Movies, Morality and ...Wait a Minute...Child Porn?

The recent kerfuffle over the movie KICK-ASS has me quite ruffled in a professional (as well as admittedly personal) way, mostly due to the completely unfounded attacks and assumptions the discussion surrounding Chloe Grace Moretz's portrayal of Hit-Girl.  I'm not going to get into the specific attacks that much, but you can see some of the lunacy, on both sides of the argument, by reading Roger Ebert's misreading of the film (in which he actually says, "Big Daddy and Mindy never have a chat about, you know, stuff like how when you kill people, they are really dead," which, while technically true - those characters never discuss it - it's pointed out several times by other characters to them), as well as checking out my pal Julia's article posted over at the California Literary Review and the comments it received for a small sampling.  What's amazing to me is that these arguments seem to have traction with people.  Movies are too violent, check.  Movies contain too many curse words, check.  Movies about teenagers (or children) doing anything violent or swearing are immoral and equate child porn, wait, what?

Yes, you heard me, one of the commenters on the CalLitReview site actually equated the film's portrayal of Hit-Girl (and thereby the young actress who portrays her) as being "child porn."  All of this, mind you, without seeing one full scene of the film, and only using other comments about the film from other people as his basis.  I could very easily get in on the whole rant about not commenting on a movie's supposed (im)morality if you haven't seen it, but that argument goes absolutely nowhere (see: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, IRREVERSIBLE, PULP FICTION, etc.)  What is interesting here, though, is how devoid of context all of this argument is, and how someone like Roger Ebert, whose review says, quite clearly, that the film never mentions how ludicrous all of this is, and that if you enjoy seeing a little girl getting punched and kicked in the face, then you're an immoral person and are undeserving of having your opinion even considered by him.

Film history is full of instances of outrage.  Remember when Mae West was scandalous?  How about almost all of Tennessee Williams's screen adaptations?  How about when people were fearful that the kids would all go out and act just like Brando in THE WILD ONE, or James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, or how about all those horror movies you were told not to watch when you were a kid?  Hey, what do you think people were saying about Russ Meyer back in the 60s, when Roger Ebert was palling around with the guy and writing scripts for him?  What is really the fear here?  And why is it the filmmaker's responsibility to address it?  It's not.  The filmmaker is an artist in most cases, and even those who aren't are not responsible for someone's misreading of their work, no matter if it's a kid who takes a gun to a school, or a person who dons a mask and treks through the night killing scantily clad virginal teenagers.

Well, in the case of some of the arguments, I think it's because KICK-ASS is a fairly easy movie to have a misreading of.  I guess if you go about looking for things you think are fetishized, then yes, Hit-Girl is a character that gets a lot of attention for being "cool."  There is a portion of the audience, possibly even some kids, who will think it's cool what she does, and think about being able to do all the things she does.  And audiences do like the character.  But I also like Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK and Kurt Russell in DEATH PROOF, and when I was a child I liked watching horror films pretty regularly, and I have a certain adoration for the rape-revenge genre (I first saw I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE -another film Ebert detests - when I was 13), and I'm not going around committing high-level theft and running people down in my car, or raping girls, or killing the rapists of women in particularly violent and brutal ways.  Nor was I when I was a teenager, child, or whatever else I may have been or may be at some point.

These are films, guys.  These are characters in films.  One of the comments on CalLitReview is about Robert B. Parker's character Spenser, and I'm going to borrow it here.  "I am reminded of something the late Robert B. Parker said during a reading at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, CA in 1987… in the question and answer portion of the evening someone rather pointedly asked Parker if he knew that his character Spenser was an alcoholic. Parker replied that Spenser was not an alcoholic; Spenser was a fictional character."  Amen.

The problem is that now you're older, and you're nostalgic for a time that never existed.  I'm sorry that you feel the film is immoral without having any knowledge about its context (because you haven't seen it), or you feel that using a child in anything else other than a sweet movie about horses or killer whales is the equivalent of child porn.  There is nothing in KICK-ASS that could remotely be described as pornographic.  But I will give you a caveat:  If someone is turned on by guns being shot by children, or by violence perpetuated by children, or by children in leather suits, then yeah, I guess you could interpret this as child porn if you're a moron.  If it's the intent of a viewer to find Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl to be a turn-on, guess what?  That's still not child porn.  That's a fetish, and it's the viewer's take on it, not the film's intent.  Your argument is the equivalent of saying that because some creep gets off on Jodie Foster as a hooker in TAXI DRIVER or Brooke Shields in BLUE LAGOON, then it's child porn.  If you feel so strongly about it, you might as well just take children offscreen altogether, because I'm sure someone out there loves watching girls ride horses, or boys dressed in striped pajamas, or any other thing that could be onscreen.  So, please, keep policing the movies for things that they have no control over.


"Somebody's Got To Pay": POINT BLANK (1967)

This amazing, complex, sexy, cool, smoldering, passionate crime film marks the equally cool and amazing Lee Marvin’s first turn as a big star (after his Oscar for CAT BALLOU in 1966, he was granted virtually total control over this production), as well as British director extraordinaire John Boorman’s (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, ZARDOZ) first film in the U.S.  And - as if I haven’t already said as much - it’s the most amazing film Marvin ever made.
It was made right in the transition period between Classical and “New” Hollywood, and it has a lot in common stylistically with another very complex and psychologically oriented movie made in the same year by another Brit: John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY.  What makes this time so special is that it represents a time when the past was linked to the present, and was not the radical break it’s often depicted as.  In fact, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray had begun this project of slowly changing the language and style of film over a decade before POINT BLANK, with styles and subjects that were quite striking and provocative for their time, but which remained rooted firmly in the practical filmmaking of the Classical period.
What I intend to make note of here is that actors like Marvin, and directors like Boorman, continued to make New Hollywood’s realism and grittiness more possible by preparing audiences with improvements and slight variations on the language that their predecessors had already begun.  Films like POINT BLANK, THE DIRTY DOZEN, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, and THE GRADUATE paved the way for the rise of directors like Scorsese, Ashby, Coppola, Spielberg and many others who were to irrevocably change American cinema forever, bringing it kicking and screaming into its modern incarnation.

Getting back to the film, POINT BLANK features Lee Marvin as master criminal Walker as he traces the steps through a seedy organization to get the $93,000 owed him by his partner after a double-cross that left him for dead.  Efficiently and brutally, Walker makes his way to the top, using any and every trick he knows, and never giving a damn.  His goal is simple, and it doesn’t matter who he uses or kills to achieve it.  It’s Lee’s natural demeanor and devil-may-care attitude, as well as his deadly serious performance, that makes the character and the film what it is.  It’s a perfect marriage of star and vehicle.
The first scene introduces us in a flashback sequence to the events that Walker is recalling, which serves to attach the audience to his motive, and to his interpretation of what happened to him and why he’s been left for dead.  It’s an articulate (filmically speaking) sequence that gives us a glimpse into the head of the character that no one else gets.  To everyone in the film, he’s just a stubborn old man who’s going through all this for nothing, and who will most likely die because of it.  Really, he’s doing it because he’s a professional, and he doesn’t compromise his principles and the outcome of the job he took, which was to obtain half of the score.  And yeah, it may also be that he’s stubborn.

During one of many confrontations about the cash owed to him, Walker is asked by Brewster what he really wants.  "I...I really want my money," he answers.  What's interesting here is the slight hesitation in getting what he "really" wants out of his mouth.  The film has shown us that he's interested in a lot of things, namely having his comfortable life with a wife he undoubtedly loved and was hurt by.  Other than small instances like this, he never shows any emotion about it.  It's the question that causes him to stop just for a moment and really consider what it is he wants...and then he knows it's impossible and goes right back to the money.

In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Marvin has brought his (now dead) wife’s sister with him to wait on and confront Brewster, one of the top bosses about getting his money in the guy’s own house.  The film is filled with all sorts of sexual tension, particularly between his wife, who betrayed him at the film’s beginning, and Angie Dickinson's Chris (the sister).  It’s a relationship of convenience as much as anything else, but Walker finally sends her over the edge in this scene, and she smacks him repeatedly, across the face, beating his chest and, frankly, just hitting the shit out of him until she just gives up.  Marvin makes no show of emotion.  He lets her hit him, and then just goes on doing what he’s there to do.  That’s the movie, and the character right there, all summed up in his resolution to get what he wants no matter what, and to ignore everyone he has to go through to get it.
I guess what makes me endlessly fascinated with POINT BLANK is its singularity as a psychological crime film, which has been emulated and toyed with ever since as a genre unto itself.  And that it came well before Robert Altman’s slightly post-modern interpretation of Philip Marlowe and Noir in THE LONG GOODBYE.  It takes Marvin’s Walker and puts him at the center of everything; the audience identifies with him at every turn because they know something about him and his relationships that no one else in the movie does - that they hurt him and that he’s really quite wounded on the inside.  But he never shows it.  To do so would compromise his mission.  That’s something Walker doesn’t do.

American Crime Fiction: Why Writer/Creator Jason Aaron's SCALPED Is The Best Comic Out There

The two things that American authors and filmmakers can be said to have created outright are the Western, and modern crime fiction.  They're both styles and mythologies packed into the very fiber of our country's very existence.  There's something gritty and raw and romantic and completely whacked in our national identity, and it has led to the creation of two of the most readily identifiable genres in the world, complete with their own logic, their own mysteries, their complete independence from European romantic fiction of any kind, apart from maybe the Victorian era (and the utter inability for anyone to come to real satisfaction with their relationships in those books - take Newland Archer in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE as an example), but that's neither here nor there.  The Western and the crime drama are the mythologies of the United States, a country that was forged from the grit and determination and the testicular fortitude to tell the rest of the world to jog on.  And it's a damned brilliant mythology; one that requires constant attention and revision and humility and pride.

Late in 2008, I picked up the first volume of DC/Vertigo's SCALPED, "Indian Country", and was blown away.  It was by far the grittiest, most thrilling and outrageous crime fiction since Garth Ennis's legendary PREACHER and PUNISHER runs, and better yet, it existed on its own terms, incorporating distinctly American (and distinctly Native) mythologies, real-world problems and - along with Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL - reinvigorated American comic creators in a landscape populated on every front by Brits.  This first story arch, which introduces the central character of Dashiell Bad Horse and many, many subplots, is masterful in its scope and execution, and each further arch just gets better and better.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Jason Aaron's SCALPED, a multi-genre mash-up of the cowboy mythos, espionage thriller, crime drama and a healthy dose of social awareness (and amazingly detailed research and depictions of life in the modern Native American community), is the best damned book anywhere, comic or otherwise.  Seriously.  It's envigorating to read, and has kept me up many a night re-reading my favorite little bits, particularly early on in the "Casino Boogie" story arch that tells the tale of a horrendous crime from four separate viewpoints, each getting its own single issue to work within.

A fair chunk of why SCALPED's incredibly detailed and carefully researched Native American narrative works, even when introducing heavy mysticism and ultraviolence into the fold, is the dusty down-to-Earth artwork by R.M. Guera and a stable of distinct but complimentary guest artists.  The Rez (a Lakota reservation in the Dakotas) and its many, societally neglected inhabitants portrayed in the book live and breathe because of the urgency, vibrancy and alternately, as called for, dark and bright pop-infused art.

There are currently five trade-paperback volumes of the series in print, with a sixth collection coming in May, and I seriously can't wait to see what else Aaron has in store.  The plotting and characterizations are convoluted enough for a Raymond Chandler story, with enough grit and gristle to fill many a tome by Elmore Leonard (in Western or crime mode).  It's invigorating to read such an effortless title, and to read about the neglected and often forgotten original inhabitants of this land in such a realistic, and thoroughly modern American setting is a bit startling.  It brings modern dilemmas they have as a minority to light while also highlighting their willingness to survive.  In the fifth volume, there is a brief opening that runs up a history of the Lakotas through the battle of Little Big Horn to present day, and is accompanied by narration about their survival being almost in defiance of history and of this nation's invaders.  It's quite powerful.

What differentiates this book from the thousands of others out there, comic or otherwise, and what makes it by far the best book on stands, is the multi-faceted plot and the deft aplomb with which it is handled by Aaron.  He juggles a large cast of characters, all backed up by individual and very different personalities, and all based on what has to be vast amounts of historical research.  It really is like getting a current affairs and history class lesson on American Indians from issue to issue.  And that in and of itself is enough to make it noteworthy.  SCALPED takes the American mythos and turns it on its head, not just in one of the prominent American genres, but in both of the most prominent ones, and completely becomes something all its own, and wholly American that even the best British comics creators couldn't have conceived.

If any of this interests you as a reader (and it should), then you should definitely give the book a shot.  The first volume is only ten bucks, and is well worth it.  Hell, get a friend to split it with you and read it for five.  Just buy it; you'll be hooked.  That's the best compliment I can give it, and the only compliment that really matters anyway.


This Road Really Is Lonesome: A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957)

Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is an upstart that moves to the big time, becoming the most powerful voice on radio to the most powerful figure on television, able to sway the masses for or against anything he wishes with not much more than a wink and a smile.  He has no personal beliefs, only contempt for anything and everyone who isn't Lonesome Rhodes.  He's a scoundrel, a cheat and, by the end of it all, he's washed up, madness slowly taking over.

Elia Kazan and Budd Schulburg's scathing commentary on the dangers of mass media and particularly charismatic but absolutely bat-shit crazy personalities' abilities to exploit that media, is as timely today as it ever was.  Not only is the film itself an omen of things to come - notably the rise of 24-hour news networks and the triumph of "commentary" over actual journalism - but the character of Lonesome is uncannily like some of the personalities of a lot of "news" shows.  And he makes boatloads of cash like some of them, too.

In the middle of the film, it looks like Rhodes is going to marry his agent, Marcia (the fantastic Patricia Neal), but instead he brings home a new bride (Lee Remick) from a visit back to his hometown that won a baton twirling contest.  The scene in which Rhodes slowly becomes enamored with the incredibly young twirler - who is only 16 at the time of their marriage - is disturbing in the development of the character because of his constant leering and visible lusting after the young girl.  Amazingly, she's just as into him, glaring right back the entire time in that lustful way that most teenagers get at one time or another.  It's creep-tastic!

It's amazing to me that Griffith, whose portrayal of Rhodes is a highlight of screen acting,  committed so wholeheartedly to such a loathsome character and then did a complete 180 to make and star in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.  As good as he is on television, here he's pure fire, and I was unable to take my eyes off him.  He's a revelation, by god, in a role that should have been career-defining, but has only recently been given any attention whatsoever.  Only in America would such a piece of work be virtually forgotten by audiences for over thirty years.

A FACE IN THE CROWD also features my personal favorite hang-dog, Walter Matthau, in full glory as television writer "Vanderbilt '44", as Rhodes derisively calls him, being a representative of the elite that Lonesome purports to have nothing but disdain for, yet longs for the status of.  Matthau gets the last stinging word in, though, charting the total fall of Rhodes's celebrity and even giving him a last round of (canned) applause.  If only things had changed at all since 1957.


Indie Grits 2nd Night - Fox Theater Shorts Program

Thursday night's shorts program played another packed house at the Nickelodeon's under-renovation Fox Theater location in downtown Columbia, SC.  Showing in a converted-lobby screening room were 15 films, mostly experimental, some of which were quite amazing.  I'll get to a run-down of my favorites further down, but first, seeing as this is the first year the Fox Theater has been used in the festival, a word about this gorgeous building and the vision Nickelodeon executive director Larry Hembree has for it.

The Fox is exemplary of the classic movie house, with a projection booth in its main balcony auditorium that is in a class all its own, and once outfitted, will be a sight to behold.  The plan is to have two auditoriums, the largest of which will be upstaris and capable of seating 150 people, and the lower auditorium which will seat around 90, and be utilized for secondary films and special screenings/events.  If all goes according to plan, come 2011, Columbia will be home to a world-class, fully restored independent and art-house theater, and I can't wait.

Getting to the program, I'll spare the details on the films I absolutely hated - I'm looking at you, GIRI CHIT and THIS IS NOT A PIPE BOMB - by saying that the films I'm not discussing below were forgettable, utterly (unbearably) meandering and pretentious, or just plain-old sleep-inducing.  Seek them out at your own risk.  At the end of the article, I'll provide a list of all the films that were shown, for your convenience.

Jon Jones's THE GOLDEN MALLARD was the first highlight of the program.  This four minute short about a portrait painter and two of his subjects draws heavily on silent comedy, and is shot in relatively flat black and white, much like in the early days of cinema.  It utilizes a modern flourish of colorization to highlight a particularly inventive paint-throwing sequence and the pay-off at the end, which is pretty great.  I was also highly impressed by a great title card at the beginning that goes by all too briefly.  That title card in and of itself had me hooked - it was like a gift from movie heaven.  Seriously, I may sound a bit obsessive about it to you, but it was that good.  Really.

Speaking of titles and title sequences, Andre Silva's just-a-bit-too-long-but-utterly-gorgeous ICHTHYOPOLIS has a hum-dinger of one, blending stop-motion and psychotropic techniques to introduce the abstract tale of order and chaos between two realms.  Being introduced to this film is to literally be submerged in the absurd and the sublime, with a singing goldfish announcing everything you need to know to watch what's coming up, title and all.

Completely amazing and shortest of all, clocking in at a single minute, was Brad Boll's COPS, a meditation on the absurd and horrifying (and hilarious) nature of everyone's favorite white trash crime show.  I have to wonder, though it may be darker than Boll's vision, if this is how David Lynch would see this show.

Two of my favorites, though, occupy very different spots on the experimental spectrum.  Charleston, SC's Liz Vaughan brought her lovely film CHIMNEY SWIFTS, a multimedia experimental tone poem about life in the Southeast.  With handcut photographs (shot by Vaughan), and by animating them in conjunction with and in juxtaposition to one another, CHIMNEY SWIFTS may be the one true work of art I've seen at this year's festival.  It's breathtaking in its beauty, and endearing and personal and intimate in its handmade quality. 
(note: Look for my interview with Vaughan on an upcoming episode of Shadows and Light.)

The program's final film was an eclectic grab-bag of a home movie by Phoebe Brush.  Part music video, part family portrait, and part folk philosophy, the film SPITTY is a confounding, challenging, inspirational, oddball, and endearing work that revolves around a father and his daughter who write and perform "Spitties", subversive, politically charged ditties, ranging in topics from Woody Guthrie to MLK, Jr., to a love for dogs.  The songs, like the film that showcases them, are ethereal, lo-fi and engaging in surprising ways.

The films shown at the Fox Theater Shorts Program were:
SPACEMAN - Nicole Triche, Durham, NC
ELEMENTS OF TIME - David Montgomery, Fernindina Beach, FL
THE GOLDEN MALLARD - Jon Jones, Coral Gables, FL
ICHTHYOPOLIS - Andre Silva, Wilmington, NC
TEMPO - Robin Salant, Memphis, TN
GIRI CHIT - Simon Tarr, Columbia, SC
SCENE 32 - Shambhavi Kaul, Durham, NC
COPS - Brad Boll, Chapel Hill, NC
THIS IS NOT A PIPE BOMB - Georg Koszulinski, Gainesville, FL
DORNSTARTV: Ep 5.2 - Nate Dorn, Atlanta, GA
SWIM - Chip Moore, Cambridge, MA
TWO DOWNTOWN - Cara Hagan, Winston Salem, NC
CHIMNEY SWIFTS - Liz Vaughan, Charleston, SC
SPITTY - Phoebe Brush, Durham, NC

Look for brief write-ups on the nights two main selections, Anthony Kilburn's sex-tastic CHIAROSCURO, BABY! and Aaron Katz's COLD WEATHER (in a non-competition screening) from Pierce and Woody at some time in the near future.


Indie Grits 2010 Opening Night, Program 2

Editor's note: This brief piece was originally posted by Woody Jones on the blog for our podcast, Shadows and Light.  It is reprinted here by permission.

I had the pleasure of attending the 8:30 program of Indie Grits held in the current Nickelodeon Theatre on Main Street. This music-centric series included music videos from local artists The Thirsties and Preach Jacobs. Directors David Arthur and William Stewart used The Thirsties’ video for “Greener in Their Prime” as an excuse to dabble in Super 8 cinemtography while Ryan Cockrell shot Preach Jacobs at his apartment as well as local watering hole, The Whig. Congrats to Cockrell and Jacobs as their video for “Falling” which will be featured soon on BET. Next came Slopdog Millionaire, a documentary short on local garage rockers Mercy Mercy Me, by filmmakers Robert Johnson and Andy Woodward detailing a debaucherous night in Charleston,SC after the band played a gig at the Tin Roof. Drunken shenanigans also play a major role in Matthew Robison’s exploration of the Atlanta music scene entitled We Fun. Anchored by local bands such as The Black Lips and Deerhunter, the film is an excellent snapshot of a music scene that is gaining national notoriety. After such an exceptional series of films, I look forward to the next batch!

Woody Jones is the host and editor of Columbia Vitals, and co-host of Shadows and Light - A Movie Podcast.  He also writes a regular column for SceneSC.com

In A Really Red State: RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975)

I just can't escape this movie - it burns white-hot in my mind just like the first time I saw it.  It's a lightning rod of a flick, a film that separates two stages of my watching life (a designation few films share with it): things seen before, and things seen since. Unwittingly, I have succumbed to its power.

When I think of Warren Oates and Peter Fonda witnessing the satanic ritual that will endanger their lives from their campsite in the woods, it still gives me a chill, a rarity among those magical 70s horror films that I've become so familiar with, and even rarer still that it completely holds up to this very day.  When they slowly realize they've been spotted, and flee in their motor home only to be pursued by the cultists, it's horrifying, exhilirating, enthralling and just a wee bit gleefully hokey, in that way the best of these genre films can be.

And that's just the beginning.

Oates and Fonda (and their wives, the fantastic Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) are pursued throughout small-town Texas, encountering members of the cult at every turn and in every strata of society.  This is classic horror movie stuff, and it gets my rocks off.  And I haven't even mentioned the crazy 70s road movie part of it all yet; a genre with which both Fonda and Oates are synonymous with.  Let's not forget this is RACE WITH THE DEVIL, after all.

The chase scenes, in which the boys must fend off assailants as they attempt to board the RV, attack them with guns and sharp objects, and sometimes threaten to run them off the road (successfully, finally), are thrilling and suspenseful.  True to form, the movie also starts out with a couple of stressless dirtbike/motorcycle sequences for good measure - to please the real gear-heads in the audience, no doubt.  If there's one flaw in all of this, it's there is no scene in which Fonda is pursued while on his bike.  That would be movie heaven.

The ending is also ballsy, even if reminiscent of other endings from the time - a freeze frame that allows us to assume the worst as the RV (and the heroes inside it) is surrounded by the flames that signaled the beginning of the first sacrificial ceremony.  And it's satisfying.  And unexpected.  And still horrifying.

Watching RACE WITH THE DEVIL, I realized how life-changing movies could be all over again.  I've loved Oates forever (especially as GTO in Monte Hellman's superb TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and as the title character in over-looked gem COCKFIGHTER), but he was pitch-perfect for me here, and I re-learned the many charms an actor like that posesses for a viewer.  Like film critic Kim Morgan's other rough-guy heroes (among them both Oates and Lee Marvin, another similar screen-love of mine to hers), Oates plays to his physical strengths, which are definitely not those of a matinee idol.  He's all real, all tough, and all American male.  And despite co-billing, Fonda's a supporter.  This is truly Oates's show.

And what a show, guys.  What a show.

(For Kim Morgan's brief write-up on RACE WITH THE DEVIL as well as a bit about Peggy Cummins in GUN CRAZY and how amazing The Runaways are, check out her piece at Sunset Gun).

Indie Grits 2010 Opening Night Selections

Note:  The following article may contain spoilers.

Opening night festivities for the 5th Annual Indie Grits Film Festival were sold out last night, and they showcased some memorable and not-so memorable moments, depending on who you spoke to.  I went to the night's first program, and the audience's energy was high, and the main selection, Mark Claywell's stunning documentary AMERICAN JIHADIST, was a true revelation.  I spoke with Claywell after the screening, as well as CHIEFLAND director Gabriel Tyner, and both directors were really happy with the receptions their films had at the festival.

CHIEFLAND, an 8 minute short about a bullrider's first time on a bull in over a decade after losing both legs and receiving a host of other injuries after being hit by a train, is a flawed but highly interesting germ of an idea.  I think it speaks to the strength of the subject of the film and the skill with which the footage and interviews with the cowboy were collected that I wanted more from it.  Tyner has a great eye and a great sense of filmic rhythm, but structuraly the film is uneven, focusing on what could be either the middle third or even last third of a film, despite containing the relatively small narrative arch of the bull ride itself and the rider's struggle with it that exists as-is.  Tyner is currently working on two new projects; CHIEFLAND is his first film.

The second film of the evening, director Hodges Usry's SWEET GEORGIA BROWN is ostensibly about the first black female wrestler from South Carolina, but after an interesting set-up, the film quickly loses its way, devolving into a sordid, directionless exposé on racial and familial injustices that gave no information on or insight into who "Sweet Georgia" Brown was, and why she was important aside from all of the familial bickering and in-fighting and the really horrific details of her life.  Usry has directed a few music videos for bands like Lady Antebellum before, but if SWEET GEORGIA BROWN or his previous short ROZWELL (streaming online at his IMDB page) are any indications of where his talents may lie, I'm afraid he has a long way to go to overcome a lack of narrative comprehension and execution without leaving an audience adrift in its own thoughts.  There's an interesting, engaging movie to be made about this woman out there somewhere, but this sure isn't it.

Finally, playing only in its second festival, and hot on the heels of winning the Best Documentary award at Slamdance, Mark Claywell's AMERICAN JIHADIST follows the completely fascinating character of Isa Abdullah Ali, aka Clevin Holt, a religious soldier of fortune whose conversion to Islam in the 1970s led to his involvement in many of the major armed conflicts in the Near East in the past few decades.  Posing the question, "What makes a person willing to kill and die for their religion?", the film comes to some unsettling and utterly profound revelations, echoing the lack of easy answers and even easy labels in a constantly sound-bite driven news world, and the call for a deeper understanding of the problems facing our world.

Given completely unfettered access to Isa in both his native Washington, D.C., and his home in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Claywell shows us that while it may be possible to understand the ways in which someone could believe they're doing the right thing, that the subject is far more complex than any one individual.  Isa is a subject that seems to preach his hatred of 'hate', which he claims not to feel toward anyone, but perhaps a bit contradictory to that claim, has absolutely no problem killing someone he feels has wronged a Muslim in an armed conflict.  And, furthermore, he simply loves his role in warfare, and makes no secret of it - actively seeking it out throughout a thirty year career that has seen him labelled as a "known terrorist" and what would have been termed by Conservative Americans recently as an enemy combatant. 

Isa isn't a particularly dangerous or even villanous man, but he has a coherent worldview and obsession with violent reproach that makes complete and total sense to him based on his interpretation of his own life's events; that's what's terrifying about the film and its subject.  Here is a group of people who rationalize killing through a belief system that purports to be completely nonviolent, yet time and time again is proven to be the exact opposite of that.  Likewise, someone like Isa is a complete contradiction of his own beliefs in anti-hate, anti-extremist living.  He is an extremist, and he appears to hate those who are against his own beliefs.

The film is unsettling, electrifying and fascinating, swerving into distinctly Herzog-ian "objective truth" territory now and then, largely thanks to the behavior of Isa while the cameras are trained on him.  As a reporter in the film succinctly put it (and I'm paraphrasing here), he is a performer of things he has read, using almost strictly boiler-plate terminology and rhetoric to discuss himself and his beliefs/actions/etc.  For what it's worth, this is a must-see, and I predict that if it plays more mid-level and bigger festivals, it will have no problem finding distribution of some sort.

My pal Woody Jones was in the second program, which featured a number of music docs, including WE FUN, which focuses on the burgeoning Atlanta music scene of 2008, from director Matthew Robison (SILVER JEW).  Look for a brief write-up of that screening soon.

For more information on Indie Grits and the films discussed in this article, please visit:

Sweet Georgia Brown
American Jihadist


Antici---pation: Movies to Look Forward To

Here's the latest crop of flicks that I'm really looking forward to seeing when they finally receive a release near or around me.  They all look pretty amazing.

The book is amazing, and by all accounts in the international and U.S. press, so is the film.  I'm especially looking forward to seeing the character of Lisbeth Salander on the screen because she's such a terrifically compelling creation.  Of course, it's in Swedish with subtitles, and looks to be a pretty direct translation from page to screen.  The book is kind of a mixture of ZODIAC and SE7EN, with a healthy dash of techno-savvy geek-punk thrown in for good measure, giving it a journalistic quality that would be right at home with David Fincher (who has been in talks to helm an American remake, which I don't think is a great idea, but if anyone has to do it, it may as well be Fincher).

Directed by Edgar Wright, and based on an insanely popular graphic novel series, SCOTT PILGRIM follows a twenty-something slacker who plays in an indie-rock band and who falls for Ramona, who just happens to have seven evil ex-es that he must defeat if he is to be with her.  It's an amalgamation of hipster-chic, videogame in-jokes and unadulterated manga lunacy that looks to be handled deftly by all parties involved.  This trailer is pretty amazing.

Romero's latest opus follows the first-ever recurring character in one of the DEAD films, as he reaches a small island with two warring families who are fighting over what to do with the members of their families who have come back from the dead.  It looks gory, gooey and downright fun, and I cannot wait to see it - probably on VOD, where it's available long before theatrical release.

The trailer speaks for itself.  The directorial debut of the writers of BAD SANTA and BAD NEWS BEARS, a touching, awfully vulgar rom-com/con movie hybrid.