Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It’s Still a Complex World

The following column is reprinted from the December issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Twenty years ago Providence was abuzz in the wake of the release of Complex World, a sly home grown satire with a dose of rock and roll set at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, featuring the songs and acting contributed by the likes of Roomful of Blues, NRBQ, and one time kings of the downtown scene, The Young Adults. Co-written and directed by Jim Wolpaw, who had already managed to grab a vaunted Oscar nomination in 1985 for Best Documentary Short Subject for his droll and insightful Keats and His Nightingale: A Blind Date, the movie and its attendant screenings at the Cable Car sent a whole lotta the downcity (a term that truthfully hadn’t been disseminated yet) artists and hipsters into a temporary collective tizzy. The movie was funny and original, and all signs pointed toward eminent national success. It didn’t exactly go down that way, but Wolpaw survived the experience, completing the equally sharp Loaded Gun: Life and Death and Dickson in 2002, and currently ushering out a newly released DVD Complex World, which has long been unavailable. We recently met and talked at Providence’s Nick-a-Nee’s, wherein (only in La Prov) a stranger, overhearing our conversation, promptly began a long and thoroughly unsolicited recititation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s works.

SD: What prompted the new DVD release?
JW: I lot of people have asked about the movie and it’s availability over the years, a lot of people quite regularly. It was never really available, although copies floating around here and there, over the years I’ve probably bought about a dozen, so I kept thinking about it. With the 20 year anniversary happening it seemed like the right time. Of course, hopefully it will raise a little money too.

SD: Any major changes, scenes deleted, scenes added?
JW: Did you know there were originally two versions? After showing it at in New York it got a good deal of buzz, but no one knew what to do with it. Eventually the US Film festival, which is now Sundance, called us up and they wanted to screen it even though their entry period was closed. Errol Morris was touting it, and the upshot was that we decided to some reediting and we got involved with Jeff Dowd, whose claim to fame at the time was association with The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (and who become the model for the Dude in The Big Lebowski) He and I ended up in this long distance 6 month business relationship where he tried to push me more towards making a so-called traditional film and I think that ultimately, the end result was better in a lot of ways. At the same time there were a lot of good scenes in the original version, and it some ways maybe that version is better. Anyways, both versions are on the DVD. There is one more Young Adults song, one more Stanley Matis song, and a scene set at a biker’s birthday party in the parking lot with an exploding birthday cake.

SD: Tell me about the circumstances of the original release.
JW: Well we showed it at the Cable Car, and at one point we got a call from Warner Brothers and we sent them a print, and of course they didn’t know what to do with it. Then John Daley from Hemdale contacted us, and while it was playing at the Cable Car we were negotiating a deal which we signed probably in early 1991. It took about a year and it was released in a dozen major markets, including New York and LA. You know it open it two strong potential markets, Boston and Austin with very little support. If you looked in the papers that day you couldn’t find where it was playing unless you read the reviews, which were generally positive.

SD: If I remember correctly, more than one reviewer likened it to a purposefully crafted so-called “midnight movie.” How did you feel about that?
JW: They called it a cult film, which I can see, but basically anything that is non-traditional gets labeled as a cult film.

SD: How do you think it fits into the rest of your work?
JW: To me it’s something I do, I try to push the limits of what the genre it is, so I think it fits right in, but it also hold’s it own.

SD: What are your current projects?
JW: I just completed one for PBS, basically about the image of George Washington on the dollar bill, an image created by RI’s own Gilbert Stuart. It really centers around the idea that these two were almost exact opposites, Stuart being a something of a wild man and Washington being a man of extreme control; you know the whole idea of these two men in the same room responsible for this iconic image. I am also working on a film about HP Lovecraft, along with Cat Hainfeld, which is kind of a documentary/fantasy. (Incidentally Mark Cutler is helping to score both films.) I am also working on another film about the history of the Ladd Center.

SD: Are you still basking in the glow of your Academy Award nomination? Seriously did that help with your career at all?
JW: It should have, if I had done the normal things I was supposed to have done. I mean it’s helped me raise money but there were also a lot of opportunities I ignored because I just really wanted to do what I wanted to do.

SD: When you look at Complex World now, twenty years down the line, do you think you filmed what you set out to achieve. Do you consider it a successful film?
JW: (Laughing.) WeIl I’m not sure what I set out to do. I have mixed feelings, there are parts of it I find hard to watch, but there are certain things I’m very proud of. I don’t know, I have a very much of a love-hate relationship with it, part of it being that we had these expectations that it was going to break big, and for a while it really looked like it might.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Postcard from the Edge

Let’s get it right out of the way. As of late I’ve been suffering from strange case of malaise, manifesting itself as a feverishly wicked, temporary case of writer’s block, devoting nearly all of my energy to the always careening trials and tribulations of my real job as a so-called labor leader, letting my blog slip away, and only managing to get the Providence Monthly column I regularly contribute done because there is indeed a deadline and a job at stake.

The day before the holiday I had a reoccurrence of an ongoing medical condition I’ve battling with for over a year and plunged into the all-so-familiar well of sickness. I did my best to man up and get through Thanksgiving, helped along mightily by a perfect group of holiday guests, but my relapse on Friday into Saturday just about put me over the edge. Four days running without shoes, smokes, drinks, or solid food (My kingdom for a piece of cheese!), combined with a totally intermittent sleeping pattern had me actually questioning whether some of the despicable moral choices of my past or the once complete ignorance of my physical well being in the constant pursuit of fun, pleasure and gamesmanship had perhaps come back to haunt me. (Really, me, the guy who used to be so self-justifiably and in-yer-face guilt free.)

The mind plays weird tricks and I was tricked out all weekend, heading into a full blown, ever-deepening, and constantly swirling depression despite the unarguable fact that I have a great wife and a life-sustaining relationship, a good job, strong and lasting friendships, and, in direct contrast to so many Americans barely scraping through the holiday season the unadorned truth is that I am essentially a fat cat middle-class guy who doesn’t even have a dollop of the financial or emotional problems currently commom to the union members I serve; many of them literally poised on the brink of disaster if congress does not get it together to continue the unemployment extension.

Saturday I reached my lowest of lows, unable to make my good friend Mark Cutler’s gig at Nicks-a-Nees (my home away from home, my great good place, my tender bar) where I actually intended to give him give him a sincere holiday hug, an intention I don’t muster up very often. I woke (once again) as some godforsaken hour, enfeebled and infected, and scoured the TV only to find a Ken Burns executive produced series about one of my absolute favorite subjects-The American West- yet I watched through dour eyes, not seeing the examples of American spirit, individualism, and starry-eyed dreaming on display, instead concentrating on the heartbreaks, the broken spirits and disappearing cultures, the heavy foot of US imperialism, and I found myself silently weeping, sad for my woe-is-me self of course, but disheartened by a larger, blacker, feeling of despair and throat-tightening blackness. Dirt sick, poisoned of soul, hopeless in the grayness of the early dawn, I simply let both of my Boston terriers huddle against me, true pals in the disconsolate twilight, and willed myself and my mini-pack back to sleep, sick and damaged in heart, mind and stomach yet stengthened by that wierd unvarnished canine combo of companionship and devotion.

Still, came Sunday morn, cold and clear, the world hadn’t collapsed or imploded, and I at least got it together to bang out the above, and I requested my wife to drive my weakened self so that I might complete one of my most important self-rituals, the morning paper run. Outside the store I saw a proud male townie obliviously strolling through the parking lot in Cranston, RI, sporting shorts and sneakers with no socks pre-eight am with the temperature reading 27 degrees. Ah, a sign of normality I thought, somehow soothed. I went straight back to unwell HQ, where I drank my first cup of tea since childhood. (And it was ginger.)