Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books—-her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Category: Texas Page 1 of 3

LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin (TX) Alive in Spring

Decided to take Ava & Elise to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They’ve been before. As you can see, Elise is excited!

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is dedicated to inspiring the conservation of native plants.  All of the gardens feature plants native to Texas, from the mountains in the West to the Gulf Coast.  The practices focus on conserving resources, providing wildlife habitat, protecting native plants and creating a sense of place. This is the Botanic Garden of Texas and an organized research unit of the University of Texas at Austin.

We took the twin granddaughters (Ava, the brunette, and Elise, the blonde) for lunch and on a stroll through the  various fields of flowers, telling everyone to stick to the path and watch out for snakes—especially rattlesnakes. In addition to rattlesnakes (western ribbonsnakes, thamnophis proximus) there are also redstripe ribbon snakes (T.p. rubrilineatus), squirrels and lizards.
In season now were Texas bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, pink evening primrose, Engelmann’s daisies, horsemint, Indian blanket (the orange ones by the tree), Rock rose, Antelope horns, Mexican hat (yellow, like small sunflowers) and standing cypress.

Wildflower Cafe & flowers.

Yellow water-lilies.

Yellow waterlily.

Waterliles.

Nature in action.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference (apologies to Robert Frost).

Pool in Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella).

Chinese girl at Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center.

Two Chinese girls at the Lady Bird Jonson Wildflower Center

Fallen tree.

Fallen tree—but the root does not seem to have been anywhere around the rest of the tree. How?

Red yucca.

Squiggy the squirrel, enjoying a snack.

Girls behind the waterfall.

Ava and the deer.

Path.

Waterfall (no girls).

Brilliant wildflowers.

Field of wildflowers.

View from up top.

View from atop the tower.

Wildflower fields from atop the tower.

Bits & Pieces of Random News for April 3, 2019

Some random thoughts of the day:

  1. One of the Decorah eaglets has died. Poor little thing had a name/number, like DN10, but he (or she) was one of 2 born in the Raptor Research nest and it appears—judging from the way Mr. North pushed the little bird body off to the side of the nest—

    The Day Shall Come at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo)

    the chick died only a day or two after being born.

  2. The mysterious polio-like illness that doctors are calling AFM (acute flaccid myelitis) has struck at least 228 known victims in the U.S. in 2018. In an every-other-year cycle, has afflicted more than 550 Americans, including a 32-year-old. More than 90% are children around 4, 5, or 6 years old who come down with a cold that paralyzes them. Those of us who lived through polio epidemics are praying for another Dr. Jonas Salk.
  3. Biden on the caucus campaign trail in Iowa prior to the 2008 presidential race. Don’t worry: I’ll be back to politics by the end of the week.

    Conflicting reports on whether the GOP is going to address health care before or after the 2020 election. DJT has been quoted as saying they should come out with a plan before the election, but having a plan has not been the GOP’s strong suit under this president, no matter what the issue. There seems to be no desire to “fix” the things that would be fixable under Obama-care, because the current occupant of the White House is too obsessed with denouncing, denigrating and destroying the record of his predecessor to really do much beyond “framing” issues and using media to “pose” as having plans on issues, when it seems that little is being done.

  4. Read a horrifying in-depth article (“New York Times”) about Michigan’s schools, which have largely been turned over to a topsy-turvy crazy quilt of Charter schools, which are not doing any better a job with the students than the public schools they replaced. Truly sounds like a nightmare scenario, but this is the scenario that Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, has always tried to foster. She is a native of Michigan and a huge proponent of charter schools, despite her own home state’s dismal record. She also has absolutely not one credential for occupying the position of Secretary of Education.
  5. With Vice President Joseph Biden (then Senator Biden) at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Davenport, Iowa, caucus season, 2008.

    The Democrats continue to attack one another. I would say “eat their young,” but Joe Biden is not young. The latest attacks on the former Vice President come from a woman actively supporting Bernie Saunders and are largely undercut by photos of her with her hands on his shoulders at the same event that she claims so traumatized her. It is sad that campaigning in the year 2020 has come to this.

  6. The weather remains pleasant here in the Austin area, but it sounds like the Midwest is pretty well flooded. With Trump’s typical lack of concern for those in dire straits, whether Puerto Ricans on that hurricane-ravaged island or Midwestern farmers who seem to have pretty well taken it in the shorts with the Chinese tariffs and flooding, it is going to be no fun at all trying to navigate the construction zone for the proposed new I-74 bridge over the Mississippi River, joining Iowa with Illinois. (Construction was delayed by the brutal winter). Not looking forward to dealing with it.
  7. Image from Suzanne Weinert’s “A Good Son.” (SXSW Press)

    The Lagoon in Cancun, Mexico, at sunset.

    Posting a picture of one film I had to leave early in order to make it to “Shrill” and perhaps a photo from “A Good Son” (see interview with Director Suzanne Weinert, above). “The Day Shall Come” had not, to that point, “gelled.” It did have Anna Kendrick and I had an interesting encounter with Ms. Kendrick when I attempted to stop in the women’s rest room at the Paramount Theater on my way to the opening of “Shrill” right next door. A policeman told me I couldn’t enter the rest room. Cop: “I have someone in there.” Me: “A prisoner?” Cop: (Smiling) “No.” Me: “A female someone or a male someone.” Cop: “Female.” At that point, another woman, holding a Big Gulp cup and having just entered the theater from a side alley entrance tried to cut around the two of us out in the hall to gain access to the rest room. She was quickly dispossessed of the notion that either of us could enter. We continued standing awkwardly in the hall, while I tried guessing who or what was going on. Just then, the film’s star, Anna Kendrick, emerged, having been primping in the bathroom for at least 20 minutes.

  8. The Royal Islander, penthouse view (9th floor).

    I’ll be in Cancun in 3 days. I’ll try to post some photos.

Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures Is Writer/Producer/Director On the Rise

Filmmaker Suzanne Weinert, in Austin, Texas. (Picture by Connie Wilson).

Suzanne Weinert is the president of Flatiron Pictures, located in Austin (TX),which specializes in producing independent feature films throughout the Southwest. Her short “A Good Son,” which she directed, just had its World Premiere at SXSW. Thematically, it bears some resemblance to a Burt Reynolds film, “The End.” (1978) The short is playing at the Boston Film Festival April 11-16. Hopefully,  the feature of “A Good Son” (which exists) might attract the interest of Boston-based filmmakers and, ideally, a star like Alan Arkin.

Suzanne has been producing, writing and, now, directing films since she answered an ad for an intern while a student at Columbia University and ended up assisting Director Ron Howard as he helmed “The Paper” (released in 2004). After that start, while still working on her MFA in Filmmaking, Suzanne began working for Julia Roberts’ Production Company, Shoelace Productions, and rose to become Vice President of that organization.

Suzanne has worked on such films as “Conspiracy theory” (1997), “Notting Hill” (1999), “Runaway Bride” (1999) and “The Paper” (1994) and also on “Hellion” (2014) and as the writer of the 2009 film “The ExTerminators” (Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge and Amber Heard) which, after it ran at SXSW that year, she says, “changed my life.”

The write-up in this year’s SXSW program for her short “A Good Son” is this: “When Tommy, 75, asks his son Mike to put a Hefty bag over his head and suffocate him to death, neither believes the other will really go through with it. Until Mike’s son, Chris, 17, devises a plan that will satisfy both his father and grandfather.”

Writer/Director Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

When we spoke about making movies and the theme of this particular effort, Suzanne shared these insights: “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, since they saw the short, ‘This is a conversation that’s actually going on in my house.’” She mentioned the “sandwich generation” (as the group of young people caught between caring for their own families and caring for their elderly parents is sometimes called) and asked me if I’d seen the appearance of Bea Smith’s husband on “The View.”

Bea Smith was a famous restauranteer. Several years ago Bea and her spouse sat down and talked about what to do in the event that either of them got Alzheimer’s or dementia or some other debilitating illness that would require extensive assistance. They spelled out everything each would want. Bea’s husband has done everything she asked, but when he brought another woman to their house— someone he met after Bea’s condition worsened— who has helped him  care for his ailing wife, that was controversial to many, if not to the couple themselves.

A recent news article about comedian Tim Conway, 86, shared that Conway’s wife of many years and his adult daughter were in court arguing about care for the former member of Carol Burnett’s comedy troupe, who has severe dementia and is now largely unresponsive.  Stan Lee’s death was similarly controversial and in the press a few months ago.

As Suzanne said, “They (Bea Smith & her husband) had this conversation. In America, we seem to have decided that dying is optional, so no one wants to talk about it. But the truth is, it’s going to happen to everyone and we all need to be talking about it.”

Q:  I asked Suzanne, “What is your background?”

A:   “I went to Columbia undergrad. I got a B.A. from Barnard College and then I got a Master’s degree. I started the Master’s program in Dramatic Writing and quickly realized that was not what I wanted to do, so I transferred and ended up getting an MFA in Screenwriting and Filmmaking.

While I was there, Ron Howard was looking for an intern. It was on the internship bulletin board. It said, ‘Director is seeking intern for feature film.’ I ripped off the thing and I called the number. It was Ron Howard. He was looking for an intern to work with him. So, I went down and had the interview. Kathryn Bigelow was my idol, and I remember having this conversation with Ron about Kathryn and how she’s my idol. When I was done and walked out, I thought, ‘I can’t even believe I said all these things to him.’ But he called me the next day and said, ‘I think this would be a good job for you.’ So, I was literally his intern. The Paper was a big movie. It had Michael Keaton, who had just done 2 Batmans, Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei, who had just won the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, Randy Quaid, Robert DuVall, Jason Robards, Jason Alexander, Catherine O’Hara, Spalding Grey. The film was ‘The Paper.” (released in 2004) I was still in film school. I was in my second year. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I got this thing.’ It paid no money.”

Q:  What was it like working for Ron Howard?

A:  “I was so lucky to work with someone at that stage in my career who was so wonderful, so kind,  so personally generous. Ron Howard set the bar on how you should behave. I remember after just a few weeks—a teamster was coming to pick him up every morning from New Jersey. He had to come down the west side, anyway. Instead of leaving me to take public transportation at 5 o’clock in the morning, Ron would have his teamster come and pick me up first. So, I would get 15 minutes alone in the car every morning with Ron Howard.

After a while, he said to me, ‘We should pay you something.’ So, any little job along the way he would throw my way. I got to be in a scene one day, and I got paid for that. Another time I got to work with the second unit for a day as a P.A. (production assistant). Everyone took care of me. The Teamsters took care of me. I remember the last day of shooting I gave my teamster driver a pie. I’m not a cook, but I baked him a pie. For my first time on a film set, it was so magical.

Writer/Director Suzanne Weinert of Flatiron Pictures. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

But, the beauty of it was that, if Ron was there, I got to be there, which is not always the case for interns. The one thing I remember is that being a director means being able to handle 1,000 questions at one time. It was amazing. The script was written by David Koepp and Stephen Koepp who went on to become some of the biggest screenwriters of all, at the time, but this was one of their earlier works.  It was 1992. This was one of their first ones before they started doing, like Jurassic Park, Stir of Echoes and Spiderman (2002).”

After the Ron thing was done—he was going on to prep “Apollo 11”—  the chairwoman of the department knew that someone was starting a production company in New York and she thought of me. I went to the interview and I got that job.  It was Julia Roberts.

They wanted someone to read scripts and to work hard. I was really lucky. They made it really easy for me to have responsibility. And, I got to stay in New York. I was living on 16th Street. After a few months we moved the office to 19th Street. Her president of production was a guy who was so kind, so gracious. She had a process of taking a script from there to the screen. They were super welcoming—not at all the stories you hear about Hollywood. I thought, ‘I’ll stay for 2 years. I’ll get some experience, and then I’ll just go somewhere and start to write screenplays for money.’ But I was having such a good time I stayed 7 and ½ years. I stayed 4 times longer than I thought I would be there.

Q:  Other Julia Roberts stories, beyond working on “Runaway Bride,” “Conspiracy Theory” and “Notting Hill?”

A:  I love to travel. I’m a big traveler. I’ve always volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. At one point there came a time where Julia had an opportunity to go to Borneo for a while and do a thing about orangutangs. Lewis Leaky had 3 graduate students he sent to Africa. Diane Fosse and Jane Goodall and Dr.  Birute Mary Galdikas. Jane has remained this beautiful woman. Diane was unfortunately killed. The third woman is still in Borneo and runs an orangutang rescue and that’s who we stayed with.”

My habitat work, I’ve slept on church pews for a month in Alaska. I’m used to roughing it, so when Julia said, ‘Come on…do you want to go to the Borneo jungle?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ So we did that one and a few years later we did one in Mongolia. We went to Mongolia and out to the Gobi Desert for several weeks. So, the job changed, too. We just kept doing things that were personally fulfilling. To me, to go to these exotic places with these wonderful crews from Britain and elsewhere…it was so fantastic!”

Q:  After the orangutang experience, what was next?

A:  We did orangutangs in ’97 and then we came back and did a bunch more movies, and then we went to Mongolia. At that point I had been writing scripts, and I just really wanted to jumpstart my writing career. I had just sort of gotten sidetracked for 7 years having a great time. I think I was like 34, maybe. It just seemed like a good time.

I really had always had this vision that I would just sit, with a view, and write. I think it was kind of like a ‘now or never’ thing. So I left. Something happens around 33, 34, I think. You start thinking: all right. So, then I spent a whole bunch of time writing and living in New York. I wrote ExTerminators (Heather Graham, Jennifer Coolidge, Amber Heard, directed by John Inwood). It showed at SXSW, and it changed my life. I’ve filmed 12 movies in Texas recently.”

Q:  Was there ever a moment when you had to make a decision on whether to stay or whether to leave the position as Vice President of Julia Roberts’ Shoelace Productions?

A:  I just knew. Someone did a paper on a theory that every 7 years you change. You are different. You are physically different. I think that was part of it.

My short this year (“A Good Son”) screened on the first Friday, which was great for me, but a lot of my friends couldn’t see it.”) ‘A Good Son’ really is based on a true story. Tommy Ryan really is a very virile 75-year-old man. I wanted to be honest that this is a man who has lived, by his own admission, a full life. He feels satisfied. Married to the same woman for 40 years. Raised a couple of decent kids. He doesn’t want to become feeble and have the last few years of his life be a drag. I really wanted it to say, ‘Sometimes, you’re just done.

Image from Suzanne Weinert’s “A Good Son.” (SXSW Press)

I wrote the short because I wanted to have something to show to others. So, the next step, after the short makes the festival circuit (it plays in Boston April 11-16), is going to be taking the feature out. I would like to see the film made at the feature level, but no one is going to give me $30 million dollars easily. Alan Arkin would be my dream casting. Or Robert Duvall. A friend of mine directed “Get Low” and Bill Murray played in it. (Duvall was in “The Paper’”) Alan Arkin still seems very strong and virile and alive, to me. The Boston teams—the Bruins, etc.— are a big part of the short. There are all these Boston actors and Boston directors. Jon Hamm. Mark and Donny Wahlberg. Matt Damon. Ben Affleck.

Then you start to think about what Boston-based or Boston-bred actors and directors might actually want to direct a movie about a bunch of guys from Boston. That’s kind of the direction I’m taking. There’s already a network. There’s no women in it; I don’t know exactly how to get them in there, but I want the short to do well and then ask the Boston-based directors, ‘Here’s a film about your town.’” How do I reach out to the Boston directors/actors?

Q:  Which is the better route: a college film making program or starting to direct on your own when young?

A:  Columbia’s under grad at the time did not offer a film program. U.T. has a good program where you actually get to make a short. My undergrad degree is in dramatic writing—plays and things like that. I actually had to go back to film school to study that; it was a different era.

I would say now that if you got out of school and all you had was a Bachelor’s in English, you might be at a disadvantage. I learned how to work every single piece of equipment on the set and I still have a circle of closest friends who are people I trust when it comes to work, so it gave me a great start.

It helps to be in a place where film is considered a possibility. I enjoyed having that background. It gave me a great team of people who are still in play.  You need to live in a place where film is considered an option. Austin is a great town. (Suzanne winters here; spends the hot summers in Auckland, New Zealand).

The people who are still here (the industry has shrunk considerably) are willing to help the people who are just starting out. We have a film society here that is willing to help people out. Austin is a great town for this. Dallas, Houston, Atlanta—they all have a film society organized. I don’t know any other way, so, for me, graduate school was the only possible way to go. My friends kind of went a different way.

They got into advertising. They never crossed over. Once you get into advertising you stay in advertising because the money is so good and so consistent. I’ve never had to live in L.A. I can be anywhere to write. I grew up an only child in New York, but after 2009 I moved to Austin. I joined the board of the Austin Film Society in 2012, became vice president in 2014 and then President in 2016.  It’s a purely voluntary position. Everyone on the board donates their time.  I just really wanted to give back to the community while writing and producing movies through Flatiron. Every movie that I made we shot somewhere in Texas. I shot 12 movies here in Texas and I go to L.A. a couple days each month, because my manager is there and my legal team is there and a lot of the directors I work with are there. You have to go there, but you don’t have to live there.”

Q: Isn’t part of the job of a producer raising money?

A:   Yes.

Q:  How does one do that?

A:   It’s really hard and it’s gotten harder.  Extra funds seem to have dried up now. Oil is not as high, per barrel, as it used to be. People are not as willing to take a risk.

Q:  What are the best states that offer perks to aspiring filmmakers?

A:  Atlanta is pretty consistent. To the best of my knowledge, that’s in perpetuity. They’re just going to keep doing it for a long time. Louisiana. New Mexico. Oklahoma has a very good program, but it has a cap on it. Michigan tried it for a while. Indiana. Massachusetts. New York. States like Georgia have found it to be successful. New York is clued into the fact that it is really successful.

Q:  You’d like to see top notch talent attach itself to the idea of the short?

A:  Yes. Then, my production company owns the rights to about 10 different projects. My immediate goal is to get the feature of “The Good Son” done.

Q:  What’s next for Suzanne:

A:  My short is actually based on a feature script I wrote a few years ago. As I said, I’m hoping to shop that around once the short finishes its festival run. Scriptwise, a horror movie I wrote called “Ghost Passenger” is set to start pre-production this summer. And I recently set up a rom-com called “Previously Engaged” at Intrepid Pictures.  Directing wise, I’m going to shoot a pilot for an Austin-based TV series I created this fall. So 2019 is turning out to be a pretty busy year.”

“Us” Film Rakes in $70.3 Million in Ticket Sales

Jordan Peele’s film “Us,” his follow-up to the popular “Get Out,” which premiered at SXSW on March 8th, has opened well above forecasts, raking in a 94% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes and marking it as the largest debut for an original horror movie and one of the highest openings for a live-action original film since “Avatar 10 years ago.

The only original horror films that challenged the debut were the “It” remake and last year’s “Halloween.” “A Quiet Place” did unexpectedly well, but didn’t have the “name” recognition that Director Jordan Peele is now commanding to boost its opening.

The distribution chief for Universal Pictures put out this statement:  “Peele has really crafted an extraordinary story that I think once again is going to capture the cultural zeitgeist. He is recognized as just an amazing talent.  He crafts films that make you think, that are extraordinarily well-acted, well-written and are amazingly entertaining.”

More good news: “Us” took over the top spot at the box office from “Captain Marvel.” In today’s franchise-driven spandex movie world, it is encouraging to realize that a thoughtful, original movie can still compete and dethrone those from the comic books wearing the costumes.

Following the top two films were “Wonder Park” and “Five Feet Apart,” which each made about $9 million in their second week of release. “Us,” by ontrast, doubled (and then some) the 2017 Oscar-winning “Get Out” debut, which grossed $235.4 million on a budget of $4.5 million. Since “Us” cost only $20 million to make, it’s already a huge hit for Universal Pictures.

Audiences other than the Rotten Tomatoes raters have given it a relatively low “B” CinemaScore. There are various explanations for this. One is that, as Paul Dergarabedian said, film goers are shell-shocked when they emerge from the film. Others would say that the improbable plot explanations have both confused and dampened the enthusiasm of some movie-goers. Those that enjoy thinking and talking about the meaning of a film will enjoy it; those that want it spelled out for them will not.

One thing that will emerge from this in all probability is that the 40-year-old director has now vaulted himself to the ranks of such filmmakers as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, M. Night Shymalan, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, making his name as the director as important as who is appearing in the film.

Camp Sandy Shenanigans & Other Promotional Things at SXSW

I thought readers might enjoy seeing some photos from one of the promotional things that went on during SXSW in Austin, Texas.

This particular promotion was sent to me as Press and involved the sponsors (a local whiskey and Turtle Wax) being willing to send an Uber to pick me up in Austin and ferry me out to Camp Sandy, which, I can personally attest, is way-the-hell-and-gone out in the middle of Hill Country, but has a spectacular view.

Downtown Austin  (TX) mural.

A couple of the other shots were simply things that caught my eye as I was walking (for miles) around downtown Austin (it is, by actual mileage count, nearly 2 miles from the Conference Center to the Paramount theater).

But back to Camp Sandy. I RSVP-ed that I would come to hear “the band in the van.” The concept here is that the band is INSIDE a van and the listeners watch the band on screens mounted on the outside of the van. (Weird). Low Cut Connie was supposed to play, complete with a piano (“the first time a full-sized piano has been inside the van!” said the e-mail).

Note the small tan Prius on the right of this picture (mine) at Camp Sandy.

If you had a car, they would Turtle Wax your car for free, although this turned out to be incorrect.

I RSVP-ed and asked for specific parking and navigational directions and got nothing, but I had the address, so I set off in my trusty Prius (one of 5 in the family since 2002) and found this out-of-the-way place, high up in hill country with a spectacular view. I parked alongside the driveway in, which turned out to not be that smart a move, as someone driving a humongous tank-like vehicle pulled in and left their vehicle smack dab in the middle of the ONLY way in or out. (It took about 15 minutes to find out who had left the painted van blocking the only exit or entrance.) I only had one hour before I had to be standing on a Red Carpet somewhere, but Camp Sandy sounded interesting, if weird. And, of course, there was the matter of that promised free Turtle Wax.

Except that, when I showed up, it sounded like several cars were ahead of me in a “scheduled” fashion and, therefore, there would be no Turtle Wax for the Silver Fish (as I call my Texas Prius). That was okay, but when I learned that Low Cut Connie had also bailed, I did a quick tour of the premises and left.  That turned out to be quite difficult with the blocking van and, after the van moved, I could get no signal on my GPS and would have been totally lost. The organizer who greeted me said, “If you drive to the top of the hill, you’ll probably be able to get a signal.” (Yikes! Let’s hope so!)

Still, here are some “local color” shots of the venue and of downtown Austin, Texas, during SXSW.

Camp Sandy.

Interior, Camp Sandy.

View from Camp Sandy.

Sponsor of Camp Sandy.

Patrons viewing “the van” at Camp Sandy.

Typical crowd around the block waiting for admission.

The van at Camp Sandy.

View from Camp Sandy, Austin, TX, SXSW.

The Meaning of “Us,” Jordan Peele’s New Film

 

I saw “Us” here in Austin, where it premiered on March 8th. Don’t read any further if you don’t want to have plot details ruined (spoiler alert).

I’m still letting my thoughts on “Us” and its meaning percolate. Here are 10 possible explanations for plot points in “Us.”

  1. It has been pointed out by someone other than me that “Us” is, basically, “U.S.”, i.e. United States.
  2. There seems to be a rather large not-very-veiled message about racism in America. This isn’t surprising, since the main cast is African American. I’ve read that Jordan Peele admires Spike Lee, who is outspoken in his films and in his life, and speaks and writes bluntly about the black experience in America. It’s clear that Spike feels that the black race has been put down and short-changed; I’m not arguing with him. (I actually heard him speak “live” once at Augustana College and just a quick look at his films will support me here. Personal observation: I think it’s one of the reasons Spike Lee didn’t even get an Oscar nomination until this year and didn’t win for Best Picture (although the script did snag an Oscar). Spike’s been making movies—-some of them terrific—-for 30 years or so, but has never been recognized until this year, and he is a somewhat prickly character known for a few famous feuds. He was even prickly during his speaking engagement and “does not suffer fools gladly.” In fact, I remember reading that Spike Lee got the assignment to do “BlackKKlansman” because it was first offered to Jordan Peele, hot off of “Get Out,” who suggested it would make a great Spike Lee joint film. A line from late in the film (when what passes for an “explanation” of the doppelgangers is being given): “Your people took it for granted. We’re human, too, you know.” Given the United States’ history with slavery, the concept of a “race” of people relegated to living in subterranean squalor while those above ground live the good life seems to fit, historically. Here’s a line that Lupita Nyongo’s character speaks: “The tethered saw that I would deliver them from their misery.” And the Lupita Nyong’o double says, to the girl who encountered her in the fun house all those years ago: “You could have taken me with you.” Here’s another line regarding the red-robed figures who seem to have risen up in some sort of terrorist overthrow of the city of Santa Cruz (and beyond, judging from the uninterrupted line of them, holding hands, that we see stretching into the distance of the mountains with helicopters hovering overhead): “I didn’t need to just tell you but to make a statement that the world would see. It’s our time up there.”
  3. There is much made of a Bible verse in the film: Jeremiah 11:11 (King James Version) “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”Not only is the verse held up by a random man on a placard at the beginning AND the end of the film, at one point Lupita’s son points to the clock in his room, which is on 11:11 at that time. Fits in with Point #2, as to how African Americans, who were brought over on slave ships and forced to work in the cotton fields of the South and treated inhumanely, feel it is “their” time. It also has a nice duality.
  4. What about the rabbits? [We have to assume that they aren’t just left-over props from “The Favorite.”] They’re white. One of the doppelgangers cuts the head off a small white rabbit doll. Draw your own conclusions. Here in Austin, on the Red Carpet, Jordan Peele claimed that he finds rabbits very creepy, with eyes like a psychopath.
  5. As has been said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
  6. What about the “hands across America” 6.5 million strong of May 25,1986? It was largely a symbolic gesture, since it raised $84 million, but, after expenses, only $15 million was actually donated. In this way, it falls in line with a lot of other “symbolic” but largely ineffectual gestures that we, as Americans, participate in, like the record “We Are the World.” (Remember, at one point, Lupita’s red-robed character says, “We are Americans.”)
  7. There is also the matter of the house of mirrors changing, by film’s end, from having an American Indian atop it with the words “Shaman’s Vision Quest:  Find Yourself” to a Wizard figure with a different name. Treatment of American Indians goes into the “shameful” category, along with slavery and Japanese interment in WWII. In this way, the use of the Indian imagery but the change later seems to “gloss over” America’s crimes of conscience in the same way that hyped “feel good” events like “We Are the World” or “Hands Across America” were ineffectual gestures that did little to solve real problems or stop real abuses, but were offered up by the PTB (usually, white men) as stop-gap feel-good largely symbolic and self-congratulatory gestures.
  8. The red-robed killers remind of nothing so much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, outfits which signal repression and injustice; both sexes wear these red outfits. Supposedly, like the pods in “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” movies, there is one red-robed thing for every inhabitant of the U.S. [This seems extreme and unlikely. What does a doppelganger do all day underground? How does a doppelganger secure sustenance beyond raw rabbit meat? Unlikely that this movement of this magnitude could be kept secret and one of the weaker plot points,—-if that is, in fact, a plot point.] The speculation centers on the U.S. government having had some sort of “pilot” experimental program to duplicate every citizen, which was scrapped when it was discovered that the person’s “soul” could not be cloned.
  9. The doppelgangers who have been “kept down” have lost their voices entirely or are barely able to speak in a whisper. They aren’t heard. They aren’t listened to; they are essentially inarticulate. There is speculation that the reason Lupita’s character does all the for the group of four in a hoarse croak is that she “remembers” how to speak from before. (If you don’t know what I mean about “from before” think of the twist ending of the film.)
  10. Now, how does the “surprise” ending of the film fit with Point #2, above? As I was walking to my car, a young man was talking and said, “How does all of this fit, now that we know that the bad one is the good one and vice versa?” How, indeed. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you about “spoilers.”)
  11. It has also been pointed out that the main message of the film doesn’t have to be racial, but can also be simply “haves” vs. “have nots.” Very true.

So, see it and figure out what YOU think it all means and let me know.

Trump Twitter Museum Is Launched at SXSW

As President Donald J. Trump continues to castigate a fallen war hero 7 months after his death, it seemed particularly timely to post the photos of the Presidential Twitter Library that Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” people put up at SXSW on the mezzanine of the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin.

There are counts of how many times DJT mentions President Obama; how many times he mentions various Fox News People (Greta Van Susteren won that one); how many times he mentions each of his children. (Tiffany snagged only 5 mentions, total).

There is the gold-plated toilet room—where you could have had your picture taken on the gold-plated throne.

And there were tweets—lots and lots of tweets.

Government by tweet. Insult by tweet. Etc., etc., etc.

 

 

 

 

Trevor Noah introducing visitors to the Trump Twitter Library on the mezzanine level of the Driskill Hotel during SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins:” Documentary on the Journalist at SXSW

(*Named an Audience Favorite Documentary at SXSW)

Documentary “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo).

“Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” showed at the Paramount Theater in Austin as part of SXSW. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January. Director Janice Engel has culled footage of the legendary Texas wit and journalist to entertain and inform us of her skill as a humorous columnist, a talent which was often compared to that of Mark Twain.

Ivins’ column was carried by 400 newspapers through syndication at the time of her death from cancer in 2007. Ivins, the former co-editor of the Texas Observer, who also put in time at the esteemed New York Times, was known for calling George W. Bush “Shrub” and telling her public that Dan Quayle was so stupid that if his brain were transplanted into a bumblebee, the bee would probably fly backward.

She wrote about Texas politics and Texas politicians and was a close friend of famous Texas Governor Ann Richards. Ivins once described a particular politician as having an I.Q. so low, “if it gets any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.”

Ivins grew up in River Oaks, went to St. John’s and was a child of Texas oil and gas privilege. Much of her character was formed in conflicts with her strait-laced Republican father, who was known as General Jim or Admiral Jim because of his stern authoritarianism.

Ivins enrolled in Scripps College in 1962 but was not happy there, and transferred to Smith College in 1963. She became romantically involved with Henry “Hank” Holland, Jr., a family friend and student at Yale whom she later referred to as “the love of my life”. After he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964, her friends said that she never seemed to find anyone else who could replace him. They suggested it was why she never married. She spent her junior year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and received her B.A. in history in 1966, earning a master’s degree from Columbia University‘s School of Journalism in 1967.

Her first job after college was with the Minneapolis Tribune.  Molly Ivins became the first female police reporter at the paper. Ivins joined the Texas Observer in the early 1970s and later moved to The New York Times. The New York Times was not a good fit and Ivins moved back to Texas, becoming a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald in the eighties and then the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when the Times Herald was sold and shuttered. The column was subsequently syndicated by Creators Syndicate and carried by hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

The new documentary contains footage from Ivins’ numerous appearances on television, but also interviews with many of her longtime friends and acquaintances. Her witticisms are front-and-center, as when she said, “I’m not anti-gun; I’m pro-knife” or “You got to have fun while you’re fighting for freedom, ‘cause you don’t always win.”

Janice Engel, Director of “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” at SXSW. (SXSW Press Photo).

Director Engel told interviewer Charles Ealy in an Austin American Statesman piece: “She’s not only a prophet; she’s the voice of now. She is more relevant today than she probably was when she was alive.”

The struggles of Ivins to go it alone in what was then substantially a man’s world and to overcome alcoholism and cancer are part of this engrossing documentary. As Ivins herself said of her fierce battle against cancer: “Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”

This one is both poignant and hilarious at the same time, and well worth a watch.

“Bluebird” Is SXSW Documentary about Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe Launching Pad to Songwriting Stardom

Director Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

“Bluebird” premiered at SXSW on Thursday, March 14th, with Director Brian Loschiavo and many of the crew in attendance, including the now-retired owner of the 1,000 foot café in Nashville on 16th Avenue, Amy Kurland. Director Brian Loschiavo, a Philadelphia film school graduate, spent 10 years in Los Angeles as a freelance screenwriter and Senior Producer with Disney, ABC, and other TV networks, until signing up to be involved in the show “Nashville,” which made him into a believer. He moved to Nashville permanently and was soon tapped to film this documentary about the Bluebird Café.

The Bluebird is a small café in Music City that helps provide a place for songwriters to perform their songs and has launched the careers of megastars like Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Faith Hill. Other well-known names (Trisha Yearwood, Maren Morris, Vince Gill, Jason Isabell, Steve Earle, Connie Britton, Charles Esten) appear, but the magic of the place is that the unknowns behind famous songs—those who actually wrote the words and lyrics—have a place where they can perform and become known for their talent.

Amy Kurland, founder with daughter Barbara of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

As Thom Schayler called it, “The Bluebird is a place to come and be found.” Owner and founder Amy Kurland, with her daughter Barbara, did not originally intend for the Bluebird to be a music venue. It opened in 1982, not in mid-town, not in downtown, but in a strip mall next to a beauty shop and a dry cleaners, featuring all kinds of music.

Owner Amy described it, originally, as “A place for women to come to eat after they had their hair done. Minnie Pearl came to eat at the Bluebirt after she had her hair done.” She added, “When we first opened, it was all kinds of music,” and shared that they would sometimes put on the Talking Heads at max volume to drive out those lingering over a late lunch.

Said Amy, “The goal was to hear not a star, but a great songwriter.” Over time, the proscenium stage gave way to playing in the round in the center of the small room. Thom Schuyler described it as “The most fun I ever had with my clothes on.”

Brian Loschiavo of “Bluebird.” (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Snippets of the greatest Nashville songwriters of the day are heard, performed in some cases by the artists who made them famous, but more often by the songwriters who initially poured their heart and soul into the song to create the piece. Over the years, the Bluebird became known as a place to give aspiring songwriters a chance. Said one veteran: “They nurture the songwriter as an artist. I learned in that room that being a songwriter is a legitimate job.  Sometimes the performance by the writer of the song is more intimate than the famous version.”

With Open Mike on Monday nights, 60 singer/songwriters audition on Sunday night. Garth Brooks was one such aspiring singer/songwriter who had been turned down by every major label but was discovered by someone in the audience at the Bluebird. Taylor Swift was another who joined forces with her manager in that space, as he was just starting out with his own label and she was an 8th grade songwriter from Pennsylvania. (*Full disclosure: my daughter, a music business graduate of Belmont in Nashville, worked for Taylor Swift for 2 years.)

After the screening, talent producer Shawna Strasberg, who had to line up all the famous folk to appear, said that it “took six months to a year to figure out Taylor Swift’s schedule.” She added that most artists said yes “because it was the Bluebird.”

Props were also given to the elaborate set recreating the interior of the Bluebird, built for the TV show “Nashville,” which has popularized the place. The goal was to make you feel like you were in the room. Previously, as one cameraman said, “The opening scene was shot under a table, through someone’s legs with a handheld camera the whole time. It’s a challenge to shoot music.”

Founder and former owner Amy Kurland, who was present the night of the premiere, described herself as someone who grew up on Broadway musicals. She was so dedicated to having the Bluebird remain a place for up-and-coming songwriters to potentially get their shot that she signed over the café to the NSAI Nashville Music Association to make sure that it remains a launching pad for talent now that she has retired.

She looked back over her time since 1982 and said, “Those first few years I knew we were legitimate when Don Everley agreed to come play there.” Given a standing ovation by the appreciative crowd, Amy said, “I didn’t take a salary for a long time. If you’re in it to make a killing, I’d have been better off with a sports bar” to laughter.

It was the success of the TV show “Nashville” that took the struggling café from break-even to money-maker. Now, large crowds gather outside and, while approximately one-third of the café’s revenue comes from merchandise sold, there are routinely 200 to 300 people in the parking lot seeking entry to the small 90-seat venue. (A $25 cover charge is mentioned by the doorman at one point.)

“Bluebird” musicians close out the March 15th World Premiere showing at the Paramount Theater at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Director Brian Loschiavo acknowledged during the Q&A that “The hardest decision, hands down and a great challenge, was that we had to be stewards of the story.  A lot of cutting room stuff we had to lose.” With former owner Amy Kurland smiling and saying, “I really didn’t expect it to be so lively. I’m so grateful” a six-piece band onstage serenaded us as we departed.

Truly a heart-warming, entertaining, and informative film—especially if you dream of becoming a songwriter and wonder how to go about getting your big break in Music City (Nashville).

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” @ SXSW Proves You’re Never Too Old to Be Creative

“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” is a behind-the-scenes look into the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund’s Hollywood retirement home and grounds. The piece was a German entry into the documentary spotlight at SXSW, directed by Uli Gaulke with writing assistance from Marc Pitzke. It was produced by Helge Albers. When I failed to gain entrance to “Us” (Express passes at SXSW went in 9 seconds!) this 97-minute documentary having its North American Premiere here was Plan B.

A look at the retirement community that is home to many of Hollywood’s former leading men and women sounded like it would be right up my alley. Director Gaulke admitted, in the Q&A after the film, that he was thinking about himself when he decided to make the film after he read an article about the motion picture retirement community in California. And now the documentary has had its North American premiere at SXSW. He had hit a bad patch, endured a divorce, and he was hitting mid-life.

The odd thing about the entire project is that it was made by Germans. (What’s up with that?) Uli read the article, contacted the home and, roughly 4 years and 70 to 80 hours of material later, after shooting for a year with 6 people traveling between Berlin and Hollywood,  it premiered here at SXSW. The film inspired the director who said, “They were very open to telling me their stories.  Then I found Jerry (Selby Kaufman), my favorite…They were not only thinking of their own past, but the most important part was to follow them and to see that they can be creative when they are old.”

[Whew! THAT was a load off my mind!]

(L to R) Producer Helge Albers and Director Uli Gaulke of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at the North American Premiere in Austin, Texas at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The Q&A after the film was delightful because, besides speaking excellent English, Uli would punctuate his remarks at key points with a “Ya?” that was reminiscent  of “Fargo.”

Uli said, “I always learn something. For me, personally, in my mid forties and fifties, I was glad to learn that life becomes a little more interesting, but that it is a continuation and that stamina is the key.” He added, “The challenge was getting them (the residents) to be working together and that was where the UCLA scriptwriting class helped.”

This reference was to a creative writing class that asked the residents to think of Ilsa and Rick from “Casablanca” and what they might be like if they met again twenty years in the future. This brought out a veritable plethora of ideas from the creative community. We also see the residents shooting a short film directed by Jerry (a former director) that is called “Santa for All Seasons,” where Santa’s close friends and wife and co-workers talk about him frankly.

One of my very favorite anecdotes in the film was provided by Joe Rosen, who became an apprentice film editor in 1957. He had a meeting with then-studio head Jack Warner and, during the course of their conversation, the subject turned to which actor should play a serious part then up for casting. Although Jason Robards was available, Jack Warner wanted to cast Troy Donahue, instead, causing Joe to say, “You have to be incompetent to make a statement like that!”

Joe Rosen was subsequently banned from the studio grounds.

(R) Director Uli Gaulke of Berlin, Germany, at the North American Premiere of “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” at SXSW. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

We hear Wright King, now 94, telling us that he had wanted to be an actor since the age of 6 and that he once looked at Vivian Leigh onscreen in “Gone with the Wind” and said, “Some day I’m gonna’ kiss her onscreen.” And he did, in “On the Waterfront,” which we see in a brief film clip.

There is the charming older couple (married 62 years), Joel and Deborah Rogosin. Deborah is legally blind and Joel is obviously devoted to her, but he talks non-stop and she largely ignores him. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Joel sings “Always” to his bride: “Days may not be fair always. But I’ll be loving you always. Not for just an hour. Not for just a day. Not for just a year, but always.”

Joel finishes up that lovely serenade by saying, “I forget.  Did you use the word ‘obey’ in our marriage ceremony?”  Deborah responds that she most certainly did not, and Joel says, “Well, that accounts for it!” A gifted writer, Joel and Deborah have been working on a book together for most of their 62 years of marriage, entitled “How to Stay Married Without Killing Each Other.” They bicker over the title and the contents of each chapter. At one point, as they remember a long-ago romantic dance in the rain when they were young, Joel writes: “I wish that special glistening rain would fall and make us young and beautiful again.”

The entire documentary was delightful and charming. In retrospect, I’m glad I saw it instead of “Us,” (which opens wide soon.)

I highly recommend this stroll down memory lane in “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive.”

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