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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2006
by Jeffery Taylor


Lee Abbott’s resume bears testament to his versatility. Not only has he worked as an editor, director, actor, writer and producer, but he’s done so in a variety of contexts and mediums. He’s shown up on the big and the small screen, in shorts as well as in a feature-length. The majority of his work falls under the comedy genre, but he also has credentials in reality and sports television, and he directed, co-wrote and acted in the dramatic short Rain.   


Abbott’s latest project is the soon-to-be-released National Lampoon’s Totally Baked: A POTumentary. He’s the film’s director, and also makes an appearance playing what else but a director. The title is about as self-evident as it gets, but don’t let that fool you. From the looks of things, this just might be the most intense, the most politically controversial, “stoner-comedy” you’ll ever see. Abbott talks to PopMatters about the development of Totally Baked.

   


PopMatters: How did Totally Baked first come together?


Lee Abbott: It first came together because of (Narrator/executive-producer) Craig Shoemaker’s kid. Craig was in his house singing Steve Miller: “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker,” and his little six-year-old goes (in little kid’s voice), “Daddy, what’s a toker?” (Laughs) That’s literally how it happened. Because then he was like all embarrassed, like he didn’t know how to answer, like, “Uhhhhh…” and he was like, well, why? You know? He’s even sober, so, ‘Why do I not want to – why would I say a beer’s a beer or a cigarette’s a cigarette but I won’t say that a joint is a joint?’ You know?


PM: Right.


LA: That’s kind of where it came from. For me it came together because I was trying to work with Lampoon on some other stuff, and then they put us together. They said, “You know what? We think you guys would be good together.”


PM: You’ve directed shorts before, but this will be your directorial-debut as far as a feature-length goes. Did the experience pretty much go as you expected?


LA: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s my first feature, but I’ve been directing for 15 years. You know? So, I’ve been doing television and music videos and commercials, you know, and short films and reality TV and a little of everything, but this was my first feature; but I’ve been directing for quite some time. So, you know, I mean, if anything it was a shorter process than doing a series. But, it was a blast. It was really fun to be able to just kind of like lock into one topic for an extended period of time instead of having to jump from project to project.


PM: Speaking of the “topic”: There have been several so-called pot-based comedies in the past. Of course all the Cheech and Chong movies first come to mind, but more recently there have been movies like Half Baked, How High, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, among others.


LA: Mhmm


PM: However it seems as if this movie not only aims to make the audience laugh, but also to make them think and to possibly help foster serious discussion on the issue of drug prohibition.


LA: Mhmm


PM: And I was wondering, first of all if you thought that was a fair assessment, and if so, if you think that juxtaposition is going to be a difficult thing for a comedy to successfully achieve.


LA: Well I think it’s a very fair assessment, and in fact when I was asked to do the project I said that that was the only way I would be interested in doing it. Because, I mean, how can you reinvent Cheech and Chong? I mean, like, how can you try to – they’ve done it and it’s gorgeous and it is what it is, you know? And there’s a lot of really, really funny marijuana movies out there and just, kind of like, you know, pot subculture movies, and they’re all a lot of fun…But I think, in much more of a vein of Bill Maher or George Carlin is what we were aiming for. Because I don’t think it’s a problem at all to put serious thought and discussion with comedy.


PM: Right.


LA: I mean, Will Rogers said, “You get them laughing and then that’s when you stick in the knife.” You know? And I really believe in that. I think shows like The Daily Show are where our best political commentary is able to come from. It’s kind of like in a straight political environment – you watch CNN and Crossfire and things like that, it looks like two opposing camps just kind of being snide to each other and just kind of yelling at each other. Or, it seems like, you know, whatever administration, especially the current administration, is in power, they’re able to, you know, loophole their way out of anything. You know? It’s like they have an excuse for everything and they make it sound polished and great, it’s like, but, not really talking about the big white elephant in the room. You know? Like what’s the obvious thing, you know? It’s like…it’s like they come up with what their hypothesis is, or what they want to prove, and then they go find the information to fill up that, versus following the information to its own organic conclusion. So, again, you watch Bill Maher, and you laugh your ass off and you’re left thinking about, ‘Yeah – what he said – Yeah, why is that?’ You know? Same thing with The Daily Show, they do commentary on something and you go, “Yeah. Hey, yeah, why is that?!” So I think that’s what we were trying to say. Because, you know, I grew up in Southern California and to me, you know, marijuana is no different than beer. You know?


PM: Mhmm


LA: I mean, either one can be abused and either one can be harmless. And I think it’s an adult’s choice to choose. And also on the medical marijuana issue, I think that is a really, very important one; I have a friend who is HIV positive and the medication he has to take makes him ill. You know, makes him nauseous, and so the marijuana helps him to eat. So the whole hypocrisy of the pharmaceutical companies, the current administration, the “War on Drugs” all that stuff over pot is such a joke. It’s ridiculous and I don’t think anyone of our generation, whether you’re a pot smoker or not, believes that it really should be as heinous of an offense as heroin (laughs). You know?


PM: Yeah.


LA: So, the whole idea was to have a lot of fun, to laugh our ass off about some things and to draw some, just kind of, logical conclusions to (what would happen) if we followed out the propaganda the way that it’s been spit out to us.


PM: Right. So, then, because of that fundamental difference with the film, do you expect it to be at all controversial?


LA: I hope so. I hope it’s controversial. You know I think the other thing about it, aside from being controversial, is I think that the more right-leaning people are going to say, “How dare you even mention this?” And, “I hope my kids don’t see this.” And somebody with a more left-bend or something might say, “I hope my kids do see it.” Because it does say – it also says in the movie that it’s not a hundred percent great. There are interviews with real people who have gone through marijuana rehab, you know? And it’s basically saying, “This is about the level of alcohol.” And we can talk about it that way and be responsible, but to stick our heads in the sand and to say that it either doesn’t exist or it’s only evil is a joke. You know? And/or: what’s wrong with somebody, you know, coming home at the end of the day in their own house and lighting up a joint and chillin’ out? You know? So, I hope it is controversial. I hope it does stir – stir debate. You know? I mean, my own folks are, ya know, Republican Bush supporters. You know what I mean? And they’re not exactly thinking it’s all that great that their son is in a pot movie. But – I mean because they’re embarrassed to like show their friends, they’re like (in stuffy voice), “Oh, God, we can’t tell our friends to go see our son’s movie.” (Laughs) But it’s like, why not? Why not? And that’s my response to them. And it’s funny when I talk to them about, you know, my friend who’s (HIV) positive that needs it, even they have to go, “You’re right, why is medical marijuana illegal?” And they go, “Yeah, that’s wrong. That’s just plain wrong.” So I think it’s good. I think when people get upset and it gets controversial it opens them up to then maybe learn something. If you don’t rock the boat at all then people don’t learn, you know?


PM: Right.


LA: And also just the whole PC thing, if you, if you all tip-toe around everything all the time then you lose a lot of great comedy and you lose a lot of great life. You know? Just afraid that you’re going to piss somebody off.


PM: Right. Well, it’s funny you say that, too, because my parents are also very much the right-wing type, and they were asking me just recently what I was working on. So I was running down the list and when I mentioned that I was going to be doing this interview suddenly the room got quiet and the topic changed real quick.


LA: (Laughs) Exactly. But I mean, like what would they say if you were interviewing, you know, one of the Coors brothers? Or if you were saying, “I’m interviewing someone in big tobacco.” You know? And it’s like, I don’t smoke cigarettes but they’re legal, and (just) because they’re legal doesn’t make me want to smoke them. I mean, that’s – that’s one of the most ridiculous arguments of all: that if it’s legal then everybody’s gonna start doing it. It’s like, no, cigarettes are legal. You know, so, I think – I hope it is controversial, because then it gets people to actually talk about it versus just accepting, ya know, kind of a…formulaic “truth.” And I think it’s also good because – like especially from the hippie generation that is grown up now that was much more of when pot was, you know, even down to, you know, either completely legal or a misdemeanor, or nothing, when the laws were different. It’s like, where did they go? Why don’t they support it anymore? They all smoked it; they all made it through the phase okay. You know?


PM: Yeah, that’s a very good point.


LA: And people are – I think, what I really hope about this movie, is that because of the funniness of it, because of the bawdiness, then the younger generation is gonna like it. Because of its rebellious nature the younger generation’s gonna like it. You know, your college-aged kid. I think also because of its political nature – I’ve shown it to people who are in their fifties and sixties and they laugh their butt off, but it’s like they’re laughing at different things. So I’m curious to see it in a big room with twenty-year-olds and fifty-year-olds, because I think what you’re gonna have is different pockets of the room laughing at different times.


PM: Another way in which the film seems to stand out is in its unique structure: being told through documentary-style interviews, interconnected vignettes and with performances by standup comedians.


LA: Mhmm


PM: And I was wondering what made you want to craft the movie in that way.


LA: Umm, the short answer joke is that it’s a stoner’s (short) attention span (laughs). But the real reason is, umm, I think it’s just much – it’s just contemporary media. I think we had great movies, such as, like, (The) Kentucky Fried Movie as a blueprint, where you’ve got multiple sketches, you know? And, you know, where we’ve got things like Real Sex on HBO, where they’ve got the “man-on-the-street” interview give weight and context to the other stuff being talked about. When you do the man-on-the-street stuff it puts context, and the documentary base, on the scripted stuff. (It) gives it a point-of-view. And then the same thing about the standup comics was that, you know, again going back to George Carlin, that’s where political satire can really have power. So the standup and the man-on-the-street are to give context to just the wacky humor and the sketches, you know? So it isn’t just pure farce. ‘Cause if it’s pure farce then it can be written off as such. If there’s some reality injected into it then, you know, it gives it more weight. And it’s funny (laughs).       


PM: The film is currently listed as being in post-production. So I was wondering how the work was coming and when you expect it to hit theatres.


LA: Well the final work is done. The picture’s been locked and the picture has been done actually for a couple months now.


PM: Okay.


LA: So right now it’s really in marketing, versus in post-production. And that is completely up to Lampoon and Craig Shoemaker. It’s up to what they all want to do. Umm, we kind of surprised Lampoon, in that we did exactly what we said we would and they approved all the scripts and it basically landed on them smarter (laughs) then they thought we were going to be able to pull off. And their current marketing has been much more in the realm of, umm, straight to DVD, T&A movies and (with) this one there’s very serious discussion about going to theatrical release, and how to market the thing and all that, and so it’s kind of – it’s a good thing, ya know, because it kind of shook even the company up. We were trying to take Lampoon back to their earlier days of the magazine when they were much more political satire, and their earlier movies and stuff like that, versus where they’ve been (lately). It’s kind of a re-branding thing. And that was a lot of what Craig wanted to do, and what I wanted to do, was to take them back to their roots. So right now it’s just – it’s in marketing. They’re figuring out what to do.
   


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Sunday, Nov 26, 2006


Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is the luckiest untalented son of a bitch in all of Hollywood. Don’t believe it? Well, Sony has just ponied up $4 million large to let this hack hammer away on a Da Vinci Code sequel. That’s right, the one element that critics almost universally pointed out as being the Dan Brown thriller’s atrocious Achilles’ Heel - well, maybe second only to the casting – is being rewarded with another go round, and a shockingly healthy paycheck for the responsible putz. Along with the recent news that Goldsman would be behind the much-delayed take of Richard Matheson’s classic end of the world creeper I Am Legend, film fans definitely have a right to be despondent. It seems like, whenever Tinsel Town wants to totally screw up something, they turn to the man with the Goldsman touch.


And before you think that this highly paid nimrod is just some blessed bastard who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, let’s revisit exactly what his onerous efforts have wrought. Indeed, his creative canon holds many reasons why this insipid, routine writer should be hurt, not hired. Associated with more triumphs than tragedies, there is an entire school of thought that proposes that Goldsman gives great purposeful patchiness. Indeed, his scripts are so scatter shot and sloppy that they allow actors, directors and other important film people to fill in the bewildering blanks. There are others, though, who want Akiva to get all the credit. Success is always subjective, but it seems that someone has stuck a bug in Tinsel Town’s ear, convincing them that Goldsman, not any other element in the wide range of explanations for a film’s potential payoff, is almost single-handedly responsible for the erasing of red ink.


Take his first big screen credit – The Client - co-written with Robert Getchell, who himself had previously penned the amazing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the kitsch classic Mommy Dearest. Guided more by director Joel Schumacher and bestselling boob John Grisham, the ultimate triumph of the film had much more to do with the novelist’s reputation and placement on the best seller’s list, along with the wise decision to cast Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the leads than Goldsman’s minor contributions. Obviously doing the doctoring for an already formed film script, to consider this a Goldsman solo feat is downright foolish. Still, he did manage to claim a sucker – sorry, supporter – in Schumacher, and the two continued their association with the G-man aiding and abetting in his killing of the ‘80s Batman series. He provided parts of the script for Batman Returns (along with several others), and then slammed the coffin lid shut with his solo work on the abysmal Batman and Robin.


With that last abomination alone, Goldsman should have suffered more than just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. One imagines a ball peen hammer to the privates wouldn’t be painful enough. Yet, somehow, he got positioned as the go to guy for blockbuster material (maybe someone misunderstood the concept behind the term “entertainment”) and was again commissioned by Schumacher to give another Grisham legal brief - A Time to Kill – the old Goldsman approach. The combination of racial screeds and arch dramatics seemed to suit the scribe well, and before you knew it, box office receipts where heading skyward. Again, the reason behind the “Kill-ing” was simple – John Grisham was, at the time, the most popular writer in the world. He could produce a description of his own bowel movements (actually, he did, it was called The Chamber) and a rapid, slightly retarded reading public would buy it up like literary Soylent Green.


Yet enough of A Time to Kill‘s gratuitous glitter seemed to land on Goldsman so that, soon, he was pegged to produce an update for the Irwin Allen cult classic Lost in Space. A long simmering effort for New Line, it was all systems go once Goldsman turned in his draft, and it appeared that the company could envision a big boffo weekend payoff followed by a long term stay at the Cineplex. Yet despite some stellar special effects and intriguing casting choices (Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith!!!) something wasn’t right. As a matter of fact, something stunk outright – and it was Goldsman’s grossly ineffective screenplay. Overloaded with leaps in logic so vast that no trip to through the space-time continuum could bring them any closer together, and his usual inept way with dialogue and characterization, the movie actually appeared hollow inside, lacking a single significant “sci-fi” moment. Someone should have reminded Goldsman that, when you’re working on a flight of fancy, it’s a good idea to have items like imagination and intelligence as part of your narrative arsenal.


But there was a bigger scourge set in motion by this remake. Goldsman was given a production credit, the Hollywood equivalent of a first date hickey. Since the title carries a notion of power and importance, the failure of Space washed off the scribbling scrotum like dimensions of his player’s personalities. Luckily, his magic witch malarkey Practical Magic was already bought, sold and staged before the Robinsons found themselves forever misplaced in the marketplace. Panned, but not enough to stick to the suddenly Teflon typist, Goldsman decided to drop out of the business for a while. He didn’t write again until the beginning of the new millennium, his most significant contribution to the culture being as one of the many chiefs on Renny Harlin’s hilarious Jaws jaw-dropper, the super smart shark epic Deep Blue Sea.


Since it was painfully evident that the one time pairing of Goldy and Schu was on the outs (probably over the whole “nipples on the Batsuit” thing), our hackwork hooker required another pimp to make sure his screenplay services would satisfy a few studio Johns. The answer arrived in former child star turned semi-decent director Ron Howard. Attempting to turn the life story of Nobel Prize winning (and mentally troubled) economist John Nash into a biopic, the older Opie saw something in Goldsman that few today can find with an electron microscope and a gross of radioactive dye. Employing a gimmicky twist that was supposed to shake the audience to its core (you mean, EVERYONE he talks to is fake? A figment of his imagination? No shit?) Goldsman gave Nash a heroic façade that was blatantly false. While no one goes into a Tinsel Town biography for its accurate depiction of history, many of the more “troubling” facets of Nash’s life were whitewashed by Goldsman’s feel good foolishness.


And then Oscar had to go and give the man a statue. In a year that saw the first film in the fabulous Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Zwigoff’s take on Daniel Clowe’s Ghost World, and the intense, introspective In The Bedroom. Goldsman beat out much better material – not to mention writing – to garner his permanent foothold in Hollywood’s unimaginative heart. Granted, not every Academy Award guarantees a studio or agent will pick up the phone (just ask the two juniors – Louis Gossett and Cuba Gooding), but in the case of Goldsman, it seemed to indicate that all the critics were wrong. No, his scripts didn’t suck the moldering feces out of a dead corpse’s butt. No, he didn’t sacrifice cinematic requirements like cohesion and vision for the obvious and stereotypical. Sure, he had his fair share of flops, but this was vindication of his inherent artistry. Along with the trophy for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind and its soulless screenplay remain two of Oscar’s most indefensible wins.


Thankfully, things haven’t gotten worse – at least, not yet. Goldsman’s grasp of Isaac Asimov was about as strong as I, Robot‘s approach to automatons (I know, let’s make our androids look like ceramic poseable artist’s models), but Will Smith was around to get jiggy with it all. While Goldy’s contribution again felt like a trip to Tinsel Town’s economic era, there are still moments where you can actually see the man messing with the movie. He avoids the obvious ethical debates – paying them the merest of lame lip service – so that there’s more time for chase scenes and flashbacks. Like the overwhelming drive to explain everything in The Da Vinci Code, Goldsman believes that ‘more’ makes a movie. In his case, however, he can’t convince us that excessive exposition – or in the case of The Fresh Prince’s ‘droid story, lots of lame CGI candy – can make for compelling cinema.


Since Howard and his personal plotter appear attached at the hip (Ronny has only made one movie – The Missing - without a floppy Goldsman foundation in the last five years) and the less than successful returns of Cinderella Man more or less failing to stick to anyone in particular (with A Good Year now tanking nicely, Russell Crowe better grab a phone receiver and watch his back) it’s no surprise this witless writer has signed on to decipher another Dan Brown brow-beater. Angels and Demons, the first of the Code-oriented tomes to feature symbologist Robert Langdon, was like a walkthrough for Da Vinci‘s more outlandishly muddled mysteries, and if Goldsman’s treatment of that multi-million seller is any indication of how this film will flow, be prepared for more asides, allusions and illustrations as every single significant and insignificant facet of the plot is trotted out for the uninitiated. It will then be over-explained and then re-referenced, just to make sure you’re along for the ride.


Still no one seems to understand that The Da Vinci Code made money because it was based on an international monster of a book, featured arguably the world’s most popular and beloved actor in the lead, and had one of these inherently controversial storylines that people just wanted to see made into a movie. Sadly, the film that resulted is as turgid and uninspired as the overall casting choices. With all those false positives in its portfolio, Code tapped into its fanbase, sucked up some significant bucks before the rest of the summer season snuffed it out, and ended up being an artistically awful financial success. So who gets the humungous paycheck? The man whose main contribution was making Brown’s page-turner into an exercise in inertia. How typical. 


Goldsman must be dependable and professional, keeping his promises and meeting his deadlines with genial good grace and a fruit basket on the side. There must be something about his work ethic and ability to acquiesce to those above and around him that makes his presence a necessary evil – like craft services, or Teamsters. His writing is indeed horrid, but it doesn’t differ too much from the massively mediocre excuses for entertainment that are released onto theater screens before making a mandatory beeline to the DVD den of iniquity. Yet somehow, Goldsman is the pariah, and it is time he was punished. Making him watch his movies won’t be enough. Like smelling your own farts, some people’s personal offensiveness doesn’t phase them in the least. No, a great crime deserves some mega-time. That’s why Akiva Goldsman must die.


No, not murdered. Not dead in the literal use of the word. No, Goldsman must loose his luster, shave off his indirect successes, and man up to the reality that he’s nothing more than a fortunate friggin’ pawn in Tinsel Town’s never-ending pursuit of the putrid. Ever since the ‘70s (and a few flash years in the ‘90s) the movie business has bastardized itself over and over, repeating and reinventing only the most profitable and franchisable. He is not an Oscar worthy writer. He was never responsible for the accomplishment of a single film he’s been involved in. The Writer’s Guild of America should revoke his credentials and actually let him try to reestablish his $4 million meaningfulness. Of course we all know that he can’t, and that when Angels and Demons makes another confused killing, Goldsman’s price will skyrocket again. As the reports from the set of I Am Legend confirm that Matheson’s material will once again be compromised for the sake of commerciality, it seems that nothing changes in the post-millennial movie biz except the size of the paychecks. Definitely not the pissants getting paid.


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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2006


In photos, he often appears as the wistful old uncle who shows up at reunions to regale the family with stories of wars he may never have fought in and meetings with people more imaginary than real. But that was the beauty of Robert Altman. He could be whimsical and mischievous one moment, dour and dark the next. At age 81, he remained one of cinema’s most accomplished artists, giving real credence to the use of the term auteur to define his filmmaking acumen. The past year had seen a resurgence in audience and industry interest. He took home an honorary Oscar (his one and amazingly ONLY Academy trophy) and saw his big screen adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion meet with an unusually warm reception. Unfortunately, here’s where the story must end. While in pre-production for a feature he was planning for a February 2007 start, Altman succumbed to an 18 month bout with cancer, and died.


His passing on 20 November is shocking for how sudden it seemed, but it really wasn’t unexpected. Altman surprised audiences during his acceptance speech at the 2006 ceremony by disclosing that, for the last ten years, he had been living with another human’s heart. In frail health during the ‘90s, the director had received a total transplant. The most amazing thing about the circumstance was not the surgery, but the fact that in a gossip hungry town like Hollywood, he managed to keep it a complete secret. Certainly there were rumors and rumblings – he was considered uninsurable for Prairie‘s shoot, and had to stipulate to having another director on set with him at all times. Luckily, he ended up with Altman aspirant Paul Thomas Anderson, responsible for similar styled efforts of his own like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.


In truth, the lack of limelight over Altman’s physical well being says something significant and extraordinary about the man as it illustrates the main issue with his entire career – when he was hot, audience and media interest was also. When his artistic indulgences turned off ticket buyers, this formidable American genius was all but ignored. It’s been that way ever since he started out in the business. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925, the young Altman was Catholic school educated and Air Force trained. Hoping to combine his love of film with his fascination with sound, he headed off to Hollywood to seek his big break. There, he tried almost every facet of the industry before becoming disillusioned with his lack of success. Heading back to his hometown, he found acceptance in a local production company in charge of industrial and training films. It was here where Altman began to find, and fashion, his muse.


Thanks to the chance offer to direct a juvenile delinquency quickie (1957’s The Delinquents) Altman was again back in the movie business. This lead to work in the fledgling medium of television, and it was here where he really thrived. Over the next decade, he would contribute to almost every small screen genre imaginable, from live performances to war and western dramas. He was instrumental in steering the WWII-themed Combat through its initial phases, and guided audience favorite Bonanza through a few of its earliest paces.  But it wasn’t until 1968 and the space race saga Countdown, that Altman regained his filmmaker footing. In combination with the thriller That Cold Day in the Park, it gave the director enough of a profile to position him as a candidate for another military-based movie being considered by 20th Century Fox.


The making of M*A*S*H* has its own epic anecdotal history, a story worthy of, perhaps, an Altman-esque Hollywood satire? Originally positioned as the lesser of two combat comedies coming out that year (Mike Nichols 1970 version of Catch-22 was viewed as the preemptive favorite) Altman took his production under Fox’s fidgety radar, using the studios obsession over their own Patton and Tora!, Tora!, Tora! as cover for what he was creating. This didn’t mean the more avant-garde elements of his approach avoided scrutiny. Everyone, from Ring Lardner Jr. who penned the screenplay (most of which was discarded), to stars Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, questioned Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue, extensive improvisation and the unorthodox conceptual ideas. Though it was set in Korea, Altman had purposefully removed all references to the locale, making his link to the then divisive war in Vietnam that much more potent. The studio, of course, insisted on a title card to clear up the confusion.


It wouldn’t be the last time an executive interfered with Altman’s ideas. But at first, such meddling didn’t matter. The amazing success of M*A*S*H* allowed the filmmaker the freedom to make whatever movie he wanted, and the follow-up remains one of his most unusual – and controversial choices ever. One of those typical ‘70s headtrips involving a boy who wants to be a bird and fly around his home – which just so happens to be the Houston Superdome – Brewster McCloud exposed the capricious side of Altman’s aesthetic, a foundational need for his own flights of fancy. It was an ideal that would come to clarify, and occasionally mar, the rest of his cinematic output. Tossing out reams of dialogue, keeping only the barest bones of Doran William Cannon’s original script, Altman also began another peculiarity that came to define his overall career and creativity. Resolved to make only the movies he wanted without exception, it was this maverick’s mannerism that would guide him for the next three decades.


MGM hated Brewster, and buried it with little fanfare. Frustrated, Altman next revisited the Western, giving the genre a meticulously reproduced period naturalism that the John Wayne-worn category had never possessed before. The result, the masterful McCabe and Mrs. Miller, saw the director battle with lead actor Warren Beatty throughout the production, a stand off that threatened to undermine everything. Of course, when the film failed to catch on with audiences, the superstar’s stance was indirectly vindicated, and led to a further distancing between Altman and the industry. Follow-ups, including the psychological thriller Images, the gambling drama California Split, and the exceptional noir revamp of The Long Goodbye were critical triumphs. But without the benefit of companion box office receipts, Altman started looking like a one hit wonder.

All that changed – albeit briefly – with Nashville. An epic dissection of middling America locked within the complementary – and complicit – worlds of show business and politics, Altman formulated the film around his own interest in country music. Featuring a storyline that suggested the general malaise and unease in the nation, along with a collection of cast-created songs, he forged an entirely new style of filmmaking. Using multiple stories that at times seemed completely unrelated to each other, the director found himself free to indulge in all manner of subplots, personalities and eccentricities. What started out as a meditation on performance and public accolade turned into a dense, in-depth look at the disintegration of the American dream. Praised for its innovations and insight, Nashville went on to win Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. But just like M*A*S*H* before, Altman’s inability to deal with the people in power may have cost him the award. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest dominated the Academy that year.


Again, popularity allowed Altman to do whatever he wanted. His response this time was a tone poem about the power of femininity drawn from one of this own dreams. Also touching on personality processing and the need for self-discovery, 3 Women arrived with little fanfare, and instantly became lost within an ill-prepared and indifferent populace. It is safe to say that, of his ‘70s period films, 3 Women is Altman’s best. Powerful without being intense, mysterious without being confusing, this seemingly simplistic story about a pair of spa workers on the outskirts of the California desert actually hid a multi-layered look at how we perceive ourselves. Featuring fabulous performances from Sissy Spacek and Altman discovery Shelley Duvall, the movie met with more myopic disinterest. It would be three more years before Altman’s name became associated with the mainstream again. And in typical style, it was mostly for bad, not good.


Altman had taken on the task of bringing E.C Segar’s comic strip sailor Popeye to the silver screen, mostly as a chance to experiment with something he called “fanciful realism”. His idea was easy enough to understand – take reality and tweak it just enough so that it suggests, not mimics, the world of animation. He built his own village on the Mediterranean island of Malta, approached Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks about providing the studio-mandated musical numbers, and then went out and hired non-singers like Duvall and star Robin Williams to fill the lead roles. Rumors of natural disasters and cast infighting found their way into the then fledgling tabloid media machine, and Altman felt the press was preparing to doom the project before it was eventually released. So far ahead of its time that today’s comic book movies still only scratch the surface of the conventions Altman created, Popeye was popular, but it wasn’t the mega-smash high concept entertainment Disney was looking for, and even though it made money, the entire project was viewed as an albatross sized failure.


By this point, Altman was fed up. He hated functioning within a dynamic that suggested art was only as valuable as the money it could make, and he distrusted almost everything about a business that bolstered you one moment, only to tear you down the next. Like all mythological heroes, he set off to wander the wilderness of his own insular aesthetic. When he got the chance, he directed for the stage, even filming some of his efforts as a sort of a reminder and record of his work. A few of these experiments – Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Secret Honor, Fool for Love - kept him just on the edges of fame. There really was no need, however. With his past constantly revisited and remembered, Altman was never completely gone. But a great many of his contributions were definitely being forgotten.


The Player changed it all - again. Michael Tolkin’s exposé of Tinsel Town’s cutthroat creative corruption was a red hot property when it came out in book form, and Altman appeared an odd choice for the project. Granted, his anti-studio stance was well documented, but the director had also found his greatest personal triumph while working within the confines of industry. Thanks to a stellar cast and a sharp, satiric script, Altman had at least a partial last laugh. There were more Oscar nods (though no wins) numerous accolades and awards from around the world (Best Director at Cannes) and – in the standard pendulum-like swing of his career – rekindled interest in what he wanted to do next.


This time up, however, Altman was prepared. As he would for the rest of his career, he used the incalculable clout of decades considered one of cinema’s main masters to fulfill the personal promise of only making the movies he truly wanted. The Player was followed by the phenomenal Short Cuts (a brilliant breakdown of ‘90s neurosis that found their foothold in the literary brilliance of Raymond Carver’s short stories) and several personal projects, including looks at his interest in fashion (Prêt-à-Porter), his love of jazz (Kansas City) and his deep seeded desire to stay connected to the current trends in filmmaking (The Gingerbread Man, a big screen adaptation of the John Grisham story). With Gosford Park again stirring Academy buzz, it seemed that Altman could really live out the rest of his life doing only the projects he felt passionate about.


It’s too bad then that such a strategy was cut short. No one looking at something like A Prairie Home Companion was arguing that Altman was back, but then again, it’s really hard to say if he every really left. Words like iconoclast, renegade, rebel and dissident were frequently used to describe the director, but the bigger question remains what, exactly, was he rebelling against? Lousy scripts overflowing with clichés and formulaic flaws? Movies lacking heart, passion, artistry and intelligence? A system that sticks by a baffling business plan that rewards financial success without ever taking any other element of a film’s achievement into consideration? That lack of instant approval for the enormous amount of work that goes into making a movie? A fickle fanbase that slams you one day, only to coronate your creations long after their possible impact could actually matter?


No, Altman was not an insurgent. He wasn’t out to change the industry or pout until the studios came around to his way of thinking. No, what this singular cinematic voice was avoiding was the brainwashed belief that you had to give into the sloppy and sub par elements of the game in order to be a viable member of its unconscionable cabal. He refused to acknowledge the fad-oriented facets of the medium, making his own statements about issues and incidents without the slightest concern for populism or pragmatism. He was forward thinking in a system that consistently looks back, and brave without wearing his considerable courage on his frequently slapped wrist. To say that he will be missed is an understatement. No one, not even his impressive impersonators will be able to replace Altman’s integrity and importance. So with his passing, perhaps it’s time to put the whole revolutionary idea to rest. He wasn’t a rebel. In fact, he had the right idea the whole time.


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Sunday, Nov 19, 2006


If we are to believe the non-professional pundits, as well as actual journalists invested in the entertainment industry, the race for Oscar 2006 is more or less over. At a selective advanced screening of Bill Condon’s December offering Dreamgirls, critics got their first chance to see the big screen adaptation of the famous Broadway spectacle – and apparently, it was pretty good. David Poland, of Movie City News and The Hot Button, practically anointed it the next Best Picture prizewinner (better than Chicago, he argues rather convincingly) while mentioning multiple times that Jennifer Hudson (in the role that made another like named performer – the fabulous Ms. Holliday – a certifiable diva) is guaranteed to win a statuette, no matter what category she ends up in.


Even Drew McWeeny – a.k.a. Moriarty over at Ain’t It Cool News – finds himself dumbstruck by Dreamgirls prize potential. Pointing to Poland and his “astute analysis”, he comments that, while he doesn’t “do” the whole pre-award season buzz thing, a film like this more or less mandates such a discussion. After arguing for Eddie Murphy as a potential Best Supporting Actor candidate, the rest of the review (or preview, as it were) is an unabashed love letter to Condon and everyone involved. And he is not alone. The Daily Mail recently put up a piece proclaiming Dreamgirls “brilliant” and figuring prominently in Britain’s own Bafta Awards, while The New York Times feels that the film has all the “hardware” locked up.


Now there is nothing wrong with such strong prognostications. After all, ever since the Oscars stopped being a self-congratulatory exercise by the controlling old school studio system, the race toward Academy Gold has always been a vicarious cinephile thrill. Who among us hasn’t cheered on a personal favorite (All That Jazz, Pulp Fiction) only to see a lesser effort (Kramer vs. Kramer, Forrest Gump) pick up the eventual trophy. We all back our long shots and pray that an overlooked acting or directing effort gets the recognition it so richly deserves. So picking favorites and laying odds is all part of the Oscar game. Heck, office pools and Las Vegas betting parlors enjoy the whole handicapping process, separating the winter awards season wheat from the also-ran chaff.


But in this new ghost-modern Internet driven experience, where information is instantly accessible 24 hours a day, endlessly streaming from keyboards to webpages worldwide, the desire to be first – and then, hopefully, right – is driving film scholarship right out of the year end debate. Granted, no amount of online criticism or complimenting can thwart the efforts of someone like Harvey Weinstein when he has a film he wants to win (the less than exceptional Shakespeare in Love), and there will always be instances where an obvious frontrunner (Saving Private Ryan) falls under the weight of a well-positioned publicity campaign (see above). Yet how fair is it to declare a winner before the race is even over? And better yet, haven’t the so-called experts learned their lesson from previous preemptive predictions.


Take 2005, for example. When Crash came out in May, no one was chatting up its Oscar potential. Oh sure, a few critics saw through its cloying racial realities to argue for its excellence as a social statement, but very few were featuring it as an Academy front runner. Then September arrived, and with it, the much beloved Brokeback Mountain. Instantly, the awards season race was over. The sobering story of gay cowboys in love was declared the preemptive favorite, and as the various ancillary organizations (The Golden Globes, various critics groups) bestowed it with numerous additional accolades, the competition was more or less over. Forget all the other films coming out between October and December – no one was going to eclipse Brokeback.


Except, it didn’t win. And it wasn’t even late season offerings like Good Night and Good Luck or Munich that unseated the supposed victor. Instead, that lamented long shot from the start of the Summer known as Crash claimed the top prize (much to the dismay of the celebrity audience, one might add). It was a shocking turn of events, a situation so unpredictable that it led to a series of lawsuits among the many producers, all of whom now wanted a taste of Oscar’s heady broth. It’s an aesthetic division that still stings, even eight months after the fact. Yet it appears that the critical community, so anxious to label a winner in advance, still hasn’t learned their gun-jumping lesson. 


While backlash is a harsh term – and no great piece of art deserves to be purposefully taken down because of its perceived or real popularity – there is something to be said for the concept of tripping the frontrunner. Declaring a preemptive favorite is just asking for a last act comeuppance. Granted, some years the pickings are so slim (1990, for example) that almost anything can win (as in the dismal Driving Miss Daisy). But in an era where independents challenge the major studios for artistic supremacy, each contest can be far too close to call. This year alone, films like The Departed, The Prestige and The Queen have garnered major award oriented buzz. But by giving the nod to Dreamgirls, said entries become non-entities in a race they’ve really yet to run.


Very few writers have the power of their convictions. When Gene Siskel stuck his neck out in 1996, declaring that he would not see a better film that year than March’s release of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, his end of the year assessment stayed the course. The difference of course is that the late, great Chicago Tribune critic wasn’t picking the potential Oscar winner. He was giving his opinion, and much to his credit, he held fast to his convictions. Today, a messageboard mentality tends to lead most online thinkers. They are swayed by the vocal outcries of groups unrecognized and geeks unsupervised. Granted, groundswell and grass roots support are much easier to achieve when you’ve got millions of potential minions reading your words, but there is always a possibility that such a connection can be abused. Declaring a winner this early smacks of such a soap box stance.


Dreamgirls may indeed deserve to be the favorite. Bill Condon is a talented professional (already an Oscar winner for his Gods and Monsters script) and if Ms. Hudson is half the performer of the original Effie, she’ll be dynamite. But having been anointed the de facto champions accomplishes two very destructive things – it sets everyone up for a potentially mighty fall, and displaces dozens of films and/or actors who haven’t had their moment in the limelight yet. Instead of a legitimate determination between like positioned pictures, what we end up with is a comparative exercise where a predetermined benchmark sets the tone for all others to meet, or miss.


In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the early declaration of its Oscar worthiness set up a scenario by which all that came afterward was compared. If it couldn’t hold up to Ang Lee’s wistful western, it was instantly placed behind such a so-called standard. In addition, a film like Crash found itself doubly dismissed. Since it had already been released, and failed to measure up to Brokeback‘s level of Best Picture praise, it was seen as a mere nominal unknown. Smart scribes took note that its eventual nomination was sending a signal to all those self-serving predictions. But its eventual win provided another, more troubling trend. By declaring a winner before all the votes were cast, the election was rendered more or less an afterthought. While it may work in politics, the players in motion pictures don’t appreciate it. And, obviously, they rebelled.


What this means overall is that Dreamgirls becomes a target, the unintentional king of the hill that all other films will be gunning to unseat. Campaigns will be built around the notion of playing catch-up to a critically called victor, and those who make their living undermining the positions of populists – i.e. bloggers – will plant the plentiful seeds of discontent. You can already see it starting. Quoting the Times article, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel takes great pride in pointing out that two websites (Hollywood Elsewhere, The Envelope.com) have lowered the musical’s Oscar prospects post-preview, and he himself argues that the film, and its participants are more of “Golden Globes winner(s)” than Academy triumphs.


So while the rest of the year’s fine films jockey to reposition, and Condon and company put on their amiable armor for the coming barrage of backseat prognostication, such a situation begs the question – why make such early predictions? Wouldn’t it be more aesthetically apropos to wait until all the possibilities are presented before securing your selection? Dreamgirls probably deserves better than being the envisaged prom queen before all the attendees arrive. And if it doesn’t claim the award, what does that say for those who declared its victory months before? There is a big difference between “Oscar Worthy” and Oscar won. Apparently, in today’s hype-driven hubris, that lesson’s long been forgotten. 


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Sunday, Nov 12, 2006


PopMatters review of Borat by Cynthia Fuchs


Just how gullible are we? As Sacha Baron Cohen’s pig and pony show continues to rake in the disposable income of an indiscriminate North American demographic ($67 million and counting), the critical community is having a literal laudatory filled field day. Rarely has the supposed scholarship of the journalistic branch been so unified in its praise. Some point to Cohen as the new Peter Sellers or the next Monty Python, others push for the British comic as a clear Oscar front runner, while others suggest that his movie is a kind of comedy revolution, a Blair Witch/Pulp Fiction like genre bender that merges reality with the ridiculous to form a new kind of radical reinterpretation of filmmaking.


But what, exactly, has Cohen done? Where is the invention in showcasing the readily apparent racism buried right on the surface of the United States social structure? Why is his ambush style approach to interviews and interaction so celebrated? It is really nothing new within the media framework. Howard Stern used to manage various foils (Stuttering John, Gary the Retard, etc.) to take the piss out of pompous, self-important individuals and the recent Jackass phenomenon argued that senseless stunt work in the name of self-serving slapstick can be intensely popular. And yet Borat seems to suggest something more than this to the rabid members of the fanbase. For them, this movie is much more than a cobbled together mock documentary. It’s a striking cinematic call to arms.


But would it surprise you to learn that this new Eastern European emperor has no clothes (his infamous nude wrestling/fight scene in the film aside)? Would you be shocked to learn that many of the movies more infamous moments were scripted and staged for the cameras? Recently both MTV and the New York Post have ‘outed’ various aspects of the Borat production, from which characters are really actors (Borat’s prostitute date) to the reality behind the various threats, skirmishes and fights featured (there were arrests, and a few ugly confrontations). While not meant to undermine what is obviously a growing phenomenon, these reports bring into perspective the power of film, and the credulity of individuals desperate to find something new and unique in an otherwise routine motion picture industry. 


Primary amongst the revelations was Pamela Anderson’s willing participation in the project, including her full cooperation in the film’s infamous finale. For anyone not instantly jacked into the entire Borat experience, this last act confrontation between the buxom Baywatch beauty and the swarthy stalker-like reporter is a seemingly blatant buzzkill. What starts out as a standard photo op meet and greet with her fans turns into a full blown, storewide chase, ending with Cohen and his co-star grappling openly in a store parking lot. For many, it’s the prankster piece de resistance, a pristine melding of Borat’s naiveté with celebrity’s harsh realities to form an intellectualized version of a Kutcher punk.


Except, none of it is real. Not a single moment. Though she claims to be “sworn to secrecy” Anderson’s camp makes it clear that the actress has a long standing relationship with Cohen (they have worked together before) and reports indicate that the two conspired together to stage the assault in front of a pair of unknowing security guards. Even more intriguing are hints that scripted elements were used, along with professional camerawork, all in an effort to make sure the scene went off perfectly. Now, for a movie that is selling itself as an off the cuff altercation between acceptable social standards and human values, doesn’t having your target in on the ruse destroy the subtext? Is comedy by entrapment still funny once you learn the victim is as complicit as the attacker?


Even worse, there are troubling reports about the factual material in the movie as well. Members of the feminist group that Cohen interviews/insults argue that they were not fully informed about the purpose and point of their conversations with the actor, and when you think about it, they actually couldn’t have been. Had they been told that a UK comedian, playing a bigoted foreign journalist, was going to sit down and ask them questions that attack the very foundation of their group’s gender-based agenda and that, even better, this material was going to be used as part of the big screen comedy in which the whole point is to deflate those with a self-important (or shockingly misguided) approach to their beliefs, how many would have said yes?


This goes to the very heart of this surreal sub-genre, an entertainment category with its roots firmly in the success of nu-reality television. Unlike Survivor, where a competition supposedly separates the winner from the losers, or MTV’s The Real World which claims to capture authentic young people in the act of being buffoons, nu-reality walks a fine line between fact and fiction, making up material as part of, and in direct response to, how certain individuals and situations respond to their surroundings. Structured like an old fashioned suspense sequence in which certain people are in on the joke (the audience, members of the cast), and arguing that what you are seeing is an accurate reflection of the truth, the nu-reality experience pretends to play fair while relying on a foundation of falsehood to get its results.


It’s a lot like entertainment entrapment, especially since in Borat Cohen is coercing the indignation and indignity out of his unsuspecting victims. The law makes it clear that individuals cannot be held liable for crimes they were more or less forced or cajoled into committing and it’s the same with Borat’s comedy. It gets bigots to expose their hatred, idiots to emphasize their cluelessness and the psychotic to show their terrifying true colors through the humor equivalent of a well-rehearsed show business sting operation. But how clever is it really, and indeed, how successful overall? Is it funny to find out that a redneck country bumpkin thinks that Jews are evil? Does it make it more hilarious that Cohen’s character totally agrees, and even amplifies the anti-Semitism?


Some will argue that none of this matters. No matter how he got the audience reaction during his butchering of the National Anthem, or how ‘staged and scripted’ certain scenes are, the reactions are the reason behind the film’s import as a shocking, scatological satire. But doesn’t that argument beg the manner in which they were achieved – and more importantly, the truth behind said responses? Would the Anthem scene work if you knew that the jeers and boos were added in later during post-production, or that the collapsing horse was merely a happy accident, not the result of Cohen’s performance? Would you care that some of the targets appear in on the joke (the driving instructor, the antiques’ dealer) and would that, then affect your subjective viewpoint on the film’s success?


In many ways, Borat is the kind of experience that demands the support of subterfuge for as long as possible. Like the Blair Witch, which tried to get pre-screening audiences to believe that it was the real final footage of a doomed documentary crew, the success of this comedy rests solely on the level of believability you have in the prank. Had Cohen merely made a frazzled foreign farce about a Kazakhstan reporter leaving his hilarious hometown for the first time, the reaction would probably be minimal, not massive. In fact, it’s the same fate the comic’s first film based on one of his well known small screen characters faced. Ali G Indahouse went straight to DVD in America, its distributor sensing that, without the crazy confrontational antics that made the TV show a success, the film faced an uphill battle at the box office. And they were right.


Like learning the trick behind a magician’s mindblowing performance, or getting step by step instructions on how a certain sensational special effect was accomplished, discovering that Borat has as much manipulated as genuine material as part of its production acts as a buffer to much of the movies’ heralded genius. Even more distressing, recent reports suggest that the people of Glod, an impoverished Romanian village with no running water or sewage, were paid a mere ₤3 each to be portrayed as abortionists, rapists, and sexual deviants in the film’s opening sequence. Tricking people who should know better is one thing. Fooling folks who have nothing is the height of moral bankruptcy.


The true brilliance behind Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen is not the resulting film. It is merely a fresh, friendly experience marred by occasional gross outs and delusions of social commentary grandeur. It is not the funniest thing to ever hit cinema, nor is it the shape of things to come – one hopes. No, the real genius here is getting people to pay for the privilege of being part of the gag itself. In the end, Borat‘s biggest success is fooling the audience into thinking that the movie is more meaningful than it is. What started out as the second coming of comedy has ended up being an expertly controlled extended shock jock joke. When all is said and done, the only ones who’ll be left laughing are Cohen and his cohorts – and you can guarantee their giggles will resonate all the way to the nearest bank.


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