Blogs Crosscuts

Dialogue: Producer Bill Pohlad on 12 Years a Slave and Working with Steve McQueen

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, […]

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso at the Walker.

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, McQueen’s film won Best Motion Picture-Drama at the Golden Globe Awards. Beside him as he received the prize was Minneapolis-based producer Bill Pohlad, who introduced 12 Years a Slave at its Walker debut. Following the film, Pohlad returned to the stage for a conversation with Sheryl Mousley, the Walker’s senior Film/Video curator and the audience.

Sheryl Mousley: Thank you so much for making this film. I think it’s a film that leaves you a bit overwhelmed. It might be hard for the audience to jump right into talking about it. It takes your breath away. I will ask the first few questions before we open the conversation up to the audience.

We know from watching the credits that it’s a true story based on a memoir by Northup Solomon written in 1853. How did you come to this story, and how did this film project start?

Bill Pohlad: The movie started with Steve [McQueen] really wanting to make a movie about slavery, and there was a lot of work done to come up with a fictionalized version of the story overall but nothing developed out of that that felt genuine enough. But then Steve’s wife found the book and gave it to him and it all started from there.

Sheryl Mousley: It’s such a beautiful film. The look of it is so cinemagraphically elegant and yet it takes you down a harrowing trail. I was amazed watching it tonight how you found that balance between this beautiful look of the film and this unbelievably difficult, painful life the characters were going through.

Bill Pohlad: I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time in Louisiana before the shoot, but it is beautiful in its own way. It’s haunting. The plantation was actually a real plantation where a lot of this occurred and you feel the ghosts of all that when you go down there. It’s always the director’s job to be a charismatic leader. And Steve really was that. In addition to having the vision for the film you have to bring everyone into this community to take on such a serious, heavy, and emotional subject. There was something very peaceful and graceful about [the set]. Certainly when we were shooting the scenes it was harrowing but there was also a sense that something great was happening here.

Sheryl Mousley: I think I read somewhere that when you were doing the cotton picking scenes it was 108 degrees.

Bill Pohlad: Nothing was fake in that regard. It was very difficult conditions to shoot under but you always related it back to what real people went through. We were shooting a movie, but they lived it.

Mousley then opened up questions to the audience.

Audience member: What do you want the world to do with this film?

Bill Pohlad: In the making of the movie you don’t want to be too conscious of what you want people to come away with because it tends to twist the way you’re making the movie. Everything becomes too logical. You try and make the movie on the very emotional level. Certainly now that we’re in distribution I’m hoping we’ll go beyond the cinema part of it, and let it become part of the dialogue in the mainstream so that we can face that part of our history and how it relates to our society today.

Audience member: I was wondering at what point in the development of the film did you get involved, and why did you choose this film?

Bill Pohlad: We were making The Tree of Life with Plan B and they had met with Steve and talked about what he wanted to do next. [Producers] Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt talked about doing something else together. I met with Steve and could see his passion immediately, and he already knew what direction the project was going in. I don’t want to say it was a ‘no brainer’ but with that kind of story and that kind of group forming around it, you know it has a good chance.

Audience member: It was a powerful movie that will stay with me, so thank you for making it. My question is, besides Solomon Northup’s book, what other research and documentation was used to adapt his story to film?

Bill Pohlad: We had done a lot of research before we found the book. When we brought [John Ridley] on as a screenwriter, he did his own research, and all the different groups involved (Plan B, etc) contributed their own as well. As we’ve gotten into distribution many more people have come into the equation to flesh out and give their blessings to the content.

Audience member: It seems to me for this film to have any effect, Americans have to really believe that this happened. My dad was the 15th of 16 children, only went to school until 5th grade, and was one of the smartest people I knew, but worked in a factory for 43 years because that’s all he could do. I’ve heard so much from so many people that tells me that this has a ring of truth to it. But I think we have a long history of people in this country saying “is that how slaves were really treated?” So my question to you is how have people been responding to this film?

Bill Pohlad: From everything I’ve read and the reactions I’ve witnessed, people have been taking it very seriously. But when you’re making movies you don’t overblow the effect it’s going to have. It’s not like one movie is going to change everything. But when you are able to put something like this film together and see the impact, you hope that maybe things just turn a little bit in the right direction. But I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking here. To hear your story, to hear everybody exchanging ideas on it—that’s what it should do.

Audience member: How much did the language of Northup’s writing help to paint a rich picture of the experience that he went through?

Bill Pohlad: We had the benefit of the book having his kind of musicality, his way of speaking. John Ridley and Steve, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor (Northup)] took that and blended it into the dialogue. I think it’s as honest as it could be relative to that sound from the writing.

Audience member: It seems some distant happening, and I just wanted to bring into focus that this is a current paradigm in America, it’s just undercover in many ways. My Question for you is who chained the “slaves?” What was the sensitivity on the set?

Bill Pohlad: I can’t answer that particular question, but generally the vibe on the set was really amazing. Steve has a very gentle way of being, and in the most difficult scene… you get those performances because the whole crew has a respect for everybody and for the subject matter. They create an environment where people feel safe to not only perform these very emotional scenes, but also deal with pretty heavy issues. How that happens is hard to break down, but you would walk around the set and know that everybody knew what was going on and that the vision Steve had would bring it across in a very genuine way.

 

Sign Painting Cinematheque Tangier

The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in […]

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The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in a languishing structure in the city’s famed Casbah district as a way to engage with the collective memory and material history of Tangier. Cinema Rif, as the theater is named, was brought to life as both a thriving cultural center and a place to discover the films and remarkable history of filmmaking in the region. Curators Sheryl Mousley and Clara Kim commissioned local sign painter Dan Madsen (Dusty Signs) to recreate a map of Tangier on the gallery wall, which identifies the location of theaters past and present in this coastal Moroccan city. Over the course of 193 hours, Dan and fellow sign painter Forrest Wozniak tirelessly brought the 16-by-25-foot map to life, in what Dan referred to as “sign painter’s boot camp.” It was nice having sign painters in house for a couple weeks, showing us how they do what they do. Below is an interview with Dan about his history of sign painting, the techniques he uses, and the resurgence of interest in hand-lettering.

How did you originally get in to sign painting? Did you always want to be a sign painter?
I came into the sign business in 2007 working for a large sign shop. That same year my grandfather passed away and I discovered that his father (my great grandfather) was a sign painter here in Minneapolis. He worked for the largest outdoor advertising company in America called General Outdoor Advertising. I inherited old brushes, books, drawings, and photographs from him. Lettering was always something I enjoyed because of my grandfather. He was a medical illustrator and calligrapher for the local VA hospital. I remember as a young kid playing in my grandpa’s studio, writing my name with his calligraphy pens. So when I discovered that great grandfather was a sign painter, I decided to practice traditional sign painting. Now its six years later and I work for myself under the name of Dusty Signs.

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson (far right) with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the V.A. hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the VA hospital, Minneapolis

A lot of sign painters seem to be inherently suspicious of modern signage techniques, such as vinyl lettering. Do you look around and feel overwhelmed with the amount of terrible signs there are? How do you understand our contemporary visual environment in America?
Yeah, there are a lot of bad signs out there, but there are also a lot of good ones. Being a sign painter, I don’t think everything needs to be hand painted. I think there is a time and place for everything. I still get a kick out of seeing nicely made neon signs or metal fabricated signs. It is unfortunate though when you look at a sign and you can tell the designer just pressed a few buttons using bad pre-existing fonts and then had a sign shop just pop that out as fast as possible. Nowadays people rely on the computer too much. A computer is a tool and it can do great things, but sometimes you have to put the computer down, pick up a pencil and hand draft. I’ve been noticing more people want signage hand painted lately, so I’m hoping things might get better here in America, at least visually.

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Can you describe the process of creating this wall mural?
For this wall the images were pre-designed, so this is how it went:

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Step 1: First I print out the design scaled to actual size on paper in my studio.
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Step 2: Next I use a machine called an Electro Pounce to perforate the paper where the lines will be. It is basically an electrified stylus that burns a series of holes into the paper.
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Step 3: Then I tape the paper patterns onto the wall and apply charcoal to pounce through the little perforated holes, and take the paper down again. This leaves a faint outline of the design on the wall for me to work from.
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Step 4: Finally I paint over the charcoal outlines with a brush. It’s up to me how true to the charcoal outlines I need to stay, and when I can deviate based on experience. Michelangelo used the same technique.

Were you inspired by any of the Moroccan hand-painted lettering in the exhibition?
Definitely inspired. I love seeing hand-painted signs from all around the world. In some countries sign painting is popular not by choice but because it is the only option people can afford. The signs aren’t always the most refined, but I still love seeing them — they aren’t overly romanticized, in search of some kind of “Instagram fame.” Some of the movie posters in this exhibition reminded me of that. We didn’t actually emulate any particular kind of sign painting for the map, but instead used a simple blueprint lettering. The original image of the map was not very hi-res, so we were free to extrapolate a typographic style that made sense, and translate the original into something new on the wall.

What did you think of the Sign Painters movie (and the book it was based on) that came out recently?
I thought it was really great, although I wish they would’ve acknowledged the type of sign painters you see working on East Lake Street, painting all the windows in Latino shops. Those guys are the real deal. I’ve got a lot of respect for how fast and consistent they can paint. Working at the Walker was cool and we got a lot of positive feedback from folks while working. It was nice to work in the context of an art museum, because sometimes when working out on the street we’re looked at as more industrial house painters. That all depends on the viewer, I guess.

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From left to right: Adjunct Curator Clara Kim, Dan Madsen, Yto Barrada, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley

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Forrest Wozniak and Dan Madsen

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

I Used To Be Darker: This Film Is Not About Music

Sixteen minutes into I Used To Be Darker you’re led into a house show behind 19-year-olds Taryn and Abby. The inside looks like an art gallery, people are smoking and dancing and stage diving, and the lead singer is shirtless, flailing around onstage. Honestly, it feels like you’re in Minneapolis. But the scene is set […]

Taryn (played by Deragh Campbell) in Matt Porterfield's _I Used To Be Darker_ (2013). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn (played by Deragh Campbell) in Matt Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker (2013). All photos courtesy of Strand Releasing

Sixteen minutes into I Used To Be Darker you’re led into a house show behind 19-year-olds Taryn and Abby. The inside looks like an art gallery, people are smoking and dancing and stage diving, and the lead singer is shirtless, flailing around onstage. Honestly, it feels like you’re in Minneapolis.

But the scene is set in Baltimore. Why, then, was I instantly transported to Minneapolis? Is it because it reminded me of a house show I went to? Not really, the underground rock scene in the Twin Cities usually ends up less raw, less punk, more nonchalant shoegaze.

Everyone, to varying degrees, subconsciously views movies through their own personal experiences, trying to make sense of characters and scenes from the people and memories from their life. This may seem obvious—don’t we all view our entire lives through our past experiences?—but people who are even slightly involved in the Twin Cities music scene are going to connect to I Used To Be Darker more than people in New York City and definitely more than people in Los Angeles.

Bill (played by Ned Oldham) jamming with Jack (Jack Carneal). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Bill (played by Ned Oldham) jamming with Jack (Jack Carneal)

While it’s certain similarities and my own history that made me liken the film’s portrayal of Baltimore to Minneapolis, it’s very deliberate elements of the film that immersed me in its environment and let me make these connections at all. This is Matt Porterfield’s doing. As the director and co-writer of I Used To Be Darker, which screens this Friday and Saturday at the Walker, Porterfield layers the film’s narrative with dynamic musical performances that will stick with you long after the film ends. But it’s not the songs in and of themselves that will touch you, because music is not the basis of this film, despite what the trailer and title will make you believe. The music is more of an expertly crafted character element that works because of much more essential principles. The foundation of this film is built of two things: camera movement and relationships.

Taryn (Deragh Campbell). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing

Taryn

“Every single shot in I Used To Be Darker was held by Jeremy [Saulnier, Director of Photography] on his shoulders. That breath, the sort of tie to the biological functions of the camera operator really gave it an intimacy that if it had been locked off, if the frame had been still, we wouldn’t have had.” - Matt Porterfield

Giving your movie a handheld feel, with the camera never quite stopping even when it’s focusing on one shot, is not something Porterfield invented. It is new territory for him though, whose two previous features, Putty Hill and Hamilton, were shot on tripods and other tools that kept the frame relatively still. One technique is not necessarily better than another, but one was the right choice for the movie Porterfield wanted to make—and he made it.

What you remember from the movie will undoubtedly be vivid snapshots—the sweaty frontman of Dope Body playing the house show, Bill winding up to smash his acoustic guitar, Kim and Taryn flipping through the scrapbook—but what’s more important than what you remember seeing is how you feel while watching. You’ll find yourself walking behind Taryn and Abby, sitting across the room from Bill, feeling like the camera lens is reflecting your own vision, not an omniscient one. This is a greater task than we realize now that every other blockbuster is in 3D and people don’t differentiate the experience of having things fly at you with the experience of feeling the characters’ presence.

Taryn and Kim (played by Kim Taylor). Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn and Kim (played by Kim Taylor)

“Taking a cue from 18th century modes of melodrama, it’s full of big emotions, broad gestures and song, but like the best cinematic realism it also finds time to explore the quotidian.” - Matt Porterfield

This is not usually something wise to do, but I must go against the director’s stance here. Yes, I Used To Be Darker has moments of big emotions and broad gestures, but it is far from “full” of them. I also would never describe this film as melodramatic, acknowledging that he’s not doing so here. I would go the opposite route and say this film is utterly realistic and true to human emotions and human relationships. There are endless moments in this film where Porterfield could have crescendoed into a scene-stealing monologue or pushed a character to lash out physically, leaving the audience wide-eyed and silent. Instead of going this route, he and co-writer Amy Belk chose to think about how humans actually act in real life. The most dramatic outbursts and moments of passion in this film ebb as fast as they swell. The result is far from melodrama, but the audience still ends up wide-eyed and silent—for the film’s realism is more potent than any exaggeration could have been.

Photo courtesy Strand Releasing.

Taryn and Abby (played by Hannah Gross)

“We made this movie because we needed a document of good existing inside of terrible…We thought it might be something other people needed too. And if it succeeded in no other way, it would have a really good soundtrack.” – Amy Belk

Whether it’s the physical and musical thrashings of Dope Body’s Beat or the pre-guitar-thrashing melancholy of Ned Oldham’s One That Got Away, you’re going to leave I Used To Be Darker with one or more songs seared into your brain. Belk shouldn’t worry though—the film succeeds in a multitude of other ways, but it doesn’t hurt that I’m now a Ned Oldham and Dope Body fan.

I Used To Be Darker screens at the Walker on Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm. A discussion with director Matt Porterfield and producer Steve Holmgren follows.

On Site: Stephen Tobolowsky

Stephen Tobolowsky visited the Walker yesterday to screen one of his favorite films, David Byrne’s True Stories, which he cowrote with the director and Beth Henley. The tale of a small Texas town celebrating its sesquicentennial pulls its characters from the headlines of tabloids Byrne collected while on tour, and are wonderfully performed by Byrne, John […]

Stephen Tobolowsky (right) with senior Film/Video curator Sheryl Mousely (left) in the Bazinet Plaza after last night's dialogue.

Stephen Tobolowsky (right) with senior Film/Video curator Sheryl Mousely (left) in the Bazinet Plaza after last night’s dialogue.

Stephen Tobolowsky visited the Walker yesterday to screen one of his favorite films, David Byrne’s True Stories, which he cowrote with the director and Beth Henley. The tale of a small Texas town celebrating its sesquicentennial pulls its characters from the headlines of tabloids Byrne collected while on tour, and are wonderfully performed by Byrne, John Goodman, Spalding Gray, and Swoozie Kurtz.

Following the screening, Tobolowsky discussed his approach to storytelling, a skill he has a significant amount of experience in, both as a screenwriter, and as the host of his autobiographical podcast, The Tobolowsky Files.

The Tobolowsky Circle

When I heard that Stephen Tobolowsky was coming to the Walker, I had a typical reaction. “Who?” And as I started to learn more (“You know, from Groundhog Day, Memento, Deadwood, probably 50 other things you have seen”) it brought to mind Fametracker.com’s guide to character actors, Hey! It’s That Guy! Since Tobolowsky has been in […]

When I heard that Stephen Tobolowsky was coming to the Walker, I had a typical reaction. “Who?” And as I started to learn more (“You know, from Groundhog Day, Memento, Deadwood, probably 50 other things you have seen”) it brought to mind Fametracker.com’s guide to character actors, Hey! It’s That Guy!

Since Tobolowsky has been in so many movies, I thought I would try to connect him to other actors (more known for their leading roles) who have visited the Walker under the auspices of Regis Dialogues and Film Retrospectives. I know that there are different, and in some cases quicker, routes to connect Tobolowsky to our other actorly guests—see if you can best what is below!

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It’s obvious that Tobolowsky has had a varied career in film—from award-winning dramas to thrillers to family comedies—with over 200 credits to his name. When he visits the Walker on Wednesday, October 9, he’ll discuss his process of building so many characters. I’m sure we’ll see (as Hey! It’s That Guy! points out) that the man who plays the perfect “sputtering apparatchik” is a “towering star” who has created memorable characters, as only he could, in some of our favorite movies.

 

Filmmakers on Site: The Search for Emak Bakia’s Oskar Alegria

On September 14, Walker screened The Search for Emak Bakia, with director Oskar Alegria on site to talk about his work with the audience. The screening was followed by Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1927), the inspiration for Alegria’s film, and live accompaniment by St. Paul musician Richard Griffith.The Search for Emak Bakia is as much an […]

Oskar Alegria in front of the sign for his film in the Bazinet Lobby

Director Oskar Alegria in front of the sign for his film in the Bazinet Lobby.

On September 14, Walker screened The Search for Emak Bakia, with director Oskar Alegria on site to talk about his work with the audience. The screening was followed by Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1927), the inspiration for Alegria’s film, and live accompaniment by St. Paul musician Richard Griffith.The Search for Emak Bakia is as much an exploration of language and meaning as it is a tribute to Man Ray’s film. Its narrative playfully breaks from linearity and reads more like a nonfiction cinepoem than it does a documentary film. In one of his contingent storylines Alegria finds one of Griffith’s CDs at Man Ray’s grave. He was so inspired by the music that he put it in his film.

Director Oskar Alegria and MN Musician Richard Griffith together on stage in the Walker Cinema

Director Oskar Alegria and MN Musician Richard Griffith together on stage in the Walker Cinema.

 

The two had a great time together.

The two had a great time together.

 

Headline Rewind: Royal Baby and The Last Emperor

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: Royal Baby Arrives Media and social media have been enjoying something of a frenzy over the birth on Monday of the son of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Bets were placed […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.

News Event: Royal Baby Arrives

Media and social media have been enjoying something of a frenzy over the birth on Monday of the son of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Bets were placed around the world as to what the new Prince’s chosen name would be, and he is now the first person to have their own Wikipedia page prior to being named.

So, in case you haven’t read the headlines in pretty much any major publication this week: spoiler alert! And the chosen name? George Alexander Louis, or Prince George of Cambridge. Since it’s announcement, the new appellation has already been heavily analyzed.

The newest member of the Windsor clan will be third in line for the throne, and along with excitement about the birth itself and the release of the Royal Baby Name, much of the media coverage has gone into covering itself—in The New Yorker, John Cassidy asks “Why Does America Give a Hoot?”, and The Guardian provided a comprehensive report on how different countries on “how the rest of the world covered the story.”

Already the subject of pre-natal scrutiny, the Prince now faces the distinct probability of a lifetime of public attention and high expectations, hardly a new story in the history of young children destined to become monarchs. And why is this spectacle such a spectacle? One of Cassidy’s interviewees pinpointed the exoticism of royalty in the modern day, an anachronism that draws our attention and makes for a good story.

Film Recommendation: Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor

One such story of a child destined for monarchy is made both deeply personal and sweepingly epic in Bertolucci’s 1987 masterpiece The Last Emperor. The film, beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro, chronicles the life of Emperor Pu Yi, took the throne of China at age three, in 1908, structured as a counterpoint between the starkness of the present day—Pu Yi’s  internment and interrogation for alleged war crimes after the fall of Manchukuo—and the extravagance and tragedy of Pu Yi’s personal trajectory.

While Bertolucci received permission from the Chinese government to shoot the film on location in The Forbidden Palace, it fully avoids the danger of feeling like propaganda. Alternately glorifying and critiquing its subjects, it makes visible one version of what the new Prince George of Cambridge may have in store, in its nuanced exploration of how investing children, and human beings, as symbolic vessels of arbitrary power makes its effects on them as private individuals.

Featuring a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne, and performances by Peter O’Toole, Joan Chen, and John Lone as the Emperor Pu Yi, The Last Emperor won a well-deserved nine Academy Awards, and is arguably one of Bertolucci’s greatest contributions to cinema.

The Last Emperor is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming on Netflix, and on instant viewing on Amazon and YouTube.

Headline Rewind: George Zimmerman and The Thin Blue Line

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: George Zimmerman Verdict The thing about connecting the news with film is that it tends towards the political, and the seemingly-obvious thing to talk about this week is Trayvon Martin, George […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.

News Event: George Zimmerman Verdict

The thing about connecting the news with film is that it tends towards the political, and the seemingly-obvious thing to talk about this week is Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. It’s also one of the hardest things to talk about this week. How to begin to talk about something so charged, where an entire country seems to hold incredibly strong feelings and thoughts about this incident, and second-order thoughts and feelings about those as well – the one thing that seems undeniably clear is that this is complicated.

Some people might respond that Zimmerman is guilty of the second-degree murder with which he was charged, and therefore it isn’t complicated. But even that response – the fact that there is such an extensive response – is a testament to the fact that the outcome of the events that night in 2012 have an aftermath, and even when the facts of the incident itself seem clear, the ripples that it made and continues to make are part of its complexity. It’s complex, among many other reasons, because we’re dealing one the one hand with “facts” of a concrete occurrence and the way that they work in the legal system, and on the other hand with overwhelmingly big ideological concepts and conversations and the way they work in a social milieu, or really, a messy network of intersecting social milieus that together make up the United States today.

I’ve been scouring the media trying to make sense of this for myself, and I think that President Obama, in his press conference speech earlier today, really does address the situation and its complexity with grace, compassion, and a sort of honesty that isn’t always what we expect from politicians. It is well worth watching. Speaking in deeply personal terms, he both acknowledges the grief of Martin’s family, and the need for us, as a nation, to find ways to move on, to address what we can in the present, to make change in a positive and lasting way. And that’s one of the most important things that is surfacing in this complicated aftermath: conversation. It is a conversation about race, as many in the mainstream and social media are focusing on, and it is also a conversation about guns, about laws, about conflict resolution and gender ideology and masculinity and socio-economics. And race. One of the notable parts of Obama’s speech is his acknowledgement that politicians may not be the best people to be leading conversations on race, saying that “they can end up being stilted and politicized.” But while politicians may avoid organizing them, these conversations are sometimes taken up by filmmakers.

Movie Recommendation: Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line

Every story has multiple sides, relayed by fallible humans to other fallible humans – a thought that perhaps bears upon a case like that of George Zimmerman and his plea of self-defense in which is his own word served as primary evidence. One way that film can be like the news is its potential for presenting these multiple sides, and one film that does this in a haunting and revolutionary way is Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. If connecting the news with film tends toward the political, then it is worth noting that this documentary has been dubbed  “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years” by Variety.

In The Thin Blue Line, Morris (whose worked was showcased in a retrospective in 2000 at the Walker, and who brought his film Standard Operating Procedure to the Walker in 2008) investigates the death of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer, who stopped a stolen car one night in 1976 and was shot twice and killed by someone in the car. The film is constructed from Morris’ interviews, with his famous Interrotron, with the man convicted of the crime, the other man in the car at the time, and various witnesses and detectives involved with the case. It is also notable for its multiple staged reenactments of the shooting based on testimony from different interviewees, re-creating in hauntingly cinematic images the possible narratives of that night, but interestingly choosing to omit a visualization of the “true” series of events that Morris seems to be leading us towards with the film. Though he made the film after the case had been closed, its production and release prompted a re-opening of the case which complicates and challenges the way that film reflects or even affects the ‘real world’, and the ways in which it can be incredibly political.

The Thin Blue Line is available to stream and on DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix.

If you’re looking for other challenging films to see in the coming weeks, look no further than the Walker Cinema, two weekends from now. Errol Morris has recently served as producer, along with Werner Herzog, on Joshua Oppenheimer’s much-anticipated The Act of Killing, which also structures itself around the reenactment of difficult, ethically-complex subject matter. The Act of Killing will be screening Wednesday, July 31 at the Walker Cinema as part of a series spanning several days, called Filmmakers in Conversation: Joshua Oppenheimer with the Act of Killing, that also includes a screening of the much-longer director’s cut and a workshop with Oppenheimer (who will be in attendance at all three events) on Saturday afternoon, August 3.

Headline Rewind: The Lone Ranger and Dead Man

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: The Lone Ranger in Theaters As one of the summer’s major times for blockbuster releases, this weekend saw Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger getting solidly outpaced at the box office by Despicable Me 2. There’s […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.

News Event: The Lone Ranger in Theaters

As one of the summer’s major times for blockbuster releases, this weekend saw Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger getting solidly outpaced at the box office by Despicable Me 2. There’s been a lot of build up for this new filmic adaptation of the old radio ‘classic,’ and one has to wonder whether some of that build up is part of the lukewarm reception that has met The Lone Ranger this weekend. As an action film produced by the widely-beloved Johnny Depp (who also stars as Tonto), most of this build-up is less about the film than the politics surrounding it — as NPR puts it: “Does Disney’s Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?”

This is the first of a host of questions that the film raises, some of which may have different answers for Native and non-Native people (and for different individuals and groups within those larger categories). Should Johnny Depp have been adopted by the Comanche? Does Depp’s ‘indigenousness’ make the film okay? Why not have a Native actor play Tonto? Does representation always have to be accurate (and how do we assess that accuracy)? Where is the line between pure entertainment and that which becomes political? (Fuzzy and shifting, I’d suggest.) And—is it even a good film? (The New York Times says: not so much.)

As a medium, film is dependent upon images—it is built upon representation. And while the history of film as a bastian for Western white (Protestant) upper-middle-class straight male representation has been pretty solid, when the depictions we see in films include the identities of people or groups of people who do not fit that white-male-category, the way we evaluate those representations has a tendency to become more political, to draw more ire, or require more delicacy. Coming from my position as a white, female-identified, queer-presenting, liberal-arts educated Unitarian Universalist American 23-year-old who hasn’t actually seen The Lone Ranger, I’m probably more qualified (to a point) to comment on the representation of women in film, or the representation in New Queer Cinema like Weekend or Save Me, though I make no claims to have insight into the gay male experience(s).

So in the case of the question of misappropriation of indigenous culture, I’m going to defer to Adrienne Keene, who runs the blog Native Appropriations, and who has been writing insightful commentary on the pre-production, production, and now release of The Lone Ranger (and a host of other deeply interesting topics around indigenous representation). You can read her reactions to the film here—and as is clear from the 134 comments that have accrued (as of the writing of this post) since she shared her thoughts on Thursday, The Lone Ranger has at the very least given us a highly visible centerpiece for continuing an incredibly important conversation.

Film Recommendation: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

As the media and debates around the release of The Lone Ranger reminds us, representation of Native Americans in film—especially Hollywood film—has ranged from the woefully stereotyped to the relatively accurate (although tending heavily towards the woeful end of the spectrum). The 2009 documentary Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, does a fantastic job of chronicling and critiquing the portrayal of Native people throughout the history of film (incidentally available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Netflix).

And if you missed The Lone Ranger this weekend, don’t worry—or, if you agree with Adrienne’s assessment, congratulate yourself! Either way, you can still see Johnny Depp in a Western that does a decidedly decent job of engaging with Native American representation, and is just straight up great filmmaking: Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 cult classic Dead Man.

Shot in sumptuous black and white, this “Psychedelic Western” (as Jarmusch terms the genre) follows the accountant William Blake (Depp), who is being hunted across the American West for a ‘murder’ he committed in self defense. He is accompanied for much of his journey by a Native American (Gary Farmer) named Nobody who idolizes the poet William Blake and resolves to lead Depp’s Blake to the Pacific Ocean, in order to return him to his proper place in the spirit world.

Alternately meditative, wryly funny, brutal, pensive, trippy, and melancholy, Dead Man is the ultimate post-modern Revisionist Western. In typical Jarmusch style, it features a cast including the likes of Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Robert Mitchum (in his last role), and a chilling, improvised score recorded by Neil Young. Its engagement with the tropes of the Western genre is deeply self-aware, as is its engagement with the stereotypes of indigenous representation, where carefully-researched post-modern pastiche enacts a sort of tightrope walk between ironic critique and earnest representation. It crams itself with tropes but for a reason; and several conversations in the film are conducted in Cree and Blackfoot languages, left untranslated as exclusive jokes for members of those nations—a choice that is not unpolitical, but is certainly interesting and feels, as a gesture, well-intentioned and well executed. By some accounts, it may stray into the territory of cultural misuse, but if so, it redeems itself with its self-awareness. While it may raise some of the same questions that The Lone Ranger has been inspiring, it does so in a way that is sensitive but not sterile, within the context of a film that raises a host of other questions, beautiful, haunting, and incredibly worth watching.

Dead Man is available to stream and on DVD and Blu-Ray from Netflix, as well as Hulu Plus streaming.

Other Jim Jarmusch films that are equally worth your time are also available to stream on Netflix, including (one of my top five films of all time) Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Broken Flowers, and The Limits of Control.

If you’re interested in continuing your exploration of how Native Americans are represented on the film, Chris Eyre’s 1998 classic Smoke Signals (also starring Gary Farmer) is a great place to start; available to stream and on DVD/Blu-Ray on Netflix.

Headline Rewind: Wendy Davis and You Can’t Take It With You

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.   News Event: Wendy Davis’ Filibuster There’s just too much happening this week to keep our film recommendations down to one! Although it received less ‘official’ press than Wednesday’s Supreme Court Rulings, Fort […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.  

News Event: Wendy Davis’ Filibuster

There’s just too much happening this week to keep our film recommendations down to one!

Although it received less ‘official’ press than Wednesday’s Supreme Court Rulings, Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis’ filibuster of the Texas State Senate on Tuesday night drew a firestorm of attention on social media, particularly Twitter. Throughout her 14-hour stand against a proposed bill to ban abortion in Texas, support poured in from across the nation with the hash-tag “#StandWithWendy”—even President Obama shared the filibuster live-stream link and tweeted: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”

Nor is it the first time Davis has starred in this age-old piece of political theater; her 2011 filibuster of a budget bill including massive public education funding cuts also forced Perry to institute a special session to pass the budget. And although the practical victory from Tuesday may be short-lived (Texas Governor Rick Perry has already called a second special session for next Monday), the marathon stand for abortion rights has made Wendy Davis an overnight political celebrity, and represents a strong ideological victory for women’s rights. As Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards responded, “She’s carrying every woman in the state of Texas, if you will, on her shoulders.”

Film Recommendation: You Can’t Take It With You by Frank Capra

Something about the filibuster not only makes good political theater, but good cinema. The internet is already rippling with speculations as to who will play Wendy Davis in a film version of the event, and plenty of headlines in the aftermath of Tuesday have drawn associations between her efforts and the Frank Capra classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, even inspiring this poster-pastiche for a film entitled Ms. Davis Goes to Austin.

So instead of making the obvious recommendation—although if you haven’t seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, run, don’t walk, to your nearest viewing location (available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Prime)—I’m going to recommend another great Frank Capra film.

Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You stars Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart, this time paired as star-crossed lovers from different walks of life. Tony (Stewart) comes from the stuffy Kirby dynasty, and Alice (Arthur) hails from the free-wheeling Sycamore clan. When the two families meet for dinner, hilarity and ideological conflict ensue, and everyone gets arrested. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, The New York Times has called it a “paean to populism,” the film won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and features a tender performance by the aging Lionel Barrymore.

You Can’t Take It With You is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Netflix, and instant streaming on Amazon Prime. If you can’t get enough Frank Capra, Lady for a Day is also available to stream on Netflix, as are a number of other Capra classics are available on Amazon Prime, including Arsenic and Old Lace.

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