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September 17, 2005

DVD Journal: "Overnight" and "Z Channel"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What does it mean that so many of the most enjoyable movies of recent years have been documentaries about the movie life? Perhaps this is just the way of all postmodernism: These days, the thing that is the thing-about-the-thing trumps the thing that is the-thing-in-itself.

But perhaps there's more to it than that. I'll venture a small-t theory: It's a symptom of the current state of the movieworld. The movies themselves have become less important not just as elements in the general media mix but even in that smaller complex of things we call "the movies." Where once the movies were the central event of "the movies," they often now function merely as pretexts for an avalanche of other media events: articles, ads, campaigns, careers, profiles, DVD extras. As the business, the deal-making, the careers, the packaging, and the technology have moved to center stage, the movies themselves have receded into the shadows.

Quite a change! When "Nashville," for one example, opened in 1975, The New York Times ran at least eight pieces about the movie itself, and editorial writers and critics weighed in with interpretations of the film for months after. These days, who cares what some moviemaker has done in an artistic sense, let alone what he has to say? Let's cut to the chase instead: How has the film done at the box office? Who's hot and who's not?

So it makes sense -- if only to me -- that the most interesting movies these days would often turn out to be movies about movie processes and movie developments: movies about the movie life itself. But of course I could be wrong about all this. I could also be seeing the whole deal through (gasp!) my own limited eyes. Eager to hear competing theories, as always.

Although Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana's "Overnight" isn't (IMHO) one of the best of the recent movies-about-moviemaking, it's certainly one of the most irresistable. "Overnight" tells the true-life, rise-and-fall story of Troy Duffy, filmmaker wannabe. And filmmaker-wannabe extraordinaire. Duffy doesn't just have a wonderful name, he's an amazing character: a self-confident, macho, egomaniac blowhard who stumbles into and lives out an almost unbelievable Hollywood fantasy/nightmare.

troy duffy01.jpg Troy Duffy, player

It's the late 1990s, and the moviebiz is in an especially manic state. "Pulp Fiction" has been a big hit, Sundance is booming, and the business is hungry for the next edgy young indie talent. A nobody bartender in a nowheresville L.A. bar, Troy Duffy is a 25-year-old with dreams of stardom in the big leagues. He plays in a band called The Brood, and he has written a guns-and-guys-and-attitude script called "The Boondock Saints."

And then, one day, he gets The Phone Call; Miramax has bought "The Boondock Saints" for three hundred thousand dollars. In no time, Duffy and Miramax's legendary boss Harvey Weinstein are bonding. They're on each other's wavelength -- tough, streetwise, savvy to the whole movies thing. As the deal shakes out, everything goes from great to even-greater. Miramax is going to let Duffy direct, although he has never directed so much as a school play. The projected budget: $15 mill. Even The Brood comes out well; they'll do the soundtrack for the film.

Duffy and his buds are exultant. In the space of a few weeks, Duffy has gone from being a hard-drinking, big-talking, Boston-raised working class kid to media-godhood itself. In his own words: "I'm Hollywood's new hard-on."

And the great news doesn't abate. Weinstein buys the bar where Duffy works, and arranges to co-own it with Duffy. The bar turns into the latest cool place for celebs and aspirants to visit; they can feel real while doing their networking. The beer and booze flow copiously at the bar, and later as Duffy and his gang go on celebrating their good fortune at home. Stars show up at these blow-out parties too -- even bigshots have to stay in touch with the latest happening-thing, after all.

Hey: Who da Man? Troy Duffy, of course, who takes it all not as fantastic luck but as vindication; he always knew that the fates would one day come through for him.

Duffy wants everyone to know how gigantic his dick is, in a word. It seems to be a constant: Alpha-guy wannabes are less interested in women than they are in impressing other guys. In any case, Duffy and his posse are going to turn Hollywood upside down. The world has never seen anything like Troy Duffy -- oh, and his friends too. In no time, Duffy has an agent, an office, and a conference table where he and the posse plot out how they're going to conquer all media. Everyone who counts is on the payroll. For some reason, Duffy is obsessed with the bizarre idea that he'll be the first guy ever to write and direct his first movie and also have his band be signed to a major label. How strange that such a distinction should matter to him, or to anyone. But that's OK, because when the magic is happening it's best not to argue with it. Duffy even appears on the cover of USA Today. How can anything possibly go amiss?

Although Duffy is a kid of 26, he's already a surly, worn-looking bruiser who could pass for 45. He's heavyset, always unshaven; he's a devoted drinker, coffee addict, and nonstop smoker too. He favors overalls, baseball caps, and bare feet.

He also favors bullying. In fact, he's a classic bully: tough, aggressive, probably deeply insecure, though he'd never let on. The egomania, the abuse, the jargon ... It all seems to spring out of this kid fullblown. "Troy Duffy" is quite an act -- one of those polished personas you'd have trouble accepting in anything but a satire: the hooded eyes, the truculence, the conviction, even some genuine charisma. He's as fullblown a coarse young beast as the characters Michael Madsen and Tom Sizemore often play.

I watch this kind of thing wondering: Do we all have a Hollywood alpha-asshole inside, waiting for an excuse to spring out and take over? If a call were to come and tell you that your wildest dream of success, money, and glamor is in fact going to come true, can you guarantee that you wouldn't turn into a monster?

Thank heavens most of us will never have the chance to find out. In Troy Duffy's case, he not only had the chance to find out, he had already attained Troy Duffyhood long before Harvey Weinstein's call arrived. Duffy seems like a born thug, although of a new-style, Maxim-reading kind. What's maybe most startling about him is his mastery of showbiz-player lingo. Did it come from growing up on magazine stories about Hollywood dealmaking? Playwrights couldn't invent lines half as juicy and horrifying as what spills out of Duffy's mouth spontaneously.

Troy's friends tag along. They're eager to serve because they're eager to succeed in their own right. They'll all be loyal to each other; they'll all help each other out. Right? Right? After all, they're all buds and equals, aren't they? And, besides, they're all bursting with talent. Troy is just the first one of them to make it through to the bigtime. If the rest of them are to be swept along in his wake, well, that's not such a bad way to make it to the top, is it? When Duffy announces that he has nailed down a recording contract for The Brood, the entire posse flies off to Mexico to party. Hot chicks, needless to say, are impressed by everyone's good fortune.

(The directors of "Overnight" were themselves part of Duffy's posse; they were the managers of The Brood. Early on it occured to Smith and Montana that it'd be nifty to document Troy's adventures, and they obtained the rights and permissions they needed to pull "Overnight" together. Talk about on-the-ball and resourceful!)

The too-good-to-be-true-ness starts to crumble very quickly. Why has Miramax stopped taking Duffy's phone calls? What's Harvey up to? And where is that damn recording contract? Months pass. Cigarettes are smoked. Coffee grounds are scrutinized. Finally the gang learns -- from an item in Variety -- that Miramax has shelved "The Boondock Saints." Did a female exec take a dislike to Duffy's belligerance? In one version of the tale, the only reason Weinstein bought the script in the first place was to screw another indie studio out of it. Once he'd done that, Weinstein lost interest in the project.

But who really knows? In Troy Duffy-land, the stresses start to tell. Who's to blame? Who's in and who's out? What to do next? When the money starts to run thin, really basic questions arise, questions such as: Who's going to get paid?

As the bricks come raining down on everyone's dreams, it becomes clear that the only person whose fortunes Troy Duffy cares about is Troy Duffy. Troy Duffy isn't shy about reminding the buds that he's first among equals: the king, the party-host, the genius. He made it all happen. Without him, they'd be nothing and nowhere. In one ghastly-funny scene, Duffy explains to the filmmakers/band-managers why they don't deserve to be paid.

The gang hangs in there anyway. What choice do they have? They still have their own hopes for success in the biz, after all. And how else are they going to find their way to the promised land? What was once a broad and straight highway to success -- dough, applause, blowjobs -- starts to look like dead-end loserhood instead.

Some of the film's most memorable moments occur when the camera catches "Omigod" expressions in the faces of Duffy's posse. You see them thinking, "Am I really so needy and craven that I'm going to take this abuse? I thought we were friends here, but in fact he's a monster -- not just an asshole but a sociopath. But there's still a chance that he could be my ticket to the bigtime ..." They wouldn't have thought themselves capable of eating such quantities of shit. But they do eat it, though they hate themselves for doing so.

Eventually, Duffy manages to cobble together enough money to make his film. It doesn't get much notice theatrically, and although it becomes a cult hit on video Duffy has stupidly signed away video royalties. And The Brood finally does manage to make their record; in six months of release, it sells 640 copies. The band's contract is canceled. Through it all -- and apparently right to the present day -- Troy Duffy remains, in his own eyes anyway, Da Man.

Labor of ... love?

What fun: I found it next-to-impossible to take my eyes from the screen. Two beefs about the film, though:

  • Beef #1: Lack of narration. I've complained about this before and -- inconceivable though this may seem -- nothing has changed: Many young documentarians seem convinced that using narration or voice-over would be a cheat.

    It's understandable that they want the on-scene footage to play the major role in the film. But to bear the entire burden of the exposition? Simple, and inevitable, problem: What happens if you simply don't have the footage you need? After all, few documentarians wind up with every piece of their story on film. Plus, as far as delivering information goes, words are often far more efficient than movie footage is. Film is hard to beat at showing people's behavior and actions, of course. But at supplying context and information? For instance: How to use unadorned footage to establish, "It's the late '90s and Hollywood is hot for edgy young filmmakers"? Yet it only took 12 words to nail the point.

    Because the filmmakers of "Overnight" can't bring themselves to simply tell us what we need to know, we often wind up wading through unnecessary vagueness and uncertainty. Who is this? And who is that? And what situation are we now in the midst of?

    A lot of the film's footage is priceless. But, in information terms, I learned far more from press interviews with the filmmakers than I did from the movie itself. Here are a few of those interviews: here, here, here.

  • Beef #2: The filmmakers make too damn much of their topic. With their elegant typography and mournful music, the filmmakers are trying to make tragic hay out of some facts that, however yummy, aren't really all that remarkable. Troy Duffy is one obnoxious guy, that's for sure. And he certainly stumbled into and lived through an amazing story. But does he -- and does his story -- have any actual stature?

    The fact is that showbiz is full of Troy Duffys, most of whom don't succeed. But being an obnoxious bully is no tragic affliction in Hollywood; it hardly seals your doom. A few example of obnoxious bullies who made it to the top: Harvey Weinstein and Dawn Steel, both of whom are famous for throwing heavy, sharp objects at underlings. Steel -- acclaimed some years back as a feminist role model -- was fond of yelling and screaming, and of accusing her female subordinates of being "bitches" and "cunts." Oliver Stone is an aggressive, charismatic, and self-centered bully; so was Don Simpson. (Try this book about Simpson, or this one about working with Stone. Both are loads of gasp-provoking fun.) Come to think of it, no one has ever accused the original studio bosses of having elegant manners, quiet voices, or small egos either.

If I can be forgiven a personal note: Back in my 20s, I had my own fantasies of conquering the filmbiz. I made a few years' worth of lame-o attempts at playing the wannabe game. But once I got a taste of what the real world of filmmaking was like, I picked up my skirts and ran, and never looked back.

As a kid, I pictured filmmaking to be a matter of going off with a group of friends, being creative together, and returning with a work of art. (For which we'd all be recognized, celebrated, and rewarded, of course.) I found the actual scene horrifying. And I found many of the people in it terrifying. They seemed to me like people who would kill their grandmothers to get a foot on the Hollywood ladder.

I remember one successful screenwriter I met at a party going off on a monologue about a chauffeur who had recently offended him, and how he'd love to kill the bastard, just rip his head off, y'know? The cocaine that was around in such profusion in those days was probably fueling this idiot's berserkness. Still, there was no question that he wanted me to think of him as a homicidal maniac; he thought he was doing a smart thing by carrying on like this. (In front of a nobody, by the way!) And, oh, how I came to loathe the word "smart" used in a Hollywood sense ...

To its credit, "Overnight" does a good job of suggesting what incredible jerks some Hollywood people can be. But it lacks perspective; it's a little adolescent. What's remarkable about Troy Duffy isn't what he is, it's the touched-by-a-wand story he lived out, and the lucky-for-us fact that cameras were recording scattered parts of that story.

The final shot that the filmmakers offer of Duffy is a grainy, distant one. It's night, and Duffy is drunk and babbling to himself outside a bar. The implication is that Duffy's ups and downs have left him broken, perhaps even crazy. Yet has he really gone nuts? He runs a "Boondock Saints" website, and, judging from the party pictures he posts, he seems to be functioning reasonably well. Still, a fun movie. I haven't seen "The Boondock Saints" myself. Does it show any signs of filmmaking talent? Some rumors have it that Duffy is at work on a sequel. Some other rumors have it that the previous rumor is nothing more than Troy Duffyesque hot air.

What struck me most about "Overnight," though, is its failure to touch on one important question: the art of the movies. What movies does Troy Duffy like? What does he stand for in movie terms? What traditions, and which styles, matter to Troy Duffy? You'll never find out the answers to these questions from "Overnight," because the film is entirely concerned with the question of making it.

A more subtle, accomplished, and grown-up movie-about-movies is Xan Cassavetes' "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession." (Xan is one of the children of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.) A small theme at 2Blowhards is the importance of many people in the arts who seldom get much recognition: teachers, designers, administrators, translators, muses, agents, patrons, editors, models, friends, partners, distributors ...

Watching the culture-creation process from up-close, I've often been struck by how crucial these people can be. Although they're usually thought of as mere support-staff, in many ways these are the people who make "culture" possible. The best of them are remarkable and much-undersung figures, and are often more important (IMHO, of course) than the people we think of as stars and artists.

Jerry Harvey was one of these undersung, background talents. A brilliant, intellectual kid in love with the movies, Harvey grew up in Bakersfield, attended UCLA, co-wrote the script for a 1977 Monte Hellman Western, then stumbled into a job as programmer for a Los Angeles cable movie station, the Z Channel. (IMDB has a good short biography of Harvey here.)

jerrry harvey01.jpg Jerry Harvey, film-lover

The Z Channel is where Jerry Harvey made his real mark. A small independent serving patches of the L.A. area, Z handed its programming duties over entirely to Jerry Harvey. The Z Channel became Harvey's cause, his self-expression, and his creation. He ran the channel as though it was one of the great movie repertory houses, throwing festivals and retrospectives, even turning the monthly programming guide into a firstclass movie publication. With little in the way of a budget to play with, Harvey used his wit, his imagination, and his connections to obtain rights to forgotten, old, and overlooked movies: directors' cuts, movies that had had only tiny releases but were fascinating anyway ...

Z had an impact way out of proportion to the size of its audience, partly because of its quality and partly because it broadcast in L.A., where many of the people who followed it were filmbuffs and moviebiz people themselves. The characters who line up to testify how much the Z channel meant to them is dazzling: studio executives (Bill Mechanic, David Chasman), as well as "creatives" like Robert Altman, Teresa Russell, Vilmos Zsigmond, Penelope Spheeris, and James Woods. At one point, Altman says that many of his films might have been forgotten entirely had it not been for Harvey's dedication to them. Harvey particularly loved -- and broadcast, and re-broadcast -- "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." James Woods says that he owes his Academy Award nomination for "Salvador" to Harvey, who took up "Salvador" after it had flopped theatrically and made a cause out of it.

Object of love

Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino show up too, and talk generously about how big a role Z played in their movie educations as youngsters. It's interesting to note how broad the movie backgrounds of Payne and Tarantino are. Payne talks about how turned-on he was by discovering Antonioni, and Tarantino rhapsodizes about the glories of the long version of Visconti's "The Leopard." Hey there, young film fans: True movie-buffdom isn't achieved merely by sitting through a lot of Hong Kong action flix. Get out there, stretch your sensibilities, and watch some grownup movies too.

Watching "Z Channel" was especially moving for The Wife and me because of the way it took us back to the movie culture of the '60s and '70s. The Wife and I were both small parts of that world. We watched and loved those movies ourselves. We hung out in filmbuff circles too; we've met and known a few of the people who appear in "Z Channel."

Cassavetes cuts clips from a wide array of the movies of that era into the reminiscences of her interviewees, not just to provide decoration and visual relief but to remind us of the lure, the beauty, and the power of those films. There's footage (in first-class condition) from Fellini, Peckinpah, Truffaut, Roeg, Altman -- footage to get drunk on, from an era when movies seemed like the complete artform, one that fused visuals, sound, performance, and writing.

There's less-ambitious footage on display too -- from Laura Antonelli movies, for example. (That link is NSFW.) Yet even this material is lush and head-turning stuff in its own way: a reminder of how rich and various the movie culture of that era was. Moviebuffs and movie people didn't just yak about the hits and the careers; they were genuinely excited about the art form, and they loved experiencing the whole range of what was being done. They loved straightforward-narrative American movies; they fell for personal-statement European art movies; they sampled experimental shorts; and they enjoyed cheesy exploitation, Euro-erotica, and sleaze too. Sex of almost any kind was understood to be a big part of the strength and beauty of movies. (We all enjoy watching, after all.) Afterwards, yakking the films over, you made distinctions and compared notes, of course. But the real point was always to explore, and to experience what was out there.

During one break, The Wife said, "It's making me think that the most important thing that's missing from movies today is a sense of the poetic." I think she couldn't be more right. What's striking about the footage on display in "Z Channel" -- much of which I hadn't laid eyes on in decades -- is that, even when it's bad, it goes awry in artistically/emotionally/sexually interesting ways: in daring ways, and in ways that give art and pleasure opportunities to designers, composers, performers, and audiences. Laura Antonelli? Well, mere Euro-sex-bomb that she was, she was also something to experience. Tellingly, Antonelli wound up starring in a terrific Visconti film.

One of the roles movies played at the time was as portal to the arts more generally. A person who took that first fateful step into a repertory cinema was likely to be initiating a long and rewarding voyage. Fellini was a direct route to Italian opera; Antonioni could open up modernist European literature; and how was it possible to watch Mizoguchi without exploring the classical Japanese visual arts too?

What a contrast to today. Where does watching what currently passes for daring work -- Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-Wai, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Sofia Coppola -- lead a viewer? Either into a solipsistic roundabout, or to fashion layouts, edgy music vidoes, and oddball pop music. True, you may swim farther out than you usually do. But you always remain on the surface.

When I yak in some postings about how strange I find it that today's movies have become a sex-free zone, what I'm talking about (however ineptly) doesn't really have to do with the presence or absence of visible boobs and crotches. Bucketsfull of these can of course be found on the web. What I'm really talking about is the erotic-aesthetic-poetic element that The Wife was referring to -- the erotic-aesthetic-poetic component that once made many people fall in love with the movies, and with the arts more generally.

As the '80s advanced, Jerry Harvey became recognized among the film-crazed as a treasure. Filmmakers and stars became friends. The AFI even threw a tribute. But, despite his love for the medium and his success as a movie figure himself, Jerry Harvey also had his demons -- far more serious demons than those that bedevil Troy Duffy. Harvey had been born into what sounds like a horrendous family. Dad was a judge, a drunk, and a back-to-basics Catholic; Mom didn't protest; one of Jerry's sisters committed suicide, and the other one just disappeared one day, never to be seen again. Harvey was left with serious doubts about his ability -- and his deservingness -- to survive. His girlfriends, his first wife, his friends and his colleagues all testify to his Harvey's moods and rages.

He was also prone to some classic film-nerd problems. He saw himself and his life too much in terms of the films he loved. And he identified too much with his job; he became the Z Channel and its programming. It's understandable why he felt that way. He didn't rely on committees or on audience testing; he worked personally, scrappily, and directly, scheduling what he (and his friends and colleagues) loved and were able to obtain. Remarkably, this formula -- if instinct and personal taste can be called a formula -- worked well for years. People who shared Harvey's movie love were numerous enough. They responded to his efforts, and they tuned in.

But reality and time were doing their damage too. HBO and Showtime were jealous of Z and made attempts to take the channel down. Fans often stole the Z channel's signal rather than subscribing to it. And the movie culture that had made the likes of Jerry Harvey and the Z channel possible was coming to an end. By the late '80s, Z was sold to a Seattle group that introduced sports into its lineup. Not long after, Jerry Harvey entered one of his moods. He took out his gun and shot his wife dead. Then he shot himself. They were both only 39 years old.

There's little footage of Jerry Harvey in "Z Channel"; the film is a look back, not a you-were-there exercise in rawness and immediacy. For the most part, we watch well-lit, present-day talking heads, and old film clips. It's a very cleanly executed and clearly laid-out film. Tripods are used, thank heavens. The film critic F.X. Feeney (who co-produced the movie) plays host, steering the story along helpfully, and supplying context and information.

Feeney and Xan Cassavetes bring out a lot of shading and complexity in their subject. And they take a lot of life into account. For instance: People who care can be wonderful, but they can also be unstable, and sometimes even dangerous. Although caring and passion give you strength, they also make you vulnerable, and vulnerability can be very tough to manage. You never know how someone who cares -- yourself included -- will react when he encounters the inevitable frustrations.

Jerry Harvey finally took his identification with the movies he loved too far. He saw his battles as analogous to the central drama of "The Wild Bunch"; he saw himself and his fellow film maniacs as fighting the great, crazy, and doomed final fight. (He isn't the only filmbuff I've run across who identifies with "The Wild Bunch" in this way.) He gave a lot of pleasure, he opened a lot of minds, and he enriched an art form in important ways. He also caused serious havoc in a number of lives, and finally even murdered an innocent woman -- using, the film hints, a gun that had been given to him by Sam Peckinpah, the director of "The Wild Bunch."

The story that "Overnight" leaves out is the central theme of "Z Channel": the story of the art of the movies -- of the medium's connection with its own tradition, and of its continuity with culture, with art history, and with the artistic imagination more generally.

Xan Cassavetes allows herself -- in a restrained sort of way -- to take as mournful a tone as do the filmmakers of "Overnight." But to much different effect. In "Z Channel," real lives have been led, real deaths have occurred, and a tremendous moment in cultural history has come and gone. It makes sense to pause and pay some respect; it'd be shameful not to. "Maybe you never know it when you're in the middle of a golden age," muses one of "Z Channel"'s interviewees. In "Overnight," Troy Duffy is an arrogant thug whose career triumphs and career travails cause heartache and chaos among some people who once thought of themselves as his friends. As far as I'm concerned, that's just another brush with showbiz.

You can buy "Overnight" here and Netflix it here. "Z Channel" can be bought here and Netflixed here. IFC's good page on "Z Channel" is here. A fun companion piece to these two films might be "Cinemania" (buyable, Netflixable), a documentary about a half a dozen hyper-devoted filmbuffs; I enjoyed the film and blogged about it here. Why not make a weekend of it with this terrific documentary about Terry Gilliam's atempts to make a feature film out of "Don Quixote,"with this epic piece about the scarily clueless Nazi genius Leni Riefenstahl, and with this documentary series (and this one too) about America's '70s movies?



posted by Michael at September 17, 2005


The Jerry Harvey movie was in rotation on, I think, IFC, a short while back. Watched it in whole or parts several times. It was accompanied with a small ass't of Harvey's favorites, "Wild Bunch", "Heaven's Gate" dir cut, Roeg's film with Garfunkel & Russell. Wish I had been there then. Wish there was an extensive example of his scheduling, weeks or months complete somewhere.

I have full digital, so I have IFC and Sundance, a couple other cinephile offshoots of the pay channels, and a lot of decent stuff shows up randomly on the other several dozen movie channels. This week I have watched a classic Boetticher/Randolph Scott, a early 70s Dennis Hopper indie, "Japanese Story" w Toni Collette, last night was the triangle love story "Home at the End of the World". The best is rare, and there is never enough, but I watch a good indie, art film, foreign, classic every night. The 70s had genius, but there is still a lot of talent around.

I agree that there has been a decline in mainstream erotica. I wonder if the rise of the porn industry inhibits mainstream actors.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on September 17, 2005 3:53 PM

Thank you for this. I missed the golden age, what with my movie memories starting with "Star Wars" and all, so although today I can watch the great ones on DVD, I don't think I'll ever really "get" how different it was back then.

Posted by: Outer Life on September 17, 2005 7:21 PM

I never saw Z Channel and I've lived in L.A. since 1981, so I'm probably disqualified from commenting, but I've got to ask. You say:

He saw his battles as analogous to the central drama of "The Wild Bunch"; he saw himself and his fellow film maniacs as fighting the great, crazy, and doomed final fight. (He isn't the only filmbuff I've run across who identifies with "The Wild Bunch" in this way.)

What issue do filmbuffs think they are fighting over? The right to obsess over their personal brand of fun? The importance of 'artistic standards' in one's fantasy life? I mean, it's nice that Jerry Harvey kept some movies in the general cultural consciousness when otherwise they would have been lost, but ending as a murderer raises pretty serious questions about his priorities and his values.

I like movies a lot, but stuff like this actually makes me ponder the ways in which being an arts buff resembles being a drug addict.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 17, 2005 7:32 PM

Michael: a terrific, passionate essay. I like how all your doubts about "greatness" fly out the window when you are dealing with an art form (the movies) that you actually love and are passionate about. You know damn well that "The Leopard" (yes, the long version!) is a great, classic movie, much greater than pleasant little films that might have sold more tickets.

Friedrich: I think many passionate pleasures in life resemble drug use or addiction. Different forms of manipulating brain chemistry. That's why drug addiction is such a great metaphor for the way the passions lead us wrong. Seeing through the addictive process has a lot to do with getting a handle on the passions, which is a central theme in life. Not surprising that recovery from drug addiction is becoming a central narrative theme in lot of art today.

Posted by: MQ on September 17, 2005 7:39 PM

Michael, a great write-up on two rather intreresting characters. It was a surprise to see the movie "The Boondock Saints" come up again. I'd heard about the movie from my son 3 years ago while he was away at college his freshman year. This movie was #1 in DVD ownership among his friends at various colleges for a while. It wasn't until the Dave Chapelle Show DVDs arrived that "Boondock" was toppled. Saw the movie myseflt to see what it was about. Should have worn a mackinaw to shield myself from the buckets of blood. Simple plot, lots of blood, lots of manly revenge. Yep, Peckinpaw without the bitterness and the depressives, for sure.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 17, 2005 10:07 PM

I wonder, M. Blowhard, about your comment that we as a moviegoing population are more interested in stats than the wherefore (and how'd-they-dunnit) of movies.

I think back on the movies that I felt compelled to Google—or, in the Olden Days, look up in hard copy formats—and I have to say the difference is...poetry. Yes, I believe The Wife may have hit upon it.

Those movies I loved from the 1920s (and Pandora's Box) on up I looked up because they struck a nerve. My suspicion is that, as with most art that touches me, the artist (or auteur) got so damned specific that the output catapulted over universal and into oblique: Altman's stubbornly odd rhythms in 3 Women or Nashville...Nick Ray's use of Technicolor to throw life into such sharp relief in Johnny Guitar...Bette Davis' panic in All About Eve...Ed Ruscha and that Chocolate Room or Van Gogh and his damned yellows or any one of top-10, best-of-the-best perfs I've seen on stage (Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose, Elizabeth Franz in Death of a Salesman, Jacqueline Wright in Buddy/Buddette). Their arrows found purchase with such swiftness and surety, I *had* to follow the trajectory of the bloodied things to its beginning in hopes of gleaning a better understanding. I can't remember the last time I did it with a recent flick, reissue of La Dolce Vita notwithstanding.

Most of the stuff I Google now? Idle interest. Backup for a post I'm crafting for the blog.

Some of this, surely, is a function of aging. I'm older and wiser and I just don't *need* to poke around to find the deep, hidden meaning of a lot of things.

And yet. And yet...

There are still brilliant new creations that wake me and shake me out of my middle-aged complacency. Most of them seem to be in (small) theater, still a relatively low-budget proposition as far as soul-stirring stuff goes. I wish I could buy a ticket for everyone in the world to see Rob Prior's Ramayana 2K4, for example, or any number of Ken Roht's musical spectaculars. The repertory film companies of Cassavetes pére and earlier Woody Allen (and even John Sayles) are harder and harder to pull off.

Frankly, I've given up on Hollywood and its byzantine financing and distribution systems and tell any one of my friends out here within earshot to (a) own the means of production and (b) find alternate means of distribution, at least in the beginning. Other countries may still have channels through which genius springs into semi-mass consciousness, but we have no American equivalent to The Office—oh, wait...yes, we do. And it sucks donkey stick.

On a completely different (although not, I hope, discordant) note, might I add that I think this is one of your best posts yet. So impassioned, yet measured—it goes immediately into (or however it's abbreviated) to follow up on internal links. You are the poster child for alternate means of distribution!

Posted by: Colleen Wainwright on September 18, 2005 12:50 AM

Funny coincidence: I rented and watched two documentaries this weekend. They weren't particularly good, but offered a glimpse into the lives of two rather diametrically opposed American icons - Ron Jeremy ("Ron Jeremy: Porn Star") and Charles Manson ("Charles Manson: Superstar").

Posted by: dan g. on September 18, 2005 8:38 AM

Very interesting post.

About narration: you suggest that novice film-makers avoid voice-over narration and that's an error -- simple necessity (all the footage may not be available) suggests it. OK.

Would you have the same criticism of dramas? Narration/voice over avoided at pain of keeping track of the story? I often find myself lost -- I was watching "Rules of the Game" last night and the women all looked the same -- (it was a very small screen, of course). And as films -- I am told -- often change in the editing process when it is too late to get supplementary shots, would the same idea apply?

On a related thought, I wonder if any theaters ever show movies with the DVD voice-over commentary? It would certainly be an interesting experience.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 18, 2005 11:53 AM


Great post, by the way, sorry I didn't mention that above.

However, another question. You write:

The story that "Overnight" leaves out is the central theme of "Z Channel": the story of the art of the movies -- of the medium's connection with its own tradition, and of its continuity with culture, with art history, and with the artistic imagination more generally.

Are you suggesting that if Troy Duffy was a better artist with more connection to art tradition, you would view his behavior differently? If so, why?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 18, 2005 2:27 PM

Troy Duffy and Jerry Harvey: both borderline out-of-controls (Duffy a "hip" bully and thug, Harvey ending totally out of control). When Oh When are we going to get past the notion that there is some mystic connection between marginal anti-square criminoids and artistic ability or insight?!

I put it to you that the generally degraded movie product of the recent past relates directly to the internalization of this wrongheaded notion by the Heads of Hollywood. "Mad Genius" is feted. Competent craftsmanship disdained. The result: lousy product and lousy box office.

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2005 5:59 PM

ricpic, you might not like this link: Brain Scans Show Why Schizotypal Personalities More Creative

Posted by: lindenen on September 18, 2005 9:45 PM

Bob - That's an interesting hunch about how porn may have affected the moviemaking mainstream, tks. And I think you're raising something else that's interesting too. Access and availability are 'way up these days, especially compared with the '60s and '70s. For all any of us know, there may be more talent around now than there was then. But the buzz isn't in the art itself any longer. Do these things all go hand in hand? My bet is that they do, and that a whole different gestalt is arising. Books, for example, aren't being replaced by e-books, they're being overwhelemed by electronic-participatory reading and writing. What's your guess about this?

OL -- It was very different! If you can imagine the sort of ooph and enthusiasm that goes into tech and careers and business today, but with all that energy going into art, politics and sex instead, and then bolstered up by drugs and utopian dreams, you've got it. Compounded in America, I suspect, by the fact that many Americans have never felt entitled to art. Art is something we aspire to and never quite achieve, where for more traditional cultures art is just a fact of life. So a lot of the utopian (and drug-fueled, to be realistic) art yearnings and ambitions of those years had to do with American striving to have their very own art, and their very own art movies. Movies could be big business and personal expression! Such was the hope, anyway. As it turned out, maybe not. Once again, we tried, but we didn't quite get there, sigh.

FvB -- Good points and questions. I suspect Xan Cassavetes and F.X. Feeney would be delighted you raised them. They probably wouldn't have any better idea than I how to answer them. But they're sure provocative things to wonder about and marvel over. It's part of why I liked "Z Channel" so much -- it's open and unresolved (but not in some annoying, affected way): some things in life dont' seem to have answer. They're finally just things you wonder about.

MQ -- Thanks for reading this long thing! I'll observe gently that the idea of "greatness" seems to have addictive properties for you -- good to see you enjoying it as much as you do.

DarkoV -- Thanks for the report on "The Boondock Saints," which I'll probably never catch up with. Two or three movies about wearing shades, carrying guns, and being cool -- "Matrix," "Reservoir Dogs," and "Lock Stock etc" -- was enough for me. Any idea what your son and his friends enjoyed about the movie? Just the whole cool/violent thing?

Colleen -- That's a great rant. As soon as someone appoints me editor of a major magazine, you're the first person I'm offering a regular column to. Couldn't agree more about alternative distribution and venues too -- small budgets, quick-and-dirty productions ... The only way, at least at the moment. There are so many ultra-fab performers around, don't you think? I have thte impression that American performers generally are 'way better trained and more skillful than they were a few decades back. Too bad more people don't get a chance to see what they're capable of. Anything with a big budget seems to get all the character and personality ironed right out of it. Unfortunately, most Americans seem to watch nothing that doesn't have a big budget ...

Dan G. -- Funny how documentaries don't have to be really good to hold the interest, isn't it? Facts, and real stories -- gotta love 'em, at least in many cases. Or is that partly a function of getting older? Fiction per se doesn't mean what it once did to me, though I still enjoy it. But you're probably 25 years old and in the midst of ten different pieces of fiction. Are you a regular documentary watcher?

David -- Thanks for stopping by and reading. Between you and me, I think the real reason many young documentary-makers avoid voice-over is that they want to be thought of as "filmmakers," ie., not makers of TV. TV documentaries use voice-over freely, and some serious (or wannabe-serious) young documentaries would rather shoot themselves than do anything that resembles TV. Typical, semi-understandable young-person's mistake. I could be mistaken, but I think this anti-narration tendency got its start with '60s cinema-verite, and with the films of Frederick Wiseman. That's an interesting question you raise, the one about narration and fiction film. Generally voice-over (at least extensive voice-over) in a fiction film is thought to be an admission of failure: the filmmaker hasn't figured out how to show his story, so has to use the voice-over as a crutch. And in truth I haven't seen many fiction movies that made extensive use of voice-over where that didn't seem to be the case. To me the general technical question is a little less about voice-over specifically than it is about helping the audience feel oriented. In a documentary, often the most direct way of doing that is voice-over. In a fiction film, though, you get to create the footage and tell the story as you want to (which you can seldom do in a documentary). So why shouldn't the selection of scenes, the acting, the staging, the angles and cutting and music -- why shouldn't they be sufficient for keeping the audience? Part of the mark of good film writers and directors is having an instinct for knowing how and when an audience needs to know something so the story can continue and have its impact. At least such seems to be the general feeling about these things ... Do you tend to find that voice-over in a fiction film pulls you into the action, or pops you out of it?

FvB -- I was only making the point that it seems characteristic (to me, anyway) of what's become of the film life that the makers of "Overnight" managed to make an 80 film about a filmmaker wannabe without once (if I recall right) mentioning the guy's taste in film, or what he wanted to do in an artistic or entertainment sense. It's fun, in a WWF kind of way, to watch this brute administer and take punishment. But the only thing being a filmmaker seems to mean to him is being king of the world or not. Never once do we see Troy and his buds yakking about Ozu, or Renoir, or Hawks, or Mann -- amazing. We do see him noodle on his guitar for a minute, though, and he seems like an OK bar-band musician ...

Ricpic -- Sign me up for that! I'd add only that the American audience generally (or enough of it, anyway) seems to have bought the pop-romantic idea of art and the artist too. To some extent, the media and arts business are selling the idea of art and entertainment that they're selling because it works, or works well enough in any case. Lotsa suckers and rubes out there, including some apparently sophisticated people ... We're a very excitable, suggestible, and semi-educated people, it seems. Is there any hope that we'll ever calm down and mature a bit? And if we do, that the various powers that be will start selling us media and arts experiences that suit us better?

Lindsay -- That's an interesting link, tks (and thanks to Randall for the posting too). It'll be fun to watch what brain and neuro-science turn up as they probe further and further. I do giggle a bit at the naivete of some of these studies, though, don't you? In this case, "creativity" is being defined as "the ability to come up with new uses for everyday household objects while a brain scanning device is hooked up to you." 1) Reminds me of all the dumb, school-teacher-like ideas about "creativity" that we've all had to suffer through -- creativity as "invention" and "ingenuity" and "whim." Sigh. Plus, the whole thing of doing-it-while-hooked-up is funny. How about people who, say, have ideas while they're in the shower, but who freeze up when prodded by techno devices? Anyway, fun to see what scientist's (or some scientists') ideas of art and creativity are, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2005 11:55 PM

If you want a recent movie that has passion and poetry, check out "Head On" (Gegen Die Wand), a German/Turkish movie that won a lot of awards recently and is making the art house tour here. It's a flawed movie, somewhat over the top in a number of ways and in the end probably not a great film (hi, Michael!). But it has that truly passionate, irrational romanticism and drive that Mitteleuropa seems to specialize in. I would compare it a bit to "Betty Blue", except it has more thematic depth, more on its mind, and a happier ending. A rich movie, a lot going on, very impressive product of the cultural ferment taking place in Europe right now. A young filmmaker to watch.

Another recent movie with real passion and poetry...Lukas Moodysson's "Lilya 4-Ever". Incredibly depressing, but in its way rather self righteous and in my opinion too manipulative (many disagree with me on this). But so charged, intense, and engaged, with a rich cinematic vocabulary.

Finally: I'm not particularly fond of Zhang Yimou's recent conversion to making Hollywood style blockbusters, they seem to me to have the formal vocabulary of passion but not so much of the content. But "Not One Less" (the movie he did before the recent "Hero" and "house of flying daggers") seemed really excellent to had the calm, understated but really powerful emotional content of Italian neorealism. Its own kind of sober poetry there...real emotional depth that sneaks up on you...sort of like Satyajit Ray.

I what we are really seeing here in America is the loss of the great European post-WWII cinematic tradition, a tradition that merged a lot of the best of American cinematic vocabulary with European (Romantic) literary themes. In the 70s a lot of American directors picked up on that. But now it seems to be lost in the U.S. I don't know who watches Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Sica, Ray, etc. here any more.

Posted by: MQ on September 19, 2005 12:30 AM

"I what we are really seeing here in America is the loss of the great European post-WWII cinematic tradition, a tradition that merged a lot of the best of American cinematic vocabulary with European (Romantic) literary themes. In the 70s a lot of American directors picked up on that. But now it seems to be lost in the U.S. I don't know who watches Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Sica, Ray, etc. here any more."

I think there's definitely been a loss but in a different way. I don't think it's that those directors and their work have been forgotten. I doubt they were ever mainstream in the US. I think American film processed their ideas and took them quite far into different directions and why everything seems blocked up is because Europe hasn't answered us. It's like a conversation that nourishes the participants but this time the European response just isn't there, so we're stuck sputtering in circles. Who is the modern day European Godard or Truffaut? Now that movies can do almost anything they want visually and stylistically, how do you continue to renew the forms? That's what the Euros did in film but now...

I can't help but feel that this is part and parcel of the economic malaise, high unemployment and the growing anti-Americanism in Europe for the moment. When I look at Europe, sometimes I get the sense they're still stuck in the 1970s. Their 1970s is lasting 30+ years. Other than Britain (which is certainly having problems as well), the rest don't seem to have had their Reagan or Thatcher although we can always hope Merkel succeeds in Germany.

"In this case, "creativity" is being defined as "the ability to come up with new uses for everyday household objects while a brain scanning device is hooked up to you."

I don't think that's how it worked exactly. Everyone was asked to come up with new uses. The schizotypals seem to have come up with the most creative ones and the scans showed they used more of the right side of the brain to do so.

Posted by: lindenen on September 19, 2005 12:55 AM

Well, two out of the three movies I named above were European movies made by young directors within the past three years. I found them new, vital, and engaging. Better than the general run of American independents.

If you want to say that Europe is stuck in the 70s...well, the 70s was a great period for American film, when that in my opinion we haven't equalled since (except in the area of documentaries, which have seen a renaissance). Art doesn't really line up all that well with people's political hobbyhorses. Think what you will about Margaret Thatcher, I don't believe she'll be remembered for her revitalizing effect on European art.

Posted by: MQ on September 19, 2005 1:20 AM

Narration doesn't bother me at all. In fact it never even occured to me view it as an admission of poor story-telling. I like the omniscient narrator who can help me keep the characters straight etc etc...Obviously, novels have a narrator or greater or lesser presence. Sometimes it's done by one of the characters in a flashback mode, in fact...What the name of that 70s movie about the wild young lovers on a crime spree in the upper Great Plains? of those senior moments. I think that one had a flash-back narration.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 19, 2005 1:21 AM

"Think what you will about Margaret Thatcher, I don't believe she'll be remembered for her revitalizing effect on European art."

The issue isn't Margaret Thatcher (or Ronald Reagan). Only that they both came to power at a time when their respective countries were a mess economically, politically and socially, and through various economic reforms were able to "stear the ship through the storm". I do think that a revitalization of European art could come about if the economic malaise is conquered. They would become more culturally confident imo because they'd feel better about themselves if they saw their countries as successful instead of in decline. Having some hope and being optimistic about the future can go a long way.

Posted by: mariana on September 19, 2005 1:48 AM

"Badlands" (1973)
"Directed by Terrence Malick. Featuring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri. Set in South Dakota in 1959, this is the story of Kit and his girlfriend Holly, two people alienated from everyday life, who go on a killing spree. Based loosely on the 1950's killing spree by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. 95 min."

Posted by: David Sucher on September 19, 2005 1:51 AM

No, Michael, I'm not a regular documentary watcher, which is why I was struck by the coincidence of reading your post right after watching two documentaries.

I'm thirty-five, not twenty-five (well, actually 35a), and I would say that my interest in "fact-based entertainment", and impatience with fiction, has increased with age. What was it that the Armenian father says in 'Sideways': "There's so much to learn about this world... To read something somebody just made up is a waste of time." Of course, it's a funny line in the film, but I do feel that way about fiction writing to some extent, though not about fiction films.

Btw, I find one of the most entertaining forms of non-fiction entertainment to be nature films. Lots of amazing, dramatic stuff of that nature on TV these days.

Posted by: dan g. on September 19, 2005 9:53 AM

Michael, excellent post. So often you write about things that I could not care less about, and I end up reading the whole thing anyway. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on September 19, 2005 10:14 AM

A rich, fascinating post with a number of off-ramps that I'll have to return to explore.

Cinematic poetry, for me are the moments when an element of the film, an image, an actor, a line, even the lighting of an object, arrest your attention without interrupting the narrative. The element shines and rotates, throwing light off in surprising and unexpected directions.

Bad cinematic poetry is when an attempt is made to force that moment. Not shining, not rotating, just sitting there. After all, a movie can be intelligently made and well played and professionally filmed and utterly inert.

I'm not anywhere near qualified as a student of film to say whether the frequency of these moments has decreased over the years. There are mountains of dreck from every era which have become invisible, allowing only the gems to represent their era.

Posted by: Sluggo on September 19, 2005 10:57 AM

Michael: What did my son and his cohorts like about the movie "The Boondock Saints"? Well, you mentioned "Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels", which was an appropriate film to toss in with "Boondock...". Although "Lock.." was a much funnier movie, they felt it wasn't "serious" enough. ???? Don't understand that one at all.
Willem Dafoe, prancing about the screen as the "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" FBI agent and Billy Connolly thoroughly enjoying hiumself as an SOB mafioso were high on their lists as reason to watch the movie over and over. The honor and protectiveness of the two main characters (the brothers) was probably the main reason they came back to the movie so often. All of the shoot-out scenes were certainly welcome as well. The funny part is that there are hardly any women in the movie at all, and the ones that were in the movie were grist for the blood mill. I'm hoping the movie was just a phase for my son and his friends.
I've been hinting that they should get a DVD of "A Touch of Evil" to set them on the "right" track.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 19, 2005 2:12 PM


Good essay on Overnight. I just watched it too and share a lot of the feelings you have about it. The doc suffers from an amazing lack of context. His mother is an interesting character, and makes you wonder how much of Duffy was created back in Boston and how much in LA. His ability to talk the game like an film exec with years of experience was impressive--where did it come from?

The film has less an arc and more of a downward slope, as Duffy goes from egotistical bully to egotistical bully. It may put lie to the cliche of innocence-corrupted, but what's left is rather one-note. The greatest achievement is the dumb luck the filmmakers had in being in the right place at the right time.

One bit of editing I liked is from one heated scene where Duffy is yelling at people (I can't remember about what and to whom) to showing Duffy shooting Boondock Saints, which, from the scenes we're shown, also consists of bullies yelling at each other. It's all Duffy knows.

Duffy's spoiled sense of entitlement is a symptom of the sickness in society--I wish the film could have explored that more.

I'm not too sure I agree with your comment about voiceover narration. Not that the film didn't need some explaining, but surely this could have been illustrated through image (not of Duffy)?

Posted by: ted mills on September 19, 2005 3:44 PM

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