The Horror of Knowing

The Innkeepers is part classic horror film, part workplace comedy, and part deliberate study of both place and character—which, when taken together, makes the movie a hard sell to a lot of people. And that’s a shame, since I think the movie occupies a unique spot in the cinematic world. Unlike a lot of modern horror films, The Innkeepers invites the audience to be patient and pay attention—good suggestions for film-goers in general.

While The Innkeepers was generally well-received by critics, it wasn’t treated as kindly by the public. Of course it’s fine if people don’t like the film, but I’d encourage those who initially went in with different expectations to revisit the movie. (If you don’t mind drowning in vitriol, visit the movie’s Amazon product page to get a taste.)

The film follows inn employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) through the last few days at the Yankee Pedlar Inn before it shuts down for good. The two engage in a lot of wheel-spinning as they watch the clock: They fiddle around with Luke’s clunky website, goof off in a variety of ways, and put off important projects until the last minute. Luke and Claire also spend a huge chunk of time searching for an angry ghost that is rumored to inhabit the Pedlar. Luke fancies himself a ghost hunter, and the duo explore the inn with his mountain of audio surveillance equipment to see if there’s anything to these rumors. (There is.)

Writer/director/editor Ti West first came in contact with the Yankee Pedlar Inn while staying there during the filming of his 2009 movie The House of the Devil. Yes, the Pedlar is a real place in Torrington, Connecticut—and it’s still open, too. He ended up writing the screenplay for The Innkeepers specifically for the Pedlar, and it shows. It’s not a particularly creepy place, but has a sort of warm, tarnished charm that sticks with you. The movie treats the inn and its (fictional) staff as the stars, and I think prioritizing place and the two focal characters over buckets of fake blood was a great move.

But here’s where some viewers get stuck. This was advertised as a horror movie, so where’s the horror? I think some were hoping The Innkeepers would join the parade of shock horror currently popular. But it didn’t. There’s very little blood, and there are just a handful of subdued and well-placed “jump scares.” Perhaps the trailer is partially to blame for the false expectations, since it suggests more exploitation and less Henry James—the latter is closer to the mark.

In reality, the movie is probably closest to the films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. The Innkeepers relies on building a sense of dread and eeriness rather than using sheer brutality the way many current horror films do. The Innkeepers demands that the audience use its imagination, and it also demands that viewers immerse themselves in the film’s atmosphere. So much of the film depends on soaking in detailed audio cues; the producers even put a preface on the DVD/Blu-ray release that suggests the viewer “play it loud.” Watching half-heartedly on an iPhone won’t cut it, nor will casually tuning in just to soak in some cheap thrills.

Healy and Paxton are convincing in their roles. Paxton’s Claire is a college dropout feeling no vocational calling, in any definition of the word. She’s a hyperactive goofball, yet incredibly detached. Luke defensively sports an abrasive, sarcastic charm, but you can see his guard come down a bit when Claire is around. By the end of the movie, I’d grown to care about these characters because they remind me of people I know and do care about. They crack jokes, embarrass themselves in front of each other, and discuss the mythology of their workplace. As the circumstances become more dire later in the film, we care about situation because of the characters, not the other way around.

This attention to detail—in character, place, and atmosphere—is why I’ve really grown to appreciate West’s films. He’s trying to take a careful, slow approach to a genre that isn’t known for restraint or intentionality. West hits on something vital that is lost in American film and entertainment culture: The real horror isn’t buckets of blood, but rather not knowing—or caring—about those around us.





Ocean’s Wonder

Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film is brilliant for many reasons I won’t pretend to fully understand. But at the center of all its nuance is Fellini’s ego. In , Fellini created a complete picture of his soul, his ambitions, his sexuality, his narcissistic attitude, and his interpretation and creative organization of the environment around him. He synthesizes all of the poignant elements of his life into a new narrative with as much emphasis on dreams as on reality, and with as much detail in the characters’ dialects as in their dialogue. The result is odd, indirect, and poetic, and as a unique glimpse of human nature, it’s as vivid and as challenging as a piece of art can be.

What’s interesting about 21st-century creative work is that, due to the revealing nature of the Internet, fans can become aware of an artist’s narrative prior to encountering the art itself. With the help of a couple quick wiki searches and a trip through some credible blogs, the public can become experts on an artist’s background and aesthetic inclinations. In many ways, this can hurt the artistic process: art no longer stands by itself because it must be accompanied by an online marketing campaign. Listeners might fail to meet art on its own terms because of the source through which they discovered it. Artists may find their art glossed over in the mass consumption of streamed music and film. The list goes on. In some cases, this runaway commodification can benefit the artist and his work; in these cases, there is a sense in which it allows for the telling of a three-dimensional, all-encompassing narrative à la .

Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE may be permanently defined by the online letter he wrote to his fans two weeks before the album’s release. In the letter, Ocean chronicled his confused sexual history in profound poetic language. The takeaway for most mainstream media sources was that hip-hop and R&B were finally becoming civilized: a popularly accepted black artist came out of the closet, thus transforming the rift between black music and the gay community into an accessible platform for principally pluralistic conversation.

While this may be the case, what shined through more clearly was Ocean’s intimate understanding of the human condition, and the unique vision with which he sees it. Toward the beginning of his cryptic letter, he laments, “In the last year or three, I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.”

Frank Ocean is no stranger to turmoil. Through the course of channel ORANGE, he notes the financial troubles of his youth, the foul nature of his own self-indulgence, his sexual anxiety, masturbation, the harshness of urban life, and unrequited love. He weaves each of these tragedies into the sprawling narrative of his own experience, making use of a number of fascinating characters.

There’s his mother in “Not Just Money,” a junkie in “Crack Rock,” a romantic in “Pilot Jones,” filthy rich suburbanites in “Super Rich Kids,” and of course Ocean himself bookends the album with the opener and blogosphere favorite “Thinkin Bout You”, and then the heart-breaking “Bad Religion.” His place in his own narrative becomes clearer in the big picture of the album: he’s the only character whose problems are all internalized. In a world of drug struggles, crimes, low incomes, and rampant sexuality, Ocean stands out as the troubled artist who sees things simply and seriously as they are, and is able to explain them eloquently.

What’s more is that he creates this stunning mural in such a musically rich context. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder are unavoidable: his buttery voice and intricate musicality harkens back to Stevie’s daring pop-oriented aesthetic. He’s not the musical innovator that Stevie was, but his capacity for phenomenal melodies and his fresh take on R&B lyricism prove him to be comparably gifted.

As a lyricist, Ocean communicates through a topsy-turvy dialect of extended metaphor and cleverly juxtaposed imageries. In “Sweet Life,” he describes the relationship that his real life characters have with his music:

The best song wasn’t the single
But you couldn’t turn your radio down
Satellite needed a receiver
Can’t seem to turn the signal fully off
Transmit the waves
You’re catching that breeze ‘til you’re dead in the grave.

Later he continues, “But you’re keepin’ it surreal / Not sugar-free / My TV ain’t HD / That’s too real.” Perhaps the pseudo-realism of popular media, whether in television or in his own art, is too much to bear. He and presumably his listeners are overwhelmed by the realness, the sweetness, the intrigue.

Drake describes the state of hip-hop and R&B this way: “A time where it’s recreation / To pull all your skeletons out the closet / Like Halloween decorations.” But where Drake and others (see The Weekend or The Dream) use their music as an outlet for harsh confessions, Ocean goes deeper: he sings with poetic integrity, creates fitting, elaborate musical soundscapes, and invites his audience to engage in the reality that he has constructed. This isn’t The OC, this is .

Without a boring moment, a twinge of artistic self-indulgence, or triteness, Ocean opens a window into the human condition, and peers in fearfully. It’s beautifully simple. In the summer of 2012 this unexpected masterpiece was a breath of fresh air compared to the drone of the radio (I’m looking at you, Pitbull). I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for Frank Ocean. Here’s hoping he gets that manna.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty

Combining live action, animation, interviews and formal narration, Terence Nance’s feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a creative patchwork that delves deep into the emotional life of the main character. Triggered by the seemingly minor event of being stood up, Terence takes the opportunity to reflect and brings us on a journey where self doubt is explored in drawings, clay or papier-mâché, and regrets are best confronted in lingering sensual close-ups, tasting the misunderstanding over and over. Nance’s approach to storytelling is much closer to the disjointed and imprecise narratives in our minds than anything we’d find in a well constructed Hollywood spectacle. Here, time, place and characters are second to the themes of memory, mood and the visual manifestation of emotions, arriving at a film that feels more like being sat down and told a story, with photo albums and music playing, than the sentimental bombardment we’re accustomed to in a movie theater.

Filmmaker Terence Nance

Sarah Hanssen: This film seems so very personal, but the somewhat stunted and bumbling Terrence character in the film doesn’t seem like someone who could complete a feature film. What parts of your on-screen character did you play up and what parts did you have to throw aside in the interest of the work?

Terence Nance: Well my performance is sort of my take on Mr. Hulot (by Jacques Tati) and it is the sort of mishap-prone, Barry Lyndon part of myself– I definitely exaggerated that part of me for the film. I think the more aggressive / self-assured me is in the subtext of the film but also the film is a portrait of a me that doesn’t exist anymore. I was a Student first of all and that is a very distant reality from the “me” who completed the film.

SH: Between animations, live action, music and more, there seemed to be so much precious material. Editing must have been a challenge. As you cut the film, what were the pieces you hated to see go?

TN: The pieces that took years to animate were hardest to cut from the film. After seeing it several times with audiences however, the ‘preciousness’ of everything has slowly bled out of me.

SH: How has this experience influenced your artistic goals? As you gear up for your next project, how does the feedback and success you’ve experienced affect you?

TN: Well, it is just clear that from now going forward I’m working in a context that includes more publically held expectations. I think building a creative space that allows me to ignore them is probably best. I think however the sharing experience can change your purpose for making work. I think the process has kind of steeled me against re-framing the “why” of making something.

SH: Did you ever have a moment of doubt and crisis as you made the film?

TN: Not really doubt or crisis, but I did have several moments of thinking the film would be done and then my certantity of finishing getting suddenly undermined by an unfortunate series of events. I practice Yoruba and I had a reading from a friend of mine’s priestess from Bahia (in Brazil.) She gave me a message from the Orisha that I can’t share but I can say that it put me on track to finish the film the following year.

SH: One of the missions of this publication is to create “the world that ought to be” through the arts. With that in mind, how have you improved the world through this film? Even just your own world?

TN: Well I think I finished my first feature film. It sounds trite maybe but for me the… relief I experience of just getting it finished. Just the expressing of it feels GREAT. Not from a perspective of catharsis, personal or artistic, either it just feels good to be able to make something else. So I think that is how it improved my world.

For the world in general, I think films like mine with Black people in them that are non-traditional aesthetically or thematically are sort of always at the brink of extinction. Luckily every few years a little air gets put back in the lungs of films of this nature (most recently Medecine for Melancholy). So hopefully someone who has an idea that is weird and Black will feel empowered, because my film proves they aren’t alone.

SH: While it would surely be an accomplishment if more unusual and racially diverse stories made it into movie theaters, I think you can take more credit than that. Your film won’t just inspire like minded people to make work– it reaches to a much wider audience. Films that are a genuine personal expression of the individual behind them are rare and refreshing in our media- saturated environment, but when we see one we know it.  For those of us who want to pursue our own creative art making, it is an encouragement along the way, and for those of us who get carried away in the world of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty for an hour and a half, it is something real in a world where most moving images are fakes.

Adapting to Adaptations

In 1909, the very first American full-length motion picture lit the screen. The film was part of that beloved and contested genre, the literary adaptation.  It was the first of many film versions of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Did it follow the plot scene by scene?  Did it capture the true essence of Hugo’s original?  Reviewers didn’t seem to care.  In fact, for one reviewer, it was the dog and monkey circus that came on first, rather than the French masterpiece, that was the true “treat of the season.”  Reviewers with longer attention spans praised the film as “one of the greatest motion pictures ever exhibited.” In 1909, that wasn’t saying much, and reviewers were more taken with measuring the astonishing length of the film itself–2,600 feet– than measuring the quality of the content those 2,600 feet contained.

As the technical aspects began to lose their novelty, reviewers have demanded much more from adaptations.   But just how recently have reviewers begun to care about faithfulness to a book’s plot and spirit?  Does the recent trend of quick best-seller to blockbuster turn-around have anything to do with how films are critically received?  Is this speed a new trend?

To investigate this, I turned to one of my favorite pursuits—besides reading novels and viewing adaptations—and dug through New York Times archives, selecting several adaptations that have appeared in the decades since Les Misérables.

It turns out faithfulness to the book emerged very quickly as a yardstick for how well a film succeeded.  Just a decade after Vitagraph’s Les

Mis, Mary Pickford’s studio bought the rights to Jean Webster’s popular serial novel Daddy Long Legs. The book was so popular that even with the seven-year gap between its publication and adaptation, reviewers still expected that the novel’s fans would pack the house.  Of those fans, “no one,” wrote one reviewer, “was disappointed with ‘Daddy Long Legs’ on the screen.”  Faithful adaptation had clearly been added as an evaluative standard.

In the thirties, faithfulness remained a standard, and an additional underline was added: a quick bestseller to blockbuster turn-around demands even greater faithfulness.  It’s possible that Daddy Long Legs’ audience was easy to please because the plot had become fuzzy in the seven-year gap, but in the thirties, the president of Universal Films attempted something much more daring.  Carl Laemmle decided Universal would adapt, film and release a movie based on a novel that had appeared in print just one year earlier.   All Quiet on the Western Front hit bookstores in 1929 and theaters in 1930.

Laemmle even threw out common sense in his quest for fidelity to the written page.  By 1930, it was common sense that without a love story, you’d lack an audience, too.  But no, Laemmle told Erich Maria Remarque he’d preserve the story: no love interest, and no softening of its depiction of war.

Critics and the academy rewarded this.  Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times, “It seems as though the very impressions written in ink by Herr Remarque had become animated on the screen.”

But why would people who had read All Quiet on the Western Front page by page just a year or even a few months earlier want to see the book projected, scene by scene, onto the screen?  And why do today’s readers who have just finished The Hunger Games or The Help or Twilight want to devote another several hours of their lives to watching it?

Maybe we flock to these adaptations for just the reason Hall had described in 1930: we want to see our impressions of the book animated on the screen.  In viewing an adaptation, we join a more communal imagination.  If a film animates the book in ways similar to how we’ve imagined it, we feel, somehow, rewarded by the community.  We feel like our vision of the book has been validated.

This animation of the book can also thicken our grasp on the story.  Reading the book and then racing to the theater is a way of doubling our memory and, perhaps, increasing our understanding.

Whatever the reasons, audiences flocked to other bestseller adaptations later in the decade.  Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller became a film just three years after its publication.  The book was so famously popular that reviewer Frank S. Nugent wrote that “fidelity” to the book took great courage, yet “so great a hold has Miss Mitchell on her public, it might have taken more courage still to have changed a line or scene of it,” and thus Gone with the Wind achieved “a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.”

Does the fact that Shakespeare and Dickens were long in their graves by the time Hollywood got to their stories have to do with this?  Had reviewers already seen so many productions of The Merchant of Venice and David Copperfield that they were glad when directors combined their own imaginations with the plots?  Does a bestseller demand faithfulness, while a classic, well-known work demands reinvention?

This would seem counter-intuitive.  Do American critics want bestsellers, which don’t always stand the test of time, to be faithfully reproduced as quickly as possible, but allow classic works to withstand drastic re-tellings?  It depends how drastic, and how well the re-telling succeeds.  A.O. Scott certainly didn’t let 2009’s superhero thug version of Sherlock Holmes off the hook.

And speedy adaptation in itself is not the key ingredient.  When director Herbert Brenon tried his hand at The Great Gatsby just one year after its publication, reviews were flat.  Though the film didn’t veer far from the plot, it needed “more imaginative direction” and neither Brenon “nor the players have succeeded in developing the characters.”  Of course, Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller when Fitzgerald published it, nor was it critically acclaimed.  Maybe this meant there wasn’t much incentive to capture Fitzgerald’s original intent.

The passage of twenty-four years increased Gatsby‘s popularity and accolades, but didn’t help its adaptations any.  This rule didn’t hold true for adaptations in general, though: an adaptation based on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men won best picture in 1949.  Yet Gatsby still flopped that year.  Bosley Crowther wrote that “Most of the tragic implications and bitter ironies of Mr. Fitzgerald’s work have gone by the board.”  Most crushing of all, it was “a dutiful plotting of the novel without the substance of life that made it stick.”

Perhaps Gatsby films are ill-fated.  Even a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola didn’t satisfy critics of the 1974 film.  Reviewer Vincent Canby slammed it as “lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”  Will the upcoming Gatsby, slated for December, fare better, or should directors leave the great American novel in peace?

Whether adaptations result in successes or flops, Hollywood’s zeal to change bestsellers into box office gold as quickly as possible– before our amnesiac society moves on–is decades old.  For bestsellers, the working formula seems to have been: convert them to faithful screenplays as soon as possible, capturing both the scenes and the essence.  That way, audiences join a community and see their imagination reinforced on screen, or have the chance to talk about the popular plot even if they haven’t seen the film.

For classics, critics and audiences grant a little more leeway, ready to see what hasn’t been done before. But if three film versions of a famous novel don’t work, maybe now is not the time to cast Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.  Well, unless Baz Luhrmann can work in a hilarious Jack Russell and chimp.  Then, maybe.

Can Anyone Make Me Less “Miserables?”

The more I go over it, the more I’m torn on how to react. My instinct is to despise and dismiss. But many viewings of the trailer for the new film interpretation of Les Miserables – due out Christmas 2012 – force a more considered analysis of my concerns.

After hearing Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” though I have been a fan since the Princess Diaries, my immediate response was to see her as a vessel ill-equipped for the musical delivery of a song as untouchable in the musical theater world as “And I’m Telling You” and “I Will Always Love You” are in R&B diva-land. Incidentally, Jay Caspian King of Grantland presents a marvelous breakdown of all the monumental performances of those two songs. And I was tempted to do the same here. I combed through every possible distribution channel for recorded music in order to make an airtight case against this new “musical mockery” of Les Mis.

But, in my fervor to defend the truly great singers of the stage against this “interloping hack,” I stumbled upon something truly beautiful.

I make no apologies for having nearly impossible standards of excellence for female vocal performance – regardless of genre. And as a result I can only really enjoy the singing of a small, select handful of women, and can barely listen at all to those that fall even a little short. This is by no means braggadocious, in fact, quite the opposite. As a result of what simply amounts to snobbery – well-founded snobbery perhaps, but snobbery nonetheless – I am unable to enjoy a whole host of beautiful songs and the “good” singers that perform them. I am locked in a prison of the “great.”

So as I embarked on a mission to annihilate Ms. Hathaway’s daring attempt at musical theater (based, of course, solely on the film’s trailer – more on that later) I found myself unable to compile much evidence of singers, that in my opinion, are so monumentally superior to her in skill and execution, that she has disgraced the very thing she – in all likelihood – adores.

That is, until I rediscovered Judy Kuhn.

Judy Kuhn has been a major Broadway performer since the 1980s. She ought to be a Broadway legend, but it seems she may fall into that honorable, but unfortunate, designation of a “singer’s singer,” those who are venerated by other performers for their talent and skill, but are mostly unknown by the public. She’s received several Tony nominations, but hasn’t won. She’s overshadowed by Elaine Paige, Lea Salonga, and, hell, even Susan Boyle. But her voice soars over all theirs with a grace and completeness only a handful of women come near.

The irony is that we’ve all heard her and didn’t know it. She was the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Disney feature by the same name. But unlike Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle), or the aforementioned Lea Salonga (Fa Mulan AND Princess Jasmine), Ms. Kuhn has not garnered as much notoriety for the role. (Perhaps because that movie wasn’t nearly as well-liked as the others.)

But, her version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which I discovered while trying to smite what may be the greatest-threat-to-musical-theater-in-the-history-of-the-world-embodied-in-the-person-that-is-Anne-Hathaway, immediately halted my crusade. I was transfixed. I played the clip over and over and over again. It was a breathtaking experience. One very unlike those sublime moments in life that defy explanation. This one I can explain.

What struck me first was the effortlessness with which she sings. As a listener I’m cradled comfortably in her mastery of her voice. This is the opposite feeling of hearing anyone sing on American Idol. There, at any moment, the whole thing might come derailed. That foreboding, awkward dread of what might happen in another note or two, is entirely absent when listening to Ms. Kuhn. As I rest assured in her control I start to notice other things. The pacing of the lyrics is relaxed but doesn’t lack motion. Her diction is clear without getting too “Whitney Houston” with the consonants. The front of every word holds pitch and tone cleanly and with precision that comes only from years of labor. Often you can hear an affectation of the voice’s timbre when certain vowel-consonant combinations or diphthongs occur. Kuhn’s timbre is thoroughly consistent and changes only when she commands it to. Her releases are full of energy. Her vibrato is pure, even, controlled and balanced.

The true test of her mastery of the song comes as the melody’s direction turns downward on the line “but the tigers come at night.” The word “night” is placed near the low-end of the vocal range for an average mezzo-soprano. If you listen to many versions of this song you frequently hear a loss of power behind that note. Not in Ms. Kuhn’s performance. She arrives at that moment with such rich presence and darkness to the sound. If that wasn’t difficult enough, a few bars later a parallel phrase occurs with the lyric “as they tear your hope apart.” Here the gesture is lowered a whole step, and yet she delivers with just as much strength and resilience. That gauntlet is chased by the next stumbling block for most performers. The line “as they turn your dream to shame,” concludes with a stepwise ascension in the melody, accompanied by a necessary increase in volume and intensity. In order to amplify the emotional moment, a singer can often fall prey to the temptation to over-sing, which results in a loss of control of the timbre and vibrato creating what I hear as schmaltziness. Yet again, Ms. Kuhn maintains musical integrity without losing any of the emotional effect the composition works to evoke in that moment. Then there’s the high sustained passages, the emotional connections to the lyrics, the tension between hope and despair, intonation, pitch, breathing… I could go on and on with the technical analysis, but I trust my point has been conveyed.

The fact remains, Judy Kuhn’s singing is truly inspiring. What makes this rendition all the more awe-inducing is the time and place of its performance. She’s singing a concertized version – sung outside the context of the actual theatrical work in which it would naturally occur – for President Reagan and the First Lady who were truly beloved figures. Let me not forget to mention this was a live performance captured with the A/V technology of 1988, observed decades later though YouTube, and lacking any kind of substantive musical production. This song ought to have a whole orchestra filling every corner of the room and allowing the voice to truly flourish. Instead she’s got one piano and a snare drum (other guys are on the stage but it’s hard to tell what or if they might be playing). No offense to those musicians, but, the accompaniment is garbage. Still Kuhn completely obliterates this song. I’ve never heard a better version. Period. Go ahead and take a couple of hours to listen to all the different versions you can find. It’s possible you might prefer another one – and you have every right to do so – but it won’t change the fact that, from a musical and technical standpoint, Judy Kuhn is untouchable.

So where does that leave Ms. Hathaway. Well, it is terribly unfair to judge her, her performance of the song, and the movie solely on a 90-second preview. We don’t even get to hear the whole song. It’s decontextualized from its true dramatic setting, and the emotional connectedness between her performance and the drama is interrupted. This song is a total downer. As Hillary Busis put it, “”I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical theater’s greatest bummers — a pathos-drenched ballad about one woman’s descent into despair[.]” It may be that the cinematic elements and Ms. Hathaway’s performance work together in a way that overcomes whatever deficiencies would be exposed in a more traditional staged performance. I hope.

If, and it doesn’t seem like much of an “if” at this point, the filmmakers are going for a very dismal, dark and über-realistic interpretation of Les Mis, then a realistic and somewhat poorly sung version of the song might work to great dramatic and narrative effect. Though by listening to what evidence is currently available, it does seem that Ms. Hathaway is attempting to do a mixture of both pure singing and melodrama. She may be biting off more than she can chew. My hope is also that all the filmmakers recognize their actors’ strengths and limitations, and use that to great advantage in giving us a profound and potent story. If, on the other hand, they hope a few months of singing lessons and a highly paid vocal coach can help Hathaway go toe-to-toe with Judy Kuhn, I’m afraid it may be their dreams that turn to shame.

Unraveled, but Not Undeceived

Marc Simon’s latest documentary, Unraveled, delves into the mind of Marc Dreier, an attorney convicted of fraud. Overshadowed by the Bernie Madoff scandal, Dreier’s story, though in the press, might still be news to viewers. What’s most unusual is Simon’s access to Dreier for the weeks he is under house arrest prior to his sentencing.Marc Drier under house arrest.

House arrest is a drudgery, even in the swanky, New York apartment of a multimillionaire. The breathtaking views and clean, modern decor do not soften the monotony and claustrophobia that pervade the film. I frequently wanted to escape myself. While the limited locations do not make for great cinematography or compelling visuals, the true action takes place within the mind. Drier’s confinement results in some unexpected introspection. Initially, he seems open to both confessing his guilt and being apologetic for the catastrophic outcomes. But, as he begins to examine his own motives, his instinct to justify and explain away his own culpability takes hold. Drier goes on to say that he was not a unique criminal, postulating that many people, if given the opportunity, would have also manipulated the system for their own gain. Witnessing a bright and articulate man make excuses for his fall is uncomfortable, but it is also valuable to see the ease with which self deception and justification can take hold. We know he is lying to himself in order to live with his massive guilt, the weight of which is too much for this weak man to bear.

Listening to Dreier’s justifications, I could not help but be reminded of a small child arguing with his parent. In the face of an impending punishment, a child will attempt to justify their misbehavior, frequently citing that other children get away with such infractions. And yet, as a parent, I know you cannot be swayed but such arguments. In a child’s mind this seems unfair, ‘Why does so and so get to when I don’t?’ The child does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions or the validity of the parent’s rule. Similarly, Dreier bucks all moral authority when he commits his frauds and goes on to rebel against the rule of law when he attempts to explain away his crimes.

Watching a grown man maneuver through the world with the ethical mentality of a child is discouraging, and this disappointment is magnified when we see the great wealth and success he was able to attain. His schemes were never complex, but they worked nonetheless.

It’s no surprise that there are people like Dreier who are ruled by their desire for wealth and power. What is most unsettling about Dreier’s story is not the peek into his mentality, but the implications they have on our view of humanity. We imagine that it’s difficult to get away with fraud, and think of a complex, interwoven Hollywood film, but it didn’t take a mastermind to manipulate the lending system, just a proud and greedy individual. It is alarming that such a bumbling and obvious deception could go on for as long as it did. And in a sense, Dreier’s supposition that someone else in his position would have also seized the opportunity seems accurate. Is it really that easy to steal millions? Still, Dreier is unique in some sense; it may have been easy to be tempted, but it takes a rare person to live with the weight of such guilt after the fact.

Facing the possibility of life in prison, Dreier has moments of self reflection and clarity. His musings, though insightful at times, also pose a question. Should the perpetrators of crimes be given their own soap box? Does the projection of their story somehow diminish the suffering they inflicted on others? Even as I experienced moments of sympathy for Dreier, I also felt confused; I didn’t want to see the human side of a person it would be easier to dismiss as greedy and corrupt, but that is exactly where Simon takes the viewer.

Unraveled, while valuable for its privileged access to the subject, is missing the counterpoint. While I was absorbed in Dreier’s storytelling, it was not sufficient to hear his side alone, especially because his voice was so inflated with self deception.

A New Short Film By Bryan McManus: “Where We Call Home”

Where do you call home?

Consider supporting “Where We Call Home” on Kickstarter.

It’s a story about the ‘right kind of wrong’ and a developing a sense of place.
Where We Call Home

WHY Why this story now?  We believe that home, real home, is increasingly important (and sadly absent) in a world that is disconnected from a sense of place.  We think it is best to touch on this theme with a narrative, because story is the language of the heart.

With your help!  Our budget is going to pay our cast and crew, rent equipment, pay location fees, post production costs, and distribute the film to film festivals.  To do all this, and do it well – we’re going to need 5,250 clams (assuming one clam equals one dollar).  Thank you so much for taking time to look at our project, and for your consideration!


Where We Call Home is a film we’re making because we believe it’s important to have a place to call home.  Our main characters take us there – they fix-up and beautify a house, to make it functional, lovely and meaningful.  Their love for a slow and simple way of life, and their attention to the details, transforms them and the house into a warm, vibrant, inviting home. That is – until the homeowner shows up – and he wasn’t expecting company.

I have been very fortunate to have my senior thesis film, The Noble Earth, from the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Film and Television Program, honored as the best experimental film of 2010 at SCAD, and it’s also been screened at the Offshoot Film Festival, and will be screened at the Big Sky Doc Fest.  It’s still doing a festival run too!

Visit their Kickstarter page for more information or to donate.

Soup Kitchens and Rock and Roll Healings

As Dean “Delicious” O’Dwyer  whips along the streets of Sympathy for Delicious‘s hazy LA, one almost marvels at his practiced nonchalance in the wheelchair. It is hard not to think of Christopher Thorton, the actor playing Dean, whose accident years ago had landed him in a similar situation, prompting him to write the screenplay for Sympathy.

As Thorton did, Dean tries praying and even attends charismatic faith healings out of desperation. Dean’s disability has marginalized him thoroughly: a promising career as a DJ has been truncated, he lives out of his car and gets in line at a gritty soup kitchen run by another unfulfilled character, Father Joe, played by a stooped and woolly-voiced Mark Ruffalo (who also directed the film). Father Joe had envisioned himself building a sustainable “state-of-the-art shelter”, instead he’s stuck handing out temporary solutions due to lack of funding.

Christopher Thornton in Sympathy for Delicious.

Here the real-life comparison ends as the film takes a turn for the surreal: Dean discovers that by touching others, he can heal anybody but himself. This additional injustice is a blow to Dean, and he initially lets Father Joe talk him into lending his “gift” cheaply at the kitchen, where the majority of the guests needs healing in some way. It is an instant crowd draw, but tensions escalate after the two disagree on Dean’s payment in light of the sudden surge of donations to the kitchen.

After falling out with Father Joe, Dean is accepted as a turntablist for a rock band headed by a glamorously skulking front man (Orlando Bloom). He is quickly resigned to the fact that he isn’t actually wanted for his spinning skills; his healing is paraded as a sensational side-show at concerts, the band’s shot at reviving the euphoria associated with rock legends. Dean’s grimy undershirt is replaced by leather chokers and tar-black nails as he pushes epileptics dramatically into mosh pits. When an attempted healing goes awry, he is ejected back into reality.

Sympathy is a contemplative and determined study of the “Why Me?” question, that strange universal fist-shake. The film explores human coping psyches and the possibility of faith and fate. It is dangerous to build a story on philosophical aspirations, not least because one runs the risk of burying the characters underneath the strain of introspection. The results flicker in Sympathy. Dean’s pre-accident life is only ever mentioned in conjunction with lamenting his would-have-been career, and Father Joe’s character and motivations are sadly as obscured as the spectacles through which he blinks. Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis both look like they’re having fun playing slurred rockers, but it feels more like a feather boa-ed, fish-netted game of pretend.

When the film does shine, it is poignant. Thorton and Ruffalo tackle the abstract cleverly by going for the surreal, especially when portraying the rock and roll healings. In one scene Dean asks Father Joe if he could really be healed. The Father replies enigmatically, “entirely possible.” Whether intended or not, it is a candid commentary on the church and how it deals with suffering. Father Joe seems to be speaking in priestly double entendres; he’s implying that whether or not Dean’s body could be healed, his soul always has a chance. The idea brings hope, but oftentimes overlooks the individual pain. In the end, Thorton puts on a courageous face towards understanding the mystery of this pain, and the search is both well-worn and admirable.

Love and Liberation in Of Gods and Men


Of Gods and Men reminded me how captivating film can be as an art form.  French director Xavier Beauvois masterfully refrains from sensationalizing the true story of seven Trappist monks who perished in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Instead, he dips his brush in a rich palette of sound, color, image, and silence to paint a visible likeness of the interior lives of these men against the backdrop of the conflict in North Africa.

The first portion of the film follows the monks in their daily activities. We see them at prayer, eating together, harvesting honey to sell in the market, and visiting with the villagers eking out a subsistence living outside the monastery walls. Providing basic medical care is a key part of their mission or relationship with the community. Lines of neighbors extend outside the metal gate waiting to get into the clinic. Each patient is seen in turn, sent home with packets of medicine and a measure of hope drawn from the deep well of the faith of these men.

Later on, as clashes between the military and insurgents begin to weigh heavily on the monks, their love for each other and for the neighbors is tested.  The abbot or prior, the elected leader of the group based in this remote outpost, challenges the men to consider how their calling to the contemplative life is equally a calling to this specific time and place. The men weigh the opportunity to leave against the concept of solidarity or bearing witness. Should they stay with the villagers who will also be likely victims of the fermenting religious unrest? Or should they exercise caution and depart? At one point, an Algerian government official vehemently urges the abbot to take the men away, reminding him that they have freedom — the freedom that comes in the form of French citizenship and money to travel.

The doctor, Brother Luc, takes up the theme of liberation. He speaks of the freedom he has as one who has fully given his life over to God. For this reason, he remarks, he is not afraid to die. Here we also encounter another strong theme woven throughout the film, the mystery or paradox of the Christian faith. The first threats to the monks’ lives are made on Christmas. That night they celebrate the incarnate Christ, his arrival on earth not as a King or a divine being, but as a child who will eventually die. They are also keenly aware that their very salvation depends on death — that to die is to live. This beautiful mystery becomes more important than whether they will stay or go.

Not a word of dialogue is wasted in Of Gods and Men. Indeed, one of the most poignant scenes used barely six words. The abbot and the youngest monk, Brother Christophe, have taken a walk out onto a craggy hill nearby. The latter is consumed by fear. He cannot sleep. He is broken. In a confessional moment, overcome by emotion, he admits to his superior that when he prays, he hears nothing.

This crisis of faith could be set in the context of nearly anyone’s life. It doesn’t have to be the turbulence of political mayhem that tries one’s soul. It can be in a period of infirmity, the death of a spouse, or the loneliness of a stay-at-home mother. Brother Christophe admits to the very human fear that our belief is misplaced or that in our brokenness we have somehow lost the voice of God when we needed him the most.

Of Gods and Men particularly resonates during this Lenten season. As Christians move closer to the joyous resurrection on Easter Sunday, they must first walk through the darkness and despair of Christ’s Passion. I am keenly aware of how the monks’ willingness to exercise their freedom to stay became the greatest expression of love they could share with the Algerian people. This is a beautiful film that exquisitely handles the complexity of humility and sacrifice in a genre that perhaps too often tends toward simple heroism.

Insecurity, Creativity, and Superiority

At the end of The Social Network, David Fincher’s film chronicling the creation of the social networking site Facebook, I found myself asking the question, What motivates my own creativity? Why do I feel the need to make or say something meaningful? I know the answer isn’t all benign. Mixed with the joy of creating and communicating are feelings of insecurity and the need to prove my worth. In the film, ingenuity is sparked by a bruised ego, and creativity perseveres on the power of pride.

Advertisements for the film capitalized on audiences' conflicting judgements of Mark Zuckerberg.

The film version of Mark Zuckerberg desperately wants to be heard and is driven by a deep need for recognition. Zuckerberg is clearly self-centered. Although I doubt he was the only one without looks, ladies, or style, he fancies himself a social outcast among the rich and privileged on Harvard’s elite campus. The character on screen is not very sympathetic, but the onscreen story is so appealing because we all experience similar emotions. We might not lie or mislead people to get recognized, but everyone wants to be valued by others — it’s part of why we end up on

But the film is also about being a social outcast. When you are on the outside, it’s easy to sit there stewing and thinking up all the clever things you’d say if you were in that perfect, popular place. And that is just the kind of motivation that drives Zuckerberg’s character to program his days and nights away and arrive at

Typically, lead characters are appealing, but Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is far from flattering, and it’s no wonder the real life Mark Zuckerberg isn’t pleased with the picture that is painted. The film has other appealing characteristics — fast-paced editing, a little humor, terrific casting, and a clever score — but the film succeeds for a different reason. The Social Network illustrates the road to unfathomable wealth and success, but the man who gains the riches is no better off in the end. It’s a story we welcome while the economic downturn has most of us tightening our belts. We spend a lot of time daydreaming about how much better our lives would be if we only a little bit more — just enough to pay for healthcare, or just enough to fix the car. We don’t dream big these days; they are modest fantasies.

Still, while watching The Social Network, wealth and comfort seem like one lucky idea away. But instead of provoking our jealousy, David Fincher allows us to feel superior. We don’t want to relate to this character; we want to condemn him and his money. We see ourselves as the moral superiors to this billionaire. Not only would we not engage in the manipulations and deceptions we see here, but we can also look down on the petty injury that started it all. As a Christian, I am relieved that the film doesn’t stir emotions of jealousy and envy when portraying wealth, but on the other had, it does inspire some problematic feelings of moral superiority.  In the end, I am just as guilty as Zuckerberg when it comes to evaluating myself against others.

Our House: An Interview with Greg King

Greg King’s new documentary, Our House, is about an experimental Christian community in Brooklyn. Led by several young, punk, vegan Christians, Our House is an abandoned warehouse-turned-homestead for the chronically homeless and recovering addicts. The handful of individuals who end up living there experience a new kind of community, one where prayer and love abound. Beautifully shot and delicately edited, the film is sure to challenge the viewer’s ideas of community and definition of home.

Since the film centers on a community that tries to hide from public view, how did you find “Our House”?
I was invited to one of their prayer meetings one night by a friend of a friend of the Our House guys, who herself was visiting New Y0rk, interested in starting a Christian community there. The story of how she learned of them is rather long, but I could summarize it by pointing out that there is a network of “intentional Christian communities” growing in the United States, and I simply tapped into it through random connections. My friend and I were having dinner, and she invited me to tag along with her to meet the guys one cold early March night, because she thought I might find it interesting. When we got to the building, I couldn’t believe there were people living in it, as it was a long-abandoned warehouse that looked like no one had set foot in it in a decade. Derek – one of the dreadlocked squatter punks – answered the door, and led us into the pitch-black space (we used our cell phones as flashlights), where the only light (and heat) came from this tent they had hung inside, filled with candles and a propane heater, and a dozen people huddled within. They welcomed us warmly, and continued on with group prayer, singing, and discussion. I was immediately transfixed at the intimacy of their lifestyle and spirit, and wanted to document the community on film right away.

Setting out to take over an abandoned warehouse and make it into a home for the chronically homeless is ambitious to begin with, but these young men also choose to live there themselves. For a viewer who can’t imagine making such an extreme lifestyle choice, what would you want them to take away from the film? How can they relate?
The Our House building was just one manifestation of how the young men behind it engage with the poor and less fortunate around us. They have all made commitments to invest time in the lives of others in simple, concrete ways, and the building was a culmination of that, not a starting point. Derek was inspiring to me for the casual approach he has in striking up conversations with just about anyone he meets on the street, and developing authentic friendships. JP spent a lot of one-on-one time with Dan, teaching him weight-lifting and sharing rich conversations about their life experiences, so that Dan knew he could always turn to JP for support on his road to recovery from drugs. Neil “escorted” Monica on appointments in New York City, holding her hand in reassurance when she had to pass by neighborhoods where she used to get high, in support of her newfound sobriety. To them, it wasn’t about creating another program or shelter, but developing friendships and relationships of love and concern for people less fortunate. Whether or not they had a physical building, they were guided by a desire to personally know people living on the street, and help them in any way they could. My hope is that viewers would be inspired by the film to find their own means of doing the same in their neighborhoods and cities.

While we never hear your voice, the presence of the filmmakers is clearly felt as the subjects address the camera. What was your relationship with the people in the house like? Were there ever any ethical or personal dilemmas in making the film?
The guys who started Our House were very accommodating, allowing us to start filming soon after meeting them. Not everyone living in the space wanted to be on camera, and we respected their wishes, but those folks seen in the film were basically open to it from the get-go. I think because of the personalities of the Our House founders, their generosity of spirit to try and appreciate the reality of anyone they met, and the kind of lifestyles the residents have had living on the street, it really wasn’t a big deal to them to be filmed. “Documentaries” weren’t a part of their life experiences, really, so they were natural on camera and didn’t think too much of it.

While at first we felt somewhat awkward in our role as “filmmakers” (we mostly worried that they would think we were square, since we had no tattoos or piercings), before long we became friends with the group, especially after they were kicked out of the building. We never felt any ethical dilemmas really, but we were wrapped up in the fates of some of the residents once they had to move out. I personally became close to Dan Taylor and was really worried about what would happen to him. There was one time that I was shooting on my own, and I just couldn’t film him, because it was on the eve of his having to leave the building, and it was simply too painful to try and interview him in that vulnerable state. But, thankfully, soon after that his situation improved in a dramatic fashion, and in a way that was fun to incorporate into the film.

I see that you worked together with another filmmaker. How did that inform your creative process?
Our House is a collaboration at every level with my co-director and friend David Teague, an immensely talented filmmaker living in Brooklyn. It’s one of the most collaborative projects I’ve ever worked on, which has been a lot of fun, and I feel I’ve learned a lot from him. David and I are both freelance film editors and cinematographers, and we approached this project with equal enthusiasm to make it entirely on our own.

We both come from a background in experimental Super 8 and 16mm films, and are inspired by the avant-garde movements in film. We therefore had a like-minded approach to the cinematography, and the desire to incorporate celluloid film with HD video (our primary format). For example, we knew right away that we would shoot the space itself as a “character” in its own right, using film to accomplish a shift in cinematic form, as the building possessed a sacred quality for the residents. Also, we knew we wanted to shoot using only available light – no artificial lights brought in from the outside – in order to match the lifestyle and ethos of the community.

Once in the edit room, I did the early assembly cuts, and then he and I would trade the film back and forth to find its structure and to fashion the story arc of Dan, our main character. Our material could have taken any number of directions, but we learned through editing and pitching the film that having a principal character arc made the most sense. I contributed a lot to individual scene content, directing the scoring process, and fashioning the artistic montages, and David contributed a lot to story and plot structure, honing the scenes and fine-tuning a lot of moments. We were in constant dialogue about all elements, so this is a generalization, but gives a sense of our process.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that whereas I am a Christian, David is not. Although we differ on worldview, we agreed on how and why we wanted this film to be made. We are exasperated by the common conflation of social conservatism and religious belief in this country, and find the people behind Our House interesting for what they are striving to achieve on a local level. Their lifestyle choices and radical/progressive Christianity are refreshing to us.

You’ve recently begun screening the film at festivals around the country. How have audiences responded? Were there any surprising reactions?
We’ve been greatly encouraged by the response so far, given the predominance of Christian voices in the film. In an early test screening, the audience [reaction] was mixed about “all the God talk,” which was both funny to hear and yet instructive in how we wanted the film to read. We didn’t make the film to appeal to only Christian audiences, so we took this to heart, and were careful to strike a balance of illuminating our characters’ rich personalities without overwhelming the audience with Christian jargon or preachiness.

At our World and U.S. premieres, we were happy to see that the film was very well received, and that the audience was mostly inspired by its story of community and reaching out to others. We’ve had our share of odd questions, but I think the community portrayed is so unique in a way, that audiences are quite engaged, and interested in knowing more about the lives of the characters after the film was made, our filmmaking process, and what this community might represent on larger societal levels. Also, we’ve been approached by pastors and individuals interested in screening the film to support homeless ministries and progressive Christian communities, which is an encouragement, as this was a hope for the ongoing life of the film.

“OUR HOUSE” (2010), directed by Greg King & David Teague. 56 Minutes

An Interview with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler

After a busy run on the film festival circuit, a theatrical release, and the upcoming DVD release of their film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe on April 27th, I’m grateful that Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler were able to take the time for this interview.

The sisters (producers/directors) run Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system. This award-winning film about their father is scheduled to kick off this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM. The Kunstlers received the L’Oreal Women of Worth Vision Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

What were your goals for this film? How can film carry on the legacy of social change that was crucial to your father’s life? What are some examples?

Sarah Kunstler: We believe that creativity and art have tremendous power to spur people to action. That is why we got into filmmaking. Our first film, Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War, opened our eyes to the power of art to further social change. We went to Tulia, a small town in the Texas panhandle in 1999, after a drug sting netted almost 20% of the black population, leaving more than 50 children without one or both parents. All of the charges were based on the word of a crooked undercover cop. It was horrific. We knew immediately that we needed a way to convey the injustice of the arrests and the power of the families of the incarcerated who were fighting for their loved ones. Our film brought national attention to the injustice, helped the incarcerated get new lawyers, and led ultimately to the exoneration of those arrested.

Making that film led us to form our production company, Off Center Media. Over the past ten years, we have made a number of short films highlighting injustice in the criminal justice system – from clemency videos for death row inmates, to documentaries that have been used as part of campaigns highlighting wrongful convictions or Supreme Court cases.

Emily Kunstler: Both of our parents raised us with a deep commitment to social and racial justice, and we knew from a young age that this commitment would dictate the course of our lives. There are may ways to combat social and racial justice in society; we ended up using film as our tool. Our father principally was a storyteller. He would tell a story to the jury and he would tell the same story to the general public through his skilled use of the media. Dad would have been the first to admit that all of his major court victories were decided first in the court of public opinion and then inside the walls of a courtroom. Judges and juries are often disinclined to go out on a limb and take a risk. In this way, educating the public about particular cases of injustice was just as important to our father as what when on in a courtroom. Dad would use a press conference, we use documentary film – but essentially our tactics are the same.

As filmmakers and daughters, when did you decide you were ready to tackle such a personal story on film?

EK: We had been making films for about seven years by the time the idea occurred to us. I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. I think you have to be well into your adult life before you can entertain the idea of looking backwards. Sarah and I were both approaching 30 when we began making this film. When you are young, you really want to strike out on your own. We wanted to do our own thing and not necessary be associated with our parents. I don’t think this something unique to Sarah and my experience. I think most young people feel the same way, though it may have been exacerbated by our father’s celebrity. We didn’t want to be known as our father’s daughters; we wanted to make our own mark. So in choosing to make this film, we had to not only actively embrace our past but consciously choose to identify ourselves with our father, and I don’t think that is a choice either of us would have been prepared to make sooner. But in short, we decided to make the film over a margarita lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in the Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to our production office, and we never looked back.

In light of it being such a personal film, what was the greatest challenge in making Disturbing The Universe?

SK: The greatest challenge was making the choice to tell the film from our perspectives. Our father always seemed larger than life, and during his lifetime he was the center of our world, so it was hard to find room for ourselves in the telling of his story – to figure out where we fit. But it was important to us that the film be from our perspective. Emily and I could never have made an emotionally removed straightforward bio-pic, but I think more importantly we hoped that our perspective might be a window for our generation and younger viewers into the stories of some of the most important social movements of the 20th century. Many people our age have never heard of the rebellion and massacre at Attica or the murder of Fred Hampton. It was important for us to have outside perspectives. We worked with terrific producers who helped us get enough distance to find room for our voices.

There were so many interesting characters in your father’s life. Who among them surprised you most?

EK: I think we were most surprised to find and interview Jean Fritz. Jean was one of the jurors during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and when we interviewed her almost forty years later, she still maintained a collection of all of the newspaper reports as well as her daily accounts of what transpired in the courtroom from a journal she kept at the time. What surprised us most about Jean was the transformation she went through during the seven-month trial. When the trial commenced, she considered herself to be a conservative Republican. She lived in the very conservative suburb of Des Plaines and ran an auto supply store with her husband. By the close of the trial, after seeing Bobby Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom and the clear bias of the judge toward the defense, she had come full circle. She no longer trusted or had faith in her government.

Jean’s transformation goes to the heart of our father’s belief in the jury system. He thought that if you could reach twelve random people, connect to them, take them out of their comfort zone, and show them the truth, that they wouldn’t be able to ignore it and and their thinking would be altered. Dad believed that we are all capable of transformations, large and small.

One of the things that stands out in the film is your deep respect and admiration for your father, even as you doubted many of his choices. Considering the demands of his work and his many obligations, what do you think your father did as a father, not just an attorney, that inspired such devotion from his daughters?

SK: I think he valued our opinions. Even when we were small children, he made a point of talking to us about what mattered to him – racism, the importance of standing up to and combating injustice. He involved us in what he was doing. He made us want to be a part of it. Dad loved it when we showed any interest in his work and would encourage us to challenge him. Whenever possible, he took us with him – to court, to protests, to places like Wounded Knee that were important to him. And he loved us without measure. Emily and I definitely felt that growing up.

But I also think that choosing to be the kind of lawyer, to live the kind of life that our father did requires compromises. You can’t be the kind of Dad who is there all the time. You can’t make your children your first priority. And I think our mother deserves recognition and praise in this regard, because Emily and I never would have made it without her. We had great childhoods. We were protected, we were nurtured, we thrived. And we have her to thank for that.

At the conclusion of the film, you seem to recognize the value of your father’s choices in a new way. I wonder, who do you see taking up that torch? Who do people in distress around the country ask for representation since William Kunstler is no longer here?

SK: This is a hard question – and one that is often asked of us at Q&As following our film. I don’t think there will ever be another William Kunstler. But I don’t think there should be, either. He was a person of his generation – he belonged to the time he lived in. There are a lot of dedicated lawyers out there doing good work, most of them doing it anonymously.

EK: I think, ultimately, that the world we hope to see is a world where you don’t need a Bill Kunstler to stand next to you in order to get attention for the cause you are fighting for or the injustice you are fighting against, a world where lawyers stand in solidarity with movements and where the activists do the talking.


The DVD of Disturbing the Universe released on April 27, 2010 and are available through Amazon and directly from the filmmakers. The DVD can also be rented from Netflix and streamed from iTunes. The film also opens this season of PBS’s POV on June 22 at 10PM.

Analyzing Up In the Air

Since Up in the Air is up for six Oscars this Sunday, it can’t hurt to delve into this unassuming film, which most of us have probably caught by now. (If you haven’t, this is your call to make that happen – and a warning: serious spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk).

Upon leaving the theater, I was discouraged. It’s a great film, with some very entertaining dialogue and sensitive performances, but the overarching portrait of American culture is disheartening. Up In The Air gets so many of our modern conundrums right that it’s hard not to classify it as a tragedy, even with some great laughs. The film explores themes of corporate greed, alienation, infidelity, and much more, but the dilemmas that really triggered further reflection were the film’s portrayal of certain dichotomies: family versus career, love versus romance, and freedom versus commitment.

Family vs. Career
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has found his true vocation as a career transition counselor, carrying out face-to-face firings for companies that would prefer to hire out this dirty work. Ryan seems perfectly suited for the role; a perceptive and observant man, he’s good at shattering people’s lives with a balance of detachment and sensitivity that most people couldn’t muster. He enjoys the constant traveling and comes to see himself as a master of his domain: airport terminals and hotels across America. When a romance with fellow business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga) blossoms, Bingham begins to question the primacy of career in his life.

I was never carried away with the thrills Bingham seemed to find in his jet setting lifestyle; airport hotel bars just don’t have much charm for me. But, I could relate to the idea of placing career pursuits above family. We have all faced this choice. After years of education and plenty of student loan debt, most of us would like to reap the benefits of the efforts we’ve extended towards our areas of expertise.

However, just when you’re climbing the career ladder in your early thirties, you are also faced with the importance of family. Whether it’s your biological clock or aging parents in need of your help, being the person you’ve always wanted to be usually means more than excelling at your job. But how can we balance it all? Many of us fail in some way or another. If you don’t put in the extra hours at the office, you may get looked over for a promotion, and if you don’t actually spend waking hours with your children, you may miss out on one of life’s greatest intimacies.

Love vs. Romance (spoiler!)
When Ryan finally takes a chance on building intimacy with Alex, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. He’s been avoiding relationships for so long – and then his perfect match appears out of thin air. She’s beautiful, independent, and witty. They have immediate conversational and sexual chemistry. Her “take it or leave it” attitude is exactly what draws him in. It’s that cliché that so many single women hear over and over about how men love the chase, how playing hard to get is the ultimate draw. Alex was everything that a man like Ryan would be drawn to. Indeed, she is playing that part so well – because she is playing.

Like Ryan, Alex is a perceptive person who can read people with ease. She’s sized up this cocky business traveler and knows just what to say to draw him in. Never betraying a desire for commitment, always hinting at sex, and keeping the intellectual stimulation high, she is Ryan’s perfect match. But I couldn’t believe her as a middle-aged woman with so much charm and talent who would settle for occasional rendevous and never require true intimacy.

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

Of course, she didn’t. It’s all icing on the cake for a woman that already has it all. For Alex, marriage, family, and career isn’t enough; she wants the extra thrill of romance that, we can assume, she no longer finds with her husband. The affair does seem fun. It has all the thrills of falling in love: the flirting and flattery, the adventures and risks. And we all know that domestic life can run short on these delights.

That Alex is the first woman to challenge Ryan’s desire for independence is highly ironic. In the end, he doesn’t so much learn about love as about his own vulnerability. Having played God on the job for so many years, he’s come to think of himself as impenetrable to the lures of intimacy. But being played by Alex reveals a weakness he’s long suppressed: his own desire for companionship.

While we’d like to think only true love could break Ryan’s steely exterior, Alex wasn’t a real woman after all – just the embodiment of his fantasy. The portrait of love that unfolds is disheartening, one in which our virtual selves, the parts of us that perform and project based upon vanity and insecurity, come to dominate the genuine and sensitive parts of us that would otherwise unlock to love in the most meaningful ways.

Freedom vs. Commitment
From the beginning of the film, Ryan extols the virtues of his independent lifestyle. He’s free from relationships and weightlessly untethered in a world that seeks to hold him down. Meanwhile, after an impersonal text message break-up, his young co-worker Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) is seeking love and commitment in her personal life. Ryan and Natalie are opposites when it comes to their approach to relationships; however, they are both aggressive go-getters in the business world who end up learning from one another. Ryan shows the Natalie that there is a place for heart and emotion on the job, and Natalie’s contributions to the career transition industry reveal how feeble Ryan’s job security is as well. In the end, we see that Ryan only saw himself as free. In fact, his relentless avoidance of personal connections only masked the larger devotion in his life, his disproportionate emphasis on his job.

There is always something that takes hold of us and controls us, something we feel we cannot live without. For Ryan, it was his concept of freedom; for Natalie, it is the mental image of the powerful businesswoman who has it all; and for Alex, it may simply have been the vain thrill of male attention. All of it seems like an illusion in the end.

The film leaves us wondering how much these individuals have really changed. What stayed with me were the quick interviews of newly unemployed characters, and what they claimed mattered in their lives. Their emphasis on family and companionship as the most important validation, even at their most rejected moment, reminds us what a tenuous state our culture is in.

The success of Up in the Air lies in the timeliness of its underlying subtext: As the economy falters, while our livelihoods and homes can slip through our fingers in a moment, we are forced to confront what is really important to us. And we often find it wasn’t what we thought.

Precious, or The Blind Side?

I recently ventured past the holiday bargain-hunters to see two very different blockbuster films. Both movies centered around African-American teenagers who are up against the odds but destined to overcome, yet their approaches were strikingly different.

Of course, these movies serve two different purposes. One entertains and affirms, while the other challenges and transports. You may prefer to see a film that encourages a more passive escape into fantasy, andThe Blind Side won’t disappoint.Precious takes some effort, a willingness to confront the most revolting sides of humanity and the energy to think through how it relates to your own life.

Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, contrasts a world full of severe human depravity with a handful of individuals – predominantly the title character – who hold on to hope when all seems lost. Precious’s successes seem miraculous, and we wonder at her strength to overcome the worst obstacles of abuse, neglect, illiteracy, illness, poverty, and isolation.

The Blind Side is about a homeless African-American high schooler with extraordinary athletic ability who is taken under the wing of an affluent white family. The film emphasizes the impact of single acts of charity and the rare person who ventures beyond their comfort zone to help someone else. But here, it is the latent talent of the young man that is his ticket out of strife.

The Blind Side is based on a true story, and Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) achievements are that much more powerful to watch because we know the suffering he endures is real. One of a dozen children born to a crack-addicted mother, Michael spends his childhood in and out of foster homes, repeatedly running away to search for his mother and siblings, for whom he has undying devotion. The loyalty he feels towards his family shapes the protective instincts credited with giving him an extra edge as a left tackle on the football field.

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side

Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side

The film is based on a book by Michael Lewis, which explores more about Michael’s childhood and personality. This retelling of the story focuses on his rescuer, the rich white woman who takes him in, played by Sandra Bullock. She is a stereotype of white Southern affluence, dripping in gold with every hair in place, her unwavering confidence and convictions affirmed by her homogenous Christian community. Isolated in country clubs and sororities, Mrs. Tuohy’s ideas about gender and race have been passed down from one bigoted generation to the next. And while she never lets go of her dreams of a picture-perfect cheerleading daughter, she does come to see one African-American young man as family. Her willingness to shelter and love a boy who had lost everything is inspiring, but it is also nothing new; it emphasizes the fairy tale ideas we’ve all grown up with.

Precious doesn’t have the benefit of a rich family who takes her out of her horrible circumstances – not to diminish the value of an encouraging presence in our lives. There are some people who take an interest in her well-being. A handsome male nurse played by Lenny Kravitz shines some needed light her way and Precious’s unrelenting teacher, Ms. Rain, won’t allow her to sink into the background. By holding Precious to a higher standard, Ms. Rain ignites her inner motivation to succeed – but Precious must jump the hurdles herself. She must learn to read, give birth, confront her abusive mother, and seek a safe home for herself and children. No one can do these things for her. Director Lee Daniels artfully imagines Precious’s inner world and fantasies where she does dream of attention and recognition, the flashbulbs and red carpet. Like everyone, she wants the world to find value in her, but somehow she conquers on her own even without it.

While The Blind Side is an inspiring story – especially because it is true – it perpetuates the stifling ideas we see all around us: because of some hidden talent, a privileged outsider will swoop in to rescue us from our dingy circumstances (think Sleeping Beauty or Harry Potter). But eventually we realize that there is no fairy godmother, and that we aren’t misplaced princesses or princes within frog bodies. No; we are who we are, and most of us won’t be NFL stars. We may be gifted in many ways, but we may also be average and never get to experience the splendor of being center stage. Without that outside admiration, where do we belong? The question of where we get our value, how we measure our success, is what Precious takes on so artfully.