Reel World

Medium Cool, High Hopes

Medium Cool
In the hard-luck, hard-life coal country of eastern Kentucky on a sunny day in 1967, local curmudgeon Hobart Ison shot Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor to death in cold blood. Elizabeth Barret's problematic one-hour film, Stranger With a Camera, considers this straightforward case (which cost Ison a mere year in prison) as if the irate shooter were also a victim -- of the CBS news crews and drop-in documentary makers who showed the region's poor to the nation and the world.

Barret chose Lucy Massie Phenix, a fellow Kentucky native and longtime Bay Area filmmaker (Cancer in Two Voices, You Got to Move) and editor (Regret to Inform), to cut her film. "Elizabeth's concern," Phenix explains over the phone from her wood stove-heated home in the Napa Valley hills above Oakville, "was outsiders coming in and people being misportrayed. My concern was, 'What if people didn't come in from the outside and portray the poverty? What would happen then?' I think concerns with social justice and class got articulated more in the film because of my involvement."

Stranger With a Camera raises a host of questions of interest to any working filmmaker (or awake viewer, for that matter), but curiously doesn't delve into the conscienceless practices of the coal companies that contributed to the tough living conditions. "I make a film to put into the world -- like a megaphone," Phenix says. "Elizabeth always wanted to make a film that could illuminate questions about the murder for the community she comes from."

One of the ironies of the tragedy is that O'Connor conscientiously and humanely obtained permission before he filmed his subjects. "You couldn't find a more exemplary filmmaker than Hugh O'Connor," Phenix says. "I think Hobart did more harm perpetuating a stereotype that he suffered from -- the violent hillbilly who killed someone for coming on his land." Fresh from the documentary competition at Sundance, Stranger With a Camera screens Wed., March 8 with the filmmakers present at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of Film Arts Foundation's "True Stories" series of new documentaries.

High Hopes
Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) is finally in preproduction in L.A. on Ghost World, the long-awaited dark comedy penned by Daniel Clowes (Eightball). Typically, Zwigoff found something to moan about even in the fabulous news that production begins March 20. "It's not fabulous for me," he kvetched. "I could use another year to prepare." Zwigoff nabbed Pedro Almodovar's cinematographer, Affonso Beato, and his cast includes Thora Birch, Brad Renfro, and Steve Buscemi... Update on last week's Oscar-related Genghis Blues item: The boys at Roxie Releasing report that Late Night With David Letterman has expressed preliminary interest in having the Belic brothers on the show. Alas, musician Paul Pena, the film's star, isn't well enough to make the cross-country flight... Also in failing health: The Regency Theater, which isn't expected to survive the month. Since the Blumenfelds (who also operate the Castro) never talk to the press, we're not exactly sure when the Regency's lease expires, but you'd best not tarry if you're fond of that funky little escalator... In the wake of Dockers' defection, the S.F. International Film Festival has scored a large bank as a major sponsor. Look for the Providian Financial Guide to the 43rd Annual SFIFF in about four weeks.

Michael Fox is host of Independent View, which airs Fridays at 10:30 p.m. on KQED Channel 9.

 
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