Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kerry Jaggers: The Unknown Soldier of the Starck Club!

 The fun in making a documentary film is you learn a lot of stuff in the process. For instance, most folks assume Philippe Krootchey was the 1st DJ at Starck Club? Right? Not exactly... First off, if you have no clue what I'm talking about get up to speed here: http://jfafilms.com/films_warriors_of_the_discotheque.html

The early progression of DJ's was a bit fuzzy to me, and obviously many others. The DJ for the first 6 months of Starck Club's existence was a very cool dude named Kerry Jaggers. While PK was 'sposed to be there opening night, he missed it. Grace Jones manager suggested Kerry, and he flew in from NYC the next night for the next 6 months, and then PK came from Paris and took over. 

Of course, as my film covered, PK's tenure hit a glitch or two and then Kerry suggested Rick Squillante and the rest as they say is history. Kerry was instrumental in not only the sound, but also adjusting the lighting and helping set Starck on it's way. Also, on KJ's initial sojourn to Starck he brought w/ him MDMA in powder form, perfectly LEGAL at the time, and once again the rest was history. Now, it should also be added that a former seminarian student named Michael Clegg, based in North Texas, was a huge proponent and propagator of MDMA in the early 80's and after initially nicknaming it Empathy, decided Ecstasy was a better name. However, the popularization of MDMA as a dance elixir, if you will, traces it's roots to late 70's downtown NYC club scene Kerry cut his teeth on so to speak.

For a various number of reasons I was unable to get Kerry in our doc, but intuitively knew enough to know he was an important player and made sure he was included in the credits. So, in that spirit, I offer up a special salute to the Unknown Soldier of the Starck Club, Kerry Jaggers. Salute! Here's brief peak at Kerry, he has the best line in the segment.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Trayvon Martin, Bully, & the Starck Club!

Trayvon Martin, Bully, & the Starck Club

After the Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, I like many, was a bit perplexed over the result. Even though the letter of the faulty 'Stand Your Ground' law may have been upheld, it occurred to me, like many rational folks in this country, there's seemingly something wrong with a scenario in which a young kid goes to a 7-11 to get some skittles and ice tea, and ends up losing his life. As I saw my Facebook feed blow up, one post caught my attention. A fellow posted something to the effect of, 'Why is it when O.J. got away with murder, white folks around the country didn't protest the verdict?' I posted a response that declared there may be some sensitivity in the African American community because not all that long ago, it was basically legal to lynch and kill a black man in a pretty wide swath of this country. At best, many of his friends and followers piped up with a litany of anecdotal examples of white folks killed by black or Latino assailants and no protest or cause had been mounted in the memory of the deceased. At worst, I was bombarded with responses that were no more than a lot of racist bile that lead me to believe that I'd stumbled on a White Supremacy group. I guess Costa- Gavras set his film Betrayal in Idaho for good reason.

Not long ago, I watched the compelling documentary Bully. A few of the subjects were taunted simply because of their sexuality, one lesbian teen in particular. Another young man, because he was a nebbish looking kid with big coke bottle glasses and full lips that many women would kill for. Yet it occurred to me that some 25 plus years ago, nestled on the northwest edge of downtown Dallas, there was a place where racial, sexual, and cultural differences weren't just tolerated, but fully embraced... with very wide arms. People like Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the aforementioned teens would have fit into the swirl of Starck Club just perfectly, dancing to something like Shreikback or Depeche Mode or Uptown Girls or Book of Love on a crowded Saturday night.

Many of you reading this post know this is true, because like me, you saw it play out every night you went to Starck. And yet, several decades later we realize we haven't just too slowly progressed but rather, we've taken a few steps back. There are many complex reasons for this but one is that mainstream media has started to devolve into something that doesn't disseminate information, but rather helps us to confirm what we already believe. There's very little discovery offered us anymore, today a Walter Cronkite type would never go on the air, after a trip to Vietnam, and declare the war was 'unwinnable' in his view. No matter your political bent, it's almost inarguable to say there was very little due diligence offered by mainstream media outlets in the lead up to the war in Iraq.

Now, this is not a polemic I'm leading up to here, no this is a plea. I've been in contact with a few major magazines about possibly doing a piece on the Starck Club, and the response has always been a variation of this: "the fact that the Starck Club is a place almost no one's heard of, its celebrity affiliations notwithstanding, might work against it rather than for it." There's no real conspiracy afoot here. It's rather simple, if you're reading this piece and you still live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area do me a favor: Ask any of your younger friends, say mid 30's or younger, what they know about the Starck Club. I can bet you dollars to doughnuts you'll get a big blank look. As I was going back and forth from Dallas to shoot Warriors of the Discotheque, http://jfafilms.com/films_warriors_of_the_discotheque.html I talked to a few colleagues in LA who were born and raised in Big D, about 30 years old, and had no clue what I was talking about when I discussed the film I was working on. People born and raised in Dallas had no clue what the Starck Club was or what it stood for... Loooonnnngggg pause for emphasis! 

Ponder this a good long moment... Does anyone think a night club that spawned the popularization of MDMA aka Ecstasy, that was populated by drag queens from far and wide and LGBT patrons, that held performances by groundbreaking artists like Karen Finley would also be the same place that would hold a big party for the Republican National Convention? Do you think that would happen today? Think about it a moment. Starck Club was all these things and more, and shows how desperately we need more places like it. But, it's up to you Starckers. You need to shout it from the rooftops just how significant this place really was, and how it's never been more relevant. Warriors... the newest and final version is screening in Austin come August 29th, http://www.tugg.com/events/4782 Repost this blog, write about it, shout it from the rooftops. Another even more exhaustively detailed doc about Starck is coming out soon, share it, shout it out, http://www.starckproject.com/.

After all, who could possibly be better advocates for Starck Club than those who actually know and understand what I'm talking about. If you're like me, and believe that Starck stood for something that's more necessary and relevant now than ever before, share it, re-post it, blog about it, copy and paste it, let people in on the secret only we know! After all, there are still people all over this country being denied their equal rights simply because they are gay or lesbian or transgender or black or Asian or just different religions. Even that big Left winger... pause for irony... Clint Eastwood believes gay marriage should be legal. To quote a recent film about current events, "I want to make something absolutely clear. If you thought there's some secret cell somewhere, working on... Starck Club (my insertion:), well I want you to know you're wrong. This is it! There's no working group coming to the rescue, there's nobody else hidden on some other floor, there's just us... And we are failing!"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Never Let Me Go Part 1 Hailsham

Why Never Let Me Go will one day be regarded as the masterpiece it is!
Part 1 Hailsham

It was a bright, sunny day in early September, 2010. I was in the Thousand Oaks, CA area and picked up an LA Times and much to my amazement a film was already being offered for Guild members (I've been a WGAw member since '06) to see gratis, Never Let Me Go, Monday-Thursday. It was a film I was vaguely aware of, knew it was director Mark Romanek's sophomore effort, but not much else. I was aware the book was a well known, best seller, but again, not much else. And this may be a critical aspect to the full appreciation of this film. Do yourself a favor if you have not seen the film (there are, after all, quite a few of you sadly), nor read the book... Stop reading now! No, really. Stop... Reading... NOW and go watch the film!!! If you're one of those lucky few who have no prior knowledge, no pre-conceptions, as it should be by the way, you're in for a real cinematic treat.

The film unfurls with some very small super imposed title (SUPERTITLE as we scribblers call it) text stating: "The breakthrough in science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years." Hmmm, very clearly an alternate reality this film is setting up for us, the viewer. Now, this is a very simple, but hugely important point that's been made clear for us right away. This is a very technically advanced society our characters reside in. I will make an important point on this later to address some very superficial, and quite frankly knuckle headed, criticisms I'd read about the film. File this factoid away.

In the opening shot, we fade into a view of a silhouette of a women looking into an operating room. Then cut to a shot of her looking into the o.r. we see a young man being wheeled in. In voiceover, the women identifies herself as Kathy H, a very good 'carer', which is unclear exactly what that is, we can assume a sort of nurse like position given the setting. (She's played with understated brilliance by Carey Mulligan.) The young man is Tommy (also brilliantly portrayed by Andrew Garfield.) And another character is mentioned, Ruth, whom we haven't seen yet. Again, the beauty of knowing nothing about the material, we have no idea of the gravity of what we're seeing. The voiceover helps transition us back to the main characters childhood as we see what looks to be a boarding school, Hailsham 1978, we're told in the lower caption, (More on the year 1978 later.) Various shots of young children set the environment as the school headmistress, Charlotte Rampling who channels some the chilly austerity she conveyed as Paul Newman's girlfriend in The Verdict, addresses the assembly. In our first 'tell' or clue something is slightly amiss, she seems unusually perplexed that, "three burned cigarettes" had been found on the grounds and while the young charges may see others smoke, they are special. "Students of Hailsham must keep themselves well and healthy 'inside' and is of paramount importance," states Miss Emily (Rampling.) Well, fair enough, the kids shouldn't be smoking, but it's stated in an ominous and a bit unnecessarily alarming tone.

As this segment proceeds we're introduced to young Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth played by Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell respectively. They do fairly normal kid stuff like play soccer, go to art class, talk about boys (Ruth and Kathy) etc. A new teacher at Hailsham (Miss Lucy played by Sally Hawkins) observes the kids playing. A ball goes toward a fence, young Tommy, full of vigor like an overzealous puppy, suddenly stops. He dare not cross that boundary. Miss Lucy asks some of the girls why Tommy didn't get the ball. She's regaled by the youngsters of horrific tales of mutilation and starvation to those who ran afoul of the Hailsham grounds in the past. When Miss Lucy inquires as to the veracity of these tales, young Ruth responds matter of factly, "who'd make up stories as horrible as that?" Indeed, who would make up stories like WMD leading the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people? Who would make up stories about mortgage backed securities being great investments, sell them to pension funds, then short them at the same time? Who? We see very early on, that the people we go on this journey with are very sweet, decent, and incredibly humane. We get a few more strange 'tells' on the way: Kathy H acquires a small bruise on her cheek that elicits an inordinate amount of attention. (She got it trying to console poor Tommy, whom she's developed a crush on, all wound up on in knots after being the subject of repeated teasing. He inadvertently slaps her, but whole heartedly apologizes later.) Outsiders who come to the boarding school treat the children a bit strangely. In one instance a woman, simply known as 'Madame' from "the gallery" (where the youngsters get to have their art and drawings on display) acts as though she's ready to be mugged on the subway to 130th Street and Lennox Ave. (Harlem in case you didn't know) when she simply crosses the path of a few young Hailsham girls. (This scene may have been a bit much, by the way.) We see the kids have bracelets in which they have to scan as they leave the building to go and play. More on this later. A delivery man regards the cute little girls in a somewhat odd fashion. He's bringing a 'bumper crop' of goodies and knick knacks as a way to reward the children for good behavior and keep their spirits up. Hmm, opiate of the masses as Marx would've said: American Idol, football, Kate Perry anyone?

The film derives it's title from a song on a cassette tape Tommy gives to Kathy as she's seemingly uninterested in the 'bumper crop' offering. The two are starting to become close, and in a kind of adorable, but what turns out to be foreboding, scene Kathy cradles a pillow as she listens to the song. Probably imagining it's Tommy. Not long after she does so, she becomes vaguely aware of Ruth's presence in the hallway, vicariously peering in. The next scene, beginning with a wide exterior shot of Hailsham in the rain, a wilting flower in the window, we get the big reveal! Again, if you know nothing of the narrative please stop reading... No really, just stop, and go watch the film, then revisit us. We'll still be here, I promise. Anyhow, it is in the classroom that Miss Lucy gives her students, our three main characters, and by extension, us, the audience, the big reveal. In essence, these young folks have been 'created' (through genetic cloning as we deduce as the narrative continues) to donate their vital organs, some three or four donations, before they 'complete' (that hateful word that will be uttered many more times throughout the film) their young lives. They will never be actors, or teachers, or 'visit America'. "You must know who and what you are in order to lead good and productive lives", says Miss Lucy in a reluctant and emotional fashion. The kids are somewhat startled by this grim revelation, the camera hangs on Ruth a beat longer than the rest as she seems particularly upset by this. As Miss Lucy looks at the window to the rain, a gust of wind blows some papers from her desk to the floor. In another very kind and humane gesture, Tommy shakes off the shock of this reveal to pick up the scattered papers and place them back on the desk. What we discover throughout the film is these 'clones' if you will, considered sub-human by the 'normal' folks they serve, are more loving, caring, and tenderly human than their counterparts. Even though Ruth (played as an adult very skillfully by Keira Knightly) will go on to tests the bounds of this humanity through selfish, but understandable, behavior. Her mates Kathy and Tommy ultimately forgive her and still love her. And indeed Ruth makes amends to the two as best she can before she 'completes'.

We could stop here and analyze the wisdom of Miss Lucy leveling with children, tantamount to telling the kids there's no Santa Clause. It seems maybe a bit cruel and unnecessary, possibly it is best to let the illusion persist until the children grow up. as the headmistress seems to indicate as she lets the children know in the morning assembly Miss Lucy has been let go, no longer to teach there. "There are those who seek to impede progress," Miss Emily says. What I love about this film is it provides no easy answers. These people, all of them, human or clone, are doing the best they can. Much like life itself, we play the cards we're dealt as well as we can. Soon after this, Ruth starts to take a much more enthusiastic interest in Tommy. At various points Kathy sees the two holding hands, and later kissing. It should be said Tommy's character is not exactly a dim bulb, but rather a tad awkward, unsure of himself, unable to articulate his inner life if you will. Susceptible to manipulation as Ruth discovers. The puppy metaphor is a good one: boundless energy and heart. Ruth is probably the most fragile, sensitive, and 'weakest' of the trio. Kathy by far, the strongest, the leader, the Alpha. This dynamic between the trio will permeate the rest of the film.

Now's as good a time as any to discuss the director, Mark Romanek's, style and oeuvre. One need look no further than his first film, One Hour Photo, to conclude he's a Kubrick fan. Many of the slow zoom shots on Robin Williams reminiscent of Barry Lyndon and especially The Shining. While I thought the film was very well done, nothing in it indicated the utter brilliant, mastery of the medium Romanek puts on display here. Obviously, coming from the world of commercials and music videos, one would expect a well shot, well edited and designed, technically proficient film. However, this is the work of a fully mature artist. The sensibility, sensitivity, and aesthetic choices here are perfect across the board. Clearly, the subject matter would indicate a technically advanced, futuristic society, but rather than fall into the usual sci-fi visual cues Romanek opts for a radically different approach. This is an alternate reality, focus on reality. If it were set in the typical dystopian future, the viewer could just easily dismiss it as, "oh well, that's way in the future." Instead, this is here and now. This looks like a reality we know and understand, a world WE live in. This makes it all the more unsettling. As mentioned, every aspect of the film contains impeccable craftsman ship: script, performances, cinematography, production design, editing, and maybe most importantly the score. Rachel Portman's music maybe be the best film composition since Bernard Herrman's score for Vertigo. I'm usually resistant to a score that tyrannizes the narrative, guiding us through what to feel and think. Simply, most film scores of the last few decades. For instance, in a film like Michael Mann's The Insider, much of the score is overbearing, hampering the power of what's on screen. In another Mann masterpiece, Manhunter, some of the Shreikback songs impossibly date the film to the Eighties. Never Let Me Go is a completely different animal. It does what all great film scores do, it compliments the visual experience, enhances it, imbues itself in the film's DNA so you can't possibly imagine the film without it. And, that's exactly what we have here.

Maybe another way in which Romanek channels Stanley Kubrick. After all, who can imagine 2001's space scenes without Strauss' "Blue Danube" or A Clockwork Orange without "Singin' in the Rain." While there are no overt nods to Kubrick here, certain scenes evoke some of his work. In one scene, when Kathy spies Tommy and Ruth having a first kiss, it reminds one of Ryan O'Neill and one of his conquests in Barry Lyndon. Another, a transitional scene where Kathy is packing some of her belongings into a little suitcase: her cassette tape from Tommy, a little Unicorn-like plaything from Ruth. (A nod to Blade Runner?) In voiceover, she explains they've grown up and are moving out of Hailsham. We see her hand fondling the various trinkets, then cut to a wider shot of Kathy H. as a young woman, not unlike the transition from a large bone used as a weapon to a satellite orbiting space in 2001. This brings us to the next sequence, entitled The Cottages...

Never Let Me Go Part 2 The Cottages

Kathy's voiceover transitions us from Hailsham to the Cottages, as she explains Ruth and Tommy are indeed an item now. She couldn't understand why Ruth went for Tommy after being so dismissive of him prior, maybe she liked him all along. She waited for them to part, but they never did. (Not exactly true.) She explains the cottages are a place where people, donors to be exact, just like themselves, come from all sorts of different homes like Hailsham, to wait to start at 'completion' centers. As Kathy sees it, they all seem to be more experienced and worldly then themselves. In particular, a couple, Roddy and Chrissy, whom Ruth takes a shine to. In a sense, Ruth models her idea on how to act in a relationship on the two. However, we soon discover that Rod and Chrissy clip some of their own mannerisms from a cheesy sitcom everyone gathers around to watch. "So not true", a oft repeated line from said cheese fest, responds Ruth when Kathy confronts her about the change in behavior since they've arrived. As Kathy states, "You copy them and they copy a TV show, it's all rather daft. That's not the way people act out there, Ruth..." One thing that I think really aids all three actors performances is the fact they're not hampered by trying to 'Americanize' their accents. They can focus solely on the characters, which leads to a tremendous amount of inner life for each. A tremendous amount of subtext bubbles up to the surface.

It's in this section that one could say things get a bit catty. Certainly, Kathy is hurt Ruth has come between her and Tommy, but mostly, Ruth is exceedingly defensive and insecure about what she's done. Still, when Tommy really wants to talk or spend time with someone it's Kathy he goes to. This creates tension between Ruth and Kathy. It comes to a head when Ruth confronts Kathy, letting her know with the 'ol 'he's just not that into you' routine. What prompted this was a prior incident in which Kathy sees some old, discarded girlie magazines. Tommy sees her flipping through them rather quickly and inquires about it. Ruth makes the assumption it's because Kathy's surrounded by couples having sex and Kathy's solo. It's Ruth's way of saying, 'stay away from my man'. (Ruth is also rather inconsiderate, and even cruel, with her rather audible sex sessions with Tommy well within Kathy's earshot.) The truth is a bit more complex, and heartbreaking, regarding Kathy's reasons for thumbing through the porno rags. It's revealed later on. But, the fact remains the three are still a tight unit. And when a rumor pops up that someone's seen Ruth's 'original' out 'there' in the world beyond, Ruth asks Kathy to come with them to check it out.

Once again, it's made clear just how apart the 'donors' are from the world they serve. Rod and Chrissy take the trio out to search for Ruth's 'original' and stop to grab a bite to eat. Just figuring out what to order for the Hailsham kids is a sysiphean task. The trio simply decide it best to just order what Rod and Chrissy do: sausage, egg, and chips. Oh so British! It's at this point the concept of 'deferral' comes up for the first time, and hangs over the rest of the film. According to Rod and Chrissy, there's a rumor that some Hailsham kids get special treatment. If a young couple came from Hailsham, and they could prove they were in love, real love, they would be granted a deferral from donating, so they could have a few extra years together. Of course, it's just a rumor, and after quibbling back forth about it's veracity, (Rod seems to think the trio deny the rumor in order to keep the secret for themselves, hope springs eternal.) Kathy shuts the door by stating simply, "There were lots of stories at Hailsham. I don't think many of them turned out to be true." Not long after more hopes get dashed, as Ruth's possible original turns out not to really look much like her at all. She goes on a bit of a tirade, exclaiming something they all probably know, but don't want to believe. They're probably cloned from 'junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps', and if they want to find their originals they should look in the gutter. Obviously, a buzz kill all the way around. And as always in this film, an incredibly profound moment, this viewer didn't really catch until the umpteenth viewing. Tommy and Kathy have a quiet moment together on a dock, watching the seagulls and staring into the infinite ocean, after Ruth has stormed off. It's a long, achingly beautiful moment that the filmmakers hold on to for just perfect amount of time. Finally, Kathy breaks the silence by simply saying, "We should go back..." For awhile Tommy ponders it in his sensitive, simple fashion. Garfield is able to convey, without any dialogue, what his character in feeling. Go back to... Hailsham? The time before we really started to understand our fate? Back together, before Ruth intervened? Obviously, she's referring to going back to The Cottages, but like life itself, this film is packed with soulful, poignant moments that mean a great deal more than just what's on the surface.

 However, hope does indeed spring eternal, as Tommy latches on this idea of a deferral. On one of his walks with Kathy he muses that maybe that was what the gallery was all about after all. Maybe, just maybe, the gallery's purpose was to see into the children's souls through their art, hence they could tell if they indeed were in love. Timidly, Kathy inquires if Tommy will apply for a deferral with Ruth. Tommy counters with one of the great recent cinematic declarations of love. "It wouldn't work. You forget that you got plenty of things in the gallery, and I didn't submit anything..." Kathy cries as she walks away just muttering, "Oh Tommy!" Now, I understand the syntax of the scene, I got it. But, it wasn't until seeing it a few times that I understood fully what was said, specifically, and understanding it was the equivalent of Tommy saying 'I love you'. Part of the issue, and it is my only quibble with the film, some of the lines of dialogue are a bit mushy. Tommy says the aforementioned line quickly, and is a tad inaudible. In another key bit of voiceover mentioned prior, in which she explains the purpose of 'the cottages' as a place where the future donors wait to go to completion centers, Mulligan stumbles on Kathy H's pronunciation of 'completion'. It sounds like she's saying condeetion center or some such garble, the L is missing in how she says completion. I, literally after rewinding it several times, had to revert to the English subtitle button. Now, if Martin Scorsese as Irwin Winkler stated it, obsessed over a line in Raging Bull in which a character orders a Scotch and Soda. After fiddling with the line in sound editing for what seemed eternity, Winkler finally took the picture out of Marty's hands, Scorsese responded with telling him to take his name off the picture. Of course, he didn't, but you can hear the line just fine. I think it would've served Romanek to be that rigorous here as it certainly doesn't harm the film in any significant way, but when you're this close to perfection, why not go just a bit further.

These minor quibbles are superseded by the brilliance and subtlety of this film. In a normal film, Tommy would've said something as simple and mindless as, "No Kathy, I'm not going to try and get a deferral with Ruth, because I love you." Not here, that's just too simple minded... In the next scene Kathy lays in bed listening to her cassette Tommy gave her at Hailsham. Ruth interrupts the moment by engaging, attacking her more like it. She's aware Kathy lies in wait for her and Tommy to break up. Perhaps sensing she's going to lose Tommy soon, and knowing he really loves Kathy anyway, she brings up the aforementioned girlie mag's. Ruth deduces it's an example how Kathy still harbors sexual feelings for Tommy. But, he just doesn't feel that way about her. Tears roll down Kathy's face, maybe because she knows Ruth's correct, but on a much deeper level. But, also because she sees right through Ruth's pathetic last gasp at holding on to something they inherently understand will go away soon. She also probably understands Ruth is the weak link in the chain, not long for this world, which proves accurate. While Kathy knows Tommy loves her, she also knows circumstances dictate they can't be the couple they want to be. Not one to feel sorry for herself, Kathy gets into action and decides to be a carer. As she says in voiceover she soon becomes too busy in service of others to think about Ruth and Tommy, and if she'd known how quickly their lives would separate from each other, she may have held on tight. Of course, one gets the sense she's a bit over the drama and needs a bit of a break from it all. Which transitions us to the 'Completion' section of the film. That dreaded word again.

Never Let Me Go Part 3 Completion

This final segment of the film begins with Kathy explaining, and going through the actual motions, of being a 'carer'. We see she has own little apartment, as Mulligan's Kathy leaves her abode she locks the door and actually gives it a small tug to make sure it's locked. That would seem too minute a detail to bring up, but in fact, this is the kind of thing that separates a great from an ordinary actor. These are the kind of minute details that make one 'in the moment.' Kathy goes about her day which entails comforting, seeing to the needs of, 'caring', for those in the donation process. Many times she has to travel out of town, in the particular case we see her care for a donor who just gave an eye. (We must assume as she's sitting in a hospital bed wearing an patch, and waiting to make yet another donation.) Kathy has just gone to great lengths to get the poor young women some chocolate cookies. What we can clearly see is that this process of donation is a de-humanizing, soulless, humiliating process something akin to slavery if you. Speaking of dehumanizing, we can easily deduce that society at large looks at these genetically created donors as sub- human. As mentioned prior, unlike say a film like A.I. there's no seperation from us and the donor, we see the world through their eyes. Or, in a film like Blade Runner, also set in a dystopian future, the 'skin jobs' are very much 'other' or outside of society. Even in the director's cut it's left very vague as the origin of Harrison Ford's Dekard, the hunter of these rogue genetic slaves. In any case, in that film we do not see the clones as human. However, like Blade Runner the genetic clones in Never Let Me Go are more humane than their human counterparts.

As we soon learn, one of the drawbacks of Kathy's job is when her donors 'complete' early. She has a very good track record in this area, but clearly she becomes somewhat attached to her 'carees' if you will. Her donor never got to sample the cookies she got as she 'completed' early. While filling out requisite paperwork for the death (enough with that fucking word complete, maybe murder is more apt) of her donor. She sees a photo of Ruth on a computer screen, she asks the attending nurse about Ruth and discovers she's not doing well at all. Says the nurse, "I think she wants to complete, and when they want to, they usually do..." Kathy goes to Ruth's room to pay her a visit, the room is empty, then Ruth comes out of the bathroom, stands frozen in surprise to see Kathy there. They stroll down the hospital corridor, Ruth needing a walker, probably missing a kidney. They make small talk as Kathy lets her know she plans to stay overnight with her. (Kathy tells a white lie. Earlier, when she was filling out paperwork, the nurse asks her if she has a long drive and needs to stay overnight, plenty of beds are available. She declines until she notices Ruth's picture. She doesn't want Ruth to feel she's being inconvenienced by staying. It's a small gesture, a real moment. Unlike most reel moments...)

The next morning, as Kathy feeds Ruth an orange, Ruth notes that she can see Kathy's a good carer. Ruth suggests maybe they go on a trip... and call on Tommy. This obviously gets Kathy's attention. Ruth says she's kept tabs on them both over the years and that Tommy has done a few donations but is doing quite well. They go off on their journey to see Tommy at another donor center. When their car pulls up, Tommy is sitting on the steps waiting for them. He looks strong, a crew cut, vibrant, and older. Garfield is able to convey a more adult physicality. He sees Kathy first, runs to her, and they warmly embrace. Ruth, still in the car, is a bit of an afterthought. He goes to greet her as well. They then drive off together to go to the sea shore, there's an abandoned boat that Tommy runs to when they get to their destination. This is quite an undertaking as we learn in a later scene, he's had one of his lungs removed, the evidence a nasty scar across the side of his ribcage. Later, they gather together looking out into the ocean, and Ruth makes amends for her selfish behavior. She knew Tommy and Kathy were the real couple, but was afraid she'd be alone, unable to find real love, which is indeed what happens anyway. It's here she brings up the deferral rumor again, only this time she's done some homework. She even finds the address of 'Madame', the lady whom visited Hailsham and accepted the students work into the gallery. All Tommy and Kathy have to do is visit her and show they're really in love. Later that evening, Kathy reads to Tommy. "From Basra we sailed...", a passage from The Arabian Nights, how apropos as Tommy is the ultimate adventurer. It's here that Tommy and Kathy finally consummate their love for each other in yet another achingly beautiful scene. Rachel Portman's music the perfect compliment for one of the greatest love scenes in modern film. What? One of the greatest love scenes in modern film? Really? YES!!! Say I. It's simple, because it's not one of the phoney, bullshit, romantic contrivances in which our star crossed lovers just can't get together. Because of the brilliant script by Alex Garland, the direction, the performances, it feels real, not reel. We feel their passion, we feel their love, they've earned it! In so many films it's not earned at all.
 Soon after Tommy and Kathy make plans to visit Madame. Tommy, while he didn't submit anything to the gallery as a youngster, has more than made up for it as an adult, compiling a litany of drawings and paintings over time. Seeing as Kathy got plenty of things in the gallery, Tommy will show his work to Madame and they'll be able to see into their souls and know they're in love. Kathy even goes as far as to scout out the address and check on it's veracity, indeed Ruth's information checks out. Kathy lets Ruth know they're going to go for the deferral. Ruth seems happy for them, but realizes her worst nightmare will soon come true, she will die alone. Keira Knightley plays this scene brilliantly, without much dialogue she's able to convey what Ruth is feeling, and even throws a curve of sorts. She does a subtle look away that for a moment, conveyed to this viewer, that maybe, just maybe she knows the idea of deferrals is bullocks so to speak. It may be a stretch, but this is what great acting does. Al Pacino in Scarface, not a performance or film known for subtlety, does an amazing thing just with his eyes. In a scene after he's lead his posse on their first job for Robert Loggia's Frank Lopez, he even lost a friend in the infamous chainsaw scene. They all go out to a club, and Frank celebrates the addition of his new henchman by ordering a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne. They all have a glass and Lopez asks Pacino's Tony Montana, "Isn't this great stuff?" Pacino responds yes, but his eyes convey something entirely different. His eyes say he has no clue if it's good or not because he's a simple peasant. He wouldn't know good champagne from a can of coke. This is great acting! Not what your mouth is saying, but your body, your face. Being in the moment. These are the kind of performances Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightly have given us. And in indeed in the next shot we see Ruth give her last donation, it's cold, sterile, ugly, she simply flat lines with little fanfare.
Tommy and Kathy go to see Madame, who's busy doing some gardening, her back to the couple. Kathy gently calls out to her and explains that they just want to talk, Tommy indicates he has some art work he wants to show her. We get the feeling Madame knows why their here, and invites them into her flat. She lives in a series of fairly nondescript row house flats. Tommy gets to the point, he and Kathy are in love and it's verifiable. Verifiable Madame repeats, she has a somewhat sad, subdued tone. While the couple were looking over the living room as they entered, Tommy even sees a painting of Hailsham, just as he remembers it. (What we realize as we ponder it, is it was probably left by another couple who also had 'verifiable' love.) Madame excused herself and evidently made a phone call. As the three talk, Madame simply says, "she never knows what to do?" It's then that Miss Emily, the headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling enters, enters in a wheelchair. (It just occurred to me, that in a nod to her disdain for the existing system she's probably refused medical aid from 'donors; after all in this scientifically advanced society why would she be in a wheelchair?) She'll take it from here. She warmly recognizes the two immediately and recounts their personality traits like a proud school marm. The simple fact is, they were asking a question no one else was asking or cared about. If asked to go back to the dark ages of lung and breast cancer or auto neuron disease (whatever that is?) society at large would simply say no. They had the gallery not to see what was in their souls but if they had souls at all? Almost before Miss Emily speaks Kathy knows it's bad news. Bottom line: there are no deferrals and there never had been. It's moment reminiscent of GoodFellas, after Tommy D (Joe Pesci, and by the way Garfield's character is referred to as Tommy D.) has been shot in the back of the head at the moment he was to be 'made', it's dismissed simply as 'we had a problem, we tried to do all we could but he's gone... ya know he's gone. That's that and there's nothing we could do about it." DeNiro's Jimmy Conway (Jimmy 'the Gent' Burke in reality) can not articulate his rage in any other way but to bash the phone booth to smithereens. Much like Tommy's primal scream of rage at the insanity of it all, as we see in a scene later.

Tommy is shell shocked by it all. Souls??? To see if we had souls? Who are you people? Of course we have fucking souls!!! None of this stated explicitly in dialogue, that acting thing again, but it's what he's thinking and feeling. How can this society be so barbaric? It calls back to a young Ruth asking "Who's make up stories as horrible as that?" As the two drive back, Tommy needs to get out of the car. He walks ahead and screams... It bookends the earlier scene, when as kids Tommy wasn't picked to be on a team, and Kathy tried to comfort him, he inadvertently slapped her. This time he embraces Kathy's comfort. Then we come back to the opening scene, which brings with it a whole new gravity. It's Tommy's third donation, he's being wheeled in. Kathy looks on and smiles, another small, almost imperceptible nod that says I'm with you. He smiles and nods back, this time we get the feeling this will be his last donation. His will to live drained from him. There's no typical hand on the glass, no grand gesture, it's very small but very powerful, poignant. The anesthesia starts to work and Tommy fades out. In a last glaring insult, one of the Doctors seems to violently jerk his head up, putting oxygen to his mouth, almost as if he were cattle. The last scene is Kathy staring at an empty field, where Hailshan used to be, she can almost see young Tommy coming to her. In voiceover she tells us she lost Tommy only a few weeks ago, and in only a months time she will begin to donate herself. She reminds herself she was grateful to have any time with him at all. She wonders how differently their lives as donors have been from the lives of those they save. Probably no one feels they've had enough time, everyone completes. The last shot is of a two errant pieces of plastic stuck to barbed wire fence, they flutter in the wind, representational of Tommy and Kathy perhaps. There's another shot in this sequence, a wide shot looking into the empty field, she's flanked by a large tree. The real Tree of Life I thought as I watched. It occurred to me that while the two films aren't all that similar there are themes that overlap. It seems to me Romanek was much more successful  in conveying the thematic content of his film than Malick. We fade to the credits...

And, I left the theater, it was still daylight. Like Kathy I wasn't sure what to make of what I'd just seen. I knew it was a profound and great film but I needed time to fully digest or grok it if you will. I saw the film again with my girlfriend in the theater and yet again multiple times on DVD. And the film never shrank like so many do, rather the opposite. I haven't mentioned the book by Kazuo Ishiguro as I've treated this strictly as a cinematic experience. Nor, have I read the book, but I will. Clearly, this book and film shares similar themes with his other book also turned into a film, Remains of the Day. Both deal with the world of 'them' serving 'us' and the ramifications of that inequity. Never Let Me Go calls into question everything from where we get our food, from animals to the migrant workers who pick our vegetables, to the people who cook and clean for us, all those unseen people who make our life convenient. This film just ups the ante by introducing the concept of organ donors and elects to focus on them to the exclusion of the other 'real world'. This is very important to understand. One of the constant, and rather mindless, criticisms of this film was the 'ol why don't they just run away' routine. Simply put, if this society is technologically advanced enough to have this donor program it would stand to reason they would be adept at using microchip or DNA tracking ability. At various times we see the donors check in with their bracelets, we can assume they have an ability to easily track the whereabouts of these valuable donors. In addition, we have fairly recent history to show us the answer to this silly critique. No rational, intelligent people apply this 'run away' trope to European Jews ethnically cleansed in the Holocaust. Nor Bosnia, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Indonesia, the Kulaks in the Soviet Union and ad infinitum. Just read a few history books and one will discover all the sociological, historical, and behavioral reasons these things happen that I don't have time to elucidate here.

As to why exactly this film didn't find the audience it so richly deserved, it's very difficult to say. There are precedents though. The film that most quickly comes to mind is Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. It landed with a resounding thud when it came out, but in decades since has inched itself into the number one greatest film ever made just nudging out Citizen Kane in the most recent comprehensive critics poll. What probably plagued Vertigo is probably at work here as well. Compared to his prior thrillers like: Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew too Much, Vertigo wasn't the same kind of plot driven thriller. It plays more like a slow burn psychological study dissecting the male psyche a la Bergman's Hour of the Wolf or Bresson's Diary of A Country Priest hidden in the guise of a Hitchcock thriller. After all, two thirds into the film is the 'reveal', Vertigo is much more than that however. It just took that long for audiences to catch up with the subtlty and brilliance of the film. A similar dynamic is at work with Never Let Me Go, people seem to be concerned with petty plot points that really aren't at all pertinent to what this film is all about.

I do believe we are looking at future Vertigo in Never Let Me Go. In my mind, it's easily one of the best films I've seen in the last few decades. It is my sincerest hope that those serious about Cinema will give this film a second look, and just possibly this piece will contribute a modicum of reconsideration. Just a ripple out in the vast ocean, but sometimes that's how the most powerful movements begin: from the heart! It's a film that's challenging, difficult, emotionally resonant. It makes us ask questions about our very existence, our very humanity. Isn't that what great art is all about?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's my film worth? The Stones, Nokia, Apple, and Google?

I was observing a twitter conversation the other evening between Indie Film consultant Miles Maker
https://twitter.com/milesmaker and filmmakers/ radio hosts David Branin and Karen Worden aka Film Courage https://twitter.com/filmcourage. The subject was the new emerging paradigm in distribution, particularly no-low budget filmmakers and how to set pricing as well as different releasing models.

For those two of you who may not know, Film Courage released their quality film Goodbye Promise. (They were able to raise completion funds on Kickstarter two years ago.) It initially had a one week theatrical run at the downtown Independent Theatre, shunning film festivals, or a traditional distributor. The film, by all means, was very well received and had a few great reviews. They followed up their successful theatrical run with a unique online release in which one can see the film by simply making a minimum 1 or 2 dollar donation http://www.indiegogo.com/goodbyepromise. Much of the Film Courage thesis has to do with transparency and alternative means of connecting filmmaker and audience.

In the exchange between Maker and Film Courage, Miles pointed out something I thought was very astute. The 1 or 2 dollar min is a very low threshold that may subliminally indicate what releasers of the content think it's worth. Now, it needs to be said the average donation for seeing GP has turned out to be about $8 per. And, it's certainly more than some get on bit torrent sites or youtube (see the film Ink or listen to this interview w/ Gregory Bayne http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr6yVq7YUMc.) It got me thinking about my own work's distribution and how it coincides much w/ what filmmaker Jon Reiss writes about in Think Outside the Box Office: http://jonreiss.com/

As this month comes to a close, I calculate my films have brought in about a car payment's worth of revenue, a sort of pricey car payment like when you put no money down... Roughly, between The Real Casino   http://jfafilms.com/films_therealcasino.html and Warriors of the Discotheque


http://jfafilms.com/films_warriors_of_the_discotheque.html and an early film that embarrasses me somewhat, (hey, even Kubrick had Fear & Desire:) I took in about $500. Now, that doesn't sound like much in and of itself, but when you consider that The Real Casino came out well over 10 years ago, and still kicks in some decent revenue. The film first came out on a show called Split Screen produced by Indie guru John Pierson for IFC/Bravo back in 1998: longer incarnations came out subsequently on PBS in 2000, French distrib TF 1's 3 disk Special Edition DVD in 2003, and it's own stand alone DVD w/ extras and additional footage from SRS Cinema in 2004. It's also available through a pretty shady distrib called Shorts International. They bought a huge catalog of shorts back in 2003 from Wellspring/ Hypnotic, who did an awesome job of getting my film on pay cable, airplanes, etc. And, lastly a new 2 disk special edition just last summer. I also made the film available online via Amazon VOD. Through all these variations the film to date has brought in about 16K over the years, which isn't bad considering it started as a 7 min short costing about 5 grand. If you add in all the vhs dubs, DVD's, fest submissions, press packets, etc. it comes to more like $7500 or so. Still, it's more than doubled it's money over time, and it's still trickling in.

Warriors of the Discotheque has brought in revenue much quicker, so much so that within a year of the film's release the budget has been recouped and then some. Now every dollar that comes in is pure profit. WotD started as a short back in '09, when it preemed at the USA FF in Dallas I immediately realized that if I'd have put together T-Shirts, posters, and some DVD's I'd have cleaned up. This is something Reiss talks about in his book when discussing Bomb It's preem at Tribeca in '08. He could've made a few easy grand right off the bat had he prepared his merchandising machine immediately. Nonetheless I made a DVD available very quickly thereafter as well as Amazon VOD (AVOD) and within about a year or so I'd made back the budget of 2 grand or so. Of course, this wasn't enough to finance a feature, but thanks to some screen writing money I was able to make the feature length version. When I preemed the feature at the very same USA FF in April of 2011, I was fully prepared w/ my merchandising machine: I had cool T-Shirts made. as well as small posters, CD's of the soundtrack, and some DVD's. In addition, I started selling all these items actually a few days prior to the fest preem, and not long after (less than a few weeks after the fest screening) made the film available on AVOD. In a matter of days, including the event itself, the film sold about $1,800.00 worth of merch. (In just a month or so that amount tripled.) I put together various packages: DVD/T-Shirt $19.95, DVD/T-Shirt/Poster $29.95, or all 4, DVD/T/CD/Poster for 40 bucks... Individually, I'd sell these items for $14.95... After a few months I brought price of the DVD down to about 9.95 sometimes even less as I'd do short specials, i.e. just for this week 7.95 S&H included, etc.

About a year later, just this past spring, I decided to do a full on, packed w/ extras DVD, professionally replicated, in which I did a 1,000 disc run which came out to a very agreeable price per disc. Shortly, there after I signed a deal w/ fantastic Indie distrib. Microcinema International http://www.microcinema.com/newsflashes/new_releases_june_2012.html and had another event at the USA FF in Dallas in which we showed the deleted scenes, which we cut to play as a short film. Once again, armed w/ the merch and a deal w/ a great local DVD store called Premiere Video, as well as a pre- order w/ my distrib. sales on my website, I had the cost of the latest DVD release covered in just a month or so. My deal w/ MC is for DVD and digital rights (netflix, itunes, Hulu, etc) I'm able to sell the film still on my web site and I'm able to pursue Cable/ TV. My entertainment attorney happens to have been a buyer/seller/ finalizer of foreign TV/Film sales going to places such as Berlinale, Rotterdam, Venice, Cannes, Mipcom, etc in her former life. She now specializes in intellectual property/ entertainment law, but still has those foreign cable TV connections. Also, the film still hasn't been released on the aforementioned digital platforms. One thing I noticed about the DVD sales: when I offered a more comprehensive product i.e. DVD w/ deleted scenes, commentary, history of MDMA, short version, short out takes, photo galley, and trailers I was able to charge more as a stand alone product. My sales increased when I offered the fully loaded DVD for 14.95 plus another 3.50 S&H vs. the sub $10 version. Also, people were okay paying even more when a T- Shirt or CD was included. The same is true of The Real Casino. I was selling the old DVD for about 6 or 7 bucks online via ebay or my website. When I came out w/ my new longer version w/ new footage, new stills, characters I could now identify 'cause they'd passed away, (the film is about the real wise guys Casino was based on.) I included the new bonus version and called it a 2 disk special edition. I was able to charge over 10 bucks w/o people batting an eye lash. It's been selling pretty well, contributing to my car payment this month:) Actually, my car's paid off so that money's going in my pocket... every month.

What's my take away on all this? Remember the Jimmy Fallon character from Almost Famous, "You have to get what you can get, when you can get it, 'cause if you think Mick Jagger's still gonna be doing this in his fifties, you are sadly mistaken." Well, almost, right? The fact is, people still have a desire for content they can put in their hands, they still want an "experience" whether it be festival or theatrical screening. And speaking of the Stones, I have a friend who made a decent living for a few years selling unofficially, unreleased concert CD's and DVD's from bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zep, and The Stones. In particular, the Stones sold very well because, for reasons that are too lengthy to explain here, they were unable to officially release any live material from 1969-1977, hence the long period between Get Yer Ya Ya's out to Love Ya Live. But, for the serious Stones fan this is the band at their peak w/ sizzling guitarist Mick Taylor and all their best records in this period Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, etc. Some of their best live performances ever: Ladies & Gentlmen- The Rolling Stones from the '72 tour, legendary '72 tour doc Cocksucker Blues, The Brussels Affair- '73, Paris 1976 on DVD all unavailable from normal channels until just recently. People were paying $30, $40, even a $100 or more for these rare DVD's and CD's. These things had value to the hard core fan.

Lastly, just consider the mobile phone and tablet market. At one point, Nokia used to own the cell phone market, then this thing called the iphone came out, then Google's Android phones. Nokia made a great phone, it was very affordable, it was cheap, but it wasn't a smart phone. Back in '07 when the iphone first came out Apple was at $70 per share, Nokia about $40.... Now, Apple's $660 plus, Google $670 and Nokia... $2.76. Think about that for a moment. Yes, Nokia's partnering w/ Microsoft and getting ready to get in the smart phone game for real, but ponder those numbers long and hard when you think about what the value of your film may be worth...