The film’s U.S. premiere is on November 10 at the SVA Theatre.
By Wendy Moscow
One of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen in a music video is David Bowie lying in a hospital bed, his eyes, swathed in surgical gauze, replaced by buttons. His arms rise upward, as if, Peter Pan-like, he could fly toward some Neverland in defiance of impending mortality. The song is called “Lazarus.” Bowie died on January 10th, 2016, two days after the video’s release.
Director Francis Whatley has crafted a remarkable documentary that celebrates the last five years of this electrifying singer-songwriter-actor’s career, during which some of his most brilliant work was produced.
Intercutting exhilarating concert footage from about a decade before with interviews with the musicians and other creative artists who collaborated with Bowie on his last two albums and a musical theater production (also called “Lazarus”), Whatley allows the viewer to better understand what drove this enigmatic and sometimes elusive icon.
By Seth Shire
Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s fascinating and unsettling documentary, “What Haunts Us,” could not have come at a more appropriate time, which can be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how one looks at it. The film is part of DOC NYC, which runs from November 9-16.
In the college sociology classes that I teach, we discuss the concept of deviance. I make the point that what, at one time, might not have been thought of as deviant behavior, now, as society progresses, is seen as deviant. The recent revelations about sexual harassment that dominate the news, including testimonies from those who knew what was going on but chose to say nothing, until now, are great examples of this.
“What Haunts Us” concerns Charleston, South Carolina’s Porter Gaud School, the high school attended by Goldberg Tolmach. Alarmed by the number of suicides of male students in her graduating class, from over 30 years ago (six suicides out of a class of 49), the filmmaker delves into what was going on, beneath the surface, particularly with a popular teacher named Eddie Fischer. Fischer sexually abused male students for years and was protected by a wall of silence, from both administrators and students. As one former, now middle-aged, student puts it, “You’re dying to tell someone about it, but you’re scared as hell someone will find out.”
“Far From the Tree,” profiling children who are not what they’re families expected, will be screened on November 10 at the SVA Theatre.
By Seth Shire
Two of the most interesting films at the DOC NYC festival, “Mole Man” and “Far From the Tree” concern the definition of what is “normal.” DOC NYC runs from November 9-16.
I was intrigued by the title “Far From the Tree,” based on the bestselling book by Andrew Solomon. The title reminded me of something my father used to say when I did, or said, something noteworthy: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” What Dad meant was that I was the apple and he was the tree and that my accomplishments were in accordance with his standards. Keeping with the theme of family standards, “Far From the Tree” concerns families in which the offspring are, perhaps, not in line with what their respective families expected. The issues involve children who are gay (as was the case for author Solomon, profiled in the film), autistic, have Down syndrome, and dwarfism.
Filmmaker Rachel Dretzin cuts back and forth among these non-conforming offspring, none of whom made the choice to be who they are (do any of us?) but who have embraced who they are and who do not want to have their “abnormalities” cured.
A man with dwarfism questions a drug that will prevent children from manifesting their genetic pre-disposition to dwarfism. Is dwarfism something to be eradicated?
At the center of the film are the reactions of the parents. Some are accepting, or working to get to a level of acceptance. An autistic boy acts out violently and his mother wonders if there is “anyone in there.” Once he learns to communicate, using a keyboard, she can, at last, see the person inside. Their relationship improves immeasurably.
While any of the subjects might have provided material enough for a feature film, Dretzin has created fully realized portraits of these offspring who have made their own ways in the world.
“Mole Man” also deals with the question of what is normal. The film concerns Ron, a 66-year-old autistic man who lives with his widowed mother in rural Pennsylvania. Ron has built, in his seemingly endless back yard, a 50-room structure all on his own. His building materials, and the contents that fill its rooms, were taken from abandoned homes in nearby towns that experienced horrible economic downturns. The ingeniousness, creativity and sheer physical labor of Ron’s feat is impressive, to say the least. It speaks to a larger intelligence and talent hidden beneath, or maybe because of, Ron’s autism.
The issue at hand though, is not Ron’s obvious abilities, but what his future will be. Ron’s mother is 93. Once she dies, what will happen to him? Could Ron function anywhere else? After a lifetime of having the run of a large property and indulging his expertise, living in a group home most likely would not be for Ron.
Could his talents be put to use in the so called “normal” world? His siblings struggle with how to plan for the future, while Ron claims to know of a treasure that could cure all problems… if it actually exists.
“Mole Man” will screen on November 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Chelsea Cinepolis, 260 West 23rd Street and on November 13 at 12:15 p.m. at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. “Far From the Tree” will screen on November 10 at 6:45 p.m. at SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street. For more information, visit docnyc.net.
When the typical New Yorker spends the majority of his or her time just trying to earn enough to make the rent, how is it even possible to do what people actually come to this city for, like pursue a life in the arts and maybe even fall in love?
This is the question that dominates the story in a musical film being produced by a Stuyvesant Town resident and recent NYU graduate called “But Not for Me.” The resident, Jason Stefaniak, like the writer and director of the film, Ryan Carmichael, is an alum of New York University’s graduate film program and the two 27-year-olds are currently trying to shop the project for production in the spring of 2014. Described as a “philosophical hip hop musical love story” with a hard-to-miss message about the lack of local affordable housing, the story focuses on Will, a disillusioned millennial copywriter and his love for a neighbor, Hope.
“Twenty-somethings come here to pursue anything, especially creative endeavors, and then they’re struggling to eat and do basic things like pay the rent,” said Stefaniak.
For Stefaniak, who’s lived in Stuyvesant Town for two years, the story resonates on a personal level, since he’s not sure how much longer he can afford to live in the complex.
“I love Stuyvesant Town, but I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable, anymore,” he said, following a recent rent hike.
Back in June, though not affected personally, Stefaniak attempted to protest the round of mid-lease increases issued to 1,100 of his neighbors by starting an online petition. Eventually, he got 450 signatures, and each time a new person signed, an alert would be sent to around 20 management email addresses.
Stefaniak said he “tried to make some racket about the situation as best I could.” However, he never got a response from CWCapital.
“I thought I’d at least get a terse email by someone asking me to remove their address, but I got nothing,” said Stefaniak.
For Carmichael, who lives in Astoria, the situation also hits pretty close to home, since he was recently
priced out of Manhattan.
“When you get there, it’s a constant struggle, and you wonder when you can start enjoying what the city has to offer,” said Carmichael. Still, he noted the movie is still an overall positive one with a focus on the musical score. “I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to do a soapbox stand on any issues.”
To make the feature-length film a reality, he and Stefaniak are currently pouring all their energy into a Kickstarter campaign that as of Monday, raised over $20,000 for its production. The goal however is much more ambitious at $100,000, with the partners hoping to raise an additional $25,000 through other means.
“After many years of making student films, we’re trying to do this is a more professional way,” said Stefaniak.
The pro budget is a gamble though considering that the way Kickstarter works, if the full goal isn’t met by a deadline of November 2, the partners don’t end up getting a dime of the pledged money.
If they’re successful, the money would go towards hiring crew, renting studio space for the recording of the music (also written by Carmichael), buying equipment and renting space to shoot at. As the “But Not for Me” team has already learned, such foresight is necessary, as they’ve already once experienced losing a place to shoot due to a property owner changing his mind at the last minute. Rather than waste the day though, since the crew and actors were already there, Stefaniak suggested filming the scene in front of his Stuy Town building instead. Not surprisingly, he and the crew were eventually told to scram by public safety officers, but, he noted, “They were really nice about it.”
Fortunately for the film, the scene was mostly shot anyway at that point, and the remaining bits were filmed by the East River.
Additionally, at this time, most of the casting is complete, and Stefaniak and Carmichael consider the inclusion of concert violinist Elena Urioste to be one of the highlights of the film. She’ll be making her acting debut as Hope in “But Not for Me.”
Stuyvesant Town resident Seth Shire, who pens the weekly film reviews for Town & Village, usually with a focus on independent films and documentaries, will have a documentary of his own shown at the upcoming Coney Island Film Festival.
“Mad Santa,” a shortie at eight and a half minutes, is a series of interviews and other footage taken of Scott Baker, a sideshow performer/theater actor and during the holiday season, Santa Claus at Bloomingdale’s.
Shire, who, when not seeing or writing about films, teaches sociology classes at CUNY’s Queens College, met Baker at the department store last year when he too was working there. He was teaching then too but worked during the Christmas season at Santaland as head elf. It was there that he learned, from Baker, that Bloomingdale’s was the right place to be Santa.
“Scott didn’t like Macy’s because it was like a factory with six Santas,” said Shire, also noting that the kids would get rushed there. “At Bloomingdale’s, they took their time with the kids,” said Shire. Though there was also a weekend Santa, Shire soon noticed that Baker took special care to bring the magic of the holiday to the kids, especially those getting older and more skeptical about whether to believe in Santa.
The title of the film, explained Shire, is that Baker “is an eccentric character. He’s not angry. He’s a performer.”
When not in character as Kris Kringle, Baker has been delighting audiences for years at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore with acts like light bulb eating and sticking a screwdriver up his nose.
When Shire asked him how he did his screwdriver trick, the response was, “It’s not a trick.” Apparently, Shire learned, “You do have a lot of empty space in the back of your nose.”
When filming Baker for “Mad Santa,” much of the time, Shire found that he didn’t have to ask questions or do anything, really, other than let his subject be himself. One particularly interesting moment, at Santaland, occurred when a European woman, in broken English, said, “I want my baby to go down on Santa.”
“She kept saying it,” said Shire who was later told about it by Baker. “I would just film anything that seemed interesting. I always had my camera with me.” Baker’s responses with those who wanted to take pictures with him earned him a loyal following though. “There’s a group of firemen that show up every year to take their picture with him,” said Shire.
Baker, meanwhile, told Town & Village, he considers himself a “showman,” rather than a carnie, since he has
The subject of “Mad Santa”: Scott Baker in character Photo courtesy of Scott Baker
never after all worked at a carnival. He began his sideshow work at Coney Island after organizers there invited him to do so in the mid-1990s when Baker was working at nightclubs throughout the city as a magician. For his sideshow routine, he has about 40 acts, including the light bulb eating. When doing this, he favors the clear, 25-watt variety. “I usually do 100-watt bulbs, but I’m on a diet,” he explained.
When it’s not sideshow season, Baker does some theater work. One job included a 12-year run in the Broadway show “Oh! Calcutta!” He also has worked in Vegas, sharing stages with bands like The Coasters and The Platters for his magic act. But for the past 12 years, when it’s holiday season, Baker has been Santa at Bloomingdale’s. He’s also been Santa at other stores and at private parties before that.
In some ways, the Santa routine is similar to the sideshow one, noted Baker, in that, “They’re both exhausting. You have to keep your stamina up or you lose character.” Both experiences though are about “magic and miracles and ideally spreading joy and happiness.”
Along with “Mad Santa,” Baker will be involved in two other films at this year’s Coney Island Festival. One, “Rehearsal,” focuses on him as he prepares for a magic act. Another, “Welcome to Madness,” is a horror movie he wrote and starred in.”
He’s actually a festival veteran, having been featured in a film called “Mr. Dangle,” shown at the first Coney Island Film Festival ever, just a week after 9/11.
“Mad Santa” is the first film to be directed by Shire since he studied film at New York University, and this is his first piece to be screened at any festival. Prior to his teaching work with CUNY, Shire worked for years in film post production, a job which required quite a bit of editing. Films he’s worked on include “Get Shorty” and Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” He still does some post-production projects today and is currently involved with a film called “Wish You Well,” staring Ellen Burstyn, and which is based on the novel of the same name. Over the summer, he did reception at RZO, a firm that does accounting and financial management of artists’ tours. Clients there include the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
“If you’re going to work for an accountant, it’s the most glamorous job you can have,” Shire joked, after having once picked up the phone to find himself talking to Mick Jagger. In his writing for this newspaper and for his classes, he also often interviews filmmakers and other performers. Recent interviewees for his classes were Stuy Town documentary maker Doug Block and Saturday Night Live alum Colin Quinn.
The Coney Island Film Festival is set to take place from September 20-22. The festival will feature many new films as well as the 1970s-era film “The Warriors,” about a gang in Brooklyn. “Mad Santa” is scheduled to be shown on Saturday, September 21 as part of the afternoon program that begins at 5 p.m. A Saturday screening pass, which includes all screenings that day except for “The Warriors,” is $15. Admission to that film, which is an event held as a fundraiser for Coney Island USA, is a donation of no less than $12. A Sunday screening pass is $10 and includes all screenings that day. Opening night party is $25. Full festival pass is $50 and includes opening night party and all screenings except “The Warriors.” Individual screenings are $7. The venue is Sideshow by the Seashore, 1208 Surf Avenue in Brooklyn. For more information, http://www.coneyislandfilmfestival.com.
A version of this article ran in Town & Village’s print edition on September 12.