Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Art Attack

Attention-getting Nashville-produced feature opens for a local run

By Jim Ridley

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  It must have been the penis-shaped pogo sticks. Last June, the Saturday-night shows at the Nashville Independent Film Festival triggered the biggest demand for tickets in the fest's 30-year history. So jammed was the festival's ticket line with calls that the ordering system crashed. Additional screenings were hastily arranged at the last minute, and even then staffers had to cut off a waiting list hundreds of names long.

The occasion was the first public screening here of Existo, easily the most talked-about feature to be produced in Nashville in years. Shot, cast, produced, post-produced, and financed locally, the futuristic political satire is the brainchild of director Coke Sams and coscreenwriter/star Bruce Arntson, who convinced virtually every theater actor and technician in town to lend a hand. The result represents an almost two-year investment for most of its cast and crew--not to mention the latest hope for a Nashville-generated feature that will galvanize the city's perpetually nascent film community.

This Friday, Existo begins a week-long run at Regal Cinemas' Green Hills Commons 16--a booking with implications that go far beyond Nashville. What makes this booking so important is the possibility it creates for an alternative distribution route, a way to get true independent features into theaters across the country. If Regal's experiment with Existo works, it could pave the way for other offbeat films to supply the originality and nerve missing from too many in-cost-only "indies."

Originality and nerve are Existo's strongest calling cards. Its creators managed to identify two commercially moribund genres--musicals and political satire--only to combine them. Set in an immediate future that's part Road Warrior, part Rocky Horror, and all Music City, the movie opens with America in the grip of the Religious Right. Arts funding has been abolished, and television feeds the (literally) dip-brained populace the screeds of televangelist Armand Glasscock (Mike Montgomery).

The threat of martially enforced blandness is enough to awaken the dormant Existo (Arntson), a performance-artist superhero who's been inactive for years. Obsessed with sex, suicide, and Little Debbies, Existo starts up an incendiary cabaret act that incites the bohemian underground to wage a full-scale art attack on America's malls and suburbs.

The Right strikes back, aided by an oily turncoat (Mark Cabus) and a conservative Mata Hari (Jenny Littleton) who becomes the target of the hero's divining-rod pelvis. Meanwhile, Existo's exasperated girlfriend (Jackie Welch) joins a haphazard assassination squad that falls apart over how to art-direct the hit. Not to worry--the movie ends happily with singing, dancing, exploding bad guys, and just a whiff of the apocalypse.

Any film this scattershot by design is bound to be uneven, and indeed Existo stumbles over patches of slack pacing and self-indulgence among the belly laughs. Plus some of its topical barbs would've seemed a lot sharper before the Republican Revolution's recent collapse.

As in one of John Waters' satiric kitschfests, though, the occasional duds are the price you pay for the zingers--which include the anarchic finale and, yes, those phallic pogo sticks. And with memorable bits from the cream of Nashville's theater community, as well as surreal production numbers and a genuine political point of view, the result is the year's most original American indie to date.

Existo made its premiere as a midnight show at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in April, and it again played at midnight in June at the Atlanta Film Festival. Yet the Nashville screenings seem to have made the strongest impact. For one thing, the two sold-out screenings, and the hundreds of patrons who were turned away, created instant word of mouth. "This is what it feels like to be a hometown hero," director Sams says.

More important, though, were the perks associated with the Tennessee Independent Spirit prize that Existo picked up at the festival. One was a Directors Guild of America screening last month in L.A. sponsored by the NIFF and the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission. According to Peter Kurland, who coproduced Existo with Clarke Gallivan, the invitation-only screening led to soundtrack and distribution inquiries.

Another effect is the Regal booking, which came about through the Knoxville-based theater chain's partnership with the NIFF. The audience response to Existo prompted Regal to book it for a week, starting Friday, with an option to hold it over; if the film does particularly well, the chain may book it into theaters in two more cities.

If this strategy works, Regal will have the makings of a functioning alternate distribution route--by which the theater chain could funnel low-budget, quality films without distribution deals into megaplexes across the country. The filmmakers would bear most of the brunt of promotion and advertising, but they'd at least get a shot at a theatrical run. And indie filmmakers are becoming masters of guerrilla marketing tactics--the Existo gang included.

"I'm telling people to buy a ticket to Existo, even if they're seeing another movie," Peter Kurland says. Coke Sams is even more direct. "We want everybody over the age of 18 to see it," he says. "This is something you could only have in Nashville. There's a true spirit of eccentricity here you can't afford in L.A."

--Jim Ridley

A losing game

For Love of the Game is being promoted as a Kevin Costner baseball movie, a prospect meant to make both baseball fans and Costner fans weak with rapture. The popular belief is that Costner has starred in two of the best baseball movies of all time--Bull Durham and Field of Dreams--but that faith is based on a false premise. Certainly, Bull Durham is indispensable, with its vivid impressions of minor-league ball and hot summer romance. But Field of Dreams isn't really a baseball movie. It is rather desperate Americana, wherein ex-hippies reconnect with a country they once spurned by summoning the gauzy ideals that touch us shamelessly--fair play, family, farming, and free speech.

Baseball is a mere tool in Field of Dreams, pulled from a dusty box to make the audience nostalgic for aimless July nights, not for the specifics of the basket catch or the suicide squeeze. And baseball is a tool again in For Love of the Game, although this time it's supposed to make us nostalgic for Field of Dreams.

In this new film, Costner plays veteran Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel, a future Hall-of-Famer finishing his 18th season as the staff ace and dreading a potential off-season trade to the Giants. It's hard to imagine a modern major-leaguer, especially a twirler, playing with the same team for two decades; it's even harder to believe that he wouldn't have a no-trade clause in his contract. But we're myth-making here, so we'll forgive the strained credulity, just as we'll forgive the sight of Vin Scully working for Fox Sports--because who else would generate such poetic play-by-play? We won't even ask why the Tigers are playing a rare one-game series with the Yankees at the end of the season; we'll just assume they're making up a rainout.

What's harder to understand is how a movie filled with men in baseball uniforms could have so little to do with baseball. The gist of For Love of the Game is that Costner's bland, good-guy hero stands on the mound while dealing with the possible end of his career and the definite end of his relationship with a magazine journalist (played by the always forgettable Kelly Preston). As he reflects on his life, he starts frustrating batters, who can't seem to reach base against him. In a fog, Chapel looks up at the scoreboard in the seventh inning and sees a line of zeros next to the word "Yankees." He's throwing a perfect game.

But every time the audience starts to get excited about the mano-a-mano tussle between pitcher and hitter, the scene fades and we're stuck in another dreary flashback pointing to what went wrong between Chapel and his writer friend. If the flashbacks covered more of Chapel's life and career, or if the romance between Costner and Preston were more than warmed-over Jerry Maguire-style fumbling, the lengthy distractions from the game might be bearable. Instead, Costner's character remains nobly quiet, never contemplating his fame and how it might affect a love affair. Meanwhile, Preston's character changes from scene to scene--sometimes she's urbane, sometimes she's a flake, and she has a daughter who appears only when convenient to the story.

For Love of the Game was directed by cult favorite Sam Raimi, who last year made an assured step into the mainstream with the masterful A Simple Plan. This time out, he seems lost, except in the kinetic baseball scenes. Someone should set Raimi up with Daniel Okrent's fantastic book Nine Innings, which details the meaning behind every pitch of an otherwise meaningless 1981 Orioles-Brewers game. Raimi would dazzle, and if Costner wanted a part, fine...he'd make a good Gorman Thomas.

For Love of the Game plays more like a Costner film than a Raimi film, and reports from the field say that Costner gave Raimi extensive suggestions, which may explain the punchless tedium that weighs down even the film's few funny lines and warm moments. Or the fault may lie with screenwriter Dana Stevens, a sometime actress who also wrote the sappy City of Angels; here, she has taken a well-regarded novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Shaara (author of The Killer Angels) and adapted away so much of its nuance that the very profession of its lead character is practically irrelevant.

It's not as if every movie about a baseball player has to be confined to the diamond, any more than a movie about a lawyer should stick to the courtroom. But a character in a story should have a job for a reason, and the reason for this character in this story should've been obvious--to show the dichotomy between an athlete striving to be perfect both on and off the field, though he has no real control over either arena. What we get is another modern Hollywood romance between two inarticulate professionals, with the occasional shot of Costner pounding his glove to remind us of films and ideas that have touched us before.

Such a fat pitch, and such a weak swing.

--Noel Murray

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