Tongues Untied

An East Bay filmmaker documents the life of Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison

Tongues Untied "Ralph Ellison never allowed Invisible Man to be made into a movie, a play, or an opera, although he got appealing offers from Sidney Lumet and Quincy Jones," relates East Bay filmmaker Avon Kirkland during a recent conversation. "When I inquired into the rights in the late '80s, his agent told me that the book was available but that Mr. Ellison would require script control." Kirkland laughs dryly. "Producers don't do that. And writers don't appreciate that you can't get 300 pages of interior monologue into a movie."

A decade later, Kirkland set about making a documentary about the author's life and work, and quickly concluded that dramatic re-creations of scenes from Ellison's 1953 novel were essential. "One of the most boring things we could do was talk about a book that very few people these days had read," Kirkland explains. "We needed to show Mr. Ellison's artistry. Well, that [argument] didn't wash." After two years of delicate negotiations with Ellison's widow, Kirkland finally ceded script control for the re-created scenes -- and only those scenes -- to the literary executor. An erudite portrait, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey premiered on Jan. 13 at Sundance and airs nationally Feb. 19 on PBS's "American Masters" series. (KQED is delaying its broadcast until Feb. 28 at 8 p.m., after the Olympics are done and gone.)

Kirkland, who was a scientist and educational publishing executive before segueing into public TV and then filmmaking, is now developing a doc on Booker T. Washington and a four-part PBS series on R&B. "I believe American race relations will improve when the country as a whole better appreciates the contributions of African-Americans to America's diverse culture," Kirkland asserts. "If one reads Ellison, especially his essays [collected in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory], you understand but for the presence of African-Americans over the centuries, America might look more like Canada."

The Parallax View Warren Beatty is an actor and producer of remarkable conviction and courage. He's also one of the few contemporary Americans to direct overtly political films (Reds, Bulworth). However, he's helmed just four films. So the S.F. International Film Festival's decision to give Beatty the 2002 Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement in directing is ludicrous. If Beatty is being honored for his entire career, then call it a tribute or a retrospective and reserve the Kurosawa for a true director, like Jean-Luc Godard.

Clearly, Beatty was picked for the glamour factor; he's a household name, and his movie-star wife, Annette Bening, received the fest's Peter J. Owens Award for acting in '97. (It also doesn't hurt that Beatty's an old pal of Willie Brown.) What's worrisome is that in the two years of L.A. expat Roxanne Messina Captor's reign as executive director, this international festival's most prestigious award has gone to two undeserving but big-name Americans (Clint Eastwood got it last year for his prolific but middling career). Should we anticipate future Kurosawa winners Al Pacino (director of three films), Jodie Foster (three), Mel Gibson (two), and Tom Hanks (one)? The SFIFF could save at least a smidgen of credibility by assigning the onstage interview with Beatty to S.F.-based critic and scholar David Thomson, author of the 1987 rumination Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story.

Paths of Glory Milos Forman's director's cut of Amadeus, produced in 1984 by Berkeley's Saul Zaentz, just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival with 20 minutes of unseen footage. ... Bill Weber and David Weissman's The Cockettes is also in the Berlin fest. Its U.S. theatrical premiere is set for the Castro, naturally, in late spring. ... Feisto, S.F. provocateur Frank Moore's sex-stuffed new feature-length video, premieres at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, at ATA. Check out www.eroplay.com for details. ... A big welcome to cult fave Ray Dennis Steckler (The Thrill Killers), appearing at the Fine Arts Cinema tonight (Feb. 13) and at the Parkway on Thursday. The scoop is at www.thrillville.net.

 
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