Thursday, April 28, 2005

I heard he had a style

Dave Eggers- not the most brilliant of public speakers. I don't understand why we require a good writer, a good director, or a good musician to be a fabulous public speaker. Why would they be writing, or directing, or singing, if their real talent was rousing a crowd to great cheer? When he gets nervous, Eggers seems to fall back on effusive compliments. He called Patton Oswalt the most brilliant political comedian of our time (sorry, but there is no way that is true- Lewis Black alone could spank him to pieces), and said David O. Russell was the best director of our time (thanks to I Heart Huckabees, I can't agree with that one either). So I thought he was similarly a little full of it when he introduced a short documentary of Al Gore filmed by Spike Jonze with the hypothesis that, had this film been seen more widely, the 2000 election could have gone entirely differently. I pursed my lips skeptically as the lights dimmed.

And then the documentary rolled. And about half way through, a pit developed in my stomach. Eggers was right. All of a sudden, the familiar rage against the DNC and spin-doctors surged up in me. The 10-minute short film humanized Gore in a way that no amount of baby-kissing and hand-shaking ever could have. And it was shown maybe twice during the 2000 campaign. Jonze spoke about his participation in this documentary, a rather organic occurence. He knew he didn't particularly care for Bush's politics, and he knew he wanted to do something, but he didn't know much about Gore. On the other hand, Gore, a bit of a movie buff, had really enjoyed Being John Malkovich, so he was cool with Spike Jonze following him around for the afternoon. Jonze did a bang-up job of capturing the Gore family in unguarded, candid moments, and in ways that illustrated the exact qualities about them that had won Jonze over.

Eggers asked Jonze why this film was not more widely distributed. Was it too revealing? Did the DNC find Al Gore body-surfing too racy? Bad idea. Jonze shrugged and said "I really don't know." He was clearly uncomfortable. He seemed reticent to place blame, or to get too lofty about the documentary itself. Actually, he just seemed generally uncomfortable, and I can't blame him. Eggers' questions were not well-chosen. He then started asking Jonze about his current project with Al Gore, the television project Current. Jonze was quick to correct him- he's only spoken to Gore about this, and has no actual involvement in it. Jonze clearly likes Gore, and wanted him to win in 2000, but he also really came across as a movie maker, more than anything else. As he himself pointed out, he goes where his interests take him, and in many cases, that means Jackass.

After that uncomfortable exchange, it was time to watch clips from the next documentary, Soldier's Pay. The documentary investigates the dishonorable discharge of Sergeant Matt Novak, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. First, I should cop to the fact that I am a big fan of Three Kings- the reasons could take up a whole different post. Soldier's Pay was put together in a short amount of time, with Russell and a tiny crew, but it drew disturbing parallels to Three Kings. As Russell noted, it's amazing how often intuition translates to fact. The big static with the documentary was this- it was originally financed by Warner Brothers, as a companion piece for the re-release of Three Kings in the theater and for the DVD. Once Russell mentioned to the NYT that he thought it would be good for people to see the documentary prior to the 2004 election, Warner Brothers freaked out and pulled the financing, concerned that they'd be viewed as taking sides during the election. Russell was quite matter-of-fact about this. He didn't seem particularly embittered about the Warner Brothers decision.

The interesting questions during the whole discussion were the ones that were left unasked. Eggers kept goading Russell and Jonze into talking about their plans to be more politically active moving forward, and how they planned to incorporate politics into their work. Both seemed like they wanted to run back into the audience. It brought forth an interesting question. Spike Jonze had not set out to give Gore's image a once-over. David O. Russell had not set out to bring down George Bush, Sr's legacy. They both found themselves captivated by a story. They're artists, telling stories that move them, and the fact that there is a political message or motivation in the films is almost happenstance. Maybe that's the way it should be. Or are they just being more subversive than a Michael Moore, who runs around like a bull in a china shop espousing his political beliefs? Personally, I don't think so. Russell's coverage of the soldiers in the first Iraq war is incredibly balanced. He is a perfect example of someone who vehemently supports troops while being opposed to the idea of war.

Eggers himself seemed unsure what his role in politics really was. He's not necessarily a political writer, but on the other hand, he's currently writing a book on the Sudanese Lost Boys. Random trivia I learned last night: Mary Williams, the head of the Lost Boys foundation, is a child of two Black Panthers and the adopted daughter of Jane Fonda. That's whack. Eggers also mentioned the Patriot Act, and his run-in with the Patriot Act, involving his personal notebook being confiscated and perused by Homeland Security. But he didn't seem to have an underlying point or conclusion from his story. He just didn't seem like he came into the evening knowing what he wanted to say or where he wanted to go. If I gave a talk or ran a meeting like this at work, I'd be pink-slipped really quickly.

But here is why last night was worth the trek to Shallow Alto. Some months back, I got rid of my most beloved, first car I ever owned. A friend's goddaughter was in the market for it, and she was purported to be a wunderkind student. Anyway, I gave it to her, but never met her. Last night in Shallow Alto, Eggers started talking about the 826Valencia scholarship program, and introduced two students who had tied to win one of their scholarships. Both deserving, but one of them was from Brazil, and her name sounded curiously familiar. The two students were going to have to split the scholarship, but due to donations from last night's event, they both got 10K for college next year. This morning, after talking to my friend JP, I confirmed that one of those students was the same girl who currently drives my car. If that isn't the definition of a happy coincidence, I don't know what is.

No comments: