Storytelling through collaboration – Director Monica Peña discusses filmmaking and upcoming Speaking in Cinema panel
October 15, 2015
Miami’s film scene is not only booming with talented filmmakers, but it is also among the more diverse platforms for filmmakers due to an abundance of audiences. In the upcoming iteration of its Knight Foundation sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema,” Miami cinephiles will be getting a chance to hear up-close and in-depth conversations with three Miami-based independent filmmakers who have each crafted an important niche in different genres. Miami filmmakers Carla Forte (Miami Filmmaker Carla Forte on shooting hundreds of dogs in action and her impromptu poem on inspiration), Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju), and Monica Peña will be featured in Oct. 22’s “Speaking in Cinema” presented and produced by the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay will be moderating the conversation, where each filmmaker will show highlights of their work.
I recently had a chance to talk to Peña about her filmmaking philosophy and her sources of inspiration in storytelling. We sat outdoors at the Vagabond Hotel, a fitting place since it is old and new Miami at once, evoking some the themes in Peña’s filmmaking, or as she puts it “Miami is an endlessly interesting place.” Peña’s opera prima, Ectotherms is a personal favorite, an artistic work with a definite point of view that offers complex storytelling about place, growing up and coming of age. The critical look at life in the tropics is coupled with a documentary filmmaking style and a use of stark music that enhances on-screen action, but what makes this film so great is Peña’s authenticity and uncompromising standpoint. The film was a personal favorite at last year’s Miami International Film Festival because it said so much with seemingly very little, and the multi-layered storytelling allowed spectators plenty of room to understand the work in personal ways.
Peña’s upcoming work is titled Hearts of Palm and promises to continue in the vein of Ectotherms with a narrative style that defies traditional storytelling. “It’s hard to describe or summarize in words,” she tells me of her upcoming film. “The seed of the film was an exploration of feminine and masculine parts of myself.” Although the film is loosely about a relationship, the sources of inspiration included literature, music, works of art, the Miami landscape and the disjointed nature of the self. Indeed, the film form is lose and demands of the audience to bring their own awareness to the story, unlike traditional storytelling where the film feeds the audience a clear line of thinking. That tradition could not be further from Peña’s approach. “The story is mostly told through vignettes that convey moments,” she continues. “A lot of it is told through music. There is very little dialogue and images are very surreal.” The work will lend itself to a unique conversation about film-making. From what I have had the chance to see in Peña’s work and hear about her process, the boundaries of film seem to disappear, and something that you haven’t seen before is created – an experiential sort of imagery.
Collaboration is key to Peña’s directorial style. Her creative process for Hearts of Palm included creating a core document that included the vision for the film, which she describes as “a story about a relationship that is decomposing, that took place in this house that is decomposing with supernatural undercurrents throughout.” Once the vision was shared and agreed upon by the filmmaking team, the story itself took shape and went in different directions in an organic way with input from the rest of the team. For Hearts of Palm, Peña has again joined forces with sound producer Joel C. Hernandez, who also collaborated on Ectotherms and provided sounds that are part of the narrative. During the collaborative process, production designer Lucila Garcia de Onrubia came up with the visuals and the feel of the vision for Hearts of Palm, bringing the tropical landscape indoors in a conceptual way. She credits cinematographer Jorge Rubiera and actor/original score composer Brad Lovett as contributors, for not only understanding her documentary-style of film-making but also helping bring her vision to life.
As this snippet of a long conversation shows, filmmaker Peña is excited to talk about her approach and share her personal philosophy on surreal filmmaking. “If you set your idea in motion, a movie starts to show you what it wants to be … it’s a matter of tuning in from that point on.” Indeed, Ectotherms feels organic, a journey that takes you out to another world and within into yourself — if you let it. Peña’s artistic visualizations on film have a marker that is hard to pinpoint. She tells me she is excited about discussing her own work alongside such a diverse slate of Miami’s filmmakers. The event goes to show that Miami’s film community encompasses a myriad voices. Although the event focuses on women filmmakers, it should be noted that the relevancy of their work stands on its own. However, having a platform to showcase it remains critical. “I feel like it’s important to create a place for women to speak … carving out spaces for women is important,” says Peña of the upcoming Speaking in Cinema.
In addition to Peña’s voice, we will have the pleasure to hear from Carla Forte, who brings a unique perspective to her filmmaking with a style that consciously raises social awareness and leaves audiences to question big issues such as homelessness, identity in a foreign land and even animal rights. Her approach is also informed by her training as a dancer, resulting in a multidisciplinary approach that brings out interesting avenues in her work that cannot be neatly encapsulated. Finally, Jillian Mayer, of Borscht fame, plays with the alternative realities that we create for ourselves and others on the web. Her projects are playful and DIY at first glance but charged with awareness of the pitfalls and disinformation in the digital world. For Mayer, the construction of culture in the Internet is another form of discourse that may be changing the way identity is constructed and understood.
The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Carla Forte (read her profile here), Jillian Mayer (read her profile here) and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Peña.
You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:
Jillian Mayer on inspiration, from the medium of film and upcoming projects from a talk show about pets to Kaiju
October 14, 2015
This month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Jillian Mayer.
She stumbled into film-making after graduating from Florida International University with a concentration in installation art and fiber in 2007. Her multi-media art has since gone on to garner her attention across the world, everywhere from art galleries to film festivals. Movie making has now become an indelible part of her repertoire. Asked for her inspiration in film, she chooses to go to the medium itself instead of a specific director. “Filmmaking offers me many things,” Mayer writes via email. “I love that the product is also the documentation. Artists are challenged with art making and then archiving the work, but video/film making joins those two concerns. I also like how media travels over the Internet. Also, it is a great format for me to combine so many mediums I enjoy in my art making such as performance, music, sculpture and installation.”
In 2012, she and her frequent collaborative partner, co-director Lucas Leyva were featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” The editor in chief of Filmmaker Magazine, Scott Macaulay, will be in Miami to host the conversation at the Miami Beach Cinematheque with Mayer, Carla Forte (Miami Filmmaker Carla Forte on shooting hundreds of dogs in action and her impromptu poem on inspiration) and Monica Peña (Storytelling through collaboration – Director Monica Peña discusses filmmaking and upcoming Speaking in Cinema panel). “In 2012, Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva were two of the most inventive film artists around, and that hasn’t changed in 2015,” Macaulay says via email. “In fact, I’ve only seen their impact grow as more people become aware of the very original and Miami-centric work they are doing at Borscht. I’ve recently had the chance to see the beginnings of some of their newest work, and I’m every more excited about the waves they are going to create.”
The year Leyva and Mayer made Filmmaker Magazine’s list, the duo released a striking short film called “#Postmodem,” which had its world premiere at the 2012 Borscht Film Festival before going on to Sundance and the New York Film Festival. It’s a rather ingenious work that taps into existentialist concerns in the age of the Internet. In an interview I wrote for Miami New Times last year, both shared their interest in the work of the futurist philosopher Ray Kurzweil. Their concerns for memory, persona and legacy were given vivid life with their funny, brilliant and sometimes poignant short featuring an incredibly catchy musical number recalling ’80s freestyle music Mayer co-wrote with Michael John Hancock (of Viigo). You can watch the short in its entirety below. From little kids talking about their inevitable demise to a swing set in the clouds, this short will blow your mind.
As for now, Mayer is prepping for several exhibitions in 2016 that include LAX ART in Los Angeles, David Castillo Gallery here in Miami Beach, and Art Space in Raleigh North Carolina. So keep an eye on those spaces. As for recent shoots, Mayer reveals that what was once her initial pitch to Borscht, “a faux talk show for people and their pets” is coming to fruition. “Lucas Leyva and I just shot a pilot show about a fun fake animal talk show with support from an incubator we are in with Time Warner called 150,” she says.
Finally, Leyva and Mayer are also in the middle of production on their first feature film, a movie inspired by Japanese Kaiju that somehow explores the filmmakers’ Cuban-American identities. They are working with some members of the visual effects crew behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. “About four weeks ago, we shot the prologue to the film at Miami Theatre Center,” she reveals, “which starred two Japanese Bonraku theatre puppets. Next part of the production will take place in various towns of Cuba, and the final segment will take place in Miami.”
The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Carla Forte (read her profile here) and Monica Peña (read her profile here), and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Peña.
You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:
Miami Filmmaker Carla Forte on shooting hundreds of dogs in action and her impromptu poem on inspiration
October 13, 2015
This month, The Miami Beach Cinematheque will hold its seventh installment of its Knight Foundation sponsored discussion series called Speaking In Cinema. Usually, the bi-monthly event features a local film critic, an out-of-town film critic and a guest filmmaker (this writer was one of the first guest critics). This time they are bringing together three Miami-based filmmakers for a very special installment of the series, and this is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the three filmmakers, who are all showing films in a retrospective series leading up to their talk. Meet Carla Forte.
Not too long ago, this writer reviewed the Hungarian film White God (White God takes the easy route to schlock over allegory– a film review). The most impressive thing about the movie was how the filmmakers wrangled 200 dogs and sent them marauding through the streets of Budapest. There was another film shown a few months earlier at the Miami International Film Festival that had a similar scene, Forte’s documentary The Holders. In it she explores the fate of many animals left at animal shelters (it’s often not pretty). Forte makes no apologies for the film’s bias toward animal rights. Writing via email, she says, “We need people in shelters who believe in not killing and who can confront the problem with compassion and respect.”
At the end of her film she presents the viewers with a solution that volunteers in Costa Rica have devised: a free range, no-kill shelter. It’s like a Shangri-La for dogs, where hundreds of abandoned dogs run free, receive health care and die natural deaths. The images of something like 700 dogs running down hills and jumping through creeks are stunning. “My friend Carla Lopez, a vegan activist, told me about this amazing place called Territorio de Zaguates,” explains Forte, “which shelters more than 700 hundreds stray dogs in Costa Rica. [Producer] Alexey Taran and I decided to travel to that place and expose this amazing reality happening in the mountains in a Latin American country.”
The place is so impressive, Forte has found a way to incorporate in her upcoming feature film, Ann. “It’s a feature film that narrates the story of Ruben, a man who has decided to abandon his tormented life by taking refuge within his own imagination,” she explains about the still in-progress movie. “His transgender wife Ann, in the face of a deteriorating relationship, attempts to understand Ruben’s idealized world.”
Forte says the film is still in its early stages. “We are launching an indigogo campaign to raise money,” she says. “We’ll be shooting the Feature Film in early 2016 in Miami and Costa Rica.”
Meanwhile, besides The Holders, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will also show an early short by Forte called “Interrupta,” which has been shown at several Latin American festivals as well as in Milan and Berlin. In it you will see her dancing in the shower. Besides being a director, she is also a quite talented modern dancer and choreographer. Dance often figures into her film work. As a choreographer, Forte puts a lot of thought in what dance means in a narrative, cinematic context. “‘Interrupta’ is about impermanence, emotional attachments, family. The characters in the art video are: my dad, my mom and my brother. We live in a world where every day people and things are influencing us and interrupting us. I am writing these lines while I am hearing my dogs barking and my neighbor cutting the grass. We have an everyday routine but suddenly something happens that we did not expect, good or bad, important or not, but it happened.”
There’s another abstract idea in the film, she adds. “I think people know some day we will die, but I think people do not realize that it can happen at any moment.”
When asked what inspires her as a filmmaker, Forte provided a rather poetic answer:
The desire to tell what I think inspires me. Is a path for expression.
Animals, people, the world inspire me. Is a path of exchange.
Silence, water, dance inspire me. Is a path of life.
Love and sadness inspire me. Is a path of feeling.
My family, my friends my dogs inspire me. Is a path of teaching.
Life inspires me. The big path.
The Miami Beach Cineamtheque begins showing the films by these local filmmakers starting this Friday, Oct. 16. For a detailed schedule, follow this link. It culminates in a discussion with the filmmakers, also including directors Jillian Mayer, Monica Peña, and Filmmaker Magazine Editor in Chief Scott Macaulay. This profile series continues tomorrow with a piece on Jillian Mayer (Jillian Mayer on inspiration from the medium of film and upcoming projects, from a talk show about pets to Kaiju) and then Monica Peña (read her profile here).
You can also read more about these filmmakers and their retrospective in an article in the Miami New Times by jumping over to the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog through the image below:
November 19, 2014
We at Independent Ethos are extremely supportive of the Miami Beach Cinematheque and its Speaking In Cinema series, which would not be possible without funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The series has brought some excellent filmmakers to Miami since it began earlier this year, and we helped out with its inaugural event (An Interview with ‘Hide Your Smiling Faces’ Filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone in ‘Miami New Times’). We’ve covered them all because, frankly, it is damn exciting to consider movies thoughtfully for an hour (sometimes longer) in such a setting with some amazing guests.
This month and next — the month known in Miami Beach for one of the biggest art festivals in the world: Art Basel – Miami Beach — the Cinematheque has begun screening some rare films by Andy Warhol thanks to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA at the Carnegie Institute. The four films are all about Golden Age Hollywood starlets and their scandals recreated in the experimental and exploratory way only Warhol could have made. The Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgewick and famous drag queens are all collaborators. The films include Harlot (1964), Lupe (1965), More Milk Yvette (1965), and Hedy (1966)*.
Discussing the films with depth and knowledge will be our old Miami friend and compatriot on WordPress Alfred Soto (check out his terrific blog Humanizing the Vacuum). He will lead a discussion with director/producer Tom Kalin and Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant and project manager of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I corresponded with the out-of-town experts via email ahead of their visit and wrote an article for the art and culture blog of the Miami New Times, “Cultist.” Among other topics, we discussed common misconceptions of Warhol’s film work, and I even asked them for a personal favorite of the the four Warhol films screening at the MBC (it turned out to be unanimous). You can read the result by jumping through the link below:
But, as always, there was more. Asked what mainstream filmmakers can learn from the work of Warhol, Henry declared that indeed they have already learned a tremendous amount. “The commercial success of The Chelsea Girls in 1966-67 paved the way for more radical filmmaking,” she notes, “both in subject matter — Midnight Cowboy (1969); A Clockwork Orange (1971); Pink Flamingos (1972) — and in technique — Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Memento (2001).”
She deferred to Kalin for more on this notion. Though he was rushing to board his plane to Miami, he offered, “Sometimes in mainstream cinema a pop star crosses over and becomes a screen star. This blurring of the lines — the synergy between music and movies for instance is very Warholian. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was ahead of its time and the boundary pushing of his expanded cinema like Chelsea Girls still resonates in this era of ‘multiplatform storytelling.’ Also Warhol’s superstars, mere mortals transformed by the magic lens, anticipate today’s preoccupation with reality, real faces.”
Finally, since Speaking In Cinema also tries to go off topic to discuss film in general, it was worth asking Kalin, what he is up to as a filmmaker, considering this writer is only familiar with his work as a feature filmmaker of 1992’s Swoon and 2007’s Savage Grace. “In addition to my feature narrative work, my films and videos include short experimental work, installations and collaborations,” notes Kalin, who is also a professor at Columbia University. “Recently, I have been collaborating with musician Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on a series of projects. We premiered My Silent One at REDCAT in Los Angeles in July. You can read a bit about it here and here.”
He also pauses to note Warhol’s own influence on his work. “Of course Warhol famously was a key figure in the combination of film and live music in his work with The Velvet Underground, and like many filmmakers, I have been inspired by this work. I also have just made a new short film for Visual AIDS’ 25th Anniversary of Day Without Art. The film is called ‘Ashes’ and features the voice of Justin Vivian Bond.”
Finally, for those curious about his feature work, Kalin offers: “I’m developing two new features, one of which is about a crime in a small town, my first feature set in present time. I will shoot summer 2015.”
Director/producer Tom Kalin will join Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art and “Humanizing the Vacuum” critic Alfred Soto for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss the films on Thursday, November 20, at 7 p.m. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for all the Warhol screenings and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
*The films in the retrospective are from the Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA., a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
September 21, 2014
One of this year’s most startling films has to be Child of God. It took a while for this film critic to warm up to it while watching it. It’s harsh, spare but ultimately eye-opening. Once you tangle with its stark intentions: accepting the humanity of a man who commits reprehensible acts, this is truly a film that deserves respect (read my review: James Franco captures pathos of a necrophiliac psycho with ‘Child of God’). The film, based on the 1974 book by Cormac McCarthy and directed by the popular actor James Franco, challenges the audience on several levels. Viewers are not only expected to bring open minds but also a sense of empathy for a character most movies would portray as frightening or despicable. That demands the audience to travel to a dark place within themselves.
I spoke with the film’s star, actor/director Scott Haze, via phone ahead of his visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque where he will sit down and talk with two film critics about Child of God for about an hour. “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar will engage Haze during the Knight Foundation–sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema.” The event will feature clips of the film and will be recorded on video to be archived for educational purposes.
Speaking from his car in Hollywood, California, Haze talks openly about the lengths of his preparation and the baggage that comes with being judged as part of a Franco-directed film. Much of our conversation has already been published in the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist.” Read it by jumping through the logo to the blog below:
We spoke for nearly a half hour, so there was a lot to our chat. Below you will find a modified Q&A featuring lots of the great material I could not fit into the “Cultist” story. It captures the gist of our 25-minute conversation without repeating anything from the “Miami New Times” story:
Hans Morgenstern: Have you ever been to Miami?
Scott Haze: I’ve been everywhere in the United States except for Miami, which is crazy.
Do you have any expectations?
My expectations are really probably very lame. Miami’s been such a backdrop for some of my favorite movies as a kid, so the expectations I have are that it’s a great city, it’s a fun city. There’s a lot of beautiful women. There’s a lot of parties.
I have a sense that you and Franco worked very closely on this film, which I think is one of the most humanizing portraits of a serial killer that I have seen.
You know, this project started as a passion project with James years ago. He knew that Sean Penn wanted to make the movie, and he’s a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, so I guess it started as his desire to translate this project into a film. He does a lot of adaptations, but this was a dream project. This one and As I Lay Dying were the two movies that he wanted to make before he died.
What is the audience supposed to take away from this film?
I don’t know. I think that’s the cool thing about cinema. People are obviously not going to see The Wizard of Oz or Spiderman. You walk away with different things when you watch Child of God. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have walked away with many, many different things. A lot of people have connected to the feeling of looking at somebody who’s really alone and what it was liked in the 1950s in Tennessee. It could happen to somebody because back then they didn’t have Instagram, they didn’t have Twitter, they didn’t have Facebook, so Lester probably couldn’t have gone online and made friends, so it’s a different time. I think a lot of people have felt — if they look at being isolated and being alone for that amount of time — what it looks like. Some people are deeply moved by it, some people are rooting for Lester, some people cheer him on. Some people are horrified, but they want to see the story unfold, so they stick with it. It’s been really varied.
What did you do to get into this character’s head?
I did a lot of stuff. What I did was I realized I had to lose a lot of weight because I just played a Marine, had a shaved head. I was really built up, so I ended up losing tons of weight. I had a friend in Tennessee, and I went out there with an actress named Elissa Shay, and we did work on the script for about a month, and I filmed like a short documentary on the town and the community and what it was like interviewing a thousand people who were from that actual time frame and where Cormac set the novel. The novel is set in rural Tennessee. My friend actually happened to be the town historian of that city, so he took me on like this crazy tour of learning about caves, and everything Lester does in the novel I did. Half that stuff didn’t make the movie, which is just funny. I think of all that work I did, like scenes we shot where I make my own ax, which is in the novel, so I did everything that Cormac wrote in the novel … and then [my friend] had a cabin there, which was alone in the woods, and then I ended up living in isolation for well over a month in the cabin. Then I was in the caves for a little over a month. There was like this ongoing, evolving process of how this thing happened.
Watching your performance, you really go all out. Was it a fun role to play or was it painful?
It’s both. It was really, really hard, but at the same time, I look back on it, and a lot of people said I was just kinda crazy at that time, but it was fun at the same time. I knew that this was a great role. As a kid growing up wanting to play these great roles, I knew that I was very fortunate. I knew that Sean Penn wanted to do this role, and he couldn’t get this movie made for 15 years. It was like an adventure, like the stuff you watch on the Discovery channel.
Speaking of physicality, why include the scene of you shitting in the woods?
Well, that’s just in the novel. It wasn’t like I said, “You know what, James? What we need to do right now is I need to shit.” I think it was more like it’s what Cormac wrote, and I think there’s like something really wild about showing the conditions he’s living in and his mental state. There’s a lot of things that that does that I think Cormac was thinking about when he wrote that into the book … basically when you see that, the audience should realize what they’re in for. At that moment, when you see something like that, you don’t go, oh, I’m going to see Spiderman now, and I think James is a filmmaker who doesn’t want to shy away from something that may be hard on the audience.”
You are director too. How does that help the performance?
I direct films, I direct theater and I’m a filmmaker myself … I get it. There’s a scene in the movie where I could walk through the cold water in 10 degree weather or I don’t. What it was is it was James and I teamed up to tell the story, and we both understood that we were both completely invested. I think that being a director helps me in so many ways. It helps me in my preparation. It helps me in understanding filmmaking. It helps me in understanding how to help other actors in the scene. A lot of what I did I think it helps in a lot of ways.
The critical reception has been divisive at best. What are critics not getting?
If you were to put Brad Pitt in the role of Lester Ballard would that make Child of God different? I don’t know. I read an article in “Vice” that asked, ‘What are people missing out on by not realizing that Child of God is important to cinema today?’ I think it’s just a testimony to where we’re at with entertainment. These are really important movies that examine situations in life and human behavior that tell a story and don’t involve a green screen and don’t involve a cape or a superhero. Not only that, it’s really tackling serious circumstances in a very honest way. It’s hard to watch if people consider it a horror movie, and it’s not a horror movie. It’s a character study. It’s easy for people to say, ‘this is shocking, this is so crazy,’ and I don’t think it is.
I think you are definitely touching on the way I feel about it because I think the more you escape, the more you detach from humanity. This film makes you realize you have to have humanity to sympathize with such a character. There’s something more dehumanizing in these cartoon movies as opposed to a film like this which says, ‘Hey, wake up.’
I’m really glad you liked it, man. I really am because I’ve talked to people since the movie came out who are just awful to talk to, and they ask me some of the stupidest questions. Like the worst one is, Did you read the book? I’m like living in a cave to prepare for the movie and ‘I’m like, ‘Did you read the book? Yes, I read the book, a thousand times.’”
I think sometimes reviewers are biased due to the star persona of James Franco, but at least some people, like Jonathan Romney in “Film Comment” are writing intelligently about this movie.
The reason I think that this one was more well-received than a lot of his work, cause this movie played in competition at Venice last year and people like yourself who understand it love it, and they said this was his best movie, and I think it’s because of the story we’re telling that we were able to get away with things that you can’t get away with if you’re doing Ocean’s 11, like we had a camera on sticks in the middle of nowhere or going handheld. The fact that this movie is so rugged in the filmmaking style that he rolled with added itself sometimes to help it when it could have been disastrous. Your overall question is that there’s tons of people that just hate people, and they just want to take people down who are out there trying new or daring projects, so yeah, it’s huge, and I know that he knows it, and I know it, and anybody who roles with our crew know it if he’s named as our director that people are going to come in and hate, and I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think he’s doing something that’s not revolutionary but that they used to do in the theater back in New York. They had a group of actors that all just made movies together that were friends, and I think, as the years go on, people might step back and look at this differently with what he’s doing. Sure some of it is crazy, but most of it is not. Most of it is really daring, challenging projects that no one else thinks to do or doesn’t have the balls to do or doesn’t want to do, and he does it because he wants to do it, and then his close friends get it.
Child of God is showing exclusively now in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque through Sept. 28. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
September 16, 2014
Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.
Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.
Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.
What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.
Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).
With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.
This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.
It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not. Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.
Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
Brontis Jodorowsky on the psychomagic of ‘Dance of Reality,’ training for ‘Dune’ and a future with director of ‘Táu’
June 13, 2014
The way Brontis Jodorowsky explains it, his father’s new film, The Dance of Reality, is much more than a cinematic adaptation of the memoir of the same name. After all, his father, Alejandro Jodorowsky, is the man behind “Psicomagia” (Psychomagic), a form of therapy through art. His memoir, published in Spanish in 2001, stands as an example of that. Though it features cruel stories of abuse the director suffered as a child, it is less a fact-based memoir and more an “imagined autobiography” that becomes a sort of redemption for his family.
Speaking via Skype from his home in Paris, Brontis, who in the film plays the role of Jaime Jodorowsky, the grandfather largely responsible for the traumatic upbringing of his father, offers insight into the film and the purpose of it as mystical therapeutic device. He speaks soothingly and builds on his statements explaining the psychomagic behind the film. “I have my father, the public figure that you know. He’s my father. But I also have another father that is the private man, and I also have another father, which is the archetype of the father inside of me that is built up with Jaime, Alejandro and also with me being a father. So there’s a father figure composed by different experiences, and inside this father figure, we have this very negative part, character, father figure, that’s only negative. That was Jaime, my grandfather. So by doing this process of remaking the story and giving him a chance through the movie to humanize, to take off the costume of the domestic tyrant and open his heart, we transform a negative part of the father archetype in our family story into a character that is not a saint but has a different aspect and that can change, you see, that can progress. A heart can be opened, so the father figure in our family tree, genealogy, changes, so we’re transmitting to our children and grandchildren another vision of what the father is.”
The bond between Alejandro Jodorowsky and his son is profound. It comes out beautifully in this new film, the director’s first feature in 23 years. It also comes out in a documentary about the director’s efforts to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune as a movie. Jodorowsky’s Dune captures one particularly raw moment where the elder Jodorowsky seems still a bit haunted by the fact he had his the 12-year-old son train for years to prepare for the part of Paul Atreides, yet the film was never shot (Brontis calls this an example of a “private message” from his father). Brontis looks on the bright side. “Yeah, well, you know, what I acquired during those two years of training was so useful afterwards in my actor’s life, especially all the [physical] training part because that taught my body to learn, which is the most important thing that you can learn: is how to learn, so afterwards, when I went to do theater, I always worked in a very physical type of theater. My body was always involved, but I had a trained body that could learn … It was not a waste of time.”
Jodorowsky’s cinematic version of Dune would have been the first ever attempt to adapt the 1965 novel. Though Jodorowsky made great efforts to gather collaborators like H.R. Giger, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Pink Floyd as just some of his “creative warriors,” every Hollywood studio he presented his grand treatment, which included the script by Dan O’Bannon, storyboards by comic book artist Moebius and lots of detailed concept art by Giger and and Alex Ross, they balked at his ambition, which included no fixed limit to the film’s runtime. “They were afraid of him,” says Brontis, “of his personality, so it wasn’t a problem that it was two hours, three hours or five or 10. How long is Star Wars? Too long, much too long.”
Brontis continues, noting that there was also a fundamental cultural conflict between the source of Jodorowsky’s unrestrained creativity and Hollywood’s bottom-dollar attitude. “Also, I think this is an American thing, that Americans don’t want the success to come from outside, so I think that in a way, they saw the project, but I can’t be sure of this, maybe it was just paranoia, in a way, I sense they saw the project, and I think they saw that, wow, maybe that would be a kind of future for movies, and they said, well, why give it to him? Let’s take the ideas and do it ourselves. Instead of doing one movie, we’re going to do this, that and that … I think it’s part of the movie industry’s history. It’s a world of artists and crooks at the same time, of people who dream wonderful things and big bank accounts both at the same time,” he says with a laugh.
Despite all that, the future has been good to the Jodorowsky family, and you will be hard pressed to find a creative clan with a more positive and creative drive, fulfilled with their place in the universe. Brontis has mostly worked in theater, but only recently returned to cinema. In 2012, he acted in Táu, a film shot in the same Mexican desert where his father shot El Topo, in which the younger Jodorowsky made his acting debut alongside his father. With Táu, under the direction of Daniel Castro Zimbrón, for the first time in his life, Brontis took the lead role in a movie. The collaboration went so well, they plan to begin a second film together, later this year. “Now we’re going to do another one that we start shooting in November or December that’s called the Darkness,” he reveals. He notes that it has already been work-shopped at Morelia, Toulouse and most recently at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
During his visit to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, he will introduce Táu at a rare U.S. screening, as the film was never picked up for distribution in the United States. Then it’s on to Speaking In Cinema, an hour-long chat with “Village Voice” film critic Michael Atkinson and “Miami Herald” film critic Rene Rodriguez , who both wrote their own positive reviews of The Dance of Reality (click on their names to read their articles).
It will be interesting to watch how the critics work with Jodorowsky, who says he is looking for having a little more time to deal with questions for Dance than usual screenings allow. “I’ve done quite a few festivals now, and there’s always a Q&A,” says Brontis, “but sometimes it’s just 20 minutes, so I just have time to answer one question.
There is much more with both Jodorowskys in other articles I’ve written. The titles of the articles below are hot links where you can read more (except for Alejandro’s quotes, no quotes overlap):
The of course, there are the reviews:
This interview was done to coincide with this weekend’s second installment of “Speaking In Cinema.” Both Jodorowsky’s Dune and The Dance of Reality are now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting the event. Brontis Jodorowsky will present The Dance of Reality in person on June 14. On June 15, he will also introduce Jodorowsky’s Dune and Táu. On Tuesday, June 17, at 7 p.m., Brontis will join “Village Voice” film critic Michael Atkinson and “Miami Herald” film critic Rene Rodriguez for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film and other works by Jodorowsky. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting the calendar page of mbcinema.com.