DODGING THE BULLET: ONE MAN DIES A MILLION TIMES

I was going to title this piece “stepping on the same rake” — the words used by one of the Russian military brass when the Americans announced they were going full speed ahead with the militarization of space. The mainstream media have spent the last two years (well, many more years than that, but the lies of the last two have been particularly egregious) demonizing the Russians… and guess what? Now a large majority of Americans have a negative view of Russia, and a large majority of Russians (who used to like Americans but who also have plenty of access to Western media) return the favour. In the US there’s a full-speed-ahead bipartisan push for a shooting war with Russia, with the English baying like the degenerate lapdogs of war we have become.

Yet something positive has happened on the Russian/American front. An American director and and American cinematographer have made a narrative feature with an entirely Russian crew and Russian actors, in Saint Petersburg. And guess what? The Russians aren’t the bad guys! There are no KGB poisoners, no Steven Berkoffs talking like they have a chicken bone caught in their throat… Indeed, there are no bad guys visible.

I saw ONE MAN DIES A MILLION TIMES at the AIFF in Ashland, OR — a fine independent film festival about half an hour from where we live. Oddly enough, that makes it harder for me to see the films. If I’m in a foreign city at a film festival I’ve nothing to do but go to the pictures; but in Oregon we have work, domestic duties, vehicles and three dogs to juggle, so the cinema takes more effort. It was worth the trip to ONE MAN DIES: set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, in a decrepit seed bank whose staff continue to do their duties, more or less, in the face of starvation and dispair. The dialogue is drawn from the testimony of those who survived the siege (or died in it). The film is dour, beautifully shot (the director/writer/editor is Jessica Oreck, the cinematographer Sean Price Williams) and one suspects both are fans of Tarkovsky. At the same time their tale isn’t stuck in the trap of historical authenticity – there are defunct personal computers and music headphones, to remind us that the past and the present are more connected than we think. Good idea, no? Other directors should try that, too…

In this interview the director tries to avoid answering the obvious lame-o questions (“What’s it like in Putin’s Russia?”) and seems a generally intelligent and thoughtful person. Like Buñuel, she is interested in insects, particularly millipedes. This is her second Russian film. It will be wonderful if Oreck avoids the lure of Pentagon-funded Hollywood cake-fests and continues to make her own original cinema — building bridges with those who are supposed to be our enemies.

Advertisements

TALES FROM LOS ALAMOS

The character of J. Frank Parnell, played by Fox Harris in the original REPO MAN, was an invention. I’d read enough about the Neutron Bomb to make me speculate on the sanity of its creator, and to create a fictional dramatic character based on that person. But I didn’t know Sam Cohen at the time, and Parnell and Cohen were distinct in numerous ways, while being just as insane.

Now an email from Robby in Los Alamos arrives, to relate the following strange tale…

“I’m writing to tell you thank you for creating Repo Man so many years ago. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and when your film came out in 1984 it showed at the Los Alamos movie theater. Half of Los Alamos High School were beyond thrilled that our town was featured in the opening map scene, and the portrayal of the scientist in the film was beyond perfect. Your film came out at a time when we were just getting introduced to punk rock and all that (information moved slowly up to the mountains in New Mexico), so it was just perfect for us.

“I’ve read online about your call from Sam Cohen, the father of the Neutron Bomb, and that’s really interesting. We had some really amazing characters in Los Alamos, oddball scientists and their weird families and all (I’m probably included in that!), but when your film was released, we all thought it was based on a Los Alamos scientist named Ken Ewing. By most accounts he was legally blind, and would walk around town talking to himself, wearing a fannie-pack and had these thick, crazy taped-up glasses. He’d go to all the art openings and gorge himself on the free food, and would have that same 1000-yard stare and freakish demeanor that the scientist character you portrayed in the film had. It was beyond uncanny. When the film premiered in town, all of us yelled “Ken Ewing!! when the scientist character first appeared. it was just too coincidental how similar they were.

“Ken was a neighbor and my parents knew him from the amateur archaeological society they were all volunteering for. For his daytime job, Ken was an explosives expert. He never mowed his lawn (much to the consternation of his neighbors), to make sure the horned toads could have a good habitat. He lived with his mother until she died, and kept on living at the run-down house. He was an avid hiker, I don’t think he drove, and to get downtown it was a good 5-mile walk up and down canyons and stuff, he’d chug along talking to himself, wearing an old parka and a fannie pack…”

I never knew about Ken, but am sure he fit right in with the nuclear labs crowd. And to his credit he supported the horny toads! Robby reports that the Los Alamos High School almost voted REPO MAN their 1984 Class Film, but it lost to RISKY BUSINESS. Instead, they arranged to have the film re-played in the cinema on graduation night, at midnight.