Saturday, September 10, 2011

Yes, another 9/11 retrospective... but related to filmmaking

Cross-posted in Puente's Perspective

Almost ten years ago, I remember some people in the media talking about the September 11 attacks and speaking negatively about how some screenwriter in Hollywood was going to try and cash in on the spectacle of that tragedy and write a screenplay about it.

I don't think this observation was a fair one. Narrative films have been structured around traumatic historical events ever since the invention of the medium. Just as every other art form has been used to help individuals and entire societies process the grief associated with such events.

As I look back over the last decade, I can think of a number of films that have been produced related to 9/11 (some more directly than others) that were made–not with an eye toward exploitation–but as genuine artistic endeavors that have served to help us put that horrible day into perspective. Some did so by recreating the events of that day as in "United 93," and "World Trade Center." Others tried to help us understand the myriad factors that lead to the event and the cultural thinking behind it and our reponse–or failure to respond–like "Fahrenheit 9/11," and "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?"

Of the September 11 documentaries that were made that used footage and audio that was recorded on that day as well as personal stories related by the people who were there, I was moved the most by two films in particular: "9/11"–which was broadcast by CBS on the night before the 6 month anniversary of the tragedy–and "Rebirth" which follows the lives of several people who were directly affected by the events at the World Trade Center in a series of interviews conducted over several years following the event and documenting their personal growth and stories as they came to terms with their losses.

But the 9/11 themed films that have affected me the most have been those that have told fictional stories set within the context of 9/11–either with the events occurring concurrently with the story or showing the way that they affected the ongoing lives of the characters.

The first of these that I saw was, of all things, a Disney Channel Movie starring Hayden Panattiere and Bill Pullman called "Tiger Cruise." At first I avoided watching it. Not because of the 9/11 references–which I wasn't even aware of at the time–but because I'm a Navy veteran and I wasn't interested in watching what I thought could have been a Disney sponsored recruitment ad. Eventually, I relented though and I was glad I did. That's when I learned about the 9/11 references and I really liked how they were made, from the perspective of both active-duty military and their families.

"Reign Over Me"–a rare and welcome example of an Adam Sandler flick that is nothing like your standard Adam Sandler flick–tells the story of a widower who lost his family when they were flying aboard one of the highjacked airliners. An incredible representation of the tragedy affecting an individual and how his friends are in turn affected by him.

In Tamara Jenkins' film "The Savages" with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, a direct 9/11 reference did not come until well into the film as the story is primarily about two adult siblings dealing with the special needs of their elderly father but I remember being hooked by the story with a reference to the now defunct Homeland Security Advisory System when Linney's character calls Hoffman's on the phone in the middle of an emotional crisis. His response is to ask her to gauge the severity of her crisis using the color-codes associated with the terror alert system. This was an excellent example of how a decidedly political response to earth shattering events can influence a culture.

The sociopolitical repercussions of 9/11 also inspired some interesting storytelling set in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just during our military engagements there–as depicted in films like "Green Zone" and "The Hurt Locker"–but stories that took place in those countries many years prior to 9/11 such as "Charlie Wilson's War." I wonder if a film like "The Kite Runner" would ever have been made were it not for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Would westerners have ever been aware, let alone cared, about the struggles faced by the Afghan people when the two major powers vying for control of the country were two opposite authoritarian extremes: atheistic communists and the religiously fanatical Taliban (who had an ostensibly religious objection to–of all things–kite flying).

The effects of U.S. military action in response to 9/11 on the home front was also explored. "The Lucky Ones" was a poignant look at military culture and the effects war has on comrades in arms and their families. The effects of PTSD on returning soldiers was dramatized in the fact-based film "In the Valley of Elah" starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and a number of actual Iraq War veterans. The conflicted emotions of a Marine who took advantage of the opportunity not to fight and remain stationed safely in the States with his family was addressed in "Taking Chance" with Kevin Bacon, also based on a true story.

One of the most intense fictional films in any of these genres that I enjoyed very much is "Buried" with Ryan Reynolds. The story of an American contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped for ransom. It's hard to believe that one can be so affected by a film that keeps it's audience in a box with the main character for 94 minutes without so much as a flashback to stretch one's legs. The phone call he receives from his employers while trapped in that shallow grave is especially aggravating to brilliant dramatic effect. This is the closest that any of these films has come to being a suspense story but its subject matter is addressed in a way that is not at all inappropriate or disrespectful.

There were less effective stories told that tried to address these same events and issues. "Stop Loss" and "Remember Me" come to mind. "Day Zero" addressed the fears of what could happen in a world where seemingly endless war leads to a reinstatement of conscripted service in the U.S. military.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of stories related to all of these subjects will be told in the second decade following 9/11. I'm sure a search through the Internet Movie Database will show several in various stages of production.

One exercise that I undertook in researching this article utilized an interesting feature of the IMDb. The sort of film and actor-related information that can be filtered through the use of specific dates can be enlightening. One can learn what films premiered and where. I learned that I share a birthday with a number of different actors–Jerry O'Connell and I are exactly the same age; born on the same day in the same year. One can also find out the dates on which specific actors died. While most might look up a famous name like Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman to learn when and where they passed away; another feature on the IMDb is the ability to input a specific date and find out who–among those individuals listen in the IMDb–was born and who died on that day.

I typed in September 11, 2001.

The attacks happened on the birthdays of several well known actors and performing artists including Virginia Madsen, Harry Connick Jr., Moby and Roxann Dawson–an actor and director well known in the Star Trek franchise. Speaking of Star Trek, a person by the name of Jeffrey Coombs was onboard American Airlines Flight 11 which crashed into the World Trade Center. Many people thought that it was Jeffrey Combs (with only one "o"), another Star Trek veteran, who had died. Mr. Combs addressed the public through the official Star Trek web site to clarify that he had not died and to share his feelings surrounding the event.

Of course, I had to see if anyone on the IMDb had died on September 11, 2001. As of this writing, 31 individuals are listed in the IMDb as having died that day. 27 of those names are listed as having died in New York, New York; Shanksville, Pennsylvania or Arlington, Virginia. Most of those have the September 11 attacks listed in their bios or are directly attributed as their cause of death–described as "Homicide," "Victim of" or "Perished in."

One can only infer from the date and locations whether or not the others who died on that day were victims of the attacks.

A dozen or so of the names listed were placed on the IMDb posthumously, credited as appearing in documentaries in "archive footage"–most likely home movies–or simply had their names included in a dedication in the closing credits. These individuals were not in the film or television industries though one is said to have appeared as an audience member on "The Tonight Show." Another as a reality show contestant.

One individual who died was a regular guest on "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher." Maher left one of his panel chairs empty for a week in honor of this person.

Of the victims who were involved in the film industry, there was a composer by the name of Gerard 'Rod' Coppola. I read nothing to indicate whether or not he was related to Francis Ford Coppola. A staff writer for "Cheers," "Wings" and "Frasier" died with his wife on one of the hijacked aircraft. A camera operator who is listed as having died on 9/11/01 also has a credit for a 2003 production–perhaps that project was shelved for a couple of years.

A few names stood out to me. Chuck Margiotta was once a stunt man. It makes a certain sense that someone in that line of work might transition from film stunts to being a firefighter.

Charles McCrann was a senior vice-president of a financial-services conglomerate with offices at the World Trade Center. He was also a film buff who wrote, produced, directed, edited and acted in a horror movie called "Bloodeaters."

Of the people with film industry credits who died on September 11, very few of them were well known in the film industry, or even within their specific fields. Indeed, many of them had no more than one or two credits on their IMDb profiles. They had participated in maybe a short, a television show or independent feature in minor roles either in front of or behind the camera and then moved on with their lives. Lives that eventually lead to jobs at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or just as passengers on those ill-fated flights.

I couldn't help but wonder as I read those names and their modest resumes if these people ever talked about their experiences on those film sets. Did a conversation about favorite films start up in the break room or at lunch that prompted them to say, "Yeah, I worked on a movie once." What was the reaction of their coworkers to these revelations? Were they fascinated? Did they respond with questions like, "Did you meet anyone famous?" How long did that little spark of recognition and perhaps pride last before they had to get back to their jobs? If they had time to reflect on their lives before they died, did any of their thoughts turn to their time on a film set? Did they once consider choosing a career in that industry before moving on to something they might have thought would be a little more financially secure? A little more safe?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Rebirth" Documentary Film by Jim Whitaker

My favorite films are the ones that leave you in tears and emotionally exhausted as you walk out of the theater. I was crying before the documentary film "Rebirth" had even gotten to the opening title card. The friend who invited me to the screening was kind enough to hand me a tissue and after the film was over, we stood together in the lobby with tears in our eyes talking about the people and moments that resonated most with us.

I was blown away by the scope of the film. The individuals portrayed were survivors of 9/11. They were either at the World Trade Center or lost family members or loved ones there. And they agreed to do not just one interview about their experiences up to and beyond that tragedy, but several interviews for years following 9/11. I have to give major kudos to the producers for the logistics involved in making a film over such a long period of time.

The person who I related to the most also made one of the more memorable transformations throughout the film.

Nick was just a teenager in 2001 when he lost his mother. In every interview he sported a new look. A clean-shaven kid at first, then a young man with a little patch of whiskers on his chin in the next. He grows up before our eyes and we see this college graduate wearing glasses and in the end, a bearded man with wisdom beyond his years.

Nick's story resonated with me because I lost my mother. Not to something as tragic as a terrorist attack but to something preventable: heart disease and diabetes.

But it was also during the months following 9/11 that I had experienced a falling-out with Mom and it was a documentary film--the Naudet brothers' "9/11"--that prompted me to reach out to her. It took us a while to get through our difficulties but we did get through them.

In 2004, a friend approached me about making a short film in time for Christmas. We decided to produce a script that I had written a number of years ago which was based on a short story that my Mom had written. The project was pretty much kept secret from the rest of the family--with the exception of my sister if memory serves. We finished it in time to get it out to the whole family by Christmas. Mom called me to thank me for making the film and she said that it was the best Christmas present she had ever received.

That would be the last thing she ever said to me. Not long after that, she had a heart attack. After nearly a month in the hospital, she passed away.

"Rebirth" reminded me of why I love filmmaking as an art form. It brings people together in its production and its exhibition. Sitting in that theater tonight, I felt a reverence that someone might only associate with a religious congregation. But the experience was a spiritual one. It was a group of human beings coming together to witness the stories of other human beings in the aftermath of an all-too-human tragedy.

I've often said--only half in jest and in reference to my own anxiety issues--that I hate crowds but I love an audience. But there's no audience I love more than one that comes together to experience a great film and isn't afraid to be moved by it and to let those emotions show in front of others, knowing that they are all experiencing the same feelings.

I highly recommend watching this film but don't do so alone. Watch it the way I did: with a good friend who you can cry with and hold onto as you process the emotions it will inevitably bring up.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Six Feet Under"

I recently had the opportunity to watch the final few seasons of the HBO series "Six Feet Under." I had followed the show when it first premiered in 2001 but lost track of it when my finances wouldn't allow me to keep subscribing to HBO.

It is my most favorite television series of all time. There are several that I have enjoyed over the years, some more than others, but I think I have to put Alan Ball's creation at the top of my list.

As I watched the series finale, I kept thinking to myself, "This is what life is like: complicated and uncertain. And that's okay." Especially if we can find meaning and purpose in the connections we make with the people in our lives.

The very premise of the show both fascinated and disturbed me. A family that runs a funeral home. My first memory of death was the funeral of my maternal grandmother. A Spanish, Catholic affair with all of the attendant histrionics. I remember my mother crying and becoming hysterical and my sister and I couldn't help but get caught up in that emotion. We wanted to go to our mother, but our older brother Patrick wouldn't let go of us. From that moment until my teens, I didn't want to even think about death. I felt traumatized. I wouldn't attend another funeral until the death of my own mother in 2005*--coincidentally, the same year that "Six Feet Under" ended it's run.

I love "Six Feet Under" because of the way it made me feel. Frank Capra is quoted as saying, "I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." "Six Feet Under" has put me in tears more often than any other drama on television and I'm grateful for that. Besides the very moving series finale, the most powerful moment of the series that stands out in my mind as I write this is when Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) buries his late wife in the desert and the reaction he has when he sees her remains falling from the body bag.

Seeing Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) evolve from conventional housewife to an independent, single woman willing to explore herself and her humanity gave me a greater appreciation for the lives of parents as perceived by their children. No one likes to think of their parents as having been young, or having dreams, desires or regrets but in the end, we are all someone's children, living our lives and trying to figure them out along the way. The loving relationship between David and Keith (Michael C. Hall and Matthew St. Patrick) helped to reshape my opinion about the capacity that human beings have to love each other. Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) was the character I found myself rooting for the most. This beautiful young woman, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of adolescence and uncertainty of a budding young artist. The complicated relationship between Brenda and Billy (Rachel Griffiths and Jeremy Sisto) served as an interesting balance between the extremes of the two main families of the series, to paraphrase Brenda, the Chenowiths with their lack of boundaries and the Fishers with nothing but boundaries.

There's little more that I can say about the series that hasn't probably already been said in the years since it ended, so I'll just repeat my earlier statement: It is my most favorite television series of all time. I'd feel really blessed to discover another series that stirs up such emotions in me again.


*My sister insists that I did, in fact, attend another funeral prior to that. For a family friend at Church. If this is true, then I have completely blocked it out.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mr. Show Indomitable Spirit

"Mr. Show" is one of my favorite sketch comedy programs. I'm so glad you can watch it on IFC! :-)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Voice

So, I watched "The Voice" today. Well, I watched parts of it. The important parts. I watched it "On Demand" and fast forwarded through most of the reality TV crap--the sappy interviews and whatnot--and just got right down to the performances.

As a concept, I like "The Voice." Indeed, it's the only reality/singing-competition show I've bothered to watch. Unfortunately, in the end, it's still just another reality show. I might pop in to watch another episode or two but I can't bring myself to say that I'm a "fan" of the show.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pet Peeve: Talking in movie theaters

I went to a movie recently with someone. Someone who kept talking about the movie while it was playing. Someone who yelled at the screen during a particularly harrowing moment in the film. Their excuse: "I really get into movies."

I get into movies too, I show it by remaining silent and concentrating on what I'm watching. When other people distract me, it pulls me OUT of the film and ruins the experience for me.

Such behavior is disrespectful. It's disrespectful to the other audience members, it's disrespectful to the artform, it's disrespectful to the artists who created the film.

As a filmmaker myself, I find it disrespectful to me, even when it isn't my film that's being screened.

The word "Audience" comes from the latin "audentia" which means "listening" not talking, or yelling, or commenting. At least not in the middle of the screening.

Now, I've been known to offer a brief comment or quiet remark from time to time. Emphasis on the words "brief" and "quiet." Indeed, I made a couple of quiet remarks during this particular screening. These remarks did not distract the entire theater nor diminish their experience because of the rude guy yelling at the screen during the climax of the film.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"The Office" should end on a high note

I love "The Office" and with Steve Carell leaving the show, I think the series should end on a high note. Of course, NBC wants to milk everything they can out of the show which means they need to find a replacement for Carell and his alter ego, Michael Scott.

I think they should promote Dunder Mifflin Scranton's traveling salesman Todd Packer--played by SNL alum David Koechner. The character is obnoxious, rude and politically incorrect. A perfect replacement for Michael Scott.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Making of Tron: Legacy HD

I really enjoyed this film. Disney has allowed the Tron DVD to go out of print. I'm guessing they're going to release it along side Tron: Legacy. Perhaps even as a Blu-Ray combo pack.

I have to say though, that I was kind of disappointed in Digital Domain's work on Clu and the younger Flynn. They did a much better job on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and that came out in 2008. They paid much more attention to the subtleties and nuance of human expression in Button than they appeared to have on Tron and they used basically the same techniques and technology.

I was pleasantly surprised by Cillian Murphy's uncredited performance as Edward Dillinger Jr. Edward Dillinger Sr. was the main antagonist in the original Tron. The ambiguity of the fate of the Tron program certainly leaves the possibility open for a another sequel. I wouldn't mind seeing a showdown between Sam, Quorra, Tron and whatever avatar or program is used by Dillinger--and portrayed by Murphy of course. I'm reasonably sure they could find a way to resurrect Kevin Flynn as well.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Save Caprica!

So, I watched the marathon run of the last five episodes of Caprica and I have to say... I want more! The Syfy network has got to make money, I get that. And Caprica apparently wasn't profitable enough for them. What I find most sad about this is the fact that the more profitable a TV show is, the less likely it is to be viewed by an intelligent audience that can discern quality from fluff.

Some of the complaints about Caprica that I've read have concerned the fact that it is so much different from Battlestar Gallactica. What's ironic about that statement is that most people knew that going in. It wasn't a surprise. From its very inception, it was compared more to episodic soap operas like Dallas than to BSG. There were also complaints that there wasn't enough action and not enough Cylons. Well there certainly were a lot more Cylons in season 1.5 than there were in season 1. Who's to say that we wouldn't see more Cylons if Caprica wasn't cancelled?

I think Caprica should be given at least a second season to make up for any perceived shortcomings of the first. Seasons 1-1.5 were essentially prologue. In light of its cancelation, they could be viewed as prologue to BSG--or even Blood and Chrome--but I prefer to see it as prologue to a much more dynamic and engaging set of story-lines that could be explored in at least one more season of the show.

Of the final episodes, I was very pleased to see some key issues resolved--even a few trivial ones. We got to see Daniel figure out how to survive his deal with the Guatrau as well as the transfer of power within the Ha'la'tha, evocative of our most favorite mafia films and TV shows. We even saw some reconciliation between the Zoe avatar and the Graystones. Lacy Rand's future is in less doubt but open to some intriguing exploration were it not for Syfy's bean-counters trumping any creative will that might still exist at the network. There's even a plausible explanation for why followers of Surge on Twitter won't be hearing from him anymore. They even resolved the minor discrepancy in continuity regarding the eye color of young Willie Adama (Sina Najafi) and Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) in BSG.

The most important question that I had since I first saw the pilot/mini-series for Battlestar Gallactica was even partially answered: How do a bunch of robots find religion? Throughout the first season of Caprica I figured it was some trace of the Zoe avatar left behind in the MCP of that first U-87--yes, if you haven't seen the show, you probably have no idea what that last string of words even means; maybe if you watched the show it wouldn't have been canceled! ;)--while my mind is open to the possibility that that may indeed have been a factor, the closing images of Sister Clarice preaching to Cylons in a church was even more compelling. The idea of these "tools," as Daniel Graystone describes them, having free time and using it to find religion is very compelling and something that I have not seen explored in popular science fiction before. Data on Star Trek seemed too preoccupied with finding his humanity to be bothered by religion. There are no droids among the Jedi. But eventually, Cylons commune with angels.

Oh, Caprica, I am going to miss you! But I hope that the producers of Blood and Chrome--while appealing to the popular desire for more guns, robots and explosions--won't pass up on opportunities to explore more of the spiritual elements that I've really come to appreciate throughout the re-imagined BSG universe. Some flashbacks to the Graystones, Clarice and Lacy perhaps? We'll see.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Charmin ad campaign

I studied advertising in college, especially television advertising. I've gone on to write copy and produce a few commercials over the years.

One of the most iconic ad campaigns of my youth was Procter & Gamble's "Don't Squeeze the Charmin" campaign featuring the funny grocery store manager Mr. Whipple portrayed by veteran actor Riccardo DiGuglielmo--better known by his easier to remember but oddly mundane-sounding screen credit Dick Wilson--from 1964 to 1985.

Here's an old Charmin ad that also features a pre-Mythbusters Adam Savage.

One of my favorite ad campaigns of the 2000s is also by P&G for their Charmin toilet paper brand. Featuring, of all things, BEARS! But not the scary kind that Stephen Colbert is always warning us about.

I remember when I first saw the ad and I thought, "Okay, low-tech cell animation. Cute cartoon bears. Whatever." Then I realized what the bears were doing and where and I thought, "Genius!" It's a play on the old joke that you tell whenever someone doubts the validity of what you just said, "Am I serious? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods?" The unspoken and obvious answer to both questions being, Yes! Oh, what I would have given to be in the pitch meeting when someone came up with that idea. It has a certain sophistication for being, essentially, a poop joke but it's completely apropos for a product such as Charmin toilet paper.

As of this writing, the ad campaign has been running since 2000 and isn't just on TV. I was playing an ad-supported game on my iPhone recently and was treated to a short commercial. I usually tap on the "skip" button on these but since it was one of my favorite campaigns, I went ahead and watched it. It featured P&G's "Enjoy the Go" campaign--started in 2009--in which they are inviting people to submit videos--don't get ahead of me, please!--to a YouTube channel explaining why Charmin helps them to "Enjoy the Go." There was also a "Go Nation" contest, a Facebook page, an iPhone app that can direct you to a Charmin approved public restroom--similar to George Costanza's iToilet app, I'm sure--and something that every ad campaign hopes for: celebrity endorsements.

Which reminds me that people will endorse just about anything as long as there's a check involved. Who were the celebrities tapped to endorse the "Enjoy the Go" campaign?

Jane Lynch and Kim Kardashian.

Don't get me wrong, I still love the ad campaign. It just goes to show you how a successful campaign--this is a $1 Billion a year brand--can go to some very weird places. Were it not for Charmin' I never would have pictured either Jane Lynch or Kim Kardashian going to the bathroom, though I'm sure others with strangers obsessions imagined that very thing a long time ago.