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It's show-and-tell day in Lou Lou's media studies class at San Francisco's School of the Arts, a public arts magnet school in Laguna Honda. In a program that values "creative and independent thinking," you couldn't ask for a cooler guest speaker than her dad. Henry has produced more than 16 independent films, ranging in subject matter from gay outlaws (The Living End) to mentally ill musician Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston).
Henry drops by his daughter's classroom a couple times a year to show cinematic oddities. His last batch included a selection of movies by Huck Botko, a mockumentarian who leads viewers to believe he's playing pranks on his family. And not just any pranks: He cooks roadkill pie for his mom and bakes saliva from a homeless man into a pastry for his brother. "The final one was called Boston Cream Pie, and you can only imagine what that one was going to be about," media teacher Scott Eberhardt says. "We didn't get that far." He cut the presentation short. A stalwart Henry supporter, though, he is sure to add, "It ended up leading into a really good class discussion about spoof films." Luckily for the young minds Eberhardt molds, today's selections don't involve bum loogies.
"You've heard of Hollywood. You've heard of Bollywood. Well, this is Nollywood," Henry tells the class of the latest documentary he's produced, Welcome to Nollywood, an inspiring narrative about Nigerian filmmakers producing digital dramas in impoverished conditions. When Nollywood ends, the kids cheer twice — once for the movie, and again when Henry's name appears on the credits. Eberhardt turns on the lights and Henry dryly remarks, "See, filmmaking is the same all over the world: impossible."
While megaplex America might not recognize the screen credits on his résumé, Henry has worked with the cream of the auteur crop when it comes to directors: from Caveh Zahedi and Gregg Araki to multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose Conceiving Ada featured Tilda Swinton and Timothy Leary.
"I tell everybody he's the greatest producer in the world," says Jeff Feuerzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. "He's the underground Robert Evans." Henry ended up bankrolling the movie out of his own pocket — to the tune of $1 million — because, Feuerzeig says, "he didn't want anybody touching one frame of that film." Henry says he financed the film by maxing out his credit cards, diminishing his kids' college funds.
Not every director shares such fond memories. Henry has worked most with director Jon Jost, for whom he has producing credits on four glacially dark, beautifully shot dramas. Jost minces no words when it comes to Henry, whom he calls a "class A schmuck." The director, who is now a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, says he tried to terminate his partnership with Henry in 1994, which turned into a lawsuit. Long story short: The case was settled in arbitration in Henry's favor.
Back in Eberhardt's class, Henry cues up his next flick: a "world premiere" of a Bruce Conner short he produced, "Easter Morning." (A week later, "Easter Morning" is invited to the Cannes Film Festival, Henry's second film to show there.) The legendary experimental filmmaker was Henry's inspiration for getting into the filmmaking business. Conner is now very sick with a rare liver condition, and Henry is one of his caretakers: "This is probably his last film," says Henry, who is wearing a plush purple flower by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami pinned to his lapel. After watching the 10-minute montage — double-exposed images of flowers, a cross, and a naked woman, set to the soundtrack of minimalist composer Terry Riley's In C — one student mutters under his breath, "That was quite an acid trip."
During Henry's presentation, Lou Lou is all blushing smiles. "Our interview with her, when she was an eighth grader, was hysterical," Eberhardt says. "She was so quiet and we couldn't get her to smile, but here was a girl in a kilt and ripped denim jacket with tricolored hair." Lou Lou showed her audition piece, a Barbie stop-motion animation film "with amazing set designs." Eberhardt continues, "Then it was like, okay, she's somewhat shy socially, but when she's in her element it's amazing to see that blossom."
George also attended the school (he now goes to San Francisco State University). He has a sharp wit, and shares his father's penchant for warped comedy. The young tech whiz made a name for himself with his quirky film projects, which have occasionally starred his sister (he has directed Lou Lou in movies since he first dressed her up as Godzilla at age 7), and landed him in the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Danville International Children's Film Festival. George's pièce de resistance while at the arts school: "Urban Frankenstein," a slapstick short about microwaving a delinquent hamster.
Eberhardt has taught both Rosenthal kids. "Lou Lou is more of an exhibitionist," he says. "You'll notice George doesn't have any piercings and his hair isn't dyed. He's more of his father's son."
After Henry screens "Easter Morning" for Lou Lou's class, he announces the finale — "Android 207," a stop-motion short about a robot trapped in a torture maze. Only this time Eberhardt is safe. No fluids — motor or otherwise — will be spilled here. Lou Lou, who's been quietly watching the presentation, breaks her silence when Henry says the last title, offering a brief "Yay" and a muffled clap.