George W. Bush may be riding high in the saddle right now, but documentary filmmaker and Chapel Hill native Michael Galinsky has a film coming to town that reminds us that there was a time when Bush was little more than a well-connected ne'er-do-well whose political future was far from assured.
Galinsky's film, made with his wife, Suki Hawley, is Horns and Halos and it tells the story of a small-time writer of quickie celebrity biographies named J.H. Hatfield, and his efforts to publish Fortunate Son, an early study of the then-Texas governor. Hatfield's book turned out to be largely a clip job but he did include unsourced allegations that Bush had been busted for cocaine use in the early 1970s.
By the time the book appeared, Bush's campaign was picking up steam and Hatfield's charges couldn't be ignored. (In a memorably Clinton-esque non-denial, Bush declared that he hadn't used drugs in 25 years.) As interest in the story grew, the Dallas Morning News reported that Hatfield had done time in prison for attempted murder. The threat of libel action proved too much for St. Martin's: The publisher capitulated and dropped the book.
This could have been the end of the story, but Fortunate Son wasn't finished yet. Hatfield found a would-be angel in the form of Sander Hicks, a building superintendent and punk performance artist who ran an outfit called Soft Skull Press from the basement of his Lower Manhattan apartment building.
For Hatfield and Hicks, it would be a marriage made in hell, and it is at this point that filmmakers Galinsky and Hawley pick up the story that is told in Horns and Halos.
Although the story of the second incarnation of Hatfield's Fortunate Son is interesting enough, the relationship of Hicks and Hatfield is the true source of the film's power. The two men couldn't have been more different: Hicks is a hyperactive New York punk artist and Hatfield is a Southerner with a persecution complex. But well before the film's sad and jarring conclusion, it becomes clear that both men are hopelessly overmatched, playing for stakes that they can't afford.
For Galinsky and Hawley, the experience of releasing the film has been only marginally less arduous than the release of Fortunate Son. Although they haven't faced the wrath of the Bush administration, the filmmakers have had to contend with the usual rocky path to indie film distribution.
After taking Horns and Halos on the festival circuit, a tour that included stops in Rotterdam, Toronto and Slamdance, the filmmakers are now self-distributing their film to theaters around the country. In New York a few weeks ago, Horns and Halos was warmly received by the Times' Dave Kehr, who called it "a rich tale of our times, very well told with an appropriate minimum of means."
Galinsky and Hawley also used the film to further the anti-war effort last month, with the assistance of New Yorker cartoonist Art Spiegelman. "We did one event for the national student walkout on March 5," Galinsky said Monday in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn office.
"Spiegelman bought up tickets at Cinema Village and gave them out to high school students," said Galinsky, a 1987 graduate of Chapel Hill High, where he was a newspaper and yearbook photographer. "They had a big protest in Union Square right around the corner from there so it worked out great."
As self-distributors, Galinsky and Hawley must continue to contend with minimal means. "We have three prints," Galinsky said. "One of them is in Austin and another is still running in New York." The third print will unspool at the Chelsea theater, beginning this Friday.
At Duke's Griffith Theater this Thursday night, a different cinematic hot potato will be screened, courtesy of the school's Screen Society. Titled 11.09.01, it's a compilation of 11 short films made in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This will be the final film of the Screen Society's spring series "Reel Evil: Films from the Axis of Evil."
As the reversed order of the day and month indicates, 11.09.01 is an international production, with the American contribution coming from Sean Penn. Other filmmakers include such notables as Mexico's Alejandro Gonzlez Inrritu (Amores Perros), India's Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and Japan's Shohei Imamura (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge).
The ground rules set by producer Alain Brigand (a Frenchman, naturally) were simple: Each film must be exactly 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame long and must somehow address the impact of the terrorist attacks on America.
This will be the film's American premiere, and co-curator Miriam Cooke has put together a faculty panel to discuss the film afterward. Scheduled to participate are academics that cover a broad spectrum of the humanities, including Leo Ching, Ariel Dorfman, Jane Gaines, Bruce Lawrence and Susan Willis.
11.09.01 begins at 7 p.m. this Thursday, April 19, at Duke's Griffith Theater. For more information, go online to www.duke.edu/web/film/screensociety/.