Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Independent filmmakers deliver what Hollywood often doesn't: Movies as Art

(To the right, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talks about challenges to directors at a recent gathering of film lovers in Memphis)

OXFORD, Miss. – The scene might have come out of a Nicholas Ray movie. The famous Hollywood director, his best work, “Rebel Without A Cause”, “In A Lonely Place”, “Johnny Guitar”, years behind him, sits alone in his Madrid bar at midnight, a half-empty bottle in front of him, eyeing the half that’s left.

Maybe he’s thinking of that conversation with the great, low-budget filmmaker Luis Buñuel a couple years back. “You’re the only (director) who does what he wants,” Ray told him. “What is your secret?”

“I ask for less than fifty thousand dollars per film,” Buñuel responded, suggesting Ray try the same. “You’re a famous director. Why not try an experiment? … See for yourself how much freer you are.”

(Nicholas Ray)

Ray shook his head. “If I did that in Hollywood … I’d never make another movie.”

Nicholas Ray’s “glorious failure” to break free of Hollywood’s chains of gold and become “the avant-garde, independent moviemaker” he always wanted to be—eloquently described in Patrick McGilligan’s 2011 biography—provides a glimpse into Hollywood today, where the typical movie costs from $20 million to $80 million to make, while high-end pictures reach $300 million or more.

No wonder studios and directors are looking beyond Hollywood to places like Mississippi and Louisiana to make movies. And even more important than in Nicholas Ray’s day is the role of independent filmmakers in preserving movies as an art form, not simply an industry H.L. Mencken once blasted as “too rich to have any room for genuine artists (and) too much under the heel of the … gorillas who own them.”

Folks in Jackson, Miss., got a chance to enjoy the art of independent filmmaking March 31-April 3 at the Crossroads Film Festival. It’s one of at least 15 film festivals that take place in the state throughout the year.

I got my own chance in February here at the Oxford Film Festival, where I feasted on narrative shorts like “Three Fingers”, the account of a female war veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and full-length pictures like “Texas Heart”, the cast of which included Mississippi actors Johnny McPhail, Susan McPhail, and Clarksdale, Miss., Mayor Bill Luckett.

This coming November, the “Indie Memphis” film festival in Memphis, Tenn., kicks into gear. John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it “arguably the region’s top film festival.”

Like neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi is increasingly a place where films are made and talent is sought. From the feature film “Gentleman from Mississippi” in 1914 to 1950s classics “Baby Doll”, “Raintree County”, and “This Property is Condemned” to more recent films such as “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Black Snake Moan”, the state has always had a cinematic lure.

Actor, producer, writer and director Johnny Remo, whose 2016 movie “Saved by Grace” was filmed in Canton, said filming in Mississippi beats filming in California. “I cannot say enough how amazing the people were. Everybody waves. … In California once, we were filming and the guy next door started mowing his lawn. It took $500 to get him to stop.”

(From left to right, director Johnny Remo and Ward Emling and  Nina Parikh, both of the Mississippi Film Office)

Ward Emling of the Mississippi Film Office agreed. “The communities of Mississippi are unbelievable. They make my job easy. A movie anywhere in Mississippi is going to be well-liked, treated fairly.”

Mississippi and its local communities benefit when the cameras roll here, whether they’re big studio Hollywood cameras or those of independent filmmakers.

“Forty nine cents on a dollar is what the state spends on film,” Luckett said during a panel discussion in Oxford on “Producing Films in Mississippi”. “We’re the best in the country as to what that dollar spent brings back.”

Emling said the 2001 hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was filmed in 11 counties in central Mississippi. “We’re competing on locations” as well as with other incentives to filmmakers, he said.

At a recent “Shoot & Splice” event at the Crosstown Arts Center in Memphis, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talked about the challenge to the director in making a film that does indeed qualify as art. It’s important, he said, to be “a student of life. You need to understand what’s important and a priority. … We need to see humanity on the screen conveying honesty.”

The reason is “people can detect dishonesty like this,” the Memphis-based director said with a snap of his fingers. “What is the emotional spine? A drive that is not easily changed?”

Craig Brewer, a Memphis native and noted director of successful films such as “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”, was in the audience and added that the director should ask of characters, “Where are they in their lives?”

(To the right, "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer in Memphis)

Later in an interview, Brewer told me that big budget films can be art just like smaller budget films. “What’s important (is) to have a solid point of view.”

During a trip to Hollywood some years back, I made a stop at one of my favorite restaurants, the Musso & Frank Grill, which has been serving dishes like corned beef and cabbage, homemade chicken pot pie, and potato pancakes to its movie star clientele since 1919. My waiter pointed out the table where Mississippi writer William Faulkner liked to dine.

Tales of Faulkner in Hollywood are some of that city’s best. He left Yoknapatawpha to make some money in Tinsel Town in the 1940s, and he had some notable successes. The hard-boiled novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides tells of rooming with Faulkner, his heavy-duty drinking, his impenetrable silences, Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward the great author.

Movie mogul Jack Warner once “boasted that he had the best writer in the world for `peanuts’,” Bezzerides recalled. Faulkner “had contempt” for movie work, and when Bezzerides once pressed him to get busier on a screenplay, responded, “`Shucks, Buzz, it ain’t nuthin’ but a movin’ picture.’”

The old man might have a better attitude if he were alive today. I can see him now at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, banging away at his script, having a helluva time, and making some real art in the process.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"It sure is dark in Mississippi," my friend said back in 2011. "It's about to get a lot darker," I replied.

(To the right, the Mississippi state Capitol, where the Legislature meets and where state Rep. Steve Holland gave his speech)

"Unbelievable! Apparently it is your mission (to) destroy this government!" cried my good friend, Mississippi House Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, in a fiery speech before the state House of Representatives recently.

What he lamented was the systematic destruction of state government in Mississippi by a Republican "super majority" and Republican governor who just signed into law a "North Carolina"-style discrimination-is-okay bill. The destruction didn't begin with that bill, however. It has been going on ever since Republicans took over, and it has led to seriously underfunded schools and mental health facilities, roads and highways and bridges in desperate need of repair, absolutely gutted workers' compensation protection, yet millions in state taxpayer subsidies to major corporations.

And here is my prediction of all this in a November 2011 column that ran in Mississippi newspapers:


OXFORD – It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.

“It sure is dark in Mississippi,” one of them said, repeating an observation I’ve heard many times. “Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness.”

Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. “It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi.”

Anyone disagree? With its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.

Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?

It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here? People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.

“They have been tasting this blood for many years,” says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. “You are going to see `personhood’ through statute. You’ll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre.”

Holland’s own party, of course, is in shambles--divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.

“Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised.”

Old-style populism like Holland’s, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else—seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he’s not legislating. “If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this `big, ole, fat government,’ I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt,” Holland says.

Hmmm. Maybe. The “revolt of the rednecks” that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.

It’s not that Republicans simply won’t spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.

As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the “personhood” initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.

Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.

In fact, while we’re at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.

What did he do to change any of this?

I’ll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Students protest working conditions and anti-unionism at Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi

(Students protest Nissan's anti-union policies in Canton, Miss., Saturday, April 2)

CANTON, Miss. - Students and activists marched past the front door of the main office of Nissan’s mile-long plant here Saturday chanting a modern-day version of Florence Reese’s Great Depression-era labor anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

“Which side are you on?” began the call-and-response by students from the University of Mississippi, Tougaloo College, and Jackson State University. “On the people’s side!” they shouted.

The rally by 30 or more students and veteran activists aimed to bring attention to poor working conditions within the 5,000-plus employee plant, which has resisted a decade-long unionization effort by the United Auto Workers and a growing grassroots organization of workers, ministers, civil rights-era veterans, and college students.

“Students have always been the cornerstone of any movement,” said Michelle Wheatley, a senior at Tougaloo College. “We ask students to take a stand. To have Ole Miss here means a lot.”

Prior to the Saturday rally, pro-labor student activists came primarily from historically black colleges and universities like Tougaloo College and Jackson State University, both in the Jackson, Miss., area. On Saturday, a half-dozen or more students from the state’s flagship university, the University of Mississippi, joined them. An estimated 80 percent of Nissan’s workers in Canton are African American.

“We stand against corporate tyranny!” University of Mississippi freshman Jaz Brisack told the group.

(To the right, University of Mississippi students join Saturday's protest)

“When you have a company that’s exploiting its workers, that company needs to be held accountable,” said Buka Okoye, who heads the NAACP chapter at the University of Mississippi. “When we speak against oppression, we speak against exploitation in general.”

“The labor movement is not dead! Unions are not dead!” said Dominique Scott, who heads Local 121 of Students Against Social Injustice at the University of Mississippi. “It’s important that we students acknowledge the power that we have and be in solidarity with workers.”

Former Mississippi Rep. Jim Evans, also a veteran labor organizer, said student solidarity with workers is very important. Nissan needs to “live up to its promises” and make good on taxpayers’ huge investment in bringing the company to Mississippi by allowing workers “to have respect and a voice at work,” Evans said.

Sources say that a union vote at the Canton plant is likely to take place within the next three months.

Although Nissan workers earn comparatively good wages for Mississippi workers, they have complained of harassment and poor medical treatment of workers injured on the job, the hiring of temporary workers (estimated at up to 50 percent of the workforce) at lower pay and minimal benefits, and punitive actions against those who express pro-union sympathies. Workers and activists say that the company showed employees at the Canton plant an anti-union video as recently as last month.

United Students Against Sweatshops, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Young Democrats of America, and students activists and organizers with the national AFL-CIO in Washington were among the groups organizing the rally, the latest in a series of events in Canton and around the world challenging Nissan’s anti-union policies in the U.S. South.

A UAW delegation left for Paris, France, Saturday to meet with French parliamentary members about Nissan’s anti-union stand in Mississippi. Nissan workers are represented by unions at company plants around the world. Yet the company has joined other foreign-owned automobile manufacturers in resisting unions in the U.S. South. The French government owns nearly a fifth of the shares in Nissan stock with double-voting rights and thus has significant power to influence company actions.