Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tomboy (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 


"Tomboy" is a quiet spark of a film that has a revolutionary chemistry all its own. Even in the company of "The Artist" and "The Descendants", it would be a mistake to pass it by. The film has verve and a power in simplicity that goes beyond the scope of its episodic narrative.It concerns a ten year old girl who is more comfortable acting boyish and considered as a boy than anything else. 

The naturalistic filming recalls other films like "Leolo" and "Submarine" but this film is neither as surrealist as the former or as quirky as the latter. Rather than employ any Hollywood satire or sleights  of hand, "Tomboy" just shows a section of childhood as is, without any melodramatic fussing with conflict and resolution that are so prevalent in today's films. What we see is what we get: a tomboy. The film has more in keeping with Cassavetes or Warhol's silent screen test of Edie Sedgwick for all the intensity on this girl's stoic but spaced out face.

The girl, Laure (Zoe Heran) is blonde and stern of expression. She excels at sports and has no qualms about a playful or serious brawl. Rather than come at its audience with a force-fed emotional agenda like so many other directors, Celine Sciamma simply lets the camera drift from room to room in the over-large and isolated apartment block, illustrating little pieces of Laure's life.

"Tomboy" is honest to a fault and it is not afraid to show the little monsters of fear, spontaneity  and  cruelty that  exist in the hearts of children. The scenes of kids in a circle can be as tension filled as anything shown in a film by Lars von Trier, yet just when you feel events are going to take a dark turn, the kids including Jeanne, bring out a joke or a peal of laughter and the film turns on its heels within seconds. Regardless of the claustrophobia or whimsy presented in each scene, a darkness of prepubescent confusion and peer-pressure is not far behind. The packs of children are often silly and drunk with fear, playing Truth or Dare or they are shown as shy, timid deer in the forest, too scared to speak.

The silent and laconic monotone  of Laure is contrasted by the cherubic precociousness of her sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana). At home Laure is content enough to drop her guard. She cuddles with her sister. But once set for school, Laure casts the dress aside as if it were a poison cloak. She is more Huckleberry Finn than any young girl in cinematic history. But the film is far from cute. At one point, Laure threatens her sister with sudden aggression. Childhood is a dangerous game. And it is one that switches at whim from the paranoid to the paradisical.

Write Ian at

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tomboy (Rhoades)

“Tomboy” Is
Gender Bender

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Living in Key West with our gay community, drag queens, and Fantasy Fest cross-dressing, gender is not a word that I think about. But some do.
We’ve had movies that deal with the topic – from the hilarious “Victor/Victoria” to “Boys Don’t Cry.” We even had Linda Hunt winning an Academy Award for crossing genders as an actor in “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
Now we have “Tomboy.” It’s tweaking audiences at the Tropic Cinema.
This French film tells the story of Laure, a 10-year-old girl in a Parisian neighborhood who is mistaken for a boy. Short haircut and all that. So she goes along with the misidentity, pretending to be a boy named Michaël.
No, it’s not a comedy.
New to the apartment complex, Laure is babysitting her younger sister for her very pregnant mom. She meets a new friend that she likes a lot, a girl named Jeanne. When Jeanne mistakes her for a boy, she doesn’t correct her and deliberately assumes the role – savoring her newfound status, yet growing increasingly nervous as the first day of school approaches. There she will have to acknowledge her true gender. You know it’s not going to end well.
Zoé Héran is the pint-sized actress who pulls off this switcheroo. This is her first film (not counting a couple of TV movies). She nails that testosterone thing whether playing soccer or spitting on the ground. Hilary Swank would be proud of her performance.
The girl’s 6-year-old sister is played by cute-as-a-bug Malonn Lévana. A very feminine child as contrasted with the tomboy sister.
And Jeanne Disson is cast as the friend that Laure has developed a crush on.
The storyline is almost secondary to director-writer Céline Sciamma’s tender scenes of children at play. Her effortless camerawork makes you feel like you’re a part of the group. Sometimes it feels more like a documentary than a narrative feature film.
Here it’s summertime and the kids go swimming. This provides the film a handy device for dealing with the difficulties of Laure/ Michaël’s secret. A boy’s swimsuit with a proper bulge. Going to the bathroom standing up. All those male attributes.
In case you get confused by Zoé Héran’s convincing performance, there is a fleeting “Crying Game” scene to put your questions to rest.
Sciamma has already explored the uneasy topic of children’s libidos in “Water Lilies” (original title: “La naissance des pieuvres”), her debut film. The children are younger by five years in this outing, but the answers are not any clear about the consequences of being a transgendered youth.

The Artist (Rhoades)

“The Artist”
Sounds Out
About Silent Films

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Charlie Chaplin was a genius of the silent screen, his Little Tramp character mugging his way through some 82 films. Only 5 of them talking pictures.
His daughter Jane tells me that he lived a somewhat silent life. “My father always working and us kids having to be quiet at all times while in the house,” she recalls. “Particularly on the ground floor and first floor where over the handles of each bedroom door was a sign that read ‘Do Not Disturb.’ We couldn't speak to our parents unless they first spoke to us.”
The world of a silent film star is explored in “The Artist,” the retro movie by French director Michel Hazanavicius. This modern-day homage to the early days of Hollywood is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
What a chance for a director to take, making a black-and-white silent movie in 2011. But it works, because that period in the late ’20s and early ’30s when talkies were being introduced to moviegoers is the subject of this charming, if sometimes sad, love poem.
Comic actor Jean Dujardin (“OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” “99 Francs”) takes the lead as silent film star George Valentin, a chisel-chinned leading man who sports a pencil-thin moustache like William Powell, and has a canine sidekick who knows more tricks (like playing dead at a bang) than Asta. Opening with a film within a film, Valentin has just premiered a derring-do adventure titled “A Russian Affair” when he (literally) bumps into a wannabe actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo living up to her character’s moniker). With spit curls and a big smile, Peppy makes the papers with a headline asking Who’s That Girl?
Studio boss Al Zimmer (a gruff John Goodman) is unhappy that the pretty girl’s picture has pushed a review of his big movie to page 5, so when she shows up for an audition on Valentin’s next film, he banishes her from the set – only to be overridden by Valentin who insists she have a part in Kinograph Studios’ next production called “A German Affair.”
Yep, Valentin is smitten with the young starlet, his disapproving wife (Penny Ann Miller) and loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) notwithstanding. He gives Peppy something to make her different from other actresses, a beauty spot made with an eyebrow pencil. And when they film a dance sequence, it requires take after take because the actor is distracted by the young beauty.
You could write the script (though perhaps not as brilliantly as Hazanavicius). Peppy Miller becomes a big star as Valentin’s own star wans. Of course, the cause of the actor’s slide into obscurity is his prideful refusal to embrace that new technological breakthrough, the talkies.
Peppy’s big hit (aptly titled “The Beauty Spot”) opens the same night as Valentin’s self-financed flop. We see him walking under a sign that proclaims Lonely Star. When his palatial furnishings and gigantic framed portrait are auctioned off, a mysterious couple (Peppy’s maid and butler) buys the objets d’art. You see, Peppy has a soft spot for George Valentin too.
Does all of this sound somewhat familiar? Talkies providing the break for a young ingénue (“Singing in the Rain”). A young protégé eclipsing the major star (“A Star Is Born”). A once-famous star clinging to memories of past glories (“Sunset Boulevard”). Hazanavicius takes all these archetypical storylines and weaves them into a new fabric. And it wears well for those who love the movies.
Like another recent film (Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”), this is a paean to film history. However, “The Artist” eschews 3-D, Technicolor, and other cinematic innovations.  Hazanavicius’s story is about the advent of sound so it returns to the archaic film techniques of that era.
Sound plays a key role in this silent movie. And like Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” where the only sound (other than music) in the entire feature is a spoken word by French mime Marcel Marceau, “The Artist” uses one scene with sound to make its point. This scene was chosen for the Unforgettable Moment Award by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
The dialogue is displayed on cards (intertitles, they’re called) like in those early films of Chaplin and Keaton and Barrymore. The music swells throughout the film as if an orchestra were hidden in the theatre’s front-of-the-stage pit. There’s only one song on the entire soundtrack. And a key plot device is the word “Bang!” – in the end surprising the audience as if it were actually a loud noise.
Peppy hurts George Valentin’s feelings when he overhears her give an interview that labels his acting as mugging. It is. In fact, that’s the old-timey style of this entire movie, mugging its way into your heart, reminding you about the stuff dreams are made of.
Perhaps it’s a form of false nostalgia for an era before our time. (Woody Allen explained that in “Midnight In Paris.”) Nevertheless, celluloid and old nitrate prints have preserved those before-our-time movie memories for us to enjoy even today.
Jane Chaplin once told me that a lot of unseen footage by her father Charlie Chaplin is archived in Bologna, Italy. “The thing is to sort through it and decide objectively what to choose,” she says.
 Director-writer Michel Hazanavicius decided to create his own silent movie footage. It’s a masterpiece, one that the London Film Critics picked as Best Film of the Year. Other critics agreed, rating it 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
"The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema,” says Hazanavicius. “It grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau, and Wilder.”
His star Jean Dujardin won Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globe and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. And canine co-star Uggie won Cannes’ Palm Dog Award.
Giving his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, the 39-year-old French actor recounted how “When I was starting out they said to me, ‘You’ll never do movies. Your face is too expressive. Too big.’”
Not too expressive to mug his way through a silent movie.
This week the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that “The Artist” as been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And Jean Dujardin is up for Best Actor.
All without having to speak a line of dialogue.

La Rafle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

La Rafle

"La Rafle/ The Round Up" deals with the extremely heart-rending  subject of French collaboration with the Nazis, during the summer months of 1942. 13,000 people were taken by force, most of them children and their mothers. Nearly all were  sent to Auschwitz, under the direction of the Vischy regime. According to the film, out of the near 13,000 sent to their death, only twenty five survived.

The film does well by not trading euphemisms, but yet at the same time, it does not appear overbearing. Some of the  separation scenes between mother and child, although very emotional and difficult to watch, did seem to be taken directly from "Sarah's Key", but while this might lessen the charge to some audiences, to see it again is to re-awaken the jolt and to re-affirm a visceral response to the hideous wrongness of these events. No matter how many depictions you see, you will feel it again: the disbelief combined with the lingering sadness bound with awareness, the weight of guilt.

The best parts of "La Rafle" are the segments that feature the children . Simon and Nono Zygler (Oliver Cywe and Mathieu Di Concetto, respectively) gallop about playing tricks on Nazi soldiers and steal their caps only to wear them later, complete with SS insignia. Play continues on, without reverence, without boundaries. It is the children alone who preserve the bounce of spontaneity in such horrors of war.

At times, the film is an able addition to the canon of "The Little Rascals", so resourceful and buoyant the children are in the face of such uniform evil. In one scene, Simon throws heaps of marbles down the stairs to trip the Gestapo. It works. 

If the Walter Keane close ups of  children's  eyes seem too derivative of other scenes, the two main children will hold you firmly in this story. They have enough verve and original spin to outrun any historical demon. Playing is a necessity and the kids simply do what it takes.
Hitler ( Udo Schenk) appears as a live action Technicolor cartoon, stomping and raving. He is all boom and bluster, yet his larger than life color has a point in illustrating the contrast between arrogant loathsome slickness and human play, embodied in the children. When we see Hitler on his holiday regarding the mountains, he seems a  cardboard cutout from a sinister coloring book, both frightening and silly in his often-recorded stride.

The respected Jean Reno plays a compassionate doctor, although he is a character with little to say or do. Melanie Laurent plays real life hero Annette Monod, the Protestant nurse who stayed with the Zyglers at the risk of losing her own life.

Many might have seen the breaking sadnesses  of "La Rafe" before in other films, but it would be too easy to call it déjà vu here. The film's unnerving yet surreal touches of a supercilious Hitler in Super 8, set against the background of some spunky children playing against all odds, make this film more than another dark shadow-play.

Write Ian at

Monday, January 23, 2012

Week of January 20 to January 26 (Mann)

What on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann
You may not have heard of Ventura Pons, but he’s a big deal in the European film world. His eighteen feature films have been nominated for awards in film festivals from Moscow to Miami. This weekend, he’s going to be a big deal in Key West, where he will be screening and personally introducing four of his movies. It’s going to be a high point of this year’s Tropic Visiting Filmmaker Series. Sr. Pons is from Barcelona, and all his films have a quirky, humorous quality that reminds many of Pedro Almodóvar.  The Village Voice has called him “a provocateur who works without a net .”

On Sunday afternoon, it’s OCAÑA, a documentary about a gay Spanish artist and cross-dresser that was originally screened at the Cannes Film Festival.  The high point of the weekend, with a champagne reception, is the Sunday evening screening of MIL CRETINS (Thousand Fools), a comic mélange of characters.

Monday afternoon brings two other films. ANITA TAKES A CHANCE  is the story of a movie theater employee who loses her job when the theater is torn down, but begins an affair with a construction worker who comes on the scene. This movie won Best Film and Best Actress awards at the Miami Hispanic Film Festival and at the Peñíscola Comedy Film Festival [that’s Peñíscola, Spain; a comedy film festival would be an odd thing in Pensacola, FL.) The final film AMIC/AMAT  (Beloved/Friend) is about a fifty-something college professor whose life gets incredibly complicated when he discovers he has a terminal illness and decides to reveal secrets.

Sr. Pons will offer a Q & A following each screening. All films will be in Catalan or Spanish, with English subtitles.

This week also marks the opening of THE ARTIST, winner of this year’s Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical Award and a favorite for the big Oscar prize. In case you haven’t heard, it’s a silent, black and white film. But, as Steven Rea says in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it “feels as bold and innovative a moviegoing experience as James Cameron's bells-and-whistles Avatar did a couple of years ago. Retro becomes nuevo. Quaint becomes cool.” French actor Jean Dujardin’s portrayal of the fictional silent film star George Valentin is a perfect recapturing of the cinema style of the time. He also got the Golden Globe and is a front-runner for an Oscar.

The story is a classic story of high romance and a fallen hero, as the emergence of talkies dooms Valentin’s career. But words can’t really describe this wordless wonder.
In INTO THE ABYSS the brilliant, groundbreaking filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Aquirre: The Wrath of God) digs deeply into a Texas triple murder case, exploring the minds of the killers and the psychology of capital punishment. Including lengthy interviews with the killers, like the book In Cold Blood to which it has been compared, Herzog’s work does not judge, it observes. “He simply looks. He always seems to know where to look. “ (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

takes place in a different kind of prison, a brothel in Belle Époque Paris. This is not a documentary, but a surreal, yet realistic, view of life in the fictional L’Apollonide -- a portrait of the women and of their clients. “A gorgeously filmed portrait of a bygone era, with painstaking attention to period detail.” (V.A. Musetto, NY Post)

With all this, I hate to treat them as an afterthought, but we’ve also got the next film in the Gotta Dance classics series. This Monday it’s BRIGADOON with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. And on Tuesday, the Cinderella-story opera CENDRILLON from the stage of the Royal Opera in Covent Garden fills the Tropic screen and surround sound.

Into the Abyss (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog gives the spirit of Truman Capote a run for his money in his latest documentary, "Into the Abyss". The film is raw, remaining  both visceral and detached at once. Further, it is unapologetic and  wholeheartedly human. The documentary chiefly focuses on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. At the time of the filming, Perry is on Death Row for the grisly murder of the Stotler family over a red Camaro in 2001.  Perry, in a series of interviews, is pale faced and wide eyed with a sloping casual gate. He is little more than a boy in attitude, although he is twenty eight years old. With his severe black-bowl haircut and his hyper rolling eyes, he is a bit slapstick in a strange eerie manner as if he is a Stooge or a psychotic Jim Carrey. You get the feeling that he wishes things were different and that he could reform himself in some way but that this is impossible.
In watching the film, I recalled Capote's "In Cold Blood"  and wondered what Truman might have felt: an eagerness, a revulsion and perhaps, an obsessional passion to get the whole story. Michael Perry is Born Again and repentant, but he feels no remorse. He asserts he did not commit the murder.
Michael Burkett his friend is sleepy-eyed and thorny, resembling an anemic panther. He also asserts his innocence and blames the murder on Perry.
Herzog interviews Burkett's father (himself in prison for drugs) who details a catalogue of drug abuse and neglect, placing the murderous kids  in a vicious cycle---a culture of unrelenting violence. And you believe it. There seems no  escape for either the murderers  or the victims family (who cannot sleep or bring themselves to have a phone due to the frequency of tragedy).

The most compelling segment in the film is the interview of Fred Allen. Tan and rugged wearing a comfortable sweater, he could pass for anyone's grandfather. Occupationally however, Allen is an executioner, responsible for strapping inmates to the death gurney and administering the final injection. Although dedicated, after over one hundred injections, Allen could not handle the strain and left his job. During the interview, he loses his composure, recalling the stoicism of a female inmate. 
Everyone that Herzog interviews in Conroe Texas is either in prison themselves or is in touch with the unthinkable, specifically the act of murder. That being said the film uncovers a definite  humanness, these two monsters laugh and joke, they reflect  and yearn to have the magic to change themselves, to be another person, to turn back the clock against lethal injection. Or failing that, to turn it forward---to the afterlife.
Each frame in the film is composed like an abstract painting. For several minutes at a time, we are directly confronted with two eyes held behind a diagonal line of slanted glass or the sad brightness of a deep blue prison cell. The most terrifying moments of "Into the Abyss" are when  the camera moves in a deliberate tread to the gurney and its heavy Frankensteinian leather straps. The gurney itself is shaped like a cross, making all people on Death Row into the Anti-Christs of our age. Murder is unconscionably horrendous, but capital punishment appears equally brutal, so cold and uniform the whole routine seems, clearly not deterring execrable murders, yet offering some path to closure for the families involved.
As the camera floats into the Stotler home left as is, interrupted in the act of baking cookies, the tv is on, but all is quiet. It very well could be a scene of interior life from another planet that once sustained human life. Cookie dough is left on a sheet: the last remaining human confections. The living room itself is a stage-set.
Everyone in favor of Capital Punishment  should see this film and Herzog is to be commended for not pulling back his camera and last but not least, for suggesting that violence on both sides is an unfortunate and intimate reality that exists within our human soil.

House of Pleasures (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

House of Pleasures

"House of Pleasures" is a sensual yet disturbing delight. In the voluptual sense it chronicles nothing less than the beginning of Surrealism and the fleshly Fauvists, focusing on a bordello in the 1900s and the visuals are as rich as a pomegranate jewel on Salvador Dali's velvet tie.

A domineering Madam ( Noemi Lvovsky) is in charge of a "House of Tolerance" which happens to be under the threat of violence and declining patronage. Sparks  fly when the young Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) begins employment.  Suddenly without warning, a bookish, anemic man starts to conduct himself in the manner of Jack the Ripper. One lady (Alice Barnole) is  horribly disfigured in a manner that foretells Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight". Iconic references aside, the scene is jolting and creepy, not for the squeamish. 

It is soon clear that like Milton, we are in a opiate centrifugal whirl of a paradisiacal Heaven or a purgatorial Hell     with nothing but visual ambrosia in between. Under the weight of  some bright and seeping serpentine bodies, you can feel the thick clouds of opium overhead and imagine skies of cerulean blue or green absinthe sipped from pale pink lips. This film looks and sounds like the heaviness of pearls on liquid breasts put in motion. There is even a sable panther underfoot. 

I have heard it said that every period film is colored by the time in which it is made. If so, this film is more gorgeous than Lady Gaga and more princely than Prince. The ladies undulate and laze about with an eerie reptilian  rubescence. If you find my description to be confusing and ill-matched, "House of Pleasures" seems so as well, with an anachronistic score by R&B singer Lee Moses and The Moody Blues, but despite this futurism, everything works.

Rather than being preoccupied with melodrama and plot, this film is a velvet slice of life. The girls spend their time doing duties in the nude and chatting about pedestrian events as well as sexually explicit  ways to ensnare customers. We, as sitting voyeurs are spared little. There is gore as well as riches in the commerce of lust. The sight of a weevil boring its way into a master painting is no accident. Lust has rot. And the message of "House of Pleasures" seems to be that consensual fleshy intimacy may go the way of our vanishing bookstores. Direct contact with another human may soon be an extraterrestrial event, something from our antiquated past. 

I ,for one, hope not.

Write Ian at

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Artist (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Artist

Life in Key West, as with all places, is sometimes noisy, a cacophonous goulash of sound and color. Taxis roar by followed by an infinite scatter of SUVs, while mopeds hover and buzz in and out like meddlesome mosquitoes of metal. Sometimes residents even bring out awful droning instruments known as 'leaf-blowers' in the hopes of clearing their sidewalks, but they usually succeed in merely relocating the leaves on their neighbor's sidewalk with only earaches in the air.

A welcome antidote is the black, white and silent retreat found in "The Artist", the highly acclaimed film by Michel Hazanavicius.

The film is sumptuous and beautifully made, quoting many films from "Zorro", "The Thin Man" films, "The Invisible Man" and even " The Picture of Dorian Gray" together with the lighting from Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. 

Although the tame plot of a struggling Errol Flynn actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) failed to make me fall out of my chair with a clap of surprise,the gesture and visual rhythm of the film, held me in with pleasure, turning my blue eyes to black and a soft gray.

The best parts of "The Artist" are when it moves into darker territory: George Valentin is plagued by the mocking scourge of the new Talkie pictures and can't get a job. He is driven mad by the noise of cars and strange new voices.  The film goes into dark corners and the shadows are singular and stark, quoting the best from "Lost Weekend" and Orson Welles' "A Touch of Evil". 

When George looks in the window and sees an empty suit of  clothes, he is a lost man. The emphasis is on the empty collar and sleeves. George Valentin, once a Douglas Fairbanks idol is now an invisible man. Berenice Bejo as Valentin's girlfriend, is charming and vivid, doing an excellent job as a Clara Bow or Claudette Colbert type. She is a literal visual confection.

The film is a technical delight with visual winks at every turn and twist.
The dog in the film, a Jack Russell, is sure to win your heart as he outdoes Asta to the tenth power.  

The film is a cinephile's black and white cookie, better tasted than described.  If the sugary plot echoes "The Illusionist" or the repetitive score tinkles too much in your ear, the visual sambas won't, they sneak up on you with a tickle. And rest assured, a stolen raven-like melody from Hitchcock's  Maestro Bernard Hermann improves the music tremendously. At the end of "The Artist", as you move to the exit, a  sudden rush makes things strange and alien. The abrupt clash of sound signals the loss of a friend.

Write Ian at

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ventura Pons (Rhoades)

Interview: Ventura Pons

Spanish Director
Includes Key West
In World Tour

By Shirrel Rhoades

Filmmaker Ventura Pons and I played telephone tag around the world. Taking his first vacation in ten years, he’d left his home in Barcelona to visit places he’d never been before: The temples in Cambodia, the lost cities in Laos, the magic mountain in Australia, a stopover in New Zealand, a long stay in French Polynesia (Tahiti, Bora Bora), a hop to Los Angeles, then onward to the glitter gulch of Las Vegas.
It seems a joke that after 18 days of islands I look for that fake city that I don’t know yet but attracts me a lot,” he chuckles.
He’s enjoying this break in his work routine.
“On the way back to Barcelona we’re making a side trip to Key West,” he tells me from the Luxor Hotel on the Strip in Vegas. “My friends Phyllis Rose and her husband Laurent de Brunhoff (he did the children’s books about Barbar the Elephant) invited me to visit.”
While in Key West, Pons has agreed to show four of his award-winning films. Tonight and Monday the Tropic Cinema will be screening “Ocana, An Intermittent Portrait” (1978), “Mils Cretins” (2010), “Anita Takes a Chance” (2001), and “Amic/Amat” (1999). The director will be on hand to chat with the audience.
Pons’ films are noted for their use of the Catalan dialect with English subtitles. “Because it’s my language,” he explains to me in flawless English. “The same way a Danish director works in Danish.”
Born in Catalonia, an autonomous community that encompasses Barcelona, Spain, his stories are often based on Catalan customs. “You talk about the things you know,” he says. “But there must be a universal truth to be found in it.”
During his world tour Pons got a call from the Film Society at Lincoln Center, asking if it could host a special sneak preview of his next film. He’s obviously pleased. “They have been supportive of my work,” he tells me.
The Film Society at Lincoln Center has called Pons “one of Spain’s best-loved auteurs.”
Has he come up with any ideas for new films from his recent travels? “No, no,” he laughs good-naturedly. “You have to make films about things you really understand. Otherwise you’d be like an octopus in a garage.”
Stick to that which you know, is his message. “It’s very easy to fail,” he muses. “A successful film requires three ingredients – the story, the cast, and director. Everything goes together.”
Pons started off working in theater. “But I had cinema in my head,” he reminisces. “In the theater you only live once. What happens with a camera lives on.”
He recalls that first film back in 1977, a documentary called “Ocana, An Intermittent Portrait” (one of the four films being shown at the Tropic). “I took a camera and I looked for a story. I shot it in five days like an exercise. Such a small story, but the film went to Cannes.”
Today his films have been seen in more than 650 festivals as well as movie houses around the world.”
In 1985 he created his own production company and left the theater behind. He’s written and directed some 22 films. “I write my screenplays, I look for the money, I look for the actors,” he explains the process. “For me cinema is my life. And life is my cinema. I put a lot of myself inside.””
 [from Solares Hill]

Into the Abyss (Rhoades)

Werner Herzog Takes
Us “Into the Abyss”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

German-born director Werner Herzog Stipetić is like a grab bag, his films always a surprise. In the past he’s given us mesmerizing documentaries about recently discovered cave paintings (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), patched-together sci-fi outings (“The Wild Blue Yonder”), Nicolas Cage in a murky remake (“The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”), a stylistic vampire thriller (“Nosferatu the Vampyre”), Russian superstition (“Bells from the Deep”), and his masterpiece about Spanish soldiers exploring the Amazon River in search of El Dorado (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”). Herzog even wrote and starred in a pseudo-documentary about him looking for monsters (“Incident at Loch Ness”). And he participated in a self-explanatory short film titled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” in which he pays off on a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris. He’s even made a guest appearance on TV’s “The Simpsons.”
Werner Herzog’s consider an important figure in New German Cinema, but as you can see his subjects span the globe (and even outer space).
Here he has taken a page from Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” to give us a documentary about two men convicted of a triple homicide in Texas. Appropriately titled “Into the Abyss,” the document is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema. [Starting Friday, Jan. 20]
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett committed the murders while stealing a car for a joyride. The two men blame the crimes on each other. But Perry went to the electric chair 8 days after his interviews for Herzog’s film. Burkett is serving a life sentence.
The film also introduces us to family members of the victims, prison guards, and Burkett’s wife who married him after he went to jail. Despite their only physical contact being holding hands, she proclaims that she’s pregnant with the killer’s baby.
The film’s title underwent several revisions – from “Death Row” to “Gazing Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale Of Life” to “Werner Herzog’s Final Confessions.” But when he decided to spin off other death-row interviews into a television series, the title settled on “Into the Abyss.”
This nihilistic title, of course, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
With this documentary Herzog lets you gaze at monsters up close.”
[from Solares Hill]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Week of January 12 to January 18 (Mann)

Alert! The spies are coming to town.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is the latest adaptation of the celebrated le Carré novel. George Smiley (Gary Oldman - The Dark Knight, Harry Potter) is a retired MI6 operative called back into service to root out a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the British Secret Service. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the Danish director who crafted Let The Right One In, and with supporting cast including Colin Firth and John Hurt, this is a mystery of sinister intrigue that drags us to the darkest Cold War corners of Budapest, Istanbul, London, and Paris.

 "A pleasurably sly and involving puzzler — a mystery about mysteries within mysteries." (Manhola Dargis, New York Times )  “The Cold War is over, but director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and his collaborators have brought those suspicion-fueled days to vivid life in this masterful adaptation of John le Carré's beloved 1974 spy novel.” (Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York}

MI6 is, of course, the British equivalent of our CIA, which is laid bare in the documentary THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER, CIA SPYMASTER WILLIAM COLBY.  He was head of the CIA during the same 1970'S era depicted in Tinker, Tailor, so it's fascinating to observe similar worlds through such different lenses. Colby’s career in intelligence included a role as CIA station chief in Saigon, but his final stint as head of the organization was marked by a reform effort and attempt to make the agency more transparent.

"Packed with knowledge of another sort. It amounts to an absorbing, sometimes appalling course in how U.S. foreign policy evolved and functioned following World War II." (Joe Morgenstern,   Wall Street Journal) “Carl Colby’s smart, fact-packed film The Man Nobody Knew operates on many levels, all riveting.” (Andy Webster, New York Times)

The director of this documentary, Colby's son Carl, will join us on Friday evening as part of the Tropic's Visiting Filmmaker Series. Your chance to get "the rest of the story. "

If all this is too heavy for you, CARNAGE may be a good alternative.  Despite the threatening title, this is a comedy of manners about a conflict between two Yuppie couples over a playground incident involving their children. Director Roman Polanski shows a light touch we haven't seen before. He must have enjoyed making a film that satirizes the pretentions of conventional society, especially with an all-star cast of Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster.

"Scathing and funny and cynical about contemporary society and the hypocritical way we live now.  (Rex  Reed, New York Observer) “
A scabrous, amusing, and thoroughly predictable exercise in exposing the animalistic underbellies of grown-ups pretending to be civilized liberals.” (David Edelstein, New York Magazine)

Or check out LE HAVRE, the new comedy-drama from famed Finnish writer/director
Aki Kaurismäki, whose previous films have included such titles as I Hired A Contract Killer, and Leningrad Cowboys Go To America. This time he’s working in France, with a movie set in the nondescript English Channel port town that has containers filled with illegal African immigrants as one of its principal cargoes. When one of these unfortunate souls, a boy from Gabon named Idrissa, is hunted down by the cops, a shoeshine man named Marcel comes to his aid, and a story unfurls of a poor community’s humanity to someone ever poorer.

potent - and often hilarious - testament to the power of community and collective sense of duty…. one of the finest films of the year.” (Ann Hornaday, Washington Post)  “Tells a good story with clear eyes and a level gaze, and it just plain makes you feel good.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Rhoades)

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”An Intellectual Spy ThrillerReviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Back in the ’70s I managed a magazine based in London called Encounter. It had been started up by the CIA and I still saw their footprints around the office.
When I complimented the managing editor on the beautiful vase of flowers on her desk, she replied, “Yes, I bought them myself.” Then she paused to add, “It used to be part of the budget that the company bought us flowers every week. You know, the CIA took much better care of us than you do.”
Later I learned that the editor in chief was a CIA agent and the oh-so-British general manager served as liaison with Langley.
Spies among us.
That’s the subject of John le Carré’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And now it’s been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman as Le Carré’s famous MI6 agent George Smiley. It’s playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
Time Magazine has called Le Carré “the grand master of the modern literary thriller.” And that’s true. But not a thriller in the wham-bam non-stop action of the Bourne Identity books (and movies). More an intellectual thriller.
Here George Smiley’s called out of retirement to uncover a Soviet mole within the ranks of MI6 itself.
A plausible plot, in that Russian double agents have been known to infiltrate British Intelligence in the past – Kim Philby being the most notorious among them.
John le Carré (who is actually a former British spy named David Cornwell) remembers the time he refused to meet with Kim Philby. “I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand,’ he says. “It was drenched in blood. It would have been repulsive. Lord knows how many agents Philby betrayed.”
Philby had his own agenda for the proposed meeting. “Astonishingly, I think he hoped I might write his biography. It’s the ludicrous sort of fantasy he would have entertained.”
Instead, Cornwell takes those old memories, adds a dash of imagination, and wraps them up in a well-thought-out plot that’s beautifully written.
In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” he tells the story of Smiley’s search for a mole within the Circus (as he calls MI6), a high-ranking agent planted by Soviet spymaster Karla. He has four suspects – codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poorman. These four colleagues have been swapping a KGB agent worthless information for valuable material known as Witchcraft.
Aiding Smiley is Jim Prideaux, a British agent who was shot and captured by the Soviets while trying to buy information from a greedy Hungarian general. Angry over being betrayed by the mole, Prideaux wants more than an arrest.
The story is based on the real-life Cambridge Five of the ’50s and ’60s, KGB double agents who infiltrated Britain’s SIS.
In this movie version, Gary Oldman takes on the world-weary role of George Smiley. This is a long-overdue star turn for Oldman, an often overlooked actor who exhibits “the quiet intensity and intelligence that’s needed” for a taciturn spy like Smiley.
He’s joined by Oscar-winner Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, a British agent under suspicion. And Mark Strong as Smiley’s embittered chum Prideaux.
Directed by Swedish-born Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), this story of a British spy was financed by France’s StudioCanal. And it’s Alfredson’s first English-language film.
Le Carré himself is almost as interesting as his characters. The 80-year-old author taught at Eton before joining the British Foreign Service (1959 to 1964), first serving as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and later as Political Consul in Hamburg. He started writing spy novels in 1961, and since then has published some twenty-two titles.
He says, “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”
He adds, “Apart from spying, I have in my time sold bath towels, got divorced, washed elephants, run away from school, decimated a flock of Welsh sheep with a twenty-five pound shell because I was too stupid to understand the gunnery officer’s instructions, taught children in a special school.”
Typically, Le Carré’s spies are everyday folk put into impossible positions. And George Smiley is his everyman. We learn that Smiley’s is not a black-and-white world. It’s one filled with shadowy moral ambiguity.
Authentic? You bet. Le Carré’s spy novels were actually required reading for the KGB.

Carnage (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


I have to admit that I find Roman Polanski refreshing in our  age of seemingly endless true stories and conventional dramas with their all too pat endings, neatly tied up like hot cross buns that make our soft drinks extra sweet. It is curiously comforting to me that Polanski  is still working and directing, regardless of his personal pruriency. Who else but Polanski to make us a little uncomfortable and sputter on our popcorn , to delineate the devils and demons that lurk between the thin veneer of our white picket fences or underneath our Gothic Brownstone apartments in New York City? This is the oeuvre of Polanski as a poet of suspicion and group hysteria with an often comic edge and he delivers again in his latest "Carnage" based on a play by Yasmina Reza.

The first shot zeroes  in on a schoolyard. Clusters of children are shown like sweatered magpies. There is hostile movement. A kid is pushed. Abruptly the kid picks up a stick and unceremoniously slaps the aggressor in the face. Time marches on without notice.
Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are typing up a medical report detailing what happened to their son who got assaulted by the stick wielding Zachary. Zachary's parents Alan and Nancy  (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are positioned behind them nervous and edgy. 

Penelope and Michael, seemingly having the upper hand, are all too eager to extend their graces and smooth things over. As they discuss the report between themselves, they agree to soften the harsh language even though Zachary has permanently lost two teeth during the assault. Jodie Foster's Penelope in wanting to appear the understanding peacemaker on the surface is wound up tight. And Michael is tooo diplomatic. Alan and Nancy agree to stay for cobbler. But the cobbler is mushy and frozen. The couple is perpetually on the edge of leaving. While pushing for the elevator on the edge of insult, the strange, aloof couple ends up staying.
And you haven't seen anything yet. 

You have to hand it to Polanski. Not since Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" has there been a more abruptly uncomfortable and comical vomit scene. Polanski goes even further than Woody Allen here, but the humorous lines delivered with an unabashed freedom by Reilly and Winslet will have you hooting underneath the nervousness. 

Waltz, who, in my opinion always seems in danger of being typecast since "Inglorious Basterds," does wonderfully here as the clinical and icy attorney. He is a literal cold fish, gnashing his teeth. A cell phone is even more obnoxious in this film than in real life.

Reilly is also a highlight as a charming teddy bear type with a traitorous and aggressive mean streak. When drunk, he tries anything to be liked. 

Jodie Foster is a bit hard to take near the end as a quivering mass of rage, but she was pushed to the brink after all. 

Although at first the film has a sitcom potential to be a "Saturday Night Live" comedy (i.e. Neighbors) the sharp dialogue elevates it to a dark comedy of errors. And while we may not really see anything groundbreaking here (as in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Boys in the Band" ) the gleeful toxicity that Waltz and Reilly bring to their roles make passive aggressiveness into something new.

The one weak spot in "Carnage" is  the hamster. The lone varmint is just a bit too cutesy, like the meddlesome squirrel in "Caddyshack". But don't let that make you queasy. "Carnage" is better to see than to explain. The film should be the unapologetic centerpiece to any dysfunctional Thanksgiving. Every object in the film from a cellphone to an art book or a bouquet of tulips, is either vibrating with menace or wilting in panic. Even the right angled apartment walls seem to jut forward in spatial rage.

Write Ian at

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The audience holds its breath. The projector shoots its beam of light which  fills the screen, composing a rather magnificent  grey  afternoon in which every sound is magnified on a Budapest lane. There is a mole on the loose but who is it? So begins the highly anticipated film version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", a highly ambitious project with some compelling visual punctuation. But alas, this is a film that confounds me and appears to have left me in a decidedly English drizzle. 

How I wish it wasn't so. And although I am not a John le Carre devotee, I can sense the spice of a film, its rhythm and pacing and I can usually grasp its footsteps. This film feels a bit too, well... grey, both in pace and in palette.

At the start, the film had me snug in my chair. An agent Prideaux (Mark Strong)  is dispatched to seek out a mole in Budapest. The air is thick. Every sound is magnified from the striking of a match, the clinking of a glass, to the whimper of a baby. Strangers' eyes pivot as if strummed by a violin. A sweating waiter arrives. Prideaux  turns to leave. Suddenly , he is shot in the back by the waiter. It is an opening that would throw Hitchcock back into his rotund orbit. The scene is near musical in its score of apprehension. It is a visual question mark pointing to what might be next. A sudden thrill. If only the body of the film had kept that momentum.

Gary Oldman does a fine job as George Smiley. He is unrecognizable as his usual self: heavy, taciturn, official and old. 

Because of  Prideaux's murder, espionage feathers are ruffled. Smiley and Prideaux are forced into damage control  Smiley to retires to his grey-green flat and Prideaux ultimately resurfaces as a schoolteacher in a grey-green trailer. 

There is so much back and forth and so much listening in and listening out that I admit to getting lost in the shuffle, along with dim marches upstairs and down in hushed tones. The dialogue itself  appears bogged down with spy-speak (e.g, circus / witchcraft/ Karla that I  became over or is it underwhelmed? Flashbacks and characters  go to and fro forever. Soon, I was in the middle of a muddle. The characters too, have multiple names and this proved altogether too vexing. Should I have read the novel? Perhaps. But I doubt if it would be fair to require a prerequisite in the enjoyment of a film. However, on the side of satisfaction we have  Colin Firth who shows us some smarmy charm as a agent who missteps, along with Toby Jones who looks properly formidable,  obsequious and anemic.

The best parts that save this film from being a "Tinker Tailor Soldier Snooze" are the eerie qualities of menace that periodically pepper this monochrome cloak, particularly the agents' party hall. One glance at an ominous looking Santa Claus, with everyone standing in salute is all you need to know that you are in a den of wolves, reminiscent of an artwork by James Ensor or Otto Dix. Or how about the sight of an enflamed seagull roaring down a fireplace without Tippy Hedren? Or last but not least, a slain agent that is positioned like a freshly killed deer, his limbs covered by autumn leaves? These are welcome Gothic delights that brighten up long passages in grey parlor rooms.

This is where "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" succeeds.

You may call me an outlier on this outing if you wish, but I hope to emerge from this sedentary jump unscathed, to live and review another day.
Write Ian at

Carnage (Rhoades)

“Carnage” Depicts
End of Civility

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Think of it as a grown-up version of “Breakfast Club” gone awry. Two sets of parents come together (kinda like detention hall) to discuss their children who have been fighting. Their time together in this small apartment is revealing – drawing out the fears, prejudices, and pent-up anger of both families.
“Carnage” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – is a new film by bad boy Roman Polanski.
Himself in detention (recently under house arrest for his 1977 sex with a minor), Polanski keeps cranking them out. “The Ghost Writer” was a stylish mystery. “The Pianist” was an award-winner. “Chinatown” remains widely quoted. “Rosemary’s Baby has become a horror classic. “Knife in the Water” is studied in film schools.
Three of Polanski’s films – “Repulsion,” “Rosemary's Baby,” and “The Tenant” are known as his Apartment Trilogy. Given the cramped confines of the stagy Brooklyn apartment in “Carnage,” we may as well start calling it the Apartment Quartet.
“Carnage” may not go down as a classic, but it’s hypnotically watchable. Oscar-winners Jody Foster and Kate Winslet are the two warring mothers. John C. Riley and Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz are the angry dads. Eliot Berger and Elvis Polanski (yes, the director’s son) are the boys whose playground contretemps has caused this conference.
Does it matter whether one of the boys was “armed with a stick” or merely “carrying a stick”? Not really. This story is about the breakdown of civility, not fighting boys.
"Why are we still here?" becomes the movie’s battle cry as politeness melts like butter on a hot stove. Some audience members felt the same way.
“Carnage” is described as a black comedy. But it’s more biting than funny. Nevertheless, you’ll laugh as social mores get thrown out the window, particularly in the last ten minutes of this truncated 80-minute film.
Based on a 2006 stage play “God of Carnage” by Yasmine Reza, the film is talky. In a good way. Four talented actors going at it in a word-for-word battle. Pure theater.
No, not “Breakfast Club.” More like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
 [from Solares Hill]

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Conquest (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Conquest

The poster for  Xavier Durringer's "The Conquest" looks a bit like the poster for Quentin Tarrantino's "Reservoir Dogs". This is no coincidence. "The Conquest" is the most clinically carnivorous and slyly  told political biopic that I have seen in years.  It chronicles Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to prominence. If you like your political biopics with a scaly, jittery edge, then this film is a must.  

Not since "The Ides of March" have I seen such a soft shoe with a sinister beat.
In contrast to the above-mentioned film however,  "The Conquest" has a breezy theatrical flair that is more reptilian than "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", yet more detached and paranoid than Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). No one is likable in this film and that is the point. Politics, no matter the nationality is a toxic swamp  of veneer and subterfuge. Words and intent shift about like a malleable plastic. All is gained by posture and glare. Politics is a Pop Art strategy game and a charade  of sincere faces.

Denis Podalydes plays Nicolas Sarkozy as a head-bobbing and ill-tempered shifty wise guy with a penchant for chocolate and hazelnuts. Sarkozy  carries his cellphone like a scimitar and stabs the air. He moves from marbled hallway to hallway like a guilt-ridden chess piece, perpetually looking over his shoulder, as if pursued. Perhaps. Or more to the point to see who might be mocking him over his shortness. Sarkozy's rivals call him a right wing "runt" behind his back. 

Short Sarkozy may be, but he has the chimerical ability to uncoil and move his body about like the pop star Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps there is something Shakespearean here: the marginalized one, driven by ambition who tries to reach his  star in both the bedroom and the political media. While underneath, of course, a bruised ego respirates like a second skin. 
We also see Cecilia Sarkozy (Florence Pernel). She is melancholic and eaten up, her face is a triangle of tension. No love lost here. Cecilia might as well be a stranger to the box shouldered Nicolas. There is a deliberate nudge of Lars von Trier in her character as her face is chalk white, her hair off-brown and stringy like faded bark.

Also worth mentioning is  Samuel Labarthe as Sarcozy's rival Dominique de Villepin. Villepin is half hyped up android and half Sean Connery wannabe, slinking behind Sarcozy's back under the guise of a sycophantic spaceman. With his silver-white parchment pallor he also looks a touch like Warhol.  Villepin seeks the dayglo silkscreen of political coverage as much as anyone else. 

Although in content, "The Conquest" does not reveal anything new, but  the eerie lingering drift of the camera offers a treading haunt of existentialism and comic chiaroscuro that echoes the films of Peter Greenaway. Picture a haunted man who looks a little like Joe Pesci, slipping behind a political red curtain that once contained the shape of a woman in the act of running away and you've got your film. 

Write Ian at

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Getting to Know "The Man Nobody Knew" (Rhoades

Getting to Know
“The Man Nobody Knew”

By Shirrel Rhoades

“My father was the ultimate gray man,” Carl Colby says, his voice sounding much closer than Mexico. He was talking to me about William Egan Colby, the spymaster who served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency from September 1973 to January 1976. His dad.
“He was invisible, the last person you’d notice at a diplomatic reception.” An intelligence gatherer.
He’s been described as someone who couldn’t easily get the attention of a waiter in a restaurant. Yet he was one of the most powerful men in the world as director of the CIA.
As a boy Carl thought his dad was a diplomat. In those earlier days the family had been stationed in Stockholm, in Rome, and in Saigon.
“One day another kid told me my father worked for the CIA. I went to my father and asked him if that were true, was he like James Bond? He leaned close with a slight crease of a smile and said, ‘Well, let’s keep that our little secret.’ We never discussed it again.”
He was a member of the club and I supported the membership.
In Rome, clergy often visited the Colby household. The CIA was working with the Vatican to help sway the elections for the Christian Democrats.
And in Saigon, the Colby family lived next door to the palace. One day it came under attack. Colby hid his son under a stairwell and went upstairs to phone Washington. “After a while I got restless and wandered upstairs and showed myself in the doorway. ‘Get down,’ my father shouted as rounds from 50-caliber machinegun ripped through the room. ‘You all right?’ he asked and I replied yes. He invited me over to the window to watch the battle raging outside. I saw a guy get shot next to the tree where I played. After a while, my father said, ‘Well, you better go downstairs, sport,’ and continued monitoring the battle for the CIA. Surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid with my father there.”
I tell Carl about my friend Elizabeth who had known his dad, used to go to Washington DC to attend parties with Colby. When she was a girl her father had been a ‘diplomat’ in Turkey and a big black Volga followed Elizabeth and her twin sister to and from school. She said they always felt safe with the Russian KGB looking after them.
Carl says his childhood was like that too. “In terms of fear, I never feared for him, never feared for myself. He was so coolheaded.”
“It was a fascinating way to grow up,” Carl observes. “How could I never have stayed awake at night worrying about him? I never thought, What happens if he doesn’t come home?”
A devote Roman Catholic, William Colby was known as “the warrior priest.” As a young soldier he’d bought a first edition of T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography at the Strand in London. It caught his imagination. “So that’s what he became,” notes his son, “the Lawrence of Arabia of every hot zone in the world.”
During World War II Colby had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Next thing you knew, he was parachuting behind enemy lines, blowing up bridges in Norway. He rose through the ranks, eventually working in concert with John F. Kennedy on a counterinsurgency leading to the 1963 coup in South Vietnam. He headed the Phoenix Program, sometimes referred to as a “death squad.” He also ran the CIA’s secret war in Laos. When asked by a young CIA recruit, “Is this going to work out?” he replied, “I dunno, probably not,” acknowledging the fatalism of their mission.
Colby eventually became director of the CIA. His brief tenure was known for its transparency and many reforms. But when the Nixon White House asked him to stonewall Congress, he couldn’t do it. He served a higher calling. His revelation about “the Family Jewels,” the Agency’s darkest secrets, capped his career. Newly appointed President Gerald Ford replaced him with one George H. W. Bush as DCI. “A sacrificial lamb,” some said, referring to the unpopularity of his CIA policy of openness.
“There’s something like an ‘invisible government’ running the show,” Carl says, the phone signal from Mexico wavering in my ear. “There are more than 200,000 people with Top Secret clearance in the Washington DC area alone.”
I joke about our call being monitored. He chuckles, noting, “There are surveillance programs that pick up key words.” And we’re saying them all as we talk about his dad’s career in the CIA.
William Colby was an affable, yet steely man. Carl describes him as “an Edwardian schoolboy,” an adventurer, an only child whose mother “gave him all the love he was ever going to need.” He didn’t show his emotions, he didn’t express how he felt about his family.
Colby led a clandestine life, his job compartmentalized from his family life. “As a spy you can’t tell your wife where you’re going. You can’t explain to your son why you missed his soccer practice. Where have you been? was never asked in my family.”
Sometimes the job became the life. “My father had been in Indonesia with his deputy Bob Myers. At the time it was the hottest zone possible, ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ tripled. Coming home from the inspection trip, my father suggested they go out for a drink. Bob clasped him on the shoulder and said gently, ‘Bill, you’re home, go home.’”
The CIA offered a fraternity, a bonhomie. “I sometimes think I would have preferred to work for my father than be his son, as I would have been closer to him,” Carl told me wistfully.
But the son didn’t follow in the family trade. “I worked for the CIA for a summer,” he admits. “But it wasn’t my world.” For a career he became a filmmaker. His award-winning documentaries explored the art world. “Strokes of Genius” was a TV mini-series about painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “Legends in the Light: The Photography of George Hurrell” was a portrait of the famous Hollywood lensman. He interviewed stars like Sharon Stone, Raquel Welch, Loretta Young, and Katherine Hepburn – not spies and secret warriors.
Even so, he couldn’t help asking himself who this man he’d known as his father really was. William Colby had died in 1996 under mysterious circumstance, a boating accident that had been viewed by some as a suicide. This was after leaving his family behind, starting a new life. In 1984, he had divorced his wife Barbara and married diplomat Sally Shelton-Colby.
“Suicide, I don’t think so,” Carl told me, citing a conversation with his dad two weeks before his death. “He’d been upset over his removal from the CIA, but he didn’t show it. ‘It was better for their business,’ he’d said, upper lip quivering just a bit. He was extremely good at compartmentalizing.”
Colby had “jettisoned the family,” walked away from old friends, found new friends. “‘To hell with the past,’ he’d said.”
On that last phone call his father had sounded “kind of woozy.” He had cryptically said his end would not be like in the movies. “Oh, that will never happen to me. One day I’ll be walking along a goat path on a Greek island and fall to the sea.” He fell off his canoe in the waters near his home in Rock Point, Maryland.
“Maybe he was the gray man,” mused Carl. “Maybe the family was just a cover. I started to ask myself, could the family have been a lie too.”
So he undertook making a documentary about his father.
The euphuistic title says it all: “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.”
Despite the personal quality of this film, Carl doesn’t appear on camera very much. “This isn’t about me,” he says as if trying to convince himself of that.
“The Man Nobody Knew” was produced by Carl Colby, with David Johnson and Grace Guggenheim, for Act 4 Entertainment. “Grace was great at turning up archival footage. I think I looked at every scrap of film showing my father.”
His producer David Johnson pushed him to go further into personal doubts. “Are you sure about this?” counseled David when they began the project. “What if you turn up something you don’t like about your father?”
Carl did. But at the same time he learned much about the murky world of espionage and the dedication of men like his father. “It’s a quiet, selfless service,” he says.
But his was a more basic quest: finding who his father really was. “It’s the oldest story in the world: Who’s Abraham?” he makes a Biblical reference. “I was afraid I was becoming him, cold remote.”
Researching the film helped him “fill in the blanks.” In the end he came away with “a grudging respect” for the father he hardly knew.
He interviewed more than 85 people, although all of them did not make it into the documentary. “I tried to be really balanced,” Carl says. “I have to grow during the course of the film. I have to be that ten-year-old boy who adores his dad. That questioning teen. In the end I have to be the adult son who asks the toughest questions.”
Producer David Johnson ruefully said to Carl, “You don’t see it. You’re really like him. Compartmentalized.”
“The Man Nobody Knew” will be shown at the Tropic Cinema on January 13. Carl Colby and David Johnson will be on hand to introduce the film, take questions from the audience afterwards.
He doesn’t consider the film pro CIA or anti CIA. Rather, it’s a portrait of a father who took on one of the toughest assignments possible, one that took precedence over family and friends. “The CIA exists so the President has an option – diplomatic protest or sending in the Marines,” explains Carl. “And the men who do this are very tough – but also very solicitous – gentlemen. My father was one of them.”
The biggest lesson Carl Colby learned from his dad? “My father was a listener. He taught me how to listen.” So bring your questions.