All posts by Helen Highly

I am Helen Kaplow, writing as Helen Highly: I'm a little bit high. ...highly suspect ...highly sensitive ...highly enthusiastic ...highly educated ...highly intoxicated? ...highly likely. When not writing about movies here, I am being a culture vulture in my adopted home of New York City and posting on my blog HelenHighly.com

Starz Wins Bidding War for Distribution of Romantic Comedy “My Blind Brother”

Starz has picked up Sophie Goodhart’s romantic comedy, “My Blind Brother,” which premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival and also played at Tribeca Film FestivalVariety reports. The magazine says that the acquisition “will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest” and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly the subject of a bidding war among distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures.

Variety reports that Starz, which landed North American and Latin American rights for the film, will give “My Blind Brother” a day-and-date release in 25 markets and VOD (via Starz Digital) later this year, followed by an exclusive TV debut in 2017.

Click here to read HelenHighly’s review of “My Blind Brother.”

“My Blind Brother” Review: A Shrewd Romantic Comedy at Tribeca

Helen Highly Recommends “My Blind Brother” as One of the Best of Tribeca 2016

Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in "My Blind Brother," shown at Tribeca 2016
Nick Kroll and Jenny Slate in “My Blind Brother,” shown at Tribeca 2016

Droll “My Blind Brother” Premiered at SXSW and Cracks Up Tribeca 2016


“I’m a superficial narcissist”
“I’m lazy and judgmental.”

This is how the two romantic leads in the new romantic comedy, “My Blind Brother,” introduce themselves to each other, and I fell in love with them both immediately.

HelenHighly also wants to watch TV all day.
HelenHighly also wants to lay in bed and watch TV all day.

Then, when they both reveal that they perversely wish they could be invalids so they’d have an excuse to lay in bed all day and watch TV, I fell in love with screenwriter Sophie Goodhart. Add in a blind guy, jaded and bored with his own infirmity, who is smoking weed unabashedly in public, even with the police nearby, who says, “I could shoot up in front of cops and they wouldn’t do anything,” and I love this movie in full. It manages to be morbidly dark, joyfully funny and unsentimentally touching all at the same time. 

The storyline itself is genuinely fresh; unlike so many other films at this festival, I can’t think of another previous movie to compare it to. Robbie (Adam Scott) is a champion blind athlete and local philanthropic hero doted on by the community (and his parents) and seemingly incapable of wrongdoing. His apparently well-earned egotism is fed by his frequent, televised crusades to rise above his “disability” while also raising money for charity, where after each successful feat, he is surrounded by gushing reporters who never seem to notice that he tells the same, lame joke every time: “You look beautiful today,” Robbie the blind guy tells every female member of the press.

Robbie’s hapless, unassuming brother Bill (Nick Kroll) knows the real Robbie to be arrogant, selfish and rude, but he still guide-dog-faithfully runs every marathon by Robbie’s side and never makes a peep when he doesn’t receive any accolades, or when even his own parents continually criticize him. One night, Bill escapes the relentless Robbie-worship by hitting up the local bar, where despite his best efforts to present himself as unworthy and unappealing, he gets lucky with an attractive and like-hearted woman named Rose (Jenny Slate). Bill is guilt-ridden because Robbie’s blindness was the result of a childhood accident in which he was involved. Rose is a guilt-ridden because immediately after she told her fiancé she wanted to break up with him, he distractedly crossed the street and was hit and killed by a bus.

After one pitiful, anti-romantic (yet soul-soaring) night together, Rose flees without leaving her phone number. Nonetheless, Bill thinks his karma might finally be coming around and that he’s found his sad-sack love-match. But his fantasy is soon squashed when his brother introduces him to his own new paramour – the very same Rose, who (without knowing he is Bill’s brother) has started dating blind Robbie in an attempt to make herself a better person. Now Bill must decide if he will put himself second again or finally stand up to his blind brother.

"My Blind Brother" gives a new twist to the Love Triangle
“My Blind Brother” gives a new twist to the Love Triangle

Kudos to writer/director Sophie Goodhart for opting against a “when bad things happen to good people” script and instead going with “when good things happen to bad people.” Goodhart’s two, guilty, self-loathing characters are amazingly charming and lovable. Robbie makes a wonderfully heroic antagonist, whose capability and determination we slowly come to dislike more and more as the story unfolds. (The fact that actor Adam Scott looks quite a bit like a smugly smiling Tom Cruise doesn’t hurt.) And Goodhart’s ingenious twist on the conventional love-triangle takes the sentimental weight out of the usual wet blanket that hangs over traditional romantic comedies. This movie is bright and buoyant and makes us laugh at ourselves more than at mere jokes.

Goodhart’s head-on attacks of our socially-correct attitudes toward both the physically handicapped and noble self-sacrifice are deftly executed dark humor that captures what’s funny about resentment, bitterness, and condescension. Her sharp jabs at “those less fortunate” never feel like bullying and never fall into rude buffoonery. Even as the movie escalates into full-blown wackiness, it still maintains its shrewd edge.

Another strength to this film are the secondary characters. Rose’s prissy, eye-rolling, sarcastically unsympathetic roommate (Zoe Kazan) ends up with the stoner blind guy. Ha! It’s just another delightful quirk in this defiant film where apathy and under-achievement are treated as virtues and perfection is the problem to be overcome. Finally: a romantic comedy with mutually flawed lovers, where no sacrifice or self-improvement is necessary for them to win happiness and each other.

HelenHighly Votes Yes
HelenHighly Votes Yes

Just be fair, I will say that there are a few small spots where the script veers into impossible interactions – stupid things that could or would never actually be said. These mini-moments wouldn’t stand out so much if all the other moments in the script were not so true and all the other lines were not so witty. I am not usually a great lover of comedies, and the fact that I am calling this film One of the Best of Tribeca 2016 means it is truly something special. I predict that this film will not be soon forgotten.


News Update: Starz has won the bidding war over Sophie Goodhart’s SXSW premiere “My Blind Brother,” Variety reports. The acquisition will likely be the biggest sale out of this year’s South by Southwest and is estimated to be in the low seven-figure range. The comedy was reportedly sought after by distributors like Netflix, The Orchard, Sony and Gravitas Ventures. Click here for more on this news.

*****

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Ron Book is Monster Yet to Be Slayed, Despite Revealing “Untouchable” Documentary

“Untouchable” Documentary Doesn’t Go Far Enough & Ron Book is A Monster Yet to Be Slayed, According to OnceFallen.com

I recently posted an interview with “Untouchable” director David Feige, and in the process, I saw an online comment about the film, posted by Derek W. Logue, founder of the Sex Offender Advocacy Site OnceFallen.com — a group that fights against what it considers to be unfair and unconstitutional laws, such as those championed by Ron Book, who is the central figure in the documentary. (A Newsweek article called Book, “The Lobbyist Who Put Sex Offenders Under a Bridge”.)

Logue is also shown, briefly, in the documentary; he is the one who organizes the sex-offender rights rally. But his own full story is not shown in full in the film. A visit to the OnceFallen.com site shows just how passionate and hot a topic this is, and gives an indication of how scary-powerful Ron Book is as a lobbyist and political force. The website has an extremist tone (understandably), but it definitely merits a look. And Logue’s comment also merits a read, so I am posting it here (as I found it on the web, without any fact-checking), along with my own comment back to Logue:

Logue: I was in this film briefly, protesting the Book family. This film didn’t do anything to challenge those monsters. The Books are responsible for forcing hundreds of Miami’s registered citizens into homelessness. It is disgusting to see clips of Ron Book attending fancy dinners, eating steak tartare and getting his shoes shined knowing his policies force hundreds of registered citizens to live by the railroad tracks behind a warehouse.

The film fails to discuss Ron Book’s plea of no contest to a theft charge in the 1980s and a guilty plea for illegal campaign contributions in the 1990s. Ron Book was recently under FBI investigation. Lauren Book is literally BUYING a senate seat, yet she can’t even answer her own questions during a post-screening Q & A. Lauren is inept and nothing but a puppet for daddy Ron and his political cronies.

It is here where Feige fumbled the ball worse than Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. In order to guarantee he wouldn’t get sued by the Books or have them pull their support of the film, Feige had to cater to Ron & Lauren. Thus, instead of any direct challenge to the Book family, Feige’s film dances the issue around them. The Books are never grilled about anything in the film. Feige minimized my rally in the film out of concerns that our message was “too harsh.” He asked me to be nice to Lauren Book because she is “skittish.” I guess it was because Daddy wasn’t there to do the talking for her.

Ultimately, this movie was an utter disappointment. The Books get away again like the bad guys from a Saturday Morning cartoon to return and continue their wicked ways.

Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website.
Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website. But…not funny because it’s true.

HH: I don’t doubt that much of what you say about the Book family is true. But the Books *are* revealed in this film to be something very different than they originally appear. Feige handles their story, and others, with amazing sensitivity, while carefully and slowly building his case that essentially everything we think we know about this subject is FALSE. When you come into the issue cold, like most of us do, and watch it from beginning to end, the film packs a powerful punch. But it’s smart and dispassionate, which leads to a kind of meticulous fairness that is bizarrely unsettling. In my mind, Feige is like Solomon, but he actually cuts the baby in half. 

Click here to read the interview and learn about the film.

“Untouchable” Documentary Interview w/ Director David Feige and Editor Jay Sterrenberg

Helen, Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in “Untouchable,” Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.

Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.

Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.
Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.

“Untouchable” Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. “Untouchable” chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed. 

Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a complex and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted, interconnected public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.

HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?

Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.

David Feige, Director of "Untouchable"
David Feige, Director of “Untouchable”

This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.

Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.

HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?

Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.

HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?

Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.

We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.

Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile
Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile

Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.

Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.

HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.

Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.

HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.

Sterrenberg: Yes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.

Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.

HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.

Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.

HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old “Psychology Today” article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.

Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the “Psychology Today” article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study. That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.

HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.

Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.

HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.

Feige: Correct.

HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.

Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.

Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.

HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.

Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.

Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.
Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.

HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.

Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.

If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.

HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.

Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.

That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.

HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.

Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.

Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.

HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?

Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.

HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.

Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.

HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Watch the trailer:

*****

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Janis Joplin Film, “Little Girl Blue,” to Air on PBS American Masters Series

Janis: Little Girl Blue, the new Janis Joplin documentary film created by Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg, is currently playing in movie theaters across the country. (Go see it while it’s still in the theaters!) But for those of you who don’t live near an art-house theater, you will be pleased to know that the theatrical run will be followed by airings on the PBS American Masters series.

Janis: Little Girl Blue had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in late 2015. And it is set to be broadcast on American Masters on 5/3/2016.

Berg worked with the support of Joplin’s family on the film, which offers previously unseen glimpses of the singer’s personal life. Speaking with Billboard, Berg underlined her reasons for taking on the project while praising Joplin’s tremendous cultural impact.

“She put women in rock on the map. She literally was the first female rock star and she did it in such a strong way and we’re still reaping the benefits of that today,” Berg argued. “And I think her music is just as relevant today as it was in 1968-69.”

Joplin’s own words tell much of the film’s story, through a series of letters she wrote to her parents over the years, many of them made public here for the first time (and read by Southern-born indie rock star Cat Power). This correspondence is only one element of the stunning, previously unseen material Berg discovered during the seven years she has spent working on Janis: Little Girl Blue. New audio and video of Joplin in concert and in the studio, and even footage from her emotional return to Port Arthur for her 10th high school reunion, add depth and texture to this remarkable story.

Keep an eye on your local listings for more information.

Click here to read The Film Box commentary, by HelenHighly, that reviews Little Girl Blue and compares it to the Peggy Guggenheim documentary, Art Addict, also currently in release. The two stories have surprisingly similarities and together offer an insightful look into the nature of art and artists.

***

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City. 

Janis Joplin: Film, Birthday & “Pearl” Anniversary Month

Janis Joplin: Film, Birthday & Pearl Anniversary Month

This is the month of the talented and controversial singer-songwriter, Janis Joplin, who rose to fame in the late 1960s and was featured in a recent documentary film titled Little Girl Blue. There are three reasons to remember her this January:

  • Joplin’s birthday was January 19, 1943, so she would have turned 73 this coming Monday. Joplin died at the young age of 27, from a heroin overdose.
  • Also this month is the 45-year anniversary of the release of Pearl, Joplin’s second and final solo studio album, released posthumously by Columbia Records, in January 1971.
  • And, a new documentary film about Janis Joplin, Little Girl Blue, directed by Amy Berg, was officially released this past December but is in wide distribution this January. The film has been critically well-received and is being used by many to pay tribute to Joplin this month, in commemoration of her birthday and her most-famous album.

Click here to read The Film Box review of the Janis Joplin documentary, Little Girl Blue.

Janis Joplin film poster
Janis Joplin film poster

Joplin’s Southeast-Texas hometown of Port Arthur plans to commemorate her life this weekend, with two events scheduled in her honor. The first is a tribute concert where Amber Martin will perform some of the blues-rock legend’s greatest songs during a live show. Then, on Saturday, Avril Falgout, a Port Arthur native, will celebrate Joplin with the unveiling of a new sculpture in her home town. Click here for more info.

A few of the songs made famous by Joplin are Piece of My HeartBall ‘n’ ChainTo Love SomebodyCry BabyMercedes Benz, and her only number one hit, Me and Bobby McGee.

Rolling Stone ranked Joplin number 46 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004, and it ranked her number 28 on its 2008 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Janis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Joplin remains one of the top-selling musicians in the United States, with 15.5 million albums sold in the USA.

Peggy Guggenheim & Janis Joplin in “Art Addict” & “Little Girl Blue”

Shipwrecked: Degenerate Damsels in Distress
or
Gotta Gotta Gotta

Peggy Guggenheim, "Art Addict"
Peggy Guggenheim, “Art Addict”
Surrealism is to Peggy Guggenheim as Heroin is to Janis Joplin?

I happened to see “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a documentary about famed art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, back-to-back with “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” a documentary about rock-and-roll star Janis Joplin, directed by Amy Berg. I never would have put the two together in my mind, but seeing their stories so close together, I was amazed at how many unlikely similarities there are. One film makes the case that Peggy Guggenheim was addicted to art itself, and I think the same can be said about Janis Joplin. And the parallels continue, adding up to a sort of double-wide (and double-deep) insight.

Janis Joplin, "Little Girl Blue"
Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”

Initially, I had planned to compare Peggy to Diana Vreeland, whose daughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made an excellent documentary about her mother, called “The Eye Has to Travel.” And now Lisa Vreeland has made this documentary about Peggy Guggenheim, using never-before-heard interview tapes of Peggy – with her classy, haut monde dialect (and this is reason enough to see the film). Given their shared filmmaker, it seems impossible not to compare the two female, trailblazing, cultural tastemakers from the same era – Guggenheim and Vreeland.

But the comparison between Peggy and Janis is more surprisingly and offers a different type of angle.

{For those who want a simple thumbs up or down: Yes, both films are worth seeing. “The Hollywood Reporter” writes that the film is “so stuffed with connections and allusions to fabled eras that it’s hard to imagine any [arthouse enthusiast] being bored.” Which film are they referring to? That enticing statement easily applies to both equally. These are both important and fascinating women who lived in legendary times. And both women could fairly be called “feminist pioneers,” although the films about them have a tone that is less historical and more gossip-column.

Neither film will win a Best Documentary award, because they cannot escape being dressed-up bio-picts, but if you care about art or artists, you will want to look into the lives of these women. And if you already have looked at these lives – through previous films or books, this is an opportunity to refresh your amazement. And both of these films do an excellent job and add new perspectives, or at least new interviews (or newly collected personal letters).

The Guggenheim film is a bit more studied and the Joplin film is a bit more sexy. Neither is as comprehensive or complex as it could be, but… still. Whether you are a fan of modern art or music, or just someone who couldn’t get in to whatever else is playing, Helen Highly suggests you see either or both films. You will be highly entertained and hardly even notice that you are also being educated.}

Now, let’s get to what is interesting:

The fundamental concept in both films is that “art is a drug” – whether making it or collecting it.

Janis Joplin, on stage
Janis Joplin, on stage

The Peggy Guggenheim documentary is actually titled “Art Addict,” and in it Peggy herself says “I became an addict and couldn’t help it” (and she’s maybe 1/3 joking).

Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder
Peggy Guggenheim, touching her Calder

A friend of hers says, “She had an intense hunger for life, and an undertone of unbeatable sadness.” Then Peggy explains how she literally is “most happy when connected, physically, with art,” and demonstrates by actually clutching a sculpture. Similarly, in the Joplin documentary, it is repeated again and again that Janis was happy only when on stage. The stage was a tangible touchstone for Janis, the way a thing of beauty was for Peggy. Nina Simone, whom Joplin highly admired, said that “Janis became an addict because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t drugs. She got hooked into a feeling.” So, both these women felt a bodily attachment to their experience of art. (It was under their skin.) They reveled in these attachments; they lived in them.

But here’s where the plot thickens:

It was widely known in her day (and since then has been extensively written about and discussed) that Peggy Guggenheim had sex with many of the artists she patronized, as well as others in her literati circle – all the more scandalous because of her homeliness.

Peggy Guggenheim was homely.,
Peggy Guggenheim was homely.

“Peggy was in bed with Samuel Beckett for four days!” we are told. “She had an affair with Brancusi!” And Ms. Guggenheim made no effort to hide her sexual escapades. In the film, she calls herself “a nymphomaniac.” She claims (not entirely convincingly) to be proud of her immoral exploits, counted at roughly 400 in her own memoirs, and she doesn’t care that her friend Mary McCarthy wrote a very thinly veiled story that essentially called her a slut. The film provides torrid details such as “Peggy Guggenheim lost her virginity at age 23” (printed in text on the screen) and “Peggy had seven abortions.”

Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict
Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict

But Peggy explains in an interview that she loved these men because they were artists; for her, sex and art went hand in hand. (She collected both art and artists.) So: she was an art addict and a sex addict. And all these sensational details of Peggy’s sexual compulsions are relevant because…? Well, bed-hopping with artists + sexist backlash = damaged reputation. And this brings us to one of the central messages of this film:

Peggy Guggenheim’s addictive lust for art (and artists) cut into her credibility and ultimately obscured her accomplishments.

Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer
Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer

And the same is true of Janis Joplin, who is perhaps best known for being a drug addict.

Janis drinking on stage
Janis drinking on stage

Her heroin-and-amphetamine-and-bourbon fueled performances were the signature style that made her famous. And that drug use may have made her great. She was great, but certainly her reputation and legacy as an addict obscured her accomplishments, same as with Peggy. She’ll always have the word “junkie” attached in front of the word “singer.”  And finally, her addiction killed her; she died from an overdose in 1970.

In a way, both these women sacrificed their lives to their addictions … to art.

Both documentaries tells us that these women were defined in their youth by their unattractiveness and lack of desirability, and each is described as “insecure,” “vulnerable,” “self-conscious,” and “full of suffering” as a result. (The identical words are used in both films.) In both cases, the women’s indelicate and unconventional looks pushed them to explore new ways of defining themselves and gaining acceptance.

Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.
Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.

Janis Joplin was teased mercilessly by the boys in grade school, and as a cruel joke in college, the student newspaper named her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” She is described in the film as being “profoundly hurt, over and over.”

Peggy Guggenheim said, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories.” In a classic Peggy story,  we are told that she hated, and when she finally tried to have it fixed, the plastic surgery was botched and she was left even more unpleasant-looking than before.

Peggy Guggenheim "gutsed out" her bad nose.
Peggy Guggenheim “gutsed out” her bad nose.

She decided not to fix the failed repair and just “guts it out.” She ignored her lack of beauty from then on and focused on her work – her work as a champion and collector of beautiful things. Even then, the documentary explicitly states that she was “the subject of ridicule and disparagement,” due to her perceived desperate attempts at recognition. She was called a narcissist, a pushy rich girl, etc.

Early on, both Peggy and Janis sought to escape their bourgeois lives. Janis called herself “a misfit.” She moved from Texas to San Francisco as a way of breaking out and being free. Peggy moved from the U.S. to Paris and became a bohemian as a way of finding herself. Peggy found herself in art, and Janis in music. Both dropped out of college in pursuit of an alternative life. Both were self-educated and self-made.

In the film, Peggy calls herself a “lost girl,” looking for something to fill her life. She was “the wayward Guggenheim.” She tells us that she used modern art to express her inner world and her emotions (and, we assume, to escape the outer world of social expectations and judgment). Peggy is described as “always a rebel,” so it makes sense that in Paris she started her art addiction with Dadaism – the language of disillusionment. Dadaism rejected logic and reason and prized the abstract and psychological. Dadaism was Peggy’s gateway drug into surrealism, which was similar in what it stood against, but was more a language of freedom. (Surrealism is to Peggy as Heroin is to Janis?) It is said that Peggy sought art that was “strange and outrageous.” She wanted to feel “the cutting edge.” (The same edge that appealed to Janis.)

Kandinsky
Kandinsky

Yet, there was no precedence for women working in the art world; this was Peggy’s own liberation. She created this new identity and purpose for herself. And she didn’t just follow movements; she followed her own intuitions and tastes. The film does make much of the fact that Peggy was advised by some very savvy artists – such as Marcel Duchamp, but Helen Highly suggests that being given advice is a very different thing from selecting which advice to accept (and then implementing it), as Peggy had already proved when she rejected her docile, dignified upbringing. Whoever first had the notion that a certain genre might have potential, is mostly irrelevant; history belongs to the one who Highly Devoted herself to it, who pursued the outlandish, developed the bizarre, and brought them to fruition.While some critics are questioning this film’s gossipy chatter about Peggy’s sex life, Helen is Highly concerned about the film’s continuous insinuation that Peggy was “perhaps” a dilettante who was molded by the men around her rather than a true guiding force in defining what we now call Modern Art. (The fact that Peggy suggests this herself is not valid evidence; self-report is never a credible source, especially when we know that Peggy was quick to tarnish her own reputation.)

Let’s just take three examples from the many artists that Peggy helped introduce to the world, who are now recognized as modern art’s greatest talents (a list very swiftly breezed over in the film):
1) Peggy gave Kandinsky his first show at her gallery. When she tried to persuade her uncle, a prestigious art collector, to purchase a Kandinsky, he foolishly refused and called it “trash.”
2) Peggy also presented the first Rothko exhibition.
3) Peggy is credited with discovering and essentially inventing Jackson Pollock.
Right there alone… (okay, let’s add in Mondrian, Dali, Calder, Miro, Magritte, and more), it’s almost as if without Peggy Guggenheim, there would be no modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings
Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings

And that statement is not entirely far-fetched, because one chapter in the loose and lascivious life of this Jewish-American princess is the tale (which is told in the film all too briefly) of Peggy remaining in war-time Paris as others fled, and assembling a collection of 125 modern masterpieces that Hitler officially deemed “Degenerate” and sought to destroy, and then narrowly escaping Paris two days before the Nazis marched into the city, and getting the art out too. Note: Ms. Guggenheim had first asked the Louvre to help her by storing the paintings and sculptures (which included Picasso paintings, btw), but they declined, saying that these pieces were not worth saving.

Brancusi "Bird in Space"
Brancusi “Bird in Space”

(Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture was among the pieces Peggy saved, and I personally would like to thank her for that one. Rumor has it that Peggy had to sleep with Brancusi in order to negotiate a price she could afford, and again I say: Thank You for Your Service.)

Peggy didn’t just devote her heart and soul to modern art; she put her life on the line for it. In addition, Peggy saved her lover, Max Ernst, who “didn’t give a damn for her,” by marrying him to get him out of Europe and into America. This makes her a noble figure – a savior of art and artists, even if she was a lonely lady with a disastrous romantic life.

Yes, in her day, she ruined her reputation by reckless fucking (a word Peggy used herself). But in today’s day, I would expect the documentarian to challenge the legitimacy of those judgements. (She liked to get it on with brilliant and talented men. That doesn’t make her stupid, or inept.) Lisa Immorino Vreeland tries to stand neutral at a place where Helen Highly believes she should assert her opinion. But I digress.

Peggy and Max Ernest
Peggy and Max Ernest

Let’s go back to: Peggy made a trailblazing transition in her collection and patronage – from surrealist painting, anchored in WWI, to abstract expressionist painting, anchored in WWII – bridging the divide between Europe and America, and she took the art world with her. She discovered new artists who were thinking and working in new ways, and she funded them and encouraged them and presented them to the world. She was a kind of collector that never existed before.

Peggy and Max at her gallery
Peggy and Max at her gallery

In “Little Girl Blue,” we learn that Janis Joplin made a similarly significant transition from folk to blues to rock. She started singing folk songs like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but their gentle sound did not suit Joplin. In San Francisco, Joplin hooked up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and it wasn’t long before she assumed a leadership role in the band, where she became a pioneer of psychedelic rock. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s appearance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 received immense acclaim – particularly for their version (Joplin’s) of “Ball and Chain.” Janis’ wild style and raw, gutsy sound blew the collective mind of the audience. But all of the attention on Janis caused tension between her and her bandmates. Janis Joplin finally went out on her own and has been labeled “the first lady of rock and roll.” She was a kind of singer that never existed before.

Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy
Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy

Ottis Redding also appeared at the Monterey Festival, and Janis has said that she was strongly influenced by him and his “gotta gotta gotta … try a little tenderness” when she later sang “try try try … a little bit harder.” Both songs share a sense of urgent emotion, but Janis takes it to a whole new level.

Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of “Vogue” magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Stevie Nicks considers Joplin one of her idols, and says, “She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm and blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock and roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart.”

Janis Rocks Hard.
Janis Rocks Hard.

It’s worth noting that this documentary does not include a lot of Janis Joplin music. Unlike the recent movie about the Beach Boys, “Love and Mercy,” which had an inspiring and extensive soundtrack of true Beach Boy tunes, this film relies more on commentary and quotes, such as those above. And at its core is a collection of letters that Janis wrote to her family and friends, which do indeed provide a candid view of the troubled and tender person behind the famous name.

According to the two movies, Peggy had a lot more sex than Janis did (surprisingly). But both women were haunted by the same distressed efforts to find love and affection. Both suffered many romantic disappointments and are said to have lived very sad lives. Janis is seen onscreen saying:

“I want to be happy so fucking bad.”

And at another point in the film she explains that her career ambition is all about her “need to be loved.” One widely quoted critic wrote that Joplin had “desperate mating calls from every song.”

One more thing united these two unique women – their honest individuality. Janis said that her artistic ambition was to be true to herself. She sang raw because that was how she felt, and she wouldn’t pretend anything prettier. The film makes a point of insisting that Janis refused to “lie” in her music, or follow anyone else’s rules.

Of Peggy Guggenheim, her film stated that for all her eccentricities, she was a woman “without guile.” Her yearning and her passion were sincere, and she held herself to a high standard of honesty, especially because her mentor, Marcel Duchamp, preached the merit of being a self-actualized individual without artifice. The film quotes Duchamp as defining his code of “individualism” as “everyone for oneself – like a shipwreck.” It’s ironic that Peggy’s father died in a shipwreck; he went down on the Titanic, when the ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Peggy was barely a teenager, and she was forever traumatized by the event. (Just an interesting detail.)

So, where does this leave us?

  • Both women were sad and lonely and desperate for attention.
  • Both women were addicts.
  • But their insecurities and addictions propelled them to greatness.
  • They each accomplished something never-before done.
  • In response to their own addictions, each changed the world of art (otherwise known as “the world”).
  • And then their addictions ruined them.

And Helen Highly suggests that the least we can do, as recipients of their greatness and inheritors of their legacies – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and all the soul-searching music that has been inspired by it since, and the war-and-peace-making avant garde art that Peggy Guggenheim nurtured and saved and promoted and shared, and all that came after and was inspired by those works…  the least we can do is remember them with appropriate respect and appreciation, and without judging with our traditional conventions and morality.

They suffered and we reaped the rewards. When we think of them, we should try a little tenderness.

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kapow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City.

Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” Review

“Mia Madre” by Nanni Moretti — an essay, more than a review

Italians understand Life and Death in "Mia Madre"
Italians understand Life and Death in “Mia Madre”

“Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not.”

When was the last time you heard a great last line in a movie? So great it made you burst into tears? The final line in Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” is not a brilliant sentence in itself. (Then again, is “rosebud” profound in itself?) But in context – the way it references an earlier conversation in the film, as well as sums up the theme of the movie, and most importantly creates a definitive and meaningful end to the story (and endings are always difficult, even for the best filmmakers), in that way, this was an enormously powerful and stirring end – probably the best final line to a movie that anyone heard at the 53rd New York Film Festival. And it literally made me cry out loud.

Basically, this is a story about a woman whose mother is dying. But, don’t imagine grim or depressing. Those Italians, they understand Sorrowful Life and Comical Death in ways that Americans just do not. It’s like writer/director Nanni Moretti (“The Son’s Room”) is tapping into an ancient source of pure emotion. And he does it so gracefully. The film is gently, deeply astute. The lyricism in the language adds to the effect; Italian is such an elegant language. It’s all part of this organic sensation that comes from the film – this gorgeous feeling that grows out of my stomach and blooms in my chest.

In conversation after the screening, Moretti actually says that he wants the audience to feel that the movie is digging inside of them. That’s exactly what I felt. Or, I felt the movie carving into me. As I watched, I felt like I was being sculpted. I felt as if a great master, Michelangelo, was carefully cutting, chiseling into me, and so he – the sculptor, the director, the writer – is making us – the audience – into his magnificent carved creation. And in that way, Moretti is elevating us with his talent, his vision. He is making us sublime.

Except it really wasn’t “us.” It was just me alone and that movie. It was so intimate. I start off watching the movie from outside and thinking about it – thinking I will “review” it, and then I am in the movie. I am living it. It is living me. I am not audience observing a film; we are involved in each other in some palpable way. It’s almost physical – like I can literally feel it touching me. It brings me to life in an odd way; I can feel my heart inside my body.

Of course, the death of a parent is a universal experience, but this film manages to make it feel uniquely personal. I feel as if this director has been watching me in my life, with my family, and is now explaining myself to me. Although, I suspect it’s an explanation that will feel relevant or resonant to nearly every adult. Perhaps the film score helps me to feel so fully enthralled – a variety of music from Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass, Nino Rota, and Arvo Part.

Other critics may focus on the story that binds the film’s emotions together, but the movie is more about the emotions than the story. The lead character (played with glorious subtlety by Margherita Buy) is an Italian filmmaker who is shooting a movie while her mother is dying in a hospital. Actually, this is a semi-autobiographical film in that Mortetti had his mother die while he was shooting a previous film. However, I think that fact is more significant to the personal life of Moretti than to the body of this film; having an experience and elevating that experience to an art form are two very different things.

“Death is breathing life while life is killing her.”

In this movie, the story functions to bring in the outside world and its pressing realities and complexities. The specifics of what job the central character has are mostly inconsequential. Although, it is worth noting that the character’s persistent and diligent return to the stress of her work environment, after each vigil beside her dying mother, shows that life goes on.

John Tuturro provides comic relief in "Mia Madre."
John Tuturro provides comic relief in “Mia Madre.”

The story also serves by bringing smartly implemented humor. John Tuturro plays an American who is a hilariously bad actor in the film that our lead is trying to make. Tuturro’s approach is broad and exuberant, which is startling in this otherwise quiet movie, and ultimately Tuturro’s excited approach not only works but becomes essential to Moretti’s message. I am laughing, I am crying, I am laughing, I am crying… I am exalted.

Another running joke in the film is when our protagonist director repeatedly tells her actors to “be the character you are playing at the same time as you stand outside the character.” No one understands this instruction, and finally the director herself admits that she doesn’t know what she means. But I see this as appropriately consistent with my unusual experience of the film; I am both standing outside it — watching, and in it — experiencing.

Fundamentally, this is a story about emotion. It’s an exploration of humanity. It is life and death – beautiful and heartbreaking, devastating and inspiring. It was excruciating to watch a scene where our lead character is stripped naked and exposed (metaphorically); she’s made vulnerable and cut to shreds – destroyed. Then, she goes and sits silently beside her dying mother, and that gives her new life. It revives her. It saves her. Death is breathing life while life is killing her.

Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in "Mia Madre"
Being in the presence of her dying mother revives Margherita in “Mia Madre”

In the press conference, Moretti is talking, with his lovely Italian accent, and I hear… “love erupts in solitude.” I don’t even know what that means, but I totally feel it. I leave the theater feeling newly alive.
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Update: After playing at the 53rd New York International Film Festival, this movie played at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then virtually disappeared from the U.S. But look for it to return in March 2016, at your local art / indie /foreign-film theater.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes Film Festival and won Best Non-U.S. Release at the Online Film Critics Society Awards.

News: The New York Times asks Nanni Moretti 5 Questions

News:  Moretti Film Canceled in Paris Attacks

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When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kaplow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City.