Daughter From Danang (2002); directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco

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Nominated for an Oscar, Daughter From Danang is one of the most emotionally harrowing documentaries I’ve ever seen. Halfway through I started to get a very very bad feeling. Something was approaching, something unforeseen, something completely unexpected. You could feel it, like the shadow from a cloud. When that “thing” arrives, it is as wrenching as you had feared. Even more so. By the end of the film, I felt like I had been chewed up and spat back out. It is an unforgettable experience.

Directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, Daughter From Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub’s return to Vietnam, after living her entire life in America. She was airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975 (when she was 7 years old) with the so-called “Operation Babylift,” a well-meaning messy program to remove orphans out of Vietnam and find homes in the United States. However, Heidi was not an orphan and many of the children were not orphans, they were given up by their devastated parents who wanted their children out of the country in safety. The entire thing ended up being a bureaucratic nightmare (and, horrifyingly, one of the planes, filled with Vietnamese babies, crashed), once it became apparent that many of the small children were not orphans at all. Some of their parents had been coerced by aid workers to give up their children (and the film-makers have dredged up an extremely sinister clip of footage showing a chirpy American aid worker doing just that).

Heidi was born Mai Thi Hiep. Her father was an unknown American serviceman, and her mother had many other children with another man, a man who had deserted the family and joined the Vietcong. She put her one daughter on that plane: since her daughter was mixed-race, Hiep’s mother feared reprisals from the Vietcong when they finally took over. Hiep was eventually adopted in the States by a single mother (rare, in those days), re-named Heidi, and raised in a small town in Tennessee (the same town, incidentally, which boasts the birth of the KKK). Heidi doesn’t “present” as Vietnamese at all. She “passed,” totally, as a white American, with a thick Southern accent. She was encouraged by her mysterious adoptive mother (not interviewed in the film) to not tell people she was born in Vietnam. “Just say you were born in South Carolina,” says this mysterious woman. What the hell.

Heidi was raised with many advantages and her adoptive family accepted her and loved her. But there are disturbing undercurrents. Heidi never felt loved. She was haunted by her unknown birth family. Her adoptive mother kicked her out of the house for being 10 minutes late for her curfew, and they have never spoken since. There are hints that she beat Heidi, although everyone (including Heidi) seems reluctant to label her as abusive. The love her adoptive mother gave her was completely conditional, and Heidi longed for the unconditional love of her real mother.

Heidi, now married to her high school sweetheart, a Navy officer, with a couple of kids, always yearned for her birth family and wondered who they were. Through various helpful journalists, and contacting the adoption agency, she was able to track down her mother, who still lived in Danang. Accompanied by a journalist, who spoke Vietnamese (Heidi speaks none), Heidi traveled back to Danang for a reunion with her mother and all of her brothers and sisters, still living in Vietnam.

The documentary clearly started out one way and then morphed into something else. That happens sometimes with documentaries, whose stories change mid-way through. A director of mine in college used to say to us, when we were complaining about how a certain show wasn’t what we wanted, or we were disappointed in this or that element: “It may not be the show you want, but it’s the show you got.” The directors here started out to tell the story of one of the orphans from the “Operation Babylift,” and it was ostensibly going to be a moving story about a long-delayed reunion between mother and daughter.

But that is not at all what ends up happening. The reunion scene in the airport was so emotional that I almost felt embarrassed that cameras were present. Heidi’s mother clutched at her daughter, wailing. Heidi, a sweet and polite woman, if a little naive, clutched her mother back, and you could see all of these emotions doing literal battle on Heidi’s face. She had her own emotions but her mother’s swept hers away. It was almost too much pain to be present to. You want to take a step back. But you can’t. This mother gave her daughter up and that fact has haunted her all her life. She says, at one point, “I didn’t want her to think I abandoned her.” Heidi says at one point, before meeting them, and she sounds anxious, “I hope they understand that I am completely Americanized.”

Heidi’s Vietnamese family are very poor but they have strong family bonds. They pull out all the stops to entertain her, putting together gigantic meals, taking her shopping at the market, and going on long walks through the neighborhood where Heidi had been born. These are all very nice people. But as the visit goes on (and it only lasts 7 days), Heidi starts to feel totally smothered. Completely overrun. Disoriented. Upset.

There is a culture clash. An enormous one. One starts to wish that Heidi had been better prepared for what she might run into. The journalist who accompanied her said that she had a feeling it would go the way it did, but she was so taken up with trying to teach minimal Vietnamese to Heidi that she didn’t say anything. It might have been better to skip the language lessons and say, “Here is what they will ask of you. So just be prepared for it.”

When they all, one by one, start asking her for money, start explaining that they expect her to send money back on a monthly basis, that it is now part of her job to help take care of their mother, maybe even move their mother back to the United States with her, Heidi is completely blindsided. It feels like an ambush.

The breakdown that follows is devastating. There is so much in it. Devastation on both sides. It is a train wreck that happens in slo-mo. Nobody is a villain here. Heidi is not an entitled silly American and her Vietnamese family are not rude money-grubbers. It’s a culture clash, that’s all, and the sad thing is that it could have been avoided if both sides had been prepped a bit more. There are glimpses of pain on Heidi’s mother’s face that are so profound you want to look away. And even in the midst of the breakdown in communication, so hurtful to Heidi’s mother, the mother reprimands her husband who criticizes Heidi (in Vietnamese). The mother says to him, “Have some compassion.”

To be able to say that, even as you are faced with all of the losses, and the guilt and the shame, and the disappointments … I mean, this woman’s life is basically ruined through the course of the reunion … It’s just extremely moving.

I wept for all involved. Heidi’s brother (a very kind and sweet man) says later that he feels bad about how it all went down and he is afraid that it made the Vietnamese look bad to Heidi. He says to the interviewer: “I am learning English, so I can write her a letter.”

I’m still crying.

It’s a devastating film. It starts out one way, and then it goes firmly off the rails. It is just one story but you know it is symbolic of many many more. Dolgin and Franco film it all with great sensitivity and compassion, not tipping the scales one way or the other.

I highly recommend it, painful as it is.

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At the 71st VIFF: One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film (2014); directed by Bill Teck

Making its premiere at the 71st Venice International Film Festival is the documentary One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film, about Bogdanovich’s 1981 lost film They All Laughed. I mean, it’s not lost, not really, you can rent it, but for all intents and purposes, it was a lost film. Rarely seen, but influential, and beautiful, They All Laughed is one of Bogdanovich’s best (and for him that’s saying something.)

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Directed by Bill Teck, One Day Since Yesterday is about the filming of They All Laughed, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1981 film, which starred Ben Gazzarra, Audrey Hepburn, John Ritter, Colleen Camp, and many others, including Dorothy Stratten. Stratten was murdered by her husband while Bogdanovich was editing the film. That event (portrayed so memorably and awfully in Bob Fosse’s Star 80) derailed the film, and derailed Bogdanovich’s flourishing career.

The description of the film on the VIFF site runs as follows:

The story of maverick film director Peter Bogdanovich’s love for the late Dorothy Stratten and his “Lost” film They All Laughed. Murdered by her estranged husband as Bogdanovich was editing They All Laughed. This film summons up the romance, heartbreak and devotion present as Bogdanovich bought his film back from the studio when they threatened to shelve it, his efforts to distribute it himself, almost to his own ruin. A real life love story of passion and belief in the power of art. Through the story of Peter’s journey with They All Laughed, the documentary explores all of Bogdanovich’s career and his challenges to see his personal vision vindicated in an era unsympathetic to the bold and unique visions he risked it all on. It’s the story of a lost film, which played the Venice Film Festival in 1981, unavailable in any medium for years and it’s triumphant re-appreciation, championed by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach—and of the sweet, makeshift family that’s sprung up around They All Laughed’s tragedies, bonds still strong even 30 years later. One Day Since Yesterday is a wistful valentine to art, love, loss, redemption and the power of cinema.

Director Bill Teck writes:

For me, the story of Peter Bogdanovich’ devotion to his film They All Laughed and to the late Dorothy Stratten, is one of the most beautiful stories in all of cinema. Bogdanovich loves women and movies, and combined both perfectly in They All Laughed, only to have the woman he loved most stolen by a madman—and the film he loved most, lost to him—before a return to form and redemption for both his great film and his staggering talent. I wanted to make a film about the way we remember things—and the transient nature of the past and how we remember it, using slides, postcards, pieces of film and photos as well an homage to the love of film itself. In a way, Peter is tied to his movie, and good directors are tied to their films like an Aborigine is tied to the earth. So my mission was to make a film to remind an audience that even when things are thought to be forgotten, where there’s Art and True Love, things can’t be truly lost.

I’m proud to have been interviewed for the documentary! I love They All Laughed so much, and am happy to talk about it with anyone, anywhere. And yeah, not too shabby to be in a line-up of interviewees including Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. My pal Jeremy Richey, of Moon In the Gutter and other sites, was also interviewed for the film. Beautifully, Bill Teck also interviewed Ben Gazzara before he passed away.

Bogdanovich has a new film out, also premiering in Venice. I wish I was at the festival!

You can read my posts about They All Laughed here:
The wordless opening sequence
The Algonquin Hotel sequence
QA with Peter Bogdanovich

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 5: “Simon Said”

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Directed by Tim Iacofano
Written by Ben Edlund

Sam: You and I are chosen.
Max: For what?
Sam: I don’t know.
– “Nightmare,” Supernatural, Season 1

“Simon Said” is the only episode from Tim Iacofano, and the first episode written by Ben Edlund, who, naturally, has become a gigantic part of the show, producing, directing, writing, the whole nine yards. Edlund is a thoughtful brainy guy and brings an interesting and contemplative energy to the moral and ethical side of Supernatural, the “Big Question” side.

Sam’s psychic visions, connected to Yellow-Eyes, were set up in Season 1, starting with “Nightmare,” where Sam tried desperately to talk Max, a pained (putting it mildly) telekinetic kid, off the proverbial ledge. “Nightmare” revealed that the powers Sam was “given” were somehow connected to these other kids out there, and it was all somehow connected to the demon.

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An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

I post this every year at the beginning of the school year, in honor of all the teachers out there – the teachers I know, and the teachers I’ve had. Here is my favorite teacher-story of all. You make a difference, teachers. You really do.

An Ode to E.B. White and a Very Special Teacher

Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led to the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
E.B. White, Stuart Little

I have a friend who grew up in a nightmare, surrounded by chaos and abuse. He and his siblings clung to one another through childhood, putting their heads down and enduring the abusive and reckless nuthouse into which they were all born.

This essay is an ode to a teacher. A teacher who saved my friend’s life. She did not drag him from out of a burning house, or leap into a whirlpool to prevent him from drowning, but what she did do was recognize the light within him, his essential self, his sharp intelligence, and she made it her business to protect that light. She made it her business to make sure that that light survived.

My friend is extremely intelligent. His parents did not value this in him. On the contrary, it threatened them. It implicated their ignorance. To add to this, my friend, from a very young age, knew he was “different” from other boys. Somehow. How many other boys enjoyed putting hot-rollers into their sister’s Cher-doll’s hair? How many other boys could recite Meet Me in St. Louis? How many lip-synched to Barbra Streisand albums? He couldn’t put a name to what was different because he was just a little boy. But he knew it was there.

The teasing he got was brutal. Teasing of this particular kind has one goal and one goal only: to crush what is different. The difference in him was like a scent and other kids could smell it. His father could smell it. To avoid the terror that school had become, he would stay home from school playing with his sister’s Barbies.

The little boy reached the second grade. He had already learned some very hard lessons. He had already experienced cruelty, betrayal, fear. All of the cards were stacked against this person, and the end of his story could have been a terrible one, were it not for his second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Scofield.

I did not meet the “little boy” until college when we became fast friends, and in my view, Miss Scofield was directly responsible for the fact that he actually went to college (the first one in his family to do so), that he broke the expected pattern of his life and got out, saying No to what seemed to be his logical fate.

What did Miss Scofield do to accomplish this? It’s very simple. She read E.B. White’s Stuart Little to the class.

And my friend, then seven years old, had what can only be described as a life-changing experience, listening to her read that book.

Stuart Little is a mouse, born to human parents. Everyone is confused by him. “Where the heck did he come from?” My friend, a little boy who was so “different” he might as well have been a mouse born to human parents, a little boy who was, indeed, smaller than everybody else in the class, listened to the story unfold, agog, his soul opening to its implications.

First of all, for the first time, he really got reading. By this I mean the importance, and the excitement, of language. Language can create new and better worlds in your head. Language is a way out. To this day, my friend is a voracious reader. I will never forget living with him while he was reading Magic Mountain. We lived in a one-room apartment, and so if I wanted to go to sleep and turn the lights off, my friend would take a pillow into the bathroom, shut the door, curl up on the bathmat, and read Magic Mountain long into the night. I believe that this voraciousness is a direct result of Miss Scofield reading Stuart Little to the class.

It had to be that particular book, too. Stuart Little is “different”. Just like my friend was “different”. In hearing the words of that story, my friend rose above the pain, the torture, the abuse, and realized that there were others out there who were “different” too, and that different was good!

His major revelation was this: Stuart Little’s small-ness ends up being his greatest asset. That which seemed like the biggest strike against him is not at all in the end! My friend, in his seven-year-old epiphany, embraced his size. Small didn’t mean weak. Not at all.

Somewhere, in his child-like soul, he knew he was gay although he did not have a word for it. It wasn’t a sexual orientation so much at that time, but a sensibility. He wasn’t like the other boys. He didn’t know yet what that would mean for him, in his life, but it certainly isolated him at school, and it isolated him at home. Hearing about the adventures of Stuart Little my friend realized that the life that he was living right at that moment, the narrow circle of endurance, did not have to be his life. He suddenly knew, for the first time ever, that everything was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.

As Miss Scofield read the story to the class, my friend had the unmistakable sensation that she was reading it directly to him, and only to him. It was such a strong feeling that he was able to describe it to me vividly, years and years later. The rest of the class fell away, and it was as though she had singled him out and was trying to give him a message of some sort, through the words of E.B. White. That book was for him, and for him alone.

By the time high school came around, my friend had learned that wit was the best defense against teasing. His humor, his sarcasm, became his armor, and it also was the way he made friends. In a very short time, he acquired a Praetorian guard of sorts, high school football players, who thought he was hilarious, and who protected him in the locker room, pushing anyone off who tried to mess with him.

His high school friends, all intelligent, artistic, interesting people, pushed him to apply to college, because they all were applying to college. So he applied to college. He got in. He went to college. He graduated college.

Years later, many years after college, he ran into Miss Scofield in a breakfast restaurant in Rhode Island.

She (a teacher to the core) recognized him immediately even as a grown man. She said, “My goodness – it is so wonderful to see you! I have heard so many wonderful things about what you are up to – how are you?”

They talked for a while. He caught her up on his life and she listened and supported him. She still was invested in what had happened to that small special boy from her classroom many many years before.

Then, in a burst of open-ness, my friend said to her, kind of blowing it off, laughing at himself, “You know … this is kind of silly … but I want to tell you – that I remember so vividly you reading Stuart Little to the class. It had a huge impact on my life … and … I know it’s crazy and everything, but at the time, I truly had the feeling that you were reading it just to me.”

Miss Scofield looked at him then, smiled, and said, “I was.”

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New Trailer For New Series, Transparent

The new series called Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Gaby Hoffman, and others, will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Sept. 26. And above, check out the new trailer for it. Beautiful and emotional. It’s already killing me! It looks wonderful.

Glimpse of my great friend Alexandra Billings (who is in the cast) at 1:57, clinking glasses with two other women (she’s in the middle).

I can’t wait to see it.

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Last Weekend (2014)

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My first review for the wonderful film site The Dissolve went up today. The Dissolve is a relatively new site, but they have an amazing stable of writers as well as an incredible community of commenters. Knowledgeable, positive, great discussions and disagreements, civil and fun. The Dissolve has been doing great things, reviews, features, round-tables. Very pleased to be doing some stuff for them.

I wish Last Weekend, starring Patricia Clarkson, was better, however. Oy.

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Shakespeare at Fenway

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, out of Boston, is kicking off their 20th anniversary season with an evening of William Shakespeare at Fenway Park: September 19, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.

With not one, but two, O’Malley cousins on the bill.

Because that’s just good and right.

Unfortunately, I can’t go, but ticket information is here, Bostonians. It looks like it’s going to be a great night.

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Late Summer Shuffle

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That is an untouched photo from my day at the beach yesterday. Black sky out at sea, sunshine behind me. The effects were incredible. The water blazing green and silver. The water was warm. The waves were huge. I spent two hours thrashing in the waves, being tossed about, under the watchful eye of the lifeguards. There were only a couple of us brave enough to go in. It was heaven. Waves crashed in, on a diagonal, so the currents were foam-y and crazy, you couldn’t predict which way you’d be thrown about. I’d emerge, rest up, read my book, gawk at the spectacular sky stuff going on, and then run back in the waves. I needed it. Last week was non-stop. Here’s the music I listened on my multiple drives down to the beach this week.I always love to hear people talk about music, their reactions to this or that artist, their favorite tracks. It’s always fun. Anyway. Here it is.

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10 Years of Sunset Gun

Kim Morgan’s great site Sunset Gun turned 10 years old this August (a nice dovetail with Dorothy Parker’s recent birthday as well). Kim, who is one of the best writers working today, celebrates the moment by re-visiting the topic of her very first post, The Bad Seed.

Her writing has enriched my life. Seriously. It’s strange: I discovered her long before I discovered her site. As a matter of fact, the first piece I read by her (in Salon.com) went up before Sunset Gun came to life. The piece made such an impression on me that I printed it out. It was in a more innocent time where I still was devoted to having hard copies of things I felt were important.

Thanks be to archives, that piece, about the “barrel-chested man”, is now available via Salon’s archives. You can feel both the authority and the emotion in her voice. Her voice is unique. There is no other voice like it. It struck me immediately as someone I wanted to listen to.

Years later, I discovered her bright pink site (I can’t remember the first piece I read), and it would be awhile before I put it together – that this woman was the same woman who wrote that Salon piece I loved so much. When I figured it out, I thought to myself, “Of course. Of course. I would recognize that voice in a dark alley.”

Her topics are wide and deep. She writes about music (she’s written pieces on Dale Hawkins and Link Wray that are high watermarks for me), but also about film and actors. Her essay on the great Warren Oates is essential. And words can’t express how excited I am to see her video-essay on Oates in Criterion’s upcoming release of Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Kim gets Warren Oates like no other!

It’s rare that you discover a new writer who is actually exciting. I can count those instances on one hand. Kim Morgan is at the top of the list.

Happy birthday, Sunset Gun!

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The Best Concert Movies Ever Made

… in honor of Woodstock, which recently had its 45th anniversary, Jason Bailey at Flavorwire has put together a list of the 45 Greatest Concert Movies Ever Made.

I liked the brief paragraph describing Gimme Shelter:

In another — and much grislier — case of a documentary film crew getting more than they bargained for, the Maysles Brothers figured they were just doing an on-the-road rock doc. But the Altamont Free Concert wasn’t just the end of the Stones’ 1969 US tour; it was, for many, the end of the ‘60s, a woozy bad-vibes fest that culminated with the killing (caught on camera) of a festivalgoer by the Hell’s Angels. It’s a harrowing film, but not just in that moment; the Maysles make the viewers breathe in Altamont’s sinister air, the darkness tingeing the frame, the music, the fans, and the moment.

I re-watched that film recently and yes, harrowing is the word for it. That final freeze-frame of Jagger’s face, used by Criterion as the cover-image on their release of the film. Incredible.

And of course I’m thrilled at #43 and #16 on the list. Yes, yes, and yes.

Posted in Music | 16 Comments