Dark Knight and Wall-E — also happen to rank among the year's five highest-grossing releases (with The Dark Knight, as of this writing, the second highest-grossing film ever released in the U.S.), taking the wind out of that tiresome old argument that says the tastes of critics and those of the average moviegoer are permanently out of alignment. Does that mean Hollywood is getting better, or Indiewood merely worse? Discuss amongst yourselves on your way to a night at one of these movies:

Che. Steven Soderbergh's superlatively crafted, dramatically compelling, emotionally distant account of Che Guevara's participation in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s and the disastrous Bolivian uprising a decade later is an anti-biopic that seeks to humanize its subject with a shocking absence of human interest. History is not personalized. Che (which opens wide in January) is both action film and ongoing argument. The two parts are best seen together: The second may be more realized, but its tragic futility is only comprehensible in the light of what has come before. (Hoberman)

A Christmas Tale. A family of labile French hobgoblins bound together by one of the cheesiest movie metaphors — bad blood — and stewing volubly over old wounds goes home for the holidays and squabbles over who's going to save Catherine Deneuve. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin wraps their brief encounters and power struggles in an armory of cinematic tricks and literary allusions and turns them into a wonderfully fractured, endlessly self-renewing prose poem on the mysteries of domestic life. (Taylor)

The Dark Knight. It was a dark pleasure indeed to return to Christopher Nolan's Gotham City in this hugely ambitious continuation of Nolan's already-impressive 2005 Batman Begins — think of it as The Godfather: Part II of comic-book movies. As the anarchic Joker, the late Heath Ledger proved to be the freakishly disturbing highlight of a very good show, in which Nolan once again explored the themes that have attended his work since Memento — memory, obsessive desire and the dual nature of man. By the end, our winged protagonist is no longer sure whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story — and neither, for that matter, are we. (Foundas)

Milk. As conventional as biopics get: uplift and tragedy, upper as downer. But this one's more heartfelt than most, as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — who rescued Harvey Milk's story from Hollywood's give-up pile — has amassed what amounts to an oral history re-enacted by a cast that honors the late San Francisco supervisor's legacy as barrier-buster; no mere martyr he, not here. But without Sean Penn — who makes Milk's quirky mannerisms his own without reducing them to impression or, even worse, "interpretation" — the movie wouldn't work; all alone, he renders the potentially pedestrian absolutely profound. (Wilonsky)

Paranoid Park. Not since Springsteen in The Rising has an artist used pop so consciously (or urgently) as public address as Gus Van Sant does in Milk. By comparison, this little-seen vision of childhood's end is the triumphant culmination of Van Sant's apprenticeship in noncommercial cinema: It gathered all those experiments in looped chronology, sinuous long takes and meandering with intent into gorgeous, artfully scattered fragments of a skater boy's doomed now-is-forever youth. (Ridley)

Silent Light. To date, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas's astoundingly beautiful, Dreyer-influenced drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community on the outskirts of Chihuahua, has played the festival circuit extensively but received only one regular, weeklong booking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But starting in January, it will begin making its way toward an art house closer to you, which is good news indeed for anyone who cares seriously about the art of cinema. ­(Foundas)

Slumdog Millionaire. After last year's Sunshine, Danny Boyle's back to doing what he does best: grimy fairy tales in which the uplift's hard-earned after putting his heroes through hell and his audience through the wringer. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone, sure, but the grown-up orphan at the center of Slumdog deserves it more than most, as the story, in fevered flashback, provides the answers to questions put before him by the cruelest game-show host this side of Howie Mandel. After the recent terrorist-inflicted violence in Mumbai, an extra layer of anguish now shrouds every scene. (Wilonsky)

Still Life. The world's oldest civilization is also the world's newest, which is why Jia Zhangke, pre-eminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, seems the most contemporary narrative filmmaker on earth. Predicated on a sense of everyday social flux, Jia's fifth feature broods like a cloud over Fengjie, the ancient river city largely flooded and partially rebuilt as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. Still Life vibrates with traces of human presence — deserted construction sites; shabby, cluttered rooms; eerily half-demolished (or half-built) neighborhoods; moldering factory works. Everything's despoiled and yet — as rendered in rich, crisp HD images — everything is beautiful. (Hoberman)

 

Synecdoche, New York. In interviews, Charlie Kaufman has floated the idea of building a scale-model Las Vegas in Las Vegas — which would entail building a scale-model scale-model Las Vegas, and within it a...well, you get the picture. That's probably the easiest way to describe Kaufman's dizzily ambitious directorial debut, a nonmusical All That Jazz devoted to a terminal case (Philip Seymour Hoffman) riddled with the affliction of the age: impermeable layers of self-awareness, surveillance and scrutiny that filter the living out of life. On one viewing, there's much in it I neither understand completely nor love, yet if any film resists the demotion of movies to one-time consumables, it's this one: a puzzlebox that only starts to unfold after it's already been opened. (Ridley)

Wall-E. The most human film of '08 featured two robots whose courtship takes place among the ruins of a planet destroyed by the greedy, spoiled humans who abandoned their apocalyptic trash heap to the compactors and cockroaches. Everything about Wall-E was sumptuous and warm and wise; no movie ached and laughed and soared more this year than this animated wonder, whose luminescence will linger for generations — or until science fiction becomes sad fact, and all's erased. ­(Wilonsky)

Waltz with Bashir. If Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman had simply edited his own and his former IDF comrades' memories of the infamous 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon into a talking-heads doc, he'd have gotten a few respectful nods from critics and a brief tour of the marginal film-festival circuit. Instead, he and his creative team animated the soldiers' testimonies into a vintage graphic novel, creating a surreal record of recovered memory whose deceptive emotional flatness amps up the terror of bearing witness to the murder of helpless Palestinians by Christian Phalangists. Waltz with Bashir is a giant anxiety attack of singular beauty and sorrow that also shatters the Israeli myth of invincible Israeli masculinity. (Taylor)

Wendy and Lucy. Old Joy director Kelly Reichardt's simple yet deeply felt road movie about a rudderless drifter (the excellent Michelle Williams) and her canine companion offered a lovely minimalist riposte to the year-end movie season's many overblown acts of cinema maximus (see Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, et al.). It was also, along with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, one of an increasingly small number of American movies devoted to a real, recognizable America, broken down by disappointments and yet suffused with possibility. (Foundas)

YEAR OF THE RAM
Mickey Rourke climbs back in the ring with The Wrestler
BY SCOTT FOUNDAS

"I hated the '90s. The '90s fuckin' sucked," says professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson early on in The Wrestler — and he should know. Over the hill and past his prime — his steroidal body a palimpsest of battle scars, his graying hair dyed a Nordic blond — Robinson hasn't seen the inside of a major arena in the better part of 20 years. Nowadays, he gets top billing by scraping bottom, trading blows with other used-to-bes and might-have-beens in school gymnasiums and banquet halls, earning a cut of the door that's barely enough to cover his trailer-park rent.

As it happens, the '90s weren't much kinder to the actor playing Robinson: Mickey Rourke. By the end of that misbegotten decade, the onetime Hollywood A-lister was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment and subsisting on a meager income generated by the sale of his motorcycle collection, plus whatever acting jobs he could scrounge up from the few producers in town who weren't afraid to hire him. His flirtation with a boxing career had come to an end. His ­tabloid-catnip marriage to model Carré Otis had hit the skids. There were reports of arrests, of plastic surgeries gone awry and of the actor walking off the set after a producer refused to allow his pet Chihuahua to appear with him in a scene.

"The thing is that I am the one to blame for all that," Rourke says as he lights a cigarette in what I'm pretty sure is a nonsmoking suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, the day after The Wrestler's North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. His Chihuahua, Loki, barks from a nearby cushion. "I used to blame other people, but I've got nobody else to blame except for Mickey Rourke."

 

That's more or less the same thing Rourke told director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) when they first met to discuss The Wrestler in New York. Or rather, it was what Aronofsky told him. "He sits down, and for the first five minutes, he tells me how I fucked up my whole career for 15 years behaving like this, and I'm agreeing with everything," Rourke recalls. "Yes, I did. That's why I haven't worked for 15 years, and I've been working real hard not to make those mistakes." After that, Aronofsky pointed his finger at the actor — something, Rourke says, that not so long ago would have prompted him to say, "Don't do that, okay buddy?" — and laid out the ground rules.

"He goes, 'You have to listen to everything I say. You have to do everything I tell you. You can never disrespect me. And you can't be hanging out at the clubs all night long. And I can't pay you.' And I'm thinking, 'This fucker must be talented, because he's got a lot of nerve to say that.'" Then Aronofsky told Rourke that if he did all of those things, he would get the actor an Oscar nomination. "The moment he said that, I believed him," says Rourke. "The first day of work, I believed him more." (As for the finger-pointing, "I'm from New York — we point a lot," Aronofsky tells me later. "Like any good marriage, you want to be as up-front as possible about what the issues are.")

On set, the actor-director relationship continued in a similar vein. "He knew how to push my buttons," Rourke says. "I do a take, and I nail it. I look over at Darren and I think, 'Okay, we're moving on.' And he walks over to me and says, 'Do it better.' And you know what surprised me? I did it again, and I did it better. He knew that if he challenged me, that's what I wanted. A lot of people don't like that;me, I need it."

The result, which has been widely hailed as Rourke's career-capping/redefining/resuscitating turn, is a characterization of rare intensity and pathos that bristles with the lived-in authority of someone who knows what it means to live with his back against the ropes. "Unfortunately, I've seen this side of life," Rourke sighs. Watching the Ram on screen — reduced to working the deli counter of a New Jersey supermarket after a heart attack takes him out of the ring; playing the electronic avatar of himself in an '80s-era Nintendo wrestling game — the line between performer and performance all but disappears. But The Wrestler, at least where Rourke is concerned, almost didn't happen at all. Although Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel developed the project with Rourke in mind, they found it impossible to secure even the modest financing required for a sometimes explicitly violent wrestling movie starring an actor who hadn't headlined a major motion picture since the first George Bush was in office.

Shortly after Rourke and Aronofsky's first meeting, "They called me up and said they couldn't do the movie with me; the investors wanted a $20 million actor to do the part," Rourke says. (When The Wrestler was first announced in the pages of Variety, Nicolas Cage was attached to star.) Rourke, meanwhile, was secretly relieved, "because I knew that Darren wanted me to revisit these dark places, these painful places. And then there was the physical part — the two months of training — and the not getting paid."

So, Rourke returned home to Miami, only to receive a phone call from his agent a few weeks later saying that the role was once again his. "My reaction," he says, only half-jokingly, was, "'Oh fuck! Can't you get me something else?'"

"With luck, Rourke could become a major actor; he has an edge and magnetism and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you," wrote Pauline Kael in her review of Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), in which the actor played the compulsively gambling and girl-chasing hairdresser Robert "Boogie" Sheftell. "He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else." That was a movie that launched at least a half-dozen careers, but Rourke, whose bit part as an arsonist in the previous year's Body Heat had nearly stolen that movie out from under Kathleen Turner's smoldering legs, stood apart from the crowd, and won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his efforts.

Rourke's "edge," as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick and — yes — Steve Guttenberg. Even among the talented ensemble of Francis Ford Coppola's Brechtian Rumble Fish, which included the young Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, it was Rourke, cast as the doomed, James Dean-like Motorcycle Boy, who carried the greatest gravitas. He seemed to have seen things and been places, to bear the marks of experience. And while Rourke went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like that of the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-­vagabond-dreamer — the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.

 

He was casually mesmerizing as the small-time hood who dreams of opening a restaurant in Stuart Rosenberg's underrated The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then, in a piss-and-­vinegar tour de force, as Henry Chinaski, the autobiographical alter ego of Charles Bukowski, in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987). Already, though, there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with (Basinger famously, if somewhat enigmatically, dubbed him "the human ashtray") and hostile to those in authority. During the production of Nine 1/2 Weeks, a New York Times report described a brass plaque in Rourke's trailer that warned "all studio executives and producers" to stay away. "Stay the fuck away," Rourke corrects me when I mention this.

"I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn — they're all very bright, educated guys who understand that it's a business and there's politics involved," Rourke says. "I wasn't educated or aware enough. I thought I was so good I didn't have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong."

So, in 1991, Rourke effectively turned his back on the industry, returned to his childhood home of Miami and resurrected his adolescent dream of becoming a professional boxer. It was during that time, while training for a fight in Kansas City against light heavyweight Tom Bentley, that Rourke's assistant told him that an up-and-coming director named Quentin Tarantino wanted to meet with him about a role in his next movie. "I said, 'Who else is in it?' She said, 'John Travolta.' I said, 'How much?' She said, 'Scale.' I took the script, and I remember throwing it at her. I didn't even read it. I went to Kansas City and had a first-round knockout, and that was more important to me."

By the time Rourke retired from boxing in 1994 — the same year in which Otis filed, and later dropped, spousal-abuse charges against him — it was difficult to determine what had taken the bigger beating: his career or his once smooth, beautiful, boyish face.

In person, Rourke now seems more pussycat than mad dog, and looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy; the tan less bottled. Not bad for a guy nearing 60, if you believe the least flattering of Rourke's various reported birth years (1950) — a subject on which the actor himself declines to comment. But every once in a while, you can catch a flicker of the deep-set anger and rage that Rourke has grappled with for decades, particularly when the subject turns to his childhood.

Rourke, who was born in Schenectady, New York, moved at an early age with his mother, brother and sister to the mostly black inner city of Miami, following his parents' divorce. He doesn't reveal much about those years (though he has alluded in past interviews to abuse suffered at the hands of a violent stepfather), but what he does say paints a vivid portrait: "It was horrific; it was shameful," he says. "Let's put it this way: I would have preferred never to have been born. When you have things like that happen, you either go to prison for your whole life, or you act out and self-destruct."

The self-destruction would eventually come, but at the time, Rourke threw himself into sports. He was good in the ring, and a professional career seemed in the offing, until a couple of bad concussions set him back. It was then that Rourke, who had never given any thought to acting, auditioned for a role in a University of Miami production of Jean Genet's Deathwatch, and got the part. By the time the play closed, he had resolved to go to acting school "and learn how to do this shit. So I got on a plane and went to the Village."

Eventually, Rourke found his way to the Actors Studio, where he learned the Method and dedicated himself to his newfound trade with signature obsessiveness. "I wanted to be like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Chris Walken and Harvey Keitel," he says. "I wanted to be a really great actor. And if I worked really, really fucking hard, maybe one day I could do that. And I worked really, really hard. I had no social life. I lived like a monk. For weeks on end, I slept on the couch at the Actors Studio, working on scenes nonstop."

 

Yet, at the height of his fame, when younger actors were heading to the Studio wondering if they might have a shot at becoming the next Mickey Rourke, he was never satisfied. "I was waiting for the great picture, and it didn't happen," says Rourke, who was offered — and turned down — roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Platoon and Rain Man, among others. "And I was living way above my means. I bought a big house, and because I was always turning shit down — formula stuff, Hollywood stuff — I got in a jam, so I had to do a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). They paid me a lot of money, and I went fuckin' bonkers because I sold out and I hated myself for it. Some kind of anger kicked off, about the fact that I'd put myself in a position to have to do that movie. The demons took over."

And they reigned for most of the next decade, during which you needed an active Blockbuster membership to keep track of Rourke's erratic movie résumé, until the actor slowly but steadily began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo '66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke's friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Man on Fire, Domino) came Rourke's way, until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante Marv in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

But The Wrestler is something else entirely — a movie in which Rourke appears in almost every frame of every scene, and where, as German filmmaker Wim Wenders commented upon awarding the film the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, he more than once breaks your heart.

"Let's look at it this way," Rourke says, couching things in the same metaphorical terms he uses with his therapist of more than a decade. "There's a stadium, and they're not going to let you in to play the game, but you're going to be out there buying a ticket to get in. Four years later, you're watching the game from inside the stadium. Three more years go by, and now you're on the bench. Two more years go by, and you're on the field, but they're not kicking you the ball yet. It's been a game of inches."

Come February, that game of inches may well land Rourke in the end zone of the Kodak Theatre. But no matter what happens, Rourke says there's no danger that he'll ever revert to his hell-raising ways. "Look, a little time bomb's always gonna be in Mickey Rourke, okay?" he says. "But I used to have bad people around me. Now, I've got people around me who have my best interest at heart. I'm always going to be a volatile cat. If someone disrespects me, it's always going to be on, so I try not to put myself in positions where that's going to happen. I do everything I can to avoid that, because let me tell you...to live in a state of shame for so many years, to be a has-been...it hurts...it really did hurt."

Rourke chokes on those last few words, then takes a deep breath and asks his assistant to relight his cigarette. "I'm so amazed that I'm getting a second chance," he says. "I said this to somebody recently: God's got a plan for us all. I sure as hell wish I would have looked at his instead of mine."

THE SEARCHER
Clint Eastwood, America's director
BY SCOTT FOUNDAS

"You've made the first movie of the Obama generation!" exclaimed an audience member as he rushed up to Clint Eastwood after a recent screening of Gran Torino. "Well," the 78-year-old actor-director replied, without missing a beat, "I was actually born under Hoover." It was an ironic juxtaposition, given that Eastwood's Torino character, widowed Korean War vet and former Detroit autoworker Walt Kowalski, has earned comparisons to TV's Archie Bunker, both for his politically incorrect racial epithets and general hostility toward a modern world that seems to have left him — and his old-fashioned American values — out in the cold. "We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again," Bunker sang at the start of each All in the Family episode. But it's change, not nostalgia, that sets the tone in Gran Torino, as the belligerent Walt ventures first across the property line and then deeper into the lives of the Hmong immigrant family living next door.

 

The movie, Eastwood tells me the day after the Torino screening, appealed to his own personal philosophy of "never stop learning. If you never stop learning, then you never stop growing as a person, you never stop taking in new information and changing. People ask me, 'Have you changed?' And I say, 'I hope so,' because over 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you're supposed to change all the time. You're supposed to expand."

That said, Gran Torino is hardly one of those rainbow-coalition lessons in tolerance that well-meaning but naive American filmmakers tend to unleash at least once or twice a season — the ones about some randomly connected group of ethnically diverse strangers, who take a trip to the Grand Canyon together, or a stuffy New York economist who goes native and starts playing the African drum. Eastwood would no sooner make such a pedantic film about our changing cultural makeup than he would directly address the effects of factory closures on once-prosperous labor meccas like Detroit — even though that too is very much a part of Gran Torino. As Manohla Dargis noted recently in The New York Times, "Few Americans make movies about this country anymore, other than Mr. Eastwood." But while America is undeniably Eastwood's great subject, as it was for his spiritual mentor, John Ford, he rarely tackles any American issue — social, economic or otherwise — head-on.

"I go for the sideline effects of it all rather than, 'Okay, here we are in the factory that's shutting down,'" Eastwood explains. "The obvious stories, the Norma Rae kind of stories, those are hurdles, but they're kind of right out there in front. It's the hurdles that are inside that you have to deal with to make characters interesting, I think."

Interviewing Eastwood can offer a similar education in stealth maneuvers and rear-guard actions. Ask him directly about some seemingly recurring theme in his work — like the way many Eastwood films address the conflict between personal and societal morality — and, at best, you'll get a grudging "I'm attracted to that, I guess."

After directing 29 feature films and acting in more than twice that many, he says there's no grander design to the way he works than simply reading a script and deciding, "Okay, this fits with what I want to do next. This is a person I'd like to visit and watch him go through his life."

But Eastwood will allow that, more often than not, those people he chooses to visit are haunted figures with dark and even dangerous pasts, men who have done or witnessed things no man should do or see. He likens Walt Kowalski, traumatized by the atrocities he committed a half-century ago in Korea, to Sanford Clark, the teenage nephew and unwitting accomplice of convicted serial killer Gordon Northcott, whose 1920s killing spree inspired Eastwood's other 2008 release, Changeling.

"I looked at a picture of his gravestone — he died at 92 — and it says 'to a loving father and grandfather,' Eastwood offers. "And you wonder, how the hell did this guy go on to be a loving father and grandfather? How did he bury all that crap? That's a whole story in itself — what his life must have been like, going back after that, having assisted in killing little children. You think, 'God, what could haunt a person any more than that?'"

All of us, Eastwood adds, "have to see a lot of crappy things in a lifetime and you have to deal with them, bury them. Sometimes you get assistance in that; sometimes you don't. The people in Flags of Our Fathers: I don't know what those people did. They just told them, 'Okay, you're discharged now. The war's over. Go home. Get over it. Forget about it.'"

So, while Eastwood is glad that fans have been telling him how eagerly they're anticipating Gran Torino ever since the movie's poster, featuring a vindictive-looking Clint wielding an M-1, started circulating a couple of months ago, he hopes people drawn to the film by its promise of a return to Dirty Harry-style vigilantism realize that there's more to the movie than meets the eye. "I wonder if those people will be disappointed — the ones who just want the hard-ass stuff, the rifle in the face and the guns and stuff like that," he says. "You hope if that's what attracts an audience in, it isn't what they're left with. You hope the undercurrent will get to them as well."

 

It's those undercurrents that have dominated the latter half of Eastwood's filmmaking career, in which images of violence have rarely been offered up for mere titillation or visceral excitement. He points to the scene in the Oscar-winning Unforgiven in which the retired gunslinger William Munny (played by Eastwood) and his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) gun down a young man with a bounty on his head, who has violently assaulted a ­frontier-town prostitute. "Afterward, there's that little moment of, 'Jesus, I didn't want to ever do this again,'" Eastwood says. "He had vowed to stay away from that life, but there he is, just because they figured they would go get a little ransom money, and they rationalize it by saying, 'They deserve it anyway.' And that's the way life is."

By way of real-life example, Eastwood mentions the recent incident in which an employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death by several hundred overly eager customers attending the store's post-Thanksgiving sale. "Those people would probably say, 'Well, the guy shouldn't have been in our way,' or 'The crowd was moving and I had to go with it.' People can rationalize just about anything, but when you really come down to it, the behavior is appalling."

One of Gran Torino's most memorable sequences involves Kowalski giving advice on "how to be a man" to a shy, gang-victimized Hmong teenager (newcomer Bee Vang). It's fitting, because in the 40 years since he first donned The Man With No Name's desert poncho, Eastwood has defined a kind of squint-eyed, low-voiced, impermeable macho cool for several generations of moviegoers — and, even in today's fickle youth culture, can still be found gracing the cover of men's lifestyle magazines like Esquire. It's a status that Eastwood, like Gran Torino itself, both embraces and gently mocks, fully aware of the anachronism of being a "man's man" in our supposedly gender-neutral society.

"The idea that men and women are the same is crazy, because they're not," Eastwood says with a chuckle. "They're equal under the eyes of the law and they're equal in a lot of ways — in fact, women are superior in a lot of ways and men are superior in other ways. So the more we recognize that, the more we can use those superior aspects of the gender. But being a guy now is a strange thing, especially a Caucasian male. Who's the biggest asshole? It's the white guys. You can attack them without hurting anybody's feelings, because they're the buffoons of society at the present time. But I always figure: What the hell, they can take it."

And true to form, Eastwood, who has four Oscars under his belt and is now well past the age at which almost any major star or director has still been actively working, isn't going anywhere just yet. In the spring, he begins production in South Africa on The Human Factor, a sports drama set during the first year of Nelson Mandela's presidency, starring his old friend Morgan Freeman as the celebrated leader.

"He's just won the presidency when it starts, and it's about how he unites the country," Eastwood says. "The country is going every which way at that time. All these different groups are at each other's throats. And he takes this really bad, white rugby team and takes an interest in them. The blacks can't figure it out: What is he doing with these guys? But then he talks them into winning the World Cup, and they win it. It's sort of a fairy-tale story, but it's one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of things. And it shows how brilliant he was, in a way. He knew that if he could make this happen, blacks and whites would come together in genuine enthusiasm."

Which sounds like the second movie of the Obama generation.

THE WANDERERS
Michelle Williams finds a safe haven with outsider director Kelly Reichardt on Wendy and Lucy
BY ELLA TAYLOR

Not long after her lovely 2006 film Old Joy received the terrific reviews and lousy box office that habitually reward talented makers of very low-budget movies, Kelly Reichardt had lunch with her old friend Todd Haynes. Reichardt had just seen Brokeback Mountain and raved about the performances of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, then an engaged couple. Haynes, who had cast Williams in I'm Not There and had just read the script for Reichardt's projected new movie about a homeless woman driving north to Alaska to work in the canneries, tossed out the actress's name for the lead.

"And I said, 'Oh, of course, I loved her,'" says Reichardt, a slight, intense Floridian in her forties who now lives in New York. "But I'm just so afraid of the movie business. Todd and I have this constant conversation about whether my small way of filmmaking is really easier or really harder." With Reichardt's permission, Haynes gave Williams the script, and with a little more arm-twisting from Reichardt's producer Phil Morrison and casting director Laura Rosenthal, both friends of the actress who hang out at the same Brooklyn coffee shop as she does, she said yes. "We certainly had her cornered," Reichardt says with pride.

 

And that's how a movie star who regularly pops up in the baby-and-me photo spreads of People magazine showed up in Portland, Oregon, two days after completing Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, to work on Wendy and Lucy. Williams was already known for making her own choices — she worked with Wim Wenders on the little-seen Land of Plenty, and she's far from the only Hollywood actor who crosses the line between studio and independent films more or less at will. But it's a rare bankable star who lends her name to a tiny project budgeted at $300,000 and shot over 18 days with a mostly volunteer crew by a director whose name, had Williams bothered to ask permission from her agents, would doubtless have inspired the response "Who?"

Wendy and Lucy, which screened at Cannes and opened in December in New York and Los Angeles, has already earned rapturous notices and shown up on several early Ten Best lists. Williams's wattage has surely helped, but the poetically minimalist film, which sets the young woman's plight against the polluted beauty of the Pacific Northwest landscape, is unnervingly timely in its evocation of an American Dream of self-improvement that quickly sours into a struggle for material and spiritual survival. The story, co-written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond from Raymond's short story Train Choir, was inspired by tales of post–Hurricane Katrina displacement. But the direction it took was shaped by Reichardt's encounter, while scouting for a location in Texas, with a middle-aged Mexican woman whose car had blown a tire and landed in a ditch. The woman was in her socks, her cell phone minutes had expired, she had $20 to her name and the blown tire was her only spare. Reichardt drove her to the next exit, paid for the tow truck, came back with her and marveled as a policeman worried more about her safety than the woman's.

"I was really impressed with how unhysterical she was, and how she expected nothing from authority," says Reichardt. "And my own train of thought was, how deep do I get into this? Can I buy my way out of it? It made me realize that's what this film is about. What is our obligation?"

Barely recognizable in a lusterless brown pudding-basin haircut and a faded sweatshirt over cutoff jeans and flannel shirt, Williams plays Wendy Carroll, an Indiana native stranded in a decaying former mill town in Oregon when her ancient car breaks down and she loses her beloved dog. Her delicate features set in the determined mask of one who's resolutely avoiding looking at the big picture of her life because she has to focus on the next fire she has to put out, Wendy pilfers food from a supermarket, fumes silently under inept fingerprinting by a policeman, scours the pound for her pet, sleeps rough in a park (where she is screamed at by a wild-eyed Larry Fessenden) and reluctantly accepts help from a kindly drugstore security guard. Wendy says little, but her lonely desperation shows in a flicker of the eyes and the tension gathering in her wiry body.

"Michelle was the one actress I couldn't totally picture in the role of Wendy," says Reichardt. "To have someone with some mystery to them is very intriguing to me. I also didn't know completely what a physical actress Michelle is, and when I saw how she uses her body, that was pretty exciting. She can be really, really still." Williams's performance is so inward it can't even be called gestural, yet it's a devastating portrait of a lonely woman trying to keep her already tenuous life from sliding off a cliff.

At first Williams was unnerved by Wendy's lack of definition. "I made many panicked calls to friends, telling them I didn't know what I was doing, I don't know who she is," says the actress. "Kelly talked me off the ledge. I knew from having seen Old Joy that this was a hypernaturalistic landscape, and as an actor I was really interested in Will [Oldham]'s performance that wasn't a performance. That was the vein I wanted to tap. In the police-station scene where I'm being fingerprinted, I thought I was doing this really subtle thing to transmit my frustration. And after the first take Kelly was, like, 'You don't even have to do that, shift your hips and look frustrated. You just have to trust that it's going to come through.' And I thought, oh, that's it. Then it started to feel right."

 

Reichardt, too, worried that Williams might bail on the project. "I thought, everything's going to fall apart, she's going to leave me for another film. But after I spent an hour with her, I never had those thoughts again." The two women became fast friends and embarked on a continuing redefinition of who Wendy was.

Greeting her director with a sisterly kiss and a warm sweater in the lounge at the Four Seasons, Williams, a slim blond in a plaid scarf, jeans and flats, seems a far cry from the truculent woman in the photo that flew around the Internet of her and Ledger giving the finger to photographers camped outside their house. Given all the unwanted media attention, the actress is understandably wary of talking about Ledger, from whom she split not long after their daughter, Matilda Rose, now three, was born. Williams has been through a difficult time since Ledger's death from a prescription-drug overdose. She can barely contain her anger at the paparazzo who keeps a 24-hour vigil outside her Brooklyn house, and she'll only discuss the impact of Ledger's death off the record.

But Williams readily admits that her rendering of Wendy draws on "memory and imagination" from her own hair-­raisingly sudden independence when, at 15, she legally emancipated herself from her parents in San Diego (her father, a stock trader, was extradited from Australia to the U.S. last month to face tax-­evasion charges) and took off alone for New York and then Los Angeles, where she got her big break in the television series Dawson's Creek. "It was equal parts courage and foolishness," says Williams. "What 15-year-old doesn't want to leave home? There was a time when I actually thought I would have a life on the road. I was on my own for a long time, not quite like Wendy — I had a job — but I felt so restless that I would just drive a lot and take road trips by myself. I had this dark fantasy that I would never really attach or find a home in the world."

For all her early independence and her current success, Williams can come across tentative and self-questioning. "When you saw the completed film, what did you think?" Reichardt asks. "It went down the easiest of any film that I see myself in," says Williams. She's disarmingly frank about her own insecurities, denies being a big star, and there's a touch of wistfulness in her insistence that "this is always the way I wanted to work, through friends, to build up a thing that doesn't disappear after a year. You set up so many little lives in movies and you say you'll keep in touch and you don't. So I was really pleased when Todd said, 'What about Kelly?' There's a connectedness and a stability or something." Still, when Reichardt asks Williams if she would make another film with her, the actress throws a quick glance at my tape recorder and hesitates a moment. Then she says quietly, "Yes, of course."

For now, though, she's taking time off work to be a full-time single parent to her equally feisty daughter, a difficult but satisfying task. "And I have my coffee-shop parents and my single-mom parents," she says gratefully. "That's one of the best things about becoming a mom. There's suddenly this uprising of women who say, 'We're here to help you!' And Matilda's in school, so I have time during the day to do the things I need to do and get ready for dinner, so it's not 24/7," she says. "I'm not quite ready to give up working, but I don't know how to do the good balance of it. That's the challenge, to live in the chaos. I'm a Virgo, very 'clean space, clean mind,' so after she goes to bed every night, I pick the house up. I do think that domestic work can actually be creative and relaxing, freeing your mind. I've given myself the grace period. It's okay."

COMING (AT YOU) SOON
Jeffrey Katzenberg's cure-all for an ailing movie economy, in all three dimensions
BY ROBERT WILONSKY

As far as Jeffrey Katzenberg is concerned, up to now there have been but two "revolutions" in the movie business: the mass introduction of sound with 1927's The Jazz Singer (itself a process 30 years in the making) and, a year later, the debut of The Viking, the first feature presented in Technicolor. All of cinema's other advancements, from CinemaScope's widening of screens in the early 1950s to Lucasfilm's THX sonic boom in 1983, were mere evolutions — giant steps, yes, but in others' tracks.

 

At least, this was the theory advanced by the chief executive officer of DreamWorks Animation as he traveled the country earlier this month touting the film business's "third revolution": 3D movies. (And, yes, this revolution too has been more than a century in the making; Brit photographer William Friese-Greene, who saw in stereo, would no doubt appreciate his due.) No longer, says Katzenberg, will 3D serve as a cheap "gotcha" gimmick — an exploitation hustle — but as a way to advance storytelling and "emotionally immerse" the audience into the film. 3D, he insists, "captures the essence of being there in a unique way. And it re-energizes in a very big way what it means to come to the cinema...which is a shared, communal experience."

As opposed to, oh, that home-theater system and high-def TV keeping you home most nights. Especially now, as everyone's pinching their pennies instead of someone else's overpriced popcorn.

To prove his point, Katzenberg screened three scenes from DreamWorks' March 2009 release, Monsters vs. Aliens, starring Seth Rogen and Stephen Colbert, in an homage to the kind of '50s films that used paper-glasses 3D to compensate for the lack of, well, everything else. Katzenberg is right to be excited about the future: For the first time, a 3D movie isn't a gateway drug to ibuprofen. Specks of dust and chunks of rubble fill the theater, and a 50-foot-tall woman, voiced by Reese Witherspoon, does indeed look ready to bust out of the cineplex ceiling.

But rendering the passive into the interactive comes with a steep price tag at precisely the wrong time. A planned $150 million movie wound up costing an extra $15 million, for which DreamWorks will charge moviegoers an extra $5 at the ticket booth. And theaters will have to upgrade their equipment: Screens will need to be more reflective, and projectors will have to throw a brighter light. Such redos will cost theaters "tens and tens of thousands," Katzenberg acknowledges — an exorbitant price tag evidenced by the relatively few theaters that have made the upgrade thus far, despite such successful recent 3D releases as Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Hannah Montana and U2 concert films. Katzenberg had hoped there would be 5,000 3D screens ready to show Monsters vs. Aliens by March; in reality, he'll be lucky to find half that many.

"The implementation timeline has been extended by the economy," Katzenberg admits.

Indeed, though 2008 box-office receipts are on pace with 2007's record-setting $9.6 billion haul in the U.S. alone, actual ticket sales are down — due, in large part, to the rising cost of the average ticket. (Estimates are $7.08 per ticket in '08 — or 20 cents more than those in 2007.)

"In order to prosper, in order to survive, in order to grow — whatever you want to say — movies are..." Katzenberg pauses. "Look, even though we're having a pretty good year this year, movies are in decline. Now, I'm talking about in movie theaters, not in life. Movies are seen in more ways, and at more times, and by more people than ever before, but the movie-theater experience is declining and has been declining for years and years and years. To me, this seems like an opportunity to reverse that. So it's a business opportunity and a creative opportunity.

"As of today, there are only three businesses in America that seem to be doing well: Wal-Mart, McDonald's and movie sales. The gross revenue for movies is going to be slightly up from last year, which was a tremendous year. We'll be slightly under $10 billion, even though admissions are going to be a teeny bit down from last year. Tell me any business that can say that about themselves in 2008."

But a bit of history to keep in mind: Just as talkies were booming, literally and figuratively, the Great Depression struck — and, yes, even then studio chiefs insisted theirs was a "Depression-proof business." As Tom Schatz reminds in his definitive early-Hollywood history The Genius of the System, "1930 was Hollywood's biggest year ever, as theater admissions, gross revenues and profits reached record levels. Economic reality quickly caught up with the movie industry, though, and the studios paid dearly for their blissful ignorance. Falling attendance, depleted reserves and tight fiscal policies staggered the studios by 1931-32, especially those that had expanded most aggressively in the 1920s."

The current recession, expected to last well into 2010, may be the least of Hollywood's problems; that pesky actors' strike, now more promise than threat, may prove considerably more staggering than folks sitting on their couches and their wallets. And DreamWorks Animation is hardly the best benchmark: It released only two films in 2008 — Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar 2 — both of which were among the top-grossing films of the year. The fact that they were also smart, entertaining films aimed at children and adults equally didn't hurt. Beats the hell out of a second mortgage spent on a day at the amusement park.

 

Katzenberg probably has just the ticket to survive an economic meltdown: light, all-age escapist fare presented in crystalline 3D — "the premium experience," he likes to call it. One need only look at the top-grossing films of the early 1930s: monster movies, Busby Berkeley musicals, and comedies starring the likes of the Marx Brothers and Mae West. Yesterday looks a whole lot like today, as Batman, Indiana Jones, Jack Black as a punching panda, a robot named WALL-E and Meryl Streep singing Abba clog the box-office top 10 of 2008. Not a single somber, serious soul in sight. So, yeah, Seth Rogen as a 3D ball of goo? The very definition of Depression-proof, just maybe.

PLAYING WITH HIMSELF
Bruce Campbell on cult stardom and being his own director
BY LUKE Y. THOMPSON

Fandom is a tricky thing for Bruce Campbell. He's been referred to as a "man-god" by Ain't-It-Cool-News's Harry Knowles, able to fill the halls at Comic-Con based on his iconic role as the slapstick, deadpan hero Ash in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy. Yet, as much as Campbell's fans adore the man they dub "the Chin," they're also extremely vocal about the number of movies he's appeared in that they despise. "They both love and hate in equal measure," says Campbell, by phone from New Orleans during a 22-city tour to promote his second feature film as director, the self-satirizing My Name Is Bruce. "They're not rushing to rent The Man with the Screaming Brain [Campbell's first feature as director]. That was a flat-out kinda bomb."

My Name Is Bruce, however, ought to play better with the base, considering it was made just for (and about) them: Campbell plays himself as an over-the-hill, burned-out, alcoholic B-movie actor who is recruited by a rabid Evil Dead fan to save the day when an evil Chinese demon is accidentally unleashed upon a small town. "This is how I stay away from The Surreal Life," the director-star deadpans, "I just make movies about it. My Name Is Bruce is my worst nightmare come true. It's not a horror movie, but that to me is the true horror — if my career was like that, in the movie. I mean, it's close, but it's not that bad." Indeed not: Three shows booked for the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin sold out immediately.

Campbell secured funding for the $2 million movie via his friends at Dark Horse comics, and built the entire set on his property in Oregon. The convenient location was key, after The Man with the Screaming Brain, which was made for the Sci Fi Channel, shot in Bulgaria. "Boy, what a lousy place to make a movie!" he recalls. "They've got packs of wild dogs still. The first half hour you're there, your jaw is just open, and you're like, 'We're gonna make a movie here?' And it's just the most ridiculous thing. I made a lot of tradeoffs to get a Steadicam — I told the guys I would make the whole movie during the day. I wound up horse-trading, literally, and it was a bad decision to shoot that movie during the day, but these guys, they couldn't do it at night — they don't have that many lights!"

No more Sci Fi originals lie in Campbell's future: "It's like where bad movies go to die."

Of course, fans everywhere do want to know if a fourth Evil Dead is in the offing. Campbell says it's definitely possible, but not for a while. "Here's the truth...it really is a massive time commitment, a solid year of prepping and making these movies, and we have different lives now," he says. "I'm on a TV show (Burn Notice), Sam signed up for part four of Spidey and those things take two years each. So I think we're all willing to do it, and we all have warm, fuzzy feelings for the Evil Dead movies, so nothing is really keeping us from it, other than our own lives." Still, Campbell says he would do another Evil Dead "only if all the elements were there, if we actually played on the fact that Ash is older now..." He pauses. "I dunno, then you get stuck with the Indiana Jones crap. 'Yeah, let's bring in a younger guy to be his sidekick.' As long as we didn't play any of those dumb games, it'd be fine. I wouldn't do anything that didn't have Sam involved anyway, and if he was involved, at least we'd have fun."

 

Just don't expect to see Ash fighting fellow horror icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, as was strongly rumored at one time. "There's two reasons why that's a stinker idea," Campbell says. "One is creatively. We talked for five minutes about whether this actually could work, and the restrictions were so ridiculous that we would only have control over the Ash character, so we could make sure that he was cool, but we didn't have any control over the story. And look, Ash isn't gonna be able to kill either one of those guys, so why would I jump in and get involved if I couldn't kill 'em, if I couldn't walk away with chain saw high in the air?"

While we're on the subject of rumors, what about the one that Campbell's cameos as multiple characters in the Spider-Man series are leading up to his big reveal as face-morphing villain Mysterio? "It's just wishful thinking," he says. "I told Sam the other day, I wanna be, like, a milkman, or a guy at a gas station, but I wouldn't wanna be one of those Mysterios. Wear all those stupid costumes and makeup effects? No thanks."

One of the issues My Name Is Bruce raises is that, as new generations of fans discover his movies, Campbell is starting to find some of their moms pretty attractive. It weirds him out a bit in the movie, but less so in real life. "It's great," he says, "because it gives you something to look at at conventions, y'know?" Unfortunately, it's usually just the dads who show up. "I do have to say, it's unnerving — I'm 50 now — to see a 50-year-old guy come up to the table, 'cause I go, 'Oh ... you're me!' For one of my Sci Fi Channel movies, the channel sent me the breakdowns of all the demographics, and the key demographic they were going for in the slot they put it in was 50 years old, because they figure, that's the perfect man, who's sitting home on a Saturday night. If he was younger, he'd be out, but now he goes, 'Forget it, I'm not going anywhere, you guys have fun.' I'm appearing in a movie for guys like me. Demographics can play head games."

RESURRECTING ADAM
Jeff Goldblum and Paul Schrader on their strange Holocaust fable
BY CHUCK WILSON

Opposites attract, which may explain why actor Jeff Goldblum, best known for playing outgoing, hyperkinetic brainiacs (The Fly, Jurassic Park), decided to make a film with master screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose signature characters — Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta — are brooding introverts (and not always the smartest guys in the room).

In Adam Resurrected, Schrader and screenwriter Noah Stollman's film version of the revered 1968 novel by Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk, Goldblum plays a Berlin magician and cabaret star forced to debase himself in weird and terrible ways in order to survive a Nazi concentration camp. Adam's plight, during and after the war, makes him a psychological whirlwind, which Goldblum uses to give the most deeply felt performance of his career, while Schrader ventures into some of the most nakedly emotional territory of his. For both artists, the film (which will open wide in the spring, following a year-end Oscar-qualifying run in New York and L.A.) is a brave leap. Recently, Goldblum and Schrader sat down to talk about their particular brand of collaboration.

Chuck Wilson: We all know that movie­making is a collaborative art, and it occurred to me that you, Paul, first as a screenwriter working with guys like Scorsese and De Niro, and then as a director yourself, have come at collaboration from more angles than most. Is collaboration an important concept for you?

Paul Schrader: Well, in a way, I think people make too much of collaboration. If you have the right people in place, it works quite well. If you miscast — your actor, your cinematographer, your production manager — then no amount of collaboration is going to fix that. So it's really just a matter of having the right gears and then figuring out how they work together. I can't think of any examples where one partner triumphed over the other. If it's bad chemistry, then you tend to go down together.

Jeff Goldblum: I studied with Sandy Meisner, and the cornerstone of his training is that it's interactive, that what you do in a scene isn't determined by what you do but by what the other actor makes you do. That expands itself to all manner of receptivity and interdependence, all around you. Everything in Adam Resurrected was very much determined by my relationship with Paul. We were on the high wire and could have fallen off in a million different ways, but we'd have done so together.

 

Schrader: Jeff has worked with [Robert] Altman, and Altman will encourage you to be idiosyncratic and do your own sort of thing. I don't do that because I tend to write and direct films about one solitary character. Therefore, you need a fairly strong through-line. It's not diffuse. I think of Altman's films as the largest, shallowest lake in cinema — it's a beautiful lake, but you keep walking and it never goes above your knees. Whereas I'd rather just dig a really deep trench.

Goldblum: Paul did something I've never seen before. Early on, in rehearsal, he presented me with a piece of paper — I still have it — with a beautiful graph on it detailing all the aspects of Adam — the seducer, the lecturer, the performer, the narcissist, the worm, the grieving man — and how they emerge and intersect in each act. All in different-colored pens.

Wilson: That makes me think of my friend Michael Silverblatt, who hosts the public radio show Bookworm and who often talks about the underpinnings of a good novel and the hidden structure beneath the words on the page. Paul, it sounds like you were trying to help Jeff create a structure on which to build his performance.

Schrader: I was a great fan of Charles Eames. I once asked Charles how he begins the process of designing a chair, and he said, "Well, the first thing I do is I get a tape measure and I walk around the office and I measure everybody's ass." What people tend to call inspiration is really problem solving. If you have defined the problem correctly, inspiration will come. And if you haven't, no amount of inspiration will ever come. Artists like Jeff are really interested in the mechanics of understanding the problem. Once you really understand the hard challenges of telling the story, then inspiration will follow.

Goldblum: Full preparation clears the way for magic to happen. That's the hope, anyway. You know, early on, just to get on the same page, the same sensibility, I asked Paul, "Which are the movies you really admire that I shouldn't miss out on?" We were in a restaurant in Israel, and in ten or 15 minutes he handed me a list of 20 movies. I took it and went off to take the Paul Schrader college course in film.

Wilson: Tell me your three favorite films from his list.

Goldblum: He said the most important movie ever made was Rules of the Game, which I hadn't seen. Next was Tokyo Story. Then Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. He said he watches two movies before he makes any movie: Performance and The Conformist. I saw those again. Antonioni's The Eclipse. Masculine-Feminine I'd never seen, by Godard. Vertigo is his favorite Hitchcock. Budd Boetticher's 7 Men from Now. All those amazing films. It was great fun for me, and you know, I think it helped bring us together.

Schrader: Anything to help find a singularity of purpose.

Goldblum: Given our topic here, I shouldn't go without telling this story. Toward the end of the movie, we come to that scene where I visit the grave of my daughter, and I flip out. That had been written in several different ways; we'd talked about different approaches. So we're shooting the scene and I'm on the ground by the grave, crying, and Paul says, "I think you eat the flowers." So I ate the flowers. And then he says, "I think you should pick up some dirt and put that in your mouth. Eat the dirt." And I said, "Okay, okay, that sounds great, really great, really crazy. Do we have some edible dirt?" And he says, "Jeff, just eat it, eat it." I say, "No, no, that's horrible. That's bad for you." And he says, "Jeff, Jeff, look," and he leans down and scoops up some dirt, and he eats it. So what could I do? I ate the dirt. That's a partnership. That's ­collaboration.

THE SOUND OF ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER CLAPPING
Resourceful indie filmmakers are finding new ways of getting their movies into theaters. But will anybody come?
BY JIM RIDLEY

Michael Jacobs, a filmmaker based in San Francisco, is the director of a movie called Audience of One. It's a documentary about a Pentecostal minister who says he's gotten the divine green light to make a mega-budget, religious, science-fiction epic. If you attended one of 20-odd regional film festivals in the past two years, you've probably heard of the film. If you didn't, you probably don't know it exists.

The film was well received by audiences, especially at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, a documentary festival that has become a filmmakers' favorite. But its popularity didn't translate into a distribution deal. Jacobs says the film's objectivity — i.e., its refusal to blatantly mock its subject — didn't make it easy to market. "It doesn't reaffirm everything you already believe about the religious right," he says.

 

So what happens now? On the strength of Audience of One, Jacobs got the go-ahead to produce ten episodes of a series called American Dreamers for Sony Pictures' online-TV site, Crackle.com. But countless other filmmakers are stranded, as distributors cinch their wallets, exhibitors look vainly for indie success stories and marketing costs continue to skyrocket in a flatlining economy. Even so, a few models suggest ways to reboot or reroute a system that filmmakers and programmers agree needs fixing.

In a year that has seen a few narrative features opt for self-distribution — director Randall Miller's Bottle Shock (which earned a respectable $4 million); the indie comedy Last Stop for Paul; Ronald Bronstein's way-underground whatsit Frownland — perhaps the most illustrative example of current conditions is Lance Hammer's Ballast. A spare, beautifully photographed, Mississippi-set drama shot with unknown actors, the low-budget film emerged as one of the sensations of Sundance 2008, earning Hammer the directing prize and garnering crucial critical support.

The day after the festival, Hammer says, he and venerated indie distributor IFC Films reached terms for a deal. But as the contract took shape, Hammer found that he was losing many of his key points, including the right to the final cut. Meanwhile, a 30-day exclusivity deal with Blockbuster was suddenly extending into years, and Hammer was asked to sign away digital rights to his film for 20 years. After months of negotiations, the writer-director came away convinced that for the modest advance he was getting, he didn't want to settle for what his financial advisors called "business as usual."

"'Business as usual' is they'd pay you for [your movie], and they don't pay you for it anymore," says Hammer. Instead, he put together a small team of employees and began booking the film himself through his Alluvial Film Company. In ten weeks, as of December 7, the film had grossed slightly more than $76,000 — a daunting return for months of effort. Yet Hammer had no illusions that he would burn up the box office.

"I threw away the notion of making money," says the director, who regards the film's theatrical release as both a learning experience for future efforts and a means of creating awareness for the film's eventual DVD release, where the profit margin is much higher. The problem facing any feature in the glutted marketplace is lack of name recognition, and a lone man with film reels under his arm doesn't have $50 million to spend on print and TV advertising.

The main thing he's learned, Hammer says, is to cultivate and mobilize "the 1,000 true fans" who will spread the word online about a film via social networking sites and blogs. But it was worth distributing Ballast himself, he says, just to circumvent "this culture of abuse" that rigs the system against the filmmaker.

Even genre movies are gambling on self-distribution again, such as the grisly shocker Wicked Lake. Its production company, Fever Dreams, gave it a short major-market theatrical release last spring before the Media Blasters subsidiary, Shriek Show, put it out on DVD. Fever Dreams managing director Carl Morano says that many unexplored options exist for filmmakers who just want their work to be seen. He cites sales outlets such as military bases, where one box-art photo of busty bloodsuckers beats tens of thousands in P&A costs.

But theatrical distribution remains the dream, however increasingly impractical. The key to developing an audience for no-name films without promotion budgets, says True/False Film Fest director Paul Sturtz, is "extending the festival atmosphere throughout the year" by organizing city-to-city tours for filmmakers and their work, effectively bypassing distributors and going directly to theaters.

"The idea of an underground railroad is something we're trying to promote," Sturtz says. A test case of sorts was The Order of Myths, director Margaret Brown's excellent documentary about the centuries-old tradition of segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. Though it had distribution, through New York-based Cinema Guild, Sturtz was convinced it was the kind of thought-provoking film that would take off, given the filmmaker's presence and a town-hall atmosphere.

Together with Toby Leonard (who books the independent Belcourt Theater in Nashville), Sturtz and Columbia's Ragtag Theater helped put together a five-city tour for Brown to theaters involved in the Sundance Institute's Art House Project — a coalition of independent movie houses, founded in 2006, that now has 18 affiliate venues from Brooklyn to Boulder. The tour did well, though it likely would have drawn even bigger crowds with more time for grassroots promotion.

"[Sturtz] exhausted me, and I was sick for three weeks," Brown says, laughing. "But my whole goal is to start a conversation, and because there are more people, word of mouth builds faster." Still, she says that she wouldn't take the self-­distribution route herself, because it would put her filmmaking career on hold.

 

"I could do it if I wanted to take a year off from my life," she says. "I know myself well enough to know I don't want to do that."

Nevertheless, the brief tour suggested the impact a nationwide link of independent theaters could have as an alternate distribution route. Leonard was among a handful of programmers who leapt at the chance to show Sátántangó — Hungarian director Béla Tarr's legendary seven-and-a-half-hour black-and-white film, never released theatrically in the U.S. — when a print landed in the country in 2006. That cinematic coalition of the willing gave the film its broadest stateside exposure to date.

Filmmakers who wish to opt out of the system altogether can follow the example of Bill Daniel. Applying precepts that he developed in the Texas punk scene of the late 1970s, Daniel spent some 16 years making his experimental hobo-graffiti documentary, Who Is Bozo Texino?, then carried it around to art schools, galleries and other atypical venues.

In recent years, he's roamed the country with another project called "Sunset Scavenger," outfitting a "sailvan" converted to run on vegetable oil with screens of diaphanous silk. On them, he projects "images of social and environmental collapse" culled from Katrina's aftermath and those who resist the dominance of petroleum. From his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, he makes it to some 50 dates a year, reaching anywhere from 20 to 200 people a night.

"When we talk about distribution, it's like the rest of the economy," says Daniel, who was the cinematographer on underground filmmaker Craig Baldwin's features. "The gap is so huge between the haves and the have-nots, between corporate culture and individual culture. What I do is more akin to being a musician — putting it in front of audiences manually night after night. Nobody with a normal life and aspirations would ever consider doing this."

But people with a normal life and aspirations typically don't make films. And if they do, they sure don't show them themselves. Asked if he's able to survive on his self-hewn distribution path, Bill Daniel just laughs.

"It's like an old guy told me once," he says. " 'I may not make a living, but I live on what I make.' "


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