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With a hip-hip-Happy New Year to all of you, here's the latest conventional wisdom on the state of the movie business: All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. Everything is subject to change, and in William Goldman's famous phrase, nobody knows anything. On one hand, bellyaching continues (including mine) regarding the impending death of moviegoing. On the other, it was pretty much a ka-ching Christmas season for mainstream and independent film alike, and many of you who weren't dragged by family members to "Alvin and the Chipmunks" or the latest "National Treasure" installment saw other things. Moderately surprising other things, I have to say.
We have a whopping surprise indie hit this winter and it is -- no, not "No Country for Old Men," although that will pile up plenty o' loot on the way to multiple Oscar nominations and beyond, and not Paul Thomas Anderson's massively hyped "There Will Be Blood," which has opened prodigiously in New York and Los Angeles but may prove too long and too dark for mainstream audiences. No, the avalanche-force, market-changing sleeper hit of 2008 is Jason Reitman's teen-pregnancy comedy "Juno," which rocketed to a box-office take of $26 million over the holidays and looks likely to take down "No Country" (currently at $42 million) as Indiewood's reigning champion.
Memo to all movie bloggers, gossip-mongers and insider's insiders: You can officially stop talking about the next "Little Miss Sunshine." At Sundance this year, the only acceptable market-savvy phrase is, "Where's 'Juno'?" Got that? Thanks. That's the latest, at least until the latest becomes something else. (If you're an ex-stripper with 40 pages of zingy dialogue in your desk drawer, get an agent now. If you're not yet an ex-stripper, or a stripper of any sort, there may, just barely, be time.)
Where does this leave someone like, say, John Sayles? Possibly up the creek with a busted banjo for a paddle, and you know the creek I mean. I have mixed feelings about the 19 feature films Sayles has cranked out since 1980, but I'm sorry, you've gotta love the guy. He's never approached his work with the slightest tinge of pretension or preciousness. His producer and principal collaborator, Maggie Renzi, has also been his domestic partner since they met at Williams College in the early '70s. (They've never married.) Sayles has labored tirelessly to gain the freedom to make his own movies, working on numerous Hollywood projects as a writer and script doctor for hire to pay the bills. (He's a credited writer on such upcoming films as "Jurassic Park IV" and "The Spiderwick Chronicles," but it's widely known, for instance, that Sayles did an uncredited rewrite on "Apollo 13" shortly before production.)
Snooty art-house critics like me sometimes rough up Sayles' films, which don't tend to be cinematically or dramatically adventurous and sometimes feel like they're offering a predictable blend of progressive politics and Dickensian morality tale. ("Silver City" was somewhat of a snooze, for example, despite Chris Cooper's memorable turn as a dimwitted, George W. Bush-like cardboard candidate.) Honestly, it's time to get over that. Sayles' movies almost always offer terrific casts, ample compassion, tremendous local color and an appetite for exploring the complexities of American life.
"Lone Star," Sayles' biggest success to date, holds up (to my taste) as one of the most compelling American films of the late '90s, and "Eight Men Out" is one of the best baseball dramas ever made, even if that's admittedly a weak category. "Honeydripper," his new movie about the moment when rhythm & blues became rock 'n' roll -- which Sayles situates in a fictional Alabama town in 1950 -- isn't quite in that class, but it's an engaging, high-integrity picture featuring one of Danny Glover's best performances and a strong supporting cast that includes Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Stacy Keach and Vondie Curtis-Hall, along with real-life blues-guitar prodigy Gary Clark Jr.
Amid the cinematic maelstrom of the last month, you probably didn't even know there was a new John Sayles movie, did you? As Sayles himself puts it in our interview, he's out there yelling on the street corner, and the people on the other three corners have bullhorns. Also this week, we've got a New Year's tradition of sorts: an impromptu, almost-all-guesswork guide to the most exciting films (that I haven't seen yet) of the next six months.
"Honeydripper": Rock 'n' roll and the civil rights movement, before anybody called them that
Harmony, Ala., does not seem like a friendly place to be an African-American businessman in 1950, but Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis, the piano-playing saloonkeeper played by Danny Glover in "Honeydripper," has done more than make the best of it. A weatherbeaten man of uncertain age with a shadowy past, Pinetop has gone his own way, continuing to book aging blues artists at the Honeydripper Lounge even as younger black audiences have drifted away to electrified, hard-driving rhythm & blues.
Glover's Pinetop, a man distinguished by public pride and private shame, is the narrative and moral pivot point of "Honeydripper," which is less a portrait of the Jim Crow-era South than, like most of Sayles' movies, an effort to capture and distill a moment of American contradiction. As Sayles says in our interview, Pinetop is as old as the 20th century and has grown up with blues and jazz; when a young drifter with a homemade electric guitar (played by real-life Texas guitar whiz Gary Clark Jr.) arrives in Harmony, Pinetop finds himself half-accidentally standing at a crossroads of musical and cultural history.
Although Sayles is sometimes accused of ham-fisted politics, "Honeydripper" handles its Southern milieu with delicacy. While the regime of white supremacy is always present like overlying weather, and Sonny, the young guitarist, is summarily "sentenced" to unpaid work in the cotton fields, the town's corrupt sheriff (Stacy Keach) is not without a degree of humanity, and Pinetop himself is a complicated figure who's not above jealousy, deceit and small-mindedness. In an effort to save his club, he books the New Orleans hit-maker Guitar Sam, but when Sam gets arrested in Arkansas, Pinetop remembers the young drifter with the funny-looking guitar, and observes that nobody in Harmony is likely to know exactly what Guitar Sam looks like.
"Honeydripper" offers a leisurely, atmospheric production with lots of time to appreciate his largely African-American cast, along with rocking musical interludes and just the faintest wash of spirituality. (This comes in the personage of another real bluesman, Keb' Mo', playing a street musician named Possum who seems to offer prophetic visions and to come and go with startling suddenness.) As Sayles explains, trying to get people out to see the damn movie is now part of the independent filmmaker's job, and he phoned me one night just before Christmas and did his part. (Listen to a podcast of my interview with Sayles here.)
One of the things I think everybody in the film world admires about you is how hard you work at this. You and Maggie seem to be intimately involved with marketing every film you make.
Well, sure. We've been on the campaign trail for "Honeydripper" for about three months already. I realized the other day that we've been to 13 film festivals and five jazz and blues festivals already, and it's not like we get to stop when it opens in New York and L.A. When I'm asked to talk to film students now, I tell them, "You know, it would be great to just be an artist and sit back and make these little creations and have somebody else figure out how to get people to see them. But you're probably not going to get to do that. You're probably going to have to be a marketer, a showman, whatever. It's part of the job."
Even with a movie like this, that has some well-known actors, we can't just do a one-day press junket and then have the studio spend millions of dollars to spin that out around the country. We've been doing this since we started out, with "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Lianna" and some of the early ones. We did a lot of legwork. We went around the country to each theater and tried to be the story. You always know there are people out there who would like to see the movie, and the trick is to get them to see it in some way that brings some money back to you, so you can make another movie. Theatrical release is still one of the best ways to do that. Either you make money on the theatrical or else you get the theatrical to make enough noise that the ancillaries after that are also high. With all the competition, with all the things besides movies that there are to do, you really have to hustle. You're on the street corner yelling, and on the other three corners are people with bullhorns.
Everybody I talk to seems to feel like it's gotten a lot tougher for genuine independent films like yours in the last decade, with the marketplace so dominated by the studios' specialty divisions. Do you notice a difference?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. For a while there, the big studios had to deal with this first-weekend phenomenon and the independent films didn't. But in the last seven years or so, the independent films have gotten caught up in that first-weekend syndrome themselves. Some of that is actual economic forces, and some of that is the distributors of independent movies getting lazy and greedy. And saying, "You know, if it's not going to turn into 'Sideways,' why are we bothering? If it's not going to gross $14 million to $20 million, why let it hang around for more than two weeks? We'll just let it die."
I sometimes wonder whether a filmmaker like you, or like Jim Jarmusch, could build a career and a body of work in this economic climate.
There's a lot of people who are really scuffling to figure this stuff out. David Lynch bought the rights to his last film back from his French distributor, and he's been selling it from his Web site. He already had a cult following that was going to his site, and we didn't have that advantage. But you know there's an audience out there. How do you get the film to them without spending more than comes in? We could buy a lot of big ads and end up losing a dollar for every customer who comes in. That's crazy.
Is the challenge any bigger, in the case of "Honeydripper," because you've got a predominantly African-American cast?
Well, that challenge is bigger overseas. Our foreign sales agent really liked the movie. They were really excited about the movie and then they started showing it at film festivals and markets. They kept running into this: "Wait a minute, you mean they're all black?" That's not necessarily a racial prejudice [on the part of the overseas film buyers, though it may be on the part of audiences], but it's an economic prejudice that they have to work to get around. [Films with African-American casts and themes have typically fared poorly overseas.]
In this country, we see it as an opportunity. We put this distribution company together, we hired Ira Deutchman, who's worked in the off-Hollywood market for many years. We're also working with people who are specialists in the African-American market, like Will Packer, whose company Rainforest Films did "Stomp the Yard" and "This Christmas," quite literally movies that don't bother to cross over into white audiences. We think that's a big mainstream audience for us, and it's an opportunity rather than a problem.
We're also specifically going after the people who are into blues and rhythm & blues, who are a subset of the music audience but a really, really fervid one. We put together the Honeydripper All-Star Band and we've been playing the blues and jazz festivals. It is a special challenge, but it always is. With "Eight Men Out" it was baseball people we went after. With "Silver City" we went after people involved with progressive politics. You kind of have to say, yes, there's that core audience that is willing to go to a non-Hollywood movie in an independent theater, but then there's the question: Who's the movie about?
We helped a friend of ours [writer-director Alejandro Springall] make a movie called "My Mexican Shivah," set in the Jewish community in Mexico City. Well, you know, everybody who went to see the Hank Greenberg documentary, which was really a successful movie, should go see that. They'll really like it.
"Honeydripper" tries to capture the elusive historical moment, or process, when rhythm & blues became rock 'n' roll. Have you always been interested in that?
Well, not always. I was born in 1950, and like everybody else I just accepted the music I grew up with, and assumed it was always there. The first record I ever had was a 45 of "Hound Dog," and that's a good example. It's a great song and I always liked it, but as I got older and started asking where this stuff came from, I found out that "Hound Dog" was written for Big Mama Thornton, who was a blues shouter, a throwback to Ma Rainey, by these two Jewish guys from L.A., Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, who used to hang out on Central Avenue going to R&B shows, and then it was picked up by this hillbilly from Tennessee, who made something totally new out of it. Well, that's a lot of what "Honeydripper" is about. That kind of synchronicity, and the fact that the musicians listened to each other before people in the rest of the culture did.
Rock 'n' roll led me to gospel and the blues, and led me into the past. That got me started thinking about that moment when musicians heard that solid-body electric guitar for the first time. A lot of them must have thought, "Oh my God, I'm gonna get left behind. I can't learn to play this stuff."
Not everybody could adjust the way Bob Dylan did, who unlike so many folk people jumped into it, saying, "Oh my God, look at what I can do with this thing. Look at the territory it opens up."
Obviously the setting and characters for "Honeydripper" are fictional, but have you drawn on musical history here?
Sure. Guitar Sam, the guy who doesn't show up, is based on Guitar Slim, a New Orleans player who was famous, among other things, for having that long extension cord. And also for missing his gigs and having other guys -- including guys who are now iconic guitarists -- be told by club owners, "Tonight you're Guitar Slim."
Wow! So that kind of stuff really happened.
Yeah! Ray Charles appeared as Charles Brown sometimes. There weren't album covers or rock videos, people mostly knew the names on the jukebox and had no idea what the guy looked like. You know, if the guy can play, he's Guitar Slim as far as I'm concerned.
I think this is one of Danny Glover's greatest roles. Pinetop is such a deep and complicated figure, sympathetic but not always likable, authoritarian with his wife and daughter and then sometimes warm, damaged in some way we don't totally understand but also noble.
I wrote about a seven-page biography for Danny's character, and that was mostly about being a guy in his 50s in 1950 who grew up with the music. He was a young kid when blues started being played. He's been through Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, the birth of jazz in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong. He's played swing and jump music and now he's playing rhythm & blues. The question is, is he going to stop there or make that one last transition?
I try not to have actors in mind when I write things, but the minute I read it over after I finished it, I said, "Oh, I've got to get Danny Glover." There's a weight of experience, not just screen experience but life experience, that Danny brings to a role. The minute you see him, you say: I bet this guy can get away with it. He's living in Harmony, Ala., in 1950, but he's his own man. That weight and presence that Danny has, you just buy it. Same thing goes for Charles Dutton, and size is part of it, quite honestly. They're both big guys!
You do deal with the politics of life under Jim Crow in Alabama, but with a fairly delicate touch. It's not the emphasis of the film.
Yeah, well, nobody gets lynched, you know? In every movie you're entering a world and that world has a distinctive tone. I was interested in saying, let's not forget where we are. You can't have that music without that world. There's no drama without that world, that oppressive ceiling over people.
Right. And Stacy Keach's sheriff character, while he's certainly not a good guy, is more a buffoon than a villain.
He's corrupt as hell, and he's happy to use race as part of his corruption. Stacy asked me over the phone, when we were talking about the part, "How is this different from the part Kris Kristofferson played in 'Lone Star'?" I said, "Well, this sheriff is not a murderer and a psychopath." He's absolutely corrupt, but he's more interested in control than in killing people.
He's interested in control and he's interested in chicken wings.
Absolutely chicken wings. He's a get-along-to-go-along kind of guy. One of the templates I gave Stacy was George Wallace, who played ball with the Klan even though he was never a Klansman. As he once said after losing an election, "I'm never going to get out-niggered in Alabama again." I told Stacy that his character was a boxer, and he kept power by keeping people off balance. To keep people off balance you can't be a hard-ass all the time. You have to be friendly sometimes, almost sympathetic.
One of the things I'm dealing with in "Honeydripper" is the fact that there was rock 'n' roll before it was called rock 'n' roll, and there was the civil rights movement before it was called the civil rights movement. There's a minor character in the film who is based on A. Philip Randolph, who was the head of the Pullman porters' union. He was the guy in his time, the way that Martin Luther King was later on. People like him were banging their heads against that wall long before anybody called it the civil rights movement.
"Honeydripper" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to follow.
Ones to watch for in 2008 -- guesswork, hunches and tea-leaf-reading division
Had enough insiderish reviews of films you won't get to see for many months or years? Well, sorry, but there'll be lots more of that coming when I head to Sundance in two weeks. But before we get there, let's indulge in an annual blind cherry-picking exercise of movies opening in the near future. I haven't seen any of these yet, so this is pure and undiluted guesstimation, based on such factors as A) word of mouth; B) previous track record; C) meaningless hunches; and D) subtle brainwashing by some publicist who bought me a drink last year. Not necessarily in that order.
I'm deliberately omitting movies that I've seen and written about at festivals, or films Salon is likely to cover in the next few weeks, so Jia Zhangke's "Still Life" and Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winner, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," aren't here. (Catch both of them, absolutely.) I've also left out forthcoming Sundance premieres that are likely to make headlines and become major Indiewood releases, so Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" and Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot American remake of his meta-slasher film "Funny Games" are also absent. (Yeah, I'm dying of curiosity about both.)
"Battle in Seattle" Stuart Townsend's docudrama about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle was one of the audience sensations at Toronto last fall. Mixes real news events with a scripted plot involving Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, André Benjamin and many other actors. (Opens in March.)
"Chop Shop" Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, whose "Man Push Cart" felt considerable love (and got almost no distribution) in 2006, ventures once again into the underbelly of New York with this drama about a street teen working in the notorious body-shop ghetto of Queens. (Opens Feb. 27 in New York.)
"The Duchess of Langeais" The great French director Jacques Rivette ("Va Savoir," "La Belle Noiseuse," "Celine and Julie Go Boating," etc.), still with no American audience, adapts a classic by Balzac. The all-star cast of upscale French talent includes Jeanne Balibar, Guillaume Depardieu, Michel Piccoli and Bulle Ogier. (Feb. 22)
"Love Songs" I missed director Christophe Honoré's attempt to revive the French musical when it premiered at Cannes, and reviews were mixed. Then I saw his Truffaut-flavored earlier film "Dans Paris," which was terrific, and ever since I've been hearing from know-it-all friends that this is absolutely great, somewhat in the spirit of Jacques Demy, Dennis Potter and John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes." (March)
"Mister Foe" This dark character drama about a peculiar Scottish runaway comes from David Mackenzie, for my money one of the most interesting among the new crop of British directors. I loved his Hitchcockian erotic gothic "Asylum," with its great performance by Natasha Richardson. This was released last year in the United Kingdom as "Hallam Foe" (title of the original novel), but evidently Americans need to know that's a guy's name. (March)
"Orthodox Stance" Jason Hutt's documentary is about New York boxer Dmitriy Salita, a Russian immigrant and observant Orthodox Jew, as he battles for a shot at the championship. Come on, that's golden! If Scott Rudin doesn't already own the rights to a big-budget fictional version of this story, he's buying them tomorrow. (Jan. 25)
"Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead" If you've ever seen any of Troma Pictures founder and president Lloyd Kaufman's movies (the "Toxic Avenger" series, "Class of Nuke 'Em High," etc.), you know they're reckless, pointedly amateurish, filled with in-jokes, political asides and juvenile gross-out humor -- and darkly, hilariously brilliant. I have no idea what market niche Kaufman and his company think they can fill these days, but they haven't succumbed to economic inevitability yet. And I do have some standards, among them being the fact that if someone makes a movie with this title, it winds up on any damn list I choose. (March)
"A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman" This documentary by Canadian director Peter Raymont (who made the devastating Rwanda doc "Shake Hands With the Devil") about legendary Chilean dissident and writer Ariel Dorfman is the only non-American film on this year's best-documentary Oscar short list. By all reports it's tremendously moving.
"Shine a Light" I don't know exactly why this is on my list, except that I'm morbidly fascinated by the idea that Martin Scorsese, who was the greatest American filmmaker 20 years ago, has made a film about the Rolling Stones, who were the greatest rock 'n' roll band, uh, let's just say at least that long ago. This goes so deep into counterintuitive territory that it's got to be worth seeing. Plus, the song the title refers to is really good. (April)
"Shotgun Stories" Another one I skipped at festival screenings, because Jeff Nichols' tale of backwoods incest, intrigue and violent feuding sounded like Appalachian cliché. But word of mouth has been consistently strong, with many viewers reporting that Nichols' debut feature has dazzling cinematography and plays like a Greek tragedy set in Arkansas. (March)
"The Silence Before Bach" Spanish surrealist artist and filmmaker Pere Portabella, now 78, checks in with a documentary, of sorts, that's sort of about Johann Sebastian Bach, or at least about the notion that Bach's "invention" of the classical-music tradition meant the beginning of modern American culture. No, this won't play in Peoria (or much of anywhere else), but I bet it's going to be awesome if you've got the appetite for it. (Jan. 30 in New York)
"Stop-Loss" After nearly a decade, "Boys Don't Cry" director Kimberly Peirce has finally escaped all the lesbian and/or transgender scripts being flung at her and made another film. Here's the bad news: It's a high-octane Iraq-war drama, starring Ryan Philippe as a young Marine who refuses a second tour of duty in the war zone. I'm eager to see it, but we all know the track record of these Iraq films so far. (March)