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Three to watch

The Indy's sneak preview of Missoula's next round of indie films

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It’s been a tough couple of years for movies in Missoula. First the Roxy closes less than a year after its grand re-opening. Then goes the drive-in. Then the Crystal Theatre. It’s been enough to make anyone wonder if there was any future for movies in Missoula beyond what local rock trio Mike and Rick once termed “the ubiquity of the nanoplex.”

Things still look pretty grim, but nowhere near as grim as they did six months ago. The Roxy is now home to the International Wildlife Film Festival and Media Center, which holds regular screenings of wildlife and other films. The New Crystal Theatre lives on in name, at least, though strangely disembodied from the venue it occupied for almost 30 years.

But perhaps the most encouraging development is that more Missoulians are picking up cameras and making their own movies. The amateur filmmaking community is still trying to connect with itself, but as new collaborations occur and more film projects draw on the city’s rich reserve of native talent, more filmmakers (as well as musicians and artists) are getting their peanut butter all over each other’s chocolate. Conscious or not, it’s one response to the uncertain future of independent theater in Missoula and the ubiquity of the nanoplex: We might as well start making our own.

The farce is strong with this one
Forget the fate of the known universe, or whatever crises were left hanging by the last Star Wars prequel. There are far more pressing issues at hand in the far, far away parallel galaxy of The Bovine Prophecy, the second of two Star Wars parodies from Missoula filmmakers Austin Valley and Kyle McAfee. Namely, should two male-programmed robots be permitted to engage in sexual intercourse?

“These are some despicable buckets of bolts,” rails the prosecuting attorney, an action figure. “They made a decision to engage in, well, let’s finally call it what it is! Some people call it whoopie. Some people call it robo-erotic activity. Some even call it snicket-snicket wop-jing-a-loo-fah, but it’s gay robot sex.”

The prosecution rests. Now it’s the defense’s turn. Another action figure stands before the court and delivers his closing remarks.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the uh...uh...”

“The jury, ya idiot,” whispers Batman, leaning in close to the diminutive plastic attorney’s ear.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the defense continues, quite unfazed by the presence of Batman in the Star Wars realm, “I want to ask each and every one of you a personal question. Have you not yearned to be gay and a robot? Or maybe just have a robotic hand for a week for giggles? And make love to your washing machine in the dark? I think we all know the answer to that question. You will make the right decision.”

George Lucas’s billion-dollar space odyssey has inspired more than its share of spin-offs and parodies, but there’s probably never been a movie that plunders and pillages the world of Star Wars as mercilessly (and hilariously) as The Bovine Prophecy. Jedi masters Yoda and Mace Windu, whom Lucas envisioned as defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy, now cruise the cantinas and space-discos trying to scratch up a little action. Windu sports a custom Afro the size of a tennis ball and gets his mack on in a deep hip-hop patois (“Aw yi-uhh, there be some fine-assed ladies up in here tonight! Show my purple light saber!”), and Yoda’s hand is permanently wrapped around a bottle of space malt liquor. His own quest for galactic booty is frequently derailed by recurring flashbacks of an unhappy romance with Queen Amidala. In one scene, right after he pulls her out of a pool of her own vomit behind the nightclub, Amidala cruelly spurns Yoda’s pleas to get back together (“But things between us were totally righteous, babe,” he pleads, “I can be there for you.”) but hits him up for money.

Yoda’s flashbacks (which unfold to the tune of the Prince ballad “Purple Rain”) and much of the dialogue in The Bovine Prophecy allude to Valley and McAfee’s first Star Wars spoof, The Empire Strikes the Children with a Two-by-Four. Produced on Missoula Community Access Television cameras and editing equipment while Valley and McAfee were still students at Hellgate High School, Empire enjoyed a brief but enormously successful run at the Crystal Theatre in December, 1999. After two years in the making, The Bovine Prophecy is almost finished and, Valley assures, it will be technical light years beyond its predecessor.

The biggest innovation is the use of stop-motion animation. In Empire, Valley and McAfee mostly improvised characters’ voices over static close-ups of the action figures. The Bovine Prophecy boasts far more intricate sequences, with characters animated using the “scoot and shoot” principle of stop-motion animation.

Traditionally, stop-action animation is created with movie cameras that can advance the film a frame at a time. Take a picture, adjust the object or objects to be animated, and repeat 24 times for every second of finished footage. Professional animators also use tools called surface gauges—metal pointers that look a little like drafting compasses—to mark how much each “trailing” edge of the animated object will move from frame to frame, thereby ensuring the illusion of smooth movement.

It’s an incredibly time- and labor-intensive process. Video cameras make it even more time-consuming because they capture footage in fields per second, not frames per second, and it’s practically impossible to get even the most advanced video camera to record for the fraction of a second required to create the illusion when all the fractions are put together. For this reason, motion picture cameras are still the preferred tool for doing stop-motion. Even Nightmare Before Christmas, the film representing the greatest technical commitment thus far to stop-motion in an animated feature, was shot using vintage Mitchell 35mm movie cameras—the same model animator Willis O’Brien used to animate the titular bruiser of King Kong.

The stop-motion in The Bovine Prophecy looks a little clunky (Valley and McAfee had to film a second at a time and then use their editing software to pare away all but the required fraction) but the effect is still charming. So is the rest of the movie—at least the parts of it that Valley was willing to preview in the darkened editing suite at MCAT.

The premise behind the title, incidentally, is that the Emperor dies but Darth Maul learns of a prophecy in which he’s reborn as a cow. With the forces of evil racing to find the chosen cow and the forces of good making a somewhat addled attempt to stop them, will the prophecy come to pass?

Valley isn’t saying. You’ll just have to see the movie.

Valley and McAfee have tentatively scheduled a free screening of The Bovine Prophecy at the University Center Theater for the last week of February. To find out more about production workshops at Missoula Community Access Television, call 542-MCAT.

Five things about Jimmy Dunnaway

There’s only one problem with Corey Lewis’s documentary about obscure jazz pianist Jimmy Dunnaway: There is no Jimmy Dunnaway. The UM undergrad’s work-in-progress is essentially a star-studded cast of old friends, ex-wives, musical inheritors of the Dunnaway legacy and so forth extemporizing their reminiscences of a jazz pianist who never really existed. Lewis seems a little let down that I can’t help him foster the deception in print, but not for long—he just keeps rattling off Jimmy Dunnaway stories, smoothly hanging the rap on one of the first people he interviewed for his project: writer Jim Harrison. Lewis took an idea Harrison gave him and kept building on it, fleshing out the details of Dunnaway’s life by pointing a video camera at people and encouraging them to add their own strands to the runaway twine-ball that will eventually become Jimmy Dunnaway: A Legend Forgotten. Or A Legend Forgotten: The Jimmy Dunnaway Story. One or the other, Lewis says—he hasn’t really decided yet.

He’s shot about 90 percent of his footage to date in Livingston, where the fictitious Dunnaway has supposedly been living in near-total seclusion since dropping out of the jazz scene and moving west several years ago. The other 10 percent he’s shot around Missoula with the help of Crystal Video employee, film buff and fellow aspiring filmmaker Aaron Taylor. Lewis says he’s pursuing the project as a hobby first and foremost, but he also hopes to shape it into a senior thesis in case he decides to apply for UM’s three-year graduate program in Media Arts. So far, he claims, Missoulians have been extremely solicitous about ad-libbing their own embellishments on Lewis’s fic- tional character. Now why does he suppose that is?

“Maybe because it’s not scripted, so they get to think for themselves,” ventures the filmmaker. “People love that. If I just sat down and said, ‘Here’s my script and I want you to say these lines,’ people might not like it as much. They might be like, ‘Why deal with that bullshit? Here’s what I’ve got to say.’ It’s just more interesting for them.”

In its initial phase, the project was scripted, but Lewis dropped the 25-page draft when it dawned on him that he was getting better material when he simply let his interviewees make up their own.

“Obviously, I have a picture of who he is in my mind,” Lewis says. “But whether or not they know who he is or have heard his music, Dunnaway’s character is strong enough that other people’s stories about him just fill out that character even more. I just approach people and say ‘Here’s five things about Jimmy Dunnaway, now tell me about Jimmy Dunnaway.’”

So what are five things about Jimmy Dunnaway? According to Lewis, the pianist was raised in a small town called Pulp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie at the age of 12 in Detroit and was introduced to Miles Davis a year later, joining the jazz great on piano for one small show in Orange County, Calif. At some point he developed a prodigious appetite for drugs. In recent years, Dunnaway has kicked everything but the bottle, but his fondness for gin might have something to do with why he hasn’t given a performance since moving to Montana. Unless you count the time two years ago when he crashed a wedding and tried to take over piano detail in the wedding band.

Dunnaway’s adopted hometown—“the Hollywood of the Rockies,” as Lewis calls it—gives Lewis the perfect excuse for trying to muster a little star power for his movie from a few of the numerous literary and movie celebrities who live in Livingston full- or part-time. Actress Margot Kidder tells about marrying Dunnaway on a psilocybin trip—when Dunnaway appeared to have metamorphosed into a dog—but annulling the marriage after coming down from the effects of the fungus. Writer Walter Kirn, whom Lewis waylaid at a gas station, recounts the time he and Jimmy shared a homosexual experience in the Boy Scouts.

Kirn’s anecdote raises some interesting questions about Lewis’s method. How far is he willing to let it go? And how, both in the final edit and in his own mind, does he plan to reconstruct a convincing portrait of Dunnaway’s life with the profusion of conflicting and not always flattering details painted into the picture by his interviewees?

“Well,” says Lewis, “There’s already an interesting angle with Walter’s story—wait, Jimmy Dunnaway’s gay? At the same time I’ve got girls recalling what an ox he was in bed. And Margot Kidder claims to have been married to him. Mostly, though, a lot of the stories tie in to each other in really weird ways.”

As for the editing, Lewis says that the aspects of Dunnaway’s life that probably won’t make the cut are the ones that just aren’t funny enough. Lewis’s friend Travis Sarisky portrays Dunnaway (though without ever showing his face) in a few recreated scenes, but as more interviews come together, Lewis thinks he’ll have enough material to make the movie with little or no additional cinematography if he chooses to go that route. The stories speak for themselves, he says, even when they contradict one another.

The temptation to fib for a fun cause is great, so, as Taylor rolls tape, I make up a few new gems to add to Dunnaway’s imaginary discography. It’s the fusion-era Dunnaway of the early ’70s, of course, the one who recorded Suite in Orange and Fruits of the Dark Continent. I also signed on to design mock-ups of the album covers themselves. Just one more question, though: Why the name Jimmy Dunnaway?

“I don’t know,” shrugs Lewis. “I just thought it had a nice ring to it. It sounds like a somebody, as opposed to a nobody.”

Corey Lewis hopes to have a rough cut of the Jimmy Dunnaway story completed by May, and a final edit done by September. If you have any recollections of the jazz pianist you’d like to share, you can e-mail them to jimmydunnaway@hotmail.com.

Hiss story

The ice melts away, setting a hibernating creature from another time free to run amok in the modern world. Like the thing in The Thing or the iceman in Iceman. Or a giant snake that’s been frozen in a glacier for centuries, as in Return of the Ice Snake, Part II. Whatever or whoever melted the ice, you know there’s going to be trouble. It seems like a straightforward enough idea for a creature feature.

But “seems like” can only take you so far before you run smack up against the bewildering Bobness of Bob Marshall’s Return of the Ice Snake, Part II. Marshall started building the 18-foot papier-mâché snake almost 15 months ago. Since acquiring enough memory on his hard drive last summer to store movie clips, he’s taught himself how to use the editing software and is nearly finished reducing the six hours of raw footage he shot last winter into something like a short feature. He’s composed and recorded the entire soundtrack himself, albeit with a little help from his friend Bryan Hickey. He’s on the home stretch now, sitting evenings in the upstairs guest room in his striped bathrobe (“Not only am I comfortable, it also makes me feel kind of like Hugh Hefner.”), sipping a glass of wine and combing through the sound mix with a pair of headphones.

I wasn’t convinced I should see the ice snake movie before it was all the way finished. Showing somebody unfinished work can be dangerous business. It can upset a very delicate balance and interrupt something very important the artist has been struggling to articulate with himself. I’d hate to be the proverbial person on business from Porlock fatally distracting a Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And watching Return of the Ice Snake, Part II, even the unfinished and very rough cut Bob let me see, is quite a bit like prying into the delirious waking dream of someone making his first movie.

Return of the Ice Snake, Part II acknowledges all the horror clichés of tension and violent release, but only by standing them on their heads. It’s fraught with red herrings, surreal excursions and jarring cuts, and guided by an occult river of a narrative thread that disappears underground when you need it most and resurfaces miles away from the place you’re standing and scratching your head trying to figure out which way to go.

I was expecting a horror movie, but this is more like being lost in a house of mirrors with raw footage from a horror movie spliced into a lost Andy Warhol feature about people crossing bridges and walking on nature trails. All the classic horror/slasher/monster ingredients are there, but in proportions so odd you never really get your balance. I didn’t know when I was supposed to laugh and when I was supposed to be scared, or if that’s the way it was supposed to be. With so few answers forthcoming in the movie, I felt like I had to start demanding them of Bob Marshall but I didn’t want him to take my bewilderment the wrong way, personally or artistically.

“It’s frightening, but also a little bit humorous,” says Marshall. “With the camera filming from the point of view of the snake, the snake almost becomes the hero. So the audience becomes the hero. So it’s almost like you’re rooting for the snake.”

Horror fans generally appreciate and respect a certain amount of cunning in their predators, human and otherwise, but there’s also usually a hero of some kind to root for—someone who’s going to get the bad guy and put things right again. Not in Return of the Ice Snake, Part II. The snake is the only character to appear in more than one scene. The movie itself becomes the snake, a constant repetition and elongation of form that everything else starts to mimic.

“I didn’t set out to make a horror movie or an art movie,” Marshall claims. “I just followed this vision I had in my mind. I just kind of saw scenes and saw shots. The snake eats girls, there’s something of an investigation going on to find out who or what is the perpetrator, and there’s a conclusion.”

That’s true—those basic elements are all there. It’s what’s holding them together in movie form that makes Return of the Ice Snake, Part II so bizarre and funny. But I still don’t feel like I have any answers. I still don’t know whether to laugh or be scared.

Bob Marshall is planning to show Return of the Ice Snake, Part II in late February. Don’t let the title fool you, by the way—you didn’t miss any other chapters in the ice snake saga. That’s just Bob.

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