Beyond the Multiplex

Leonardo DiCaprio wants you to save the world. Plus: A chat with the man who gave Brad Pitt his start (interview and podcast).

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 16, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview with Tom DiCillo, click here.

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Making independent movies at all is something of a noble but foolish crusade. In "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," director Kirby Dick estimates that 95 percent of commercial movie-theater screens in the United States show only pictures made by the six big Hollywood studios. In fairness, I don't know how Dick is counting the semi-independent "mini-majors," like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Vantage and Picturehouse, but however you cut up the pie, the indie slice is pretty tiny.

That said, this week's lineup of crusading flicks is an especially inspiring one. Every film on the dance card could be my leading item in an ordinary week, and every filmmaker has more in mind than empty-headed entertainment. Arguably, you won't see a more important movie this year than "The 11th Hour" (co-produced and co-written by Leonardo DiCaprio), whose aim is nothing less than mobilizing an entire generation to save the world from ecological meltdown. Sure, there will be eye-rolling from predictable quarters: Hollywood liberals! Preaching at us from their hilltop-mansion cocaine parties about how we should recycle our toilet water! First of all, the movie's nothing like that. Second of all, if those thoughts enter your mind it's because Dick Cheney put them there.

We've got other crusaders this week too: I visit with veteran director Tom DiCillo, a certifiable Don Quixote of the indie scene who's just trying to keep a tiny corner of the market open to his bittersweet fables of fame, corruption and redemption. Jason Kohn checks in with the dazzling "Manda Bala," which simultaneously tries to reinvent the documentary and explain the terrifying and violent conundrum that is contemporary Brazil. Chinese director Zhang Yang proclaims the values of classic cinema in a marvelous and subtle family epic, and Seth Gordon finds a Shakespearean (or possibly Spenserian) tale of daring, nobility and evil in the quest for the all-time high score in Donkey Kong.

But even Gordon's "King of Kong" might not be the most brilliantly silly movie of the week. That honor belongs to the delightful sci-fi superhero pastiche "Zebraman," a family film from a most unlikely source, Japanese horror maestro Takashi Miike. And in terms of pictorial elegance and philosophical depth, neither "Manda Bala" nor "The 11th Hour" is actually the best documentary this week. That goes to "Primo Levi's Journey," an extraordinary odyssey across the paradoxical landscape of contemporary Europe with Italian director Davide Ferrario. I know, I know; you're at the beach this week, you can't be bothered with any of this stuff. People, I'm telling you: Take notes or bookmark this page or something. These movies will keep you engrossed well into the fall.

"The 11th Hour": Press 1 to buy more cheap crap you don't really want, or press 2 to save the human species and its planet
If the success of "An Inconvenient Truth" was rooted in the improbable charisma of a symbolic and tragic hero of American politics -- a man about whom almost nobody feels neutral -- the power of the devastating new documentary "The 11th Hour," which calls on a large cast of scientists and intellectuals to discuss a much broader problem, is more abstract. I hope that doesn't automatically equate to a smaller audience, because "The 11th Hour" is arguably a more important movie, which more clearly lays out what must be done to save the world, and how we can begin.

Yes, "11th Hour" was co-produced and co-written by Leonardo DiCaprio, but he appears as narrator for perhaps four or five minutes of screen time, and doesn't leave much of an impression. If anything, I'm concerned that DiCaprio's involvement will lead people to assume that "11th Hour" is some kind of movie-star feel-good project. It definitely isn't. Directors Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners (they are sisters) have crafted a haunting, elegiac history of how human beings have brought the planet to the edge of a precipice, and call upon an impressive array of thinkers to discuss how, and whether, we can avoid the abyss that waits below.

It's never all that helpful just to list the talking heads who appear in a documentary, but what's so remarkable about Petersen and Conners' experts is the sheer breadth of expertise they offer. There are big thinkers able to discuss the overarching topics of human history and technology, like environmental scientists Stephen Schneider and David Suzuki, mathematician Stephen Hawking, and authors Nathan Gardels, Richard Heinberg and Bill McKibben.

Every so often in the movie, one of those guys drops the kind of paradigm-shifting bomb that clears your mind and your sinuses. Suzuki observes that the specific evolution of the human brain, which allowed us to conquer the planet and ensure our species' survival, has now put both the species and the planet in grave peril. Gardels summarizes the problem of consumer society in a single sentence: "You can never get enough of what you don't really want." Thom Hartmann says that we've been borrowing the energy of "stored sunlight" for the last 150 years, without developing a strategy about what to do as it gets harder and harder to find.

Just as important, at least in deflecting right-wing naysayers and critics, is the fact that the filmmakers call on numerous experts in specific scientific or philosophical disciplines to illuminate particular problems and their potential solutions. They've got engineers, architects, economists, physicians, oceanographers, land-use geographers, theologians and environmental scientists. They've got eco-activists, New Age gurus and Native American spiritual leaders, sure. But they've also got a former World Bank senior economist (Herman Daly), a former head of the CIA (James Woolsey) and a one-time world leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (Mikhail Gorbachev).

What all these people have to say adds up to a fairly simple message: You can't separate one environmental issue, like global warming, from a huge, interconnected complex of issues that include air and water pollution, deforestation and habitat destruction, hurricanes and floods, famine and drought, and the toxic dumping that is poisoning poor communities all over the world. Nor, in the final analysis, can you separate environmental and economic problems. The global environmental catastrophe is not a problem for rich, white Westerners to worry about; if anything, rich, white Westerners will face its most devastating effects last. And finally, it's really not a question of "saving the planet" but of saving ourselves. In the long, long arc of genetic and geological history, the planet will probably be OK. Whether people will still be able to live on it -- that we don't know.

I'm sure there are contentious aspects to the arguments presented in "The 11th Hour," but even President Bush, operating an administration that is virtually a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry, has expressed the view that we need to break our dependence on fossil fuels. In a sense, the filmmakers and their sources argue, the problem and its solutions are straightforward. We need to transform the world's economy, and do it yesterday. Yes, some groundbreaking research is still needed, but it's not as if the technology for both intermediate solutions (hybrid and electric cars, biodiesel, wind farms) and more long-term ones (solar power and possibly hydrogen fuel cells) does not exist.

Still, if these people are right and we've now arrived at virtually the last moment for avoiding total disaster, the obstacles are daunting, even terrifying. On one hand, no political leaders anywhere in the world -- not even the pious bureaucrats of the European Union -- have come near the kind of mega-Manhattan Project determination needed to address these issues. But we can't really blame the shortsightedness and corruption of politicians, which is after all their nature; that's like blaming an alligator for eating chickens. If we're not willing to rouse ourselves, individually and collectively, from the consumerist stupor that defines life in, well, everyplace where people aren't literally starving to death, then perhaps the species isn't worth saving. Me, I'm going to get started on that soon. As soon as I buy some of that cheap New Jersey gas, drive the minivan home from IKEA and find a goddamn parking place.

"The 11th Hour" opens Aug. 17 in New York and Los Angeles, with wide national release to follow.

"Delirious": A raging speck of dust in the universe clamors for attention -- and then there's Tom DiCillo's new movie!
Almost everybody in the film world likes writer-director Tom DiCillo, and that's for good reasons and maybe for bad ones too. DiCillo's films at their best have an acerbic, slightly dark, fairy-tale intensity, and even at their worst they're reliably charming. As DiCillo himself seems aware, he'd be an easier target if he were a bigger one; that is, if he'd ever graduated to the level of fame and success his early career seemed to promise.

DiCillo was the cinematographer for Jim Jarmusch's breakthrough film, "Stranger Than Paradise," in 1984, and seven years later he made a dynamic impression with his own directing debut, "Johnny Suede." That movie starred a handsome young fellow named Brad Pitt, and that little-known actor's subsequent trajectory is, unfairly but inevitably, always going to be compared to DiCillo's. The director denies that the part of Chad Palomino, the vain and self-absorbed movie star played by James LeGros in DiCillo's 1995 Indiewood satire "Living in Oblivion," was based on Pitt, so we'll leave that question alone and move on.

When I met DiCillo last week for coffee at a midtown Manhattan hotel, he told a funny story about the aftermath of "Johnny Suede" that epitomizes his perennially marginal status. That film won the best-picture award at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland -- the first place it was publicly screened -- and DiCillo was promptly written up in the trade magazines as a hot young talent. "When I came home, there were three phone messages," he says. "One from Spielberg's company, one from Scorsese's company, and one from somebody else, I can't remember who. They were all saying, 'Please call us right away.' I called every one of them, and -- I'm not kidding -- no one had any memory of making the phone call in the first place. I swear to God!"

What we can say for sure is that DiCillo's films have tremendous integrity and sincerity, but they've never done much business or radiated tremendous hipness. (The sincerity, and maybe the integrity too, could be implicated.) He's made only four features since "Living in Oblivion," and one of those (the 2001 cop drama "Double Whammy") was never theatrically released in the U.S. despite premiering at Sundance. Recently, he's been directing episodes of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and "Monk," both to keep working and to pay the bills.

I'm delighted to report that his new movie, "Delirious," is among DiCillo's best, and returns to the central theme of his career: the elusive and destructive nature of fame. Steve Buscemi provides a brilliant performance as Les Galantine, a low-end celebrity photographer who scrapes out a living from his incredibly dingy New York apartment, brooding over every perceived slight from his parents, his co-workers and the P.R. apparatchiks who control his career. Apparently, and for the most part actually, a leech-like parasite on the celebrity organism, Les gradually becomes a halfway sympathetic figure with his own kind of gutter nobility.

"Les is like a raging speck of dust in the universe who is screaming for some sort of attention," says DiCillo. "Consider his name, Les Galantine. There is a certain gallantry to him. He struggles, he fights. There's something strangely compelling about him. He just can't stand it when people don't give him validation, and that's the source, I believe, of an awful lot of human behavior. Do I see some of myself in that character? Absolutely."

When Les meets Toby (Michael Pitt), a homeless, angel-faced street kid who yearns to become an actor, he has finally found someone whom he can instruct in the ways of the world (and to whom he can feel superior). Toby crashes in Les' closet and becomes his unpaid assistant, helping Les get a tabloid-ready snap of an action star named Chuck Sirloin as he emerges from a clinic after penile surgery.

These two guys build a relationship of genuine affection, but "Delirious" turns around the fact that each is ready to betray the other in search of their respective grails. (There's more than a little of "All About Eve" in this movie, albeit translated into guy-scumbag idiom.) Fate puts Toby in the path of K'harma (Alison Lohman), a Britney-esque pop singer going through a life crisis, but Les is still there, hanging over Toby's shoulder like an embarrassing older brother, eager to remind this former innocent of the debt he still owes. (K'harma's music video, for her hit "Take This Love and Shove It," is worth the price of admission all by itself.)

"I want to make sure that we don't say the film is a satire about the business of fame, because it really isn't," says DiCillo. "It's a film about two guys who accidentally meet and form a bond, and then something happens to wrench them apart." Beyond that, he adds, it's an allegory or a myth. "It's the same myth that keeps us fascinated about the movie business," he says. "We always go with the hope of seeing something genuine, even though we know that most of the entertainment shit we see is fake and stupid. We think we might see something, that someone might surprise us with that moment of total purity where we see into their soul. Toby is this lost innocent, wandering through the forest of New York. Les is the troll that he meets underneath the bridge, and Toby has to make a deal with him to get across that bridge. K'harma is the princess who's lost her soul, that Toby has to save."

If Toby's innocent quest leads only to the land of disposable, 15-second fame, while Les' apparent life of sleaze and corruption has a kind of twisted honor, well, that might be DiCillo's worldview in a nutshell. But if DiCillo is far from a big-money celebrity filmmaker, he's not quite Les Galantine either. As he notes, he's seen the fame game from both sides. "My fascination with fame and celebrity isn't just, 'Oh wow, how crazy!' or 'How funny!' or 'How stupid!' It's because there's so much at stake and how destructive it can be. The process that Toby gets swept up in, the current that pulls him along -- many sacrifices have to be made along the way.

"On a personal level, I've had people furious at me because I won't cast them in a movie. On every single one of my movies, I try to work with my friends, people I know. But I still have people who won't talk to me -- old friends of mine -- who won't talk to me because they feel I've betrayed them. I try to tell them, 'Guys, do you have any concept what I'm doing here? The movie has to work! If the movie doesn't work, I may never make another one.' But here's this guy who's struggling, who could really benefit from a part in my movie. It's a horrific dilemma to be in.

"On the other hand, I know people who just cut and run and go 'Fuck you, man!' They never look back. I've had that happen to me. I've put people in my movies who were nobodies, and then I never see them again." I will reiterate here that DiCillo insists he is not talking about the star of "Johnny Suede."

DiCillo has two more movies in development -- the one with Buscemi and Willem Dafoe as inept white supremacists sounds especially promising -- but he's well aware that at age 53, with only six films on his résumé, his filmmaking future hangs in the balance. "God damn it, I'm terrified," he says. "I feel great about the movie, but how are people going to respond? Critical response is going to be so important. If the critics pan it, that's basically it. So I'm busting my ass trying to give it a chance. I've seen it with audiences and I've seen how they are affected by it. Not on some stupid, superficial level. They go, 'Wow! That touches something in me.' I need to believe, as a filmmaker, that that response enables me to make another movie."

"Delirious" is now playing at the Angelika Film Center and the Clearview 62nd Street in New York. It opens Aug. 17 in Los Angeles, Aug. 31 in Boston and Chicago, Sept. 14 in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., Sept. 21 in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., Oct. 5 in Seattle and Oct. 12 in St. Louis, with other cities to follow.

Fast forward: A kidnappers' guide to São Paulo; one family's journey from Mao to now; the Darth Vader of "Donkey Kong"; "Zebraman" stripes against evil; on the road with Levi's ghost
Jason Kohn's gorgeous and terrifying film "Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)" is a confusing experience, and some might say needlessly so. Not merely does it give you a vertiginous overview of the colorful, divided, violent and intensely fucked-up nature of Brazilian society; it tries to reinvent documentary technique as it does so. When Kohn interviews a kidnap victim, an Amazonian frog farmer or the Brazilian attorney general, he sits a translator right next to the person speaking, so it's easy to get sidetracked: Wait a minute; which of these two attractive women had her ear cut off, and got sold back to her family for $3 million?

Kohn's pumping soundtrack of Brazilian rock, pop and rap is sometimes cranked so high you miss bits of conversation, and the glorious wide-screen cinematography of Heloisa Passos is frequently distracting on its own terms. Maybe I've finally become a fogey when it comes to documentary (it had to happen sometime), but I'm not at all sure this formal overload is serving Kohn's purposes. Then again, if the purpose of "Manda Bala" is to make you say, "Holy cow, honey! Let's cancel that Brazilian vacation!" then it's served admirably.

All that said, Kohn's film brilliantly depicts the Brazilian financial capital of São Paulo as a hallucinatory "Blade Runner" realm of the present, where the rich get richer through epic-scale political corruption, drive in bulletproof cars and fly above the city in private helicopters, the better to avoid the epidemic of kidnapping for ransom. (Hey, a plastic surgeon can always make you a new ear, as we observe in grisly detail.) Kohn actually interviews a balaclava-clad professional kidnapper, who talks about his deeds with a kind of professional neutrality, much as a salesman or banker would. It becomes clear that the poverty, wealth, crime and corruption of this city of 20 million are all aspects of the same thing, a massive societal dysfunction that is much more exaggerated than our own, but not so very different in kind. (Opens Aug. 17 at the Angelika Film Center in New York; Aug. 31 in Los Angeles; Sept. 14 in Boston, Houston and Philadelphia; Sept. 21 in Dallas, Detroit and Minneapolis; Sept. 28 in Chicago, San Diego, Washington and Seattle; and Oct. 12 in Las Vegas and Memphis, with more cities to follow.)

Chinese director Zhang Yang makes subtle, beautifully crafted films that blend a nostalgia for China's recent past with an appreciation for the greater personal liberty Chinese people enjoy today. He's on the other side of Chinese cinema from the bleaker, artier work of Jia Zhangke ("The World," "Still Life") but they're addressing the same issues. At times I found Zhang's new family epic "Sunflower" dipping into sentimentality, but taken in all it's a marvelously rich, tragicomic spectacle of father-son struggle and generational change.

Beginning in 1976, the year of Chairman Mao's death and a major earthquake in eastern China, Zhang tracks three decades in the life of Zhang Gengnian (played with marvelous reserve by Sun Haiying, a beloved star in China), a one-time Beijing artist whose career was derailed by the Cultural Revolution. Gengnian is a dour and unforgiving father, but we can always see in his eyes his aspirations for his son, Xiangyang (played by three different actors at different ages), who is growing up amid China's economic and social transformation. Joan Chen is terrific as Gengnian's wife, a would-be social climber frustrated at every turn. Given the intimacy and delicacy of "Sunflower," it's no surprise that it's at least partly autobiography. (Zhang Yang's father, Zhang Huaxun, is also a film director.) (Opens Aug. 17 at Lincoln Plaza in New York, with wider release to follow.)

I was all prepared to be intensely irritated by Seth Gordon's "The King of Kong," which follows the struggle between a Florida hot-sauce king and a Washington state schoolteacher for the all-time high score on the classic 1980s video game "Donkey Kong." I mean, who cares about these two losers with no lives, right? And this kind of subcultural spelunking has been done aplenty, if not in this precise realm. But eventually, by depicting the world of "classic arcade gaming" in all its intense nuttiness and geekery, Gordon throws the whole thing into human perspective. Is achieving 1 million in "Donkey Kong" any more of an arbitrary landmark than Barry Bonds' 756th home run? Or have we just convinced ourselves that one means more than the other?

As in any documentary about a self-enclosed social world, it's the human story that counts. Laid-off Boeing engineer turned science teacher Steve Wiebe has been trying to reach Donkey Kong's promised land in his garage for years, and finally unlocks the machine's notoriously difficult secrets to enter the legendary "kill screen." But the bizarre and insular world of East Coast video-game dorks, committed to an aging Jedi named Billy Mitchell -- a long-haired, über-patriotic Jesus-lookalike douchebag who now sells Buffalo-wing hot sauce -- won't accept Wiebe's world record, and suspect that he's in league with a guy named Mr. Awesome, who dresses up like Gen. Patton to sell his dating-secrets videos.

If this all sounds a bit too much like watching professional wrestling on TNT, all I can say is, it ain't faked. Mitchell and Wiebe (and Mr. Awesome too) are deadly serious about their rivalry, and ultimately Gordon's movie becomes both a hilarious story about an unbelievable collection of arrested-teenage morons and, yes, an inspiring fable of persistence and redemption. I haven't mentioned this movie's fabulous addition to the English language yet, so here it is: the verb "to chumpatize." (Opens Aug. 17 in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Austin, Texas; Aug. 24 in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Washington; Aug. 31 in Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Kansas City and San Diego; Sept. 7 in Atlanta and Meredith, N.H.; and Sept. 14 in Denver and Nashville, with more cities to follow.)

I'm not going to pass myself off as an expert on the cult-fave Japanese director Takashi Miike; I've seen five or six of his 60 or so films (some of which are straight-to-video quickies). But I would venture to guess that nothing in Miike's often hallucinatory and ultra-violent output up to now would be suitable for 8-year-olds. That has changed with the utterly delightful "Zebraman," a loving spoof on the "Ultraman" tradition of 1960s and '70s low-budget Japanese TV superheroes. "Zebraman" was supposedly a canceled show that aired for seven episodes in 1978, and which, in Miike's version, actually contained a coded prophecy about the future of humanity, crafted by a well-meaning alien.

"Zebraman" has all the semi-coherent genre blending you'd expect from Miike, who works too much and too fast but is nonetheless one of contemporary film's most original synthesizers. (Maybe that's a contradiction in terms; but see also Tarantino, Quentin). It's an apocalyptic fantasy set in 2010, with aliens invading the earth -- and they're cute, "Ghostbusters"-style aliens with green gumdrop bodies at that. It has a handsome, arrogant cop hero (Atsuro Watabe) who keeps spouting hilarious hard-boiled dialogue and complaining about his venereal diseases. It has a mild-mannered schoolteacher named Shinichi (played as a bottomless fount of social unease by Sho Aikawa) who dreams of harnessing Zebraman's powers -- never dreaming that he really is Zebraman.

For any fan of Japanese pop culture, the clips from the alleged original series (Zebraman's theme song! His kicking and punching technique! His stylish guitar-strumming in his alternate existence as a beloved, joke-cracking schoolteacher!) are positively to die for. As usual with Miike, the overall film is hit and miss -- and the digital transfer I watched was pretty crappy -- but the brilliance of the concept here more than makes up for the sloppy moments and purposeful obscurity. Zebraman is aided by a lovable kid in a wheelchair and a comely single mom (who appears in Shinichi's dreams as the sexed-up Zebranurse!), and even if this is clearly pastiche it has a gentleness you definitely can't find in "Audition" or "Ichi the Killer." Zebra screw-kick! Striping evil! (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York. May play other cities; DVD release will follow.)

I could complain about a world where Miike is vastly better known, even among film buffs, then is Italian director Davide Ferrario, but A) there's no point, and B) it's dumb to act like you can't enjoy both of them. Ferrario is something of a lone wolf in the murky landscape of contemporary Italian films; he isn't all that well known at home, let alone overseas. His films, both narratives and documentaries, are dryly amusing and fueled by intellectual curiosity. In Ferrario's newest, he follows the legendary journey of writer Primo Levi after his 1945 liberation from Auschwitz, walking 1,000 miles from central Poland to northern Italy.

It's a haunting and disorienting film that bounces from place to place and era to era. We see historical footage of Levi himself, snippets of Soviet propaganda and a neo-Nazi rally in contemporary Western Europe. Ferrario travels from contemporary Ukraine (where thugs recently murdered a pop singer because of his choice of language) to the ghost towns around Chernobyl to a desperately awful touring zoo in Moldova, which is apparently the poorest country in Europe. He visits Belarus, a collectivized police state that seems virtually unchanged since the so-called end of communism. On the other hand, he also encounters an Italian millionaire who has moved his business to Hungary, and discovers that the open-air market where Levi once scavenged for food is now run by Chinese immigrants. "Primo Levi's Journey" is a profound meditation on the unevenness of history, reminding us -- as Faulkner once remarked -- that the past not only isn't dead, it isn't really past at all. (Opens Aug. 17 at the Quad Cinema in New York, with national release to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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