Soaked in Bleach (a lyric in “Come as You Are” from the album Nevermind), is the metaphoric, suggestive title of Benjamin Statler’s film which infers what really happened in the Kurt Cobain death investigation. The documentary begins with the acknowledgement that for Generation X, Kurt Cobain was the equivalent of what John Lennon was for the baby boomers. Both ended up dead before their time with Cobain at 27, the same age as Jim Morrison at his death. Cobain was the “go-to” Alternative-Rock icon, establishing grunge music with a permanent place in the stars and Cobain’s Nirvana the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 in 1992 with the album Nevermind. His tragic death two years later on April 8th, 1994 was pronounced a suicide by the Seattle Police Department.
The question of whether it was or wasn’t a suicide is the subject of Soaked in Bleach. The filmmakers with pinpoint logic, methodical and meticulous details and facts underscore that the gunshot wound to Cobain’s head, the position of the rifle and Courtney Love’s (his wife), insistence that Cobain was suicidal, prematurely closed down any further death investigation of the quiet, press-shy man whose music reached out to the down trodden of society and whose language spoke to the “average Joe in the streets.”
Statler uses film clips of testimony by retired law enforcement experts in forensics, investigation and homicide, who point out that a death ruled a suicide conveniently precludes the need for any further investigation of the evidence. After such a ruling, investigation becomes nearly impossible. This is doubly so for Cobain whose body has been cremated; interestingly, the building where his body was found, soon afterward was ordered torn down. The notion of suicide was first presented by Courtney Love when she hired private investigator Tom Grant to locate Kurt Cobain. This was five days before the corpse was located. That notion of suicide was fueled by the media along with other misinformation which the filmmakers expose as lies. Indeed, the rapacious media reveled in the story of another celebrity rocker nihilist who “burned bright and burned out.” Thus, filmmakers disclose that the idea of Cobain’s death as a suicide was entrenched. It helped to obliterate the need for any credible death investigation into what really might have happened. According to experts the Seattle Police Department prompted by Love in a highly unusual and uncharacteristic move for law enforcement death investigations ruled his death a suicide in one day, the day the body was found. Then they closed the file on Cobain.
If suicide is convenient for the police and the possible murderer or murderers, then inconvenient is the aftermath of Cobain’s suicide as it has influenced others. Fans of the rocker have celebrated him in death by more greatly embracing his music and memory in life. Then there are the others. These are the copy cat suicides. Reports of teens have sprung up over the years. It is a global phenomenon. As parents have had to bury their children who killed themselves leaving notes that referenced Cobain’s death or Nirvana’s song lyrics, they’ve had to go through the tragedy of asking themselves how they could have prevented their deaths. To date there have been 68 related copy cat suicides, each one of them a profound, individual family tragedy. To consider that Cobain might have been the victim not of his own hands but of someone else’s would make their deaths a completely macabre and twisted irony too horrible to contemplate.
Soaked in Bleach reveals this and more as filmmakers travel the stark, mind bending road uncovering truths that conclude Cobain’s death was improperly investigated and incorrectly determined. The implications that his was a probable homicide run far and wide to decrying the investigative skills of the Seattle Police Department and implicating those in charge at the time. If the investigation of Cobain’s death is reopened as suggested by journalist Max Wallace and officials like retired Seattle Chief of Police, Norm Stamper, Vernon J. Geberth, former Homicide Commander of NYPD, the Bronx, and Dr. Cyril H. Wecht (Forensic Pathologist and Former President of the American Academy of Forensic Science), and if Cobain’s death is ruled a homicide, the problem will be locating enough evidence to identify a killer or killers. Motive will play a huge factor in that determination. Filmmakers, through the testimony of experts, suggest possibilities.
This documentary first and last is tantamount to a crime thriller. Though Cobain’s suicide ruling by police was a quick and dirty convenience, Statler and co-writers Donnie Eichar and Richard Middleton make the compelling case that it wasn’t. They present this argument throughout with clips of Cobain’s friends who give testimony about his positive mental state, tape recordings, experts’ commentary, and recreations of the players who peopled the last days of Cobain’s life before the body was discovered.
These evidentiary revelations and facts are contrasted with media misrepresentations and video clip commentary by Seattle Police investigators who journalist Max Wallace, Norm Stamper, Vernon J. Geberth and others infer made a “rush to judgment.” The lynchpin in the filmmakers’ presentation is private investigator Tom Grant whose law enforcement background and reputation are sterling. Grant, who was hired by Courtney Love to locate Kurt Cobain 5 days before his body was found, discusses his experiences dealing with Love during this time. It is his revelations that are the most startling, it is his commentary that is the most logical and convincing.
As Statler focuses on Grant, he includes audio clips of Grant’s tape recordings of conversations with Courtney Love and others during the time he worked for her. Suspicious of Courtney Love’s contradictory stories, Grant taped her and taped all of those he spoke to including her attorney and Cobain’s friends. With these tapes and Grant’s narrative, filmmakers narrow to a still point his logical conclusions and the rationale which teases out the threads of truth from media falsehoods. It is these which they sew into a manifest tapestry that Cobain’s death was anything but a suicide.
The documentary is beautifully organized and layered into clear, easy to understand segments. Statler’s adept direction makes excellent use of his recreations to reveal the chronology of the days Grant worked with Love. Continually interspersed throughout are clips of the experts who pull apart the Seattle Police Department’s uber brief death investigation to reveal their mismanagement of the case, their blunders as well as how and why this probably occurred. Pieces of evidence and reports are reviewed. There is one that is particularly astounding. It was identified that the amount of heroin in Cobain’s body would have put him in a coma or near coma state; he would not have been sentient enough to use a shotgun to kill himself.
Soaked in Bleach is a film to see if you enjoy investigative crime documentaries. Even if one is not a fan of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, the film is powerful in what it suggests and well made in its presentations and argument. It is clear that the filmmakers have taken the time to carefully reconstruct the possibilities of what didn’t happen in the death of Kurt Cobain. They do this in the interest of discovering what actually did happen to a man whose life had miles to go.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Before Dinner With The Boys opened Off Broadway at the Acorn Theatre, I went to a press event for the production where the producer and director introduced the show, its cast and playwright Dan Lauria (Lombardi, Christmas Story, The Musical), who also stars as Charlie. The play is about two wise guys with issues that only Big Anthony Jr. (Ray Abruzzo-“The Sopranos”), can solve after he shows up for a delicious home cooked, mouth watering dinner by Dom (Richard Zavaglia-Donnie Brasco) who is Charlie’s chef roommate. The press event and following conversation with Dan Lauria took place before I saw and reviewed the production. Turns out what I had intuited about the performances was spot on. The show is smashing and I enjoyed the rollicking night of joy and farce that has a number of sardonic twists. You can read my review here on Blogcritics.
Introductory Remarks by the Producer, Director and Playwright
Pat Addiss (Producer): I knew Dan Lauria when he played the lead, Jean Shepherd, in A Christmas Story, The Musical for us. And he told me about this wonderful show that he’d written for Dom DeLuise and Charles Durning and Jack Klugman and he told me how they were all dead. And I asked him if he isn’t getting a message. And he got the message. And he loved Gabe Barabas and SuzAnne Barabas at The New Jersey Repertory. He knew them before I was on the board. And he wanted them to produce this even though we were just a little black box theater. It all happened thanks to Dan and Suzanne and Gabe. Here I am; I’m so lucky that last night I had my own dinner with the boys. We are also going to have a dinner at Tony DiNapoli’s every Tuesday where people can buy tickets and can also buy dinner at Tony DiNapoli’s and have dinner with the boys. I’m very excited about the production, but before I go any further, I’d like to introduce our wonderful director Frank Megna and he can tell us a bit about the play.
Frank Megna (Director): Hello everybody. I was lucky enough to direct the play in Jersey. Dan and I go back to when we first played mafiosos together thirty plus years ago. You played Al Capone and I played a character named Joey Adonis and I walked around without my shirt a lot which back in those days meant something. (laughter) The play is unusual. It’s a surprise. It’s not a typical Sopranos kind of a deal. It’s interesting in exposing some of the links that need to surface and that go on in this world that we’re investigating. I think you’ll have a lot of fun. Now, I’ll introduce Mr. Lauria who wrote it.
Dan Lauria (Playwright): Thanks to all here for their work on the production in New Jersey. This is a very twisted play. (crowd laughs) Like Pat said, it was originally written for my mentor Charlie Durning and for Jack Klugman, Peter Falk and Dom DeLuise. It was actually Dom DeLuise’s idea. To this day the funniest lines are Dom DeLuise’s ad libs, which I take full credit for. (we laugh) I still remember the night we read it and the reaction of Peter Falk who never cracks up. He was saying the lines I wrote. Dom just got up and did this ad lib. Peter just lost it. He looked at the audience and said, (Dan does a perfect Peter Falk imitation), “It doesn’t say that!” I said, “It does now.” So we’re keeping their names alive. It’s really a play about all the violence that we’re consuming. We had a lot of fun and loads of laughs, but the purpose of the play is there’s too much of this gratuitous violence. They’re not even in the genre of horror movies any more. They’re mutilation films. So this spoofs all that. I’m very lucky to have Richard Zavaglia who’s been with us from the beginning. He actually read the narration the first time Charlie and Dom read it. Ray Abruzzo, Little Carmine from “The Sopranos”…he is a chameleon. For him to do what Jack Klugman and Peter Falk did? What a testament for an actor. So that alone is worth the price of the ticket. (we laugh)
After the introductory remarks, I spoke to Dan Lauria about the show.
I’m very happy to see you again. I enjoyed your performances in A Christmas Story, The Musical which was a lot of fun and Lombardi was wonderful.
Dan Lauria: This is totally different than either of those two.
Tell us how it’s different.
Well, for Italians who come to see the show, they either get very offended, or they realize, oh, you’re spoofing the stereotype of kill, eat, curse. Yet, there’s no cursing in the play. People always tell me, “Oh, the language.” And I ask, “What curse?” And they say, “Well…???” There isn’t any. We spoof shows like “The Sopranos,” etc., and usually by the end, all the Italians are like, “Yeah, there should be more plays like this.” So it takes a little while for them to catch on. But like I said initially, it’s really about all the violence we’re consuming. I wanted to write a serious play about that subject. But Dom DeLuise said, “Ah, it will sound preachy. Now, if you make that funny…” So that’s what we did.
You mentioned before, all of these horror flicks that have violence…
Well, not even the horror flicks so much as the mutilation films.
Well, people devouring other people…
Ah, zombies and vampires? Well, this spoofs them. I have an 8-year-old godson and I can’t stand the violence in the video games, like blowing up heads and exploding body parts. So we talk about that in a funny way, but you don’t see any of that. As a matter of fact, the only blood you see in our show is that Ray takes a ketchup bottle and sprays it on the window. And we don’t care if the audience sees it’s ketchup. It’s a joke and it’s a spoof of the blood.
OK, now, what’s the food?
Well, I don’t want to give it away. (we laugh) But there are excellent recipes
Oh, it’s all homemade. Dom, who is played by Richie Zavaglia cooks delicious dinners. The role was supposed to be played by Dom DeLuise. Dom DeLuise was a great chef and he actually gave us some of the ideas for the recipes. As a matter of fact there’s a line about a cacciatore that’s spoken and it’s strictly Dom DeLuise. That was one of his ad libs.
You were close to Dom and Peter Falk?
I was closest to Charles Durning. He was like my Dad and I was close to Jack Klugman. I gave the eulogies at both their funerals. But Peter and Dom I knew very well. It’s a shame when I meet young people who don’t know them.
They may see the TV reruns. But Dom DeLuise was absolutely hysterical. I forget what I saw him in but I was belly laughing. (I remembered later: Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood Men in Tights, 1993)
The first night we read the play…Peter couldn’t read because he was working. So I read the part. But I’m sitting in the wings with Jack Klugman and Jack said, (Dan Lauria does a gravely voiced Jack Klugman imitation here), “Dom DeLuise will say something tonight that will bring down the house that no other actor can say.” And during the reading, Dom literally while he’s hearing this grotesque story, said, “Woof.” And the audience went on the floor. And Jack Klugman said, “No actor you know could say ‘Woof,’ and get a reaction like that.” (Lauria laughs) He was right. And when I wrote it into the script and I sent it to somebody to read, they sent it back to me with notes saying, “What does ‘Woof’ mean?’” (Lauria laughs) I said, “Forget it. We’ll never get it.” (we laugh) That’s how creative he was.
Absolutely adored him. Peter Falk as well.
One of the hardest working actors.
I saw him as a kid in Pocket Full of Miracles. He stole the scenes he was in from the other actors.
That was the Frank Capra movie. Falk was the only one to get nominated for an Academy Award as a supporting actor in that film. Peter told us a story about him and Edward Everett Horton who played the butler. They were shooting the scene where Peter was being helped to put on his coat by the very proper butler played by Horton. It was funny and there were no cuts, so they finished it with the crew laughing. As a matter of fact the first take was ruined because Frank Capra laughed out loud so hard, sound picked it up. Capra said, “I’m sorry boys, let’s do it again.” So they did it again, and it was even funnier. Frank Capra said, “Great, great, but let’s do it again.” And then the third or fourth take, Frank Capra actually put a knot in the sleeve. That’s the one that’s in the movie. And it was hysterical and his own people were rolling in the aisles. Frank Capra said, “Great, great, let’s do it again!” And Peter went up to him and said, (Lauria in a great imitation of Peter Falk), “Frank is there something wrong? I mean why are we doing it again?” And Capra said, “Oh, Peter, I’m going to use the one with the knot in the sleeve, but the crew is enjoying it so much.” Peter said to me, “Frank Capra was the best audience I ever played to.”
Ah, inspired by Capra, he gave a great performance in Pocketful of Miracles. Now, when you were writing Dinner With the Boys, what was the specific conceptualization? You thought, I’m writing something serious…then changed it?
Yes. I was driving Dom DeLuise down to Palm Springs for the Frank Sinatra Golf Tournament. I always play in it every year. And on Friday night Dom was going to do his “stand-up” but we called it the “sit-down,” because he never stood up. He was very funny and he was a good friend of Frank’s. As we’re driving down…previously, I had written something else that he liked. So he asked, What are you working on now?” And I told him I wanted to write about the violence with the kids. This was years ago because you could see it getting worse and worse with the video games. And he said, “Well, it’s going to be too preachy. Now, if you can make fun of consuming violence.” I said, “How would you do that?” He said, “Well, they’ve got to eat violence.” So that triggered the idea, and then as I wrote it with him and Charlie in mind, it just developed.
I’d like to think they’re watching.
We put it in the program that every performance is dedicated to them.
Now, from what part of Italy is your heritage?
Well, I don’t think Lauria is my real last name. I think it’s Signorelli. But my father’s family was from the heel, the town of Lauria. So it’s the Corleone thing. (Dan is referring to how immigrants were given the names of the towns where they came from since the officials couldn’t pronounce or spell Italian names that looked too complicated, like in the film The Godfather II) But my mother was from Naples. She would say, “We’re the cooks.”
I assumed you might be Neapolitan.
When my mother met Joe Mantegna, she said, “Where are your people from?” Joe said, “Well, my mother’s from Calabria.” And my mother knocked on her head. (the Calabrians are reputed to be hard headed). And he said, “Well, my father’s from Sicily.” And my mother said, “Oh, you’re half Italian.” (we laugh) Joe and I still get a laugh out of remembering that when he comes to my apartment.
Do you keep the traditions going or not? Well, with the food, I imagine. Have you gone to Italy?
No, I’ve never taken a vacation like that. I’ve never been to Europe. I haven’t taken a day off.
Do you want to go?
Yeah, I will if I get the chance or get a job over there. I don’t really vacation, I just work. Charlie Durning did that. This is my approximately 60th-something play.
(PR is signaling me to wrap up the interview) A feat in itself. Hopefully you’ll be able to travel to Europe at some point.
Of course. Well, maybe we can get an English speaking company over there because this play would do very, very well.
They would adore it.
They would catch it right away that we’re spoofing that stereotype.
Do you speak Italian?
Very little. My mom did. I can understand it more than I can speak it.
Well, good luck with the play I’m sure the New Jerseyites are following you over here and continuing the fun from New Jersey Rep.
Yeah, we had some really fun nights there.
Dinner With The Boys is at Theatre Row, the Acorn Theater, 410 42nd Street. The production is continuing there for another month including VIP Tuesdays and Nonna Wednesdays. The show is in a limited run and will end on Sunday, July 5th. It’s a feast of fun. Enjoy it before the run concludes.
A few years ago, my friend Bob who was wearing an orange shirt and was going through passport control in Dublin, Ireland, was startled when a staffer stopped him and said, “I wouldn’t wear that shirt outside of Dublin though you’re a Yank. People will take offense.” Bob heeded his advice and after doing a bit of online research at his Dublin hotel, understood what the official meant. Even though the Good Friday peace agreement ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998, the wounds were still raw. At the time Bob visited, there was an unrest that bubbled just under the surface. If the protestant pro-British Orange Order held a parade, the Irish Catholics often were unduly provoked and took umbrage. Surely, peace had come. But the conflicts were all encompassing, then and now, and it may be a few more decades before the waters have completely smoothed over and horrible incidents that occurred during The Troubles remain buried forever in lost memories.
The Belle of Belfast presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre which is currently playing at the DR2 Theater, has as its setting Belfast, Ireland. The time is 1985 the year of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and 13 years before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. In Belfast 1985 The Troubles between Irish Catholic paramilitary groups who intend to break away and join the Republic of Ireland to the south and the protestant paramilitary groups who are determined to keep British rule of Northern Ireland are steadfast, and there doesn’t appear to be an adequate resolution in sight.
The intense and harrowing conflict of the 40 years war is not the subject of The Belle of Belfast. Nevertheless, it contributes an elusive and ever-present darkness that overshadows the events and individuals’ inner conflicts. The darkness continually rises from the depths of the abyss of hatred and despair that impacts the main characters who try to make their lives in Belfast but who are often jolted by the sporadic violence which they have come to internalize. The characters live with the tiresome, oppressive atmosphere of guerilla warfare which can strike anyone at any time. And they must become inured to it and find their way through the morass of bloodshed as individuals are “disappeared,” become martyrs, or are hapless victims of the collateral damage sprayed by bombs meant for “the enemy.” We come to understand the depths of the dark shadow of war as the play evolves and the characters react to each other and seek unsuccessful personal solutions most probably influenced by the undercurrents of danger they must live with and force themselves to reconcile as a fact of life in Belfast during The Troubles.
Director Claudia Weill has expertly fashioned Nate Rufus Edelman’s The Belle of Belfast. With the help of set designer John Mcdermott, the director has made sure the production employs a clever and symbolic economy of design. The three sections of the stage suggest different areas: outside in the city of Belfast and inside in the private interior of the Catholic church confessional and the rectory. For the outside, the bleak walls of division and sterility of a life lived amidst randomized terror is evoked with graffitied brick walls and barbed wire, stage left. The exterior is contrasted with an interior, the ironic security offered by a church confessional in the stage middle. To stage right is positioned the personal inner sanctity of the priests’ rectory where truthful actions and comments are laid bare by three of the main characters. Lest audience members are unfamiliar with the history of the setting, at the play’s outset a black and white film clip of a variety of shots of beleaguered Belfast unspools to project the tattered lives of the residents (children and adults), and the sorrow and violence that is their portion during The Troubles.
As these projections fade, the light focuses on the confessional interior. At confession is a typical, elderly, staunch Irish Catholic woman, Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly does a beautiful job as the humorous, slightly ridiculous and eccentric aunt of feisty Anne Malloy). Emma Malloy is sharing her darkest secrets with the handsome, youthful priest, the father confessor in a parish that offers help in this trying time of soul need to offset the chaos and confusion everyone is experiencing. Of course the help is for Catholics and though the tenets of Christianity encompass both protestants and Catholics, the irony is not lost on us that Catholicism is a tremendous thorn in the flesh of the Protestants on the other side of the high walls which divide Irish from Irish.
During the ironic and funny exchange between the priest and Emma Malloy, the playwright has unfolded the character of Father Ben Reilly (an excellent Hamish Allan-Headley), as a sympathetic and well meaning Irish Catholic cleric who attempts to remain above the fray following the tenets of Christianity as best he can. Nate Rufus Edelman has expertly established the gnawing rodents of duplicity within the Father that will continue to eat at him until they devour his potential for goodness. With Emma Malloy, we understand that the Father is playing the part of the good priest as he perceives his role to be. However, we also understand that the depth of goodness is not yet present in him to actually be that good priest, for we also see the extent to which Emma Malloy tries his patience and the extent to which he allows her to frustrate him. Instead of “stopping her in her tracks” for her silly ideas of what constitutes sinning (one thing Catholicism teaches well is sinning and condemnation), he allows her to continue in folly, “showing” how kind he can be until she makes untoward remarks that are sinful. Here is a flawed priest, who in his attempts to be empathetic and gracious goes overboard toward permissiveness because of his notions about how a priest should be kind and understanding. In attempting both, he ends up doing neither, though he is charming, self-deceitful and apparently “harmless.”
Of course, the irony is that with the true tenets of Christianity, it is not about image, it is about substance, about what happens behind closed doors, about what happens in the rectory when the public isn’t watching. That is what counts and the playwright never reveals the characters’ relationships with God and that absence is crucial to the understanding of the play and the understanding of the characters who are in desperate need of help and who are incapable of receiving it through the source they have supposedly chosen to pray to. Clearly, this priest and his colleague Father Behan (Billy Meleady), are having their own “troubles” with the substance of love and truth. Edelman brilliantly reveals how they are having issues with self-deceit as they attempt to “appear good” but find it much harder to “be” good. Their trials are revealed during their personal moments away from their roles as priests and after they return to the rectory, relax and take off their collars. This is one of the main conflicts of the play, the image of goodness versus the reality of goodness and gives rise to the theme: if one does not live in truth, one is miserable living in hypocrisy. The theme has broader implications for indeed, the whole of Northern Ireland is reeling from this problem, especially in their disparate warring religious factions which lack “the substance” to be Christians in word, deed and love: they cannot forgive each other; they cannot ultimately forgive themselves.
The playwright has cleverly characterized Father Reilly revealing the seeds of his potential downfall which like weeds in a garden plague him. These weeds grow quickly and are the cause of his weaknesses which allow him to succumb to the manipulative wiles of the fiery teenager Anne Malloy (the angst-filled “belle”). As a result of their flawed actions both Anne and the Father are forced to view the truth of themselves and the pictures are ugly. The characterizations are aptly drawn; we note Father Reilly’s rationalizations to Father Behan when he protests that he is trying to help Anne. But when he ends up seducing her, he is easily able to convince himself that it is the other way around, that he has allowed her to seduce him. Regardless, both Anne and he are culpable; both make each other miserable with the truth of their self-deceit and lies, though his is the greater blame because he violates his position as a “pure man of God,” and she is a minor, not really responsible for her own decision making, though of course, she believes she is.
Likewise, the playwright’s characterization of Father Ben Reilly’s fellow colleague in the parish, Father Behan (a fine, nuanced and edgy performance by Billy Meleady), shows another cleric in the throes of a personal crisis. Behan despises the protestants and supports the Irish Republicans, though he knows he should remain objective. He is an alcoholic with the excuse that it is a way to get over and through the miseries of the times. Yet, rather than to rely on his faith to help him end the addiction, we see that his faith fails him and even inspires him to drink more. He has chosen a profession about which he is largely indifferent and is now stuck in. It is a cryptic irony that he hopes he doesn’t have to continue to be a priest when he is dead and in heaven, for that would be hellish. As a priest there are no choices left for him and he wishes he were anywhere but Belfast, the worst place to get murdered for being a priest. As we see for Father Reilly and Father Behan, both succumb to the dark time of chaos. Both cannot see their way clear to confront their character imperfections. Both lack the faith to work through and achieve peace.
Edelman has presented the underlying issues of the characters from which the incipient themes evolve, hammering these through to the conclusion. We recognize that all of the characters have opaque vision; they are limited from seeing the hypocrisy of their own actions as they walk in a bizarre, dual state of determination and haphazardness. They mistake their false assumptions about themselves as truthful and accurate, only to find out later they are playing at being what they are not. Of course, they are miserable and their actions lead to devastation. However, because of the backdrop of war which rears its ugly head from time to time in a bomb blast that kills or in the terrible beating and victimization of someone, we know that the characters are reeling from the confusion which foments the mist through which the ever-present threat of violence erupts. We forgive them for they are easy to recognize in ourselves; such is the state of affairs in the human soul: until unity and peace come, it’s division and war.
Thus, when wise-cracking, foul-mouthed and brash Anne Malloy (played with abrasive and wild-hearted abandon by Kate Lydic), tells conflicted and insecure friend Ciara Murphy (the vulnerable and resigned Arielle Hoffman), that she is in love with Father Reilly and she will be with him, we are not surprised. We have anticipated this, as we anticipate the tragedy of their coupling and the impossibility of their being together because they have no solid relationship borne of love. We know his permissiveness and his playing at being the good priest has been the snare that renders him a hypocrite to the faith and a predator. With kind duplicity he does harm to her and himself. Father Reilly is incapable of seeing clearly that Anne Malloy is playing at being in love with him in a desperate quest for happiness. He cannot discern the truth to know that she is searching for a love of self that will fill her soul more than what she could ever have with him. Blindly, Father Reilly takes advantage of her inner emptiness. Deceitfully, he becomes a predator exploiting her sorrow. He adds to her soul damage; orphaned by her parent’s death in a bomb blast as a child, she is forced to live with her difficult aunt from whom she feels little love.
The importance of The Troubles as a backdrop to what happens in the inner sanctum of the rectory is a clever touch brought to the fore by the canny director. Father Reilly’s abuse of Anne’s fragile emotions and the abuse of his position is performed behind closed doors away from the prying eyes of the parish. In the rectory he turns this emotional violence against himself as he upends his own integrity. In hypocrisy he trashes everything good that he may have attempted in the past. In an invisible line from the external brick wall and barbed wire right through to the rectory, the director and playwright show that the war’s shocks have led him to become an emotional casualty of the war’s harm. The tragic irony is that as a casualty, he cannot rightly understand how to best help Anne. Thus, he contributes to making her into a twice-fold victim of The Troubles. His failures as a priest thwart her from achieving soul health: the “love” she sought to replace that was lost at her parent’s death can never come from Father Reilly; she is twice traumatized. The emotional violence Father Reilly and Anne enact upon themselves and each other mirrors the violence of Belfast. Though they are alive and breathing, emotionally they shatter one another. They can only inure themselves to the pain and move on. If they make themselves numb, there may be a kind of deliverance after all. However, there is no grace that they can give each other; they lack that power. It will have to come from another source, if it comes at all.
Through the fine, on point acting, the director’s steadfast vision and the help of the artistic team, Edelman’s work shines with humor, cleverness and grace, revealing how in a time of chaos, individuals attempt to make the best of the hand they are dealt but often make a shambles of it, instead. This would appear to be doubly true when those appointed to help “make the peace” are often the ones doing the harm. To what extent does the war impact individuals’ choices? On a continuum from 1-100, it cannot be discounted and like an earthquakes’ aftershocks, the calm may settle but things have been irrevocably changed. So Edelman points out. After a few years have passed, Anne Malloy, achieves a term of happiness which she discusses with Father Reilly when she finds him after he moves from Belfast. Meeting with him, she explains what happened in her life after she left the war zone. It is obvious that she has made a tentative peace. For Father Reilly the playwright is silent about the divisions in the cleric’s soul. Nevertheless, for these two characters, it is a fitting conclusion reflective of the citizens in Belfast whose high walls still divide and whose wounds have yet to heal completely.
You can see the terrific The Belle of Belfast at the DR2 Theatre until June 14th.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics: CLICK HERE WHERE IT WAS AN “EDITOR’S PICK.”
The 13th Annual Orchid Show: Chandeliers is currently running until April 19th at the New York Botanical Garden. The show is amazingly beautiful and a much-needed encouragement during what sometimes seems like an eternity of winter. During my wondrous visit relaxing amongst the gorgeous blooms, I spoke to Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections.
Marc is a fount of information about the orchids. His title belies his down-to-earth nature and sunny personality. I can understand his joy working around such vibrant, luxurious plant life. A fellow photographer kept on remarking during our visit that the Garden is a great place to decompress and rewind from frenetic city life. It’s another world at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and Marc’s job is to make sure that all the orchids in the Garden’s permanent collection are as happy with their living conditions as possible. He is also responsible for curating the hybrids brought in and grown for the Orchid Show.
Marc Hachadourian, you’re the resident orchid expert here supervising the care of the botanical collections including the extensive orchid collection and exhibition plants in the Nolen Greenhouses.
Yes. I’m the curator of orchids at the NYBG.
I know you love orchids from what you told me when I spoke with you last year. Orchids festoon your home where you have a great variety and number of orchids. And you are probably way more successful at keeping and caring for orchids than I am.
In addition to caring for the Garden’s orchid collection, I do have my own personal orchid collection, so some of my friends joke that I need a recovery program for orchid addiction because I leave one orchid collection to take care of another. It is something that I absolutely love. I was joking with a friend that they are my greatest stress and stress relief at the same time. But it is something that I absolutely love. I have been growing orchids now for 30 years and they’ve become a part of my life, like my children. Some people become very attached to their pets. I’ve become very attached to my orchid plants. They don’t have names, though. [laughs] [I laugh]
OK. How old is your oldest orchid?
At the Garden or my personal collection?
Your personal collection.
Over 20 years old.
I know at the Garden that those beautiful orchids encased in glass – those rare orchids –
The miniatures are old.
Some of them aren’t. They range in age in our collection. But some of our oldest orchids in our permanent collection…are not on display because they are not flowering at this time of year, but we actually have plants in our botanical collections here at the Garden that are over 100 years old. People assume that a 100-year-old orchid must be the size of a house, but in reality, some of the plants may be miniature, so you may be able to hold a 100 years of orchid growth in your hands.
So it’s something that we have a long historic orchid collection here at the NYBG. In fact we have one of the best orchid collections of any institution. There are about 7,000 specimens in our permanent orchid collection. We have all different sizes and different types. You had mentioned the miniature orchid which we have on display in the conservatory where we pull out a lot of the really interesting and unusual botanical plants from our collection, plants that you might walk by if they were put next to some of these really flashy hybrids.
But in reality there are some orchids in the glass case right now that in the palm of your hand in that miniature plant you can hold anywhere from 700 to 1,000 individual blooms on a single plant. Of course, the flowers are so tiny, they are no bigger than the head of a pin, but it is wonderful to hold a plant with that many beautiful flowers. They are from a range of geographic habitats, everywhere from Australia, Southeast Asia, South America, and a range of sizes [1/16 of an inch in diameter to giants more than 25 feet tall], colors, shapes. It’s one of the things that surprises people when they come to the Orchid Show. It’s not just the beauty of our displays, but the extreme diversity within one plant family, the orchid family.
These very rare miniatures – were they sent?
No these are part of our permanent collection that we grow in the back of the greenhouses and that we bring out when they flower.
Do you grow them by seed?
We grow them by division mostly. Sometimes, they will be sourced by specialist orchid nurseries and because we have not only a display collection but a noted research collection, one of my important jobs as the curator of the orchid collection is making sure that we have the proper diversity and a proper survey of the orchid family represented in our botanical collections, so researchers all over the world can come here and use our collections.
It is much like a living library of plants. So if you want to think of it as a library collection or an art collection, that fits. If you specialize in Impressionism, you want to make sure you have a few Monets and a few of this and a few of that. It’s the same thing with developing an institutional orchid collection.
It is much like a living library of plants. So if you want to think of it as a library collection or an art collection, that fits. If you specialize in Impressionism, you want to make sure you have a few Monets and a few of this and a few of that. It’s the same thing with developing an institutional orchid collection.
You want to make sure you have representative display, not only orchids from each country, but from each type of orchid that grows around the world. So we have one of the largest and one of the most widely represented orchid collections of any institution in the world.
The orchid family is the largest flowering plant family. There are over 30,000 naturally occurring species and now over 150,000 man-made hybrids. They’re found on every continent of the world except Antarctica and everywhere from deserts to swamps to tropical rain forests, even up to the Arctic tundra. So even places that you don’t usually associate with orchids normally have orchids. When you think of this family, you think of the tropics, the rainforest, but there are orchids native to Alaska. And there are even orchids growing within Manhattan itself. There are native species.
I don’t know if there are any Lady Slippers still growing in Manhattan, but there are Lady Slipper species growing throughout New York State.
Many of these native species, which are protected by law, can still be found, although rarely in the Tri-State area [New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut]. So these are a few details that you wouldn’t normally think about orchids.
Are there species that you think are still undiscovered or that you are trying to get a hold of that are very rare?
Absolutely. There are many rare orchid species. It is just a matter of patience before we are able to acquire some of those plants and add them
to our collection. Just like there are very few Vermeers in our world and everybody would like to have one as a part of their art collection, these rare plants are a bit more challenging to come by. But in our orchid collection, there are orchid species that are discovered every year. Dozens of species are newly described. People might go into an area they’ve never been before and find something new. Sometimes they are right under your nose. There are areas that are well traveled that have orchids. But you would have to have been there at exactly the right moment to see the orchid flower.
So it’s fascinating that every year there are so many new species described and discovered.
Some of these orchids, the rare ones, must be extremely valuable.
The value on some of these orchids to the obsessive collector wanting the rarest of the rare, the most unusual plant can create an exaggerated pricing.
Like the tulips? [we both laugh].
Yeah, almost like the tulip mania of the 15-16th centuries. But the value we place on our plants is not something financial. It’s conservation value, biological diversity value. For some of these plants it may be that they have a wonderful history or the orchid may be a rare hybrid. So for that, their value would be almost priceless for what they represent in the orchid family.
The loss of one? I know how I feel if I lose an orchid or one of my plants; I’m devastated.
Well, I’m sad. If it’s something beyond your control then you do get sad at those moments. But there are more successes than failures, so that makes up for it.
You must have read Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief?
I have to admit I never read the book. The reason why is that it is a somewhat fictionalized account about people that I know. So it’s kind of odd to read since it’s based on a series of actual events and I know some of the people involved. It almost kind of feels awkward to me. So it would be like if someone made a fictional tale about your life, you’d be reading it. But it’s a wonderful book and I’ve read parts of it. I never have read it in its entirety. Probably, the real key is having that free time to be able to read it. [we laugh]
Thanks so much for speaking to me. You are so knowledgeable, I enjoyed talking with you.
Enjoy the show.
Oh, one more question. You were going to check on how many orchids comprise the Orchid Show.
Mark confers with a colleague who says, “We always say thousands.”
One might die at any moment.
We are replacing plants throughout the show so the exact number is always changing. We know that at any one time there are thousands. Having anyone actually count them…?
No – it would be a dizzying effort.
March 5th, a plane at LaGuardia skidded off the icy, snowy runway. A wet, unwelcome, sterile, white dirge blanketed the area. Who knows how many more intermittent days of abysmal cold, sleet, snow, and ice will oppress? Though there seems no end to this weariness, there is a herald of spring at the New York Botanical Gardens.
It is the 13th Annual Orchid Show. A renaissance of beauty and hope hangs high in the orchid baskets’ blazing, airy, living, colorful auras. These amazing and most popular of flowering plants shine their blossoms and illuminate their colors upward toward the palatial ceiling of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
How welcome to me are these stunning, brilliantly conceived and executed flowery clusters. They are truly a spiritual and emotional uplift to take me to the end of the long, blistering winter to sing in the sweetness of springtime.
The theme of the show this year couldn’t be more appropriate or illuminating; it is “Chandeliers.” Everywhere you saunter through the delicate looking Victorian-style glasshouse, you see the mysterious, sensual, ripe, and fecund vividness of arcing orchids curving out like delicate feathers. There are thousands of them.
Pools of water reflect their petals in a kaleidoscope of pastels, tints, shades, and darkest hues. Not only are the Cymbidium and Cycnoches landscaped exquisitely amongst the flora of the greens, reds, yellows of the ferns, palms, dracenas, and other botanical varieties that flourish in abundance in the warmth and moisture of the conservatory. But the adder-tongued (Theodore Roethke’s description), blooming plants are the stellar creations, the showpieces above the pathways in pendant, lustrous, rainbow baskets.
Their powerful, subtle beauty is the growing candelabra that lights the way. The orchid chandeliers are a vibrant multi-layered overflow of pinks, violets, whites, tawny oranges, yellows, purples, reds. It is enough to mesmerize and gladden the most sorrowful and dour of hearts. Look up, twirl around, everywhere are Cattleyas and Phalaenopsis of a multitude of varieties and a range of colors that poor crayola only wishes they could duplicate.
For the first time, the concept “Chandeliers” throngs the crystal palace Conservatory, slipping beyond the Seasonal Exhibition Galleries into the Tropical Rain Forest Galleries and others.The exhibit is conceptualized and designed by the Botanical Garden’s Francisca Coelho, the Vivian and Edward Merrin Vice President for Glasshouses and Exhibitions, who is noted as “the best female head gardener working under glass today.”
But as in other past orchid shows, the amazing history and conservation stories of rare and endangered orchids in the rain forests of the world are included and can be read on the cards throughout the exhibit or listened to on one’s mobile phone.
Throughout the Garden’s 250 acres in its various venues, The Orchid Show: Chandeliers allows guests the opportunity to learn about the largest family of flowering plants through tours, orchid care demonstrations, and discussions about how the elegant flower chandeliers were made.
The snow is still falling into the evening. I didn’t buy any orchids when I visited the beloved NYBG shop because I was afraid they would get a chill and “catch their deaths.” It was below freezing and the wind crinkled my face walking to the Enid A Haupt Conservatory. However, the moment the light brightens, the sun is higher overhead and it’s closer to spring, I will return to buy a piquant, fuschia pansy orchid if there are any left. Or I might go for a glass of wine during one of the Orchid Evenings and stop at the shop on my way out. I’ll check to see if there’s an unusual Cattleya for sale. After all, the show runs until April 19, 2015. By then Spring will have adorned us with her presence and my newly bought orchids will remain out of reach of cold cruelty as winter marches toward Peru.
A long time ago in a world far away there lived a thirty-something named Eric who, on a Sunday evening, placed an online ad for a roommate to share his two-bedroom Soho apartment in Manhattan. The following day, the world shifted off its axis and Eric never would be the same again. Nor would his former roommate, nor his former lover Will, nor any New Yorker, for that matter. From September 11, 2001, onward, there would be no turning back for any of us. In the days following, though Eric received calls on his answering machine from young men who wanted to come down immediately and see his apartment, they would have to wait.
Unlike a number of films about September 11, 2001, chronicling the tragedy, sorrow and heroism of that day’s events, WTC View written, directed and produced by Brian Sloan and starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Cellar, What’s Your Emergency-director ), is about the days that follow September 11, revealing an exclusive portrait of how one individual tries to get through his personal difficulties while living in a devastated and traumatized Manhattan as the full impact of the towers’ collapse echoed and still echoes to this day. In the film’s opening, Brian Sloan cleverly slides shots with a voice over of news about the event in a crawl with the date of days passing until Eric (Michael Urie in an exceptionally acted and beautifully nuanced portrayal), is allowed back into the area; he was staying with a friend in Brooklyn.
The still shots, voice over, and crawl which Sloan uses as a bridge for time passing and transition to the various segments of the film is an effective summation of what has occurred without emphasizing any horrific external images of the death planes, the conflagration and smoke, the buildings collapsing, or dramatic rescue and cleanup. Sloan is more concerned about how the emotional stress and trauma continues to play out in the minds and imaginations of those who either witnessed it live, saw the event on TV, or lost family or friends in the collapse. He represents this by predominately focusing his camera on Eric’s and the other characters’ faces and facial expressions.
In an astutely understated way, by spotlighting the reactions of individuals within the interior rooms of Eric’s apartment, symbolizing the interior emotional landscape of their being, Sloan reveals the power of such an incident on everyone. Through his camera direction we understand that we cannot help but anchor the event and aftermath as defining moments in our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It is a reckoning for us and especially for New Yorkers, but Sloan’s intention brings about a shared experience of expiation and healing. It is a one-of-a-kind film about the aftermath of September 11, 2001, on an intimate level. The result is powerful, poignant, and empathetic.
The arc of the film follows Eric from the moment that he arrives in his apartment to interview the first prospective roommate nine days later on September 20th. The film concludes on October 1, 2001, after he rents the entire apartment. He comes to this decision during the film as we watch him emotionally disintegrate as he experiences the jarring revelations of personal trauma over the stress of 9/11, exacerbated by living in the apartment and interviewing prospective roommates who invariably discuss the event. At the conclusion of Eric’s interior trials, Sloan shows him finally stepping outside the building; he is ready to face a grieving Manhattan and his own inner pain and loss. The decision to give up the apartment indicates he recognizes his emotional crisis (the stress of 9/11 is a part of it), and realizes he must begin to deal with his problems in a constructive way. Sloan has written a complex work that was initially based on his stage play of the same title. The film is an intricacy of captured moments of humor, drama, intimacy, intensity, sadness, and hope, made alive with a rendering that he beautifully instills with cinematic elements that enhance the tropes of the play.
Along the journey of the “search” we note that Eric and those who visit him are incredibly impacted by “the WTC view” outside his Soho apartment window. The window is in the bedroom where the roommate will be resting each night. It is the “dreams that may come” that give the various characters pause from immediately agreeing to rent, though they politely refrain from saying that it might be “the view” of the horror of the WTC site that is giving them pause. Sloan adroitly whispers this and doesn’t make a huge point of it; it is intimated by Eric who states that beforehand getting a roommate happened quickly and easily, since living space was impossible to find in Manhattan (it’s much harder and more expensive a decade later). The reality with all of its meaning is just under the surface of Eric’s consciousness. He knows that the sight outside his window is a truly gruesome and devastating view, but he is in denial. He has suppressed this reality and others which are gradually revealed to us by the conclusion of the film.
Though the characters never say they will not rent because of what they see out of window, all do discuss the events of 9/11 and their experiences; one was in the building and miraculously escaped. Each story, each character is representative of how individuals have confronted the events or avoided thinking about them. The subtlety of how the subject is avoided and then eventually brought by the potential roommates is threaded throughout the interviews and astutely written with authenticity as are Sloan’s characterizations who are quintessential, real and recognizable New Yorkers: the friend, the landlord, the bond trader, the manager, the political assistant, the student, etc. Their interactions with Eric are vibrant and engaging. Nevertheless, they invariably end up in the abyss of the burning debris and smoke of the fires which are acutely visible outside of Eric’s apartment window, but which the director brilliantly never shows. Sloan leaves this up to our imagination as we watch the reaction of the characters as they look at (what we imagine is) the smoking rubble of human dreams pluming upward. We are caught in their reactions which are ours, and somehow together there is revelation and shared understanding and empathy that uplifts.
The film is a much needed rendering of that day and all the days that happened after 9/11. Sloan, with the masterful Urie at the helm and the fine ensemble of actors (Elizabeth Kapplow as Josie (Eric’s friend) and Nick Potenzieri as the bond trader are excellent), has found a way to bring us together to expiate that time for all time and remind us that we must be there for each other despite the current return to “normalcy” and “apparent” New Yorker insouciance. In the film’s humanity and emotional intimacy, we can remember, connect with our own feelings and be recharged to clarity as Eric is. For those who have little knowledge of how people felt in the immediacy of the aftermath because they witnessed from afar, the film is a poignant, powerful, and sometimes humorous record of that time in the personal emotions of New Yorkers. Certainly, it is an important “view,” even if you didn’t have an apartment in Soho.
The WTC View will be available for the first time in its original HD format and is on sale on iTunes for purchase and rental. It originally premiered in NYC at the New Festival in 2005 and was broadcast after screening on the festival circuit. The national broadcast premiere was on MTV’s Logo Channel and aired on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 in 2006. It was also released on DVD by TLA Video.
The 10th Anniversary Edition of WTC View in its first-time HD Format is available on iTunes.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
In a phone interview I spoke with director Brian Sloan about his film WTC View, which is having its 10th anniversary first-time digital release in HD format on iTunes. (Click here for the film on iTunes) Starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Celler). WTC View is an intimate look into the life of one New Yorker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The film is constructed in a subtle way. The character Eric posts an online ad for a roommate on September 10th. On September 20th he is able to return to his apartment and interview prospective candidates. Inevitably, when they investigate the apartment, they go to the window of the bedroom they will be sleeping in only to see the smoking rubble of the WTC site, a horrible view. Then each opens up about where they were when they heard about the events and how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. Eric listens, and as the film progresses, situations and conversations gradually unfold; we understand what he has been through and how he is in an emotional crisis that he struggles with and denies he has. Only after Eric has a meltdown, does he finally begin to face his crashing emotional devastation. We are there with him every step of the way.
I really liked the film. I’ve lived in NY for most of my life so I can’t see how any New Yorker wouldn’t enjoy this film. Congratulations on its release on iTunes tomorrow, March 3rd in HD format.
I’d like to start by discussing that it was a play first. Could you just talk about how what motivated you to evolve this into a play.
It was a few months after 9/11 and people asked me about this as a film because I was a filmmaker. They asked me questions like, “Oh do you think 9/11 is something that you would write about?” I hadn’t really considered it because it just seemed like too big of a topic and seemed too large for a film. I couldn’t see any way into it. I guess it was about 6 months after 911 that CBS aired the documentary by the Naudet brothers I think it’s just called 9/11. The Naudet brothers were following a rookie fire fighter that day and they ended up having all this footage of them actually in the WTC when this was all happening. I watched that documentary and it struck me that these guys had such a personal perspective on this event. They were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time, but they ended up being able to capture this incredible story and it got me thinking about my story on 911.
My story was that I had taken out this roommate ad which is the last thing I did before I went to bed that night. And then I left my apartment on September 11th. I was in that frozen zone below 14th street. When I got back to the apartment almost a week later, there were all these messages of people calling me about coming to see my apartment. Some even called me on September 12th, which I just thought was crazy and strange. When I started thinking about this whole thing, I thought that this could be an interesting way, a very small look at what was happening, through a small lens, though not even a lens. But it was a situation happening in one room where people are having conversations and monologues about what life was like in the city at that time after 9/11. And I like to say everyone knows what happened on 9/11. The piece really is about what happens after 9/11 on September 12th and the days after that, and what is happening in the city at that time. So I was thinking about these things as a play. I didn’t think about it as a film. I thought the only way this could work was a play in one room and people having these conversations.
I started writing the play. A friend of mine had directed a couple of one act plays recently which were more comic one acts, like comedy sketches. With his encouragement I started writing this up as a play. We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and that’s where it first had its debut onstage.
When you cast this play… did you know the actors you wanted before hand? How did you cast the play?
We were doing it at the Fringe Festival. So it was sort of a no budget operation when you’re doing a show like that. You get actors wherever you can. Basically we kind of pooled our resources. I, the director, and the producer Helena Webb, we all thought of people that we knew who would be right for some of these roles. Andrew Volkoff had a lot more ideas because he had worked in theater and Helena too. Since I worked in film I brought in some people I knew from film. And we started auditioning people. In the end, I had actually seen Michael Urie in a play that Andrew directed the year before. And we were having trouble finding this lead role. I remembered that Michael was at Julliard. And I remember thinking well, this is great because we need someone with serious training because the actor’s onstage for the entire show for like two hours straight. No break. And I considered that it’s hard for a film actor to make that transition and to do that role. Some people who came in were great, but I didn’t know if they could do that role for two hours on stage. It’s a different operation.
Michael Urie came in and he read for us. I suspected that he was a bit younger than the part that we were casting. I asked Andrew not to tell me what his actual age was and he didn’t. And it turned out that Michael was about 9 years younger than the role called for in the script. But we figured that he’s a really great actor and that he could act a little bit older, and we can do some hair and makeup stuff that will make him look slightly older as well. When people saw it, people didn’t think that he was too young for the part. And then we really kind of cast around him. You can set a cast up to make them look younger or older. When you tell the audience the age, you create a world in which it is true and it is believable to them.
Wish I had seen the play. He was wonderful in the film. Looks like he turned out to be a find since he hit with Ugly Betty and other things, like Buyer and Cellar.
Yeah. Ugly Betty came out I think a month after our broadcast premiere of the film which was on MTV’s Logo channel. With Ugly Betty coming out a month afterward, it was show he’s become much more widely known for. After that he’s been doing better and better.
That could only be positive for WTC View which stands on its own. But his performance and the other actors were really wonderful. So it started at the Fringe and people really liked it. I read somewhere that you were wary about whether or not it was too soon for something like this, but turns out it was well received. How did it evolve from there?
From the Fringe, we got some really great responses and very good reviews and the show did very well. We initially hoped that we could move it to some Off Broadway house or somewhere Off Off Broadway, but we really had trouble finding commercial interest. At that time, 2003, the commercial feeling was that this kind of a play is not something that New Yorkers are going to see. It was still too close to the 9/11 attacks. There was a feeling that since there were two other high profile plays that were also 911 related and they had failed that year, it was a risk. We couldn’t get anybody interested in making that transfer.
When that happened, I just started thinking about making this for a broader audience. Initially, we were thinking of something like a PBS style live playhouse and actually filming the play. That didn’t really go anywhere. Then I started thinking about making an actual film because this is what I do and what I know how to do. I know how to make a very low budget film and make it good. I started thinking that if I look at this carefully, I can turn it into a film. Then it didn’t seem possible after all. But I started talking to some people and other producers and people encouraged me. They felt that the topic was what makes this really interesting, as well as the way that the topic is approached. You know it might not be the most cinematic movie because it still has its roots in the play and you can’t get away from that.
But the thing that made it unique was dealing with this topic in such a different way. We are dealing with the events after the attacks from this one person’s perspective. We’re showing this very realistic look at life in NY at that time. A lot of films about 9/11 tend to treat the subject very melodramatically or super tragically. It definitely was a major tragedy that happened in the city. But I think life in the city was not that way afterwards. People were trying to deal with events in different ways. Some people were dealing with it with humor. Some people didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to show that range of experience in the film.
You were encouraged to transfer it to a screenplay. I love the fact that the entire film takes place within Eric’s apartment until the very end. What were some of the issues and concerns that you had making the play into a film.
Well the biggest concern was probably not trying to make it something it wasn’t. I thought of ways to make the action break out of the apartment. You know have Eric walk through the city.
I’m glad you didn’t.
But I didn’t because the more I thought about it, it doesn’t really make sense for what this is. The guy is almost trapped in his apartment.
In his mind…
In his mind, truly. I thought I could continue that in the film. Also there’s a history of films that take place in one location. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before. The most famous is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also was adapted from a play. So there are a lot of other films. I actually started watching a lot those movies. Rope was definitely a big one for me. I watched Rosemary’s Baby; most of it takes place in their apartment. And there was also an indie film from the 90s, called What Happened Was. It is about a date in an apartment that sort of goes crazy over the course of an evening.
My Dinner With Andre is another one in just one location.
Yeah, My Dinner With Andre
That was a great decision on your part.
Thanks. I’m definitely glad that we stuck with what we did. I think it would have lost its focus and lost its feeling. And that’s what I think this movie is about. The film gives you a sense of this character and what he’s going through.
Then you took the original play and staged it at 59E59 Theatres. How did that happen?
That came about because we wanted to do a full production of the show that would be different from the Fringe where we had no money. We wanted to do a full, traditional production. And also we wanted to do something around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We felt that NY is a constantly changing city and maybe there is an audience living here now who is interested in seeing this. It turns out that there was. A lot of people came to see the production. We had a great run at 59E59. I feel that because there were a few more years removed from 9/11, people were able to see the play as a play. That for me was really heartening. People were able to see that it is more than just a strict documentary. They can see that the play is really getting at this character, getting at what he’s going through and telling this person’s story in a theatrical way.
One thing I think every New Yorker will identify with in perpetuity is getting living space in the city and having to have a roommate or partner to afford living here.
It’s a New York thing for sure.
As cities nationwide become more expensive to live in, that is a topic that will continue to resonate. I like how you dealt with the window subtly, the view of the WTC site. I also liked how we don’t know what really happened to the character until the end of the film. I thought you unfolded it in a very human and realistic way.
You mention the window. That’s one of the things I really love about the film which we couldn’t do onstage, which was sort of to see what people are seeing, I mean to see their reactions as they are looking out that window. It’s a very intimate moment. In the play the characters are generally faced away from the audience who don’t see their reactions as well. In the film we could get in there and closely focus on their reactions. That’s one of the more interesting adaptations that happened in the film version.
I loved the many meanings of WTC View, a play almost on Room With a View…
It’s a powerful and beautiful film. Good luck and looking forward to its release on iTunes March 3rd.
Yeah. It’s great to talk to a fellow New Yorker about apartments. It’s very true. I was looking at the original ad for this apartment and now it’s about double the cost, so the real estate situation gets crazier and crazier.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.
After screening the fine indie film WTC View directed by Brian Sloan which is being re-released on iTunes March 3rd, I spoke via phone with Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar). Urie enjoyed his breakout film debut in WTC View which was released in 2005. Michael Urie originated the role of Eric in the play WTC View at the Fringe. Like the play, the film WTC View is about Eric who places an online ad in the Village Voice for a roommate to share his spacious two bedroom apartment in Soho. It is Sunday evening, September 10, 2001. The next day the earth shifted on its axis and none of us were the same again. When Eric is able to return to his apartment which is below 14th street in what was the “frozen zone,” he comes back physically ready to interview and show the apartment to prospective roommates. Emotionally and psychically he is suffering and barely able to cope or deal with the situation. He is in denial and struggles as the days pass and no one rents the apartment which has a view of the World Trade Center’s smoking debris cavern. How Eric eventually is helped and who helps him is a tour de force sprinkled with humor, poignancy and powerful performances by the ensemble cast with Urie as the brilliant, masterful actor at the helm.
Pat Addiss adores your work as your producer on Buyer and Cellar. I am friendly with her and will send this interview over to her when it is up. She will appreciate it. I really loved you in Buyer and Cellar and I love you in this film.
Thank you so much.
You’re hearing it all the time, I’m sure, Michael. (I laugh)
It never gets old.
You remind me of what Emily Blundt said to me when I said she was superb in The Young Victoria, then apologized for being tiresome. She said, “Well, it’s much better than saying ‘I hate you.’
You auditioned for the play WTC View and you originated the character of Eric. Were there any challenges when you did the play and then when you switched over to filming WTC View?
Well, it was a big part and he was in every scene. In the play there was a lot to carry. It wasn’t anything compared to Buyer and Cellar (It was long before Buyer and Cellar). It was a hard play. It was a really hard play to do. Emotionally, physically there was a lot…a lot going on. But it was a great experience, extremely rewarding. The play really meant a lot to people. It hadn’t even been two years since 911 when we did the play. So it was still very fresh in people’s minds, especially in New York. And 9 months later we made the film, which is crazy. It is so rare that things like that happen that you do a play and then it is turned into a film and you’re in both.
But doing it on stage even in the little theater we were in, it was called The Bottle Factory Theater which has 15 seats or something, even in a theater like that sometimes people are 20 feet away from you and you have to turn what’s happening to you, especially in my character who does so much listening to other people’s stories, I had to turn what I was feeling into behavior for the stage so that people could get it. Then when we made the film, such behavior could be read just by looking at me in the eye. That is the idea of the film. You don’t have to turn what you’re feeling into behavior because it could be read on your face because the camera picks it up. So I had to learn that. It was challenging. I trusted Brian Sloan the director and the DP. And of course, you have to trust the editor to pick up the right emotions and looks and make you seem truthful.
Well you were truthful in the film and there is a complex range of emotions. There’s everything from humor and comedy and whimsicality and then of course the emotional scenes when you break down. I thought this arc of emotions you did really, really well.
It’s amazing because when I saw you in Buyer and Cellar, of course, the arc was different as the character was different. But you are an actor of nuance and I was seeing that in WTC View. What did you learn from the experiences of the play and the film to carry that over to something like Buyer and Cellar.
When I did Buyer and Cellar, I had to relearn how to maintain that energy and sustain it, you know to keep the ball in the air, because that was so much of my job in the play in WTC View, to keep the ball in the air, and to keep the momentum going forward. It was really Eric’s story and he also facilitated the story of all the other great characters. And so when I did Buyer and Cellar, more so than any other previous experience, I was back to my WTC View memories and those muscles, that muscle that keeps you up and keeps you inflated, for want of a better word. You have stay in it, stay a part of, you have to stay in the moment, stay emotionally connected and keep the audience with you following you, excited and thrilled. There weren’t that many similarities between the two projects but I would say that would be the big one.
In what way do you think that Eric might be an Everyman?
He is kind of an Everyman. That is an interesting way to put it. I think he represents… we get to know a lot of characters in WTC View, but Eric is the only one we spend time with privately. I think that is a wonderful way to bring someone into a character; that is to spend time with them privately…certainly in the film. We spend a lot of time with him alone and we get into what it is that he is going through. I think because of that, he feels like all of us and also because he is going through what all of us really went through after 911. We all felt frightened and alone and in need of comfort after 911 whether we had loved ones nearby or not. I think we all went through that. I did certainly.
I thought it was an amazing point of character that he was so reactive to various things that are commonplace, like loud street sounds, like the sirens which would set him off.
Yeah. And that paranoia that we were all feeling, maybe not to the same extent that Eric was feeling in the play or the movie but he kind of represented that for us and I feel that people can really relate to that. And for people who are not old enough to remember 911, I think that the film is a great way to see what it was like. Of course anybody who was not around for 911 still knows all about it. You know what happened. You can watch the videos, but you don’t know what it was like being a citizen of the world following it. How things changed, especially in New York. The play/film is really a microcosm of what it was like to be in New York after 911 and what it was like to deal with and relate to strangers.
Is that one of the most vital points of the film, do you think?
I think so. It’s that we took care of each other. Everyone felt isolated and paranoid, but we came together and took care of each other, even strangers. And in the end, he does have one of his closest friends try to help him. But other than that, everyone in the film that he meets is a stranger, except for his closest friend played by Liz Kapplow who is wonderful…Josie. But I think what the film says about strangers is that sometimes a stranger can be more beneficial than a close friend or loved one. In the film, it isn’t Josie, ultimately, who helps him…not really. It’s others. He really grows and changes and learns and recoups thanks to the kindness of strangers, not so much from the people that are closest to him. I guess because what we knew wasn’t really helping us. What we knew wasn’t helping us to avoid 911. The known wasn’t helpful. It was the unknowns that we had to rely on. I think that’s part of why strangers became so important to us.
Where were you Michael when the 911 attacks happened. Were you at Julliard?
Yeah. It was my second day of my third year and I was actually living in Queens. I was on my way to school when I noticed on TV that one plane had hit. I went ahead to the subway, knowing that when I got to the platform it would be above ground and I would be able to see the World Trade Center. And when I got there and looked both were on fire. So between leaving my house and getting to the train the second plane had hit. Somebody turned to me on the platform and said they got the other one. That was the first time I realized that it was intentional.
Where in Queens? Astoria?
(I receive a signal that the interview time is up.) Michael, it was great talking to you.
Give Pat Addiss a squeeze for me. (Pat Addiss is producer on Buyer and Cellar which Michael is starring in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from March 12-May 2nd)
I will! Well, thanks so much and good luck in all of your projects and with the re-release of the film WTC View on iTunes (March 3rd). By the way, I love your web series (What’s Your Emergency).
Thank you. We’re going to do another season, hopefully.
Well, all Right! Director, producer, actor, what more can you want? (Michael laughs.)
10th Anniversary First-Time Digital Release
WTC View is available now on iTunes. Click here for purchase or rental.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.
Edward Degas, one of the most renowned and beloved of the French impressionist painters and sculptors is most often associated with paintings and drawings of the dance. His pale ballerinas in pink, blue, green and white tulle evoke an ethereal world of striking still points of movement. Their delicate loveliness is a gossamer of bodies twirling, bending, stretching, leaping, pirouetting, balancing, posing and dressing. His dancers spark fantasy and mythic beauty. There is not a pose, position or action of the mystic ballerinas that Degas has not rendered in painting or drawing, so avidly possessed was he with ballerinas.
Why did ballerinas stir him? The haunting melodies and beautiful rendering of Degas in New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, with music and arrangements by David Temple, incisively directed by Deborah Temple suggest a reason. When Degas visited his brother and beloved sister-in-law Estelle, her daughter Jo danced ballet and wished to be a ballerina in Paris. This and other symbols whisper through the characterization, song, direction and staging in what can only be described as a consummate production which which premiered at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore in New York City in a one-night showcase. The musical connects the tragic time Degas spent with family in New Orleans before he was famous to the evolution of his greatness as the founder of Impressionism.
It opens with the spotlight on the painter Degas reminiscing about his visit to America. He begins with a song of remembrance about the time he lived in New Orleans where his mother was from. He sings of the key family members with whom he lived, family whose unreconciled relationships with him would impact his life and art after he returned to France. Degas (Trevor Kowalsky in a sterling and evocative portrayal of the painter), sings Temple’s wistful melody of nostalgic longing, “I have a picture in my mind,” as the play flashes back to the roiling events in the Degas family household.
The in-laws/cousins, the Mussons, live on Esplanade Avenue in a New Orleans of 1872 that is raging against the carpetbaggers in the last days of Reconstruction. It is the beginning of the racial terrorism that blossomed like deadly nightshade and continued into the twilight of the 20th century. During Degas’ introductory song which sets the events and succinctly reveals the back-story of his visit to the most French city in America, the director has skillfully created the interior rooms of the Degas House. It is here the painter stayed with his brother René and tried to help out the family financially. He was also in New Orleans to escape the tumultuous events occurring in Paris during the days of the commune.
For this memorable opening scene (which also serves as the closing scene of Degas’ flashback), director Deborah Temple cleverly stages a tableau of the characters who are instrumental in spurring on the transformation of Degas’ personality and art: his brother René Degas (Tom Bloxham is wonderful as the arrogant, cruel and duplicitous brother), René‘s Father-in-law, Michel Musson (Patrick O’Shea rings out this sexist, racist, humorous curmudgeon), Mathilde Musson Bell (Elizabeth Lococo in a superb and well grounded performance), Didi Musson (the excellent and heartfelt Natalie LaBossier), René‘s wife Estelle Musson Degas (the exquisitely acted, operatically talented Lucy Makebish), and most poignantly the budding ballerina Josephine (Jo) Balfour, who is Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage (in a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Newcomb).
Together, the sisters (Didi, Mathilde and Estelle), and René subtly effect the influences that sideswipe Degas’ well being to devastate his emotions. O’Neill and the Temples have deftly drawn Degas’ family trials. One cannot help but intuit that this period in his life greatly influenced his career and was a turning point. The superb production and eclectic music (in an amazing rendering of different styles) David Temple ingeniously uses to infer the past and in some numbers suggests hints of blues and jazz that we associate with New Orleans in the present. The cogent directorial elements and memorable songs emphasize the import of Degas’ stay in New Orleans as a time of sorrow, loss and pain, and suggest that these obstacles ultimately served to strengthen him; no doubt they contributed in helping pave the way for his entrance onto the art scene.
Of the three Musson sisters, Estelle, who remains loyal to his adulterous brother René, is the one who breaks Degas’ heart. Degas is unable to shake his lifelong love for her which he nobly expresses and which he more nobly understands will never be consummated because of Estelle’s integrity and sanctity. O’Neill with the help of Deborah Temple’s direction and the adroit actors (the uber talented Makebish is stunning in the part of Estelle and Kowalsky is powerful as her soulful, haunted Edgar) brilliantly weave Degas’ love into a force which compels him toward a spiritual attachment with Estelle and her daughter ballerina Jo. The director wisely stages Jo as a central figure; throughout we see her practicing her positions as she dreams of flying away, perhaps to Paris to one day join the ballet. Jo also hopes with a great and tender love that her mother Estelle who has become blind and attempts to hide this fact from Edgar will one day see again. Encapsulated in Temple’s wistful song, “I dreamed that I could fly,” Estelle and Jo sing to each other echoing these and other yearnings which we later discover never come to pass.
The play develops smoothly following the arc of human foibles and is faithful in following the history of Degas’ life when he stayed in New Orleans. In the flashback Degas arrives at the house and there is great joy and a sense of wonder and appreciation for the painterly cousin, brother-in-law and brother. As the action progresses, we learn why. The family perceives Degas to be the savior who will make everything right for them since they are in a state of physical, mental and emotional devolution. Initially unaware of this situation, Degas is happy to see the one he has always loved, Estelle, whom he knew when she and her sisters visited him Paris. This is his first time in the new world and he has a positive and outlook about America and New Orleans which family letters have kept alive for him.
But family was not forthcoming about their condition or the cultural circumstances of New Orleans after the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more his awareness grows; he begins to understand the darker elements consuming the city and his family. O’Neill’s play and the production masterfully reveal the series of devastating pictures the situations paint for Degas. As a result of these dramatic scenes and the misery he sees and experiences, on his return to Paris he will be forced to emotionally vitiate his suffering through his art. The economic portrait of his family who live in cramped quarters is borderline squalid. We see this especially in the second act when New Orleans floods: rats drop from trees around the house, the family takes in as many homeless as they can to help their neighbors at their own expense. The city is reduced to a fetid swamp whose filth can never been expunged or wiped away. The song “Rats” sung by America (a terrific job by Mickey Lynch and the company) is humorous, dark and revelatory of the city’s torpor, want, financial devastation and foreboding.
By degrees reality stencils terrifying images on Degas’ soul. He discovers Estelle is blind and pregnant though they can’t afford another baby. René has not paid off the debts which are increasing exponentially and threaten to bankrupt the family in New Orleans and France. René and Michel seek the oblivion of alcohol and drink throughout the day, becoming willful, argumentative and confrontational. Mixed race cousin Norbert Rillieux, who was a wealthy free man of color before the Civil War, is being threatened daily by the White League, a white supremacist group growing in political power.
What horrifies Degas most is that René has “turned his back” on beloved, beautiful Estelle and is having an affair with America, a married woman who tutors the children. America (Mickey Lynch is superb), has gradually insinuated herself into the family and by the play’s conclusion is ruthlessly running the household, the sisters and René as she arrogantly steps around Estelle who “sees nothing.” Didi, who loves Degas and wants to be with him in Paris, tells Estelle that René is cheating on her. She does this in a jealous fit of rage after Didi discovers Degas loved Estelle. Estelle tries to be stoic but she eventually confronts René who lies to her. Estelle is a tragic figure caught in circumstances from which, as a woman, she will never escape or rectify. She must just try to survive and prevent her newborn from dying. Degas is appalled at the family’s deterioration and Estelle’s lifestyle. All has turned from the joy of his first weeks with them, symbolized by the song they sang to unmarried Didi for her birthday celebration (“The Sunny Side of Thirty”). Now there is only chaos, argument, racial tensions and impoverishment.
O’Neill has created interesting parallels between the family’s deterioration and the decline of New Orleans which has not recovered economically and whose white citizens angrily blame on Reconstruction politics. Degas learns that many of the white males have joined the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia to take the city and the South back from the Northern marauders. Mathilde’s husband Will and Father/Uncle Michel are important leaders and they have shunned Norbert from their family and most probably would not stop his being lynched. Even René has been persuaded to their side.
As Norbert’s wife Emily (Liz Louie is terrific as a free woman of color who is angry, fearful and sorrowful as she recognizes a new, terrifying city), sings of the augmenting racial hatreds in Act I (“Don’t Matter If You’re Free”), and in Act II when she tells Degas that she and Norbert are leaving for Paris fearing for their lives (“Time to Say Goodbye”). Degas acknowledges New Orleans is a dangerous, racist and demoralized city. In comparison to France and Paris which are havens of justice, New Orleans is reprehensible. Degas is further unsettled when a letter arrives to announce that his father has gone bankrupt and has been thrown into prison. René’s mismanagement of finances and importunity with money have economically destroyed the family in Paris and in New Orleans. When Edgar confronts his younger brother, they argue and he almost pummels him but restrains himself. He is not a brutal man; he will use his hands for painting. René kneels to him for forgiveness, but Degas is powerless to change his brother or the circumstances. He must leave for Paris to help whom he can help, his father. Somehow, he must restore the Senior Degas to wholeness and pay off the creditors. Painting is his only way out.
At the end of the play in a song reprise when Jo leaves for the convent, Jo and her mother again sing “I Dream.” It is a magnificent moment, for we understand the tragedy of hopes never realized: Jo dies of malaria at 18; Estelle, having never regained her sight, is abandoned by René who marries America and goes to Paris. Only Degas’ dream is realized, the dream which establishes him as a world-class Impressionist painter. O’Neill implies and the production so beautifully reveals that the fires of his greatness have been stoked in New Orleans. The regrets of an unfilled love with Estelle and the sorrow of his failure to to stop his family’s and especially Estelle’s decline become the emotional sources of his art.
This intriguing and memorable musical, Degas in New Orleans, creates a new vista for understanding Edgar Degas’s life and work. In appreciating the impact and importance of the painter’s time in the crescent city, the production reveals the extent to which influences born of tragedy can be translated into great good. And it shows how spiritual love and remembrance can be translated into artistic genius. Whether or not the symbolism of Jo’s wish to go to Paris to be a dancer is rooted in fact, O’Neill’s characterization of Jo coupled with Temple’s melodic compositions and Debrah Temple’s high concept production values anchor Degas’ love for Estelle and her daughter which is historically accurate. The work illuminates the idea that Degas’ ballet dancers are a tribute to Estelle’s daughter who “flies” in the still point of his artistry. In his work during the time he was in New Orleans and his work afterwards, Degas remained inspired and he dreamed. Through these dreams he was able to direct his career onto a completely new path, helping to establish an artistic trend which is globally loved today.
Edgar Degas most probably carried his love for Estelle and Jo to the grave, a spiritual attachment which Degas in New Orleans conveys. After seeing this incredibly realized production, we know that if not for that fateful visit, we would not be able to appreciate the 24 works he painted in the Big Easy such as “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” or his three paintings of Estelle completed at the Degas House. As for Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage, Jo, whose wish to go to Paris and be in the ballet was cut short?
Perhaps she got their after all. Degas’ loving remembrance of her, manifested in his numerous paintings of the ballet, is the triumphant iconography of his work. These paintings, sketches and sculptures of ballerinas when not loaned out to museums around the world, have remained in Paris and in France through wars, protests, floods and plagues. It is vital that the meaningful connections between Paris and New Orleans in Degas’ life and work be acknowledged. The wonderful Degas in New Orleans is a step in the right direction to uplift the life and work of this incredible artist for the upcoming 100th year anniversary of his death in 2017.
The production was awarded a generous grant from Red Hook School District in New York and was produced by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Company.
The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”
Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.
I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.
The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?
Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.
Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?
There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.
How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?
I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)
I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.
In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?
I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.
Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?
Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.
In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.
“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”
It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.