Sat, 13 Sep 2014 18:27:03 +0000 en The Last Picture Show Sat, 13 Sep 2014 18:27:03 +0000 Nutco kentlands

Early in the spring, May 16, to be exact, the Disney movie Million Dollar Arm opened. Starring Jon Hamm and Lake Bell, two actors I enjoy, the film, based on a true story, seemed like a pleasant diversion and I put it on my list of films to see.

And then I didn’t see it. For weeks.

But, as spring gave way to summer and even autumn, Million Dollar Arm stuck around, taunting me. This despite the fact that the film was a certifiable flop. According to the movie-tracking site Box Office Mojo, the film cost $25 million to make and, as of August 17, 2014 had brought in only $36,447,959. The MPAA estimates that the average cost of marketing a film is almost $40 million. So Million Dollar Arm has a long way to go to make back its investment.

(Here’s a Variety story about the film’s release. TL;DR: “I believe the audience out there asks themselves collectively two questions,” Horn said during the Bloomberg confab. “Do I have to see it now and do I have to see it on the big screen and if the answer to both questions is no, we have a problem.” — Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn.)

And even though some have said that this year was a disaster at the box office, still, there were plenty of new releases each week that, just out of desperate hope on the part of theater owners, could and should have knocked Million Dollar Arm off the screen. Even Godzilla, which opened the same day as Million Dollar Arm and has so far made half a billion dollars, was pushed aside for various Transformers and Guardians and other spectacles.

And Million Dollar Arm finally did vanish, except for one screen at the plucky Kentlands Stadium 10 theater in Gaithersburg. Indeed, Kentlands was the only theater in a 40-mile radius (and probably only) still showing the movie. Which seems to be a common practice of this independent cinema in the “New Urbanism” oasis of Kentlands. On several occasions, I have found myself watching a movie there on the big screen that was only days away from appearing in the Redbox machine.

And so I finally saw Million Dollar Arm on Labor Day, with about a dozen other people, mostly families and older couples. (Review: Charmingly predictable.)

Curious as to why the Kentlands theater stuck with a loser, I spoke with manager Jayme Goodman, who told me that the Kentlands has been in business about 16 years and the owner, Mr. Ruan, used to also own the now closed Olney 8, another lonely theater I’ve taken refuge in to see a failing flick. Goodman said that Kentlands main competitor is the cineplex at the Rio mall, “Gaithersburg’s premier shopping and dining destination!” according to its website. The AMC Lowes Rio Cinemas 18 does well with the big action fare, she said, so Kentlands opts for the artier stuff. (Though Kentlands’ current lineup included Guardians of the Galaxy, Planet of the Apes, and Expendables 3.) But, really, I would have to speak with Mr. Ruan for the official story.

So I called. Several times, getting a weird tone at first or no answer. Finally, Mr. Ruan came to the phone and as soon as I asked why Million Dollar Arm was still playing, he cut me off and asked who I was with. I said I was a freelancer and was planning to pitch the story to the Post. He quickly said, “I’m not interested in discussing my business practices” and hung up.

And that’s why I’m glad I didn’t pitch the story first. Because then I would have to play hardball for what was never more than a small story of interest perhaps only to me. So instead of disappointing an editor, annoying a business owner, and spending far too much time on research for what would surely be chump change, I’m posting here. You’re welcome.

Million Dollar Arm finally left the Kentlands Cinema 10 on Thursday, Aug. 12. The film is coming soon to a Redbox near you.

All the President’s Manqués Mon, 23 Jun 2014 22:12:34 +0000 Nutco nobamas

TL;DR: I thought the Lt. Gov. of Maryland (left) was an Obama impersonator (right)

The full story:

I was having lunch at Panera Bread when there was a commotion behind me. A trim man in a crisp white shirt and striped tie, trailed by an entourage, was shaking hands and posing for selfies with customers.

“Omigod!” I said to my lunch partner, “It’s Bronx Obama!

Now, if you’re not aware of Bronx Obama you should be. Bronx Obama is a documentary about Louis Ortiz, an unemployed Puerto Rican single father whose uncanny resemblance to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama takes him on an amazing, strange, and ultimately heartwarming journey from the gritty Bronx to various glamor capitals of the world, and Las Vegas.

I had recently seen the film and it was scheduled to play at AFI Docs, for which I was currently working. So I knew that Ortiz/Obama was scheduled to appear at the fest, right next door at the AFI Silver Theatre.

Which is to say that I was primed to see Bronx Obamas everywhere.

So when the dapper African-American gentleman entered the restaurant, I didn’t think twice. Or maybe even once.

I sprang from my chair, grabbed my phone, opened the camera app, and made my way giddily toward the growing crowd. A young woman in the entourage helpfully offered to take a picture of me and Bronxy.

As you can see from the photo, I was happy as a loon. I kept saying, “I love your movie! Great movie!” To which the man offered only a tepid response of “Good to see you. Thank you,” and quickly moved on to another customer.

Of course, I instantly posted the photo to Facebook, writing, “Two of my favorite things: Panera and Bronx Obama!”

It wasn’t until I walked outside and another young woman handed me a flier encouraging me to vote for Anthony G. Brown for governor of Maryland that I realized my idiotic error.

And let me note right here that I am a resident of the great state of Maryland and had voted for the O’Malley/Brown ticket in 2006 and again in 2010.

Panic washed over me and I frantically tried to make my fingers work and delete the Facebook post. (I was helped by my millennial AFIDocs cohort, Eric.)

When the humiliating post disappeared, 20/20 hindsight kicked in and it suddenly made sense why Brown never acknowledged his “movie.” And I recalled a tiny voice in my head as I was clamoring for a closeup: This fellow doesn’t look as much like Obama in person as he did in the film. And why isn’t he doing the voice?

But in my deluded state inside the fog of celebrity I ignored those sane thoughts. Because when I say I was giddy and primed for a Bronx Obama appearance, I mean that I do get tipsy over the sillier aspects of American pop culture—such as celebrity impersonators. I have been working on a documentary about Beatle tribute bands. The Nuttycombe Archives has a sizeable collection of film and TV novelizations. My work is included in the box set Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time.

I have since tried to find some way to let myself off the hook. But that’s hard to do. To justify my cluelessness by claiming that, Well, Brown kinda looks like Obama, too, is merely another “all blacks look alike” argument. Not a winning strategy.

Because, hey, Will Ferrel and Chad Smith also look alike, right? But I bet I wouldn’t make the same mistake if I met either one of them in a Panera Bread.

The next evening, Mr. Ortiz did in fact show up at the AFI Silver Theatre. And I again became a fanboy and had my picture taken with him. (It really is a terrific movie. Do see it.) I told director Ryan Murdock about my shameful encounter. “You gotta send me that picture,” he said. I have.

So, am I voting for Brown for governor? Kinda feel I owe it to him.

It’s an honor just to be nominated… Wed, 14 May 2014 04:03:51 +0000 Nutco the bayou

My documentary, The Bayou: DC’s Killer Joint, was just nominated for an Emmy Award. Thanks to everyone who helped make it possible.

The awards will be announced on June 14 at the Fillmore in Silver Spring. So if I lose, I don’t have that far to run crying home.

Above is the photo I took of the club in 1977.

R.I.P., Mickey Toperzer Tue, 22 Oct 2013 05:56:13 +0000 Nutco Frank “Mickey” Toperzer passed away on Oct. 12. He was the owner of Drums Unlimited on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda, when Bethesda was a place where you could open a small shop selling only drums.

Below is the article I wrote about him for Washington City Paper, almost 20 years ago. I was still fairly new at the journalism game and I started the interview with some question that did not meet Mickey’s approval. “Stop. Turn of the recorder,” he said sternly. Startled, I did as he ordered. He then informed me that my question was so foolishly broad and uninformed that it was impossible to answer and that it would only make me seem foolish. Then he told me the question I was really trying to ask and we started again.

mickey toperzer

I’ve been told that Mickey kept a copy of the article in his shop, framed a bit sideways–because he felt it would catch people’s eyes better if it was off-kilter and then they’d stop and read it. A perfect example of how how Mickey’s mind worked.

The reason I wrote the article is that I worked at Drums Unlimited right after high school and knew Mickey to be an entertaining raconteur, among other things. It was a great experience and Mickey taught me many lessons that I didn’t know I was learning until years later.

Drums Unlimited made much of its money renting equipment, any and everything for a band, school, and orchestra. For a symphony gig at the Kennedy Center, the store came up short for seats. So Mickey gave me the keys to his house and told me to grab the bar stools from the basement. And I was also to pack up his son’s drum set. He’d rented that, too.

When Burt Bacharach was playing the Kennedy Center, his drummer complained that the cymbal stand he’d rented from Drums Unlimited wasn’t tall enough. Highly annoyed by this affront to common sense, Mickey cobbled together a frankenstand that was probably 12 feet tall. I got in the van and drove it down to the KenCen. Because I was a clueless teen with no perspective, I just burst into the rehearsal room, interrupting the musicians, and walked the ridiculous piece of hardware right to the drummer. There were some laughs and a confused, then stern look from Burt. I don’t know who the drummer was–he could have been one of the Wrecking Crew who played on many of the original Bacharach-David songs. I hope I didn’t get him fired.

Much of my time was spent delivering equipment to and picking it up from the newly-opened Kennedy Center. In fact, Drums Unlimited rented several tympani and a large bass drum to the National Symphony for Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” which officially opened the Center. Even though Jackie Kennedy was just one floor above me, I remember being annoyed that the ovation went on and on and on, making me wait so long to pick up the gear.

That was the real treat of the job — wandering around the still half-completed building, underneath the public spaces. One day I poked through a door and found myself standing on the stage in the empty Opera House. I took in the grandeur, took a bow, and snuck out quickly.

In exchange for the keys to the van, I had to wear overalls with a Drums Unlimited logo. One day after a delivery I was heading to the vending machines by the dressing rooms when I spotted a tall man with long but well-coiffed hair who was wearing platform shoes and carrying a purse. Well, it looked like a purse. It was probably a standard messenger bag, but in the early 1970s guys did not carry bags, nor wear platform shoes. At least none of my high school pals did.

But, because I watched The Tonight Show religiously, I recognized Robert Klein, who was appearing in a play. As he passed, I smartly called out, “Robert Klein.” He gave me and my overalls a snooty once-over and replied, “Drums Unlimited,” and continued on his way. I never much cared for him after that.

Also, when I tried to score points by bragging to my friends that I had seen Robert Klein, nobody knew who he was. Rubes.

Then there was the time I was hauling a couple of tympani drums back to the van, I got snagged trying to lug one down the stairs, tripped, and fell head-over-tympani. Bang, crash, boom, indeed.

Another time, I peeled out from the light at Wisconsin and Bradley on my way to the KenCen. At the next light, a driver frantically caught my attention — the 28-inch bass drum had fallen out the unlocked back door and rolled down the road.

I believe I was making $1.35 an hour — minimum wage at the time. After a while, tired of Mickey calling me at home at night to give me instructions on where I had to be the next morning, I asked for a raise — to $1.65 an hour. I was promptly told that my services were no longer required.

Bang the Drum Profitably

It’s been 32 years since Frank “Mickey” Topics hung the small sign over the door of his shop on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. For any business to last three decades is a feat; it’s especially remarkable for one with as narrow a product line as Toperzer’s. The blue-on-white letters on his modest marquee read “Drums Unlimited.”

Perhaps the “Unlimited” part of the sign explains it best. The wee retail store is but the tip of the drumstick in an almost sprawling empire that includes a rehearsal space, a mail order and instrument manufacturing business, and a musical-equipment rental service.

All of which arose from the typical drummer’s complaint; having to lug carloads of equipment for the same paycheck as a less-burdened flute or guitar player. “I’m a musician, not a truck driver,” Toperzer scoffs.

In the ’50s, Toperzer was one of the busiest drummers in town, working hotel one-nighters with dance bands and orchestras nearly every evening—this after putting in a full shift as a public-school music teacher. The grind took a toll. “I don’t show up three hours early and leave three hours late for the same money as somebody who walks in with a fiddle, or a piano player who walks in with nothing,” declares the drummer, a trace of aggravation in his voice even now.

So Toperzer had the audacity to demand that promoters not only pay him for showing up, but shell out an additional rental fee for his station wagon full of gear. Surprisingly, it worked—to the point where Toperzer was soon contracting out equipment for other musicians. He quickly found himself with a house full of musical tools and a burgeoning rental business. He opened the retail shop partly to store his clattering collection. Eventually, he quit teaching, believing that he could have more impact providing materials to educators than teaching tots where the one-beat is.

Still, Toperzer retains something of a professorial air. Offering advice, criticism, support, and strong opinion in his lilting Boston brogue, he clearly enjoys engaging all who enter his store in hardy debate—and not merely about percussion. You may think you just stopped in to pick up a new pair of drumsticks, but if he senses you’re a bright student, Toperzer will hit you with a pop quiz. (Example: What’s the difference between a piano and an organ? You play a piano, you operate an organ.)

As philosophical as Toperzer can become, he is surprisingly dispassionate when discussing the mainstay of his business. “A drum is a drum is a drum,” he says with indifference. “It goes boom boom. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. If it does and you can’t play it, you’re in trouble. Otherwise, it goes boom boom boom.”

Of course, Toperzer is not entirely without sentiment. He points out an old red bass drum. “I bought that for $5 in 1945. At that time, it was about 40 years old. It was built by George Stone,” he says. Stone is one of the seminal figures in modern percussion, a drum maker and teacher whose books are still in use. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful drum,” he says affectionately. “The drum next to it is almost 100 years old,” he continues, indicating a scruffy wooden bass drum. “And they’re still working. I got my five bucks back a couple of times.”

Toperzer speculates that his old-time beater might have been used in John Philip Sousa’s band. “And of course that music is still played and that drum sounds like the drum should sound.”

Toperzer dispenses these heresies and verities from the Kensington warehouse/headquarters of Rehearsal Spaces and Professional Rental Services, the Drums Unlimited subsidiary run by his son, Michael. Conversation vies with the constant sound of musical instruments being tested and loaded onto one of five trucks that deliver them to such disparate places as Georgia theme parks, Atlantic City casinos, and the stages of Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. The clanging concerto of chimes, drums, bass, piano, and electric drills and sanders provides a suitably percussive background.

But we don’t spend much time talking the usual drum talk—Buddy vs. Gene, Ludwig vs. Yamaha, blah blah blah. We talk of history, discipline, and the cycles of nature. In explaining the complexities of sending musical instruments around the world, Toperzer mentions the half-dozen sets of tuned automobile horns that he supplies to orchestras intent on correctly playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

But to fully explain how one tunes automobile horns, Toperzer must first go back to the 1890s and the celeste, which, he points out, did not exist until Tchaikovsky heard it in his head and thought it might be nice for “The Nutcracker Suite.” “Somebody had to invent what he heard,” Toperzer says, beginning a story about the composer traveling to France to find a man who could build his imaginary device. “George Gershwin heard these taxi horns in Paris and found a guy in Germany who made things like foghorns and sirens.” He pauses slightly, knowing he has a good punch line. “And that man still makes them,” he says, before adding with a grin: “He’s hard to find.”

Not content to pick up the usual catalogs and order the usual soundmaking machinery, Toperzer acquired some of his inventory by roaming through Europe “finding lots of these fellows”—ancient artisans including “the man who tunes cowbells. And the man who makes the cowbells that the other man tunes,” he says. “The cowbells are made on an island in Bavaria. And a man 200 miles away goes to this island and goes through bins of these Swiss cowbells, and finds things that are close to a note. And he collects these and he puts them in his van and he goes back to Germany. And they have a little shop there and stroboscopes, and they bring these into tune by cutting them and reshaping them and so forth and so on.”

Simple. But Toperzer’s Indiana Jones-style adventures cover the percussive gamut. Though the more reliable plastic drum head has been the norm since the late ’50s, there are, says Toperzer, “purists out there who want calfskin or goatskin or monkey skin or snakeskin—or sturgeon skin even, which the Egyptians use—on different kinds of ethnic drums. And so we’ve had to find sources for these things.”

“It’s not just a primitive catch-as-catch-can,” he asserts, maintaining that there is a skill and an art to both the making
and the buying of musical exotica. He adds, almost sadly, “I never did find a safe source for fish skin that wasn’t rotten.”

In an age of digital sampling, where anybody can be an “artist” with the push of a button, this sort of insistence upon authenticity is refreshing. It also goes a long way toward explaining why that small sign in Bethesda is still beckoning after all these years. Another example: When Modern Drummer magazine published a list of “The 25 Best Drum Books,” all 25 could be found on Toperzer’s shelves, a fact the former educator is proud to announce.

These days, the globe-trotting is left mostly to his inventory. And as he has backed up the likes of Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, and Julie Andrews, you won’t find this sixtysomething stickman pounding out a fox trot at some wedding. But the lure of the traps remains.

Toperzer mentions a recent party where he ascended to the drum throne. “A number of wonderful players were there,” he says, including Ray Bryant and bassist Keter Betts. His face brightens as he remembers the fun. “Except Keter and I were exhausted. There were three piano players. They each played an hour nonstop, showing everything they could do. And we played for all of them.” He laughs softy. “That kind of thing is wonderful for me.”

Of course, he still had to set up all those drums himself. —DAVE NUTTYCOMBE

From Washington City Paper, Sept. 23, 1994

The Night the Lights Went Out in Wheaton Tue, 08 Oct 2013 23:44:21 +0000 Nutco montgomery royal

Sad but not entirely surprised that the Montgomery Royal Theater has closed. Located on the lower level, sort of around back and behind Wheaton Plaza — oh, excuse me, Westfield Wheaton Shopping Mall — the theater was one of a dwindling number of independent cinemas. This hopeful writeup in the Wheaton Patch (itself a struggling organization) from 2010 explains how the owners planned to beat the odds.

As with most theaters on the lower level of a shopping center, Montgomery Royal, and the various iterations that preceded it, was never a showplace. Dim hallways led to small screening rooms with seats that often had you sitting below the person in front of you. But, on a Wednesday night weeks into a film’s run, the Montgomery Royal was often the only option.

For some reason, Wheaton has historically been ill-served by movie theaters. After the Viers Mill Theater, in between Wheaton and Rockville, closed decades ago, several screens opened inside the mall. I swore off seeing movies in Wheaton after back-to-back experiences of 1) a fight breaking out and 2) a person vomiting in the row in front of me.

montgomery royal

In 1995, one of the screening rooms was outfitted with special handsets so that audiences could “interact” with movies in a “choose-your-own-adventure” fashion. The only movie to be made for this technology was Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie, an unpleasant affair written and directed by Bob Gale, of Back to the Future fame. Mr. Gale was, oh the irony, ahead of his time.

Prior to the Montgomery Royal, the Arlington Cinema and Draft House tried to open a Maryland branch in the same location. The place closed almost instantly due to squabbles with mall ownership. With Montgomery County attempting to revitalize Wheaton, perhaps the “funky ethnic enclave,” to quote the Washington Post, will eventually get a real movie theater.

A note on the photos. Took ‘em with the 645 Pro app on my iPhone, which is a terrific way to get near-professional results. After an update it had defaulted to black and white. Or maybe the iPhone knew the proper mood for the moment.

montgomery royal

The Game of the Name Wed, 10 Jul 2013 23:24:52 +0000 Nutco Woke up today to learn that the file-sharing site has changed its name. To Hightail.

I know, right? So much better because…huh? The old name, comprised as it is of three words that make up an understandable sentence, a sentence that is also a call to action and an actual explanation of what the company offers and why you are using said product—You. Send. It. Well, that’s not good enough in a world of Accentures, Aventures and all manner of cutesy Internet babyname companies.

CEO Brad (he has a last name, but just goes by “Brad” on the blog) claims that the new moniker “strides like a giant across a landscape of Boxes, Syncs and Shares alongside an audaciously elegant look that contrasts with the endless dreary blues of the cloud space, Hightail leads by example.”

That example is apparently red. Red is the new logo color, so obviously superior to blue that why are you laughing?

Hightail has produced a video to help explain why 43 million registered users were somehow wrong about choosing Yousendit over the Boxes and Syncs and Shares. The first scene presents Chief Product Officer Matte Scheinker under soft pastel lighting with lots of pillows in the background. So many pillows, I thought at first he was in a bedroom and that this was something from the LL Bean catalog. (LL Bean—you need to rethink that name! Stride across your landscape! You’ve got the clothes for it!)

“The one thing you don’t want working against you is your name,” says Scheinker of the name that attracted 43 million customers. Rather, he insists, you want “to be able to put any meaning behind it you want.” Because a name that actually has meaning and nearly a decade of branding goodwill is clearly not good enough. I’ve written before about this folly. It’s called Brandicide™.

But let’s talk about meaning. Matte and Brad claim the word “hightail” connotes speed, agility, “terms we wanted to be associated with.” Fine, as far as it goes. But here’s the full dictionary definition:

To move at high speed or rapidly, often in making a retreat.

Or, Urban Dictionary:

To run at great speed away from something. Example used: “Once I saw the cops, I hightailed it out of there.”

Yep, that’s my association as well. A line used by crooks and creeps in every B-grade Western and gangster film.

But the former Yousendit folks prefer to infuse their own meaning into a word everyone already understands. Chief Marketing Officer Mike Trigg disdains names that “are boring and descriptive.” God forbid descriptive!

The problem apparently is that Yousendit the company is “more than just send.” CEO Brad (last name Garlinghouse) explains that the new name offers the company the chance “to be an impact player in that broader opportunity.” The what in the who? Can we storm the gates of the business and technology schools and force-feed some simple English into the heads of these technobabblers?

Yousendit had moved beyond “send” because customers were not just sending files and documents. They were sharing “their passions, their lifeblood, their work.” Let me stop right here and share this screen capture from Hightail’s video:


You see the passion! There’s lifeblood all over the place.

No, it’s work. Even people who are—cough-cough—passionate about their work are also, on most days, just getting by, doing their job. Work is work, and that often means sending “just a file or document” to some clown who is busy playing Solitaire or updating a Facebook page until the file arrives. That’s business in this modern world. Same as ever.

“Say hi to Hightail,” is apparently the catchy new slogan, used at the end of the video and blog post. But I ask: Why keep the GH in High, if you’re going all moderne hi-concept (see?)—why not go all the way: HITAIL. It’s not an actual word, like most companies these days, so you lose that running-away-fast connotation. Though you still have “Hit,” which might be negative. And “Ail,” which is definitely negative.

Oh, I’m just too tired. I’m going to Sendspace.

P.S.: And, yes, I’m still upset that Esso changed its name to Exxon.

Wonderous Things, No. 73 Tue, 09 Jul 2013 22:23:03 +0000 Nutco Can you imagine being in the studio and hearing this for the first time?

Thanks to Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, from whence this clip comes.

K-Pop meets Garage Rock Sun, 09 Jun 2013 20:27:11 +0000 Nutco

Spent the early part of Saturday evening at the Freer Gallery’s stylish and delicious event, Asia After Dark: Korea Seoul Train, then high-tailed it to Silver Spring to hear the homecoming concert by JP McDermott & Western Bop, plus the Monkees-centric Stepping Stones at the Quarry House. Now it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m just getting up.

Farewell Silverdocs Wed, 17 Apr 2013 04:22:38 +0000 Nutco silverdocs

Silverdocs is dead. Long live, uh, AFI Docs presented by Audi?

Say what? The acclaimed local documentary film festival and industry confab announced that it is changing its name and adjusting its focus, adding venues inside the District line and cutting a few days from its schedule.

Did nobody at AFI see Morgan Spurlock’s cheeky doc, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Which shines a bright and damning light on the world of corporate sponsorship, product placement, and movie marketing—and is itself a much better title than AFI Docs presented by Audi. The AFI’s press release feels the need to point out right away that “[t]he official festival name is ‘AFI Docs presented by Audi’ and should be referred to as such at least once within a story.”

OK, done.

It’s understandable that the American Film Institute, AFI, wants more blatant branding. But tossing out a decade of recognizable branding and good will, along with the much more mellifluous name Silverdocs, seems like brandicide—which is a word I just made up and am now trademarking for all my future branding needs: Brandicide®.

Even without Audi’s moniker attached like a corporate remora fish, “AFI Docs” just doesn’t roll off the tongue and is simply bland. The “silver” in Silverdocs could be read as an homage to silver nitrate film stock, but more directly to the AFI’s beautifully-restored Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, as well as Silver Spring, where all the action takes place.

Or did. Now much of that action will occur at the Newseum, the National Portrait Gallery, and other D.C. venues. Irritatingly, much of the coverage has pitched the story as the festival “expanding into D.C.”—as if a retail chain from the Midwest were opening a new branch. Indiewire got it completely wrong with the headline, “AFI Announces Expansion of Documentary Fest AFI Docs Into DC Area.” Note to everyone: Silver Spring is already in “the DC area.” From under the marquee of the Silver Theatre it’s a fairly short walk down Colesville Road to the District line, or a slightly longer but totally manageable stroll up Georgia Avenue and into George Pelecanos novel territory.

I call this cosmopolitan provincialism, the notion that hipsters seem to have that anything that occurs beyond their particular sphere of coolness—Columbia Heights, Penn Quarter, NOMA—is literally beyond the pale. My pal and Washington City Paper colleague Mark Jenkins once bemoaned in a review that walking from the Silver Spring Metro to the Silver Theater was some kind of burden. In fact, it’s one block from the station, a walk that takes you past the beautiful, LEED-certified Discovery building. It is slightly uphill, but you can see the theater marquee when you step off the train, so the trek shouldn’t seem too hopeless. Note to cosmopolitan provincialists: it’s a quicker walk to the Silver Theatre from the Silver Spring Metro than it will be from any Metro station to the Newseum, where the AFI Docs conferences will now be held.

Or the Catalyst Sessions, the new name for what used to be the fairly traditional though always interesting and helpful industry conferences and symposiums of past festivals. Sounds like organizers may be going for something more TED-like. Which might be cool. Or, like many latter-day TED Talks, insufferable. I’ll wait and see.

Why this extreme makeover is happening was hinted at in Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post story. Discovery Networks, the original co-founder and major funder of Silverdocs, wanted out. As Hornaday put it, “shifts in Discovery’s corporate focus…resulted in a decline in the channel’s support in recent years.” Discovery began as an outlet for documentaries and science-based programming—largely from Australia, as I remember from those early days when cable TV was new and exciting and you’d watch anything, including documentaries from Australia.

But the network has long since traded uplift for downright degradation, with cheap tabloid “reality” fare such as Amish Mafia and Moonshiners. And Discovery’s hideous offspring, TLC (where, please recall, the L used to stand for “Learning”) is given over to even more soul-destroying shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and various hoarder-exploitation series. That’s corporate focus.

Standing in the dizzying multi-story atrium of the Discovery building at the opening night party for the 2008 fest, I was surprised to learn from a Discovery employee that the cable network lost money on Silverdocs. How can you lose money, I thought. This place is jammed, and jamming. The opening night film that year was More Than a Game, featuring LeBron James. Who showed up, briefly, I’m told. Money didn’t seem to matter back then. Towering ice sculptures built to dispense fancy vodka drinks (still have the battery-powered light-up martini glass), a special Stella Atois bar as cool as in the commercials, and outside in the lush courtyard, DJs pumping out the beats late into the night—good times.

But the parties became quieter and last year there was no opening gala to speak of.

And what of Silver Spring? Despite the happy spin of the press release, this move is a loss for the community.

Yes, I complain because I’m something of a provincialist myself. I like that I could walk to Silverdocs. But I also complain because I love the festival and want it to succeed.

My relationship with Silverdocs goes back to its beginning. City Paper was one of the first sponsors and, in addition to a free pass to all the swell parties and a cool logo-imprinted messenger bag, I was honored to introduce a film one year. In 2008, as an independent writer, I blogged the hell out of the program. For the last few years (though not this year), I was a volunteer screener, watching as many as 40 films each spring and offering comments and recommendations to the review board. Silverdocs receives upwards of 5,000 entries, each hoping for one of the hundred or so spots, so this work was essential. I saw a lot of junk but also a lot of great films. It’s a testament to the quality of Silverdocs that only a few of the films I recommended actually made it into the program.

So Audi drives to the rescue, for now. But when car sales slip or “corporate focus” changes, then what? AFI Docs presented by Jiffy Lube? AFI Docs presented by Google Street View? AFI Docs presented by the Law Firm of Ashcraft & Gerel?

Well, I still have my Silverdocs messenger bag.


My Year at the Movies, 2012 Sun, 24 Mar 2013 02:59:15 +0000 Nutco the byrd theater

This was a pretty darn great year at the movies. Very few clunkers on this list. And it’s not that I choose wisely (re: Underworld—I’ve seen ‘em all with my good friend O’Leary and we had to complete the set), there really were a lot of wonderful movies. From mainstream studios we got Argo and possibly the best James Bond movie ever. And then there were small gems such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Goon.

Of the 248 movies released in 2012 I saw 41 in theaters and 47 via Redbox—including the Mark Wahlberg film Contraband, which gave me deja vu until I realized it was a remake of a 2008 Icelandic film, Reykjavík-Rotterdam, by the same director, which I reviewed for Filmfest DC. I like Wahlberg, but the original is better.

In fact, a couple Filmfest and Silverdocs films from years past showed up in theaters, a good sign. Look for the French drama Monsieur Lazar and you will not be disappointed. And it was great to see the Silverdocs documentary Beware Mr. Baker get a theatrical run.

In 2012 I saw four films in 3D, none of which dazzled me the way Avatar did. This idea directors have that “it can’t be about the effect; the story comes first” is all well and good except—why the hell did you make a 3D film if you’re not gonna make it 3D?! Even my good friend Mr. Sam Raimi was unusually restrained with the technology in his film Oz the Great and Powerful. He only gave into temptation a few times, throwing stuff at the audience’s heads. (Coulda used a lot more of that, Sam. Or just thrown more stuff at James Franco’s head. Mighta woken him up.)

And throwing stuff at the audience’s heads is the whole point of 3D, despite what Martin Scorsese says. (Side note: Can you imagine if Raimi had made Evil Dead in 3D? Actually, that’s perhaps the most 3D non-3D movie ever.)

Some of the films released in 2012 I didn’t get around to seeing until 2013, including Flight, Not Fade Away, This Is 40, Hyde Park on Hudson, and Quartet, I woulda given the Oscar to Denzel for Flight. I needed a drink after watching that.

The Theater Breakdown

I saw three movies out of town. Two were in Richmond, one at the Bowtie Cinemas on Boulevard, built in a converted railroad factory, and one at the glorious Byrd, a 1928 showplace. I not only saw Ted for $1, but also got a follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong of Christmas carols by the organist.

I saw Lincoln on the Jersey Shore at the second-run Beach Cinema. The kid in the box office was dressed up at the president. He already had the beard, so why not?

I only got out once to the new Angelika in the, uh, “Mosaic District,” by which they mean Merrifield, Va., a mosaic of one-story warehouses and fast-food joints. But it’s a fine addition to the area, bringing D.C.’s number of art-house and indie screens to around 33. While I didn’t sample the “global menu” at the cafe, I did lounge in the loft bar. While its an impressive space, it’s also incredibly wasteful. The first two floors are pretty much empty, dedicated instead to stairs, escalators, and elevators to get you to the screens on the third floor. Perhaps the architect thought he was designing a museum, because that’s the vibe of the place.

Anyway, here’s the breakdown of how many films I saw where:

The Regal and Silver are in the neighborhood so of course I’m there the most. I’m sorry I only saw one film at the Avalon, as it’s one of my faves and I’m also a member. But that one film was Silver Linings Playlist, which might be my favorite of the year. I hope to get back to the Angelika. I notice that DC Shorts will be screening some of its films there this year, so my chances are good. I also should get to the Uptown more often, because I worry that, as a single-screen theater, it’s days are numbered.

The List — Films I Saw in Theaters:

  1. 48 Hour Film Project (4 out of 10 screenings)
  2. 48 Hour Music Video Project (I was also a producer)
  3. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3D
  4. Arbitrage
  5. Argo
  6. The Avengers
  7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  9. Beware Mr. Baker
  10. The Bourne Legacy
  11. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
  12. The Dark Knight Rises
  13. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Must Travel
  14. The Extraordinary Voyage and A Flight to the Moon*
  15. God Bless America (a Bobcat Goldthwait outrage)
  16. Goon
  17. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D
  18. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  19. Lincoln
  20. Looper
  21. The Master
  22. Men in Black 3
  23. Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol
  24. Moonrise Kingdom
  25. Pitch Perfect
  26. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
  27. Portrait of Wally
  28. Premium Rush
  29. Prometheus 3D
  30. Safety Not Guaranteed
  31. Searching for Sugarman
  32. Seven Psychopaths
  33. Silver Linings Playbook
  34. Skyfall
  35. Ted
  36. This Must Be the Place
  37. Time Zero
  38. Ultrasonic**
  39. Underworld: Awakening 3D
  40. Wanderlust
  41. The Watch
  42. Withnail & I
  43. Young Adult

* An amazing documentary on George Melies and the restoration of his 1902 classic.

** Ultrasonic is a not-bad local film from a first-time director, shot all around Northeast and Northwest using the Canon T2i, an entry-level still camera that shoots hi-def video. It’s part of the HDSLR revolution. A preponderance of last year’s 48 Hour Film Project movies were created with Canon DSLRs.