Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Topp" of the Heap

As the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has progressed one of the major unexpected delights has been the New Zealand music documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. A pure burst of inspiration, this movie presents celebrities Jools and Linda Topp in all their comedic, yodeling, lesbian, Country Music singing glory. For over 30 years these two icons have busted any and all conventions while expanding their gigantic international fan base, the sisters not once pulling their punches or bowing to pressure to keep their political and social opinions to themselves.

Here to present their film to SIFF audiences, I got the opportunity to sit down with the Topp Twins to talk about the documentary, the state of LGBT rights in the United States and whatever else might have been on the pair’s minds. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.

Sara Michelle Fetters: As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if 30 years ago when you were both just starting out if you could ever have imagined you’d be where you are now? Did this sort of stardom, this sort of fame, did the possibility of it even remotely cross either of your minds?

Linda Topp: Not really. Not really at all because we grew up on a dairy farm and when we left home we ended up in the Army for a little bit, so we never really planned a career as entertainers.

Jools Topp: We really wanted to takeover our Dad’s farm. That’s really what we wanted to do. We wanted to be farmers.

Linda Topp: But I think in some ways maybe that is why were here. It just seemed to happen. We never started off thinking we wanted to be movie stars or we wanted to be entertainers or we wanted to be activist. But we love doing it. We really love doing it. So we just started doing it [entertaining], and eventually we got to where we are now. I do know that for, at least the past 25 years, there has been some sort of a plan, because we did become entertainers and we did start to become popular in New Zealand and in Australia.

Jools Topp: We’ve made a lot of conscious decisions along the way. Let’s try this. Let’s do this. And the other thing is, too, when you live in New Zealand you have to create your own stuff, you’re not living in Hollywood and it’s not all out there in front of you. You can’t really say I’d love to work with that person or I’d really like to do that [famous] thing, you sort of have to make your own stuff happen in New Zealand. You’re a long ways away from the rest of the world.

But, I think the other thing about is that because we are so far away from the rest of the world we really know what’s going on in the rest of the world, we’re eager for information. I think because of that we’ve been able to become hugely political but we’re also quite strong. We stand up for ourselves.

Linda Topp: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve doing that for quite some time. But to answer the original question, no, in our wildest dreams we could never imagined it. We’d never imagined we’d be where we are now.

Sara Michelle Fetters: And you are hugely political and always seem ready to tackle any issue out there that strikes your fancy whether they be the fight for LGBT rights, Maori land ownership issues, Apartheid or nuclear proliferation just to name a few. Yet you also seem to have been able to do this in a way that hasn’t alienated the majority of the masses no matter what they’re political persuasion or stripe. How have you been able to do that?

Jools Topp: You’ve got to love you enemy. You just have to be honest.

Linda Topp: Yeah, for us it has always been about honesty. In New Zealand, what happened was that we came out and then got famous. In other place, people get famous and then they’re too scared to come out. They think they’re going to lose something. But if you’re hiding something, if you’re hiding your sexuality from yourself and from your whole audience, there is a bit of a void there.

Jools Topp: When an audience comes to watch you what you hope for is that they’re going to be with you 100-percent. Every artist wants that. But it’s a funny profession. You might have your degree in arts but that’s jack s**t, it doesn’t mean nothing if the audience doesn’t like you.

Linda Topp: We need applause. We need those types of things. But I think the whole idea is being to embrace an audience, but if you’re not being honest with them, you’re already lying to [them] before you even walk out on stage. So you come clean. There’s no dirt on the Topp Twins because we’ve revealed every secret there is. That makes you free. It makes us free to say pretty much anything we want.

Jools Topp: And, you know what? Even those who don’t agree with you can still respect that you’ve been honest. Most people understand honesty. They really do. Even if they’re far, far away from you’re ideals they will understand honesty. In a lot of ways you have to respect the people that have a different opinion.

Linda Topp: My really great horse trainer Buck has a saying, ‘We’re not here to judge, we’re just here to comment.’ And he’s right. When you talk of a judgment you’re already putting something down, you’re saying my judgment is more important than your judgment.

You can have an idea and you can comment about it, and that’s basically what we do. We’re very, very strong about our ideas. We’re anti-nuclear. We feel the Gay and Lesbian community must be acknowledged by the rest of the community. That sort of stuff is really important. But the way we’ve done it is that we’ve commented on it, we’ve written a song, and I think sometimes if you’re going to be a political entertainer first and foremost you’ve got to entertain. Once you’ve got them [the audience], wammo! You can hit’em with the big stuff.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But it doesn’t seem to matter where you go, the audience always seems to embrace you completely.

Linda Topp: Because we’re having fun with them. And it’s the characters. Those characters that we play? Those characters are weird. Camp Mother and Camp Leader. Who would come up with that? We did.

Jools Topp: And everybody in the world has an aunt like Camp Mother or a sister like Camp Leader, and these are honest, hard-working people who, in some ways, can take you anywhere you want to go. We can go anywhere with these [characters]. We were having a laugh because I remembered this one time we were playing the Tamworth County Music Festival, which is redneck country in Australia, and then we went straight from there to the Montreal Comedy Festival, then we went home to do some weird little [LGBT] festival in Australia and then we came home back to new Zealand and performed at this dairy farmer convention.

Linda Topp: And who else would do what we do? We can take all of our characters to a farming community and they just love [them], and we can take them the next week to the Gay and Lesbian festival and they love them there, too. And we do not change our show to suit our audience. We do not change the content at all. We talk about all the same things that our important to us no matter who it is we’re playing in front of. Those characters just come and do what it is what they do, while our songs are as political or as timely as ever.

Jools Topp: But it’s because those characters are relatable. We knew we’d made it when the Canterbury Rugby Union asked Ken and Ken, our two ultra-male farming community characters, to give away their awards at the end of the year.

Linda Topp: These are the Crusaders, the big team down in the South Islands, and they got Ken and Ken, not the Topp Twins, to give our the awards at this big black tie dinner. How surreal is that? Jools and I would sometimes look at ourselves backstage and just smile. Here are these two lesbians dressed up as men giving away awards to some of the top athletes in all of New Zealand. It’s too weird. It’s maybe even too weird for us and we’ve done a lot of weird.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But what is that like when characters that you’ve created have taken on a life of their own, when they’ve entered into the public zeitgeist to such an extent they start to become flesh and blood in the eyes of your fans?

Jools Topp: It feels amazing, because what’s happened is I might rundown to the local store and I’ll be pushing my trolley around and someone will yell out, ‘G’day, Ken!’ even if I’m dressed as myself. But that’ll be there vision of me, they’re vision of me as Ken. They love Ken. That’s their character.

Linda Topp: Just before we came over here [to Seattle], about two or three weeks ago, we were doing this big concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra. There were like 70 musicians with violins and cellos and all those things like that, and they trusted that those characters would still play for an audience in an [environment] like that. They asked for us for the characters. They asked if Ken and Ken and Camp Mother and Camp Leader and the rest of our characters could play with the orchestra for an evening.

Jools Topp: And they televised that! T.V. came onboard and they televised the whole thing and now it’s going to come out as a DVD. But for us, that was kind of a major pinnacle. It was an honor. To be acknowledged like that in the true music world for both our songs and for our characters, that was amazing.

Linda Topp: Because we’re not always seen as musicians. We’re seen as artists and as performers and as comedians and as political activists but not always as musicians. I think what’s happening now is that we’re being honored for our music, because really, if you look at the film, if you look at our careers, the music is the vehicle. It’s what gets us through everything. It’s the focus.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But how do you stay so passionate? More than that, how do you make sure the audience is feeling that passion during one of your concerts or performances?

Linda Topp: We send things up rather than put things down.

Jools Topp: But you have to know how to do something if you’re going to send things up. You have to understand where the emotion behind it is coming from and you have to be able to feel that for yourself.

Linda Topp: If you’re going to send something up, if you’re going to really play on something, you’ve got to really know about it. It can’t be phony. Anybody can play anything. Anybody can put something down and not know anything about it. But if you’re going to send something up…

Jools Topp: You’ve got to study it like nothing else!

Linda Topp: Right. You’ve got to study it to really understand it. When we started out we had this motto, amuse but never abuse. And that has always been our way. Our way in how we approach our form of entertainment. Especially in regards to comedy.

Jools Topp: And we’re also icons in the [LGBT] community now. We’re really seen as people who broke out, people you could look at and see that they’re gay, and in New Zealand that was a huge responsibility. We got this beautiful letter from this young guy, his mum and dad just adored [our television] program, and he was gay and he thought this was fabulous, that he’d go home and watch the Topp Twins with his parents and come out to them at the end of it.

So, at the end of it, he was a bit worried about the whole thing so he turned to his mum and dad and said, ‘I want to tell you something really important, I am just like the Topp Twins.’ And his mother turned to him and said, ‘Don’t be silly dear, you’ll never be as funny as the Topp Twins.’

Linda Topp: So he didn’t get it quite right, but he sent this letter to us because he thought it was so funny. But to get to the heart of it his mum and dad didn’t probably know a lot about gays or lesbians, but they adored us as entertainers and for being funny, and that was just such a barrier breakdown that this family could talk about what was going on with their son.

Jools Topp: If you can make people laugh than [things] aren’t so scary.

Linda Topp: Quite right. If you can make people laugh than any barrier they have or any blockage they have is gone. As soon as you laugh, it’s like some sort of endorphin kicks in and you’re suddenly receptive and vulnerable. You’re vulnerable when you laugh and you’re vulnerable when you cry, and, if we can, we’d like to take our audience through both of those things within the show. If you can make an audience laugh and if you can make them cry then you’ve completely and utterly taken every barrier away from that person and then they become open to ideas and to the things you might want to say to them.

But that’s how it happens. We’ve never, ever stood up and said this is the way it should be and this is how it is which is what politicians try to do. It’s protesting. It’s boring. We’re not protesting. We’re just celebrating who we are and what we believe. It’s a celebration about Jools and me. We’re lesbians. We’re happy about that. Why shouldn’t we celebrate that? We don’t want anymore rights than anyone. We want the same rights. It’s really simple.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I love that you say, “amuse but don’t abuse,” because when you watch the portion of the film where you’re working on overturning the anti-sodomy laws and fighting for gay rights the juxtaposition between you’re being so accepting and warm to those standing against you while they’re spewing so much venom and hatred is quite remarkable. Is any of that transferable? In the wake of things like Proposition 8 in California and other ongoing battles here in the United States, why can’t we learn from your successes in New Zealand?

Linda Topp: It’s all about being defensive. When you take it personally it can’t work. We were talking about this yesterday, actually. Nothing is personal. In this whole world, nothing is personal. It’s a big statement, but it’s really important. If you take it personally you can’t get over it. You’re defenses are up. Boom! Straight up. So if you said to me, ‘How do I fix the world?’ I’d say back to you don’t take anything personally.

Jools Topp: But take some sort of action. Don’t take it personally but get activated, let your opinion be heard.

Linda Topp: Enable yourself. You have to fill up the well before you can give anyone else a drink of water. So like, for us, as artists we said to ourselves that we had to come out. Someone’s going to ask someday if we were married with children and what would the answer be? Gibberish. We’d be clucking like chickens. So if we come out then we’re going to be saying no, of course not.

Jools Topp: And people do get weird. For a time there people thought Linda and I were together and I’d look at them [quizzically] and ask, ‘Are you weird?’ After all, gay people have morals, too, don’t you know.

Linda Topp: Yeah, so because of stuff like that we’re educating people in some sort of way. We’re all human. If I bang my hand it hurts and if I cut my finger it bleeds just like everyone else, so let’s just get real for a second. You have to treat everyone with respect and with honesty, and if you do that’s how dialogue can happen.

Jools Topp: But the thing to remember is that if you’re comparing New Zealand to America in some ways we are way smaller than you are, for a start. So we think we can make things different. We believe it.

Linda Topp: When there’s an issue of a huge magnitude, like some of the protests we’d been through, those were big to us. They were things that we really believed in that we had to fight for. And we were able to mobilize enough people to get out on the streets and say to the government that this is wrong and that we weren’t going to put up with it.

But it’s really difficult now for people. Young people don’t know what a protest is. They’re on their computer. What’s happened is that now people are alone in their rooms trying to save the world or trying to do things and it’s become very impersonal.

Sara Michelle Fetters: So how do you change that fact? How do you get them off of their computers and back out into the streets?

Linda Topp: Well, that’s a difficult question, but here in New Zealand we’ve already started a movement in that we don’t buy gas or anything from BP stations. If you’re driving along in your car and you come to a gas station and it’s a BP then you keep going until the next one. Because eventually what will happen is that if the people standup and say this is what they believe in and this is the little bit that I can do, then eventually it spreads and spreads. It’s like the oil. The oil is just spreading and spreading and spreading. So standup and do something to that company. And if enough people do then they’re statements will spread just as far, if hopefully further, than that oil does. Make them realize that they need to stop what they have been doing and reassess.

Jools Topp: If the world stopped buying what they’re producing then they’re down the gurgle, they’re gone. You can’t stop this [in the Gulf] that’s going on now, it’s happened, but they need to know they were wrong in the first place. They had no contingency, no nothing. You can tell them they’re wrong by hitting them where it hurts. Hit them by getting rid of their profits. Stand up. Make it personal.

Linda Topp: And it’s universal. As gay people, I think, that we have a responsibility to always standup. We must always standup. Because the one day that we don’t we’re goners. Like in Arizona. They think they can stop anyone on the street and as where are your papers. One day that’s might also be gay people.

Jools Topp: And it’s happened before, and we don’t want that to happen again, so I say to all those people who might have a tendency to be stopped [in Arizona] quit working for a week. Those white collar people who are making those big bucks up here wouldn’t be making it if those Hispanics weren’t working for them down there. Who’s going to clean their house? Who’s going to make the beds at the resort? Who’s going to pick those fruits and vegetables?

Linda Topp: I’ll tell you what, if every illegal migrant in this country did stop working, even for a day, America would just fall apart. But you know what keeps them from doing that? Fear. There’s a power balance. It’s about making someone feel bad. And you have to overcome that. You have to be willing to standup for what you believe. You can’t give into that fear. And, by not giving into that fear, that’s when you can shift that power imbalance back into your favor.

Listen, when people leave the theatre after seeing our movie or after they’ve left one of our shows I want them to feel empowered, I want them to feel like they can make a difference.

Jools Topp: And to feel good, too. To feel good about whom they are and where they’ve come from.

Linda Topp: To feel good about being gay and lesbian. To feel good about being a man. To feel good about being a woman. To feel good about being whoever they are or whomever they want to be. Feel proud about it. There’s no real message. If you feel good in your heart, and you feel proud about yourself, then you can go out and make a difference. You can go out and do good.

- portions of this post reprinted courtesy of the SGN

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Darkness and Light

To paraphrase a very old saying, death is easy, it’s comedy that’s hard. But finding funny in hardship, especially the emotional kind that can rip people to pieces and destroy families with the ease of an A-Bomb? That’s borderline impossible, and while certain filmmakers have been able to do it over the years finding a solidly entertaining Black Comedy rooted in real pathos and pain isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.

Or is it? Over the last week I’ve seen three such motion pictures, one I can’t really say too much about until its general release later this Summer and then two others I could wax poetic until my little heart desires. On top of that, if you want to throw Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg into the mix – and by golly you should, it’s both terrific and terrifically unsettling – then that’s four of these well made and hugely enjoyable dark comedies I’ve had the pleasure to discover this year, each of them offering up their own idiosyncrasies making them utterly unique.

But focusing entirely upon SIFF, the three films I’m talking about are the Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus, the Siberian coal black satire Devil’s Town and Nick Whitfield’s somewhat macabre but ultimately heartwarming slice of British witticisms Skeletons. In regard to the first one, due to the review embargo all I can really say is that I really, really loved it. John C. Reilly hits it out of the ballpark, Jonah Hill has reminded me why I liked him so much in Superbad and Marisa Tomei is deserving of another Academy Award nomination. Directors Jay and Mark Duplass follow up The Puffy Chair and Baghead brilliantly, and to say this is arguably the best comedy of the year so far isn’t just a bunch of hyperbole.

As for Devil’s Town (Djavolja Varos), director and writer Vladimir Paskaljevic’s cutting satire goes into corners similar motion pictures don’t just fear to tread, they run away screaming from them. A day in the life in Belgrade, the film fools you for a brief moment thinking you’re about to see some sort of sweet coming of age drama about the friendship between two young girls, one wealthy the other the daughter of her parent’s maid. But before you know it Paskaljevic charts a labyrinthine course in and around the city offering up prostitutes, mafia dons, working class everymen, business entrepreneurs, a crazed taxi driver and a pair of young lovers who confuse dysfunction for romance. It’s a nasty stew full of images and sounds that are as off-putting as they are mesmerizing, and by and large I can’t really say I ever knew where this story was going.

Yet there is sweetness to be found amidst the disgusting, light hiding within the dark. All the characters are colored in varying shades of gray, many of them willing to do the remarkable if pushed into a corner and forced to stand up for what’s right. They might flee in anger afterwards but their heroism cannot be questioned, the director doing a great job showing how even the most monstrous have it within them to become saviors if the opportunity presents itself.

It’s all very shocking, but it’s also extremely funny and at times remarkably endearing. What does it say when one of the sweetest scenes I’ve seen this year involves a geriatric gynecologist and a gentile young prostitute, the latter allowing the former to examine her so he can relive his glory days for a brief moment? Or that a scene of a young wannabe tennis star and a kind-hearted workingman passing one another on the sidewalk amidst a sea of fluffy white bunnies brought joy to my soul and laughter to my eyes both at the very same time? This is the type of movie where a vicious mob hit can both be bloody shocking and bloody hilarious, and where other films would feel the need to play up such a scene’s sensationalism Paskaljevic uses it instead as a much needed precursor to a bit of subtle mother-daughter kindness that broke my heart.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Whitfield’s Skeletons, an ingenious bit a British comedy where two traveling salesmen literally pull skeletons out of their clients’ closets. They’re exorcists of the human soul, finding the truth at the heart of relationships whether those paying for their services really want to know what’s been haunting them or not.

The film plays a bit like Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice crossed with a hearty dollop of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters yet with the same kind of slashing wit that made Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz such wondrous delights. But Whitfield’s film is far more subdued than any of those four, the director more concerned with the internal plights of his characters than he is with the wickedly surreal world he’s delicately constructed.

Of the three Skeletons is arguably the weakest. The midsection does tend to drag a little bit and the filmmaker doesn’t exactly go out of his way to try and explain how all the mystical hocus pocus allowing his two heroes (wonderfully portrayed by Andrew Buckley and Paul Dallison) works. But I found these to be relatively minor problems, the last third of the film building to a beautiful coda that’s both darkly sinister and yet winsomely uplifting. It was the kind of movie where I found myself wanting to hang with the characters long after the credits had ended, the smile the whole collection of them put on my face one I didn’t want to see ever erased.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is "Grease" Still the Word?

Part of me can’t help but wonder what’s with the enduring popularity of Randal Kleiser’s (The Blue Lagoon) 1978 adaptation of the Broadway musical Grease. While I’m just as big a fan of the songs as the next person (you just try getting ditties as catchy as “Summer Nights” or “You’re the One that I Want” out of your head as see how you do) the movie sort of leaves me oddly cold and for that reason I’ve never been seen doing cartwheels for it.

Not that I hate the film by any stretch of the imagination. The first time I saw it as a kid I was totally positive I would grow up to be just like Sandra Dee (both versions, she was great both prim and proper and as a leather jacket-clad bad girl), it not mattering a lick that I looked nothing like Olivia Newton-John in the slightest. I also thought that “Beauty School Dropout” production number was just to die for, and I still believe to this day one of the reasons I became a writer and not a hair dresser is because of the look of abstract failure on Didi Conn’s face as Frankie Avalon lovingly sang to her.

But I do think Kleiser’s staging of the dance numbers is clunky and not always as good as I wanted it to be, that central competition nowhere near as exciting as it should have been. I also think the performances are way too far all over the map, and while I wanted to be just like Sandra Dee doesn’t mean I also thought Newton-John was all that great portraying her.

The one big exception to all of the above? Stockard Channing. How this one-time Oscar nominee (1994’s Six Degrees of Separation) has not become a bigger and far more lauded star is still way beyond me. She’s stupendous here as Betty Rizzo, stealing every scene she’s in even from box office superstar John Travolta, himself fresh off of his success breaking hearts in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. I can’t get enough of her in this, her rendition of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” positively heartbreaking.

I bring all this up because Paramount Pictures is bringing Grease back for another go-around with a Sing-Along version to hit theatres in July. SIFF is getting to premier this version of this new print of the film, showing it to audiences for the very first time on Saturday, June 12 at 3:45 p.m. Even though I’m not a huge fan I’m pretty positive I’ll be attending all the same, if for no other reason to relieve my own Sandra Dee wannabe fantasies in a movie theatre for the very first time.

Traveling "Ackwards" and Choosing Ecstasy

Bass Ackwards is a roving travelogue of a drama that takes its sweet time to get going. When it does, however, the movie ultimately proves to be a wonderfully emotional interpersonal saga about how getting lost can allow a person to find who they actually are (or would like to be).

Actor-writer-director Linas Phillips makes his narrative debut as a man taking a cross-country journey from Seattle to New York via a beaten up 1976 Volkswagen van. While his story isn’t new (loner unsure of what he wants in life, has trouble maintaining relationships, looking for reasons to care) what it becomes once he hits the road is still quite stunning, the final 40 or so minutes so profoundly moving I can’t seem to get them out of my head.

It does take quite some time for Linas to both hit that road and then do anything interesting upon it. For a good while I was a bit mystified as to why I should care about the guy and what the point of taking this journey with him was supposed to be. The film felt in many ways like it was stuck in neutral, and for nearly the first half I seriously pondered calling it quits and moving on to something else.

I don’t think I could be any happier that I chose to stick with Bass Ackwards because with an almost explosive suddenness the movie comes beautifully alive delicately morphing into a complicatedly enthralling character study I couldn’t get enough of. First with the arrival of a monosyllabic visitor played by Jim Fletcher, and the later at a backwoods garage operated by a playfully charming Paul Lazar, Phillip’s effort becomes something absolutely extraordinary; the opening bits a much needed precursor to the ingenious human revelations occurring during the final acts.

I sat down with both Phillips and co-star/co-writer Davie-Blue to talk a little bit more about their film at the SIFF press offices at the downtown Seattle W Hotel. As we began, I couldn’t help but be honest with the director about my initial reluctance to embrace his debut, how the opening half kept me at a distance and that it wasn’t until the arrival of Jim where I started to realize there was something special going on here.

“Maybe the beginning is too slow,” remarks Phillips with candid honesty,” but maybe it is also a thing that sets [the second half] up for audiences. I guess when you think about a lot of movies [many] of them start too slow, but it’s only like ten minutes too slow, so maybe this pushes that a little bit.”

But that leisurely aspect to the opening acts is integral to the success of the second half and without the setup I’m not sure denouement would be near as successful as it ultimately proved to be. This ‘getting to know Linas’ portion allows for his evolution, his penultimate choices as to what to do with his life probably not carrying near as much weight as they would had the director not paced things the way he did.

“I didn’t really think about it at the beginning,” admits Phillips. “I was thinking about the character. It was almost like a movie where there are a bunch of characters and they help drive the plot forward but they’re also doing things that are interesting beyond the straight plot. This is a movie where it’s like one of those characters in the whole thing is just seeing this little trajectory about [himself] and just trying to find those organic steps to get him there.”

“So we over shot [the film], we had a lot of stuff, especially in Seattle. I write in a way that is almost like thinking like a documentary, that I need enough to show different things. But if [one] scene already shows what we’ve already done in another scene then you have to be able to cut it out. With the editing, you’re able to find the pacing, you’re able to find what you need to stretch out and what you need to [get rid of] in order to make the character’s story work best.”

It’s at this point Davie-Blue joins us for the interview and after a quick recap of what we’ve been talking about she energetically jumps right into the conversation. “It is a uniquely long setup,” she says with a warm touch of sincerity and sarcasm. “It kind of is. But I think it still works. I think you need it.”

Suddenly the interview turns a little bit, the director putting me on the spot asking what I would have thought had the film kept that same style and pacing from start to finish, what I think would have happened. “I’d get a blowjob at the end,” Phillips adds with a smirk causing both Davie-Blue and I to laugh out loud. “It would have been The Brown Bunny.”

After we settled down I managed to somehow answer his question, admitting I probably would have responded to Bass Ackwards the same way I responded to 2006’s Old Joy, a movie that got a lot of critical kudos but one that I personally found to be emotionally aloof and ultimately quite boring. “Yeah, I can totally agree,” thankfully admitted Phillips. “I don’t like the performances in that. I think they could have gotten away with it if the [characters] had been interesting. If they had been a little bit more engaged. They were too pulled back.”

The nice thing about his movie is that while it is restrained, it certainly isn’t pulled back. I ask Phillips about his influences and where he was pulling from while he was making the film. A longtime fan of Werner Herzog, the filmmaker directed the 2006 documentary Walking to Werner and received quite a bit of acclaim for it. In the case of Bass Ackwards, I comment on how it doesn’t just seem to have been influenced by Herzog, but by the works of Wim Wenders, most notably Paris, Texas, as well.

“It’s from Stroszek,” states the director. “The amazing thing about [the film] is the use of non-actors and that it’s a road movie and it’s just got this incandescent authenticity to it. It’s just so good. It’s just amazing. It starts to build on itself so like even shots where this guy is just walking across the street become so much about this human behavior going in within this character.”

“As for Paris, Texas, I mean I like that movie, but I wasn’t thinking about it consciously. I guess I should see it again. It’s been a while but it’s really good. I don’t think I was intentionally thinking about the cinematography in it and I don’t know if our cinematographer Sean [Porter] had seen it, but we see a lot of movies. We were watching stuff like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider and Stroszek. Those were the things I was obviously getting close to while [we] were preparing.”

All this leads me to the pair’s writing process. While Phillips gets the main writing credit, both Davie-Blue and Jim Fletcher get co-writer nods in the closing credits, so I wonder if this was a scenario that was tightly scripted from the beginning or if it was one they had the outline for but ultimately figured out more or less as they went along.

“I wanted it to be more like that but we really didn’t have the time,” says Phillips. “I wanted to go to a town and find some people and hang out there for a few days and then work them in, almost like that mechanic character at the gas station. But even that was an actor [Paul Lazar] that I knew and I wrote all that stuff for. Well, we kind of wrote it together because it’s kind of based on true events in his life, but I do wish we could have found a non-actor to play stuff like that. But we had ten days on the road which obviously made a lot of that impossible.”

“At the beginning, Davie and I wrote the scenes with her and I together. Sean and I worked in a way where we were both writer-actor-director-cinematographer at the Alpaca farm where we would be like, let’s just do this, like the scene where I’m feeding the Alpacas, this looks interesting. We would all work trying to find things that we thought were interesting, like the girl at the gas station wiping the windows. We saw that and we were like, let’s put that in. It was sort of method acting-slash-filmmaking, like I really was checking out some girl washing windows and Sean just rolls his eyes while we both realize that would make for a really good scene [in the movie].

This leads me to wonder how all this worked for Davie-Blue. As collaborator but still an actress on the film, did this sort of free-form philosophy make it difficult for her? Was this a structure she enjoyed working in?

“That’s how a writer works as well,” she says matter-of-factly. “There’s just that step of writing it down that you bypass on a set like this. You’re always inspired by something, and those who create very personal work are inspired by things that they see in their lives and they connect with them. I am an artist and a writer and a creator and an actor so I don’t come to it like, I’m an actor and I need to have it all written down. I’m very comfortable with creating working and producing work.”

“With that said, [Linas] didn’t approach me saying he had this movie he wanted me to work on. He approached me saying that he had this idea he was working on with a friend and there’s maybe this woman in it. That made it less structured right from the start and I knew I’d have lots of input.”

Because of the quick schedule, limited budget and the collaborative process in regards to the script itself, I ask Phillips about his philosophy in regards to exposition. I ask this mainly because of the way in which Linas is gifted the VW van from the Alpaca farmer, a thing that just sort of happens yet as an audience member one that I also completely accepted as probable. When is less, more? When is more, less?

“I was talking to some filmmakers recently and whenever you know a scene is just about exposition it [probably] isn’t necessary. I didn’t have time to imagine that scene, I think there is enough interesting things with that great character [of the farmer] for the audience to be able to imagine some beautiful moment where they’re hanging out and that [gift] happens. The bottom line is that if you’re a smart actor you’re thinking those things.”

“You feel it,” adds Davie-Blue emphatically. “It feels terrible to say that. Like physically terrible. I don’t need to say it. You just have to stop. The audience already knows.”

“Or even when there’s a script,” continues Phillips, “and you have to say a line like, ‘I don’t care,’ but if you just gave a look or if there’s some great prop that you can just sort of toss down it’s showing that you don’t care and there’s no reason for you to say it. Then it becomes Cinema and not just random words.”

“There’s a reason you’re art,” says Davie-Blue. “You’re creating something you can’t use words to express. And it feels so good. You expressing one thing and there are two options. One is to say it totally [with words] and nothing else. The other is to not say it at all and express it through actions. One of these feels just terrible and the other just feels ecstatic. You’ve got to choose the ecstasy.”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Great Directors, New Directions

It’s always nice when filmmakers stretch themselves in ways you don’t expect. Martin Scorsese made The Age of Innocence. Steven Spielberg took on The Color Purple. Marc Forster went all actiony with Quantum of Solace. In short, allowing yourself to pigeonholed is a bad thing, and when great directors take on new challenges (no matter what they might be, even Alfred Hitchcock deserves kudos for attempting slapstick comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith) I’m happy for them even if the ultimate outcome isn’t always desired.

I bring this up because two great filmmakers, Germany’s Fatih Akin and Italy’s Ferzan Ozpetek have their latest films playing at SIFF this year (Akin’s Soul Kitchen, Ozpetek’s Loose Cannons) and neither effort is what you’d expect from the acclaimed auteurs. Yet these character-driven comedies show two directors attempting to expand their range and test their creative metal, and for my part I can’t help but love them even more because of that fact.

It does sadden me a tiny bit to admit Akin’s Soul Kitchen is easily the less successful of the two efforts. Thankfully, that still makes it a solid 3-star effort and a movie I’d urge people to rush out to see immediately even with its somewhat annoying third act missteps. The story of German-Greek restaurateur Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), the movie ends up being a foodie delight of family, friendship and love. While the outcome isn’t ever in much doubt getting there is such an emotionally madcap amount of fun the story’s predictability isn’t a huge issue, the movie such a rapturously enjoyable exercise in mayhem I almost couldn’t help but enjoy myself.

Is it as profound as Akin’s 2007 masterwork The Edge of Heaven or is beautifully nuanced 2004 modern classic Head-On? No, not at all, the director not showing near the same confidence dealing with slapstick comedy as he is when handling more dramatic and weighty issues. But just because that’s so still doesn’t mean he can’t find success, and like his previous winners by keeping things grounded in complex and interesting characters he manages to make even the silliest misstep palatable. More, watching him expand his range while also lightening his touch is a joy, and if Soul Kitchen doesn’t do a single thing else it makes me even more excited to see what enticing curiosity the director has up his sleeve next.

As for Ozpetek’s Loose Cannons, already a big winner coming out of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival this stirring familial comedy is another outright sensation for the Steam: The Turkish Bath and Facing Windows (2003 Golden Space Needle Award-winner) director. Concerning a Italian family whose successful pasta company has brought them wealthy and notoriety, the movie revolves around Gay son Tommaso (Riccardo Scamarcio) who has returned home from Rome to come out to his conservative and image conscious father Vincenzo (Ennio Fantastichini). But he is beaten to the punch when his older brother Antonio (Alessandro Preziosi), who also runs the family’s pasta making factory, does it first, giving their father such a start he ends up having a heart attack but not before he angrily disowns the elder son and sends him packing.

This sounds like the makings of a cold and emotionally devastating drama but that’s not what’s on Ozpetek’s mind at all. Instead the film morphs into a beautifully nuanced and highly unusual comedy of mores and mistaken identities where love doesn’t necessarily conquer all and the past can play as vital role in the future as the fractious present can. The narrative is so light on its feet watching the myriad of characters, so many of them I can’t go into them all here, play one of the other is utter perfection, and the more I laughed at was going on the more the emotional weight of everything that was in play began to move me to honestly earned cascades of tears.

But it is the fantastic final act where Ozpetek finds true success. The last twenty minutes held me positively captivated, the director showcasing a Fellini-like talent for surrealism that suits the material absolutely perfectly. I was blown away by where he was taking things, amazed at both the honesty and the creativity of these penultimate moments. This movie made me smile in euphoria while at the same time I was reaching for handfuls of Kleenex, and when all was said and done Loose Cannons ultimately ranked as one of the most rhapsodic I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy sitting in a theatre in all of 2010.

As for my first festival update, I’m running up to Chinese director Lu Chuan’s Najing melodrama The City of Life and Death right now while eagerly anticipating my screening of the Duplass Brothers’ latest effort Cyrus later tonight. In-between I’ll be spending some time with a couple of men behind the glorious B-movie horror effort Tucker & Dale vs. Evil so make sure to check back later to hear from them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Interview with Artistic Director Carl Spence

The 36th annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has officially begun, and instead of tapping out the usual humdrum preview piece I thought it might be fun to sit down with Artistic Director Carl Spence and let him do the majority of the heavy lifting for me. After all, when you’re talking about a 25-day festival spotlighting 405 features, documentaries and shorts from 67 countries why not turn to the man responsible for helping assemble this smorgasbord to help put it into some sort of cohesive perspective.

Sara Michelle Fetters: As the artistic director of SIFF, what sort of guidance or direction do you give the programmers as they assemble the lineup for the festival?

Carl Spence: My driving force has always been not so much trying to give the audience what they want but to my mind in knowing who your audience is the great thing about the Seattle Festival and what makes it so different from other festivals is that it has been widely embraced by the city and is so eclectic in its programming mix that it [hasn’t] programmed Films with a capital F but really celebrated films of all subjects and budgets and hasn’t distinguished between a Hollywood film versus an art house film or a film from Brazil or a film from the U.S.A. It doesn’t say one is more important than the other. It doesn’t discriminate.

And that’s sort of the driving force for me. [SIFF] can go from lowbrow to highbrow and everything in-between while also encompassing pieces of all the other arts like music and dance. There are a lot of different pieces that go together to make a strong festival.

Sara Michelle: Talk a little about this year’s LGBT lineup. On paper this appears to be one of the most diverse group of films I’ve seen from SIFF in quite some time.
Carl Spence: It is. We’re always looking for interesting films across all boundaries and while we’re not specifically looking for gay or lesbian films we are looking for good films and whether specifically or tangentially we always seem to end up with a [good] selection that will be of interest to the [LGBT] community. We’re also happy to present our annual Gay-la film, Violet Tendencies with Mindy Cohn from “The Facts of Life,” which is sort of a fun, light comedy about the ultimate faghag who still hasn’t found a boyfriend and decides to leave the nest of her gay friends to see if she can find a relationship on her own.

Sara Michelle: Are there others films in this year’s LGBT series you’d consider standouts?

Carl Spence: Howl is an amazing film. [It’s] about the life of Allen Ginsberg and it’s structured like one of his poems. It really stands on its own. But then I think all of the films in the [LGBT series] stand on their own. Each in their own way is a standout.

As part of “Ambiente: A Celebration of Spanish Film” series there are some titles I gay and lesbian audiences will respond to. There is Room in Rome which is a remake of the Chilean film In Bed. We’re showing Alicia Scherson’s new film Turistas which revolves around two women. Then we have Mediterranean Diet, which really isn’t a gay film but is still about a ménage a trios between a woman, her husband and her lover.

Sara Michelle: And then there is Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, maybe the most controversial film SIFF has screened in years.

Carl Spence: It had some controversy coming out of Tribeca but I think that was all [overblown], like someone was trying to use it as a way to get some attention. But, in the end, I don’t really think there was much to the controversy. Even with the important issues that were brought up it’s still an exploitation film and made in that style, and I think people need to keep that in perspective.

Sara Michelle: So you don’t foresee any trouble with showing that film?

Carl Spence: I don’t think so. No. It’s an exploitation film. It’s like any of those films, like watching a Russ Meyer film. It’s no different than any other exploitation film. It’s not doing anything in a derogatory way. I think it’s great and a lot of fun. It is definitely a midnight film and it isn’t for everyone [but] I don’t see anything negative about it.

Sara Michelle: Talk to me a little about the opening night film, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man.

Carl Spence: That movie I just felt it was about these awkward people who don’t really fit in anywhere who all found each other and one [while] one is so different from the other they all just sort of make sense as a group. And Kevin Kline just sort of kills me whenever he’s one the screen. In this role he is totally back in form and he’s either funnier or as funny as he was back in A Fish Called Wanda.

Sara Michelle: That’s one of my favorite movies of all time so I can’t quite say he’s that good, but I do agree he is just fantastic in the movie. He steals the whole thing.

Carl Spence: He does. And I think it is just a perfect match between him and Paul Dano who underplays his role wonderfully. [The movie] is very inventive, not just in the writing but technically in regards to the art and set direction and to everything else. I just really enjoyed it. I think it is something that is enjoyable that’s also by a pair of filmmakers whom I really respect and whom I’m always excited to see what they are going to do next. It’s just a perfect way to open the festival.

Sara Michelle: Well, and the last time Berman and Pulcini were at SIFF it was for American Splendor, a modern American classic in my personal opinion. It must be nice to have them back both because they’ve had so much success here in Seattle and because their last film, The Nanny Diaries, wasn’t all that great?

Carl Spence: Well, [The Nanny Diaries] I think was more a commercial for hire job while The Extra Man is definitely the film you would think they would follow up something like American Splendor with. It’s an enjoyable film and I think opening night audiences will be very happy with it.

Sara Michelle: Going back to your Spanish film series, why Spain? What led you to go in that direction for your spotlight series this year?

Carl Spence: I’ve always loved Spain and I went on a trip to Madrid and it sort of got me even more excited about Spain, and then we just got all these great films. We sort of have the cream of the crop of some of the best films made [in Spain] over the last year and ones that had just been completed and are coming out so just made sense to choose Spain as our spotlight country. Everything from Cell 211 which was the Goya Award-winner for last year to Agora, Alejandro Amenábar’s new movie, will be showing.

We got some great support from the Spanish government. They’re underwriting some of these filmmakers and this is great exposure for them. But I just think these are a great group of films. Garbo: The Spy is this really amazing Spanish double agent who helped change the course of the history of WWII. Me Too is another great movie co-directed by a couple of first-time filmmakers. Gordos is the new film from Daniel Sánchez Arévalo whose films are almost always shown in the festival. The Dancer and the Thief by Fernando Trueba was Spain’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film and it’s very inventive and quite nice.

And there’s so much more. [The lineup] sort of spans the entire spectrum. There are comedies, there are serious films, there are documentaries, but [overall] I think the program really gives a nice overview of the best in cinemas coming out of Spain.

Sara Michelle: So this is the 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. Where do you see it going from here? Where do you think SIFF will be when it say turns 45 or 50?

Carl Spence: We’re planting the seeds right now to move into our permanent home in Seattle Center so that’s on the immediate horizon. That will give us a much stronger foundation to continue onward and will give us a much higher visibility in the community. So we’ll still have our SIFF Cinema location but we’ll also have a physical space that people can visit and will allow them to explore film 365 days a year.

We’ll also be doing quite a bit more educational programming. Right now we reach about 9,000 students throughout the year and we’re looking to expand that. Also, because we’ll be at Seattle Center which is a big destination for tourists that’s another audience we’ll be able to reach expanding our outreach globally.

So that’s what is on the horizon, and I think by doing that it will also strengthen what we do in regards to the festival as well. [SIFF] will continue in roughly the same shape and size as people have grown to love. We’ve set a strong foundation and it works well so I don’t foresee a lot of changes. People do wonder if we should shorten it [the festival] because it is so long but I’m not so sure about that.

Sara Michelle: Well I personally love the festival as it is. It’s absolutely unique. You never know what you’re going to get. Each trip to the theatre is a curious adventure or an exploration and that is something I truly appreciate. I wouldn’t change the shape and size of SIFF for anything.

Carl Spence: We work really hard to find films someone is passionate about. We don’t always agree within our own team but we try not to just be a survey of cinema. Some years there is only one film from Iran while in other years there might be three or four. One year we might have the first screenings of some big Summer films out of Hollywood. Others we might not have any. There are no magic quotas. We don’t have to show X amount of films from here [in Seattle]. It’s just more organic than that. We actively search out films during the year and we do a ton of research and outreach. We never know what the films we are going to show from year-to-year are and I think that’s a good thing. Seattle has its own beat and I really like it the way it is.

Sara Michelle: So, putting you on the spot, a person only has time to go to five films during the festival. What five do you send them to go see?

Carl Spence: Oh. That’s not fair. Five films? What do I have them go see? Anything? How about Howl, The Hedgehog from France, Loose Cannons directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, FarewellFarewell is simply a film everyone must see – and any film out of our New Director’s Showcase, but if I had to choose one I’d say Angel at Sea. But that’s just a few. I could go on and on and on, but that’s probably enough for now.

- Portions of this posting reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

It's Time to SIFF!

Are you ready? It’s that time of year again, time to go film festival crazy with the return of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). While SIFF celebrates it’s 36th birthday we here at Moviefreak are celebrating our fourth in regards to our presentation of this annual blog. Like in years past I’ll be here (almost) every day talking about the highs, lows and numerous in-betweens as I do my best to make my way through 25 days of cinematic goodness.

Speaking of said goodness, I’ve already seen plenty to crow about, much of it I’m going to be going into in much greater detail later in the festival. Let me just say upfront I’ve already seen a movie I believe might end up being my favorite of the entire year, Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone. It’s a powerhouse of a thriller featuring a spectacular performance from young actress Jennifer Lawrence. I’ll be interviewing both her and director Debra Granik in the coming days so look for more on both them and their film soon.

There’s more, lots more, but I’m going to cut things short for the time being as I need to get finish writing my theatrical reviews for this weekend’s releases (including a surprisingly good Shrek Forever After) before I head out to the opening night party celebrating the start of SIFF as well as directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s quite entertaining junior effort The Extra Man. I’ll be leaving you with an interview I conducted with SIFF artistic director Carl Spence whose insights into this year’s lineup of goodies are far superior to mine. Enjoy!