LA Weekly

The Mysteries of Munich

There will be no press junket, no premiere and, most importantly, no blowout Oscar marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's certain-to-be-controversial movie, Munich.

Given the immensity of today's spin-or-be-spun promotions to land Golden Boy nods, the decision to have little traditional publicity for the film before and even after it opens December 23 is dicey -- yet it is the director's decision alone. Right now, Spielberg doesn't intend to give press or broadcast interviews -- not even to the usual suspects, like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and 60 Minutes. But the movie may create a big fanfare all on its own -- perhaps even international protests -- given its controversial subject matter.

"The official strategy is for the movie to speak for itself," an insider told me last week. "All they're going to do is just show the movie to people. You have to be Steven Spielberg to get away with that."

But competitors mutter that's because Spielberg's Munich may have snagged the coveted cover of Time magazine. (I'm told a final decision is pending.)

For months now, Munich has been touted as the Oscar front-runner, even when no one had seen the film.

The secret Mossad hit squad that over a period of years assassinated the Palestinian terrorists who directly or even indirectly carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich is the movie's subject matter and its political minefield. Specifically, it all comes down to how the film portrays its principal characters: Will the Israelis be seen as too bloodthirsty? Will the Palestinians be seen as too stereotypical? Insiders say Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, worked hard to create multidimensional characters. But will that play in Peoria?

Hollywood has long been loath to portray any Arabs as villains, much less Muslim extremists, mostly because its movies make a lot of money in the Middle East. Needless to say, this has not gone unnoticed. Already I've been inundated with e-mails from civilians predicting Spielberg will "produce a watered-down, politically correct piece of propaganda that gives the Palestinian Olympic killers credibility" or "depict both the Israelis and the terrorists as morally equivalent. This will be done to hide the fact that the Israelis were totally justified and the terrorists were, well, terrorists (that is to say, bloodthirsty savages)."

As one messager put it: "Hollywood (including Spielberg) doesn't have the balls to tell the truth. Hollywood will give aid and comfort to the enemy, and they'll get rich doing it."

Spielberg has assembled a team of pro advisers to confront the protestations that are sure to occur.

The team consists of Dennis Ross, a well-known U.S. diplomat who played a leading role in shaping Middle East policy in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations and is now the Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow; Mike McCurry, President Clinton's White House spokesman, now a for-hire political strategist; and Allan Mayer, a crisis PR specialist with Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company who has advised Spielberg for several years.

The director has been deliberately vague as to the origin of the much-disputed facts conveyed in his movie. He has said it comes from multiple sources, and not just from "Vengeance," the controversial book by George Jonas. (HBO adapted that book in 1986.)

Both Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud and Israel's former Mossad spy chief Zvi Zamir have gone public with their anger about not being consulted beforehand by Spielberg about the film. During the summer, Spielberg issued this carefully worded statement to an Israeli paper, an Arab TV station and The New York Times:

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In Conversation with Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch does not enjoy the image of Kate Moss wearing a beard any more than I do. But that's what we've been confronted with, on the glossy cover of a Hollywood-lifestyle magazine placed, no doubt by the Gideons, on the coffee table in Château Marmont's Suite 69. It's very unsettling.

"And it's kind of freaking me out," says Jarmusch.

"Here," I offer, rising from my comfy spot on the floor. "Allow me."

I do what I must: extract the shiny magazine from the coffee table, walk it through the dining room to the kitchen and stash it somewhere safe.

"Did you put it in the fridge?" Jarmusch asks when I return.

"In the freezer."

"Good."

Now we can concentrate.

Jarmusch and I replant ourselves in the comfortable living room, and I propose terms for the rest of our one-hour relationship.

"In theory," I say, "you should be the accomplished artist who says complex and interesting things, and I'll be the benevolent parasite who encourages you and pretends to understand what you're talking about."

"In theory," says Jarmusch, sucking down a healthy dose of smoke. "We'll see about that."

I'm Jarmusch's first interview of the day. Afterward, he'll go back downstairs to his room, then return to this suite, back and forth, until sundown. Then on to other hotels in Seattle, Chicago, New York and abroad.

"Usually you feel like a whore in a hotel room," he says. "The next one comes in to fuck you, then the next. Next! And you don't even get paid. You were lucky to even get to make the film! Now shut up and take it! Well, actually, no--they don't treat me like that. But, you know, often [interviewers] already have an idea of what they want me to be, so that's what they're going to make me. You know?"

"The outsider. The control freak."

"Yeah, yeah. Aging punk rock indie whatever. And quirky. Don't forget quirky."

"Quirky. Check. Within six words of sensibility."

"I did an interview in England, and then I read that I spoke as though I were English. Like, 'Yes, I'd just popped 'round to the local pub to meet my mates'--stuff like that--when I'd actually said, 'Yeah, I met some friends at a bar.' They changed it into their vernacular, as if that was the way I spoke. They didn't really misquote me, they just retranslated it."

"Fucking cunts."

"Fucking ’ell."

In art school, one of my painting instructors took our class to see a film called Stranger Than Paradise. That was Jarmusch's first commercial release, and I became an instant fan. Over the next two decades, I followed faithfully as Jarmusch continued to create these heroically small, inimitably patient pictures, filled with austere absurdities and precise, silent punch lines: Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), the Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert film/documentary Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), which he'd begun in 1986 as a series of black-and-white shorts. One of those shorts featured Bill Murray, star of Jarmusch's newest work, Broken Flowers, which recently received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

"Did you know Bill Murray before Coffee and Cigarettes?"

"Yeah, but not really. I wrote a script for Bill in 2001, and even raised most of the money for it. Then I came back from Europe and read the script again, and I thought it was a good story, but it needed work. And I hate rewriting scripts. I just do one draft and then start going.

"So I went to Bill's house and said, 'You know, Bill, I got a weird thing. I think I got the money to pay for this, but I don't feel like doing it. But I have this other idea I want to throw on you.' So I told him the basic idea for Broken Flowers. I hadn't written it, but I'd been carrying the idea around for some years. And he said, 'I like that one, too. I like that as much as the other one. You wanna do that?' And I was like, 'Thank you!' So then I wrote this script--really fast, in less than three weeks--and brought it to Bill, and we just went ahead and made it."

Murray's Broken Flowers character is one Don Johnston, a retired computer executive and ex-manslut who receives a mysterious pink letter (no return address) warning that he may have unknowingly sired a son almost 20 years ago, and that this son might now be seeking him out.

"It came from an idea that some friends of mine gave me years ago," says Jarmusch. "Just a vague idea that a guy got a letter from a former lover--he'd had a lot of girlfriends in the past--saying, 'We had a kid, maybe he's looking for you now.' And it throws the guy for a loop. That was it. I was carrying that idea around for a number of years. And then at some point I thought, 'Ah ... okay. I'd like to develop this for Bill.' So then I came up with the character.

"But I first met Bill maybe 10 years ago. I'd seen a film in the afternoon at Lincoln Center, I was walking on Columbus Avenue, and I see Bill Murray walking right toward me. And I'm like, 'Whoa -- that's Bill Murray.' And he walked right up to me and said, 'Hey, you're Jim, right?'

"And I said, 'Yeah. You're--you're Bill Murray!'

"'Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wanna get a cup of coffee?'"

"I was like, 'Sure!' So we went into a luncheonette and talked for about 45 minutes about ... I don't know. All kinds of stuff. We had some mutual friends, and he was friends with Johnny Depp. So then he said, 'Oh, man. I gotta go. Hey, it was great meeting you--I'll see you around sometime.' Then I never saw him again, for like five or six years, when I approached him with that other script."

Bill Murray's ability to reveal Johnston's simultaneous anxieties and exhaustion without discernibly moving a muscle is a constant and solid pleasure to behold. It's some of his best work. The same expression passes over Johnston's face when he regards a young girl annoying him with her toy horse on an airplane as when he finds himself painfully alone with an ex's daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), parading through the house in the altogether. Same expression, but the one appearance wields fatherly authority as clearly as the other betrays vulnerability, lust and fear. How the hell did Murray do that?

"He's a master of that minimal thing," says Jarmusch. "Which is kind of odd for someone initially known for painting in broad comedic strokes. And then to see him work with a tiny, fine, one-haired brush like that, you know? He's really pretty amazing. He can go either way, as far as you want him to."

Outside, fellow citizens are melting in triple-digit heat, but here in film-promotion world, it's barely 70. In the arena of motion-picture marketing, putting the interviewer and his prize victim in a comfortable room with a well-stocked bar increases the likelihood of a successful interview.

"Ten years ago I stayed here," Jarmusch says. "I was promoting Dead Man, and I had a smaller suite downstairs. Iggy Pop, who I've known for a long time, was also staying here. And Joe Strummer was in L.A. We were all just hanging out in my room, and Iggy was complaining about how he had the room below the one that had all the balconies. He was saying, 'Yeah, they didn't even give me the better room, you know? I think Slash is staying there.' He was sort of in a snarly mood, and we were laughing at him, saying, 'Well, you know, Iggy. Slash's records make more money than yours.' Then Joe Strummer said to me, 'Just think, Jim. Your film's black and white. If you make the next one in color, you'll move up a floor!' "

In general, Jarmusch makes films wherein the pauses and inactions are as important as what transpires between them. But it's difficult to describe inactions in a script, and a venerable Hollywood equation--one page of script equals one minute onscreen--generally prevents studios from investing in such things. As a rule, no studio will even consider producing, for example, a 59-page script as a feature. Won't even look at it.

"The Huns cross Europe, raping and pillaging," says Jarmusch. "You know? That's only half a line, so that must take 12 seconds."

"The cells divide," I propose, "and the race wipes itself out. Five seconds."

"World war decimates the planet."

"But you don't have to deal with that anymore, do you?"

"No. Because I go straight in from the beginning and say, 'Look. I have to have these things to make this film. I get final cut. I have all control over casting and crew. No notes for my script. No financing people on set. Nobody comes in my editing room. I don't show you the picture until I have it locked. And if you don't want to negotiate any further, I understand.'"

"And the usual response?"

"They act like I'm out of my mind. Who does he think he is? But, I mean, my films don't cost that much. And that's just my way. I don't work by committee. I don't tell the people putting in the money how to run their business, so why should they tell me how to make a film? It just seems odd.

"My criticism of Hollywood is not that they make films that way, or that films are commercial products in their minds. That doesn't bother me. That's the nature of the 'entertainment industry,' or whatever. My real criticism is that they're so timid. They just force shit down people's throats because of their very conservative marketing analysis and all that. But it's always mysterious, what people are going to like. Even just on a business level--wouldn't it make sense to have a wider variety of products that cost less to produce? Wouldn't you have a better chance of increasing your profit margin? But I don't know. I'm not a business guy, so maybe I'm completely wrong."

In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston ends up dropping in on the four ex-girlfriends deemed by his amateur-sleuth next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) to be the likeliest sources of the mysterious pink letter. These long-estranged former lovers now live in disparate regions and circumstances, the most disturbing of which is a sparsely planted neighborhood of prefabricated tract mansions, such as one might find in...

"Wayne, New Jersey," says Jarmusch. "And shooting in it was very depressing. Because everyone has the same stuff, you know? The same TV, the same cars, their kids dress the same. But then the people in the community were really, really nice to us. Very enthusiastic and kinda lovely. But before that human connection, it was just depressing to me, to be in that kind of hermetically sealed community. I think a lot of people actually live in places like that, more and more."

"In a hundred years," I say, "after the plants get a chance to grow and the houses fall apart--those houses are only built to last 30 years anyway--then I could imagine those places being, theoretically, places where I could live."

"Yeah," says Jarmusch. "Maybe people like us will live there in the future, when they're all overgrown and rundown. And there's, like, coyotes walking through."

Man of the Dead

Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romero's debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a fever dream of EC Comics and old Universal horror, crossbred with the fleet realism of the television newsreels Romero had once bicycled from a Pittsburgh film lab to local affiliates.

The tightly framed black-and-white images of walking corpses consuming the flesh of live humans shocked many. But already it was obvious that, for Romero, the real horrors of society needed no special-effects amplification. His undead were merely a prism through which to examine human behavior at a state of heightened anxiety. And by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as Night's selfless hero, the film became, among other things, a blistering portrait of homeland race relations in the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination -- its final image, of Jones being gunned down by a posse of zombie-hunting yahoos, as potent a symbol of the blown-out American dream as the ending of Easy Rider.

The film became a midnight-movie phenomenon, ensuring that Romero's primordial creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Night's chiaroscuro terrors, its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was a Day-Glo assault on American consumerism at the outset of the shopping-mall era, with asides on classism and feminism. One of the great films of the 1980s, Day of the Dead (1985) is a poetic, Hawksian horror picture (with allusions to the Frankenstein story) that questions what it means to be human while anticipating the coming culture wars between scientific rationality and religious faith.

By then, Romero was fully enshrined as a cult movie deity, and the ensuing two decades would see more than its share of respectful homages (28 Days Later), comic send-ups (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) and blatant rip-offs (the Resident Evil video game franchise and its subsequent film versions) of his work, though, curiously, only four new features by the master himself. "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Romero deadpanned in a July 2000 welcome letter to visitors of his Web site. But, kidding aside, it was a low moment for the iconoclastic auteur, coming at the end of seven years spent on retainer to an assortment of major studios, during which time he watched several high-profile projects all come within a hairsbreadth of getting made. Eventually, with French financing, Romero managed to make Bruiser, a scabrous satire of the corporate workplace and the suburban American dream that couldn't help but seem influenced by its maker's own season in "development hell": In the film, the main character's figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition, allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated drone. Like Romero's earlier Jack's Wife (1973) -- in which an underappreciated housewife liberates herself by becoming a witch -- the movie was so merciless and mordantly funny as to make American Beauty look like an I Love Lucy episode. Not surprisingly, no American distributor dared touch it.

In truth, Romero and Hollywood have never made for easy bedfellows. Only four of his 14 feature films have been released by studios, and one of those (his 1993 Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half) became an unfortunate victim of the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. The rest of the time, he has worked from his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh to create a body of work as truly independent (both financially and ideologically) as any in American movies. And so it may be that no one is more surprised than Romero that his latest film, Land of the Dead, is being released today by Universal Pictures, on several thousand screens, at the zenith of the summer blockbuster season. "It was very frustrating in those years that I never got pictures made," says the tall, ponytailed, rail-thin Romero, who calls money "dough" and refers to his collaborators as "cats." "But at the same time," he continues, "I did work on some very big things, so I didn't feel like I was out of the game. It took me a long time to realize that, after a while, you really do drop off the radar."

Romero's return to movie and radar screens was consecrated last month by a standing-ovation tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, which included a sneak preview of Land's first 15 minutes -- an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romero's has long received from festivals and critics alike. "Even for a lot of the industry, George Romero is a name, nothing more," notes Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. "When I was 17 or 18, I used to stay up all night with friends watching videotapes of horror movies, which was where I discovered George Romero. And to me, having him onstage was as important as having Abbas Kiarostami or Woody Allen. I like the fact that Woody Allen loves Bergman's movies and Bergman loves Westerns. This is something very important -- that to love cinema is to love all of cinema."

Romero paints with his boldest brushstrokes yet in Land of the Dead, blurring the line that separates zombies from humans while sharpening the one that divides society's haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green that has become the last outpost of moneyed (and white) high society in a world where money ceases to have any meaning (other than that ascribed to it by its bearers). Overseen by a venomous gatekeeper called Kaufman (a tip of the capitalist hat to the wealthy Pittsburgh department store entrepreneur), the Green towers above a Hooverville-like slum inhabited by those deemed unworthy of admission to Kaufman's shining planned community. All is enclosed by an electrified fence that has, until now, kept the undead at bay, forcing them into outlying areas where they are shot for sport by the rogue bounty-hunter types who keep the Green supplied.

But as Land of the Dead begins, the oppressed flesh-eating masses show unprecedented cognitive signs, and stir with revolutionary fervor as they rally behind a zombified gas station attendant called Big Daddy. For Romero, these once-fearsome adversaries now seem to represent all of the world's displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. "It's more a reflection of the times than it is criticism," Romero says. "I guess I was trying to say something about complacency, which has always been the case in America -- this idea that we're protected, that we don't have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I don't know if people will pick up on all of it, but some of it is obvious to me -- the financial center being a high-rise, and a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us." Indeed, in the world of Land of the Dead, it's not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.

How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the resources he deserves for the dream project he's been longing to make? Not often, but Romero has done so and done it brilliantly. Land of the Dead is fast, mercilessly funny, gleefully gory and uncommonly thoughtful about the times in which we live -- a horror picture to shake audiences from the complacency engendered by so many Rings and Grudges. Promoted as Romero's "ultimate zombie masterpiece," Land is a rare case of truth in advertising, little dulled by its arrival in the midst of so many other comers to Romero's throne. "You know," Romero muses, "people ask Stephen King, 'How do you feel about these directors ruining your books?' And Steve says, 'They didn't ruin them. Here they are right now, on the shelf here.'" Last week, during his stop through L.A. en route to yet another career tribute (this time at Las Vegas' Cinevegas festival), I talked with the director about the latest chapter in his ongoing zombie epic.


The use of the original Universal Pictures logo at the start of the film is a nice touch.

It's a way of saying, "Guys, this is going to be a little old-fashioned here!"

This is your first Dead movie in 20 years. Was it challenging to find a new approach to the material?

I always wanted to do another one and then we got hung up, my partner and I, in that seven or eight years -- stuck on projects. I fled after all of that and made this little film called Bruiser which nobody's seen. Then I started working on this script mid-2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9/11 -- after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. So I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion, dug it out and twisted it around a little bit.

Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, budgetary matters dictated that you shoot most of it in Canada.

I wanted to shoot in Pittsburgh. If we would get smart here, productions wouldn't keep going to Canada, but they offer such incentives over there, and they also take care of their personnel. The regs that we all complain about when we go up there keep those people working. I think they do a fabulous job.

Often, particularly in a film like Martin (1977), your work has contemplated the Pittsburgh landscape as a kind of Norman Rockwell town that never was, or that was once and then vanished.

Which it is. When I got there -- I went there to go to college and I've lived there ever sinceˇ -- the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, "The mills will reopen someday. Don't worry about it." It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there's a little bit of that in this movie too -- it just so happens that it's now a reflection of the entire country.

Though the zombies have always been human on the outside, this is the first movie where we really sense them being human on the inside as well.

Exactly. I tried to throw that big ace out there right away, because I've always had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this time I said, "Okay, I'm gonna switch sides with this guy." I do have this idea in my mind that if I go on, if I live to do another one, that the humans are getting nastier and the zombies are getting a little more human. I've tried to follow a pretty clean line with it, though. Even in Dawn, some of the principals that get turned into zombies are showing cognitive signs, and at the very end of the film there's a zombie who's been dragging a rifle around not knowing what it is, who grabs the hero's rifle and decides, "That looks better!" And then Bub in Day of the Dead -- he's an experiment, but he's basically imitating the scientist. "Push the button, Bub." And he pushes the button. So now, there're other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have Big Daddy to imitate now. So I don't think this has taken a giant leap forward. It's just the idea that they're getting more dangerous.

Michael Moore notwithstanding, it still seems risky to make a movie this political in what is effectively a risk-averse Hollywood climate. I'm thinking particularly of those scenes where we see captive zombies turned by their human captors into Abu Ghraib-style sideshow freaks.

I'm not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end -- then they might feel a little pang of sadness.

You were making short films from a very early age.

But I never thought I could have a career in it. I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study painting and design. My dad was a commercial artist, and I realized I wasn't very good. They happened to have a theater school, so it was just on impulse that I decided to transfer there. But then I had to take, you know, movement and speech and all of that shit. Pass! So I walked. Back then, cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time had film labs. I had an uncle who supported me, got me an apartment for a year. So I just went and spent a year hanging out at this film lab, back when the news was on film -- journeymen guys with cigarettes hanging over the flammable glue pots gluing together the shots.

One of the most distinctive aspects of your films, the early ones in particular, is the way they achieve movement through the cutting of what are mostly static shots. How did you develop that technique?

It's a little bit of a throwback to Michael Powell's stuff, the war movies that he did, which were very much staged that way. It was also a little bit of ass-covering, in the early days, when I couldn't afford dolly track or a dolly. So I would just shoot a lot of coverage, and I developed more of an editing style than even a shooting style. It was really only with The Dark Half that I started to feel more confident, to shoot longer dialogue scenes and do things more efficiently. You know, you start learning some tricks. John Ford, after 150 films, probably had a bag full of tricks. I'm still learning them.

Land of the Dead is the first of your films to be shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.

I've always loved the frame. I grew up on all of those movies too: Ben-Hur and all of that stuff. It's always been either a little too expensive or a little hard to achieve. But now with the digital intermediate process, we shot film and did all the finishing digitally. That enables you to change the frame, do whatever. It's really like a darkroom; you don't have to time the whole shot -- you can go in and touch things up. That was fun, and we had a wonderful d.p. who got it and I think did a beautiful job with it.

Even with the comeback they've made in recent years at the box office, horror films still tend to be looked down upon by many so-called serious film aficionados.

It's a shame, but I have to say that there aren't a lot of people out there who are doing stuff with real heart. John Carpenter did a few things that I thought were wonderful. I loved They Live and The Thing. But there's not a lot of people doing Caligari these days.

How do you personally view the zombies?

I think of them as a primitive society. It's the quest for fire, putting two and two together. I always tell the actors, "Just think of yourselves as infants discovering things for the first time," like when Big Daddy is looking at the real building and its reflection in the water. But they're almost an external force. It's this incredible sea change in the world.

The End of Solidarity?

The hardest thing to explain is how labor got here. How it reached the point where it now looks as if we may have two separate and distinct labor federations come September.

After all, it's not as if the two groups wanted to represent different elements within the work force, as was the case in 1935 when a largely white, Protestant (and Irish) AFL took a pass on representing the unskilled workers -- many from Eastern and Southern Europe -- in factories, and the CIO came forth to organize them. It's not as if the two groups had political or ideological differences.

Indeed, the differences within the new Change-To-Win Coalition (the thankfully provisional name of the group that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE-HERE, among others, have formed) may be sharper than those within labor as a whole, since the SEIU and UNITE-HERE are among the leftmost of unions, while the Teamsters and the Carpenters have a long history of flirting with Republicans. It's not as if one side had the unions that organized and the other the unions that didn't: Both sides have unions with great track records, and with god-awful ones.

And yet, here we are: The SEIU, the AFL-CIO's largest union, and the Teamsters, the third largest, have left, and the UFCW looks sure to follow. There's been a little more reticence of tone among the leaders of UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers union, since their union owns the Amalgamated Bank (in which unions deposit -- and from with they can withdraw -- their funds), and needs support from other unions when they're boycotting hotels. Terry O'Sullivan, who heads the Laborers' International Union of North America, has been the most circumspect of the dissidents, as his union depends on collegial relations with other building trades to get construction-site agreements.

But anything resembling middle ground is eroding fast. On Monday, when SEIU president Andy Stern and Teamster president Jim Hoffa announced their unions' disaffiliation, they began for the first time to outline what looks to be a rival federation. Hoffa pledged to direct half of the dues he'd otherwise pay to the AFL-CIO ($10 million) to the new entity, which apparently will develop an organizing staff of its own, much like the old CIO. The creation of a whole new entity will make it harder for unions whose leaders intended to maintain joint memberships to do so: Emotionally and financially, the costs of dual membership will be very high.

For one thing, the departing dissidents leave in their wake some mightily pissed-off labor leaders, who believe that much of what Stern and his allies were calling for was in fact incorporated in the convention's resolutions. The positions ultimately backed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney on, for instance, coordinated organizing, says American Federation of Teachers president Ed McElroy, "took their issues into consideration, and ours [the Teachers]. He didn't back anyone's ideas entirely. But there are a few leaders who want to dictate terms to the AFL-CIO with just 25 percent of the membership. I won't buy that; my union won't buy that. We won't have things dictated by a minority."

The mood in the Sweeney camp -- and even among some of the dissidents -- is even darker when they contemplate the damage the defections will do to the Federation. The fate of a joint Wal-Mart organizing project, backed by the Federation, with the UFCW and SEIU as the key internationals, is now a mystery. The International Affairs Department, probably the planet's most important proponent of a social-democratic model of globalization, has already been dismantled.

And the political program -- which both sides acknowledge is the glory of Sweeney's presidency and the one indispensable element in American progressive politics -- is clearly endangered. So much so that last Sunday, in between announcing the SEIU's non-attendance at the convention and its departure from the Federation altogether, Stern told me that he'd offered to have the SEIU continue to "help the AFL-CIO with its political program."

"They can keep some of the best aspects of our work," Stern said. "The AFL-CIO is making a huge mistake if it chooses not to work with us."

This policy of selective engagement, which renders the Sweeney people understandably ballistic, will be particularly tested in the central labor councils -- the city and county AFL-CIO bodies (of which the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is widely thought the most effective) that run labor's election-season political operations. Sweeney's position is that unions cannot choose to be part of, and benefit from, just those AFL-CIO programs they like, and he has said he'll enforce a ban on state and local participation by the defectors. But in California and Los Angeles, the dissident unions constitute roughly half of the AFL-CIO's membership. "Our state will be affected the most," says California Labor Federation Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski.

"We need these unions to do politics," says one L.A.-area labor leader. "But some unions are so angry, they'll say, 'Don't let 'em in the room. Fuck 'em.' "

The journey from "Solidarity Forever" to "Fuck 'em" remains hard to explain. I doubt if any of the dissident union leaders other than Stern -- whose SEIU is so large and successful that it can clearly stand alone -- figured that they would be where they are today. When I interviewed UFCW president Joe Hanson in February, he said he expected to support Sweeney's re-election. But mistrust and frustration have grown in both camps, despite the desire of many of the key players to avoid just this kind of crackup. "There's been a massive failure of leadership on both sides," one union leader close to both the Sweeney and dissident camps told me on Sunday. "The movement's already on life support. It's mind-boggling that we are where we are."

But we are.

Requiem for a Hollywood Reporter

In the movies, reporters are mostly made out to be sleazy louts (It Happened One Night) or bumbling fools (Absence of Malice). Hollywood moguls even portray good journalists (All the President's Men) as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Or maybe it's just payback. After all, good journalists usually portray Hollywood moguls as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Combine the two, and a good Hollywood journalist means a double dose of all those qualities that make a person insufferable.

That, in a nutshell, was veteran movie industry reporter Anita Busch.

"Was" is the operative word here because she has abandoned the profession she zealously plied for nearly 20 years. Not just because she was sniffing around a story that ended in her fearing for her life, not just because she burned her bridges at the major media outlets, but also because the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood press corps turned their backs on her when she came under what we now know was a genuine threat.

"She told me she's never going to work as a journalist again," one of her closest friends told L.A. Weekly. "It's not so much what happened to her but the whole way this went down. How she was treated left a sour taste."

She is gone and, worse, she is near-forgotten, an inconspicuous end to an esteemed career. So I, for one, am going to apologize to Busch on behalf of everyone who covers Hollywood: Yes, we are at fault. Yes, we didn't take this seriously at first, second or third. Yes, we made the mistake of putting personality before principle. Shame on us -- especially now that this ongoing Hollywood puzzle is starting to fall into place.

On Friday, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced that celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano, already in prison on federal weapons and explosives counts, was charged with conspiracy and threatening Busch. The man he allegedly hired to do the dirty work, Alexander Proctor, already had been charged with one count of making criminal threats against Busch in a case filed in 2003. Still unclear is who hired Pellicano. Busch, who's been in contact with the FBI and the D.A.'s Office all this time, has tantalizingly whispered to friends that her case could lead to a big Hollywood name.

Busch wouldn't return my phone calls. (Though a guy called me anonymously and warned repeatedly, "You're being monitored. Everything you say about Anita Busch.") Also not talking to me was the literary agent for the novel she's supposedly writing, and the lawyer for the civil lawsuit she filed two years after the incident against nearly everyone she claims was involved. Those who are in contact with her say she's obsessed with every facet of the ongoing Pellicano taping scandal and talks about it constantly.

She also hasn't worked for the Los Angeles Times in years, and left there disappointed that the paper's management "didn't back her up" more, according to one pal. "She didn't find them as supportive as she would have liked. They turned the matter over to the Human Resources administrative people. This was very offensive to her."

To refresh your memory, the long-time trade paper reporter-editor was newly hired as a contract writer by the Los Angeles Times when she was threatened while working on a story about has-been action star Steven Seagal's alleged ties to the mob. That's when Anita in LaLaland fell down the rabbit hole and never came out again.

Separating fact from fantasy seemed impossible given the wacko stuff that happened that June 10, 2002, involving an actor, the Mafia, a hit man, a note that said "STOP," a shatter mark on her car windshield -- alleged shenanigans by Proctor and Pellicano. The street where she lived was evacuated so the bomb squad could investigate the contents of the mystery package left on her auto; it contained a dead fish and a rose but no explosive device. "People didn't take it seriously because it sounded like a movie script," another friend says. "That's why few people felt sorry for her."

Blame that on Busch herself and her reputation first as a Hollywood queen, and then as a drama queen. Over time, she went from the reporter relentlessly pursuing stories to reversing course and becoming the story. She was schmoozing media writers for high-profile treatment in stories about Hollywood coverage, sitting for a portrait and profile in the LAT when she became editor of The Hollywood Reporter, or slithering around in evening dress for an Elle magazine feature on "Hollywood After Dark." The dead fish experience was seen as just another peril to befall Anita: She'd had as many as Pauline over the years, culminating in the bottle of MSG she claimed was sent to her by Michael Ovitz because of her lethal allergy to the food additive.

The Hollywood trades gave short shrift to the intimidation story. Why? Because Busch had worked for both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, then left bad-mouthing the ethics of her former bosses. Not only didn't it endear her to them, but it started their vendetta against her.

Then, the Washington Post repeated LAT insider talk that Busch was "the Tawana Brawley of the newsroom," where her fish tale provoked eye-rolling.

Now-defunct alternative paper Los Angeles New Times even questioned Busch's veracity. "Do Gambino greaseballs read West Coast papers, and even if they do, why would they give a rancid cannoli about Anita Busch? The stuff she and [co-writer Paul] Lieberman were reporting was public record, part of a federal indictment and was also covered on June 5 by both the New York Daily News and The New York Times. The Busch-Lieberman team didn't break the story, nor any new ground."

It didn't help that several reports said she was staying at fancy hotels, at LAT's expense, and taking other extravagant security precautions. The Washington Post even had to issue a correction after a Times spokesman clarified that Busch "spent only one night at a hotel, and stayed at other locations afterward."

Damage was done to Busch's reputation because of it all. "People acted like she was a perpetrator, and in fact she was a victim," says one of her pals. "The publicity was devastating to her. She's a little paranoid anyway, and it made her more paranoid."

Busch also made enemies of almost every reporter who tried to write about her during this time by threatening libel suits and demanding top-to-bottom corrections. Then again, the high-strung journalist tended to come undone whenever anyone turned the tables and wrote about her. She was known as a wonderful friend to have, and a terrible foe; the only problem was that, somewhere during her career, the line blurred and she became increasingly combative. One of her biggest bête noires was early blogger Luke Ford, whose scathing online portrait of "rageaholic Anita" drove her to near-batty behavior.

It wasn't always so. A Midwesterner, she drove to Los Angeles in 1990, with her sister and cat for company, and described covering Hollywood in those early days like "being thrown naked into the heart of Times Square." From the start, she was known for her take-no-prisoners style of reporting and fierce spirit of competition on the entertainment beat. A stilted writing style and a mania for industry minutiae prevented her from successfully moving beyond the ghetto of the trade papers. When she did try gigs at Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, she didn't last long. When she scored the L.A. Times gig it was something of a shock. She was there less than a year.

Again and again, the rap on Anita was that she didn't play well with others, and complaints about her behavior from inside and outside the media mounted. A lot of this was just Anita being, well, Anita. Typical is this anecdote from a new employee at Variety, who on his first day tried to introduce himself. "I didn't know she was on the phone. I walk up to her and say, 'Hi, I'm . . . ' And just as I'm about to say my name, she starts shouting, 'Oh yeah? Well, fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.' Every time she says 'Fuck you,' she is slamming her headset on the desk. She flings it away and it breaks into 20 pieces. She puts her hand out and says, 'Hi, I'm Anita.'"

You either liked her or you hated her. There wasn't much room in the middle. But almost everyone respected her reporting. For a journalist, that's an epitaph to be proud of.

The New Blacklist

Spurred on by a biblical injunction evangelicals call "The Great Commission," and emboldened by George W. Bush's re-election, which is perceived as a "mandate from God," the Christian right has launched a series of boycotts and pressure campaigns aimed at corporate America -- and at its sponsorship of entertainment, programs and activities they don't like.

And it's working. Just three weeks ago, the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) announced it was ending its boycott of corporate giant Procter & Gamble -- maker of household staples like Tide and Crest -- for being pro-gay. Why? Because the AFA's boycott (which the organization says enlisted 400,000 families) had succeeded in getting P&G to pull its millions of dollars in advertising from TV shows like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

P&G also ended its advertising in gay magazines and on gay Web sites. And a P&G executive who had been given a leave of absence to work on a successful Cincinnati, Ohio, referendum that repealed a ban on any measures protecting gays from discrimination was shown the door.

"We cannot say they are 100 percent clean, and we ask our supporters to let us know if they discover P&G again being involved in pushing the homosexual lifestyle," growls the AFA's statement of victory over the corporate behemoth, "but judging by all that we found in our research, it appears that our concerns have been addressed." The Wall Street Journal reported on May 11 that "P&G officials won't talk publicly about the boycott. But privately, they acknowledge the [Christer] groups turned out to be larger, better funded, better organized, and more sophisticated than the company had imagined."

But the P&G cave-in to the Christian right is only the tip of the iceberg. In just the past year and a half, AFA protests and boycotts -- or even the simple threat of boycotts -- have been enough to make a host of American companies pull their ads from TV shows the Christian right considers pro-gay or salacious. "Desperate Housewives" has lost ads from Safeway, Tyson Foods, Liberty Mutual, Kohl's, Alberto Culver, Leapfrog and Lowe's after the AFA's One Million Dads campaign targeted the show's sponsors. "Life as We Know It" got the same AFA treatment -- and lost ads from McCormick, Lenscrafters, Radio Shack, Papa John's International, Chattem and Sharpie.

And it's not just programs on the broadcast networks and their local affiliates that are feeling the heat from the Christian right. When the AFA targeted Comedy Central's "South Park," the popular cartoon satire saw ads on the show pulled by Foot Locker, Geico, Finish Line and Best Buy.

Nissan, Goodyear and Castrol stopped running ads on "The Shield" after AFA complaints. Sonic Drive-In pulled its ad support from "The Shield" after a single email request from AFA's Rev. Wildmon. S.C. Johnson and Hasbro ordered their ads taken off "He's a Lady" when it got the AFA treatment. And the list goes on ..... Call it a new, 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not advertise" if the religious primitives smell sin.

Just two weeks ago, the AFA undertook a new letter-writing campaign aimed at Kraft Foods (makers of Oreo cookies, Maxwell House coffee, Ritz Crackers and the like) for supporting the "radical homosexual agenda."

Kraft's crime? It's a corporate sponsor of the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. Founded in 1980 by Dr. Tom Waddell -- a 1968 Olympic decathlete -- these Gay Games VII will bring gay athletes from all over the world to the Windy City for a complete catalog of Olympic-style competitions. The honorary chairman of the Chicago Gay Games? The city's mayor, Richard Daley, who declared that he is "committed to the success of the 2006 Gay Games because it is an expression of international goodwill and a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, which are important to Chicago."

But, following the AFA's lead, another conservative Christian group -- the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) -- has asked its members to take on Kraft and five other Illinois companies that are sponsoring what it calls the "Homosexuality Games." Proclaimed the IFI: "By allowing their corporate logos to be used to promote the 'Gay Games,' Kraft, Harris Bank and other sponsoring companies are celebrating wrong and destructive behaviors, and showing their disdain for the majority of Americans who favor traditional morality and marriage."

Here's a nice touch: The IFI's Web site features a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who some historians now credibly say was gay or bisexual. Will Kraft stand up to the pressure? The company's answer to this protest campaign is, for the moment, yes -- but for how long?

All across the country, the Christian right and its allies in the culture wars are mobilizing -- sometimes spurred on from the top by the AFA, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and similar national groups, but with increasing frequency local pressure campaigns and boycott threats are self-starters. They target everything from local broadcast outlets and local cable operators to libraries, bookstores, playhouses, cinemas and magazine outlets.

"The Christian right is incredibly mobilized," says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a 30-year-old alliance of 50 nonprofit groups. Bertin says, "There's been an explosion of local book and arts censorship -- a lot of activity by an emboldened grassroots, who think they won the last election on moral grounds. They barely need to threaten a boycott to get those they target to back down -- hey, nobody had to threaten to boycott PBS to get them to back off Postcards From Buster." Bertin affirms that "This new threat from below as well as above has already achieved a widespread chill" on creative and entertainment arts throughout the country.

A good example of successful up-from-below pressure in making corporate America bend the knee to the Christian right: the Microsoft Corp. Earlier this year, under pressure from a local protest led by Ken Hutcherson -- a conservative National Football League linebacker turned preacher -- Microsoft made a decision to stay neutral in the fight over legislation in Washington's state Legislature banning discrimination in employment against same-sexers, although many other companies headquartered in the state took positions in favor of the bill. But after an avalanche of counterprotests to Microsoft about their cave-in to Hutcherson, from their own employees (many of whom are gay), gay groups and the blogosphere, Microsoft reversed itself and supported the anti-discrimination bill. Too late: Two weeks earlier, the bill had been defeated by just one vote in the state Senate. Now, Microsoft is being targeted by a new, national conservative Christian protest campaign for having flip-flopped again.

Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, calls the new offensive a drive toward "theocratic oligopoly. The drumbeat of religious fascism has never been as troubling as it is now in this country," adding that "e-mails to the FCC are more worrisome to me than boycotts" in terms of their chilling effect.

Even The New York Times is feeling the chill. At the beginning of May, an internal committee of 19 Times editors and reporters, who'd been asked how to improve the paper's "credibility" with a wider swath of America, came up with a key recommendation: Deliberalize the paper's news columns, especially through more coverage on religion from a sympathetic point of view.

The committee's report, "Preserving Our Readers' Trust," added that "the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, approaches cheerleading. By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural, and religious life."

Oh, "disturbing" to whom? Why, to the Christian right, of course -- whose email complaint campaigns against the Times are legion: It's the paper the fundamentalists love to hate. So why is the Times -- one of the few newspapers in the latest available study of circulation released earlier this year to significantly increase circulation rather than lose it -- feeling the need to kowtow to the religious opponents of gay marriage? The paper's willingness to do so is about as frightening a testimony to creeping theocracy as one could imagine.

Is the new conservative Christian anti-gay and anti-sex crusade a back-to-the-future nightmare? Remember your history: In the 1950s, the anti-Communist owners of a small chain of supermarkets in upstate New York started threatening the TV and radio networks with boycotts of sponsors' products if they employed any persons listed as supposed Communists or lefties, in a sloppily researched little pamphlet called "Red Channels."

It didn't take long for this small protest to instill fear throughout the broadcast industry, and the result was the Blacklist, a witch-hunt that lasted for years -- even after John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted star CBS-radio host and actor, won his landmark $3.5 million libel suit in 1962 against the blackmailers of AWARE Inc., which -- for a suitable fee -- offered "clearance" services to major media advertisers and radio and television networks, investigating the backgrounds of entertainers for signs of Communist sympathy or affiliation. But Faulk didn't work in national broadcasting for another 13 years, until he landed a spot on the TV series Hee-Haw in 1975. It took that long to end a quarter-century reign of terror in the entertainment industry, 18 years after Senator Joe McCarthy was dead and buried.

Today's Christian right protests are targeting a different kind of subversion. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at the labor-funded Political Research Associates, has spent over 25 years studying the far right and theocratic fundamentalism. He is co-author of "Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort."

Berlet -- who was one of the speakers at a conference last month co-sponsored by the N.Y. Open Center and the City University of New York Graduate Center on "Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right" -- says that "What's motivating these people is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it's motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes."

The key to those doctrines is what fundamentalist religious primitives call the Great Commission, which is basically an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity. In the Bible (Matthew 28:19-20), it says, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . ." The fundamentalist interpretations of these and other texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net. They have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christian right's intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently.

Says Berlet, "The re-election of Bush was a sort of tipping point for these people, who take it as a mandate from God -- they see that the leadership of America is within their grasp, and when you get closer to your goal, it's very energizing. It reaches a critical mass, in which the evangelicals feel they have permission to push their way into public and cultural policy in every walk and expression of life."

All that, says Berlet, is what is motivating the skein of conservative Christian boycotts, protest campaigns and censorship drives bubbling from the bottom up -- which get added emotional and pressure power from the fund-raising-driven crusades launched by political Christian right organizations like AFA at the national level. The confluence of from-above and from-below is a powerful mix.

There's one big problem: Nobody at the national level is tracking these censorship and pressure campaigns in a systematic way, to quantify them or assess their impact, so that strategies to defeat them can be developed.

"People for the American Way used to track this stuff, but they stopped doing so systematically in 1996. We at Political Research Associates would love to do it," says Berlet, "but we don't have the resources. Groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute or Americans United for Separation of Church and State could easily do this sort of work. But none of us has the money to do it, because nobody wants to give it. There used to be three major journalists writing about this stuff -- Sara Diamond, Russ Belant and Fred Clarkson. But none of them could make a living doing it, and they've all dropped out of the game."

Unless Hollywood, and the entertainment and broadcast industries, all want to live through an epoch of increasing content blackmail and blacklists, the wealthy folks who make a lot of money from those industries better wake up and start funding intensive and systematic research on the Christian right and its censorship crusades against sexual subversion and sin in the creative arts -- or soon it will be too late, and the "theocratic oligopoly" of which Martin Kaplan speaks will be so firmly established it cannot be dislodged.

Million Dollar Boomer

One restless 2 a.m. in November 2001, writer-filmmaker Paul Haggis lay awake, wrestling with whether to get out of bed and write down what, in his half-sleep, looked like a white-hot idea. "I hate waking up with an idea in the middle of the night," he laughs, "because whenever you do write it out, it's shit when you read it the next morning. But if you don't write it down, you forget it by morning, and it's the greatest idea you've ever had."

In this case, Haggis is lucky he dragged himself to his desk -- and so are we. Crash is the fruit of that insomniac struggle, and marks the powerful debut of Haggis as a director, fresh on the heels of his triumph as the screenwriter behind the Oscar-sweeping Million Dollar Baby.

The idea that badgered Crash into being grew out of a nightmarish memory. Haggis and his wife were victims of a carjacking in the early 1990s. He had never considered the incident useful story material, yet, as he recalls, "Once a year or so, I would ask myself: Who were those guys? Were they best friends? Were they professionals? Or was this their first time? What did they do for pleasure, in their off times?" The two had also, after all, stolen the keys to Haggis' house. He and his wife had had to stay up into the wee hours waiting for a locksmith. Remembering that night, Haggis asked himself: What if the locksmith who arrived had come styled as a tattooed gangbanger? How safe would he have felt then? And what if Haggis had been rash enough in his rage to voice such fears (as Sandra Bullock does, in Crash) within the locksmith's earshot? How would the locksmith have felt? And who was that locksmith, anyway? What was his home life? This time, the questions drove Haggis out of bed, which led to other questions, and other characters. By 10 that same morning, without having once left his chair, Haggis had completed a 40-page treatment, which in a matter of weeks he developed into a fully fledged script with his friend Robert "Bobby" Moresco. This comes to the screen intact, with the cooperative support of producer Bob Yari and producer Cathy Schulman.

"Crash is not 'about' race," cautions Haggis. "It's about strangers, others. About how we love to divide ourselves. Take Rwanda -- a perfect example of two tribes, of one race, divided by colonial politics, who slaughter each other over differences that are invisible to an outsider. And that's so much who we are, as human beings. We will always manufacture differences." This seemed a truth so volatile that Haggis feared Crash would be misunderstood: "I thought, 'Oh fuck, I'm either going to be strung up by everyone I respect, or I'm going to be the poster boy for the KKK.' " His late friend and CBS executive Anita Addison (the first African-American woman to hold a top network position) strongly advised him not to change a thing. She died while Crash was in production, but made a wisecrack that went into the film, which is dedicated to her memory: "Santa Monica, Burbank, Toluca Lake -- those are some scary places for a black woman to find herself."

Born in 1953 in London, Ontario (just across the border from Detroit), Haggis, who was raised Catholic, smiles at the memory of himself, at age 6, telling his mother, "I wish there were more Catholics in this neighborhood, because all the Christians want to do is fight." He moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, determined to become a film director, only to spend the next 25 years in television, writing or executive-producing shows such as The Facts of Life, thirtysomething, L.A. Law, Walker: Texas Ranger and EZ Streets, honing his skills and solidifying his financial base for the jump he made in 2000, when he bought the rights to the two short stories by F.X. Toole that became Million Dollar Baby. "I'm glad now that I didn't get to direct movies at 23," he reflects. "They would've been so bad. It takes a long time to figure out what you want to say, and how to say it."

A subtle snobbism dividing movies from TV still operates in the industry, he discovered: "People thought, 'If we let him direct, it'll come out looking like a TV movie.' Completely forgetting that Michael Mann and even Steven Spielberg came out of TV!" He nevertheless persevered, and his aesthetic as a director comes visibly steeped in the prowling camera work of the great Europeans ("Godard was an early hero of mine, and Costa-Gavras? There's a career I wouldn't mind having!"), not to mention the trust in actors typical of the best Americans. ("As should be obvious, I stole liberally from Altman.") Casting Don Cheadle thus proved crucial: "Every gifted actor wants to work with Don. Having him onboard attracted everyone else."

Haggis was even set to direct Million Dollar Baby, having already lined up Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to co-star when, in the second week of shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood (whom Haggis had originally invited just to act) expressed his interest in the project -- provided he direct instead. An agonizing weekend ensued, but in the end the call was a no-brainer: "If I was going to give up the director's chair for anybody, it was going to be for Clint." Eastwood is currently directing Flags of Our Fathers, also written by Haggis, for DreamWorks. This, in turn, has led Haggis to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on the script for his second film as director.

"I want to keep doing things that scare me," he says. "I want to stay uncomfortable. If you see a well-made film that's wonderful while you're watching it, but it's all tied up by the last frame, often you forget it when the lights go up. I prefer an experience like Mulholland Drive, where you come out with your friends and argue over what the hell you just saw and compete to explain it to each other. Now that's a movie to me! I have the impression that, with Crash, a lot of couples get very argumentative over the 'frisk' scene." This would be the hellish moment when a self-tortured, hotly abusive cop crosses the line into racist brutality when he runs his hand up the dress of a well-to-do black woman, "looking for weapons" as her husband, a black television director, looks on helplessly. This incident gives way to a triple agony as the couple sort out what the husband should have done and the cop dodges (but only for a while) the indictments of guilt pulsing in his own mostly amputated conscience. "There is very little way to talk about that scene without risking a quarrel, especially if you're one of a couple," says Haggis. "But the responses are fascinating. One friend even said, 'That cop did such a favor to that man' " because, despite the evil of his act, it promotes life-changing (if life-threatening) confrontations in the lives of both the TV director and his wife. Adds Haggis, "So often in life we live out a paradox: 'It's your enemy who helps you and your friend who drags you down.' And we are each such bundles of contradictions. Something like racism can be opportune or inopportune. You can conduct your life with decency most of your days, only to be amazed by what will come out of your mouth in the wrong situation. Are you a racist? No -- but you sure were, in that situation! In the best movies, we don't know what the characters are going to do next. Our contradictions define us.

"I just have a lot of questions," Haggis concludes. "I figure if I have the questions, a lot of other people might, too."

Really Big Packages

What unmitigated gall.

Entertainment Weekly suspended its usual pabulum spEWing to piss on celebrity perk packages in its recent, laughably titled article "NEW Age of Greed." In the piece, unnamed executives at movie studios, TV networks and record labels whine about unnamed stars who dare to demand $40,000 private-jet flights to carry their luggage and $35,000 basketball courts to entertain them on location. The article even gripes that celebrity perks add about 5 percent to the bottom line of a film's cost. "Given that the average studio film now costs $98 million to produce and market, that can be $5 million in perks," EW gasps. "Say a studio releases a dozen movies a year, that's $60 million -- enough to make a Sideways roughly every three months."

Forget, for a moment, the stupidity of an entertainment publication that is shocked to find that stars are wasting Hollywood's money. The same outrage was heard throughout the 1980s and 1990s over Demi Moore demanding vintage dolls for her collection or Tom Cruise a co-op in Manhattan. Forget the cowardice of magazine editors who won't finger-point for fear those celebs will refuse to do EW covers. (Even though documents filed in the ongoing lawsuit over the collapse of the Basic Instinct sequel made public Sharon Stone's five pages of demands including Pilates equipment, a $3,500 per diem for armed bodyguards, a chauffeured car with a nonsmoking driver, three nannies, two assistants, a presidential suite, deluxe motor home, and on ad nauseam.)

Instead, remember this: Hypocrisy, thy name is EW's parent company, Time Warner. Chairman and CEO Dick Parsons gave himself a perk that's a monument to ego: a 5,000-square-foot, 21st-floor, marble-and-rare-wood dream suite (a supposed $25 mil to build out) inside the swankiest and priciest NYC office space, the new Time Warner Center. Parsons and the other heads of the Mammoth Media conglomerates feeding America its infotainment -- Disney, Sony, Viacom, General Electric and News Corp. -- may gag on celebrity greed, but they never stop indulging their own corporate gluttony.

Wanna hurl? Look at the latest shareholders-be-damned headlines this week about Viacom -- owner of Paramount, CBS, MTV, VH1, and Infinity radio -- disclosing that it gave its top three moguls a 58 percent pay increase even though the company's stock price fell 18 percent in 2004. A Viacom spokesman noted that the bonuses for all executives were tied to operating income, not share price.

It's not just the arrogance of rich, old Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone claiming he cuts costs at every corner while at the same time lining his own pockets at the expense of investors that's so nauseating. It's also the profligacy of a public company shameless enough to reimburse Les Moonves, who lives in Los Angeles but also has a New York apartment, $105,000 for the period he stayed in New York at his apartment instead of at a hotel, or Tom Freston, who is based in New York but also has a residence in Los Angeles, $43,100 for the time he spent staying at his L.A. home instead of a hotel.

Talk about chutzpah: This is paying these guys to live in their own homes.

For that matter, departing Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner received $735,000 for security services, personal protection and equipment. That's on top of the $8.3 million in salary, bonus and other compensation in the same year he was the target of a shareholder revolt.

The examples are legion. Besides the disputed $20 million golden parachute, French-based Vivendi Universal paid for all sorts of extravagant perks to chief executive Jean-Marie Messier before his ouster. Reportedly, Viv U picked up the tab for a $140,000-a-year butler, a $75,000-a-year chauffeur for Messier's wife, plus the heating bills in the $17.5 million Park Avenue duplex the company bought for him -- all while shareholders were kept in the dark about the extent of the conglom's financial problems.

Given such wretched excess, those toys for Hollywood A-listers seem like chump change.

Celebrities can make all the demands they want, but someone has to underwrite every perk. Whereas, when it comes to corporate gluttony, the execs are writing the checks to themselves. That's because, increasingly, the CEOs consider themselves celebs.

The monster of megabuck mayhem was the late Steve Ross, the Warner tycoon, who never spent a dollar of corporate money if he could spend a million. Freewheeling and free-spending, Ross single-handedly ushered in the show-biz era of extravagance (which raised the bar for copycat corporate masters of the universe in other fields) by showering stars and other big shots with trips in private jets and stays in Aspen chalets and Acapulco villas owned by the company. Of course, the studio bigwigs got as much as they gave. Ross' legacy of how a studio legend should live is still being emulated decades later.

It's why former Paramount Communications president Stanley Jaffe installed a screening room in his Westchester, N. Y., home at a cost to the company of $1.5 million. (When Bill Mechanic was president of 20th Century Fox, he eschewed that goody, telling one reporter, "I'd rather see movies in theaters, with real people.")

It's why Peter Guber, the onetime chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, saddled his employer with his Bel Air mansion, along with a laundry list of perks. Among the things Sony acquired for that staggering $5.5 million, besides the "Rolls-Royce of flotation tanks," was a $3.5 million loss on its books when the house was finally resold. Yet Guber, whose tenure resulted in $3.2 billion of Hollywood losses for Sony, had the nerve in his recent book "Shoot Out" (co-authored with Variety editor Peter Bart, who should have known better) to bitch about spiraling star demands.

What Ross was to the men, Dawn Steel was to the women. After she famously had a baby before taking over at Columbia Pictures, Steel was the first to negotiate all sorts of now-routine, child-friendly perks, like an on-site nursery, into her contract. It would be curious to see which of today's women execs griped to EW about the proliferation of $1,500-a-week nannies being paid by the studios for the offspring of celebrities making movies.

Some of these stealth forms of show-biz CEO compensation only come to light because of lawsuits. Indeed, it took Jane Welch to spill the beans about her husband's retirement perks in a divorce filing because GE had never disclosed the New York Knicks tickets, satellite television service, wine, country-club memberships, an $80,000-per-month Manhattan apartment along with continued use of the corporate jet, not to mention free toilet paper for life.

So unless Jane Eisner tires of Michael hanging around the kitchen all day in his Mickey Mouse PJs and suddenly divorces him, come September we may never know the lavishness of Eisner's Disney-funded retirement. Chairman George Mitchell stammers whenever the subject comes up, saying only that the company will honor Eisner's employment contract, which is reportedly being renegotiated. Of course, since he started at Disney in 1984, Eisner already has earned $1 billion in salary, bonuses and exercised stock options.

Yet isn't it ironic that Eisner, notorious for nickel-and-diming employees as well as stars, is such a penny pincher when it comes to everyone but himself? One of the most telling anecdotes in James Stewart's new book, DisneyWar, is how Disney's perk-addicted president Michael Ovitz came up with the absurd idea that the company should give a gift to Bob Iger, then the head of ABC television, to acknowledge his hard work.

"Why?" Eisner asked. "He's got a contract. He's not going anywhere."

"Don't you want him to be comfortable, happy in his job?" Ovitz asked.

"Not really," Eisner replied.

Recent newspaper and magazine articles purport to spot an industry trend that such iconic and iconoclastic show-biz megalomaniacs are being replaced by a breed of "pinstriped, buttoned-down brass" and "stoic, faceless suits," to quote Forbes. What a bunch of crap. The new guys have waited all their careers to be in charge just to bring home the same gargantuan package of bonus, stock options and perks as their craven predecessors. Especially when the boards of directors are still so packed with insiders, like Disney's. Does anyone doubt that newly-named CEO Iger will be vastly improving upon the $12 million he got as president, including a $6.5 million bonus and $3.45 million in incentive pay?

Then there's News Corp. president Peter Chernin, whose primary job by all accounts is baby-sitting the company until Rupert Murdoch's idiot sons Lachlan and James are ready to take over the public corporation's throne (that fact alone should make shareholders shudder). Though the company makes much of the fact that Chernin's new contract calls for his bonus to be tied entirely to improving the company's earnings per share, for fiscal 2004 he received an $8.3 million base salary, an $8 million bonus and 500,000 stock options valued at $1.79 million. But Chernin is also granted a severance package if he's terminated without cause, including a lump-sum payment of $40 million and the vesting of all his stock options.

Yes, it's Ovitzian, but at least Chernin has been on the job longer than Ovitz's 14 months at Disney, which included $300 charged-to-the-company breakfasts. The Delaware Chancery Court judge is expected to rule this summer in the Disney shareholders' suit over Ovitz's lavish $140 million severance payout. But it's comforting to know the money is going to such a good cause: Casa Ovitz, a 30,000-square-foot estate with a covered tennis court, a 13-car garage, an art gallery and a yoga room, which he is building in the posh Los Angeles enclave of Benedict Canyon much to his neighbors' chagrin.

But that pales in comparison to the media-elite lifestyle Chernin's boss Rupert Murdoch chooses to lead, with his recent purchase of Laurence Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue penthouse co-op at $44 million, the highest ever for a residence in Manhattan at the time. So listen, moguls, those who live in extravagant, perk-filled glass houses shouldn't cast the first stone.

Trailer of Tears

Adam Sandler looks like Albert Brooks' older brother. Nicole Kidman should have known better. And Christian Bale plays Batman not gay. Got that? NOT GAY!

Oh, the pratfalls and pitfalls of the latest movie trailers.

We all know the so-called summer movie season is as fake as everything else in Hollywood. That's because summer movies start bowing in spring, and if the moguls had their way, as early as the first winter blizzard (since summer ticket sales usually account for 40 percent of The Industry's annual revenue). The only thing stopping the suits from ordering a rewrite of the annual calendar -- hey, these guys are so power-driven and delusional they think they can cue a full moon whenever they want one -- is the fact that many of their films simply aren't ready any earlier. So what we have instead of wet prints are movie trailers (and, on the internet, lots and lots of lots of movie trailers) to handicap which studio stupidos are about to involuntarily spend more time with their families.

In an insanely unscientific business that guesses wrong more than it guesses right -- and given the lack of accurate alternative predictors -- trailers are as good an indicator of what is, and isn't, going to be a suckfest as, say, the quality of the craft services on a shoot. But a trailer is not only the public's first look at a picture, it's also the competition's first look as well.

So it wasn't the one-two punch of Spielberg and Cruise that suddenly gave Fox fits about the upcoming War of the Worlds. (After all, 20th had the same combo in the underperforming Minority Report.) Rather, it was the "wow" factor of the WOTW trailer that made Fox push Fantastic Four off the same June 29 release date and back to July 8. Score one for DreamWorks/Paramount. On the other hand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looked like a heavyweight since it had the buzzworthy Johnny Depp and the same release date as his two-year-old hit Pirates of the Caribbean. Then rival studios got their first glimpse of the kiddie classic's trailer and its creepy, psychedelic take and Johnny Depp in drag as Anna Wintour. Oops! Now New Line has moved its Vince-'n'-Owen romp Wedding Crashers onto the Chocolate Factory date, and Paramount followed with its Sundance rap saga Hustle and Flow.

Because we love the smell of Maalox in the morning, let's review some summer movie trailers and decide who's going to need an Rx for stronger stuff, like Thorazine ...

Bewitched: Ever since this trailer debuted on AOL, the whole town's been talking about it. And not in a nice way. Sony marketing czar Jeff Blake is one of the best in the business, but even he can't make a Prada purse out of this pig's ear of a film. (One word: Godzilla.) The trailer lets the cat out of the bag that this movie is not a remake of the TV show: It's a movie about the making of the TV show. Talk about a cockamamie concept. There's not one funny bit or line in the trailer, which makes us think there's not one funny bit or line in the movie or Sony would have used it. This is like a fun-house hall of mirrors, without the fun.

War of the Worlds: This trailer looks like Twister meets Independence Day. And since both of those ads were great, and the movies were monster hits, everything is going WOTW's way. Sure, there's something unseemly in a post-9/11, post-tsunami world about huge civic destruction, so when you see the people running from a somersaulting highway, it's not so much awesome as dreadful. Also, I kept looking for the Scientology "assist" tent, but guess it got cut out. Still, there's no way the wow factor of this trailer portends a movie battling the bow-wow factor.

The Longest Yard: I only counted one big laugh (Chris Rock's one-liner) in the trailer that's out now. Exactly when did Adam Sandler go from looking 25 to 55 years old? Something's very wrong when Burt Reynolds looks better than the leading man. (Yoo-hoo, Dr. 90210 ... ) I didn't know there were Jews in football, let alone prison.

Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith: After seeing the trailer, it should be Revenge of the Stiff.

Cinderella Man: Is anyone really in the mood for yet another earnest film about boxing? Especially after Hilary Swank demythologized this manly sport? The trailer makes this movie look like Seabiscuit wears boxing gloves, set as it is in the same Depression era, filmed in the same sepia tones, sending the same come-from-behind message. No matter how good Russell Crowe is in it (and how bad Renee Zellwegger looks in it), the trailer shows why NBC's The Contender isn't a hit.

Batman Begins: I had no wanna-see for this movie. Then I spied the trailer. God, Christian Bale is even more gorgeous here than he was in American Psycho. Finally, post-Kilmer and Clooney, someone is playing Batman as a manly man, and not as a fop. There's one good shiver-down-the-spine moment, otherwise the trailer is fairly routine. But it also leaves some nagging questions. Why is Batman being taught by Jedi knight Liam Neeson? And why is Batman strolling through Superman's ice planet?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: The trailer makes this movie look like Prizzi's Honor with less talented actors. Of course, I spent the whole time looking for clues as to whether Angelina and Brad were getting it on behind Jen's back. If you ask me, we like these two stars looking their most slutty, yet the trailer has them in too many clothes. Not only isn't there any sizzle, there's not even any steak. Where's the beef(cake)?

The Interpreter: Thank god for movie trailers. This one will save you $9. Forget even such stale dialogue as "We've got a situation" and "Someone might get hurt." It clearly shows there's even less chemistry between Nicole and Sean in this Sydney Pollack whodunit than there was between Harrison and Kristin in Pollack's last try, the stillborn Random Hearts. Nice to know the old guy still hasn't lost his lackluster. Since this trailer seemed like a week long, then the movie will seem like a life sentence.

The Pink Panther: All I know from the trailer is that this movie must have been made for the foreign market, because it's all about a murder in a soccer stadium. But in a summer sorely lacking in comedy, Steve Martin paired with Kevin Kline didn't look too painful.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: This movie trailer satirizes movie trailers, but it's too clever by half. The arch British humor isn't of Monty Python quality. Sure, sci-fi geeks know about Douglas Adams' classic book, but the rest of the audience won't have a clue what this incoherent trailer is hawking. It's like a dog's whistle that someone heard, but not me.

Pulp Diction

Sin City, an exquisitely made, unbearably faddish movie that will strike joy into the hearts of all who revere amputation and apocalypse, opens with a swoony love scene culminating in a murder for the heck of it. From there it moves smartly to the promise of child molestation and, with the culprit having had both his face and his balls shot off by Bruce Willis, steams merrily along toward cannibalism, electrocution and the mounting of severed female heads on walls. Had enough? If not, then you are in all likelihood an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth's fondness for comic books about hell on Earth. If you're a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands.

Still, given the current vogue for empty aesthetics, I'm bracing for the laurels that middle-aged critics suffering from hipster anxiety will heap on this fusion of comic-book art, Asian combat anime and digital cinema. I'll lay odds that Pauline Kael, in her late period of indiscriminate pop worship, would have gushed acres of heated prose in favor of Sin City. As for me, after half an hour spent drooling over its visual splendors, I found the movie every bit as sickening as its creators intended it to be, minus the kicks they so palpably got out of making it.

Billed as a collaborative work, Sin City is directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with some input from Quentin Tarantino -- a meeting of flamboyantly underage minds if ever there was. More accurately, the movie is a labor of puppy love by Rodriguez, whose work shuttles between enjoyably low-rent noir romanticism (El Mariachi) and childlike exuberance (Spy Kids), for the 1990s graphic novels that made Miller a star. Set in an urban wasteland -- populated by Amazonian hookers, compromised cops and corrupt senators -- that lies somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and the mangier back alleys of downtown Los Angeles, the Sin City series set the tone for a born-again comic-book art set in the seething underbelly of cities where vice and virtue rub shoulders and trade places at the wrong end of a gun. More imitation than interpretation, the film was "cut and shot," as the credits archly put it (God forbid Rodriguez should be doing anything as reactionary as editing or cinematography), on a green screen with state-of-the-art digital manipulation that essentially functions as a paste-up of Miller's visceral drawings. The handsome production design is classic noir, a shadowy world of silvery black and white stained with blood red and livid yellow to signify both beauty and deformity of body and spirit. As is so often the case with hardcore pulp, the dialogue, co-written by Miller and Rodriguez, works better on the page than declaimed out loud, which revs up the clipped meta-speech to the point of real silliness.

Sin City brings together three of Miller's tales, in which ambiguous heroes, festering in the same interstitial cracks of the city as their quarries, take revenge as a means to redemption from their own failings. Unrecognizable under many pounds of makeup and Schwarzenegger musculature, Mickey Rourke looks splendidly craggy as Marv, a street-fighting loner who cruises the nighttime city hunting down the killers of a beautiful blond hooker he fell in love with because she was the first and only woman to drop him a kind word. Doing Bogart detail, Clive Owen, in floor-mop hair, plays a private eye who tries to stay out of trouble (represented by a porked-out Benicio del Toro with a dagger stuck in his forehead, in a sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) while laboring to protect a leathered-up bevy of ladies of the evening who -- headed by Rosario Dawson in heavy bondage gear and Devon Aoki as a silent but deadly swordswoman -- turn out to need less protection than he does. In a valiant effort at moral complexity, Sin City is bookended by the ailing, washed-up cop Hartigan (Willis), who in his last hour of service saves an imperiled child whose destiny will haunt him to the end of his days.

These three heroic abstractions (no one in his right mind could call them characters) coalesce into a gaga knightliness that only a virgin schoolboy could get behind. In the acting out of Miller's timely if hardly original themes, the hazy line between sin and virtue blurs into a furiously accelerating orgy of gore and severed limbs that could very well make Takashi Miike blanch -- that is the true, manga-inspired impulse of this film. "We were like three kids in a tree fort having a ball," Miller has said about the making of Sin City, and I believe him. The product of three adolescent imaginations with a Sam Fuller fixation, brilliant mastery of the toys in their digital sandbox, and next to no grasp of life, Sin City's moral dilemmas are bogus and engage no emotional response. Unlike the Spider-Man franchise, the movie has no sense of fun beyond the filmmakers' high-pitched giggles at the expense of audience stamina.

Years ago, before he grew famous, Tarantino told me in an interview that his own enjoyment and the kick audiences got out of his brand of aestheticized violence were its only justification. I can't think of any other, but his formula -- visceral, stylish, derivative and detached from all humanity -- has grown into a virus, frantically copying itself all over the map of contemporary cinema. Given the burgeoning market for their work at home and abroad, in all likelihood he and Rodriguez and their legion imitators will get better and better at what they do, while having less and less to say. For those of us who like our movies to show or tell us something about the way we live, that's both too much, and not nearly enough.
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