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SXSW 2010: The People vs. George Lucas, Beijing Taxi, and Canal Street Madam

The People vs. George Lucas is entertaining even when it’s just exploring the filmmaker’s relationship with his rebellious army of fans.

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SXSW 2010: The People vs. George Lucas, Beijing Taxi, and Canal Street Madam
Photo: Wrekin Hill Entertainment

SXSW’s film festival officially ended last night (though the films continue to play just as often for a few days, for those of us who haven’t seen our fill yet) and the music festival started today. Watching the mole people of the movie world get replaced by sleeker, more stylish, generally younger musicians and A&R types makes me think of a very clever bumper (one of those short films that precedes each movie to let you know it’s part of the festival) for this year’s festival. This one, which is by SXSW staffer Joe Nicolosi, shows a bright-eyed young woman who heads into the woods “to get some exercise” and has to fight off one horror-movie monster after another. As she’s about to go down, the final supertitles say something like: “Stay indoors. Watch movies.”

The People vs. George Lucas (Alexandre O. Philippe). SXSW always has a strong lineup of documentaries, and The People vs. George Lucas is one of this year’s best. Smart, funny, and often impassioned, it’s entertaining even when it’s just exploring the filmmaker’s relationship with his rebellious army of fans. But what really hooked me were its insights into why this battle matters to the noncombatants.

Some points are hammered away at too often, and the Stars Wars-style “episodes” the doc is divided into work better as a joke than an organizing principle. I could have done with a little less footage of talking heads too. But those talking heads sure can talk. Their vivid language, self-aware humor, strong emotions, and intelligent observations won me over, as did the generous sampling of impressively creative or endearingly amateurish fan edits and the footage of fans, often surrounded by merchandise or putting their own stamp on the Star Wars myth. I particularly liked a couple of guys dressed as Elvis, one of whom was also a storm trooper while the other was a Jedi. Now, that’s participatory fandom.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe and his editor deftly explain the love/hate relationship so many of his fans have with Lucas, making it clear enough that someone who knows nothing about Lucas or his movies could easily follow. They also explore the faceoff between Lucas and his fans as an early skirmish in the battle for control of our popular culture, as we move from a gatekeeper-controlled model to a more participatory one.

Non-famous fans, book authors, bloggers, academics, and a lot of professional geeks weigh in, explaining how Lucas “unlocked a generation’s imagination” and invited Star Wars fans to reinterpret his fantasy world—to play in his sandbox, as one interviewee puts it—like nobody before him, partly by marketing it with an unprecedented deluge of action figures and costumes and light sabers and such. He also encouraged the fan edits that play with or off his movies, even holding a contest for them.

Then he reneged on that invitation, as the fans see it, by re-editing “their” Star Wars on its 20th anniversary and coming out with prequels and sequels they deemed unworthy of the original. That leads to some interesting questions, like whether a movie is ever actually done, who has the right to alter a piece of artwork once it has become part of our shared culture, and how artists must adapt to remain popular or even relevant in this new environment. And is Lucas, our canary in the mine for this new way of making and marketing movies, a fat-cat master exploiter, a great artist martyred by a venal culture, a geeky child hiding from a world that doesn’t understand him, or all of the above?

Beijing Taxi (Miao Wang). Director Miao Wang grew up in Beijing but left in 1990. In 2006, she started going back with her camera to film the city as it prepared for and hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Looking for “a portrait of the city, but also of three characters who represent the ordinary people of Beijing,” she recruited three cab drivers and filmed the city mostly through their eyes, as they drove and went about the rest of their lives. The result is Beijing Taxi, an unfocused but occasionally enlightening documentary.

The ghosts of Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town—not to mention Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, The World, and 24 City, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Three Times, and Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze—haunt this movie for me, since they all either told me more than Beijing Taxi about how life is changing in China, told individual stories that resonated more, or both.

Wang doesn’t delve very deeply into her subjects’ lives. She doesn’t always set things up clearly or ask follow-up questions either, which leaves too many questions unanswered. Why did so many shops get less business instead of more from the Olympics, for instance? And why does one of the cabbies worry about going without insurance? Doesn’t China have nationalized health insurance?

We never get close enough to her cabbies to really care about them as individuals, though we sense their impressive ability to adapt to their ever-changing economic and political system. And after a while, all that footage of skyscrapers, cyclists, soldiers, and other sights shot through the car windows starts to feel like dailies for a movie that hasn’t yet been made.

The Canal Street Madam (Cameron Yates.) The Canal Street Madam plays a little like Grey Gardens, only this time the mom runs a whorehouse and her daughter is one of the whores. Director Cameron Yates says he made the movie because he “always wanted to make a humanistic story about sex workers.” He found a good subject in Jeanette Maier, a longtime prostitute and madam whose mother helped run her business and whose daughter worked there for a while—until the house was closed down by the F.B.I..

Maier is no saint. Quick to cry for herself but slow to recognize the pain she inflicts on others, she provided for her kids financially but neglected them emotionally, according to her daughter Monica. Not surprisingly, they struggle to cope with life: One son is in prison and the other is a drifting drug addict when the movie begins, and though Monica seems to have gotten her life together, she started turning tricks at the age of 15 or 16. “Just like she was given certain tools, she laid those tools into my hand,” she says of her mother.

Directors of documentaries like this have a choice to make: focus on their subject’s faults, creating a portrait of a fascinating but flawed human being, or take a nonjudgmental stance, using their subjects as a window into a world. Yates chose the second path, seeming to take Maier’s frequent self-justifications at face value. Maybe for that reason, he gets great access. He’s there for some key moments, like when Maier watches news reports about other madams releasing their client lists—something she is always threatening to do—or when she gets her son out of prison. (The son doesn’t say much on the ride home, maybe because he doesn’t love being on camera as much as his mama does.)

Yates’s use of footage from before he met Jeanette is spottier. He culls revealing audio from “thousands of hours” of F.B.I. wiretaps, but he relies too much on a single home video the Maiers shot in 1989, showing the same few scenes so often I could probably recreate them shot for shot. Still, he makes his point, showing us Maier saying, “Sex between two consensual adults should not be a crime” enough that that you recognize and remember it. That’s Jeanette Maier’s motto, and it’s a good one.

SXSW runs from March 12 to March 20.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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