Pandora’s Promise is an exposé on the past and future of nuclear energy that readjusts a lot of public assumptions in a rather explosive way. By featuring a coterie of respected, world-renowned environmentalists who have had a change of heart on the issue, the film, although clearly on the pro side of the debate, shines light on a paradigm shift afoot. The crux of its argument is “to be anti-nuclear is to be in favor of using fossil fuel.” In other words, despite all the strides made towards renewable energy sources, we remain mired in the climate-destroying reality of oil and coal usage for energy production and this state of affairs is not tenable from any perspective. The film astutely observes that nuclear power has been forever imprinted into the public’s psyche as a “weapon we feel badly about” and seeks to destigmatize it, remove it from its Armageddon-esque milieu, and put it in a different and less malevolent context.
Pandora’s Promise does rely a bit heavily on the “if these environmentalists and scientists had a change of heart, does that not indicate the general public should as well” persuasion tactic. The film features appearances from Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Mark Lynas (formerly of Earth First and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), and Gwyneth Cravens (Power to Save the World). It also has references to extra star power for added ammunition – Richard Branson and Microsoft’s Paul Allen have joined in – and Bill Gates has formed a nuclear power company that is working on a reactor for use in the developing world. Nonetheless, it occasionally veers into the territory of portraying the anti-nuclear movement as stodgy fear- mongers in a rather sweeping sense.
The documentary thoroughly covers the history of the use of nuclear energy, bringing in many of the original nuclear scientists to speak about its development. Charles Till explains that in the 50s, two types of nuclear reactors were being developed: the breeder reactor, which breeds plutonium and recycles it, and the light water reactor, which creates much more waste. The selection of the light water reactor to use as a commercial reactor appears to have been made very short-sightedly and, not surprisingly, not by a scientist but by a military official. Since then, technology has progressed in a significant sense with many breeder reactors built successfully and progressing to a third generation reactor which recycles all waste. More importantly, disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now much more preventable by implementing containment chambers and adequate cooling systems. The film also brings up a lot of lesser-known examples of how political pressure and public opinion has prevented a lot of facilities from opening—for example, a nuclear waste storage facility was constructed in Nevada and never used, despite the success of other such pilot projects in New Mexico. There were other plants which were built and never went into operation; the Integral Fast Reactor program was shut down. The main point of Pandora’s Promise is that not until recently has it become apparent how huge the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is. Electricity is the one thing that causes the most significant improvement in the quality of life. With the growing development of the “Global South,” the need for energy is only expected to rise; energy consumption of the planet is expected to double by 2050. Use of coal is, shockingly, accelerating and it has cemented its role as both the most common source of energy and the fastest growing. The environmental effects of this fact are clearly destructive. One pound uranium is the equivalent of 5000 barrels of oil in energy output. Thus, it quickly becomes apparent why nuclear energy is viewed as “clean and efficient.” The film brings up the example of France which derives nearly 80% of its energy from nuclear power, has the cheapest energy in Europe, and the lowest carbon dioxide emissions. The film stumbles when it addresses the specter of nuclear accidents and the eerie aftermath of contamination for generations, glossing over the dangers in a rather dismissive way. It argues that in terms of the mortality rate, nuclear is the safest industry, second only to wind. The assertion about Chernobyl and Fukushima that “there were so few casualties,” may be factually true but it does not really address the afterlife of radiation and its health risks. The assertion that “only” plutonium is long-lived and that nuclear waste is volumetrically non-significant (e.g. all the fuel rods could be fitted into a football field) is meant to assuage fears yet is not explored as in-depth as it could have. Director Robert Stone relies on many detonative revelations to make a very compelling case for nuclear energy. The presence of environmentalists advocating for it certainly gives its credibility a strong boost. The assumptions we have held to be true for so long will indeed need some processing before they can be dispatched away as “we were wrong.” A more measured response might be that global warming is a serious threat and nuclear energy certainly poses a very promising solution, but one can’t help but feel as though it is a solution *only* because of our insatiable energy thirst and its ensuing pollution. With technical advances, the risk of accidents and toxic waste leaks is also decreasing; nevertheless, it will take some time before the general public can be thoroughly at ease about it. When Stone asks Lynas if he is still pro-nuclear when he visits Fukushima, his retort back to Robert Stone, “Are *you* still pro nuclear?” is not exactly entirely fear-allaying.
In some ways, Disconnect, the new film by Murderball director Henry Alex Rubin, is American Beauty for our wired world, an arresting look at the complicated entanglements that technology can create. Merely calling it a cautionary tale about the dangers of the big bad Internet would be reductionistic, however–sure, none of the calamities that befall people in the movie are terribly novel and, in fact, seem directly plucked out of headlines, but it’s the acting that lends a very human touch to what could have otherwise run as a public service announcement. The film’s title could be interpreted as a reference to the disconnect and alienation the characters feel from each other and for the need for all of them to simply click the log-off button and disconnect from the webs they are so inexorably captured in.
Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) are a married couple still mourning the loss of their baby. Their relationship strained by Derek’s stoic way of dealing with it (think the very male “I don’t want to talk about it” scenario), Cindy turns to an online support group for help, developing a cyber friendship with a man. When all of their assets are stolen by an identity thief and they seek to find the culprit, they are forced to face their own estrangement. This is one place where the movie mildly sputters, especially on the technological tip. For example, the private investigator tells them that this person “knows everything about you,” as though the fact that the thief has their vacation pictures is of the most relevance here when he has emptied out their bank accounts. Also, the explanation for how one can get a credit card number on the Internet and how a “Trojan” works was ham-handed at best and seemingly aimed at an audience that apparently has yet to learn what the definition of phishing is. The typing out of chat conversations on screen is also a bit clunky.
Jason Bateman turns in a compelling performance as a high-powered/Blackberry-indentured lawyer, oblivious to what is going on in his son’s life. When his son is the victim of cyber bullying, he plunges into a world of self-condemnation and guilt and turns to Facebook, ironically the very source of the tragedy, to “get to know” his son. Frank Grillo plays the overwrought father of Jason, the cyber bully. The film does a good job of showing how bully behavior is often a learned behavior and one that has roots at home. It also excellently portrays the vicious mean boys/mean girls school environment today’s youth have to contend with.
Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a career-minded, unscrupulous TV reporter who convinces Kyle (Max Thieriot), an 18-year-old webcam model, to participate in her piece on the underage sex webcam industry. Initially, she appears to mean well, but quickly finds herself way in over her head and her motives become increasingly loathsome and self-serving. She uses Kyle to further her career yet does nothing to really extricate him from the life he is trapped in, especially when her actions literally endanger his life.
Disconnect thrums with suspense and maintains an undercurrent of threat to the very end. The acting is engrossing even though the character development leaves a bit to be desired. Ultimately, it does a good job of portraying just how elusive “reality” is starting to become in the superficial world of Facebook and social networking. Are the characters revealing their true selves and unspoken truths when shielded behind a screen or are they acting out an alternate identity in the digital playground? And while they somehow manage to weave their way back towards at each other, the costs are undoubtedly high. Disconnect manages to avoid the pitfall of being overly didactic and preachy, even if the subject matter could have been something plucked out of cyber security awareness month brochure.
The silver linings abound in the impossibly endearing Silver Linings Playbook, a glorious mash-up of a mental health issues-rom-com film that is far too cheeky and whip smart to, surprisingly, be a mainstream release. Director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I ♥ Huckabees, The Fighter) adapts Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel about a down-on-his-luck former high school teacher fresh out of a month stint in a mental health hospital. Hell-bent on “winning back” his estranged, restraining-order-wielding wife, Pat (Bradley Cooper) is staging a Rocky-like comeback physically (complete with jogging with a garbage bag on top of his running clothes so he can sweat more) and mentally, by reading his way through the high school English syllabus. Oh, and there is this “dance thing” too that he has agreed to do with the self-described “crazy slut with a dead husband” Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). While Silver Linings Playbook does rely on some tried and tested rom com tropes, this is a far cry from jam-in-every-underdog-story-cliche film.
The family interaction in Silver Linings Playbook strongly parallels the one in The Fighter. Screaming is abound, whether boisterous or bellicose, and the love for the Philadelphia Eagles binds and breaks and is the sports grease that oils the family emotional machine. Jackie Warner’s pacifist mother character is instantly likable. DeNiro brings in his Meet The Parents experience to bear, playing Pat Sr. with impeccable comedic timing. Much ado about something and nothing, obsessive sports betting, and idiosyncracies aside, the take away message is this is one crazy and crazily non-dysfunctional family that loves each other.
And speaking of crazy, Bradley Cooper channels his ADD-addledom from Limitless with excellent aplomb here, and it serves him well in bringing Pat’s manic moments to life. His portrayal of Pat as a “normal” guy who is humbled by the realization that he has struggled with bipolar disorder for a really long time is thoroughly disarming and easily one of Cooper’s finest characterizations to date. And while mental health issues are handled with enough gravitas in the film, there is also room for plenty of good-natured ribbing, as in the scene where Tiffany and Pat rattle off all the meds they have been on and the fun factor of each of them. Anupam Kher’s turn as Pat’s football-loving shrink Dr. Patel is pure comedic gold, even if it is not terribly true to DSM guidelines (I mean, when is the last time a shrink played a song to “test” whether it would set a patient off, without warning the patient). Pat’s constant riffing on the theme of positivity (Excelsior!=Ever Upward!) is equal parts funny and terribly true to the often mind-numbing platitudes patients in therapy are to “realize.” Speaking of therapy, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as “damaged girl” Tiffany, with its perfect balance of toughness and vulnerability, is a testament to the actress’s maturity and range. The relationship between Pat and Tiffany is sort of like a a more G version of the one between Marla Singer and Jack in Fight Club, with its wry sarcastic repartee and heart-warming “out-crazy-ing” each other moments. Apparently having poor filters makes for some seriously enjoyable dialogue. And of course, the age old romcom trope of “the dance contest that brings everyone together” is yes, pretty recognizable, but what’s a little Dancing With The Starsaction to propel the plot forward but forgivable and fun.
Silver Linings Playbook has plenty of Catcher In The Rye-worthy ruminations. When Tiffany points out that their craziness is what makes them real unlike the other fake people, one can definitely hear Holden Caulfield talking about phonies. And though there is enough here to ruminate on, the levity abounds, the dialogue sparkles, and one would have to try very hard to not thoroughly enjoy this movie.
My Review of Liberal Arts Josh Radnor‘s debut film Happythankyoumoreplease flipped the hipster/indie rom-com formula on its head in the most endearing of ways. Liberal Arts, his sophomore effort as writer-director-stars, stumbles in ways his debut did not, occasionally treading too close to contrived territory but ultimately delivering an enjoyable film. Radnor plays Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions counselor in New York, who gets a call from his favorite college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), asking if he’ll come back to campus and speak at the professor’s retirement party. And so begins the nostalgic trip that ultimately turns out to be a progression through a regression, if you follow.
On this jaunt, he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore with whom he forms an unlikely connection once she gives him a mix CD of classical music from a survey class she took that “changed her life” by her own admission (groan). Before you roll your eyes at the predictability of it, this sentiment is at the core of the bookishness bend of Liberal Arts. Radnor does an amazing job of portraying the wide-eyed intellectual revelry that still remains the best part about college. As Jesse tells Dean (John Magaro), a student less enthusiastic about the college life than him, “it’s the only time you get to do this. Sit around, read books all day, have great conversations about ideas. People out in the world… they are not really doing that.” The romance between Jesse and Zibby blossoms through the old-fashioned medium of writing letters to each other (in line with Jesse’s love affair with the British Romantics) and make for some light, mirthful moments. As it develops, however, the coming-of-age issues bring about a pretty strong element of discomfort, if not downright cringe-inducing dialogue, when Zibby wants to take their relationship into intimate territory. Oddly enough, once the absurdity of falling for a girl 16 years his junior dawns on Jesse, does he realize Zibby may not be the only one with some growing up to do and that he needs to get back to adulthood. The comedic elements in Liberal Arts are to be found in some interesting places–such as Zac Efron’s turn as a tree-hugging hippie guru who spouts aphorisms like “There is no reason to be afraid because everything is OK.” Jesse’s friendship with Dean, the depressed student writer he meets at the college, also allows Radnor to hash out the theme of Liberal Arts: as great as college is, growing up is not all that bad either. Their interaction yields some of the more clever lines from the film: “I am taking you off post-modernists. There are these vampire books. They will empty your mind completely.” Jesse’s line about “stumbling into something like contentment” rings especially true of adulthood. Maybe not all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s necessarily cause for nostalgia’ing one’s college years as the only good time in one’s life. Radnor’s dialogue comes off fairly ham-handed at times, but the message is definitely a positive one.
If one can get past the romantic relationship [funny, since this is supposedly a rom-com] which is too cringe-inducing at times, the supporting roles are compelling and amusing in a droll sort of way. Radnor has a knack for imbuing his films with enough nerdishness to appeal to the English majors in all of us and as such, his films are well…heart-warming while avoiding maudlin territory for the most part, even if he does tread dangerously close to it occasionally.
My review of the movie Kumare At first glance, Kumare, a documentary that bills itself as “the true story of a false prophet,” appears take a page out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative oeuvre. How pleasantly surprising that this is not the case. Not only is Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist, significantly bolder in riling up a veritable hornet’s nest of hot-button issues, especially the big R-eligion, but he does away with borderline-mean-spirited snark in favor of a thoughtful presentation of a very relevant and timely social experiment. Kumare is an inquiry into the nature of faith. Jersey-born, Brooklyn film maker Vikram Gandhi sets out to find out if there is a real-deal guru out there by impersonating one. His travels through India and study of religion in college do not bring him any closer to answers and instead reaffirm the idea that the gurus he encounters are egocentric, profit-minded, interested only in “out-guruing one another,” self-aggrandizing, and downright manipulative. He recalls the peacefulness emanating from his Grandma when she prayed and wonders about the source of that feeling. Thus, Kumare is born. Growing out his hair and beard, donning orange robes and an ornate walking staff, Gandhi transforms himself into a guru, modeling his accent after his Grandma’s. As any spiritual leader worth his salt, he heads into the desert. Phoenix, Arizona, to be precise.
Kumare refreshingly works on two levels—in one sense, it pokes fun of the power of hype in building a mythos and get followers by merely surrounding oneself with the trappings of spiritualism—namely yoga moves, vague-sounding-enough platitudes, and a publicist. At the same time, however, Gandhi has clearly done his homework. Before he invents his made-up yoga hand-wind-milling bogus poses, he ostensibly has learned the real ones. His blue light meditation seems to have some roots in visualization meditation techniques. In other words, to learn how to be fake, he has to learn what passes for real first? What shines through most in the film is that instead of being an expose on the dark underside of America’s billion-dollar-industry quest for spirituality-in-a-box quick fixes [the yoga “industry” as one major example], it is ultimately a story about humans and our basic search for a connection. Kumare’s disciples are people one could relate to—a death penalty attorney, a single mom with an empty nest syndrome, and a former cocaine addict/real estate agent. And like everyday people, they are looking for someone “with knowledge” to be the barometer/sign post for their own life’s direction. In other words, they need someone to tell them what to do and more importantly, make them believe that he knows more than they do so they feel confident in following his advice. There is the rub—Kumare’s ultimate message, revealed on his “The Great Unveiling Day,” is that the guru is within all of us. While not particularly ground-breaking, it is nevertheless, an often forgotten mantra. Instead of focusing on the more selfish, “just do what you want,” aspect of it, however, it is more along the lines of, “nobody knows much about anything, even if he calls himself a guru. Maybe especially so.” To Gandhi’s credit, while the movie features some chuckle-worthy moments [as in when he meets a woman who espouse the visualization technique of making your wishes come true by gluing pictures of cars and money on her “desire board”], it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative as it could have considering its snake oil salesman premise. There are also a couple of jabs in the film at the cultural appropriation nuances that come along with the West’s fascination with India and its yogic culture—as in, Kumare is revered by virtue of his being from India alone [as opposed to an American-born Indian from Jersey]. Gandhi genuinely starts caring for his “followers,” and ends up having a positive impact on their lives. His own journey throughout the film is also very compelling. Ultimately, the phrase “fumbling toward ecstasy” rings true. His disciples really just need someone to listen to them and pay attention and as such, Kumare is a trenchant commentary on the disenfranchisement that is pervasive throughout society and the distance between people that pushes them to seek that special contact and meaning that could just as easily come from another human being or oneself from a more mystical source.
My review of China Heavyweight China Heavyweight, a documentary by Yung Chang [Up The Yangtze], is a glimpse into the burgeoning popularity of boxing, a sport that had been banned by Mao. While the extensive footage of boxing training harkens a bit to other underdog stories like The Boxer and other recognizable sports tropes, China Heavyweight is very firmly grounded in its setting and provides an interesting look into an unfamiliar social landscape. Set at a boxing school in the Sichuan province, the film follows two teenagers, Miao Yunfei and He Zongli. Their trainer is Qi Moxiang, a former professional boxer who still harbors dreams of returning to the ring despite being in his thirties. Without offering any extra commentary, it takes us deeply into the world of Confucianism-informed Asian culture through the eyes of the two teenagers and their interaction with their parents. While boxing is portrayed as a way out of their parents’ very hard life of being a tobacco farmer, we get the sense that boxing is also something that is not done for personal glory but for the greater community. The coaches frequently reference that boxing is what elevates you from your “Mother’s son” to a “son of the people.” Lofty ideals like bringing pride to your family and community, brushing shoulders with the very Confucian values of humility and honoring your elders.
“We have to be modest at all times,” repeats the father of one of the boys while remarking that he had heard people say his son is a great boxer. Yunfei Mao idolizes Mike Tyson and “the great ambience and the grand entrance” of professional boxing, yet respects his parents enough to give up his dream. China Heavyweight is also a poignant look into the highs-and-lows of a very brutal sport and the paternal relationship between the coaches and the boxers. “You must persevere because I believe in you,” says Qi to his young charge, yet when the talented boxer must leave training, he offers lifelong help to him, regardless of the loss to the school. China Heavyweight is also interesting in its portrayal of how boxing fits within a very unfamiliar to the West social milieu. We are offered brief glimpses into political leaders taking an interest in the goings-on from the perspective of recruiting successful Olympics athletes. Much more interestingly, however, the sport appears to have a tremendous mass appeal despite its very Western origin. The film does not really explore that aspect much, instead focusing on the fighters themselves, but it would have certainly added much value. Another loss is we do not learn much about the teenage girls that are also recruited into these boxing schools and who undergo similar training. There was a story there that remained untold. Ultimately, a very universal, non-Western sentiment emerges from China Heavyweight. Boxing is about “not being afraid of losing” and “the more you fail, the more courageous you become.” The very non-goal/non-individual-focused ethos makes this documentary a refreshing departure from other pugilistic films and one definitely worth seeing, especially with its sweeping, beautiful shots of the mountain areas of China and subdued cinema-verite style. While the pacing drags at times, there is enough to the premise and its setting to make it a film worth checking out.
Local filmmaker Rohit Colin Rao, the writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer/musician behind the remarkable film Ultrasonic sat down with BYT to talk about his second feature, a true labor of love. The film is a compelling, hypnotic homage to chiaroscuro, shot in black and white, with occasional flourishes of sepia tones, and its adept use of depth-of-field camera work recalls a certain Drive-esque sensibility. While harkening to the conspiracy-thriller aesthetics of Pi, Ultrasonic’s cinematography is not frenetic and claustrophobic. It lends itself seamlessly to the purposely-ambiguous narrative arc–the smoke and mirrors aspect of “reality” and “normalcy.” Is the protagonist Simon really hearing a noise no one else can hear [ha] or is it all in his head? Rao does a superb job of writing a script that allows that ambivalence to linger without resorting to heavy-handed, beat-the-audience-over-the-head tactics. Ultrasonic is a story of one man’s isolation and a testament to tenuous nature of reality. It’s engrossing and moody but never sinister. Rao’s love for DC is palpable in his selection of locations to shoot–with nary a “DC landmark” in sight, this is what our city really looks like at night, with shadows moving in waves, falling away then taking over. The brilliant soundtrack adds an extra element to the milieu, the hum inside Simon’s head resembling the undercurrent of threat that underpins the film.
1. Could you please talk a little about your background? How difficult was it to shoot a feature, from a logistical perspective, especially in DC, a place not normally associated with movie-making? Well, I made my first short film when I was 24. It was called Blocks. I made another one a year later called Someone and Someone, Inc. Since then, aside from my day job, I focused on my bands and songwriting, until of course 2010 when I picked up the Canon T2i. Regarding how difficult it was to shoot this feature… I’m not trying to deter anyone from doing this, in fact I think that anyone with a real desire to make a feature should stop reading this and go out and start it now. But, this thing almost broke me. I was a walking shell of a human being by the end of this process. Logistically, it was a bit more difficult to get started in DC, specifically because the pool of cast and crew is smaller than someplace like LA or NY. In the beginning, it was four of us that were the team that was going to make this happen. Mario (sound recordist), Mike (my co-writer and script supervisor), Tayne (art direction, key grip, all around go-to guy) and myself. I was the only one who had been on a set before, so I knew there was going to be a learning curve there. I didn’t believe I could get it all done without having at least one more person on set who has been on a crew before. I was lucky to be referred to Nabou, who ended up producing the film with me. Nabou has her MFA in Film Studies from Chapman University and understood all the ins and outs of how a production should run, so I was able to breathe easier knowing things like the script breakdown and schedule could be taken off my plate. Finally, I was lucky to find Liza Gipsova, an American University film grad, who had run camera on sets before and came on board as my Assistant Camera and Gaffer. With the three of us having on-set experience, it became clear to me that we had a small but competent and committed team of people and could really do something potentially big here. 2. The cinematography in the movie is spectacular. Could you talk a little bit about the conscious choice you made in shooting the movie in black-and-white/sepia tones? There is also really interesting use of the depth of field/focus–was this with the intention of creating the claustrophobic/tense atmosphere of the movie? Thanks. The cinematography was one of the pieces that was on the forefront of my mind from the start. One of the things I knew I wanted for the film was for it to be visually striking. Once I bought the camera, I started shooting a LOT of test footage, and doing various color grades on them. I bought the camera before we wrote the script, so I used the entire time we were writing the script to learn the camera and its idiosyncracies, and to also figure out what I wanted the color palette to look like. Ultrasonic was always meant to be a color film, right up to about a month before I finished post-production. I had a really sweet color scheme of deep reds and greens that I felt would be perfect for the film. However, as with just about everything else with this movie, the B&W decision came from a limitation of budget. I didn’t have the money to buy or rent a decent color grading monitor, and without it, I would have had a nearly impossible time matching color between cuts/shots, so I started thinking of other options. Straight Black and White was an option, and I was messing with the B&W contrast one night when the tv was on, and on came Sin City. I really liked his use of yellow in the highlights so I started playing around in Apple Color and was able to push some yellow through in the post-color part that comes through in the highlights nicely. It met my “visually striking” requirement, so Ultrasonic became black and white. The focus issue was a different choice altogether. During my testing-the-camera phase, I realized that the focus ring on these cameras is really difficult to use accurately. A change in focus from one point to another would be something like a few millimeters shift in the focus ring, and to do that in the middle of a shot, especially with a moving shot, would prove incredibly difficult. So I decided to use the out of focus look as-is. There are a few shots where I had the subject walk to their mark, and rather than following focus, I just left them blurry in the background until they got to their mark when the essentially “walked into focus.” I think it worked. I hope it worked.
3. Talk a little bit about the more “banal” logistics of making the movie–getting permits to shoot on the Metro, casting actors, budget? After the script was done, I began the process of looking for actors. Mike and I went to this mass-audition called Stonehenge in Baltimore. I didn’t get much of an idea of actors who would be good for the parts from that, so I decided to hold a casting call of our own. We had the call early in November 2010, and had over 100 actors show up to audition throughout the day. By the end of the day, we had pretty much everyone cast but Simon. I was interested in this one guy and started talks with him about it. He was good, but ultimately I’m glad it didn’t work out with him as Ultrasonic would have been a much different film than it was. A couple of weeks later, Mamoy, my bassist (who you see playing bass in the opening credits of the film), texted me and asked if I was still looking for actors and that he had run into someone at a party who would like to audition. I told him we had everything cast but the main role, and he was welcome to come audition for it. Enter Silas; he came and read with Cate (Ruth), as she had already been cast. He nailed it. My big thing with all the actors was that I really wanted their performances to be subdued (well, except Jonas). 4. The sensibilities of Ultrasonic are very Pi-like. Did Pi influence you? You know, I think I’m subconsciously influenced by it more than I know. I’m starting to get the Pi reference kinda regularly. I watched Pi on opening night at the now-defunct Outer Circle on Wisconsin Avenue. Damn if I wasn’t blown away by it. Aronofsky immediately became one of my favorite directors. Interestingly enough, though, I feel that I’ve been more influenced by his later films than by Pi. Requiem for a Dream kicked my ass. Then I watched Black Swan in the theater with Tayne about three weeks before filming Ultrasonic and that kicked my ass even harder! I remember coming home and being suuuper depressed because of how good it was and what I felt I had to live up to. Anyway, I think there’s definitely some latent Pi influence going on though, because it seems a lot of people are seeing that correlation. I will say I know one thing for a fact that was a conscious influence on me was Clint Mansell’s scores. I first noticed it in Pi but it was so incredible in Requiem, that it made me realize the importance of score in a film, and that a score can actually help shape whether a film is good or not, as well as shape the audience’s reaction to what is going on on-screen. 5. How did you initially come up with the story for the movie? Were you at all interested in conspiracy theories before? When I made the decision to make the film, I contacted two writing buddies of mine, Mike Maguire and Chris Peloso. We met at the bar at Clydes in Rockville and from the first meeting, began throwing out ideas. I had just moved back from Seattle where I lived for about three years. We moved there in the summer, which was amazing. Crisp, no humidity, everyone out and about, everyone nice… it was awesome. My neighbor, and future Translucents guitarist Ryan, warned me about the coming winter. He said, “It doesn’t get cold, but the low cloud-cover and the rain… it messes with your mind.” The rains came in October and I remember thinking it was no big deal. Come November, I had gone crazy… well, relatively. A weird paranoia set in. It got so bad I began to see a therapist who put me on Paxil. Paxil helped but it made me feel not quite like myself, so I stopped taking it. It did take away the feelings of paranoia though, and the feeling that someone was following me, etc.. Over the next couple of years, I learned to deal with the winter there, but man, it was a psychological trip, to say the least. Anyway, so when I met with Mike and Chris, we had initially come up with a story about a musician who had figured out a formula to write the perfect song, but the more we talked, the more I found us discussing a lot of these ideas of paranoia and such. I never told them about the Paxil, I don’t think I did anyway, but I did tell them a little about what I went through during that time. I’m not really into conspiracy theories, but I’m definitely interested in the psychological disorder part of the story. That’s really what I think the storyline is about, it’s about Simon’s state of mind, as opposed to the conspiracy. 6. Did you have to do research on the psychological causes of auditory hallucinations [which are actually very common for people under stress]? No, not really. We made all that up. I never had auditory hallucinations during that period, it was more just an idea that we liked that we went with. 7. The music for the movie was entirely composed by you. Was it difficult for you to wear so many hats in making this? Could you discuss your music background a little bit? Yeah, I scored the film, and the rock songs in the film are by my band in Seattle, The Translucents, and the band I started when I moved here, Tigertronic. Initially, Tigertronic was going to write the entire soundtrack, but Mario was called to Honduras on account of his father being ill, and ended up not being able to produce the thing. There are two main piano lines in the film that I had come up with during pre-production that I knew I wanted to use, so I began to think of ways to turn those licks into songs, without having someone who could produce a live band playing it. The answer came in a small $60 piece of beat-slicing software called Renoise. I had been messing with it for a while, and decided to pull in the piano loops and put some beats on it myself. In the late ’90s, I became a bit fixated on how Aphex Twin got his beats to be so fast, so “ripped,” and it wasn’t until I found Renoise that I understood how he did it. It also wasn’t until I found Renoise that I began enjoying making electronic music. Anyway, so I pulled the analog piano loops into Renoise, and started slicing beats to it. The sound I was getting from it sounded insane (to me), so I decided to continue and do the entire score that way. The beats ended up adding a complexity and frenetic quality to the soundtrack that I really fell in love with. As far as my musical background goes, music is my first love. I studied classical violin for about 10 years until my sophomore year in high school when I traded my violin for an electric guitar. That’s around the time I began making music with my buddies, with whom I used to sneak off to watch shows. Dischord Records is all I can say about that period of my life (well, and DeSoto records). Fugazi with The MakeUp at Fort Reno Park in ’96 will forever be etched in my brain. Jawbox was (and in a lot of ways will always be) my favorite band. I wanted to be Bill Barbot. The band we started was called Substationine, and we decided to create a zine. The farthest I got with the zine was to do an interview with Bill Barbot and Kim Colletta backstage at a University of Maryland show they did. Anyway, music is a form of expression that I hope to continue making for the rest of my life. 8. Discuss your relationship with DC as a setting. Clearly, it lends itself especially well to the “conspiracy theory” angle of the film, but you shoot in neighborhoody DC and the film runs like it was shot by someone in love with his city. I do love DC. I grew up in Silver Spring and went to high school in Takoma Park in the early ’90s. My first trip to the city as a teenager, without my parents, was with a couple of buddies from school. We told our parents we were going to “Physics is Phun” at UMCP for extra credit, and instead we went to see this band called “Therapy?” at the original 9:30 Club on F street. I was 16 years old. I remember walking up to the door and seeing the “9:30” on the window above the door. It’s still so vivid in my mind. We watched the show, hung out drinking our cokes in the back bar, and life wasn’t the same anymore. We began voraciously consuming the DC music scene, and that period definitely helped shape my musical tastes/sensibilities today. Anyway, that’s where my DC loyalist mentality first took root, it’ll be always be home to me, it’s where I cut my teeth growing up.
German documentary film-maker Werner Herzog [Grizzly Man and his most recent documentary on cave art in France, The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams] takes on a macabre American Gothic-esque tale of death and life. It is equal parts Capote’s In Cold Blood and an expose on the no-less-grisly underside of capital punishment. A particularly timely movie in light of the recent Troy Davis execution in Georgia, Into The Abyss turns the lens on a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas. Teenagers at the time of the crime, the movie centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett ten years later—Burkett is sentenced to life in prison and Michael Perry is facing execution.
While documentaries are inherently “biased” in that they present a position, Herzog’s approach is fresh and interesting. The focus is not on the issue of guilt or innocence—as such, it is not a who-done-it crime procedural. There is no confusion on Herzog’s personal opposition to the death penalty, but as an interviewer, he has an uncanny way of educing visceral, evocative, and unexpectedly eloquent responses from his subjects. For example, when he asks how “something feels,” rather than drawing bafflement, he elicits trenchant answers such as when he asks Jason Burkett’s wife to describe what his hand feels like over hers or how it felt for Jason’s father to be chained next to his son or when he asks the prison chaplain to “please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” His interviewing style, at worst is a bit unsettling, but for the most part, is surprisingly disarming. Into The Abyss makes copious use of police video of the crime scene, as well as footage of what the execution room looks like, grimly named “The Death House.” The interviews with the surrounding characters are what really offer some truly unique perspectives and pack an emotional punch. The segment with Jason Burkett’s father, who himself is serving a prison sentence, is especially poignant. His plea to the court at the sentencing to “please do not kill my son” is a stark and haiku-like encapsulation of just what capital punishment means at its most uncomplicated—taking away a human life.The segment with Fred Allen, a captain in the Death House unit, who after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney could not bring himself to do it one more time is especially powerful in its insider perspective on the “process.” His conviction that “no one has a right to take a human life,” is cogent in the context of seeing the damage his work did to him and his transformation from a man simply committed to “carrying out the law in a professional manner” to one who could not physically or emotionally continue to do it.
Into The Abyss also does an excellent job of portraying the milieu of violence that haunts the small Texas town, appropriately entitled the “dark side of Conroe.” As such, it also reminds the audience that capital punishment is meted out to people of different backgrounds. It’s a bleak reality—generations of families in prison, rampant violence, struggling working class, gated communities…Jason Burkett’s father, serving a sentence himself, blames himself, explaining how his son never had a chance. When he describes the moment when they were handcuffed together in the same prison bus, he heartbreakingly narrates that he felt like a “total failure as a father, being there with my baby son. Doesn’t get any lower than that.” The film’s pacing seems reflective of the complexity of the thorny issue of crime and punishment, yet steers clear of dogmatic asides, opting to simply present things as they are. The daughter of the one of the victims describes that she was shocked to see that Michael Perry was “just a boy” and not the monster she had imagined him to be, yet she feels like a weight is lifted off her shoulders when he is executed—her words are a small example of just how slippery the idea of retribution and, even more so, justice is.
Into The Abyss does a tremendous job of humanizing such a broad, firebrand issue as the death penalty. It manages to steer clear of normative polemics or moralizing, instead opting for a subtle view into what it actually feels to take away a life.
Ph.D. Cultural Anthropology, Bulgarian, writer, cruciverbalista, lexicon-drunk. Mischief, Mayhem, Mangia!