Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lost In The Woods, Finding Our Way Back

Note: You can watch "The Listeners" at the end of this post.

By Lars Trodson

“The Listeners” came about because of a simple image that would not let go: two cars facing each other on a lonely country road late at night, high beams on. I knew the headlights would prevent the drivers of each car from seeing who was inside the other, and that seemed unsettling. I mentioned the image to Mike Gillis -- we were working together at the time -- and said we ought to make a movie.

We will then take some credit for jump-starting a dormant independent film movement in New Hampshire. I had this idea in the fall of 2004, and if there was anything going on then no one knew about it. There had been no local premieres of independent movies in some time, and the technology had evolved to such a degree that independent movies could be made more inexpensively than ever before.

In the end, “The Listeners” cost about $3,000 -- I don’t know why this is so interesting to people, but it is -- but also this figure is misleading. We got a lot of stuff for free, and the editing, which took weeks, also didn’t cost us anything. We rented the camera and a few other things, and we had to spring for food and a few other incidentals. The entire shoot was done over two nights and then some pickup shots on another night. But to say the film cost $3,000 isn’t really enlightening, or accurate.

We fiddled with it until finally we were ready for our premiere in May, 2005, which took place at the Strand Theater in Dover, NH. For that we have to thank Mike Spinelli, who owns the theater and Tim Barnes, who helped get everything together. Defying popular wisdom, the only thing we were showing that night was a short -- “The Listeners” is just 16 minutes long -- and we figured we’d do a Q&A. The only thing Mike Spinelli asked us was that we steer people to the concession stand, which we did, and so we heard it was a pretty good night there. We charged $5, and in the end we cleared enough to cover the cost of the DVD projector.

More than 300 people showed up at The Strand, alleviating our nerves. It was a lively night, and people seemed to be moved by what they saw. And then the independent film movement in New Hampshire seemed to gain some new momentum.

The Story

The image of the two cars seemed to lend itself to a horror movie, and we joked about how many half-naked women we would have being chased by a maniac with an ax. But we were never going to make that kind of movie. At some point I thought of having a couple leave a party early, and the story then began to unfold as a domestic drama.

As far as the conclusion goes, I was stuck on it until a friend of Mike Gillis’ said, “What if nothing happens”, and I took that to mean, what if it wasn’t action that provided the film its punch, but something deeper and more personally profound? So we have a couple, Lee and Doug who are driving home from the party arguing about some mundane thing, and then they come upon a car that is stopped in the middle of the road. And then something strange happens.

People have said this is a horror movie, of sorts; it certainly has its awful moments. In that way it’s a little misleading to show it on Halloween, because this drama is quiet and not based on ghouls or demons. But there are ghosts of a sort in the movie, and they circle in and out of the silences and the secrets that all three of the people in the movie have. When you watch the film, please pay as much attention to what people say as to what they do not say. It’s just as important.

The Actors

Kristan Raymond Robinson, Tim Robinson and Bernie Tato are all respected actors in the New Hampshire scene, and we were lucky to have them. Tim and Kristan had signed on first, I wrote it for them, and they brought in Bernie, who was the voice of reason during the long and cold shoot. He was 70 at the time, and in between shots he’d be calm and reasoned and joking around, and we all thought of him as our spiritual leader during the shoot. The cars, both of which belong to me, were running so long the batteries would die, and we’d have to jump them on occasion. The first night the filming went smoothly and we wrapped up early. The second night, during which we filmed the second half of the movie, went until about 2 o’clock in the morning.

On the night of the premiere, Bernie couldn’t make it -- he was in a play -- so he missed that, and later on that summer Kristan called me at home to say that Bernie had died of a heart attack. I still -- when I write this -- it’s hard. I didn’t know him well, it hurt a lot more for a lot more people -- but Kristan said she was grateful that someone had captured him on film. So we have that.

Tim and Kristan (who were also once married) are both so polished; Mike had no trouble getting them to adapt to screen acting, which was new to them, and their performances are subtle and lovely. As is Bernie’s, as he plays this broken down old man, a man weighted down by memories. They all interact quite beautifully together. And then when the film came out we were all very proud and happy, and we still are to this day.

We always thought it would end up on a DVD compilation; maybe it still will. It is nice to have it premiere on the web like this, it seems to be giving it a new life. We’d like to hear from you about how it works.

The Direction

I know that people are enamored of the idea of the writer/director, but I don’t really subscribe to it. To say that movies are a collaborative process is to trot out the most obvious observation, but it is true, and I think that leads to the idea that a script can always use a fresh interpretation -- provided it’s in the hands of the right director. The film I had in my head was far different than the one Mike Gillis directed, and it was not as good. So Mike was the right guy for this project. He not only gave to the movie a true sense of how a film should feel and look -- check out that crane shot when the couple stops on the country road -- but he was deft in handling the silences and nuances that were called for in the script.

He guided the actors to performances that are in no way showy -- you can’t see the wheels turning inside the heads of any of the three principals, and he builds the tension subtly but firmly. All these details give the audience the sense that they have entered a living world with real people, despite the fact that the movie is only 16 minutes long. That’s an achievement. I know it sounds funny to say this, because I wrote it, but the movie is a powerful little thing because of the sure hand of Mike Gillis.

The Aftermath

I still don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but we went on to make another movie right away, a musical comedy short called “A Bootful of Fish”, which was fraught with heartache and tension. The idea was to build up content and then market both films in earnest when we were done. Well, “Bootful” didn’t turn out like we hoped. I haven’t seen it in a year, mostly because I can’t get past the behind-the-scenes drama of it all. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m wearing a dress in it. And then we were so exhausted that “The Listeners” also languished, and we didn’t do with it what we should have. That was a shame.

I have learned that making the film is one thing, but the sheer ambition of the marketing aspect is equal. We’re good at the former, not so good at the latter. By the time “Bootful” was done, we were all also out of money, and there was no cash for film festivals or traveling to them even if we had been selected. So we didn’t do much of that, either. That is why we’re fortunate to have this site, and the Internet, because it allows us to show the movie on our own terms, with little or no cost.

We’re going to do another short film, called “The Butterfly Kiss”, which is part of a trilogy, and we have a couple of radio dramas we’re planning. The thing of it is, and I can’t speak for the others, but I’m in no hurry to get them done, and if it isn’t fun then I have no desire to do it at all. As tragic as the content of “The Listeners” is, it was a fun shoot. As light-hearted as the content of “Bootful” is, it was not a fun shoot -- at least not for the four producers. I don’t want to repeat that experience.

Well, here we are. “The Listeners” will no doubt be seen tonight by more people than ever before, and even though I have confidence in the film, I’m still a little nervous. When I look at it, I think of Bernie, and the places where we made it, and the people in it -- and the frayed and disheveled friendships that came as a result -- and I think wistfully about how it all started.

H.L. Mencken once said, about newspapers (which I toiled in for 20 years), that they will break your heart. Movies do the same thing. Whether you watch them, or make them, they can sure break your heart.


Watch "The Listeners" now. Press 'play' to begin.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ben Affleck Gets It Right (Gasp!)

Note: Here is Gina's take on this flick. One thing she and I agree on is that Amy Ryan, at right, shines in her role as Helene, the mother-from-hell in this newly released drama. - LT

By Gina Carbone

This is the kind of movie that gets people talking. What would I do if it were my call? Since I went by myself, I asked myself. My answer was the same as Patrick Kenzie’s and I’m not too sure it was the right one either.

The best decision a director can make is to choose strong material. Ben Affleck proves himself a smart director by making "Gone Baby Gone" his major debut (he shot some smaller films previously, including one called "I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney"). He and Aaron Stockard adapted Dennis Lehane’s layered, twisting, morally confounding novel into a sharp script that keeps moving forward while always keeping you guessing.

The second best decision a director can make is to surround himself with a good cast and crew. The better half of Bennifer put together a team of seasoned Oscar-nominated actors to tell his story and let two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll cover them in a dark, gritty constancy. The production design, set decoration and costumes are almost frighteningly true to life and clearly spearheaded by someone who knows his turf.

Affleck’s loyalty is near legendary (supposedly he’s still friends with all of his exes) and in addition to picking Stockard — who appears to have no film credits to his name other than assistant work on "Good Will Hunting" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" — he makes the bold choice of giving the main role to his younger, lesser-known brother, Casey. It pays off. I’m no fan of nepotism (or Ben Affleck, normally), but Affleck The Younger holds his own as Patrick Kenzie in a thriller packed with good performances.

The story itself is the real star, but if anyone has a chance of stealing its thunder it’s Amy Ryan as Helene — the brash, drink- drugs- and life-weathered single mother of Amanda (Madeline O’Brien), a sweet little girl who goes missing in Dorchester, Mass.

A massive manhunt is launched, led on the police end by Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), who started the police’s missing children’s unit after the abduction of his own young daughter.

Working with Doyle is Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a hothead detective who creates his own moral universe outside the law.

Bressant locks horns with Kenzie, a morally self-righteous private detective who is hired by Amanda’s aunt, Beatrice (played by Harris’ real-life wife Amy Madigan) to supplement the police investigation. Kenzie and his partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are both Dorchester natives who apparently found their way out of the same cracks Helene fell in.

On one end of the spectrum is Ryan’s fearless performance as the "abomination" that is Helene. Now THERE’S a character. On the other end is Monaghan, playing a thankless and, frankly, useless role as Kenzie’s personality-free other half. She contributes nothing to their detective work and only seems on screen to voice the flip side of his thoughts. She’s also the only one I don’t buy as a local.

Other than that, this is the most authentic-looking Boston film I’ve seen in years, including "The Departed." My ears are still bleeding from the accents in "Thirteen Days" and "Blown Away" and it’s nice to hear some authentic sounds. (Don’t give me any blather about Dorchester accents vs. Charlestown vs. Quincy or whatever else.) The shapes, sizes and faces also remind me of the Massachusetts of my teen years and it’s refreshing to see someone show it in its un-glamorized glory.

I’m torn between thinking there should be more films like this or fewer. I love the moral discussions, the difficult "Sophie’s Choice" decisions. On the other hand, how bleak, how wretched, how depressingly realistic. There’s no question this is a good film, but it’s also a queasy one (which includes, you should know, references to pedophilia). What would you do?

Gina Carbone wishes she had cute freckles like Morgan Freeman. She can be reached at

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Roundtable Pictures and Makem Brothers Team Up For Concert DVD

Note: The following appeared in the Oct. 28 edition of The Montana Standard, where Roundtable Pictures producer Mike Gillis is directing a 2-hour concert DVD of the Makem Brothers and Spain Brothers, pictured at right. The two groups are carrying on the tradition of Celtic music that was championed by Tommy Makem, who passed away in Dover, NH, earlier this year. Mike will tell us more about his adventures when he gets back. - Lars Trodson

Irish concert sails at Mother Lode
By Gerard O’Brien, of The Montana Standard

There’s something about a quintet of strumming guitars, five-part male harmony and songs of the sea that make you want to hop on a ship and sail away ... or at least tap your toes in your seat.

The Makem and Spain Brothers served up a full plate of traditional Irish folk songs that had the Mother Lode Theatre crowd singing along, clapping to the rhythm and even listening in rapt silence to their numerous ballads.

The two-plus hour show got a late start, due to technical difficulties with some recording equipment, but that didn’t dull the crowd’s appreciation of the craftsmen.

The end result will be a High Definition DVD concert recording to help raise money for the Montana Gaelic Cultural Society and its annual An Rí Rá Irish Festival in Butte.

The DVD will include clips from Saturday night’s show, interviews with the singers and scenes from around the Mining City.

The three Makem brothers and two Spain brothers bantered with the crowd of 800 in between songs.

“My brother’s going on a whiskey diet,” Conor Makem said. “So far, he’s lost three days.” This is the third visit for the troupe to Butte. The Makems are the descendants of a famous musical bloodline. Their father is the late Tommy Makem who died on Aug. 1, and had performed with the Clancy Brothers around the world.

The Spain brothers had the privilege of their parents in the audience Saturday night, too.

At times the show took on the air of a recording studio with an overhead boom video recorder reaching out over the audience and several video cameras located throughout the theater.

Of particular note was a moving ballad Tom Paxton song, sung by the Spain brothers, called “When Annie takes me home.” Another, “Whiskey Row,” was about a street in Chicago, but one patron joked it could have been about Galena Street.

But the group’s best performances were the sailing songs, such as “Mingulay Boat Song,” “Queensland Whalers” and “Day of the Clipper.” Whenever the five-some harmonized together in full unison, it brought strong appreciation from the crowd. Their vocals were particularly vibrant on “When We Danced in Donegal” written by Conor Makem.

Roundtable Pictures of Manchester, N.H,. where most of the band now calls home, will produce about 1,000 DVDs, said producer Mike Gillis, after culling all the material into about two hours. Cost of the entire production was about $20,000.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Questions Of Morality, With A Boston Accent

By Lars Trodson

I think the reason that audiences – or at least half of the possible audience – have rejected Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” may be because of the terrible argument Michelle Monaghan’s character has to make at the end of the film.

Monaghan plays Angie, partner and girlfriend to Patrick; the couple comprise a pair of low rent private detectives who have been hired to find a missing four year old girl. The little girl, Amanda, is the daughter of a slatternly, foul-mouthed, coked-up loser named Helene (played by Amy Ryan). It’s telling that the detectives are hired not by Helene but by Bea, the aunt (Amy Madigan), who has problems of her own. It’s not a pretty picture, but as is the case when any child goes missing all those involved – and many who are not – simply want the child returned safely.

In the end – spoiler alert – little Amanda is found, and the couple she ends up with, the couple that has kidnapped her - provides the story its supposed moral twist. Amanda is now with a couple who could possibly (if we overlook the gaping holes in the story) provide a better life than the one with her own biological family. And so it is, at the end of the picture, that Angie argues with Patrick that he shouldn’t turn in the kidnappers and let Amanda live her life with this new family.

Angie is, of course, making an argument to keep Amanda from her own mother. This is the same Angie who didn’t want to take the case because the thought of anyone kidnapping a child was too disturbing; it cut too deep. This is the same Angie who has a change of heart later and jumps into a quarry in the dark to try to save the child after it’s thought the little girl was in the water. But in a moment that sets aside both the logic of the story and the logic of human emotion, it is left to poor Michelle Monaghan to try to sell the argument that the kidnappers might be better parents than the poor unfortunate loser Helene.

Sometimes audiences reject a film just based on the gut feeling that something is irreparably wrong with it – that something, indeed, might even be offensive; offensive, that is, other than in the sense that it is offending you through the more obvious channels of sex and violence.

But as Angie was opening her mouth and stating her case in the final moments of the film, I kept murmuring half aloud, “No, no, no, no, no.” But she does, and it was at that moment the film lost me completely. It may be that’s how the book, by Dennis Lehane, ends, and it may be that in the book this makes sense. It could be that the circumstances from which Amanda was taken are much, much worse in the book (as bad as they are in the film), but still.

I can’t conceive of a woman, and one as purportedly as sympathetic as Angie appears to be, making the argument that a child should be taken away from her mother (outside the woman being an officer of the court and she is just following a court order). I understand that young women, who would under normal circumstances be a big part of this film’s potential audience, would simply not want to sit through two hours of storytelling only to have the filmmakers say that if you violate certain moral codes you’re going to punished in the worst way by having your child taken away and given to – how to put this – better people. Kidnappers? And it hurt to have that argument made by the one truly sympathetic female character in the film. No one wants to hear that, and doubly so if you’re paying 10 bucks to hear it.

This is probably where screenwriters Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard should have switched the dialogue and given the argument of nurture over nature to Casey Affleck’s Patrick, and to have Angie argue that bringing the child back to the mother is the best recourse, even if the mother is imperfect. You could see how this would make much more sense, and still give the movie the power it was going after. I think, obviously, it would have made the movie even been more powerful.

As it is, we’re left with this awful moral hole, despite the fact that Angie may be right in a purely utopian sense. Because here she’s not only making a dubious statement, she’s simply forgetting that while the family Amanda is now living with may have a nicer house, and the new parents may not be drug addicts or speak foully, or drink beer during the day, they are still so morally despicable they would kidnap a child, rip that child from her mother and aunt, to satisfy whatever parental urge is missing from their own lives. Even if we didn’t consider any of that Angie would still be wrong, but when we add that on top her argument is baffling and, in the end, a defeatist one for the audience.

And that’s too bad, because, leading up to it, there are many fine things in “Gone Baby Gone.” I thought it had one of the loveliest opening montages in recent memory, and you feel nicely transported to this place, this working class neighborhood of Dorchester – a place that overlooks the shining city of Boston like Brooklyn looks off in the distance at Manhattan. No one in these suburbs wishes they were either in Boston or Manhattan proper, by the way; the people in these smaller cities have admirably carved out their own identities in the shadow of their more famous, and less culturally defined, neighbors.

Dorchester is very much its own place, and Affleck quite rightly populated this film with local people who speak in those unmistakable regional and local Massachusetts accents and tones. The New York Times was right to call this one of the most authentic sounding movies set in Boston and the region ever made. It isn’t that I’m an expert, but I grew up in Rhode Island, which has a couple of very strong accents all its own, and I’ve spent enough time in Boston (having also lived there in the early 1980s), that I’ve got a pretty good sense of it.

Our colleague Gina Carbone once wrote about the Boston accent in film, and I think the only time I have ever contributed to her vast knowledge of film was when I suggested that the accents in a little over-looked film with Robert Mitchum called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” had the most authentic Boston accents I had ever heard in a movie, up until this one. Take any other, whether it’s “The Departed” or “The Verdict” and you pretty much have disaster.

Some critics have equated all this with attempting to achieve a sense of realism in “Gone Baby Gone.” I don’t think movie directors are ever going for realism – at least not the smart ones – but what they are trying to do is create enough reality so that you suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours. The debate about whether movies can achieve any kind of realism is at least as old as film – beginning when the first audiences ran out of the theater thinking the filmed train approaching the station was going to run them over – to the films of Andy Warhol in the 1960s to this year’s Todd Haynes’ Dylan kaleidoscopic “I’m Not There.”

I simply come down on the side of those who believe that, no matter how gritty a film may be, it isn’t attempting to be real – it’s just trying to get certain details right. One reviewer said Affleck was being praised for the same kind of “sham realism” that Scorcese gets praised for. “Sham realism?” I think that maybe Martin Scorcese gets his milieu right, but he makes and has made some of the most stylized, unrealistic films ever produced. “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas” succeed (partly) because of their success in transporting us to a New York that feels right and also because of their more obvious filmic rhythms, images, sounds and music. And for Christ sake, anyway, how can you have realism, sham or otherwise, when you have movie stars at the heart of your film? It’s ridiculous.

Well, in the case of “Gone Baby Gone” you have not so much movie stars as you do familiar faces (with the exception of Morgan Freeman, who is a genuine star and actor of unusual depth and grace, but given a pretty poor role here). Casey Affleck is new to me, and he has a nice, laconic nature in this film – making some of his more tough guy dialogue unbelievable – but he has a pleasing screen presence which may grow more heft as soon as he gets some more lines on his face and more experience on his side.

As much as Affleck’s Patrick is the center of the film, “Gone Baby Gone” belongs to Amy Ryan, who plays Helene. I don’t know Ryan, either, and so here’s a little confession: in the Arts & Leisure section of The Times a couple of weeks back, titled “Redemption Hunting”, the article quite rightly focused on the local actors and locales that Affleck was using (shot wonderfully, by the way, by John Toll), and there was an anecdote about a young woman who went up to Affleck and said “I should be in your movie.” The Times writer then went on to say the woman gave a “riveting” performance, and I was under the impression this inexperienced woman was actually Amy Ryan – because Ryan is so dead on and un-actorly. She’s so washed up and burnt out that I’m thinking only someone very unaware of how they would look on film would do the part that way – and with an authentic accent to boot. But, it turns out to be this Tony-award nominated actress Ryan.

What she is here – and I hate to do it, but it’s a point of reference – is the female counterpoint to Joe Pesci’s Joey LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” Joey had this stream of high comic invective that seemed to spring fresh from his fevered but tightly wired brain, and the same is true for Helene. She’s never at a loss for words, or the sharp and angry put-down. You’ve met these people, in your life, and part of the reason why they’re scary is because of their anger and part of the reason they’re scary is because, despite the fact that their lives are fucked up and in the dirt, is that you have more than a sneaking suspicion they are smarter than you. A lot smarter, not just intellectually but also in the most enviable way for us armchair people, they have street smarts, too. They have it all over us, and Helene is that person. You just know that if she applied herself for one second she could, in your own office, eat you up and kick you to the curb before you could order your frozen latte.

And so Ryan offers us a truly memorable screen character, and yet we feel cheated because Affleck has constructed his movie oddly, and we lose her about halfway through, and only get to see her again, briefly, still preening, still yakking on endlessly between gulps of beer, at the end. You realize this is one of those movies that suffers disproportionately when one of the supporting characters isn’t around. Kind of like what “Will & Grace” would have been like without Sean Hayes and Meghan Mullalley. If Ryan isn’t a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, then the system has real problems.

But “Gone Baby Gone” also has Ed Harris, who is always, always great to watch. He’s never less than natural and always in command. (It was also nice to see Amy Madigan, she and Harris are married in real life, who has a great, foul line about Helene).

Unfortunately, it’s Michelle Monaghan who is given that last, important speech, and, as odious as it is, she doesn’t have the chops to sell it. Her character could very easily have been cut from the film and it wouldn’t have missed a beat; she’s largely reactive, anyway. She seems shoe-horned in during the whole thing, and wholly out of place when the screenplay takes Angie and Patrick into Boston’s underworld.

This is just movie talk, though, and we have to concentrate on that because “Gone Baby Gone” didn’t give us enough to chew on, even though it tried. There is at the heart of this story some questions, important questions, as to why people who should be parents don’t have any children, and why people who should never be parents can have children as easily as sneezing. It’s a question I ask myself all the time.

And then there is another question that is equally as sad, and one this movie poses even if it doesn’t mean to. We hear, all too frequently, of children who have gone missing, and we see the footage of entire communities getting out to try to find the child, and we hear of the Amber Alerts, and we hear, sooner or later, just how that story ends.

But as Affleck and Toll’s camera lingers on the faces of so many blasted out people, and when you see the faces of the girls smoking cigarettes on the porch of their tenement, and of the beaten up people drinking their beer early in the morning, the film forces us to ask if we are doing enough, or if we are doing anything at all, to help these children get ahead, and to make something of themselves as adults. Who – and what – will Amanda be when she’s all grown up? Because, after all, how many of us still go missing long after we’ve been found, and how many of us never really do with our lives what we should have even if we were never so-called lost to begin with?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Take Three: 'The Sensation of Sight'

Editor's note: Take Three is a occasional feature at Roundtable Pictures in which Gina Carbone, Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson review the same current film.

The sensation of ‘huh?’
Slow and steady does not win the indie race this time

By Gina Carbone

Fitting that a film so focused on the question “why?” left me wondering the same thing. Why do so many independent films think they have to be slow and drawn-out to prove they’re serious? Why does trying to find meaning in life have to be so ponderous? Why is the line between enlightening and exasperating so easy to cross? Why do talented actors let themselves lapse into self-indulgence as long as it’s under the guise of “independent” or “quirky” or “artsy”?

The Sensation of Sight” is a big deal in New Hampshire because it was shot in Peterborough and stars Oscar-nominee David Strathairn. It’s huge for something like that to happen here and I wanted to like this movie so I could support it wholeheartedly. But from the first shot I could tell this film would try my patience and loyalty. That shot -- a man lies in a crumpled heap on the grass in front of a beautiful stone building as the fog rolls away -- lasts throughout the opening credits.

Odd that something called “The Sensation of Sight” would have so little interest in varying its visuals. The camera is usually fixed, lingering on the same point of view for lengthy, often quiet, scenes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s a refreshing break from the frenetic pace of, say, “Bourne Ultimatum,” Strathairn’s last on-screen release. But that approach only works if the quiet scenes are insightful or moving. If not, it just makes the film feel distant and twice its actual length.

The main character, Finn (Strathairn), is a former English teacher who has a life crisis after a school tragedy. The film is broken up into a prologue, verses and an epilogue -- with various quotes from famous writers interspersed to add meaning. The tragedy pushes Finn to leave his wife and child in favor of selling encycloped
ias door to door (and searching for an understanding of “why”).

The prologue and any scenes with Finn’s wife (Ann Cusack) before the crisis are shown off-color -- a soft black-ish and white with focus on the faces. The story (although the film is never really tied to a traditional narrative) is told out of sequence. It starts on the ground and goes backward and forward but maintains a connection to a
series of other characters in the same small New Hampshire town.

My favorites are lonely mom Alice (the wonderful Jane Adams of the best kind of non-narrative indie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”); her friendless daughter, Ruthie (Cassidy Hinkle); and Dylan (Daniel Gillies), a well-meaning but pushy and irresponsible late 20- or early 30-something chatterbox.

The relationship between moody Drifter (Ian Somerhalder) and young Josh (Tony Swingle), with their desires for familial bonding, has potential but isn’t developed beyond two scenes (decent scenes, though, especially the guitar bashing; maybe it’s best they didn’t push that into a cliché). Finn’s neurosis, by contrast, is over
developed. I know I’m meant to sympathize with him, but instead I’m just frustrated.

Finn is not alone in frustrating me. The scenes between father Tucker (Scott Wilson) and daughter Daisy (Elisabeth Waterston) are especially momentum-killing, despite the engaging nature of both actors. The only thing that comes of that plotline is the idea that things have to be done in their own course. Reconciliation, acceptance -- that stuff can’t be rushed.

Remember the little smarty pants in “Jurass
ic Park”? Well Joseph Mazzello is all grown up now, playing a teen named Tripp who follows his tortured brother, Drifter, through the film. Tripp just hovers outside the action like a plot tease -- tag me in and I’ll liven up the story. But that doesn’t happen. In the film’s climax -- which seems to come out of nowhere -- Finn and Drifter share a deep, emotional moment that leaves them in tears and is clearly supposed to be a kind of revelation, though it left me scratching my head, unmoved. If I’d gotten a chance to learn more about Drifter or Tripp instead of Finn’s search for “why” maybe I’d feel something.

David Strathairn is a wonderful journeyman actor and it’s great to see him make the best of everything from “Brother from Another Planet” in 1984 to “Good Night, and Good Luck” in 2005. He’s up for anything and God bless him for doing this and adding his name as producer, too. But not every indie is a lightning bolt straight from the God of Truth. Earlier this year we had something close to that in Sarah
Polley’s “Away from Her.” There wasn’t a forced or pretentious moment in that. Nothing that didn’t belong or contribute.

This is writer/director/co-producer Aaron J. Wiederspahn’s first film and I have no doubt it will find an appreciative audience -- people mo
re patient and, perhaps, open than I. People who don’t wish the film could be at least 20 minutes shorter and tighter, with a focus on Alice, Ruthie and Dylan and maybe the others as background players. If I had the sensation of 20/20 hindsight, that might be a movie I’d see.

'Sensation of Sight' Fails To Illuminate

By Lars Trodson

The first rule for dramatists is this: show us the action, don’t tell us. In the New Hampshire-produced feature film “The Sensation of Sight”, we are told, not shown, almost everything. For more than two hours. This is a strange tactic for a film that calls itself “Sensation of Sight.”

The film, which was made in Peterborough, NH back in 2005, had not been seen by New Hampshire audiences until it debuted at the newly christened New Hampshire Film Festival in Portsmouth this past weekend. It was supposed to have premiered last year at the Festival, but it was never shown. Judging by what we saw this year, it just might not have been ready.

If you are going to make a movie about the meaning of existence, and the nature of relationships and the responsibilities we have to each other as human beings, you better have something to say that is either fresh or original. It takes more than simply being a fan of New Yorker short stories and the writings of philosophers. Aaron J. Wiederspahn, the screenwriter and director, here in his maiden effort, seems to have processed and reflected on every philosophic passage he has ever read, and imbued each with such equal importance that they all needed to be stuffed into his already over-crowded screenplay.

“A big monstrosity of nothingness,” is how one character describes existence. Or: “My light went out a while ago.” Or: “You get used to the losses.”And: “Waiting is the cursed part of life.” Or, while looking at a guitar: “I always wanted to learn to play, but never did.” And, finally, as a character looks at a church: “So this is where God lives.”

Philosophers tend to be ruminative, if not rheumy, people, and David Strathairn’s Finn -- who is ostensibly at the center of this story -- turns out to be a little bit of both. Strathairn is a fine, if not terribly weighty actor, and in “Sensation of Sight” he uses his best qualities -- a kind of weedy, hesitant intelligence -- to great advantage. But because of the way the script is constructed, we don’t know if Finn is damaged, mentally challenged in some way (is he an idiot savant?), or…or…?

That same question could be applied to almost every character in the film. It is easy to see what Wiederspahn and the producers were after: a film full of quirky, intelligent, and sympathetic characters that create, cumulatively, their own alternative universe. In movies, this is a universe that tends to look familiar, but where the rules of real-life rarely apply. When done right -- think of Paul Newman in “Nobody’s Fool” or any of the comedies of Preston Sturges -- we’ll let the vagaries of these slightly off-kilter worlds wash over us with satisfaction and ease.

But since this screenplay tends to be oblique when it should be straightforward, and blunt when it ought to be poetic, we’re frustrated by our inability to understand the characters the moviemakers struggle to get us to know so well. We rarely know how people are connected, and why we ought to care.

Everybody, not just Finn, certainly appears to be damaged. There is Dylan (Ian Somerhalder), who is in town to see his ex-mate and their little daughter. He’s a petty criminal, we guess, who is doing some sort of community service by washing a police car. Dylan also has a grudge against Finn, but it is never really fully explained. Dylan is the supporting character we meet first, and we think the main plot will involve him, but he’s very much secondary to the meaning of it all.

While doing his penance, Dylan meets the brooding Drifter (Daniel Gillies), who is more important to the plot than we originally think.

Then there’s Dylan’s ex-mate -- I don’t know if she’s a girlfriend, or wife, and what this subplot has to do with anything is anybody’s guess -- who is played, in the best performance in the film, by Jane Adams. (I have to admit, I had to look up all of the names of the characters on IMDb, because they did not register with me when I was watching the film.)

There’s Tucker, played by the great Scott Wilson, and his daughter, Daisy, (Elizabeth Waterston, who is lovely and affecting), who live together. The scene where Daisy shaves Tucker’s face with a straight-edged razor, and Tucker playfully tries to dab a little shaving cream on her face, isn’t charming; it’s creepy. There’s a scene where Finn sits down to lunch with Tucker and Daisy, and she serves a non-existent soup out of a pot. Father and daughter both seem to be in on the ruse, and Finn does, too, but what does this masquerade mean? I asked people if they understood how this odd bit of pantomime fit into either the plot or the character development, and no one at the screening got it, either.

Maybe Wiederspahn is hinting at something darker in their cloistered relationship. But it one thing to ambiguous in an effort to create mood, and something else entirely to be simply confusing.

Adding to the confusion, at least for me, was the production design. This is a world with no cell phones -- a character uses a Princess phone and there are scenes at a pay phone. The squad car they wash for community service looks right out of the 70s, but there is a late model State Police car right behind it. No one drives a car, very few people seem to be employed, and the main character, Finn, drags around a box of Encyclopedia Brittanica’s door-to-door on a red Radio Flyer wagon. Someone perhaps can explain what all this means.

I got the feeling the screenplay once incorporated the notion that the stories were all dreams, and that it was an idea later abandoned. I don’t know.

It was also frustrating that the producers seemed determined to show Peterborough, a lovely, thriving, arts-rich place, as another run-down New Hampshire mill town. Peterborough is never explicitly named in the story (we can see the logo on a police car and on a police uniform, but that’s it), but all we see are a bunch of boarded-up buildings, trash-laden loading docks, and a town that looks like it is generally a lonely, unsophisticated place.

New Hampshire needs to be better served than that by filmmakers who come here to make movies. And perhaps it is time for independent movies to slough off their self-imposed burdens of quirkiness and deep-thinking soulfulness, and just shoot for something that resembles everyday life.

Start making sense ... please

By Michael Gillis

Here’s a movie I wanted to succeed.

“The Sensation of Sight,” which screened Oct. 13 at the Music Hall during the seventh annual New Hampshire Film Festival, boasts some top-notch actors – David Strathairn, Scott Wilson, Jane Adams and Ann Cusack, to start – and was shot right here in my home state of New Hampshire.

And it’s a movie bankrolled by local dollars, not Hollywood gold.

Those are only a few of the reasons I was rooting for “The Sensation of Sight” when it wrapped in Peterborough, New Hampshire, over a year ago.

Sadly, it’s a mess.

There's a scene somewhere near the middle of this rambling, 2-hour and 13-minute exercise in high-school level philosophy where a family sits down to dinner, served by a female sibling. She ladles out soup but the pot is empty. Something is wrong, obviously, and the other diners accommodate their troubled kin by dipping their spoons into the empty bowls and taking sips of air. Why? What’s wrong? How did we get here? I have no idea.

All of “The Sensation of Sight” is like being served an invisible dinner. The director, Aaron Wiederspahn, lays out a smorgasbord of small-town characters and their woes, but, like Chinese food, we’re left starving a few hours later.

Strathairn plays Finn, a high school teacher thrown off track by a classroom tragedy. In his search for meaning, he abandons his family and sets out with a wagonload of encyclopedias, which he half-heartedly attempts to sell door to door. I’m guessing “The Sensation of Sight” was born of that image: a hatted, middle-aged man towing a child’s wagon across town. That image, of course, became the film’s poster. But the reason Finn embarks on this journey is not adequately explored or justified, despite the film’s length and pedestrian probe of Finn’s madness. I’m not sure why a man so deeply affected by a child’s tragedy outside of his home chooses to abandon his family as therapy. It’s a story I’d be willing to entertain, but … what is the story?

There are fine performances in “The Sensation of Sight,” but I could have cared less about these people. Part of the difficulty, I suspect, is a litany of clichés and uneven dialogue. There’s a scene between Scott Wilson, who plays Finn’s father, and his daughter, in which she says, “You’re really getting into this religion stuff, aren’t you?” The father replies: “I gather I am.”

I gather? Religion stuff? Forget the bad dialogue. What’s happening here?

Too much of “The Sensation of Sight” sounds like that, a script fumbling for authenticity but unable to find its voice.

We’ll see more from most of these fine actors, to be sure, and I do hope to see more mature work from Wiederspahn in the future. I just hope he chooses to pursue a sensation of sense.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

One Last Time, With Feeling: 'Touchez pas au grisbi'

By Lars Trodson

Here is a movie, in French, in black and white, that glides across your emotions like an absolute dream.

Touchez pas au grisbi” translates loosely, I am led to believe, as “Hands Off The Loot.” This refers strictly to money. Everything else in the movie, whether its turf, loyalty, friendship, women or sex, is up for grabs. Maybe.

But watching this lovely little film, a film that so neatly keeps its mood, that captures tiny moments, that manages both crowd scenes and intimate moments with comparable ease, elicits not only admiration, but a question.

What has happened to filmmaking of this kind? Where has it gone? Everything one could hope for in a film is here: dialogue that is funny, menacing and revealing. The director, Jacques Becker, keeps a firm handle on the movie’s interior geography. The viewer never gets lost. Even the briefest performances capture moments of personality. The camera expertly reveals the story from multiple points of view, and it all draws to a finely satisfying conclusion that works precisely because it seems well thought out while at the same time not trying too hard. And we have violence that is still unsettling, moments of tenderness, character exploration, and questions about the mystery of friendship and how things can get all bollixed up without anyone even trying.

And you think, even in its day, it probably didn’t cost a lot of money. I think of “Evan Almighty”, a comedy that floated its way to box office disaster to the tune of $140 million. This is progress?

“Touchez pas au grisbi”, which was released in 1954, opens with a shot of Jean Gabin, with a lovely French torch song in the background, who plays Max, the aging thief, a guy who simply wants to retire. He’s weary of the nightlife, the anxiousness. He’s leery of getting old and staying in the game too long. Gabin, the great French actor, is still uncommonly handsome, plays Max not only as fearsome but also a little goofy. Max is handed a newspaper and we learn that $50 million in gold bullion has been stolen. That’s all we need to know, right off the bat, and that’s all we’re told. This is unfussy, and clear, filmmaking.

Max has a sidekick, Riton (Rene Dary), with whom he has run with for 20 years, and they are like a little couple – they even brush their teeth the same way because they’ve been together for so long. At one point Max looks at his slightly ridiculous friend and says, simply, “So, porcupine-head.” It’s just a small statement of affection.

Part of the fascination with a film like this, one that was shot outside the studio, as so much of post-war European filmmaking was, is that we get to see the sites. The Paris streets, the small cafes, the neon signs of small hotels, the nightclubs, the little apothecaries, the telephones, the cars, the glasses out of which people drank their liquor, the manner in which different classes of people dressed. It was also a much less democratic society than today. Rich people always know they have money, but back then when people were broke they knew it, and they didn’t bankrupt themselves upward.

This sly film centers on what we would call the double-cross. Who is flim-flamming who, and the fun is seeing who comes out of it all right. It’s a foregone conclusion our hearts are with the wily Max. Movie audiences are always put in the position of siding with the hero -- whether he’s on the right side of the law or not -- because he’s the guy directing the action. He’s the one in control. I think villains and criminals are so much fun to play for actors not so much because they are complex, but rather they tap into something that is, at least on the surface, fundamentally appealing: They can do what they want. They do not adhere to rules. They don’t pay taxes. They take and spend money with aplomb. They get the beautiful girl even if they don’t want her. The lives the rest of us lead, while of course defined by much less anxiety and danger, are infinitely more restricted and maybe just a tad dull. Would you rather be surrounded by beautiful women in a glittering nightclub or trimming the hedges? Maybe the answer is easy, in the short term. I might rather be at the club spending other people’s money, but I also know I don’t want to pay the heavy price for it down the line.

When we go to the movies we don’t have to bother ourselves with that kind of discomfort. Our heroes experience both the pleasure and the pain for us, and in “Touchez pas au Grisbi” we get quite a bit of both, as well as the all too human melancholy that sometimes accompanies even the most exciting lives.

It’s also always fascinating to see the difference between American and European films that were made in that era. A film made in America more or less at the same time, “The Moon Is Blue", (Otto Preminger, 1953), got into trouble because it used the word virgin. In “Touchez pas au Grisbi”, the character played by Jeanne Moreau, Josy, snorts cocaine in the car. Max grabs the breast of a woman and asks “Can I give you a hand carrying that around”, and all she does is gently slap his hand, but not until it has sat there for some time. When Max visits the owner of the Club Mystific”, Pierrot, the walls are decorated with pictures of naked women. The interest of this is not prurient, not now; it just gives us another opportunity to recognize how much free-er European cinema was.

Early on, at the club Mystific, where the girls dance with lonely men, Max settles a score between his old friend, Pierrot, and the thug who sells dope on the premises, Angelo (Lino Ventura). But Angelo has other things on his mind: he wants to rub Max out.

I use that last phrase on purpose. While I won’t pretend to have read the book by Albert Simonin (ever notice how film reviewers seem to be intimately familiar with every novel, no matter how obscure, that their film versions are based on?), the novel “Touchez pas au grisbi” apparently, as the title indicates, is comprised almost entirely of a kind of hard-boiled vernacular of the Raymond Chandler variety. The book caused a sensation, and while the film version is apparently much less heated, the players within all speak that kind of street talk: they’re all fed up, get tossed out, asked to tag along, or told to skip it; it’s all street talk. It gives the film an ease, a low level vibe that makes the proceedings immensely enjoyable.

When Max leaves the club Mystific, he’s tailed by an ambulance carrying a couple of Angelo’s henchmen who want to kidnap him, but he escapes with ease. He calls Riton, and Max then shows him the $50 million in gold that he’s holding in the trunk of a hidden car.

The rest of the film tracks the double-cross, and we watch as the rag-teams of rivals attempt to grab the cash. That’s it.

It isn’t much of a story, and as worn as it may have been in 1954, it’s even more familiar now, of course. But it is the playing and the relationships that hold our interest. Riton, you see, has told Josy about the loot, but she is also having an affair with Angelo. That’s why he wants to grab Max. Max, after he learns of Riton’s foolishness, and the fact that Riton has been roughed up by Angelo’s men and taken to the hospital, ruminates, in a voice over, about the nature of their friendship. He’s angry that Riton has put them both in a tough spot, but he’s also mixed up because he knows that he’ll miss the poor slob, too, if something happens to him: “That Riton! What a pain. He’s been a pain for years. Always lousing things up. Jesus, how dumb can you get? He thinks he’s a big shot because he’s got guts. He may have balls, but what a jerk. I never should have hooked up with a mug like him. The jobs I could’ve pulled off if I didn’t have him on my back. Well, it’s my own damn fault. I should have worked on my own. But I let feelings get in the way. That’ll teach me.”

That’s Max. You get the feeling, through Gabin’s tired eyes, and his heavy sense of resignation, that he really has loved the beautiful girls (and almost all the women in the movie are stunning) he’s left behind, that he wouldn’t have traded Riton for a more capable partner, that he enjoyed the heists, and feels comfortable living just outside the law. You get the sense that he felt it all, and that’s why he’s so tired. He didn’t live outside it. That’s why it’s time to get out; he’s simply worn down.

Gabin’s Max is the deep center of this artful gem, and the movie holds our imagination not only because of the richness of the surroundings, and the thoughtful manner in which the director Becker has placed all the characters, but because the story gives Max plenty of room to roam and to express his mournful plight. We feel delighted, in our own movie way, to have met him.

Depth of feeling is always the worst thing, and the best thing, to happen to guys in film noir.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Survivor: Mamie Van Doren’s Good Life, Part II

Note: This is the second part of our interview with Mamie Van Doren. For Part I, click here:

By Lars Trodson

Nostalgia is a powerful but tricky business. It’s defined, and probably experienced, through a sense of yearning for something that you had, or probably wished you had, and maybe something that was lost. Nostalgia makes us look back through the prism of our own memory, and if we are nostalgic for a time in which we did not live then we must experience it through those avenues available to us: movies, photographs, music, and books.

Nostalgia also comes with some baggage, because it is almost as though we think the times in which we currently live don’t match up with what has come before. If we look back with yearning, it means we are searching for the allure of youth, and the attraction of the power of emotion we felt when we were young.

Many, many stars, as they get older, make their trade in nostalgia. They sing oldies, autograph photos of themselves in their prime, discuss the movies they made and the games they played long ago.

Mamie Van Doren, on the other hand, obliterates any need for nostalgia about her earlier career. The arc of her story has to take us through certain eras because she lived through them, of course, and the accumulation of those experiences got her where she is today, yes. In Mamie’s case it’s useful to look back. But then we have to remember that she is very much present in the here and now, living her life very much to the fullest in 2007, and that seems to be much more important. Name another star who came of age in the 1940s and ‘50s who is doing that today. Paul Newman. Lauren Bacall? Yes. But then the list grows short.

Mamie’s career today isn’t an oldies act; it’s defined by her current self. She contemporaneous with the times -- she clearly knows about the younger people who have arrived on the scene, and she’s very pointed in her attitudes about the American political atmosphere. Is she leading a cultural revolution that defies and rejects ageism? That’s probably putting too much weight on it. What she is doing is living her life, and others can take notice if they want.

So when she talks about Jack Dempsey, whom she dated in the early 1950s in New York, it becomes more than just a bold-faced named anecdote, it’s another way of learning about who she is, and another way of understanding her core beliefs about age and attitude toward life. Age is a…what? Is it anything at all?

So when she was in New York in the early 50s, she says: “I was dating Jack Dempsey at the time, who was 50, and age never mattered to me. It wasn’t important. If I liked a young guy, I’d go with him. Jack Dempsey (acted like he) was 18, like he was my age, we had a lot of fun together.” She makes a point of saying that she didn’t really date actors, although there were some -- Burt Reynolds among them -- because she wasn’t really attracted to actors who portrayed athletes. She would rather go out with a real athlete (she was once married to a baseball player). This is the approach of someone seeking out what is real, and not being attracted to what is the tinsel, the illusion.

Dempsey, of course, was one of, if not the most, famous athlete of his day -- the real thing -- and in the 50s there might not have been anyone more famous in New York. Mamie didn’t care that the studio didn’t really want them to be seen together because of their age difference.

“He took me to the most famous places, he had the Jack Dempsey Restaurant, everybody knew him,” she says now. “He was handsome and had this great wardrobe. He lived high. Any girl would have loved to date him.” When she went back to Hollywood, they would go out together to Chasen’s, and there was publicity about that.

But now the young girl from South Dakota, with a new name, and under the tutelage of Jimmy McHugh and drama school, started to get parts in the movies. Her good looks and powerful sexuality have transcended time, as we now know, but her voluptuous physique and playful attitude dovetailed perfectly with the emerging sense of freedom Hollywood was exploring at the time. She was getting noticed and she was beginning to make her way.

The parts started coming in such movies as “Hawaiian Nights”, “Yankee Pasha” and “Francis Joins the WACs” -- an entry in the Francis the Talking Mule series. And she was photographed on the town, looking gorgeous -- and smiling -- at Ciro’s and all the other haunts where movie stars were known to go.

“Everybody smoked and drank. The actresses of that day, your Joan Bennetts and Joan Crawfords, they drank and lived high, and they lived really hard lives. I never went that route. I never smoked, maybe a little pot as a teenager, but never any hard liquor,” she says now. And there was a practical reason for that, beyond just her health: “I must say I really enjoyed my sex life a lot, and when I drank I felt it slowed everything down and I did not enjoy it. I thought if I didn’t want to go to bed with somebody that maybe if I drank I couldn’t feel it” -- at which point she laughs -- “but I always felt my sexual desires were much stronger than booze and drugs.”

She hit the A-list with 1958’s “Teacher’s Pet” with Doris Day, Clark Gable and Gig Young. It’s a smart, snappy little black and white comedy, and Mamie plays a nightclub singer named Peggy DeFore who is dating Gable’s older, wiser and somewhat disgruntled newspaper editor.

The scene where we first glimpse Mamie is at The Bongo Club, where she’s performing, and she’s snuggled up to Gable. Gable is the old pro, of course, but Mamie’s got him wrapped around her finger.

The first words we hear from Mamie are: “These days a girl has to know all about deductibles, capital gains taxes. She could wind up working for the government. What do you think?”

Gable just snarls.

“Never mind,” purrs Mamie, as Miss DeFore. “You’ve been thinking enough for today.”

Moments later, Gig Young and Doris Day walk in -- you see, Gable has a crush on Day but she’s dating Gig Young -- causing Gable even more heartburn.

“Who’s the character?” Mamie asks of Young. “He’s dreamy. He must be from Hollywood.”

Gable waits a perfect beat, and then growls out: “He’s a psychiatrist.”

“No kidding. Whaddya know,” Mamie’s character says. “It just goes to show. You can’t tell by looks.”

She should know. Naturally smart, she knew instinctively that the world judges you on how you look, but she also knew that looks alone would not guarantee her survival, in Hollywood or anywhere else.

“I took my work very seriously, I studied,” she says. “But because of the attributes that I was gifted with, I think that really got in the way of looking at me as a performer and an actress. I had a hard time because they really think you can’t be a beautiful woman and get an Academy Award. I think you have to be kind of homely and ugly … or make yourself ugly and really bad.”

History bears this out. While any number of stunningly beautiful actresses have won the Oscar, very, very few have won one when floating through a picture looking like a dream. Whether it is Grace Kelly, or Elizabeth Taylor or Sally Field or Charlize Theron, actresses are almost certainly more likely to be praised when they deglamorize themselves. It is not a trend that has eased with time.

There is a memory that apparently still rankles Mamie. “It’s like when Marilyn did "Bus Stop" (1956), she didn’t even get nominated for an award. I mean, she was lovely in that and never even got nominated. That’s just so bad.”

Mamie cites actress Kim Basinger for having opened up that door a little bit. “I was so surprised when she got the award for ‘L.A. Confidential.’” That movie -- a look at the underbelly of Hollywood in the 1950s -- was also something she lived through.

“That movie reminded me of everything, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, who I used to date,” she says now.

Next came the string of movies that Mamie is perhaps best known for now, although at the time they were very much B-pictures, some made with legendary producer Albert Zugsmith (“High School Confidential!”, 1958) was one of many. All the titles were strikingly similar in their way, and Mamie, in a tight sweater and a bullet bra, was the main attraction.

Her next phase was as a globetrotting actress. “I not only worked in Hollywood, but Germany and Yugoslavia and Madrid, Paris and South America, Buenos Aires. I’ve done movies all over the world, and I always worked opposite the stars of those countries,” she says. She wrote a couple of books, did nightclub acts, married the band leader Ray Anthony and had a son, Perry.

The 1960s passed, and Mamie’s particular brand of ‘oomph’ faded. A more naturalistic look, with Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway leading the pack, came into vogue. Mamie married twice, to a ball player and then, briefly, to a businessman, and in the depths of a severe depression she went to a place, Vietnam, that was as dark as she felt.

She had been what she called a “middle of the road Republican.” She was a supporter of Richard Nixon -- she appreciates that he was a self-made man -- and the war in Vietnam. But her experiences there colored her positions, and gave her a continuing appreciation for American troops. She still embraces the troops of today warmly on her website.

“I was completely behind the Vietnam cause, and people put me down terribly for that,” she remembers. “But when I went to Vietnam I said ‘What are we doing? What in the hell are we doing?’ My God.” Mamie did not join a USO show, those shows were presented in more protected areas, and she went right to the front lines. The pictures of her during this time, in Vietnam (one accompanies the first installment of this interview), are remarkable. She’s stunningly beautiful, but the setting is the antithesis of glamour. The troops stationed where she performed must have been unimaginably grateful to see her.

But it was ugly, and it changed her.

“One time when I was performing outside there was a helicopter overhead, and a body in a body bag. They were pulling body bags from the helicopter, and I absolutely could not finish the song. I said to myself, ‘What for? Why is this going on?’ These were kids who did not want to go.”

Of the more than 55,000 men and women killed there, she asks now: “Look at the presidents we possibly lost.”

Her experience then has informed her assessment of the war in Iraq, and the current occupant of the White House, neither of which she views favorably.

“Now we have 3,000, 4,000 dead and over a million Iraqis that have died. How does this president sleep at night, will you tell me?” she asks. “We’re really going to have to get this country back to us.”

But this is a flash of intolerance, borne out of a humanistic nature that values life, and so it doesn’t last long.

And this brings us to the present day.

Mamie’s last widely released film was in 2002, called “Slackers”, but she now concentrates on her work through the web, where her racy films can be downloaded. She is selling other items, some with a decidedly personal bent, and she’s endorsing a new limited line of wines called “Mamietage.”

“This is what I’m really excited about,” she says. “I’m not a connoisseur of wines, but I know a good one when I taste it.” The wines are produced and bottled by Armida Winery in Sonoma County, CA, and she’s officially launching them at a Santa Rosa country club on Oct. 23. The wine labels will feature three images of Mamie, and, pointedly, two of the images will be of Mamie today, while the third will be from an earlier era.

The decision to use more of images of Mamie as she looks today seems important. It signals a small but determined gesture on her part that says: who I am today is just as vibrant and sexy and potent as the movie star you may remember from your youth. She is saying, I’m older, you’re older, so what? Get over it. Age can, and should, have its own allure.

And while she’s always had a global audience, movies are decidedly less intimate than the conversation she’s now having with her fans through her website. Early on she knew the power of the computer, even when the people of her own generation have unfortunately been intimidated by it.

“They have a computer in their house and have no idea how to even turn it on. I started on the Internet when I was writing my book “Playing the Field” and that was in 1985, and I was on an old Mac and I had to keep changing the files because you could lose everything and it was really difficult, but I’m really ahead of the thing, and I still am,” she says. “I just love it.”

Through her site, fans, everyday people, are reaching out. And her reaction to them is in keeping with her faith, and her perspective.

“I know that I get a lot of comments from people on my website from women who have a fear of age, of growing older, and they don’t look as good as they want to look, and they look at me and they feel as though maybe there is hope,” she says. “They say ‘Mamie don’t leave me.’ People are just crying out. I can’t believe some of the messages I get. They’re opening their whole heart and soul to me.”

She says that she always looks at her website before she goes to sleep. “I think they are waiting for me to get online to see if they are accepted as one of my friends.”

Mamie Van Doren sounds happy now. She talks of her husband of almost 30 years, Thomas Dixon, and her son Perry, from her marriage to Ray Anthony. She talks about how grateful she is for the robustness of her sex life -- she says her orgasms are stronger than ever -- which is all in keeping with her lovely philosophy about the ongoing possibilities of life.

“My husband says to me, what happened? I’m getting older and you’re getting younger,” she laughs, noting that Dixon is 15 years younger than she is. Her life now intersects with our modern lineup of stars and starlets, such as Anna Nicole Smith -- who Mamie says “did not have a bad bone in her body” -- and Pamela Anderson, with whom she shot a layout for Vanity Fair.

She talks of the angels that have helped protect her since youth. “Oh, I have had an angel,” she says. “And still do.”

When asked, finally, if she looks back at the fullness of her life, the sheer scope of it, and if she wonders whether she was the one who actually lived it, or if it seems like someone else’s dream, she laughs out loud.

“Oh, no, it was me!” she says, her voice strong and clear, ageless, and full of affirmation. “No one else could do it.”

And so, hearing this, we can say with assurance, just as Travolta did in the movie: That’s Mamie Van Doren.

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Survivor: Mamie Van Doren’s Good Life

Note: This is the first of our two-part interview with screen icon, author and performer Mamie Van Doren.

By Lars Trodson

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, during the famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene, Uma Thurman asks John Travolta to get the attention of one of the waitresses so they can order some food. She points to one of the staff, who are all made up to look like 1950s movie icons, and identifies the waitress as Marilyn Monroe.

“That’s not Marilyn Monroe,” says Travolta’s Vincent Vega. “That’s Mamie Van Doren.”

Correct. You can’t, and shouldn’t, get the two mixed up.

Marilyn, of course, had a career shrouded, almost imbued, with tragedy. Her stunning face almost always had a thin veil of sadness floating around it. Not so of Mamie Van Doren. In all her vintage photographs she is smiling, laughing, exuberant. Today, her smile continues to arrive naturally, and that comes not just from having lived a full life -- and not one, of course, without adversity; she has been open about dealing with her own depression -- and a long life, but a good life. It’s also not just a question of enjoying good luck, it’s a statement of basking in the glow of what you can do for yourself.

It would be easy to ask Mamie Van Doren, as she still poses nude, and talks frankly and unapologetically about sexuality and the positive role it plays in life, to act her age. But her persona and outlook puts us in the position of asking another, infinitely more interesting question: just what does it mean to act one’s age?

“My parents never thought of age, they didn’t even bring the word up, they never even paid any attention to it. So I never even became aware of age until people started to talk about it, and I think they bring it up because of fear,” she says. “If they bring up your age it’s because they’re worried about getting older or if they are going to make it as far as I have.”

It’s apparent that Mamie, as she dances into the last half of her 70s, is acting her age as precisely as she feels she is meant to act it. Good for her.

This is a life that has come far from the farm fields of South Dakota, where she was born, and a life that has intersected with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Robert Mitchum and Marilyn and Jayne Mansfield and Richard Nixon and Anna Nicole Smith. It is not so much glamour that is at the heart of this story, but rather one of attitude, and self awareness, and of treating the world just as you wish to be treated. It’s a story of self-invention, to some degree, but Mamie Van Doren’s story is also an astonishing one of hope and possibility.

“I won’t even kill an ant,” she said during a long telephone interview recently. “You’ll never know what you’ll come back as.” And that is as good a hook as any to hang this story of a person who is always looking forward to the next good thing.

She was determined, even at a young age, to survive. She saw her contemporaries Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe die tragically young. She sees the young stars today -- like Lindsay Lohan -- and she laments that careers now seem to be over before they even get started. “When they get into their 20s it’s about over and then you’ve got somebody else coming up, and its very hard,” she says. She was, in the 1950s, bundled in with Marilyn and Mansfield as one of the “3 Ms”, one of those unfortunate publicity stunts that seems determined to
rob people of their individuality, and which also was the precursor to today’s ubiquitous Bennifers and Brangelinas and TomKats. But it is Mamie alone that remains out of that earlier group, and in fact she is one of the few vibrant personalities from the 1950s who is still carving out a unique niche in the 21st century.

She was sophisticated and intelligent enough to navigate her way through Hollywood, certainly beautiful and talented enough to belong there, and then to make international movies with international stars and then, when the time came, to embrace the Internet, where her personality now shines through. She traveled to Vietnam in the early 1970s, which was perhaps the war’s, and her own, darkest hours, and she went right to the front lines where few other performers ever ventured. Those journeys too had an impact that resonates to this day.

But first we have to go back. We’ll get to all the movie stars and movie sets and nightclubs in a little bit. But traveling back to where Mamie Van Doren came from is important because it seems as though the most enduring stars we have, the ones we connect with the most, are not the one’s manufactured on the studio lot or in the recording studio but rather the ones whose early lives had an earthiness to them, the experience of the everyday. Our icons are the ones who started out as day laborers, or cooks or soldiers, and who were always looking out the window of their office or kitchen and dreamed of something wholly different for themselves.

And so we travel back to the South Dakota of the Depression.

Her mother Lucille was a homemaker and her father Warner Carl “worked very hard, he was a laborer, a mechanic, a construction worker.” But for the first years of her life she lived with her grandparents, where there was always good food from the farm, but no citrus -- “a lemon was like gold,” she remembers -- and there was no indoor plumbing. “It was very interesting to grow up in that kind of environment at that time. We found Indian arrowheads all over the place.” It was not all about the daily grind of hard work. There were glimpses of a larger world, and the kind of celebrity that was distinctly unique to that time.

“We had Bonnie and Clyde blowing up farmhouses all around us, and Dillinger was robbing banks, and we had the Native Americans there, too,” she says. “South Dakota was really an exciting time in the 1930s.” Her grandfather listened to Hitler speeches on the radio -- he was of German descent -- and Joe Louis fights, and everyone around her worked hard. It is a lesson she remembers.

“Up at 4:30 in the morning and at the plow -- we didn’t have a John Deere tractor -- they walked behind the horses. And I would have to walk a mile through the 40 acres to bring them their lunch -- and one farm would help the other or else they couldn’t survive,” she says, using a word that pops up with some frequency in her speech. Her heroes were Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, two troupers who survived deep into old age in their own way.

Mamie was born, in 1931 as Joan Lucille Olander, and she remembers “from that minute on” she knew she was special and gifted in some way. “I had attention without having to do anything.” And she knew that there was a life for her beyond the Badlands of South Dakota. “At the time you felt you were going to get married and have children and then you’d become a homemaker. But I didn’t think that was for me. I saw what my grandmother had to go through and that really wasn’t what I wanted.”

It certainly wasn’t what she got.

World War II brought her family to California, and in the summer of 1949, when she was just 18, she started to get noticed by some of the right people.

“When I was staying at a hotel with my mother they were sponsoring a beauty pageant, and thought I was never going to win, there were some beautiful girls. Well, I did win, and I was Miss Palm Springs. When I was Miss Palm Springs I had a lot of publicity and that’s kind of when it started,” she says.

It just so happened that Howard Hughes was in the audience the night she was crowned. Hughes owned RKO Pictures and had been making movies since the end of the silent era, and a representative called Mamie and she was asked to come over to the studio. “I was going to work there in the summer months, and that’s when I felt I was going to be in the movies.”

The same year she also took the crown for the Miss Eight Ball contest -- Monroe had won the same pageant the year before -- “and I got scads of publicity for that and I became very, very popular.”

Joan Lucille Olander was renamed -- an amalgam of Mamie Eisenhower and a movie actor named Mark Van Doren (which was also the last name of the leading academic family of the day) -- and the new moniker seemed to perfectly fit her and the sexy atmosphere of the day.

Hughes put her in a movie called “Jet Pilot” with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, which was directed by Josef von Sternberg (who was Dietrich’s mentor). “(Sternberg) had me climbing up this big ladder, and I only had a couple words but they cut it out.” Although the movie was filmed in 1951 it wasn’t released until 1957 (it turned out to be von Sternberg’s final released film), she was also getting bit parts, including one in “Footlight Varieties” that was directed by none other than D.W. Griffith. But quickly after “Jet Pilot” Hughes put her in another movie called “His Kind of Woman” (also 1951) with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum seems to have stirred up some memories. “He was hot,” she says with a laugh, “And I was just a kid and he had me come to his dressing room a lot to talk and he was so cute.” But she also recalls Mitchum as a “wonderful actor. I would just watch and I learned more on those three months working on those scenes. I learned so much. I was thinking then I had to become a good actress.”

It may have seemed a natural career move, going to New York in the early 1950s, which she did. Mamie became a showgirl. But by her own admission she was neither a dancer nor a model. “I couldn’t get arrested,” she remembers. “I met Sammy Fain, who was writing a lot of Broadway shows. I said I’m going home. He gave me the number of Jimmy McHugh” -- the songwriter -- “so I said I’ll call him when I got back to California, and I did and he said ‘Come on up.’ He had a beautiful home and right away he liked me, and I sang all of his songs, he had those great songs. This was 1951, ’52 and January 1953. He was my Svengali -- he wanted to be called my Svengali and he told me that I was going to be a movie star.”

Movie stars in those days were expected to be versatile. Hollywood was still making musicals -- the early 50s turned out to be that genre’s last golden age -- and singing and dancing and diction were essential for survival. McHugh sent Mamie to drama school, and she was told by McHugh “I want you to go day and night, day and night. So I did a lot of theater, and day and night school and a lot of drama. I was doing “The Big Knife”, Clifford Odets wrote it, then I did “Come Back, Little Sheba” that Terry Moore was in (the film version), and Universal called and they were doing a movie over there called "Forbidden" with Tony Curtis and Joanne Dru.”

The script called for a nightclub singer -- the setting was Macao -- “and they needed someone right away. They wanted me to sing ‘You Belong to Me’ and I had to learn the song. I had to go in and do everything perfectly. When I went in I had bitten my nails down, and they had to put nails on and they were doing my hair and fixing my face, and they had this gown sent over from MGM, an old Jean Harlow dress, and a pair of white Joan Crawford ‘fuck me’ shoes, and I was so nervous they had to put eyelashes on me and they couldn’t even put those on I was blinking so much,” she says.

But -- and these are her own words -- “everything is timing.” It turns out the sales force from Universal’s New York office was at the studio that day.

“They saw me and signed me to a contract. A two year contract with options and I was there for five years,” she says, and you can still hear the affirmation of this experience in her voice as she remembers. “I was making $300 a week.”

Marilyn, she points out, was making $500 a week.

And so Miss Van Doren arrived. For good.

Next: Hollywood stardom, older women and younger men, and growing older with grace. Visit

For Part II, click here: