Matthew Scott Kelemen

Fraught with Ambiguity

Todd Solondz is in a hotel in Los Angeles. His calls are fielded by the front desk operator, who has no idea who he is beyond his "guest" status. Had she known that Solondz is the director of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998) and Storytelling (2001), there might have been a hint of wariness in her voice. Hints of wariness are standard operating procedure in Solondz' world.

But maybe she relates to his films. Maybe she felt as much empathy for Dollhouse's tragically awkward Dawn Wiener (played by Heather Matarazzo) as Solondz did. Maybe Dylan Baker's tortured Bill Maplewood in Happiness helped her see some shred of humanity within a pedophile. Maybe Storytelling tore down her pre-conceptions of liberal arts colleges, teen homosexuality and suburban privilege.

Or perhaps she just found Dollhouse exploitative, Happiness perverse, and Storytelling bizarre and unwatchable. Regardless, as long as she is affected by Solondz' films -- better yet, if she changes as a result -- then Solondz feels that he's done his job correctly and created relevant cinematic art.

Solondz returns to theaters this week with Palindromes. At its heart, according to Solondz, it is the story of 13-year-old Aviva's quest for love. Audiences are going to be more affected by the film's narrative thrust: her pregnancy and coerced abortion, her odyssey that brings her to a group home in which right-to-life activists care for special-needs children (who record and perform as the Sunshine Singers) when not plotting to kill abortionists, and her encounter with the late Dawn Wiener's brother Marc, whose philosophy about free will and predestination allows him to cope with being pegged as a child molester and provides the film's most transcendent scene.

But Solondz also went out on a limb by casting seven different actresses (including Jennifer Jason Leigh), and one actor, to play Aviva. What seems like a gimmick slowly makes sense, as Solondz wants his audiences to care about Aviva, not to identify with the actress playing her (or relate her to Aviva's cousin, the Dawn Wiener character from Dollhouse, whose funeral opens the film). It may be Solondz' last chance to prove that, yes, he does care about his characters, and no, he is not a misanthrope toying with audience expectations. But he also deals with the issue of abortion in a way that has never been presented in a film before, a topic ripe for debate among the punditry should Palindromes be sufficiently illuminated by the spotlight of controversy.

Matthew Scott Kelemen: I recently watched Storytelling for the first time, and I hope you don't mind my saying it this way, but I think Palindromes is a much better film.

Todd Solondz: I'm glad that you like Palindromes!

I was confused [by the casting method] for the first 60 minutes, although I was intrigued. But the scene at Aviva's party when Marc Wiener expounds on free will versus predestination blew me away. I felt I was watching something that pushed the art forward and was very relevant. We have the right to choose, but our choices are predetermined. It's the first time I've seen something like this addressed in film in that way.

Well, good, thank you! I try to put things out there, articulate things that I don't see articulated.

I think that sequence is going to strike a chord in audiences, about something they are aware of but don't think about that much.

Oh, wow. Well, these things are unpredictable. I'm just appreciative that anyone can sit through and watch, and show up at these things. I don't take [open-minded audiences] for granted.

So how did you approach directing eight different individuals playing the same role? Did you have an idea of which part you wanted to shoot first in order to ...

It was actually about logistics. We actually shot the Sunshine sequence first because that was the one that was the most involved in terms of having so many children all at the same time. And from there I don't remember the exact order. I'd have to think about it. But as I say it was all dictated by logistics.

How did you create continuity or synchronicity between the actresses?

Well, what I was looking for a certain quality, a quality of innocence, of vulnerability -- that this was her constant. So with each performer who was playing this character, I tried to extract, to elicit as best I could, that quality of innocence and emphasize that, so there would be a kind of cohesion to connect them all. If you speak to Ellen Barkin, I'm sure she will tell you that whether she was speaking to the Latina, the redhead or Jennifer Jason Leigh, it was all as if it were the same person.

When you get to Jennifer Jason Leigh's scenes, suddenly it seems as if all of the other Avivas are have been taking their cue from her. You see this winsomeness that she infused in her characters often in her career.

That's great. She is one of the best actresses of our time.

In recent weeks, when I've brought up your name, I often hear 'Oh, he hates his characters.' When I was watching Palindromes, I felt I was seeing two layers. On one hand, I thought I was watching a very respectful portrayal of those kids. The other side was that people would fall back on conventional Todd Solondz criticisms: "God, this is another way of hating his characters."

Well, I can't really control these things, what people will say. I'm not a masochist. I don't Google myself! Unfortunately, there are those who will look at me in this way, and there is counterbalance with people who see something else. The movies are tricky, and they're fraught with ambiguity.

I think it is glib; I think that it is reductive to say I hate my characters. I couldn't possibly put all of the time and effort into the struggle of making these movies if I didn't feel for these characters. I am often asked by people ... sometimes they'll say "Why do you make films about such ugly characters, such ugly people?" And I always say I don't see them as ugly. I think it's more telling about the questioner than about me.

I think if people understood your take on sympathetic versus unsympathetic characters they'd look at the film a little differently.

You know it's very tricky. People see children with disabilities, and to see them in this kind of context, people don't know how to respond sometimes. And they say "How can you let them dance to these songs? It's offensive." And I say "Why should they be disenfranchised from these performances. Would it be okay if none of these children had disabilities, if they were just children? Or is it just because they have disabilities, because then who's prejudiced? Whose condescension are we talking about?

What came first, the idea of trying to tackle the concept of free will, or the actual, what I think you referred to as the film's MacGuffin [a device most often identified with the films of Alfred Hitchcock that pushes the story forward but is not intrinsically essential to the film]: the abortion story?

Well, you know, what came first, the chick or the egg? The process of writing is a creative one, not an intellectual one. It's a process of discovery. I'm not trying to be evasive or coy here. But certainly, there are certain things in the newspaper ... we live in a country where to be an abortionist is like being a fireman or policeman. It's a profession -- you put your life on the line. Regardless of one's political convictions or ideologies, of course, you have to respect that a doctor can make a good living doing all sorts of procedures other that perform abortions. This is certainly the only country in the world where clinics are bombed and abortionists are assassinated. It is a terribly volatile subject, but it's out there. It's in the media, newspapers, radio, etc. -- every day. So it's hard not to respond to that on the one hand.

And yet, the movie for me is an exploration of things that go beyond the so-called issues, which are, I accept, irreconcilable. All of this filtered through the consciousness of this young girl, because at heart, on the simplest, most fundamental level, it is really just a story of a young girl on a quest for love, to be 13 years old and to want a baby. It's not really about a baby. You imagine having a baby will provide a sense of unconditional love that one is not getting elsewhere. And all of this is thrust into motion with a dilemma: what do you do if your 13-year-old daughter comes home, and not only is she pregnant but she wants to keep the baby?

These slogans of pro-choice, pro-life -- they're Orwellian, of course, as if one is anti-choice and one is anti-life. If anything, the movie ... could be argued as an anti-anti-choice film. A young girl suspended between a pro-choice family that gives no choice, and pro-life family that kills. That choice ... you could argue, is one pro-choice? Am I pro-choice? Well, if one believes in the possibility of choice and the existence of free will -- which of course if you are of a religious bent, free will is a necessity in order to make a leap of faith. Its something that religion demands of you. If you are not, you may perceive things in a different light.

We can get real complex about this and say everybody's choice as to whether they want to have an abortion or not have an abortion, whether they want to support abortion or not support abortion -- due to genetics and environment, it was pre-destined that they would think that way.

Well, I don't want to think "pre-destined" because that almost implies that there is a certain kind of deity, that there is a kind of larger force at work in designing our lives. Rather, I might say that we are, um, as Marc Wiener says, we have our genetics and our life experience combined with randomness in such a way that the outcome can be nothing but what we ultimately believe ourselves to choose. That is to say, you may believe you are voting for Bush or Kerry. But it's not really a choice, it's the illusion, the vanity, of a choice. That in fact, one cannot but choose what one ultimately chooses.

I'm getting maybe a little thick there... ?

You're not. There's randomness, but if you believe that the universe all began at one point and is unfolding according to mathematical, mechanical principles -- then there is some argument for saying whatever happens does so according to some grand design, but we can't pretend to know that or fully understand it.

It's unknowable. Of course, it's all unknowable. Is there a grand design or is there not? But regardless, when we go to the movies, we have our biases, our prejudices that we have developed over the years.

Which is a kind of self-deception.

Certainly, we like to imagine certain things about ourselves. Everyone likes to believe that they're fighting the good fight.

Ellen Barkin's character would like to think so, in a liberal sense. In forcing Aviva to have an abortion, her true selfishness comes to the forefront. Aviva has no choice, her mother is more scared for herself.

And many will argue she is a liberal. She will check off that she's anti-war, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, etc. But when thrust into this terrible crisis, it becomes a crucible, a test of her character, and how she will handle this. I think in the end when she breaks down and says "Am I a terrible mother?" what she's doing is acknowledging her failure to come through at a critical moment in the appropriate way. And I think therein lies her dignity... .

Look, the person who kills the abortionist, like the person who performs these abortions ... everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Everyone thinks they're sacrificing one life to save a million unborn babies. Even Stalin, on his death bed, thought he was a good person. There's a kind of self-deception, a kind of narcissism. These are survival mechanisms.

I think it was interesting that the abortionist's family was the typical American pie family, or the only one that was conventional -- the only ideal family that was portrayed in the film.

That's a good point, thank you.

I think artistic ambiguity provokes thought in the audience. That seems to be what you go for.

Yes, it's true. I do prod and poke, and try to challenge the audience in some way. To re-assess, to re-evaluate -- reconsider one's preconceptions, one's myths about the world we live in and the way in which we engage in it.

Is Marc Wiener your alter-ego in the film. Is he a direct conduit to you?

I certainly have a great deal of affection for him, and I do agree with most of what he says there. However, I think he's a little bit bleaker than I am because I think he see this inability to change with a sense of doom. For me it's almost a freeing thing. If one can accept one's limitations That this can be a liberating thing.

Is abortion merely the film's MacGuffin?

Well, the movie is not a dogmatic film. I'm not out to advocate pro-choice anymore than I'm out to advocate pro-life. I have no interest in making such a film, but rather to explore some of the moral dimensions, the moral complexities of what this means and what this says about society.

There have been preview comments published that essentially said your last film shrunk your audience. Is that a concern of yours, does that ever cross your mind that you might have lost some people that liked your first two films?

Well, I can't please everyone all the time, and I never had a very big audience to begin with. I can only hope that the movie ... I do think it's reflective of certainly the polarization, the blue-red divide, that exists in the country, that people will be provoked.

We have definitely made a major shift into absolutism, and people wanting definite principles and answers with which to make their decisions about politics and social issues. The film seems to address this.

Yes, this is all true. We live in times in which obscenities are all around us. We [had] the Terry Schiavo story on the news 24/7, and the profound obscenities that emerge from certain kinds of ideological bullying. It's all reflected in some way. The movie is all fraught with ambiguity, and that's what makes it difficult or complicated. I don't want to tell the audience, in fact, I'm pro-choice, because if I say I'm pro-choice then the audience can relax and say "OK, it's a pro-choice movie, I know where you stand." And also if I say I'm pro-choice, no one who is pro-life will come see it. And the whole point is not so much about me. It's about you, about the audience, about how they engage when confronted with some of the consequences or complications of what this is all about.

In the production notes to Palindromes, you make a comment about how art has no meaning if it is not transformative. What does that mean to you, that art must be transformative? If you're going to strip the definition of art to its bare essential, it's an artificial representation of a physical thing or an idea. Why must it be transformative?

I think that it's not that it has to be representational, but the experience itself has to transform, in some sense, one's understanding of the experience that one is engaged in over the course of a film. If you go into it with a certain attitude and there is no evolution that takes place, if it doesn't engage and speak to you in a way that makes you see things in a slightly different light, then I think it must fail for you.

Running Red Lights

Was anybody expecting Million Dollar Baby to sweep the Academy Awards? Once Clint Eastwood's euthanasia drama won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, a consensus began to emerge in the media that Academy voters went sentimental this year. It was even suggested in some quarters that said sentimental streak extended to the Best Documentary category.

But anyone who actually saw Born Into Brothels, from the inaugural audience at Sundance to the critics screening it for this week's wide theatrical release, knows that there is little mushiness in the film.

"I don't think it is a sentimental film at all," says filmmaker Zana Briski. "I think it's a really honest film about these kids in the red-light district, and it shows everything from their joy and humor and beauty to the really harsh reality of their lives. I would not describe the film as sentimental, although I would describe it as a love story. I think it really is filled with love."

Despite Briski's insistence, the film is touching when not heart-wrenching in its depiction of the Calcutta children's plight. Co-directed by Briski and Ross Kauffman, Born Into Brothels captures her determination to save the kids by first inspiring them creatively, and then figuring out how to get them educations.

"It was an incredible experience," says Briski. "This whole project has really been all about empowering children through photography, and that's why I started a foundation called Kids With Cameras. I didn't know what I was doing when I started this. I was just responding to the kids around me, and they were very curious about my camera. It's really turned into something else, which is amazing."

Making a film, much less winning an Academy Award for it, was not on the photographer's mind when she made her first trip east. "I went to India in '95 to photograph different women's issues and whatever I found," she says. Briski documented problems of infanticide and selective abortion, "And then in '97 I went to Calcutta because I had photographs in a show. The next day someone took me to the red-light district. Prostitution wasn't anything I had planned to photograph. Even that part of it was a real surprise."

Then Briski discovered the children, who were fascinated by her camera. Avijit, Gour, Kochi, Manik, Puja, Shanti, Suchitra and Tapasi (there was a ninth child who was not present during much of the filming) became her focus, her proteges, and then her crusade. "I was really just responding to people asking me for help." She says. "It was quite simple: 'Take my child, take them somewhere safe.' It was the women and the chilldren. I just went around asking people. That's when I found out that nobody really wants to empower these kids. Or these women."

"Zana Auntie," as she was known to the children, was strongly affected by their impending fate. Ranging from ages 8 to 12 when she met them, their options were few. The three boys, with their adult personalities already emerging, were heading for a life that gave them the option of becoming pimps, thieves, drug dealers and users, and sellers of illegal alcohol.

The girls, however, wrestled with the knowledge that they soon would be "on the line" – start prostituting themselves. Some reveal that they are already feeling pressure from the prostitutes, or even their relatives. They live in the same rooms in which their mothers conduct business. Life is cheap, money talks, filth is everywhere, and profanity prevails.

Briski started teaching the kids photography at the tail end of one of her trips. She bought cameras in the States, and returned to Calcutta in 2000 with renewed determination.

She also brought a video camera and began to film. Had she not contacted Kauffman, though, Briski would have been unable to play her crucial role in front of the camera. "He was my boyfriend at the time," she says. "He loved film. He also loves kids. He was editing, and he really didn't want to edit even though he's great at it. It was a very intimate situation he came into, as I had spent year building trust with these kids."

"I remember getting there," recalls Kauffman. "Going to the hotel, Zana opening the door and saying 'We're leaving in 20 minutes.' I was like, 'OK.' I didn't think I was going to shoot that day, but I brought the video camera just in case.

"And of course, I got there and all I did was shoot. I met the kids, and they immediately took me in. I had a great time, and I actually have a photo of me, Puja and Kochi from that first day. And then Avijit invited us over for lunch in his room in the brothel. His grandmother made us lunch. It was a lovely day."

Kauffman shot expressive night scenes on digital video, which were used in the film's haunting establishing shots. The luminescence of the red lights create a mood of quiet, urban desperation and moody melancholia, into which Kauffman weaved close-ups of the children's eyes: this is what they see. Five years from now, if nothing was done, the girls would be on the streets.

"We knew that going into it," he says. "They knew where they were headed, too. When Zana was teaching the kids, it was very clear. It wasn't like she went in there to save kids. And she didn't end up saving them, she ended up helping them help themselves. This was never planned out."

Briski tried hard to get the kids into schools. As children of prostitutes and criminals, they were essentially untouchable. Kauffman's camera follows her as her attempts are rejected, and as she battles the bureaucracy in order to provide the proper credentials and paperwork that will get them accepted into school. We see the kids' exhilaration when they take a field trip to a beach. We cannot help but feel their bashful pride as they are shown a front-page story about them in a newspaper, or when they see the prints that will be shown at the first of what will be many exhibitions of their photographs.

We also witness a lot of profanity-laced, verbal confrontations between the women of the brothels. It's shocking, and then funny, when Kauffman brings up the fact that he didn't understand the language. "It was almost easier because in a way, they start screaming and yelling – and that happens all the time, by the way, that's not an unusual occurrence – and as it's going on, I know they're screaming and yelling but I don't know what they're saying. In a way it's almost easier because I'm filming the emotion of this scene, not the action itself."

What the film doesn't capture fully is the aftermath. Since being showcased at Sundance in 2004, Briski has parlayed the attention that the film received into a non-stop publicity and fundraising campaign. Kids with Cameras is now a full-fledged organization, with workshops planned for the children of Jerusalem, Haiti, and Cairo. Briski and Kauffman have been zig-zagging about the country, organizing and presenting fundraising exhibitions and screenings. "We're planning to build a school in Calcutta specifically for children of prostitutes," she says. "It will be a high-powered school of leadership and the arts. The kids are already helping me find other kids that want to be enrolled. Some of them are the siblings of the kids in the film."

The two plan to head back to Calcutta in April to look for land for the school, and Briski says that Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, has agreed to design the building pro bono. Her pet project, however, is to produce a book featuring the children's work. "I'm going to do it myself. ... I want to do a real high-quality book. I'm looking for somewhere in the world that still does photogravures [a technique involving chemicals and engraved plates], and I'm not having much luck. It's a particular printing process that I think doesn't exist anymore. I think the last printer just closed down in Japan. I'm still holding out for that printing press because it's very, very beautiful. It's very rich. It's a very beautiful way of printing."

The book would build on the attention that the film has brought to these children. What winning an Oscar has done for the children is inestimable in terms of drawing publicity to Kids With Cameras, and the pay-it-forward effects of proactive, creative approaches to solving the problems of poverty. The children in Born Into Brothels are caught in a cycle that they could not escape because there was no opportunity for empowerment until Briski conceived of and provided one. There are many Zana Aunties in the world, unsung but providing the vehicles to escape that cycle.

For all of them, the scene in which Avijit cheerfully admonishes the driver of the cab that will take him out of the brothels to the airport for a conference in Amsterdam – and his future as a photographer – is universally symbolic.

"Please drive slowly," he says. "I won't get there if there's an accident. I won't fulfill my dreams."

Brokedown Palace

It's Friday afternoon, and Michael Tucker has just scored a small victory. Yesterday he screened his documentary, Gunner Palace, for representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America, and won an appeal that will allow the film to be released with a PG-13 rating rather than its original R.

"It's a landmark thing," says the director by phone from Los Angeles. "It's landmark for profanity in America. It's huge. It's the most profane PG-13 movie, ever."

The profanity comes from some of the mouths of the 400 soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit who, in November 2003 when Tucker arrived in Baghdad, were stationed in a bombed-out palace that once belonged to Uday Hussein. Tucker lived with the soldiers for two extended periods. He rode along on raids,

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Innocence and Inner Experience

"This volume I hope I can truthfully say has scenes and instance which no other story of usual size in the world may contain, either in fiction or reality. Things that might be comical, sad, and horrifying. Let the reader follow every event and adventure, and then he can, if he sets his mind and heart on it, take it on as if he himself was an actual participator. The author writes the scenes in this volume as if he had experienced them himself." – Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger was an invisible man. For most of his life Darger worked as a janitor in Chicago's Catholic hospitals, scrubbing floors and silently enduring abuse from the sharp-tongued nuns who supervised him. Although Darger may have been barely noticed by the nuns and neighbors in the various Lincoln Park-area apartments he inhabited, his mind was alive with a mythology of his own design.

Darger, who died in 1973, devised a complex imaginary world in which an epic war was fought between Good and Evil – innocent, brave children and the adults who tried to enslave them. He brought that world to life by writing a novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, that eventually grew to 15,000 pages, and illustrated it on hundreds of huge canvasses made from sheets of butcher paper glued together. He kept that world a secret until he was close to death, when his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, discovered Darger's life's work. Stunned at what they had witnessed, Nathan Lerner decided that the world had to see the invisible man.

Starting from Scratch

Henry Darger created an intricate world in which seven innocent Vivian Girls were persecuted by a group of godless, child-enslaving men.
Filmmaker Jessica Yu was similarly taken aback when she was first shown Darger's preserved apartment. Yu's amazement and sense of wonder infuses her documentary about Darger's life and art, In the Realms of the Unreal. Like Jonathan Caouette's groundbreaking, innovative autobiography Tarnation, which appeared at Sundance in 2004 alongside Realms, Yu pushed the envelope in terms of structure and technique. Yu used Darger's own words, read by actor Larry Pine, to tell his story, and cast a then 7-year-old Dakota Fanning (whom Yu describes as a real life Vivian Girl) as the film's narrator. She animated Darger's paintings, bringing his world to life the way he may have seen it, and captures the various and often contradictory perceptions of the small circle of friends that Darger had collected toward the end of his life.

The nature of Darger's work and technique make innovation practically a requirement in telling his story. "It was invention born of necessity," she says by phone from her Los Angeles home. Yu had little of the traditional biographical material a documentary filmmaker relies on – just Darger's autobiography, plus conflicting testimonies of his few living acquaintances. "No newsreels, no photos, and hardly any people who knew him – certainly no one who was close to him. I think out of limitation there's a weird freedom. Once you stop resisting it, you end up embracing this idea that you have to be more creative. And also, Darger was so inventive himself. He was so resourceful, he would just grab things from books and images, magazines ... just do whatever he could to create his own work. I sort of took a little inspiration from that." She faced a cinematic challenge of the highest order, one that would lead her on a five-year odyssey.

The only thing that Yu could be certain of was the uncertainty of Henry Darger. As the film begins, she overlays the voices of the few people who knew him against establishing shots of a crucifix suspended in air and images of his workspace. At first, the collective perception of Darger as a mystery is conveyed through the voices of his ex-neighbors, with "I don't know" being the general consensus. Pine, as Darger, introduces In the Realms of the Unreal as Yu closes in on a Darger creation: a naked girl with butterfly wings. And with a slight flap of the wings, she launches into the story of Lincoln Park's invisible outsider artist.

Yu had already won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 1997 for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, a portrait of a writer who was paralyzed by polio yet found an escape through writing. Her next documentary, The Living Museum, portrayed residents of a mental institution who formed their own art community.

Outside In

It was the artwork of mental patients, particularly that of late 19th-century artist Adolph Volfli, from which the term "outsider art" originated, though the term has widened to include almost any untrained or naive artist working outside the mainstream art world. Darger's oeuvre, with its vast mythology, is one of the most recognizable examples of the art form. "I'm not actually an outsider art aficionado," says Yu. "A lot of times you do something and it leads to something else. I had seen Darger's work in '92 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. There were a lot of outsider artists in this but his stood out."

Yu was struck by the sense of innocence and a lack of irony she found inherent in his paintings. "A lot of these sort of images of innocent little girls, like the Coppertone Girl, a lot of artists appropriate those kind of images," she says. "But they're always making some statement about the loss of innocence or about American society. In his paintings there was none of that. I had never seen that kind of perversity and innocence mixed together in a single vision. That really struck me and I was very curious about this person. Then it wasn't until years later, maybe six or seven years later when I was giving a talk about that other film ["The Living Museum"], a man who was actually a journalist in the audience asked me if I heard of Darger."

The journalist, Ted Shen, was friends with Kiyoko Lerner. "The next day he picked me up and we went over there," she recalls. "And there I am standing in Henry Darger's room. It was just one of those very lucky things, and it was probably the moment of standing in his room that I thought ... I was just dying to make a film about him.

"The room was still filled with stuff. Everything in it was something he saw, and he wanted as part of his environment. And that room – which of course is no longer together – there's a very particular vantage point which is the chair behind the worktable. There's all this painting material and everything, and then he would face the stained-glass windows and the crucifix. You really get a sense of how he experienced the room, and that just made me very curious about him. Who is this person? How did he come to create this work that had this odd sensibility? And where did these themes come from?"

Darger was born into poverty in Chicago on April 12, 1892. According to his autobiographical writings, he claims to have been a child prodigy of sorts, well-read and ahead of his class. He had somewhat of a superiority complex, referring to his various adversaries, especially adults, as "dust beneath my feet." At age 8, his ailing father was sent to live in a poor house, and Darger was sent to a boys home, the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy. Darger, who had little social contact beyond his father, tried to amuse his peers by playing the clown. But the funny noises he made had the opposite effect on his classmates, and he became their object of derision. Darger wrote that his teacher joined in the ostracizing. Before he reached puberty, Darger had experienced universal rejection.

Darger was eventually sent to a work farm 162 miles from home, but escaped at age 17 and made his way back to Chicago. His father was long since dead, but he found his first job as a janitor and soon began work on his magnum opus. "He seems to have in a short period of time, deliberately pulled away from the world," says Yu.

Meet the Vivian Girls

"What's interesting to me about him," says Yu, "is that if you look at the themes of his work and what happened to him in real life – it's almost like he was able, through his artwork, to turn all the terrible things that happened to him into adventure. Just like the Vivian Girls. You know how when he was a kid and he was thrown on this train and sent to asylum? It was this horrible experience, and it happens again and again to the Vivian Girls. But they're always like, 'Oh my goodness, what an adventure we're starting.'"

The Vivian Girls were his protagonists, seven angelic sisters who were the age of the children that Darger went to school with when he was separated from his father. As Darger was "enslaved" at the work farm, the Vivian Girls were enslaved by anti-Christian adult males, The Glandelinians. Darger looked to the Civil War as a model for the Glandelinian soldiers and the battles they fought in the child-slave rebellion, but he identified himself with the Vivian Girls.

When it came time to illustrate the story, Darger compensated for his arrested artistic development by borrowing images he collected from newspapers, coloring books and other miscellaneous sources, and created his own clip-art library. Darger copied and traced, experimented with collage overlay, and pinched pennies in order to have particular favorites photo-enlarged. He created an ancestor to the modern era's graphic novel.

But Henry Darger is less known for his techniques than for his decision to give the Vivian Girls penises. The theories behind the gender confusion of Darger's subjects are numerous: he was a closet pedophile, he was trying to connect with the sister who was put up for adoption after his mother dies in childbirth, he never had any sexual experience or guidance during puberty. Darger wrote about his great affection for children, and disappointment at his rejection when he tried to adopt. But as Darger historian John MacGregor pointed out, Darger's later writings and paintings became more graphic, with gruesome descriptions of violence against little girls and references to rape.

It hasn't been determined whether Darger knew exactly what rape was, however. Kiyoko Lerner, who would become Darger's champion after her husband's death, tells a story in the film about Darger knocking on her door wanting to see Mr. Lerner. Darger explains that he had been raped by a "beautiful 17-year-old girl," who also took his wallet. It was Darger's way of coping, turning a mugging into more of an adventure.

"This guy definitely had an incredible amount of ambition," says Yu. "While there are parts of his story that are tragic and very sad, the other side of it is that he was incredibly bold as a person and as an artist, if you think about it. Beside the ambition of trying to create this huge masterwork, the idea that he was trying to see if he could live satisfyingly in a world that was purely out of his own imagination. That's a pretty audacious thing to do. 'The outside world sucks, and maybe I can do better, maybe I can live without it.' I think that's something that's sort of undeniably bold."

Death of a Salesman

In 1975, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme pointed a loaded handgun in the direction of President Gerald Ford while Ford was visiting Sacramento to address the California Legislature. She failed to fire the weapon before being apprehended by the Secret Service, but why Fromme, a member of the Manson family, chose Ford instead of Richard Nixon is one of history's great mysteries. It was Nixon who famously declared Charles Manson guilty, after all.

Ford actually survived two assassination attempts – one for each year he held office. Nixon, arguably the most polarizing and passionately hated president of the second half of the 20th century, remained relatively unscathed. But it's not for a lack of trying, as director Niels Mueller's film The Assassination of Richard Nixon points out.

Fortunately for Nixon, his lone, known would-be assassin was a failed Philadelphia tire salesman named Samuel Byck. Byck, who had been rejected for a government loan by the Small Business Administration, concocted an eerily prescient plot to kill the 37th president by hijacking an airliner and forcing the pilot to fly it into the White House. But Byck's plot, literally and figuratively, never got off the ground. On Feb. 22, 1974 he attempted to take control of an airplane; before it left the tarmac he was shot and wounded by police, and committed suicide. It was later discovered that he had sent a taped confession to Washington Post journalist Jack Anderson, and had sent a number of lunatic ramblings to celebrities, such as his idol Leonard Bernstein, over the years. Byck seemed fated to a bottom-dwelling position in the annals of presidential history.

He would have stayed had James Oliver Huberty not killed 21 people in a San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald's on July 18, 1984. Or rather, had Huberty's rampage not affected a UCLA film student waiting for his first screenplay idea to strike.

"I was in my earlier 20s and it was one of the first incidents of this kind that came to my attention as an adult," says Mueller in a phone interview from his Glendale home. "It just horrified me, and I was thinking this guy must be somebody that belongs to another species. I just didn't understand the human ability to lose all empathy."

Mueller began taking notes, starting a diary that was the genesis of a film that would be released nearly two decades later. "I started exploring a character. I wanted to understand; how does somebody go from point A to Point B, with Point B where they lash out in violence, indiscriminate violence?"

A character began to emerge: a man, separated from his wife and child, who takes a new job in sales to re-establish himself financially, and more importantly to re-establish himself in his wife's eyes. "I had him obsessing and talking about the American Dream, and I had him talking into a tape recorder, although I hadn't figured out why or how to justify the tape recorder."

Mueller's American dreamer formulates a plan to kill a sitting president, one not known as a target of assassination attempts. The working title of the film became "The Assassination of L.B.J." until Mueller, perusing the books at a Los Angeles library, found a book with a slim chapter on a real-life failed salesman, separated from his family, who tries to kill a sitting president by flying an airplane into the White House and talked into a tape recorder for the last several weeks of his life. Mueller moved the time of his script forward 10 years, named his character Samuel Bicke, moved the locale to Baltimore and changed the working title.

Mueller enlisted the aid of film-school friend Kevin Kennedy to write a formal draft, which they finished during the final years of the Clinton administration. Another UCLA grad, Sideways director Alexander Payne, helped get the film fast-tracked to production, with Y tu mamá también director Alfonso Cuaron and producer Jorge Vergara stepping in to secure financing and see the film through to the finish. Perhaps most importantly, Sean Penn took on the role of Bicke, creating a borderline personality whose adherence to absolute principles of liberal idealism blinds him to the realities of his life and leads to a psychotic breakdown.

The downward spiral film – a meta-genre of sorts – is unique in that its appeal can be limited. It's uncomfortable to watch a character the audience is supposed to empathize with fall apart before your eyes. But occasionally the films can transcend that discomfort. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, albeit meant for the stage, is perhaps the most triumphant example. "That one resonates the most because Willy Loman is also someone that is an American Dreamer," says Mueller. "He's somebody who believes that the American Dream is being threatened and feels like he just hasn't gotten his piece of the pie. That has a real common thread with Sam."

Other memorable downward-spiral characters have been created by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stephen Lang in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Michael Douglas in Falling Down, and more recently Christian Bale in 2004's The Machinist. But Penn's performance, a 180-degree turn from his tragic lead role as a grown-up ex-hood in Mystic River, touches a nerve inflamed after the last election, as progressives banged their heads against the wall and pundits declared the Democratic Party terminally ill and on life support. His absolutist adherence to his principals and warped idealism unintentionally plugs in to the post-election malaise.

The first half of the film is marked by scenes that draw laughs as Penn reacts to the good natured berating and tough-love motivation of his boss, (veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson), constantly decries the everyday racism he feels his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) is subjected to, and protests the short skirts his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) has to wear at work. He even makes a visit to the local Black Panther headquarters and makes a $107 donation, much to the amusement of a Panther representative (Mykelti Williamson).

Ironically, Bicke's adulation of the Panthers is reflective somewhat of the theme Tom Wolfe explored in his essay "Radical Chic." Wolfe satirized the fashionable idealism of the late '60s that led to dinner parties among the culturati – most notably Leonard Bernstein – in which it was de rigeur to invite an African-American militant.

Bernstein was a symbol of misguided idealism in Wolfe's story, but in Assassination he is a symbol of purity and honesty to a misguided idealist. While Mueller's main intention was to portray a man betrayed by his own warped sense of fairness and justice in society, the film taps into the zeitgeist of the times with dialogue that was added after the election of George Bush. While criticism of 9/11 exploitation are sure to be leveled by partisan pundits, Mueller foresees more objections to the observation made by Thompson's character while attempting to motivate Bicke, with Richard Nixon on a television in the background:

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Dying with Dignity

On Jan. 12, 1998, Ramón Sampedro took his own life. A quadriplegic for nearly three decades, Sampedro had vigorously fought for the right to die, but was frustrated again and again by the legal system in his native Spain. Finally, with the assistance of 11 trusted friends and associates, he took a lethal dose of cyanide, went into convulsions, and passed away.

Sampedro was a prominent symbol and spokesperson for the right-to-die movement, but his death may have drawn slight attention outside of his native country had he not insisted on videotaping it. A copy of the tape was sent to a Madrid television station, and an edited version was repeatedly broadcast on local news programs. Among the many stunned viewers was director Alejandro Amenábar, who was sufficiently inspired to bring Sampedro's life story to the screen for his latest film, "The Sea Inside."

In wasn't the first time Amenábar had heard of Sampedro, whom he first saw on television in the early 1990s. The director had just gained international recognition with "Open Your Eyes" and was considering his next project when Sampedro's story captured his attention.

"I asked myself, 'What would I want to do, if I was in his condition, with my life?'" he recalls. "By that time I was also interested in another story about a man who was kidnapped by ETA, the terrorist organization, and was in a very, very small cage for one year and a half. I really had nightmares with that story, when he was finally released. I guess there was something about being trapped that got my attention, and I could understand him somehow."

Intrigued, Amenábar sought out Sampedro's book, "Letters from Hell." "I was very impressed by what a good writer he was," says Amenábar. "His ideas about life and death were quite profound, and I immediately connected with that. Basically, he is not scared of facing death. He says it is a part of the process of life."

Sampedro was a young ship's mechanic in a small Spanish fishing village when he had the accident that changed his life. He had dived off a small cliff, but had misjudged the depth of the water and hit his head on the rocky floor. Paralyzed from the neck down, he was trapped in a cage from which there was no escape.

In a way, he was lucky. His family attended to his every need, and after he recovered he became a voracious reader. For a quadriplegic, he had a relatively high quality of life. Quick of mind and wit, he had a magnetic personality. Women were drawn to him, and he even entertained marriage proposals. He became involved with the Spanish right-to-die organization Death with Dignity, and became a published author.

Although he put on a brave face, Sampedro was still trapped. He was unable to take his own life due to his paralysis. Anyone who assisted him was vulnerable to prosecution by the legal system and, in heavily Catholic Spain, condemnation by the Church. Eventually he did enlist the aid of friends, each person executing one small step that in itself could not be considered illegal.

It was no accident that he waited as long as he did, however. He wasn't fighting to end his suffering as much as he was fighting for an ideal.

Amenábar's films are all explorations of death and different states of consciousness. Ironically, his debut film, "Thesis," was a murder mystery with a videotaped "snuff film" as a central plot device. "Open Your Eyes" (later remade by Cameron Crowe as "Vanilla Sky") concerned a man who was horribly disfigured in a car accident who goes to extreme measures to end his own suffering, while his first English-language film "The Others" dealt with the afterlife.

That film's star prodded Amenábar to make a drama for his next film. "I guess I wanted to do a drama from along time ago, and I actually remember Nicole Kidman telling me 'Your next movie should be a drama.'" says Amenábar. "Maybe I had this idea in my mind, but I hadn't developed it enough to talk about it."

Amenábar dug into the person beyond the poster-child persona, and was intrigued by what he discovered. "What we didn't know about him was his sense of humor," he says. "That was something that I found out afterwards when I met one of his friends and she told me that he would constantly mak[e] jokes, and how funny he was. Jokes about death, and jokes in order to disarm people in front of him, when he could tell that there was someone who was trying to ... I mean, when there was pity or mercy, he would immediately use a joke, in order to have a one-to-one conversation."

That sense of humor heavily influenced the performance of actor Javier Bardem, who had previously created complex, sensitive characters in "Before Night Falls" and "The Dancer Upstairs." However, Amenábar freely admits that he and co-writer Mateo Gill opted to de-emphasize the extreme psychological turmoil that Sampedro surely experienced in his condition and caused him to become an activist. "I don't think we can get to his deep, deep, deep desires," says Amenábar. "He said in a very reasonable way, and very relaxed: 'I want to cross the line.' I think we had to respect that. He was fighting for something. He had all of these people loving him, but that's what he wanted. I thought I had to respect that and let it go."

Telling Sampedro's story changed Amenábar's own outlook on life, and the possibility of what he would do if he were caged in the body of a quadriplegic. "The thing is now, if I was in his condition, I think [I] wouldn't want to die. I really think I wouldn't. But I can think of some other cases, examples, where I would want to die. Then I wouldn't want anyone to tell me what I should do with my life."

Upriver Across America

It's 1 p.m. in Battleground Ohio. In less than 90 hours the polls will open for what is now commonly known as Most Important Election of Our Lifetime. As with every swing state, the campaign to convert every last undecided voter still rages, and on this last Friday before Nov. 2 it is taking the form of a screening of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry on the campus of the University of Cincinnatti.

At least some of the estimated 500 students assembled at UC's student union may be more interested in the guests that have been assembled to present and participate in a post-screening Q&A about the cinematic story of John Kerry's combat experience, his participation with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing in 1971. Actors Paul Newman and Brenden Fraser are on hand, as are former Republican Congressman and Vietnam vet Pete McCloskey and author Douglas Brinkley, whose Kerry biography Tour of Duty provided the inspiration for the film. Even Jeff "the Dude" Dowd, the slacker-king inspiration for The Big Lebowski, overcame his amotivational syndrome to represent in Ohio.

By now, setting up screenings of a John Kerry documentary may seem like preaching to the choir, but Going Upriver director George Butler sees something more important happening. This screening is one of nearly 1000 that have taken place over the last several weeks at college campuses across the nation. According to Butler, while many students drawn to see the film may have intended to vote for whoever they considered the lesser of two evils, they are leaving with a changed outlook. "A woman just came in the door," he says. "And said exactly this: 'Before seeing the movie I was against George Bush. After seeing the movie I am for John Kerry.' I think that explains it in a very eloquent way."

Butler – a longtime friend of Kerry's who first rose to national attention as the director of Pumping Iron, the bodybuilding documentary that catapulted Arnold Schwartzenegger to fame – has introduced the film at events in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. He flew south last week for a screening at Florida State University, hit Iowa yesterday, and drives to Columbus this afternoon for the final screening at Ohio State. Altogether he's appeared at 20 screenings, with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Ed Norton, Reese Witherspoon and Dermot Mulroney rounding out the list of celebrity appearances.

The DVD screenings were set up by's Student Action Network to take place after the conclusion of Going Upriver's recent 200-city theatrical run, although the announcement of Sinclair Broadcasting's October 22 airdate for anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor gave the screenings added purpose. Butler sued Sinclair for unauthorized use of his own photos and footage from Going Upriver, subsequently accepting an invitation by Sinclair to represent Kerry for the "news program" that ran in Stolen Honor's place.

"Sinclair gave me equal time with my film," says Butler, who was interviewed for the broadcast. "I think we completely converted that program. We demanded equal time. Sinclair was put under national pressure. They buckled. They turned it into a news program, and I think the sequences from my film were much more interesting [than the scenes from Stolen Honor]."

Aside from that appearance, Butler has been going full throttle screening his film and giving Q&As. "We did one last night at Iowa State, and it went on for about an hour," he says. "There were a lot of questions about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, because my film deals with that and John O'Neill, and how Nixon couldn't find any disputes in the official records of John Kerry's naval medals."

In the fray of politically themed films released in advance of this election, Going Upriver has managed to stay relatively unscathed and untargeted by the right-wing machine. "I think the Republicans are very fearful that any attention they give the film will double its audience," says Butler. "They also know I made Pumping Iron, which launched Arnold's career. They didn't want to damage that."

If anything, the screenings are the culmination of how important and unprecedented the power of film has become in this election. The floodgates were opened by Fahrenheit 9/11, followed by a documentary about Kerry's swift boat crewmates titled Brothers in Arms, Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed, a film about Karl Rove titled Bush's Brain, and a few hastily produced pro-Republican answer films.

They are also a sign of the renewed effectiveness of organizers on the political left after decades or dormancy. Erick Streckfuss, a history major and president of UC's College Democrats, helped to organize and promote today's screening. "We did all the advertising," he says. "It was great. There were about 500 people in the room that came to hear the panelists and see the film. Honestly, I think and hope a few minds were changed.... We had a few people who came in who shunned the stickers and Kerry gear on the way in, who by the end were applauding with everyone else and embracing it."

Streckfuss describes the campus as conservative-leaning, "Although we're winning the button and sticker war." A turnout of 500 is gives a good indication of how effective campus activism is at a time when students are increasingly strapped for tuition and faced with the spectre of a renewed draft. Multiply that by the 989 other screenings in 48 states organized by, according to Student Action Network director Ben Brandzel, and you get a pretty good barometric reading of how passionate undergrads are about the current political climate.

It's also a testament to how Going Upriver transcends the propaganda factor. "It's the story of John Kerry," says Brandzel from MoveOn's Washington D.C. headquarters, "But it's more the story of an entire generation of student veterans and activists that came together and, using the power that they had in a democracy, overcame a corrupt, insatiable administration and ended an unjust war."

Brandzel sees a very clear correlation between the current mood on campus and the period when Vietnam-era activism reached a critical mass. "When that happened they were unstoppable, and our hope is to build a connection in people's minds between the activist consciousness that George W. Bush has awakened in the progressive population – particularly in young people – and the need to dig in for the long haul and to rally around inspirational leadership. It's the kind of leadership that Kerry provided 30 years ago and the kind we hope he can provide today."

Actor Brenden Fraser saw the film nine days earlier, and felt compelled to act as well. "I can't sit still," he says. "It's unhealthful to shout at the television when I don't agree with what I'm seeing in regards to news coverage.

"The film is a lightning rod. It was eye-opening to me. I didn't have a clear picture of who Kerry was; to be honest, I only had a two-dimensional pencil sketch of understanding. Now it's like I have a three-dimensional, crystalline portrait. I was able to step back in time and see who this guy is, and admire him for his courage, his patience, his leadership qualities, his intelligence, and the ability to do what he did: to testify."

In League with Extraordinary Gentlemen

Filmmaker George Butler has made a career of profiling extraordinary men. One of his documentary subjects became famous as a result of his first film and is now governor of California. Another survived 18 months stranded in the Antarctic, crossing an ice shelf on foot and returning to save his entire crew. The latest is a longtime friend who is currently running for president.

"You can't understand John unless you understand what Vietnam is to him and to his life. It is absolutely essential to understanding him."

That's the first line of "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," Butler's recent film – spoken by an unattributed narrator. The second, spoken by a second narrator, gives the thesis. "It's one form of patriotism to go, which he did. Then if you see that what's happening is wrong, you also have a patriotic duty to speak out about it."

At the time of our interview, Butler is putting the finishing touches on the film, an adaptation of "Tour of Duty," Douglas Brinkley's account of John Kerry's Vietnam experience and subsequent role in the anti-war movement. "Going Upriver" opens in theaters on Oct. 1, as the 2004 election has come dangerously close to being a referendum on John Kerry's service during the Vietnam War. The documentary will surely be punditized and politicized, spun by the right and defended by the left until the public perception is far removed from the filmmaker's intentions.

However, the filmmaker, despite literally being a publicist for Kerry at a crucial time in both of their lives, has infused the film with honesty and authenticity that can only be gained through years of observation and interaction with his subject.

Butler conceived of a film about Kerry's Vietnam experience in 2002. Brinkley's book, published in 2004, would later provide a structure for the narrative. Butler, however, corresponded with Kerry at the time of his service and had observed Kerry's anti-war activities first hand. Butler is a good storyteller – albeit one with an unavoidable subjective bias – and artfully weaves Vietnam footage with his own stills and interviews.

Yet Butler might have never put his eye to a camera lens had he not learned how to live in Detroit on less than a dollar a day. Butler was a University of North Carolina undergrad when he met Yale-educated Kerry through a mutual friend. Harvey Bundy, the nephew of Johnson administration advisors William and McGeorge Bundy, had invited both Butler and Kerry to a family gathering in June 1964. Butler recalled the meeting in "John Kerry: A Portrait," his recently published collection of photographs: "A tall figure, rail-thin and Lincolnesque, came across the grass. 'Hi, I'm John Kerry,' he said simply."

The two hit it off immediately, and maintained correspondence throughout college. William Bundy inspired Kerry to serve in Vietnam; Butler was not swayed. Instead he joined VISTA, and was assigned to Detroit with an allowance of $5 a week. He published a community paper in a high-crime neighborhood, using the experience to sharpen his skills as a photographer. John Kerry would give him his first extraordinary subject to shoot.

Upon receiving his discharge, Kerry made an unsuccessful run for Congress for which Butler served as a publicist. Kerry gravitated toward the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and quickly took on a leadership roll. In 1971 he participated in the VVAW's Winter Soldiers Investigation meeting in Detroit as an observer, and took the occasion to call on his friend Butler. The testimonies – personal accounts of atrocities committed and witnessed – given by the Winter Soldier participants would be summarized by John Kerry several months later when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I had never heard anything like this before in my life," recalls Butler in his barely-a-whisper voice. "It was pretty stunning stuff."

The VVAW decided to march on Washington in April, dubbing the protest "Dewey Canyon III" after the code name for two secret missions into Cambodia that were familiar to most veterans. Kerry would speak before the committee at the behest of Sen. J. William Fulbright. "I stayed involved and went on to Washington with John Kerry, and I handled some of the press for the vets," says Butler. "I took a lot of photographs. I sat right behind John Kerry when he was testifying. I was sort of a key observer to the whole thing and it was a pretty remarkable event. What's interesting about it is the moral choice that John Kerry made to oppose the war, which might have made a political career very difficult indeed. But he did it with vigor and good sense."

Butler's photos would be published in 1972 in a book titled "The New Soldier," a collaboration between Butler, Kerry and Kerry's brother-in-law David Thorne. It was the last time Kerry and Butler would work together for some time. Butler went on to apply his experience working with Kerry to then-U.S. Rep. Paul McCloskey's run for president during the 1972 Republican primary. "I was his press secretary in the primary, and it was backbreaking work. Campaign work is one of the hardest things there is. McCloskey obviously didn't beat Nixon but he made a pretty good run of it."

Exhausted by the campaign work, Butler went into low gear for awhile. He met a writer, Charles Gaines, who had just published a novel. "Stay Hungry" was made into a 1975 film starring Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, and a young, cocky, Austrian bodybuilder with a heavy accent. By the mid-'70s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a god in the bodybuilding world but unknown to the mainstream. Schwarzenegger, who had dreamed of being in the movies since childhood, posed in front of Butler's camera for a "Sports Illustrated" photo shoot. "Then Gaines and I wound up doing a book called "Pumping Iron" and the rest is history," says Butler.

Butler adapted the book for a documentary, filming the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest that pitted Schwarzenegger against Lou Ferrigno. "Pumping Iron" not only led to mainstream acceptance of bodybuilding and helped ignite the fitness craze of the '70s; it led to a career in film for its star and director. Butler went on to direct "Pumping Iron II: The Women," which helped destigmatize the sport's female participants, and two films about explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition to the Antarctic, which left his ship trapped in ice and his crew marooned for 18 months.

Shackleton's story gave Butler the chance to polish his documentary chops via a blending of photos from the expedition with breathtaking vistas shot on location. "Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition" was narrated by Liam Neeson, and released in 2000, followed a year later by a Kevin Spacey-narrated IMAX version. Butler had become a master documentarian, if not a prolific one, and his choice of subjects had begun to form a pattern. He portrayed extraordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. Then his old anti-war, Vietnam vet friend, whom he held in the highest regard, decided to do something extraordinary as well.

Kerry's life ambition symbolically materializes during a junior-varsity soccer game in 1963, when news arrives about President Kennedy's assassination. Lt. (junior grade) Kerry at first served on a frigate, the U.S.S. Gridley, at sea as most Navy men did. Kerry was part of the first group of "brown-water" sailors who, in a newly devised policy, rode swift boats up riverways, searching fishing boats and exchanging fire with an often unseen enemy. Kerry's crew gives eyewitness accounts of the incidents for which Kerry was awarded his silver and bronze stars. The extreme loyalty and passion Butler has for Kerry is palpable in the film.

"Bear in mind – and this is something that my movie is going to show – that the combat in the river wars in the Mekong Delta was ferocious," says Butler. "I've interviewed all of Kerry's crewmembers. They were going into four firefights a day. If you saw the boats that had been shot up, it's just awesome." Max Cleland and Bob Kerrey also testify to the servicemen's plight.

Little mention is made of Admiral Roy Hoffman, who took such offence at Brinkley's gung-ho, kill-happy description of him that he became a prime mover in the creation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. SBVFT point man and lifelong Kerry foe John O'Neill, who took over command of Kerry's boat, was not interviewed for the film and is portrayed as a pawn of the Nixon administration. Brinkley himself appears to sum up Kerry's now-controversial discharge ("Well, after John Kerry's third Purple Heart it was time to come home.").

While it's true that most of the film was completed before the rise of the anti-Kerry swiftees, the lack of attention to perceptions that counter Kerry's version of his tour of duty is significantly noticeable. "We focused mainly on Vietnam and the peace movement when Kerry came back," says Butler. "There are kind of two separate wars. They make very good stories. The story of Kerry's life is a fascinating one. We've got some rip-roaring combat in the movie I've made.

"The thing is ... it's interesting. I've known John since '64. In that length of time you really know whether someone fibs or exaggerates. We've had thousands of encounters. If there had really been any doubt about his Purple Hearts or his other medals in 1971, Richard Nixon would have crushed him."

Brinkley's statement about Kerry's third Purple Heart leads to the film's transition to the "second war." "He immediately experiences culture shock," says Brinkley. "People are staring at him. He is in his navy whites and medals, and nobody seems to care. And from that moment on he started a new life, and that's as a Vietnam veteran."

Whether Kerry felt it was his duty to protest the war or calculated that a war-hero-turned-dissident image would lead to a successful political career could only be proven by reading Kerry's mind. Butler presents a convincing argument through the words of Kerry's comrades. If Kerry wanted a political career, why would he jeopardize it by putting himself out in front of the anti-war movement? If he were truly calculating, why didn't he speak out against the unwinnable nature of the war (as O'Neill recommends) instead of emphasizing atrocities?

John Kerry the anti-war protester is presented by George Butler as courageous, compassionate and committed to public service. It's a convincing portrayal, but what effect it will have on the voter remains to be seen. Butler says he is unaffected by the pressure; it wasn't part of his motivation. "I'm the guy that made 'Pumping Iron,' and I made 'Shackleton of the Antarctic.' I tell good stories about people."

The Next Blair Witch

Every film festival season has a no-budget film that rises to prominence. There may be a gimmick at the heart of the film (the found documentary footage of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, the extreme realism of this year's minimalist shark thriller Open Water), or the film may draw on expressionism as a basis for unrolling a complex or conspiratorial story line (1998's mathematics-based sci-fi thriller Pi).

This year, the no-budget Cinderella story is Shane Carruth's Primer. The winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film, Primer is somewhat genre-related to Pi, but reminiscent of classic conspiracy flicks such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation or Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View -- both released in the Watergate-saturated year of 1974 -- with the rapid-fire techno-jargon of the Paddy Chayefsky-penned Altered States thrown in for good measure.

It's somewhat ironic then that Carruth had not seen the film based on the investigation of the Watergate break-in until after he came up with the concept for Primer. Speaking from his home in Dallas, Carruth has just returned from participating in the Seattle Film Festival, where he feels his film polarized audiences.

"It's weird," he says. "The people that like it are pretty adamant about liking it, and I think the people that don't ... well, they don't talk to me. Nobody wants to come up and say they want the last two hours of their life back."

Not surprising, especially when Sundance Film Festival Co-Director Geoffrey Gilmore describes the film to be "as dense as [it] is dramatically tense, overflowing with nonstop dialogue yet intermittently incomprehensible."

The film revolves around two engineers who participate in an ongoing group side-project on their own time. Carruth himself took on one of the principal roles as Aaron, a mathematical engineer who constructs a device with his partner Abe (David Sullivan). But the project yields unexpected results involving time travel. Suddenly the two have the power to alter the past, and the potential implications lead to an ethical dilemma that gives the story its hook.

"I was reading a lot of nonfiction, like the history of the number zero and the history of calculus," says Carruth of Primer's origin. "Even the transistor and a lot of things that came out of Bell Labs this century. I was completely enamored by these stories, and it seemed as if there were a lot of commonalities that I hadn't even seen played out realistically in film."

Carruth began to visualize a story featuring "guys puzzling stuff apart and figuring it out. Usually the thing that ends up being the most profitable is a side effect of the thing they were going after initially. So I was just really into that world."

He began to blend the concept with themes of trust and what happens when people change. "Power in the equation," he qualifies. "What's at risk with a start-up and what can be lost. Basically, I had to introduce this device that would give them the ability to do that, and so that's where the concept for this machine came from. It's easy to do without any real special effects, and at the same time, it's got the ability to alter someone's life in a way that maybe they're not even sure that it's happening. It kind of puts them in this weird position of feeling out of place, and being affected in a way that makes them paranoid."

While developing the concept, Carruth happened to see a film that had evaded his attention previously. He had never seen All the President's Men, and was amazed and inspired. As he watched the little clues and pieces of the investigation converge into a full-on conspiracy, he was further inspired to flesh out his film.

"It made me think that there is a way to do this. There is a way to show the bits that I'm interested in that hopefully are compelling."

The screenplay took a year to develop. Carruth immersed himself in physics in order to write authentic dialogue, a process he describes as fun.

"I had never taken a physics course," he says. "I read a lot about it. I read through a lot of thesis projects put together by graduate students that I had found online."

While the film veers into techno-babble that can cause one to lose track of the flow of the story, first-time filmmaker Carruth devised a visual language that is mesmerizing enough to compensate. An engineer by trade, Carruth took a methodical approach to realizing his initial concept. Having no experience with motion-picture film stock or lighting, he found that by experimenting with a regular camera he could compose shots for storyboarding and get a good idea of how the lighting would appear on Super 16mm film. He essentially devised his own method of pre-production. Consequently, the film has a flat, cold feel reminiscent of All the President's Men, a look once common in early 70s cinema.

In an era when the lines between independent and pseudo-independent films are increasingly blurred, Carruth is a genuine successful independent filmmaker. Primer's total budget was $7,000, and he did little revision in order to compensate for finances.

"The finished product is very much like the script. There's very little that needed to be changed or written differently. It basically plays exactly like the script. I guess I tend to look at it as making sure I'm interested when I'm writing. If I ever find myself in a scene where I'm basically just doing it to get from point A to point B or C, then I'll basically just scrap it and figure something else out."

Primer was also filmed with festival screenings in mind. Carruth kept the length less than 80 minutes, and went for the Holy Grail when he entered the film at Sundance. Amazingly enough, the effort paid off and independent distributor ThinkFilm bought the rights.

Now Carruth gets to see if he can beat the sophomore slump. He has the advantage of a great learning experience at his disposal.

"Some of it I'll definitely carry forward," Carruth says. "And then the other parts ... basically, what I learned is what not to do the next time around. Hopefully, if I'm lucky enough to do another project, I won't be the guy trying to match footsteps at four in the morning. But now that I've done it all myself, it helps me to understand everyone else's job."


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