All About Jim Thompson (In Print and on Video)
June 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
If you’d like learn about this fascinating American in English, both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” are available on DVD on my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
“Jim Thompson, Silk King” is also available as a digital download http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/downloads/
The New Documentary, Part I: “Going Clear”
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”
Remembering Albert Maysles
March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
As news of Albert Maysles’ death circulated yesterday, I remembered not only his and his brother David Maysles’ important body of work (including “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Primary”) but two personal stories. The first was my only meeting with him, which took place at the International Documentary Association’s conference in 1998. At the time I was teaching myself to make documentaries by reading books, taking classes and, of course, watching lots and lots of films. The conference was part of my self-devised education, so when I came upon Albert standing with Werner Herzog in the hallway of the MPAA, I introduced myself and told him about my idea for “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” my future first film. As I wrote in 2009:
I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
As endorsements go, Albert Maysles’ was hardly effusive, but it sufficed. I started preproduction soon afterwards and went to Thailand to film in June of 1999. I returned with enough footage for two films, the second of which was an art and architecture piece called “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” (“Jim Thompson, Silk King” will be re-released shortly with new narration and two new DVD extras; it will be available on my website and on Vimeo. “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection is available at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com)
My second Albert Maysles story concerns “Salesman,” his and David’s 1969 film about white, working-class Bible salesmen and the desperate hard-sell tactics they employed on their mostly poor, often black clients. A classic of cinema verite, “Salesman” was filmed in the late 1960s but depicts an earlier era: no one looks or talks that way anymore, and when was the last time you saw anyone selling Bibles door-to-door? The most confounding feature of the documentary was the dialog which, I recall, was subtitled because the salesmen’s Boston accents were so heavy. But even subtitles couldn’t decipher the patois they spoke, which at times seemed a different language. Making things even worse was that I watched “Salesman” with a petulant Spanish guy who evidently thought I, a native speaker of English, would guide him through it. He kept asking, “What does that mean?” Darned if I knew, and I used to live in Boston.
The Maysles brothers called their technique direct cinema because of its naturalism: the camera kept rolling until the subjects forgot it was there, and what interviewing there was sparse and informal. The result was at times profound but not without its problems, chiefly length. “Grey Gardens,” for all its acclaim, has some incredibly tedious stretches–raccoons again?–that illustrate the pitfalls of editing your own work, as the Maysleses did (albeit with others). Still, there’s no doubt that they changed documentary filmmaking forever. Because David died in 1987, Albert got the laurels, but the best Maysles films were the ones they made together.
The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination
September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.
But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.
Jim Thompson’s Life After Death
November 10, 2011 § 5 Comments
Jim Thompson (b. 1906) was an architect, Army officer, OSS operative, art collector and entrepreneur. In the years after World War II, he transformed homemade Thai silk into a thriving industry, in the process lifting some ten thousand impoverished weavers out of poverty and into comparative wealth. Jim Thompson’s silks, whose dyes and weaves he devised, soon found their way into Buckingham Palace and onto Broadway, via the costumes for “The King and I. Along the way, Thompson became famous, as did the Thai-style house he built to showcase his superb collection of Southeast Asian art. Then, on Easter Sunday of 1967, Jim Thompson vanished in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and the mystery of his disappearance eclipsed the story of his life.
Jim Thompson was also the subject of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” (2001), and the reason I became a documentary filmmaker. In the expatriate communities of Asia where I grew up, Thompson was not merely famous; he was a household name. My father had met him, as had many of my parents’ friends, and the Thai Silk Company store in Bangkok was a primary destination for every westerner who visited Thailand in the 1950s and 60s. Because he was not merely a person but a brand, Jim Thompson’s disappearance struck our world like a bomb. The event was so odd and disturbing that my mother instructed me to “go to the library and find out what happened to him.” I was eight years old at the time, and eight months away from my first visit to Thailand.
I never found out what happened to Jim Thompson, though over the years I developed various theories about that Sunday in the Highlands. More importantly, I became interested in his life, particularly his accomplishments in the silk industry, Southeast Asian art and traditional Thai architecture. Each of these feats would have been notable in itself; the fact that a non-Thai-speaking foreigner had left his mark on all three after the age of 40 impressed me enormously. As the years went by, I often thought about Jim Thompson’s life and hoped someone would make a serious film about it. When no one did, I learned the basics of filmmaking, tracked down his biographer, secured the permission of Thai Silk Company to film at its factory and main store, and flew to Thailand.
The result was not only the biographical documentary but a second film about Thompson’s Thai house, now a museum showcasing his art collection. (There would have been a third Thai documentary, about silk weaving, but no one cared.) “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” went to festivals, won a prize, got on TV and came out on DVD. Then came what I call The Jim Thompson Business: years of correspondence from conspiracy theorists, distant Thompson relatives, and a guy who wanted me to fly to Kuala Lumpur so that he could tell me what his dead father saw in the Highlands that Easter Sunday. (I didn’t go). There were inquiries from movie producers seeking the (perennially unavailable) rights to Thompson’s biography for a feature film, and inquiries from movie producers wanting to make a film based on a fictional character who resembled Jim Thompson. And a series of emails from a writer named Josh Kurlantzik, who was working on a book about Americans in Thailand after WWII, including Jim. Would I care to be interviewed? Of course I would; I also let him borrow footage of my interviews, newsreels and various other materials from “Jim Thompson, Silk King.”
Four years later, the resulting book has reached publication, only it’s called, The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War. (Why Kurlantzik danced around his subject is a mystery, since he had every right to write about Thompson, but he did the same with my interviewees in Thailand.) Although I haven’t read the book, I have read the new Foreign Policy article by Kurlantzik, which sheds light on Thompson’s political activities in Thailand and Laos during the Vietnam War. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Kurlantzik was able to obtain Thompson’s CIA file which, though heavily redacted, quashes the idea that he was a politically uninvolved businessman. As I learned from my own research, Thompson remained deeply committed to anti-colonialism and national self-determination in Southeast Asia, and scoffed at the prevailing Domino Theory. These beliefs put him on a collision course with various governments, including his own, and no doubt sealed his fate.
In making “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I wanted to shift the focus of public interest from Thompson’s unsolved disappearance to his remarkable life. Then I tried to walk away from The Jim Thompson Business, only to learn that, as with the CIA, one can never really leave. Earlier this year, I optioned my documentary for a feature film. The script is in progress; if it gets made, I’ll let you know.
Note: DVDs of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” can be ordered from www.hopeandersonproductions.com
Remembering Laura Archera Huxley
May 22, 2011 § 5 Comments
When I began planning my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in 2006, various Hollywoodland neighbors said, “You’re going to talk to Laura Huxley, of course.” Once I got over my disbelief that Aldous Huxley’s widow could be alive, it was simply a matter of sending her an email, which led to a phone conversation and an invitation to her house on Mulholland Highway.
Having been warned that Mrs. Huxley had lost much of her eyesight to macular degeneration, it was a shock that Sunday to discover her alone in the house with the front door was wide open. A tiny, elfin figure, she greeted me and said, “You are blonde, no?” before announcing there was a bird in the house, and that I would have to remove it.
A hummingbird was trapped in the double-height living room, banging desperately against the panes of an enormous arched window. I felt I had wandered into a Garcia Marquez novel. I also suspected my efforts wouldn’t succeed, given the size of the room and a previous experience with a trapped hummingbird, but said I would do my best. It was not a promising start, as the ensuing conversation was punctuated by her frequent commands to shoo the bird toward an open door in the dining room. Eventually, however, two miracles occurred: the bird flew out, and Mrs. Huxley agreed to an on-camera interview.
On the appointed day, I returned to the house with my camera crew. We had planned to do the interview outdoors, but it was far too windy, so while the DP began setting lights in the dining room, I explained to Mrs. Huxley that the interview would have to be held inside, away from the noise of the wind. She responded by refusing to be interviewed at all, claiming the lighting hurt her eyes. Having had similar experiences (always with elderly women) on my first documentary (“Jim Thompson, Silk King”), I had previously arranged to interview her assistant, Stephanie Horsley, about life in Hollywoodland during the 1960s. So I went ahead and interviewed Stephanie while Mrs. Huxley sulked in the living room. By the time we finished, she had changed her mind.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t smooth sailing from then on. Mrs. Huxley suddenly announced she wouldn’t sign my release without seeing the edited result. I now had the choice of canceling the shoot or going ahead, despite the possibility that she would never sign the release, rendering the interview unusable. It was a dilemma I hadn’t faced before. In the end, I did the interview, which yielded some good stories about her impressions of Hollywoodland and her life with Aldous Huxley. Afterwards, I went to the expense of editing a segment I might never be able to use, trying to anticipate far in advance of finishing the documentary which parts I might eventually need. Time was of the essence, not only because Laura Huxley was 95, but because she was terminally ill with cancer.
Fortunately, she later approved the segments and signed the release. By then, I had read her memoir, This Timeless Moment (Celestial Arts, 1968, 2000) and researched her long and remarkable life.
Born in Turin, Italy in 1911, Laura Archera was a violin prodigy who came to the United States to perform. Prevented by World War II from returning home, she came to Los Angeles with her companion, Ginny Pfeiffer, and played in the LA Philharmonic.
She also discovered Hollywoodland, which she loved for its nature and solitude, where she befriended Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria, who had left Europe in the late 1930s. After Maria died in 1955, Aldous and Laura grew closer, and surprised their friends by marrying the following year.
Although not literary like Maria, Laura shared Aldous’s philosophical adventuresomeness. Through a mutual interest in alternative medicine, the Huxleys became active in the counterculture of the late 1950s and 60s, befriending Timothy Leary and Ram Dass and experimenting with LSD. In our interview, Mrs. Huxley, while acknowledging that many young people were hurt by LSD, took a benign view of the drug. “Sometimes you have a hellish experience and sometime you have a heavenly experience….It’s like anything else, it’s what you do with it,” she said.
After giving up her music career, Laura Huxley began a theraputic practice and wrote books (such as You Are Not the Target) promoting self-healing through mental exploration. Later she turned her focus toward children, starting a foundation on their behalf. But she never escaped her association with LSD, particularly after she wrote about injecting Huxley with the drug, at his request, as he lay dying.
Aldous Huxley died less than eight years after their marriage, on date of President Kennedy’s assassination. At the time of Laura Huxley’s death in December of 2007, she had been his widow for 44 years and outlived most of her friends and associates, including Timothy Leary, Christopher Isherwood and even her stepson, Matthew Huxley. Still, her memorial service in 2008 offered many reminders of the 1960s, including a reading of her essay on Aldous’s final hours and a videotaped message from Ram Dass. Best of all, however, was the parting gift we attendees received: an LP of her therapeutic “recipes for living.” After dragging my turntable out of the garage and setting it up, I was startled to hear her heavily accented voice again, intoning, “Imagine that you’re completely surrounded by flowers…flowers far and near…an infinity of flowers….”–and to realize that I missed her.
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