Friday night at the Film Fest

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Hello again, doing double-duty guest blogging for the Lowcountry Weekly’s FilmFix this week. Hopefully I’ve already convinced you to go to the Beaufort International Film Fest on opening night (Thursday the 17th.) The lovely French, non-terrorism-related film “Ich bin eine Terroristin” shows at 5pm and then you can stick around to heckle me at the screenwriter’s table read.

Thursday night’s not the be-all, end-all though.  There are three full days of BIFF and I’ll be calling out those films that deserve special attention. Or that might sound unappealing but shouldn’t be missed.   Friday night’s been getting a lot of great press, thanks to local filmmaker Michael Givens’ “Angel Camouflaged” that shows at 6:45pm (on two screens, I’m told, that’s how excited people are about this rock-and-roll musical.) And a powerful film called “A Marine Story” takes on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell at 9pm.  But in all the hoopla, don’t miss a gem that airs a few hours earlier, at 5pm.

“Bright” is a long short, 40 minutes, the kind that I really hope gets made into a feature film one day. It sometimes happens. Neill Blomkamps “District 9” started as a short that blew audiences away at film festivals. Benjamin Busch has an unusually contemplative touch, his film is a piece that you feel as much as you see. I won’t give away the plot, but it features really good actors of gritty, HBO-series fame, working with a mysterious, almost cryptic script. You can read the full review on the Lowcountry Weekly FilmFix blog, but if you want a sense of how talented and dedicated Busch is – all you have to do is read the comment he left on this post. That’s the cool thing about the Beaufort International Film Festival – it’s cozy and intimate and unpretentious. And you just might discover the next Neill Blomkamp.

What not to miss at B.I.F.F.

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Screenplays, anyone?

When Mark Shaffer asked if he could interview me for the Lowcountry Weekly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It sounded innocent enough. One of my screenplays was selected as a finalist in the Beaufort International Film Festival and this year, BIFF is honoring writers by having Shakespeare actors stage a table-read of their work. (Thursday, February 17th, 7:30pm, wine-and-cheese, all at the Lady’s Island Cinema. I can’t wait)

But it turns out publicity comes with a price. I had to get Gary to take a new photo of me, one that actually relates to screenwriting. And Mark roped me into blogging about the film festival for the LCW’s new blog: FilmFix. Actually, it works out great, since many of you have been asking for recommendations about which films to see. There are 34 films this year and Gary and I got to screen them, plus the hundreds that didn’t make the cut. They’re all good, but some might not jump off the printed schedule and grab your attention. When they should. Like the confusingly named “Ich bin eine Terroristin.”

It’s one of my absolute favorites and it premieres right before the table read on Thursday night. So here’s what I wrote about it for LCW:

“It surprised me that I fell so in love with the independent feature “Ich bin eine Terroristin.” Despite the title it’s a French film, with English subtitles. Watching a film so enchanting you can barely stand taking your eyes off the young actress to read clunky words at the bottom of the screen is torture. Especially for someone who loves hearing how words on a page sound when they’re spoken. In a dark theatre. 

I wish I spoke French. I know how hard translation work is. I’ve had to direct the translation of my own commercial films into thirteen languages and trust me, even the experts argue and bash heads over getting it exactly right. Which is why I’m astounded by “Ich bin eine Terroristin.” I didn’t nit pick. I didn’t second guess a single frame. I was there, in the story, mesmerized from word go.
Whoever cast the young heroine of the film, Violetta, deserves much of the credit. She’s a thirteen-year-old free spirit whose pedestrian parents are so self-involved that she creates her own ancestor worship of a famous far-left, Polish anti-war activist named  Rosa Luxemburg.
Because her idol Rosa emigrated to Germany, Violetta decides she needs to run away from her boring French suburban life and head for Germany herself.  By train — a visual thread through the film that gives it a dreamy, lyrical feel. She finds Rosa’s grave, but that’s not enough.  She tracks down the members of The Party – reinvigorating the old Communist codgers with her devoted enthusiasm. It’s the sheer rebellion of adventure that is, to a thirteen-year-old, terrorism. And to viewers, a taste of what film festivals are all about.”

Missing Pet Cow

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               You just don’t see signs for missing pet cows in Beaufort that often, even when you walk the entire downtown every day, so I had to call. I expected to hear the voice of a distraught farmer, maybe from St. Helena Island, since cows have been known to swim across rivers mightier than the Beaufort. Or a teenager, cracking up at his clever prankster self.
        But instead it was a woman’s voice, the kind that’s hard to stop when she gets going. I didn’t even catch her name. Which is probably for the best. The story wasn’t all that clear and this way nobody gets a bad reputation. According to the woman offering the reward, the story began with a baby cow who couldn’t or didn’t get all of her shots from the veterinarian. So she became a pet cow and got the name Moo. Moo lived a happy life in the Beaufort city limits for a while, until I gathered it was time to reintroduce her to closer relatives. Here’s where the vet comes back in. In addition to his practise he also has cows, on a farm on St. Helena, according to the woman who raised Moo by bottle in her back yard. But the vet/farmer put little Moo in with some horses instead, who didn’t think she was that adorable. Little Moo broke through a fence and hasn’t been seen since.  “Just like a man, you know? Always thinks he knows best. I told him to keep her with the other cows. Now I just know somebody’s fattening her up for dinner. Call her Moo and she comes running.”
        Ouch. This lady tried to do a good thing and it all backfired. Surely someone would notice a pet cow, answering to the name Moo? Maybe if the word got out, like in a newspaper article, someone would turn her in?  “Oh no. The vet doesn’t want that. Too much publicity.”
        I thought publicity, in this case, would be a good thing. She set me straight. “No, see the vet has cows on his farm. And that means cow dung. Which means mushrooms. And he says once word got out the farm would be crawling with Marines ‘cuz they like those mushrooms and it’d get crazy. I should probably take that sign down.”
        Told you, you don’t hear a story like that every day.  Little Moo’s been missing now for several months, and the rain has just about washed away the sign offering a reward for her safe return. But at least no Marines found out about the mushrooms.

Coon Dog Cemetery

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You know that point on every awesome road trip, when you decide to squeeze in just one more sight and the whole thing gets bogged down? Well that point was Muscle Shoals, Alabama for us. After the Tupelo, Oxford and the Delta…it was pushing our luck to try and swing through the OTHER Southern music landmark on the way home. But I’d heard about Muscle Shoals on NPR’s American Roots and just had to try. Turns out there’s an Alabama Music Hall of Fame there but it’s a squat, uninviting building off the highway with too many retirement home tour buses in its parking lot. The famous “Fame” Recording Studio (a Cher album cover, anyone?) was equally disappointing, penned in by fast food and pawn shops. We couldn’t even find a downtown Muscle Shoals to celebrate – just endless loops of roads that look a lot like Highway 21 entering Beaufort.

What saved Muscle Shoals was actually about a half hour into the mountains – the world’s only coon dog cemetery. There’s evidence of hunting dogs all along the winding road – the kind of evidence that makes you glad you’re not a coon dog. Think trailers with cages outside in the snow and that’s the type of reverence shown coon dogs when they’re alive. But when a good hunting dog dies in Alabama, its owner gets downright sentimental. I figured on simple, homemade crosses, maybe the odd gravestone marking faithful Fido.

But at the Coon Dog Cemetery, there are tombstones and even statues penned in by barbed wire so no one steals the cement raccoons chased by the everlasting enshrined dogs. The names alone are worth a leisurely stroll through the wooded cemetery – Troop was apparently the first but not the last.

These are not dogs, or dog owners, to be messed with. On the long mountain road back, we passed a no trespassing sign. It read “Nothing I’ve got is worth you getting shot for.” I just know there were coon dogs out back.

Call me Sweet T

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Sweet T and Red

That’s my new blues name. Everyone we met in Mississippi gave themselves a name, so why not me? Blues names are different from nicknames – the kind you get stuck with, like toilet paper on the bottom of your shoe. They’re conscious, self-selected and meant to get conversations started.

As soon as his set at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero blues club was over, the host – a tall, thin man named Razorblade – sat down next to us at the bar. Within minutes he told us that he calls himself Razorblade because he’s a sharp dresser. His wife, who wasn’t there, makes sure he’s put together proper before he goes on stage. On the night in question, he was wearing a gold suit with a purple t-shirt.  Razorblade also told us that Red’s, a juke joint down the street, would be hopping the next night.

Red, of Red’s fame, is not a redhead. And he did not volunteer the source of his name. But he did tell us to pull a chair up to the space heater when we arrived at his club. There were only five customers at nine o’clock that night; Red’s doesn’t get going until later. Which explained why it looked abandoned when I knocked on the door – sofas outside on the sidewalk getting rained on, windows boarded up.

You have to know it's there

Red’s is the kind of place that, the minute you enter, you start sizing up your escape route should there be a fire. Which isn’t that far-fetched. I did pull up a chair next to Red, but the space heater’s pilot light shot straight out, horizontally, so I kept a nervous eye on it all night.

Gary forgot all about fire hazards when a man named Dingo offered to share a bottle of Christian Brother’s brandy. It was too big to hide in a paper bag, like all the other liquor being poured into plastic cups at Red’s that night.  Turns out Dingo picked his name on account of the boots – which he always wears. Another sharp dresser, and a good dancer too.

 He introduced us to Watermelon Slim, whose name was instantly understandable. He’s played with the likes of Bonnie Raitt but is just as enthusiastic to sit in with the bar band at Red’s: the All Night Long Blues Band. Not at all pretentious, he shouted out a welcome to his new friends from Beaufort, South Carolina when he pulled out his slide guitar. Just before he leaned into the microphone to say he’s been to South Carolina a couple of times. “Liked it enough. Just never had a chance to piss there.”

The best name of the night had to belong to the hottest bass player in all of Clarksdale. Just as it’s a good thing codes enforcement doesn’t seem to exist in Mississippi, it’s a good thing cops don’t frequent juke joints.  Because then magical moments like listening to Kingfish sit in with the All Night Blues Band  wouldn’t happen. He couldn’t have been five feet tall and when I asked Dingo how old the kid was, he guessed thirteen. I wanted to take him home with me. Dingo asked me if I was sure; he’d eat me out of house and home.

Let’s just say Kingfish didn’t get his name because he’s bird-like in any way. Nor does he yet have the stage presence of B.B. King or Watermelon Slim. But he made the audience put down their Christian Brother’s brandy and listen. The kid’s that amazing. After he played a few songs, Dingo told him the gal from South Carolina wants to know how old he was. I could hear his answer clear over at the space heater. “Eleven. Sir.” And then he had to go home.

Blues Landscape

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Tree house, courtesy of Gary Geboy

When we set out for a Mississippi Blues Highway road trip this winter, it’s not like I was expecting the “Summertime,” and the livin’-is-easy version of the Deep South.  You know — fish are jumping and the cotton is high and all that. I knew the Mississippi Delta would have a rough kind of beauty, if at all, which is exactly why Gary wanted to photograph it for his project (http://carrymehomeproject.blogspot.com)

I just wasn’t ready for images like this one: a sharecropper’s shack on Highway 1 just south of where Muddy Waters was born. We found it on a day that didn’t get past 16 degrees. The wind whipped through my bones and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live inside this home – winter or summer – never making enough money to move away. You couldn’t even make a run for it. The fields around it are ankle-breaking troughs of defoliated cotton plants. The horizon is so flat and far away you might as well be adrift at sea.

Which is how I felt, driving through this landscape of leftovers. It might be prettier when the cotton is high, but after the harvest the fields look like the stubble of a cheap shave. Plastic Wal-Mart bags catch and snare on stumps – pockets of trash biding their time, flying the colors of the poor. The dirt roads beat down hard here, cutting through the flatness like scars. Even the trees are stripped, nakedly twisting in the wind.

I’ve seen this kind of forgotten before, on our drive through the Altiplano of Bolivia and Peru. That Mississippi is our own corner of the Third World was no surprise, witness Hurricane Katrina. What did surprise me, threw me really, was the hope that floated up between waves of despair. Here in the Mississippi Delta, where the human spirit had every right to sink, it didn’t. People had the strength to shout it out – from back porches, on curbs outside gas stations, in Devil-guarded crossroads and under the cover of dimly-lit juke joints. They gave voice to what would have been a void. They freed what could not be stolen. Mississippi Delta Blues was a gift to the entire world. We, who didn’t even ask, got Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and countless others.  

This embarrassment of talent is no coincidence. But it has as much to do with the will of the tree growing up through that sharecropper shack on the side of Highway One as the misery of the shack itself. We do learn from those who went before. I don’t remember Byrne Miller ever quoting Blues lyrics, but her favorite Nietzsche saying would be right at home in the Delta. “Life is hard to bear. But do not affect to be so delicate. We are all of us fine sumpter asses and asseses.” Beasts of burden – yes, we surely are. Capable of so much more — uh huh.

The Riverside Hotel and Robert Nighthawk’s suitcase

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Tupelo, Mississippi is the kind of town that looks lovelier at night, or under a light dusting of snow. Clarksdale, just two hours west, can’t be camouflaged. Its buildings have no heft, no angles to soften or drape. They’re mostly abandoned, sagging and scraping the streets, as dismal at dusk as dawn.

But even Clarksdale is glamorous compared to Friar’s Point. A levee-side view of the Mississippi River and an official marker on the Blues Trail try, but fail to lift its spirits. It’s a mean kind of ugly, boarded up and half burned down just for spite. It boasts a museum that isn’t open for visitors and a son who couldn’t run away from it fast enough – blues legend Robert Nighthawk.

He was in such a hurry to get to Chicago that he left his suitcase at the train station back in Clarksdale. A man named Rat still has it. He runs a hotel called Riverside, where Nighthawk spent his last night before the journey that would end in relative fame.

Rat’s mother owned it back then. She’s the one who thought of turning the old black hospital in Clarksdale into a boarding house. It went from being known as the place where Bessie Smith died after her car crash, to the place where just about every blues musician on the circuit stayed. From Muddy Waters to the Blind Boys of Alabama, the greats made the Riverside their home away from home. Some still do – twice a year when the town’s juke joints swell with blues festivals. Regulars leave their personal items in the drawers of the well-worn bureaus in each room. When they come back, their stuff’s still waiting for them.

Well, except for Robert Nighthawk. When he came back, Rat’s mother couldn’t remember where she had stashed away his suitcase for safe keeping. It was only after they both died that Rat found it. It’s in the back room now, just in case the spirit of Nighthawk ever pays a visit.