Thursday, October 30, 2014

Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe and the real-life drama of his Evolution of a Criminal

This weekend, award-winning filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe returns to the scene of his crime.
The Houston native will be back in H-Town for screenings of Evolution of a Criminal, his extraordinary autobiographical documentary, at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park. But wait, there’s more: His attendance at post-screening Q&A sessions Friday and Sunday will cap off what has turned out to be a week of singular achievements for the University of Houston graduate. Just two days ago, Monroe successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a wider release for his film. A few hours later, the International Documentary Association announced his selection as winner of the IDA Emerging Filmmaker Award, a prestigious honor that provides $5,000 in cash and a donation of post-production services valued at $50,000.
As one of Monroe’s former teachers – he was in my Broadcast and Film Writing Class at UH a decade ago – I am unabashedly proud of what has he has done. And, yes, frankly astonished by how far he has gone.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Darius Clark Monroe was a straight-A honors student at a Houston high school until the morning in 1997 when, along with two companions, Pierre Murphy and Leroy “Trei” Callier III, he held up a Bank of America in nearby Stafford, Texas. Brandishing an unloaded shotgun, and disguised with Halloween masks, the neophyte bandits made off with $140,000 in cash. But Monroe didn’t get to enjoy his ill-gotten gain for every long. Four weeks after the crime, he was arrested.
He was 16 years old at the time.
Artfully entwining dramatic re-creations, archival photos and footage, blunt-spoken narration, and interviews with many participants (ranging from Monroe’s mother and stepfather to the  assistant D.A. who prosecuted his case) in this real-life tale of crime and punishment, Monroe has fashioned a uniquely fascinating and pitilessly self-critical film that serves as both a cautionary object lesson and a heartfelt plea for forgiveness. (We actually see Monroe tracking down people who were in the bank that day, and attempting to apologize for the terror he caused them.) But, hey, don’t take my word for it: Writing in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody hailed Evolution of a Criminal as “a great film” that signals “the birth of an artist.” Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice agreed: “Vital, thoughtful, and deeply personal, first-timer Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical doc stands as a testament to the power of movies to stir empathy.” 
Monroe was tried as an adult, and served three years of a five-year sentence. After that? Well, to paraphrase one of Strother Martin’s more colorful lines from Cool Hand Luke, he got his mind right. He graduated with honors from University of Houston, then went on to attend film school at New York University – where he studied under Spike Lee, who served as an executive producer for Evolution of a Criminal.
Spike and I were on hand to cheer our former student when the documentary had its world premiere last spring at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Three days after the screening,  I sat down with Monroe to talk about what he did, what he’s doing – and what he hopes to do next.
OK, as bad as the bank robbery turned out for you – and I would say having to serve three years in prison, and picking cotton out in the hot Texas sun, is pretty damn bad -- there are two ways this could have turned out much worse for you. One, somebody in the bank could have been packing heat, and shot you very dead. In Texas, let's face it, that's a very real possibility.
Darius Clark Monroe:  Absolutely.
The other way it could have been a lot worse is -- you could have gotten away with it. You ever spend a lot of time thinking about those two possibilities?
Monroe:  The third possibility is someone else -- Pierre or someone -- could have got shot as well. I have thought about all three, especially the first one you just mentioned. When I think back about the fact that we walked in there -- it's almost frightening. Because I could never do it now, at 33. We were sitting ducks. The fact that somebody was not shot and killed... wow. Had a customer or had an undercover cop been inside the bank and shot and killed myself or Pierre, they would have had the right to. They would have had the absolute right to.
They wouldn't have known the shotgun wasn't loaded.
Monroe:  They would not have known it. They would not have known it. That response would have been warranted. That sits with me the most because it's not uncommon for that to happen, for somebody who's already in there having a concealed weapon ‑‑ especially in the state of Texas. There's something about youth and being reckless, I guess. Reckless abandonment. Because I have no idea how we thought it would be safe to just walk in, run in. We tried to rationalize it, but it haunts me to this day. I feel very fortunate that I am alive, and that everyone inside the bank is alive, that no one was physically harmed. Because the odds of that happening were astronomical.
I believe that something in the universe, something much greater than me, was in charge that day for whatever reason. [Laughs] I think about that all the time. All of the time.
Not getting caught is also something that fascinates me. I always wonder, what does that mean? [Pause] You know what, Joe? The thing is, I just know my personality. I'm one of those people who need to... Well, when I was 16, at the time, when I made a mistake, I needed to see a harsh punishment before I learned my lesson sometimes. I'm not saying [a punishment] as harsh as picking cotton in the prison. But a slap on the hand? I would not have learned my lesson. You see what I'm saying? Had I just walked into that bank and we robbed it, and I would have never been charged and nothing ever happened -- I probably would have stumbled into crime again. It would have felt too easy. It would felt like, "This is something we could get away with." I can see how that would have just opened up this monstrous side of me that I wasn’t aware of. I could just see how that would not have been a good thing. [Laughs] I tell people, "As much as I hated to go to prison, that experience really did reorder and realign my life in the right direction." Because otherwise, I probably would have gone down a path of crime.
Where were you incarcerated?
Monroe:  I was in Midway, Texas, which is 40 minutes outside of Huntsville, for three years.
At what point in that three‑year period did the light bulb go off over your head, and you thought: "You know, I could make a movie out of this?"
Monroe: Never. When I was in the place, I had no idea that I was going to ever make a movie about this whole situation. The truth is, once I got out, I did not want to talk about the situation. I feel like I was just driven, like I was almost on some type of high, some drug. I really wanted to distance myself further and further away from the robbery, the prison, everything that had happened. I was trying my best to do it, and then it just came full circle in film school. In film school, they talk about getting personal and digging deep. I realized there was this thing weighing on me and that I wanted to talk about, finally.
I knew nothing about your past when you were in my class at University of Houston. But I will say this – and I’m not stroking you: I’ve been teaching there for nearly 15 years, and I think I could count on the fingers of one hand how many students I’ve had who were as diligent about turning in their work, and concerned about their grades, as you. And I told Spike this the other night after the premiere ‑‑ you're the only student who's ever gone to the trouble of seeking me out and wanting to go over every single assignment to make sure you got the right grade for each assignment. All of which makes me think: Once you decided to go down the straight and narrow path, you weren't going to take any detours.
Monroe:  No.
You were going to keep your pedal to the metal.
Monroe:  That’s the truth. I was just telling the two guys from the National Film Society that the idea that I wrote down, the feature treatment idea that I wrote in your class, was the feature treatment idea that I submitted to NYU for the application. It's a feature film that I want to do in the next three years. It's not something that has gone away. These are just things I just keep filed in the back of my head. After the doc, I want to do a feature titled The Year of Our Lord, but then after that, it's the feature film I want to do next. [Laughs] In that class of yours, I was working on the treatment and trying to figure it out. I'll never forget pitching it to the class. Like I said, I believe the universe works in very auspicious ways. Even when we took that picture at the premiere, I was just saying, "This is so..." It was an out‑of‑body experience.
In the documentary, you talk to Spike and some of your other teachers at NYU about how they were surprised when they learned about your background. In fact, one of them says he might have had second thoughts about making you a  graduate assistant. Were there people who didn't want to talk on camera about what their response was to your record? Who actually had started to, you know, treat you in a different way after you told them?
Monroe: No. At NYU, I could have interviewed anyone. It really is a weird situation. Again, I think about perception. They had known me for many years at that point. I had been a teaching assistant, a graduate assistant. I was a resident assistant. Even after they found out about the whole story ‑‑ I had my pre‑thesis review ‑‑ it was difficult for them to have a knee‑jerk reaction, like, "I can't trust this guy." We've had drinks. It's a very familial environment because it's such a small faculty and small student body. I don't think there was one professor who would have turned down an interview request. And even since then, after I did the interviews, back in 2007, NYU hired me on as a full‑time TV studio manager, with a felony on my record. It wasn't like they didn't know what was happening. They knew exactly what was going on, yet they still trusted me to do the job that I'd been doing since I got there.
To get back to the first question: Do you really think you would be here now if you hadn’t been caught?
Monroe: No, I don’t think so. [Pause] I don’t think so. Do I think I would be here now had I not done the robbery? Maybe. But if I was not caught, I’m sure I would be in prison for something else right now. I’m pretty confident in saying that I wouldn’t be here.
But at 16, bank robbery seemed like it might be a viable option.
Monroe:  Well, like it says in the film, I was really bothered by the whole situation at home. It was annoying to me. I was young, and I knew that there was something in me that was exhausted by the whole financial strain. I was willing to go to lengths that probably were completely unnecessary -- but for me, it felt like in my head that this could be done. This is something that could be done to help out. This was something that could be done.
But I don't want people to think this is just some Robin Hood story. I was still a kid. I still wanted some nice sneakers. I still wanted some nice clothes of my own. I think getting arrested and going to prison straightened me out.
Of course, the funny thing is, even back then, you already were a director. This robbery was your idea, was it not?
Monroe:  [Laughs] It was.
You did mastermind it. I used to tell people when I first heard about the robbery, "Well, I guess he fell in with bad companions back then, because he was such a great student when I had him." But then I'm watching the documentary, and I’m thinking, "Damn. Darius was a little budding criminal mastermind at 16." But also, it’s like, "Hey, he was already writing the script and directing it."
Monroe: In my mind, it didn't feel like, oh, I'm going to be the mastermind behind it. I was like, "I want to plan it out and get you all to follow along with it." But it's so funny, Joe: A lot of people, when they hear about the story, they're like, "Well, so who influenced you? I know you fell in with the wrong crowd." I'm like, "I didn't fall into the wrong crowd." Again, I always think about perceptions. We really have this bogeyman, in terms of what we think a criminal is or who we think a criminal is. Folks say, "When I would meet you, you don't look like a criminal." I always say, "Can you describe to me what that looks like?"
Hopefully, the film debunks and demystifies, and forces people to think, "Oh, well, maybe I don't know who's capable of committing a crime." I feel like more people are capable of doing something illegal or criminal, something they would never think they’re capable of doing, than we might think. I think a lot of people, most people, want to follow the law. But I think some folks, when their back is pushed against the wall, may make a choice that is illegal.
Who do you hope this film reaches?
Monroe:  I really, really, really want to get this film to a lot of young men -- black, brown, white, Asian, just a lot of young men --  who feel like they have been left behind, who are on the road to making a mistake. I hope the film can get them before that happens. And if they've already made a mistake, they're already in juvenile, if they're already in prison, if they already are on parole, have a record --  I'm hoping that the film also inspires them not to be stuck in that space where this mistake consumes them and is their life. I've met a lot of guys who have a record, have a felony on their record, and just feel like, "I can't do anything. I can't. I can no longer dream. I can no longer move away from this." I don't believe that. I really, strongly don't believe that. And not just crime. I feel that people just should not be forced to suffer for any mistake for the rest of their lives.
Outside of that audience, I'm hoping on a wider level that [the documentary] helps individuals understand that forgiveness and compassion are two things that we should start practicing in reality, as opposed to just speaking about it. We should think about that. And I know it's not easy. Look, there are people that I have a hard time forgiving myself.
Are you a religious person?
Monroe:  I'm spiritual.
Do you believe God has a plan for you?
Monroe:  I do. Absolutely I do. Absolutely.
I look forward to screening this movie for my students down the road. But I'm going to tell you something: After I screen the movie, I plan on saying, "OK, now you've seen this. I want you to understand my attitude: None of you have any excuses."
Monroe:  It's the truth. [Laughs] I agree, I agree, I agree.
I just hope you don't mind being used as a teaching tool.
Monroe:  No, not at all. [Laughs] Not at all.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

News flash: Matthew McConaughey was praising thermostats before he was driving Lincolns (in commercials)

I find it more than a little comical that certain scolds are getting their shorts in a twist because Matthew McConaughey is hawking Lincolns in TV commercials. Don't know how to break it to you, gang, but the Oscar-winning actor has been doing TV-ad voiceovers with that instantly recognizable drawl of his for quite some time now.

Indeed, when I caught up with the native Texan last year at the Toronto Film Festival -- way before he brought home the gold for Dallas Buyers Club -- I joked with him that whatever he was earning from advertising must have helped make it a little easier to cut back on the rom-coms and do more indies.

McConaughey laughed -- but he didn't deny it. And, really, why should he have to? 

BTW: Here's another sweet spot he did for Reliant Energy.

Friday, October 17, 2014

And now, a word from my articulate and well-spoken former student: Darius Clark Monroe, director of Evolution of a Criminal

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago: Darius Clark Monroe, a former student of mine -- and, perhaps more important, of Spike Lee -- has launched a Kickstarter campaign to generate $60,000 for a wider  release of his critically acclaimed debut feature, the autobiographical documentary Evolution of a Criminal. The good news: As of today, the campaign already has raised more than $20,000. The bad news? Well, as Monroe recently told interviewer Michael Galinsky, he's has some less-than-pleasant experiences while touring with his film on the festival circuit:

I've been on the circuit for most of the year, and I've only met three other documentary filmmakers of color. That number is jarring because people of color are quite prominent in documentary films. It's strange to see filmmakers who have no direct relationship to a community, document said community, and then share that work in theaters filled with people who aren't from that community.

Cultural bias is very real. In addition to noticing a dearth of stories by and about people of color, some questions and/or comments from fellow filmmakers and audience members would leave me speechless. I've been told repeatedly that I'm "well spoken" and "articulate"—which isn't a compliment, by the way. At SXSW, a small, cute white woman, who looked to be in her 50s, gave me a warm hug before asking me how it felt to be an "educated black man." I've been told that my film is "too black" and "not relatable."

You wondered if I felt like I could be myself traveling with the film. I don't know how to be anything other than myself. As a society, we live in a constant state of denial. Navigating the truth is a fraught and contentious experience, but it's the only way to grow. I will always speak truth to power.

I truly hope that all of my students, of all colors, will go on to be as uppity as Monroe. If that doesn't happen, I'm not doing my job right. But I must admit: Given my own spectacularly untidy family history, I had no trouble whatsoever relating to Evolution of a Criminal. Maybe that, even more than my personal interest in Monroe, is why I've already made my Kickstarter contribution.

Live from Houston: It's The War of the Worlds

What's this? A live reading of the original Orson Welles radio production (scripted by Howard Koch) of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds? With a free screening of a "classic" '70s or '80s horror movie thrown in for good measure. Now that is my idea of a Halloween celebration. (My only cavil: The term "classic" gets tossed about rather loosely when it comes to descriptions of '70s and '80s horror movies, so beware.)

And just to get you in the right mood: Here is a link to a piece on another notable radio broadcast, one featuring H.G. Wells, Orson Welles -- and a plug for the latter's upcoming movie. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Before there was Killing Patton there was... Brass Target

Professional bloviator Bill O'Reilly isn't being treated very kindly by the critics and academics passing judgment on his latest book, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General, a speculative historical mashup based on the dubious theory that the legendary military leader was terminated by Soviet assassins. But wait, there's more: Richard Cohen of The Washington Post and  Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC have taken their own jabs at O'Reilly's presumptive best-seller, insisting the author should have should have included info about Patton's alleged anti-Semitism.

But here's what I want to know: Why aren't more pundits noting the similarity between O'Reilly's paranoid scenario and the plot of Brass Target, a deservedly obscure 1978 thriller that also claimed Patton's death was anything but accidental? Could it be that few people actually remember this cheesy movie? Or, more likely, that anyone who actually saw it back in the day has tried very hard ever since to forget it?

As I wrote in 1977:

This lethargic copy of Day of the Jackal spins a fantastic yarn about a plot by corrupt US Army officers to kill Gen. George S. Patton shortly after World War II. The plotters are worried that Patton, played with unconvincing swagger by George Kennedy, will uncover their duplicity in a $250-million gold theft that left over two dozen American soldiers dead. The poor soldiers were knocked out by gas, a fate akin to that which may befall anyone trying to stay awake during this plodding claptrap. 

Brass Target is slick, to be sure, but it’s also so lifelessly directed by John Hough (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), and so unimaginatively scripted by Alvin Boretz, that it lacks even the giddy excitement of an outrageously bad movie... This is the sort of routinely acted TV-movie-style tripe in which two villains are depicted as gay merely to provide them with some kind of distinguishing characteristics. A woman (Sophia Loren) appears in a few scenes only to provide a feminine name in the credits. And the assassin (Max Von Sydow, more or less reprising his Three Days of the Condor character) makes a lot of smug comments to the hero (John Cassavetes) about how silly morality is. Patrick McGoohan hams it up briefly as a colorful cynic, but his character winds up dead all too soon. 

At the end, Cassavetes pieces together the assassination plot, finds the murder weapon – a gun used to break Patton’s back with a rubber bullet – and polishes off the bad guys. Then the movie just ends. The closing credits reveal that Patton’s death was officially listed as the result of a car accident, and the $250 million in gold was never recovered. My guess is, Cassavetes decided to keep the gold and Sophia Loren, and never mind about who killed Patton. That sounds cynical, I admit, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in Brass Target.

Looking back, I think it's fair to say Brass Target can be at least partially justified as one of the easy-paycheck projects that allowed John Cassavetes the wherewithal to make his own indie movies. I'll leave it to others to come up with a similar justification for Killing Patton.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Killer rabbits! Slumming actors! Spooky music! Coming soon to Turner Classic Movies!

Every time I hear that this or that "classic" horror flick from the '70s or '80s is going to be remade, I can't help wondering: Why don't they try to give us a new and improved Night of the Lepus? Could it be that even the most imagination-challenged and innovation-averse hacks in Hollywood recognize that there's no way to surpass the totally unhinged splendiferousness of this 1972 camp classic? Yes, you read that correctly -- classic, dammit. Which is why it's airing Oct. 23 on Turner Classic Movies, as part of the cable network's month-long tribute to the late, great Janet Leigh. 

Not surprisingly, the original trailer and advertising art kinda-sorta disguised the fact that the scary monsters in Night of the Lepus are... well, killer bunnies. But the rampaging rabbits are ready for their close-ups in this inspired clip compilation.

And you can see what happened when the RiffTrax guys took their best shots at the ferocious floppy-eared fiends here.