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05.07.08

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Photograph by Carolyn Cassady
Still life with beat: In 1959, as 'On the Road's popularity was peaking, Jack Kerouac fled fame and New York for the relative peace of California.

On the Rocks

The Santa Cruz Film Festival opens with Jack Kerouac's Big Sur breakdown

By Richard von Busack


At the point of meltdown from alcohol corrosion, Jack Kerouac went on a hejira--or what Alcoholics Anonymous calls "the geographical cure." This road trip added one volume to Kerouac's "Dulouz Legend," the series of books about himself and his wanderings across America. That book was 1962's Big Sur. In it, Kerouac tells of how his alter ego, "Dulouz," sought the clean life in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin near Bixby Canyon. Director Curt Worden's documentary on this excellent and little known book, One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, opens the Santa Cruz Film Festival. (Disclaimer: I'm judging a series of films at the SCFF, but One Fast Move or I'm Gone isn't one of them.)

The documentary runs down the roster of local poets and novelists who knew Kerouac. The writer's longtime agent and friend Sterling Lord is here. Worden finds Michael McClure (who, thinly disguised, figures in the novel, though this isn't mentioned onscreen). Ferlinghetti is interviewed, naturally. So is Kerouac's dear friend Carolyn Cassady. as well as two of her children, John and Jami Cassady. The film is a kind of book-club meeting of actors and musicians, with John Ventimiglia, Robert Hunter, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye adding their ideas.

There are perceptive comments here. The actor Donal Logue has some sharp insights on the Madonna-whore dichotomy in old-time Catholics. Novelist S.E. Hinton, framed by the view from Twin Peaks, weighs in on the combo of fame and shame. Noting that today you'd just steer a man with Kerouac's problem to the nearest AA meeting, Tom Waits says, "You'll never write another word, but you'll be OK." (Very droll, but in interviews Waits claims he hasn't gotten drunk in years, and he's still working at a steady clip.) Worden takes his cameras both to Big Sur and the urban underbelly Kerouac fled. Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt fame) plays open-chord guitar and neck-brace harmonica, adapting Kerouac's words as lyrics. I wish the documentary had been more stylized, more reflective of a disordered mind. One shot, of a car headlight splashing over a manhole cover, has some of the noir spirit we think of when we think of waking up in a skid row hotel at the end of a four-day binge. Kerouac's Frisco is as dead as Nineveh, except on vintage black and white film. But One Fast Move or I'm Gone shows us today's paradise for bankers, the towers of the financial district wind-polished under the sun.

Beat Down
A Bantam paperback edition of 1963, which I snatched from the free book box in Logos in 1979, sums up on its first page the plot of Big Sur, while spraying saliva in all directions:

"A NIGHTMARE SUMMER:DULOUZ--The King of the Beatniks--tortured, broken idol of a whole generation, great, modern sex god who just wanted to be alone with his cat; all-boozer of the century who was slowly drinking himself out of his mind.

BILLIE--his fashion-model mistress who knew every trick in the book. Dulouz was her man, meal ticket and stud rolled up into one, and she wasn't going to let him get away no matter what!

ELLIOT--Billie's son--he saw things that would make any adult flinch.

--AND--BIG SUR--the lonely, wild, surf-pounded shore where Dulouz went to hide; where the world tracked him down and made its final attempts to destroy him."Such was the prose selling Kerouac's books, when they sold, that is. The author was just ending his brief reign as media darling. It was after On the Road hit it big that Kerouac learned "success' is when you can't enjoy your food anymore in peace." Scenesters by the hundreds hunted Kerouac right to his house, and lay in waiting in New York and San Francisco bars.

The newspapers, TV and magazines were determined to squash these bongo-carrying locusts once and for all. The insect metaphor is no exaggeration. A lurid Life magazine cover story in November 1959 likened the Beats to parasitic bugs crawling on the juicy cassava melon that is and always will be (world without end) American prosperity.

On TV, a since-forgotten comedian called Louis Nye played a beardo called "Jack Crackerjack." Even sympathetic figures like Steve Allen were getting on the author's nerves. Kerouac writes of sitting on "a dunce's stool" on Allen's show on national television.Trying to get some peace, the nigh-40-year-old author fled for the far coast. It had changed. The Bay Area sprouted miles of tract houses, and there was no room for hitchhikers in the endless parade of station wagons careening by the roadside. There was little ease at the one place he sought it, at Carolyn and Neal Cassady's house in Monte Sereno. Cassady--model for Moriarty in On the Road--had just got out of San Quentin, where he spent two years for the possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Once a demigod behind the wheel, in Kerouac's view, Cassady was now working the lobster shift, retreading tires in San Jose.

And whatever Kerouac had expected from the Big Sur, it was bigger than he imagined. He thought of himself as a Breton from Finistère, the point of France sticking into the Atlantic.

'A Billion Years of Woe'
Here was the real finis-terre: the end of the earth, with the sea crashing on all sides, the wind howling in. He sees the "dark leer" of the phosphorescent seaweed. Kerouac had been a sailor once, and he feared this coast anyway: "It's been there a million years and it doesn't want me clashing darkness with it ... a billion years of woe!" "It must be awful at night," the more fearless Neal Cassady observes.

The evening terror gives way to a temporary daytime ecstasy, with Kerouac delighting in the little things, the forest creatures and the local mule. "Alf" was the pet of one of the locals, interviewed onscreen. The author even mentions in his prayers a favorite shirt that he got for free at the Watsonville dump.

First boredom set in, and then panic: Kerouac writes that he loses control of "the peace mechanism of my mind for the first time in my life." Though eloquent on the misery of too much drink (Big Sur's Chapter 21 deserves excerpt in an anthology on alcoholism), Kerouac heads for the boozepots of Frisco. He can't escape himself: "a bent back mudman monster," a Sisyphus up to his legs in boiling waste. By the end, he has visions of a society of hideous human vultures, who enslave him to serve as their scullion. (I wonder if R. Crumb got his evil vulture women from this book?)

The last third of Big Sur records an affair that goes south fast. Some of this material was probably off-limits for legal reasons, since literary historians identify the real-life version of Billie in the novel. What One Fast Move or I'm Gone avoids is what Bantam's purple prose is getting at: child-endangerment scenes that one hopes was just Kerouac's fiction. In the novel, Elliott, Billie's child, stands in the bedroom and watches Dulouz and his mother having sex. ("That's good, he'll learn," she says.) Worse, Billie has a just-out-of-the-joint pedophile best friend who is always chuckling to Dulouz about how he can't wait to kidnap one of the cute-bottomed 10-year-old girls in the neighborhood.

All this ugliness leads Dulouz to the pit, being held down in Big Sur, glued to Billie with his sweat in a sleeping bag ... before he's finally relieved from his torments by a sacred vision.

One of Kerouac's former teachers compared the author's senses to Poe's Roderick Usher. And you think what Kerouac is sensing is the full nutzoid extremity of the 1960s, all that polysexual anarchy about to burst in the face of a gentle, gently reared author.

The Big Sur trip was a farewell to the three-cornered love he had for the Cassadys. Neither Jack nor Neal would make it out of the 1960s alive. Ultimately, poet Gregory Corso's judgment of Big Sur seems the sanest: "He needs help."

This good and well-researched documentary is an intro to the book. It serves as a reunion for the class of 1960. It brings in images of this rough coast at its most lambent and calendar-picturesque. But visually speaking, it doesn't capture the vicious turbulence, the mountains of madness behind this novel. That kind of horror needed a David Lynch or a Fritz Lang.

ONE FAST MOVE OR I'M GONE: KEROUAC'S BIG SUR, a documentary by Curt Worden, has its world premiere Friday, May 9, at 7:30pm at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 general/$18 seniors and students. Following the film, ticket holders are invited to an afterparty at the Museum of Art and History, featuring jazz, food, drinks and readings of Beat poetry by Morton Marcus, Jami Cassady and others. For information visit www.santacruzfilmfestival.com.

The Facts of Life

Documentaries rule the day at the seventh Santa Cruz Film Festival

By Traci Hukill


If today's blockbuster films are cinema's bestselling novels, then documentaries are its magazine articles, its earnest Nation commentaries and titillating Vanity Fair exposes. They are stories constructed from fact, presented with varying degrees of sincerity, entertainment value and skill. While any claim to objectivity is naive, documentaries do us the good-tasting, good-for-us favor of allowing us to glimpse the world through someone else's eyes. At the same time, we get to snap up a few cocktail-party-worthy factoids for later deployment. It's the fun part of education without the work.

This week's Seventh Annual Santa Cruz Film Festival showcases the documentary in all its fascinating, flawed and edifying glory. For eight days starting this Friday, the festival will screen 41 documentaries from around the globe along with its quality feature offerings, presenting audiences with a chance to explore little-noticed conflicts, victories, points of view and obsessions around the world.

One of the worthiest must be The Listening Project, by the team of Dominic Howes and Joel Weber. The two travel to 14 countries to learn the answer to the question: What do you think of America? The questions posed by the four ordinary Americans who serve as the project's correspondents evoke impassioned, complex responses from the Afghans, Israelis, Palestinians, Japanese, South Africans, French and others who are interviewed. There's something new here for both the people who think "they hate us for our freedom" and those who believe they hate us 'cause we're pigs. The Listening Project screens on Tuesday, May 13, and on Friday, May 16.

One wonders what the Kosovo Serbs interviewed in View From the Bridge think of the United States. U.S. coverage of the divided Serb province, now on an uneasy if internationally sanctioned path to independence, usually skews toward the Kosovar Albanians, who name boulevards and hamburger stands after their hero "Bill Klinton." But this piece takes an unusually even-handed approach to chronicling the pain engendered by six centuries of ethnic strife. Part of it is that Laura Bialis and John Ealer enlisted the services of an ethnic Albanian journalist and a Serb soldier-turned-nonprofit organizer, both Kosovars, for the film (tellingly, the two only met once, on the tense bridge of the film's title to exchange some tapes). This no doubt gave the team entree to segments of society that would otherwise have been closed to it; Kosovar Serbs in particular are understandably nervous about outsiders.

But part of it is also, you have to think, an independent streak that allows Bialis and Ealer to communicate a full measure of compassion for both camps. Filmed in August 2005, 15 months after a spasm of rioting that left 4,100 Serbs and other minorities terrified and homeless, View From the Bridge gives rare voice to Serb victims of violence. One Serb man is bitterly inconsolable after the shooting death of his son at a neighborhood swimming hole; another, a doctor, toils in a hospital in the divided city of Mitrovica in appalling conditions. The suffering of ethnic Albanians, too, is laid bare, most poignantly in the case of a woman who watched as her husband was dragged away by Serb paramilitaries during the war. Hollow-eyed, she still holds out hope he's in prison and not rotting in a mass grave. The film gets long, but a portrait of an older Serb-Albanian couple, impoverished but still elegant and in love, is worth the wait. View From the Bridge screens Tuesday, May 13, at 4:30pm.

African Underground: Democracy in Dakar offers a little more hope in the story of how hip-hop and political activism have intersected in Senegal to galvanize the youth vote and dramatically affect the last two elections. It screens Sunday, May 11, at 4:45pm. Another film of international import is Fields of Fuel, which screens on Tuesday, May 13, at 7pm. Winner of this year's Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, Fields of Fuel takes the viewer on a tour of petroleum's nasty back alleys and proposes an alternative to save the day: biofuels. Filmmaker Josh Tickell's sincerity is infectious; a true believer, he wants us to sign on to the potential of corn, recycled fryer oil and even algae to make clean, renewable fuel that will make us as forward-thinking and morally correct as the Swedes. It's unfortunate timing for this film that a relentless tide of news stories is blaming biofuels for everything from cutting down the rain forests to stealing food from starving children in Asia. But it might make Saturday's panel on the Art of the Documentary & Docu Drama that much more interesting; producer Greg Reitman will be on hand to discuss his work, along with directors or producers from One Fast Move or I'm Gone, The Colony, Surfing Thru, Programming the Nation and 2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry.

Back stateside, Helen Hood Scheer's film Jump documents the bizarrely intense world of competitive jump rope. This is not your average playground pastime. These kids, most of them teenagers, perform intricate routines involving flips, hand-springs and tricky syncopated rhythms in sport that combines dance, gymnastics and extreme calisthenics (one of the slogans is "Our sport is your sport's punishment"). Five teams on their way to the world championships are profiled, and along with them a host of symptoms associated with immaturity under pressure. One child in particular seems on the verge of a breakdown, with nary an adult around to notice; a hypercompetitive mama is one of her coaches. Others manage to still have fun. This fascinating portrait of human obsession screens on Sunday, May 11, at 4:30pm. Following Jump, the 34th Miss Gay America contest is chronicled in Pageant, showing at 7pm. A dance party afterward at Club Dakota features a Santa Cruz man who has repeatedly made runner-up in the contest.

The festival closes on Saturday, May 17, with a work in progress by Santa Cruz filmmaker Jeff Warrick. Programming the Nation? picks up where the 1970s bestseller Subliminal Seduction left off, only with a more contemporary and sophisticated analysis. Beyond the skulls in the whiskey ads lurks a more subtle form of manipulation; Warrick examines how it plays out in advertising, political campaigns and other forms of media. The 7:30pm screening is followed by a Q&A with Warrick, attorney August Bullock (www.thesecretsalespitch.com) and Media Watch's Ann Simonton on the prevalence of below-the-radar imagery and stereotypes in film, music and television.

THE SANTA CRUZ FILM FESTIVAL runs May 9-17 at the Riverfront Theater, the Del Mar Theatre and the Rio Theatre. Most tickets are $9 general/$8 students and seniors. Festival passes are $175 general/$150 seniors/$100 students, available at Metro Santa Cruz and More Music. For full schedule, visit www.santacruzfilmfestival.com.

Extraordinary People

Closeted quarterbacks, driver's test flunkies and love-struck morticians populate this year's feature films at the SCFF

By Maureen Davidson


For the next nine days and nights in May it's likely that the streets of Santa Cruz will experience an eerie population pulsation as filmophiles arrive, mill, then disappear into darkened theaters screening over 140 films at the Santa Cruz Film Festival. This year's feature lineup offers 14 international flicks that lay righteous claim to their indie status despite the appearance of many A-list actors moonlighting, presumably, for the art of it. And art is what filmgoers can expect of the festival's selections.

A series of groan-inducing video snapshots of high school life opens Tru Loved. No sullen loners or nerdy kids with bad shoes and spectacles appear in this quad; here everybody is smiling, well-groomed and beautiful; many are hand-in-hand or closer with another of the same sex: a veritable GLBQ Stepford High. It's all seen through the eyes of Tru (Najarra Townsend), uprooted from San Francisco and plopped in this SoCal suburbia where she finds that her home life makes her an outcast. A loving pair of lesbian moms and deeply involved pair of gay dads give her a lot of parenting and a lot of confidence. Courted by the school quarterback and hero, Lodell (Matthew Thompson), who's adorable in babydreads, she discovers he's deeply closeted and agrees to pretend they're a couple. She uses her quarterback-adjacent popularity to defend another "sissy" boy, and the two form a Gay-Straight Alliance. At the first Alliance meeting she forms an attachment to Trevor (Jake Abel), whom she thinks is gay but isn't--although his dad is. Is, isn't--who cares? Give yourself up to this sweet gender- and race-bending teen movie directed by Stewart Wade and find it's a lot of fun (and sure to find a long life in school diversity curricula).

After high school, what? The Art of Travel, directed by Thomas Whelan, follows Connor (Christopher Masterson of, TV's Malcolm in the Middle) as he graduates from high school and finds that his true love is not. He plunges into places Lonely Planet just doesn't go on a yearlong expedition to Central and South America with a motley group of young adventurers. From crime-ridden streets in a Nicaraguan slum to hacking through a Panamanian jungle, the seven young travelers experience breathtaking scenery, hair-raising adventure and comic surprises. It won Best Picture in the Sacramento Film Festival.

Goodbye Baby, directed by Daniel Schechter, sends heroine Melissa Brooks (Christine Evangelista) from high school into the wilds of New York's comedy clubs. She does find work in a club--waiting on tables. While she develops the confidence and the chops to launch her own comedic career, Melissa studies the club's regulars in hilarious routines. In the process of facing her fears, Melissa finds herself.

The star of American Fork needn't look far. Star and writer Hubbel Palmer is Tracy: twentysomething, grossly overweight, living at home with an abusive mother, he has failed for years to pass his driver's test and works in a grocery store, where he is a patsy for a wily group of teenage hoodlums. Undaunted, he continues to write bad poetry and dream of being an actor. The film is studded with a great cast: William Baldwin as a third-rate actor with delusions of grandeur whom Tracy idolizes, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Tracy's good-hearted sister, Kathleen Quinlan as their sour mother. Directed by Chris Bowman, Fork is likely to become a cult classic.

A meaner look at family relationships is Tween. Directed by Lee Miller, it stars Christa Martin (arts editor at Good Times) and Ashley Ann Michaels as a mother and daughter locked in a weekend of struggle sparked by the mother's realization that her daughter is about to make the same mistakes she did.

If there's anything more terrifying than a mother-daughter brawl, it can be found among three contenders: In Imprint, directed by Michael Linn, ghosts meet Native American attorney Shayla Stonefeather (Tonantzin Carmelo) when she returns to the reservation to visit her dying father. Ominous noises, strange visions and darting shadows build an atmosphere of supernatural danger. She discovers the apparitions are linked to a controversial case in which she prosecuted a Lakota boy for murder. This tense thriller wraps Hitchcocklike surprises in Native American spirituality and gallops irrevocably to a gasp-inducing conclusion.

An evil decidedly not supernatural is presented in the British thriller Jetsam, directed by Simon Welsford. A woman (Alex Reid, The Descent) regains consciousness as she lies in the surf on a desolate beach, with no memory of how she got there. Nor does she have any idea why she is the target of a savage attack by a man washed up on the same shore. A taut thriller a la Memento, Jetsam delves deep into the scary world of corporate espionage.

Six 14-year-old kids needn't visit the past to find the moment they all wish forever they could change in Summer Scars, directed by Julian Richards. This psychological thriller, nominated for Best Picture at the London Raindance Film Festival, begins as the kids skip school and encounter a drifter (Kevin Howarth) who at first seems a carefree playmate but then takes on another role. The choices the kids make under extreme circumstances scar them for life.

A backward view on such a life-altering event is Ripple Effect, directed by Philippe Caland, in which Los Angeles fashion designer Amer Atrash (Caland) is compelled to revisit the past. An A-list supporting cast--Forest Whitaker, Virginia Madsen and Minnie Driver--lend heft to this redemption tale.

Ready for a laugh? Just Buried, directed by first-time filmmaker Chaz Thorne, offers fear of death as cause for hilarity. Oliver (Jay Baruchel) discovers that he has inherited the family funeral home. Business is slow but he and his new love, the mortician Roberta (Rose Byrne), find they have a talent for drumming up corpses.

In The Metrosexual, directed by Adam Kaufman, Eric Beumer (Shaun Benson) is a very particular man, especially about his grooming. All right, that's just fine in the capital city of hedonism, Los Angeles, but looking for love in such a stylish straitjacket proves problematic. A fine supporting cast includes Colm Meaney and Bruce Weitz.

Grooming isn't the topic of The Village Barbershop, Chris Ford's sweet tale of an irascible Reno barber (John Ratzenberger) whose partner dies and leaves him no choice but to hire a woman for his shave-the-sideburns men's establishment.

August Evening, directed by Chris Eska, was the winner of the 2008 Independent Spirit Cassavetes Award for Best film with a budget under $500,000. This Spanish-language film fingers the tattered fringes of family bonds as it follows Jaime (2008 Independent Spirit Best Actor Nominee, Pedro Castaneda in his first film), an aging undocumented worker living in a poverty-stricken town in Texas who sets out with daughter-in-law Lupe (Veronica Loren) to find a home. With a pace that could kindly be called stately, Yasu Tanida's cinematography leans heavily on the glowing sunset hours and lingers long and lovingly on the honorable hardscrabble lives.

The only other subcaptioned film is from India, A Resonance (Anuranan), directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, a very successful director of commercials. The story of two couples and the growing complexity of their relationships is shot beautifully in London and India. The director's genesis in advertising is evident in the almost too-gorgeously shot sequences of lovers against glowing backdrops (where's the Dubonnet?), and there's not much meat in the stew, but it is beautiful.

THE SANTA CRUZ FILM FESTIVAL runs May 9-17 at the Riverfront Theater, the Del Mar Theatre and the Rio Theatre. Most tickets are $9 general/$8 students and seniors. Festival passes are $175 general/$150 seniors/$100 students, available at Metro Santa Cruz and More Music. For full schedule, visit www.santacruzfilmfestival.com.


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