He Dreams of Being an Actor

This time last year, my short film Gone Elvis premiered at the FilmColumbia Film Festival along with two other shorts.  One of these was called Dreaming American, written and directed by Lee Percy and starring an Albanian actor named Praq Rado.  Dreaming American is a glimpse into Rado’s real-life, immigrant story, one of escape from his deadly homeland and dedication to work and live in the United States.  Praq is a talented and interesting young man. We met in person at the festival, and he contacted me on Facebook afterwards, paid kind compliments to my film, and would check in from time to time.

I just learned through his Facebook page that Praq currently sits in a U.S. federal detention center awaiting a deportation hearing.  It turns out he’s been in the United States illegally for several years.  I don’t know what, if anything, his lawyers will be able to offer; and I wish that I could produce some argument for his cause beyond a personal desire to see him allowed to remain here. He is certainly an individual who can only add depth to our ever-changing culture. I hope for the best for Praq’s safety and well being and hope that we can find a way to keep his dreams American.

Regardless of immigration law itself, anti-immigrant political rhetoric in America usually reminds me of this old, insulting joke:

Q. “How do you keep the jews out of your country club?”

A. “Let one in and he’ll keep the rest out.”

UPDATE:  Praq is currently out of detention and remains in the Untied States, thanks to the assistance of Lee Percy, as I understand.

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Coming Soon!

Coming to theaters this Fall, moviegoers get to choose between two radically different, yet equally psychotic views of the United States. Culturally and artistically speaking, all I can say is that catering to the lowest common denominator has never cost quite so much.

Red Dawn

For the completely illiterate, there’s the remake of Red Dawn, a film even dumber in 2012 than it was in 1984.

The premise:  A foreign army invades the United States, and it falls to a handful of heavily armed and extraordinarily attractive American teenagers to protect the homeland.

The stupid:  The invaders are the North Koreans, a nation that lacks adequate food, fuel, ammunition, money, allies, or military experience to launch an effective assault on a small troop of nearsighted Cub Scouts.

The amazingly stupid:  When filmed, the invaders were actually the Chinese, but someone in marketing figured out that insulting millions of potential movie viewers was a faux pas. So the entire film was digitally altered to change flags, insignia, etc. to North Korean.  I really wish I knew which Asian shop did the digital fixing.

The prediction:  Not only will this film stoke a lot of jingoistic chest-thumping and be quoted by chicken-hawk conservatives, it will also send hundreds of unqualified slouches to military recruiters who have to explain why they can’t be in Special Forces without an education.

Atlas Shrugged II

For the semi-literate, there’s Part II of the never-before-produced-and-for-good-reason adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

The premise:  Communist-ish ideas invade the United States, and it is up to a handful of very talented and extraordinarily attractive middle-aged Americans to protect what belongs to them.

The stupid: This sexless commercial for libertarianism isn’t even a true-to-spirit adaptation of the tedious comic book on which it is based.

The really stupid:  The film’s producers want to run its trailers ahead of a new Clint Eastwood movie in order to court every single one of 327 people who thought his performance at the RNC wasn’t a cringing embarrassment.

The prediction:  General audiences will be at least as wowed by Atlas Shrugged Part II as they were by Atlas Shrugged Part I.

Words I Don’t Use – Memorial Day 2012

I am the father of three and would probably be defined by most people as a liberal (although I generally reject that term these days), yet our eldest child wants to be an officer in the U.S. Navy.  He knows more about geo-politics than most adults, let alone kids his own age.  He believes Iraq was a strategic mistake, agrees that it is an example of bad leadership misusing both the heart and the might of the military.  So, I asked him, “Why would you want to sign up for that?” His answer was, “Because I want to affect policy.  I want to be one of the people who decides how and when we use the military.”  Selfishly, I’d like to argue with him, but it’s hard not to be proud of his answer and tough to reject its logic.

On the actual 9/11, that child was 7 years old, and we were still in Manhattan.  A handful of us parents decided to take the kids out of school as a group and keep them away from televisions while we waited for news about one dad whose office was in the Trade Center.  We took a bunch of the boys to Central Park to play, and I remember thinking then how strangely idyllic this scene was while just 10 miles to the south, all Hell really was breaking loose.  It was so quiet uptown; the only indication of the unfolding disaster was the periodic roar of an F-16 circling Manhattan.  It was a gorgeous day.  We we were absolutely fine.

In 2002, the president addressed the nation and told what I believe to be one of the biggest lies uttered as part of an orchestrated prelude to the invasion of  Iraq. “They hate our freedoms,” he said.  I thought then, as I do now, that this was an act of gross misdirection; and as the saying goes, you cannot tell just one lie.  This one was a doozy that set off a chain reaction that became a clusterfuck.  That terrorist organizations and rogue nations threaten safety, even stability, is certainly true; but the idea that any external force can threaten our freedoms seems like a hysterical assessment of the contemporary geo-political landscape. Specifically, our freedoms have never been the target of al Qaeda, and even if they were, one might have paused a moment before the war and asked exactly how that organization might have succeeded in that agenda.

It’s impossible to imagine how a threat to our notion of freedom could come from anywhere other than from within.  Still, we tend to say that our men and women in uniform are “fighting for our freedom” to the point that it is now a throw-away, politician’s mantra.  I never say these words because I believe it is a disservice to perpetuate a lie.  I truly respect and honor the individuals who are part of the military, especially as my oldest child proposes to join their ranks; but I believe we civilians owe these people our integrity in return for their service, a willingness to call things as they are instead of how we’d like to perceive them.  If we cannot do that, we will always squander their blood with the fallacy of our words.

Copyright Alliance Interview: My “Two Cents”

Copyright Alliance is a D.C. based organization that works to keep copyright laws relevant in the ever-changing distribution landscape.  Copyright is, after all, what makes it possible for an artist of any kind to make a living with his or her work, so indie filmmakers should remain aware of these issues.  At the same time, CA likes to focus on the work of independent artists in order to educate their audience, including lawmakers, about some of the unknown details of our work.  Recently, CA Executive Director Sandra Aistars interviewed me about how the money was used for gone Elvis and about some of my observations on small film financing in general.

Read the interview on the CA website here.

gone Adolfas

Yesterday, a dear friend and former professor, Adolfas Mekas, died of heart complications at the age of 85.  If you consider yourself an independent filmmaker and are not familiar with Adolfas and his avant-garde contemporaries, I recommend a Google search.  Plenty is written about his film work, and I won’t attempt to add to that anthology.  Suffice to say, that if you’re looking for lessons in “film courage,” check out the works of the Mekas brothers, Maya Daren, Stan Brakhage, et al.  They were indie when indie wasn’t cool.

To know, love, and learn from Adolfas, was a lesson in what it means to be an artist of any kind.  He was ruthlessly unpretentious, brutally cynical, even mean sometimes, and funny as all hell.  He not only worked in absurdist constructs; he was an absurdist construct who would pull the rug out from under any idea, any assumption, and above all, any excuse.  He would see a student, say me, and in his Lithuanian accent with partial syntax, ask, “Where is movie?”

I would answer, “I’ll get back to it.  I have a paper due for a class.”

“Copy out of book,” he would respond, only half-joking.  “Make movie.”

Although a professor for over thirty years, he was more than a little iconoclastic when it came to traditional academia.  Even teaching film studies at Bard was something he and his early students had to fight to keep among the course offerings; and there were never enough resources.  If you were lucky to know Adolfas at certain times, you had the opportunity (read challenge) to watch, in a single showing, Kobayashi’s The Human Condition — a ten-hour, black-and-white, Japanese war film with subtitles.  During one bathroom break, I remember him enjoying a kind of mad-scientist moment, when he said, “The freshmen in my class, they are hating this.  They think it’s required.”  I asked if he would assign them a paper about the film and he said, “Yes, but has to fit on three by five card.”  Genius.

His spirit and humor were infectious.  I’m sure many of his students repeat Adolfasisms, consciously or not, in their daily lives.  In our house, when something breaks one says, “The whole unyit it broken, dammit,” which was the standard assessment of any piece of Bard’s antique, dog-eared film equipment that had stopped working.

I am sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friend and sadder still that, although I live less than an hour from his house, we did not spend more time together over the last several years.  There was no lack of affection, but as I had strayed so far from filmmaking, I found it tough, even painful, to speak with Adolfas after we got past the easy stuff like kids, and life’s practicalities.  He would say, “So, what are you doing,”  i.e. “Where is movie?”  And the answer was so much more dull than having a paper due.

Now that I am throwing myself back into film with everything I’ve got, I’m sorry I won’t get to share any of it with Adolfas.  Of course, he’d probably say something about the work that would piss me off, but that was his job.  Whether he’d like it or not, I’m dedicating gone Elvis to him.

“Green Fields of France” Memorial Day Musings

I listen to this song all the time.  For one thing, it reminds me of when my wife and I were still in college.  She’s of Irish descent and a student of Irish literature and history, and this version of “Green Fields of France” by the Fureys was on a cassette tape comprised of mostly banned Irish rebellion songs.  I also just plain like the song, so it’s on my frequently-played list of iTunes music.

Written in 1976 by Scottish-born Australian Eric Bogle, “Green Fields of France” speaks directly to the fallen 19 year-old Willie McBride, lying among thousands of graves filled with WWI dead.  The lyrics imagine Willie’s life and death, and it questions his sacrifice by stating the obvious that this “war to end wars” did nothing of the kind.  Some deride the song as “anti-military,” and others praise it for the same reason; but I find the melody and the imagery moving in a way that reduces such black-and-white concepts to irrelevance.

Although the first official Memorial Day was in 1868, it wasn’t until after WWI, that both the Southern and Northern United States began to recognize a single day to honor those who died in service to the nation.  It is a typical dichotomy of history that unifying events can also be tragically flawed.  WWI offers the students in our military academies many lessons in how not to fight a war and how to better read a geopolitical landscape before entering one, but it also serves as the turning point when we as one nation honor the individual sacrifices of men and women in uniform as well as their families.

Traditionally, there are military families and non-military families; and while I come from the latter, I am about to be among the former.  My eldest son intends to become a Naval officer; and I think he’ll be a damn good one because he knows his history and has no qualms about facing the darker truths and follies of war while still believing that the U.S. military must play a vital role in fostering global stability in the 21st century.

After nearly 100 years  since WWI, I like to believe that we’re on the verge of another social unification, one that rejects many politicians’ self-serving attempts to divide Americans into “strong” vs. “weak” on defense, one that fosters a stronger connection and better dialogue between the military and civilians.  The support we’ve received for gone Elvis has come from both ends of the political spectrum, from veterans, and from people who have no relationship to the military whatsoever.  If we can all agree to take care of our vets and to honor their sacrifices, perhaps we can agree to be likewise unified in consideration of those sacrifices before they are made.

Happy Memorial Day

Waiting to Hear

Years ago, when submitting work to agents, publishers, etc., I recognized a consistent pattern in my assumptions about what these people were thinking.

If you haven’t heard in one week, they haven’t read it.

If you haven’t heard in two weeks, they don’t like it.

If you haven’t heard in three weeks, they don’t like you.