RIP Bill Paxton

michael-cain-bill-paxton
Michael Cain and Bill Paxton at the Dallas International Film Festival, 2010.

The night I met Bill Paxton was the Dallas premier of The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005), which he had directed. I was working for Michael Cain (not the actor) at the time, as an assistant editor on Michael’s documentary, TV Junkie (2006), and he wanted to reward me for the extra hours I was putting in by taking me to this special event.

If you haven’t seen it, The Greatest Game Ever Played is the story of a legendary matchup at the 1913 US Open. A 20 year old nobody, Francis Quimet (Shia LaBeouf), took on his idol, a former US Open Champion from England, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), and won. What I remember most about the film is the way they shot the golf swings, like we were following the club around through the air before it made contact with the ball. It brought a high speed element to a normally sedate game and worked well, though it was arguably a bit overused.

After the screening there was a small party at the bar next door. I remember talking to a producer who introduced me to Shia. He was friendly enough, shaking my hand and pretend it was, “nice to meet you,” or something like that, but he quickly turned back to the producer and asked when he could, “get out of here?” You see, there were these girls – he motioned to a couple of young women nearby – and they, “had some weed,” and wanted to, “get back to his hotel room.” I couldn’t quite hear what the producer said but it wasn’t long before Shia and the girls were gone.

Paxton was having dinner with his father and some other people. He grew up in Fort Worth, which is why he wanted to have a Texas premiere. Michael told me we should get going, he didn’t want to both Paxton with his family, but he was just going to say, “goodbye.” I hung back and thought this was as close as I’d come to meeting the man, then I heard Paxton get all excited about how nice it was to see Michael again and he insisted we come back to the hotel.

It was a big suite, with a couple of bedrooms and a large balcony. Paxton saw his father to bed and told us to grab whatever we wanted from the minibar; “Disney’s paying for it.” We went outside to not disturb his dad and hung out for quite some time. The thing I remember most was Paxton turning suddenly to me, locking in on my eyes and asking, “So, what’s your story?” It’s a line I’ve used a lot on other people since then.

The other thing I can recall about our conversation was Paxton quizzing us about how much we liked the film. This was only the second feature he had directed and his first, Frailty (2001), was much darker and very different. He made it clear that he had high hopes this time around, doing a feel-good production that had the potential to be an award winner. Seabiscuit (2003), the story of a race horse during the Great Depression, who shattered expectations and inspired many people, was the analog he came up with to express his optimism. “We are Seabiscuit,” he said with a beaming smile. “Nobody expects us to win but we can break out of the pack and do this.” I liked the film but did not share his optimism. Obviously I wasn’t going to let on to him about this and I listened enthusiastically. It struck me as charming and very human that despite all his success over many years in Hollywood, he could still sound like a kid, brand new to the business and super hopeful that great things lay ahead. In the end, I don’t think it matters that the film wasn’t the Oscar Winner he was hoping for; what matters is that he continued to be hopeful.

It was sad to wake up to the news today that he had passed away, on the morning of this year’s Oscars. I trust they will be saying nice things about him tonight. When I put on my headphones and opened up Spotify I nearly unconsciously went to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album and started playing it. I had listened to about a hundred times last year after Bowie’s passing and I guess it’s now become my soundtrack for a celebrity death; or at least for a celebrity that actually matters to me. It’s funny the way the minds works, don’t you think?

RIP Bill Paxton. My thoughts go out to his family and to our mutual friends, Michael Cain, Jeff Scheftel, and Tom Huckabee. I know they loved him like a brother.

Birth of a conversation

More than a hundred years ago, Hollywood had its first blockbuster hit, The Birth of a Nation (1915) by groundbreaking director, D.W. Griffith. Griffith defined some of the basic grammar of cinema language, like the close up, and he realized that people in the future would be more likely to gain their knowledge of history from films than from books. Griffith was also racist, “Son of the South,” who adapted his screenplay from a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The film paints and ahistoric farce, in which the noble Confidence is overrun by Northern Carpetbaggers and rapacious Negroes who can’t keep their hands of the White Women. Finally, a group of valiant Southerners band together and form the KKK to save the day.

This clip shows the Klan turning the tide against the Blacks (many of whom are really White Men in blackface). Jump ahead to 4:14 to see the triumphant “happy” ending of the film, where they stop the racially inferior, subhumans from voting and preserved The South for the White Man.

I love to show this in film or mass media history classes because it never ceases to shock my students. Yes, they know there was slavery, Jim Crow, and even lynchings, but this is something different. This is pop culture glorifying the suppression of millions of human beings and selling out theaters from coast to coast while doing it. This is where we come from and why we are still struggling with the ridiculous misconception that their is more than one human race. This is America, even bit as much as baseball and apple pie, and it is why we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people are still trying to hold on to, “White America,” or, “Make it Great Again.”

There have been many films over the year about slavery and the Civil War but arguably none as influential as Griffith’s. Awhile ago I wrote down an outline for a movie about Nat Turner and John Brown; two controversial and important figures in the struggle for freedom who are largely overlooked. I showed it to a couple friends with Hollywood connections; one of whom said, “It could win an Oscar, if anyone would fund it, which they wouldn’t,” and the the other said, “I just run into a guy who is making a movie about Nat Turner.” The guy was Nate Parker and his film, The Birth of a Nation (2016), was a big hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with influential opinion makers talking about it as an Oscar contender l0ng before it was even scheduled to hit theaters this October.

I have been looking forward to seeing Parker’s work, as a director and an actor, to see how he deals with this controversial history; but a new and different wave of controversy has come up around his film’s release. Back when Parker was 19 and attending college at Penn State, in 1999, he was accused and acquitted of raping a woman. As the details have come to light in a much larger public eye, many feel that Parker should have been convicted; particularly after it became widely reported that his alleged victim killed herself in 2012. Gabrielle Union, who plays a rape victim in Parker’s film, and who was rape victim in real life, has spoken out about this in a moving way, suggesting that the film is, “as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation,” about things we don’t like to talk about but need to. Parker has also spoken up about what a “dog” he once was and how he is, “trying to be better.” I’d like to take him at face value, accept that he is being sincere and move forward. I certainly hope that people will still see the film; I know I will. But this awkward and difficult situation raises another question I wish more people would ask themselves: How quick I am to judge others?

Are seminal figures of American Self-Government like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson nothing more than slave owners? Are rebellious freedom fighters like Nat Turner and John Brown nothing more than murders? Are artistic visionaries like Griffith and Parker nothing more than flawed men; a racist and a rapist? If that is the furthest we can think then we are not thinking at all.

 

WORLD OF TOMORROW ON NETFLIX

Don Hertzfeldt is an amazing animator that I have admired for many years. Now he is finally up for an Oscar for his short film, World of Tomorrow (2015). Last night I found out it was available on Netflix and ended up watching it twice, so far. Here’s the teaser trailer, which is nice but doesn’t give you a full sense of how great it is.

Granted, like so many things I admire, World of Tomorrow isn’t for everyone, but it is brilliant. The sense of humor, the questioning of technological, “advances,” the way it plays off other science fiction films of the past, the way it presents the mind of a child, it’s all smartly done. And it’s only 16 minutes long, so why not check it out? What do you have to lose?

One point that particularly impressed me was on the logistics of time travel. I have seen and read many stories in this genre and one practical reality that is almost never mentioned is the fact that everything in the universe moves. The earth spins around and moves around the sun, which moves around the center of our galaxy, and even that is moving. So, if you could travel in time, you would need to do more than simply set the date you want to go to; you would need to figure out where in the universe the earth was on that date, which would be very difficult in a universe that has no fixed locations. Hertzfeldt doesn’t go into detail on this point but he does at least bring it up in a clever way.

I should probably warn you that this isn’t a happy film – his films aren’t typically – but it will make you think about what it means to be human and maybe make you appreciate what you have before it is gone.