Film critic and broadcaster Hanna Flint joins us to talk about her cinematic memoir, “Strong Female Character.” Also, film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz and fellow film critic Walter Chaw share the legacy behind David Milch’s groundbreaking HBO series, “Deadwood.” And Vancouver punk rock pioneer John Armstrong on the Modernettes.
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Film critic Hanna Flint explores her life through the lens of movies
In the book, Flint explores her career through the life and lens of film and explains how she became one of the leading film critics of her generation. Since she is of mixed British and North African heritage, Flint is especially interested in how the movie industry portrays women and ethnic minorities. And she has some ideas about how movies could do a better job of reflecting our multicultural society.
“There’s so much I’ve learned from watching movies that have taught me, for better and for worse, how to be a woman, a woman of color, a person of Arab heritage,” Flint told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.“
Flint said she wanted to write a book that, had she read as a teenager, would have made her feel seen and helped her understand that some depictions onscreen are distorted.
For example, Flint describes her first viewing of Disney’s 1992 film, “Aladdin” as “a major awakening.”
“(It) was the first time I’d really seen what someone who looked like me, or as close to a mixed kid of English Arab North African heritage who shares some of my features, could look like from a character created by white men in L.A.,” Flint said. “There’s that weird sex scene where Jafar puts her in a red bikini, and I say in the book, ‘She could give Princess Leia’s gold bikini a run for its money, just how sexualized it was.’”
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Flint discovered a documentary called “Bezness as Usual,” which has some strange parallels to her own life.
“It’s hard to find films about Tunisia or set in Tunisia,” Flint said. Her father, Saief Zammel, was born in Tunisia.
“Bezness as Usual” explores how, during the 1970s, young Muslim men seduced European women on vacation as a way of getting by. This phenomenon is of particular interest to the documentary’s director, Alex Pitstra, since he was the result of this kind of encounter. Pistra’s father is a Tunisian playboy and his mother is Dutch.
“And certainly for me, it’s been interesting over the last few years, where my biological father has tried to get in touch,” Flint explained. “Watching that documentary certainly made me feel I can have a connection to Tunisia without having him included, or at least while I’m not really ready to kind of open that Pandora’s box.”
Last year, Flint visited Tunisia for the first time. She said “it was the most magical experience.”
She had the chance to travel down to Tozeur, where “Star Wars” was filmed.
“As a massive ‘Star Wars’ fan, that meant so much to me to be able to visit some of the sets … see the places and learn about how rich Tunisia is when it comes to providing a backdrop to so many of the movies that I love,” Flint said.
Throughout her book, Flint discusses a variety of film stereotypes, including the Arab stereotypes known as “the three B syndrome — billionaires, bombers and bellydancers.”
“So we get the billionaires, which originally was coming to shape sheik characters. And obviously that started back in the silent film,” she said. As Flint writes in her book: “The 1921 silent film, ‘The Sheik’ has every Orientalist trop going with Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino playing the Algerian Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan.”
At one point in “The Sheik,” Hassan declares: “When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her!” But (spoiler alert) Hassan is not really Algerian. He’s a British-Spanish orphan raised by the old sheik. His white origin is revealed by the end of the film and as a result, any heroic connection that Hassan may have with Arabs is retconned.
“And then we get to ‘Wonder Woman 1984‘ and you’ve got Amr Waked who suddenly wants to use his wish to take back the country. And he’s just a wicked character. And it’s like, Oh, God, please, Patty (Jenkins, director).”
The bombers, of course, are terrorists. At first, it was Russian terrorists, then it was the IRA. Flint said that the Palestinian terrorists now seem to be the bombers of choice.
“‘True Lies’ is a film that I used to love when I was a kid,” Flint said. “But then you kind of grow up like, ‘Wow, this is a really bad stereotype of Palestinian people.’ And there’s been plenty of films that use that similar vein because Palestinians are very rarely positioned as the underdogs in this kind of conflict, especially on screen.”
What is the one movie that has taught Flint the most about herself and helped her to accept herself?
“I have to say, ‘Love & Basketball.‘ That really made me accept myself as kind of an assertive person,” she said.
Flint used to play basketball from the age of 11 up until she graduated from the University of Nottingham. She played National League for a decade and also played some England squad games.
The protagonist in “Love & Basketball” is Monica Wright, played by Sanaa Lathan.
“She’s African American,” Flint said. “I’m like a mix, you know, a kid from the UK living in Doncaster.”
There’s plenty about their experiences that are different, Flint explained. But there were plenty of similarities, too.
“But she was a woman of color who loved sports, who had that tomboy quality, who was dressed in sweats,” Flint said. “She could get dressed up, but she also was really happy wearing her light tracksuits. And she was so passionate and quite assertive and blunt about things. And I think so often women like that are seen as difficult or bossy.”
“Seeing Monica in that film, that really just inspired me to just be okay with who I am,” Flint continued. “I felt really seen watching that and knowing that I can be this strong female character. It isn’t just literally about being strong. It’s about being vulnerable and accepting that maybe you’re not the perfect person the way you handle these things. You’re still worthy and you have value and you’re real.”
'A lie agreed upon': The definitive book on HBO's modern western, 'Deadwood'
Editor’s note: This story contains language around sexual and substance abuse.
There is a phrase often credited to Napoleon Bonaparte that history is “a lie agreed upon.” Nowhere in television storytelling is this concept more prevalent than in David Milch’s critically acclaimed HBO western series, “Deadwood.”
In fact, Milch titled the two-part season 2 premiere after Bonaparte’s quote. It also serves as the subtitle to critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s self-published book on the series, “The Deadwood Bible: A Lie Agreed Upon.”
It’s an apt mission statement for a book that lays out the history of one of TV’s most revered prestige dramas, save for the lies.
For all the talk about its language, violence, beauty and vulgarity, “Deadwood” was a show ultimately about the rise and formation of a community in a lawless South Dakota town. “The Deadwood Bible” exists similarly because of an entire community of “Deadwood” fans and passionate critics.
“This (book) is the only one I’ve ever written that doesn’t have my name on the cover of the spine, and there’s a reason for that,” Seitz tells Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”
A few years ago, Seitz wanted to see what kind of appetite there was for a comprehensive look at “Deadwood” and launched a Kickstarter to fund the writing of it. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Seitz, who is currently a staff writer at New York Magazine, was the perfect point person for the definitive “Deadwood” book. He was an early champion of the in-depth TV criticism and contemporaneously covered “Deadwood” as a critic, forging a friendship with Milch in the process.
“The Deadwood Bible” is equal parts oral history, Milchian biography and critical companion. It features interviews with over 130 members of the cast and crew, including Milch himself.
Milch — a Yale professor turned TV creator who was best known for the groundbreaking ABC drama, “NYPD Blue” — met with HBO in the early aughts to pitch a show about ancient Rome.
Weirdly enough, HBO was in the midst of making their own limited series, “Rome,” and asked Milch if he had any other ideas. Seitz said Milch recalled “he paused and cocked his head quizzically and looked up at the sky and said, ‘Did I say Rome?’”
And with that, Milch quickly ported a lot of the themes he wanted to address about the rise of a community to America’s post-Civil War west.
“Deadwood” jumped out for a variety of reasons. Being on HBO, it was noted for its extreme violence, Shakespearean dialogue and explicit nature. However, it probably became best known for its creative and extreme profanity.
“David (Milch) would throw in some profanity as punctuation,” said Seitz. “The profanity was pretty notorious because even by HBO standards, it was extreme. I mean, think about the fact that ‘The Sopranos’ was on the air at the same time as ‘Deadwood,’ and people were talking about the profanity on ‘Deadwood’ as being excessive.”
The brilliance of the show was how Milch created an entire community of characters that kept expanding. Even though they all carried their own baggage, they often leaned on each other. Seitz said that all the “Deadwood” characters have a little bit of Milch in them, including his demons with addiction and abuse survival.
“David (Milch) is a person who has had a lot of substance abuse problems in his life, and he had just gotten sober a few years before he started making ‘Deadwood.’ And I don’t think it’s a surprise that so much of the show is about addiction and overcoming addiction,” he said.
“There are a shocking number of the major characters on the show are victims of physical, sexual abuse or both in childhood,” Seitz continued. “The repercussions of that carry forward and how they deal with people. And David was a victim of sexual abuse.”
Always at the center of the community was the seemingly corrupt, but secretly selfless, saloon keeper Al Swearengen. He’s perhaps the closest avatar to Milch himself.
“Al Swearengen, the character played by Ian McShane, is David. He’s charming, he’s witty, but he’s also a hair trigger temper and can use people when he’s not being compassionate,” Seitz explained.
Al was also one of the hardest characters to cast. One of the pleasures of reading “The Deadwood Bible” is the oral history that covers a lot of the “what ifs” of casting and production.
“David was adamant at first that Ed O’Neill — who was formerly the star of ‘Married With Children’ — would be the perfect Swearengen, and HBO didn’t want him,” Seitz said. “One of the executives I talked to told me, ‘I just couldn’t get past this hurdle. Like, I can’t look at this guy without thinking that’s Al Bundy. What’s Al Bundy doing in the Old West?’”
O’Neill and Milch would eventually collaborate on Milch’s post-“Deadwood” series, “John from Cincinnati,” after “Deadwood’s” unceremonious cancelation.
Seitz does dogged work in his book sequencing the steps that led to the infamous phone call that ended one TV’s most critically acclaimed and beloved shows.
“One of the things I’m proudest of in this book is that for years and years and years, people have been speculating on exactly why ‘Deadwood’ ended,” Seitz said. “HBO had a number of financial considerations, one of which was that they had a lot of incredibly expensive shows on the air, of which ‘Deadwood’ was one of them. And they were under increased pressure to have good ratings and do well by the stockholders.”
Dayton Callie, who plays Charlie Utter on the show, was in the room with Milch when an executive from HBO called. Callie recalled the story to Seitz for the book: “One of the executives called David and said, ‘Hey, instead of doing 12 episodes, which is the normal number, why don’t we do six?’ And David, who is a very prideful person, said, ‘How about none?’ and hung up the phone.”
Milch then called star, Timothy Olyphant, to warn him that the show was likely canceled. Olyphant was reportedly about to buy a house and Milch wanted him to know his recurring role and paycheck were likely coming to a halt. Shortly after that, word spread among the cast and “within a matter of a week, ‘Deadwood’ was canceled because all these actors had started booking other jobs,” Seitz said.
“Deadwood” received a coda of sorts in the form of a 2019 TV movie. Years of fan interest and cast appreciation for the show led to them all assembling one last time.
“I think it’s really quite beautiful and I almost feel like it’s half of a ‘Deadwood’ story and half of a testimonial and tribute to David Milch,” said Seitz. “That’s why all these people came back. They came back for David, because by that point, David had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
Milch, who himself just released his autobiography “Life’s Work,” entered a memory care facility during the writing of “The Deadwood Bible.” Seitz has a moving essay in the book about visiting Milch there. He claims that’s one of the “most extraordinary experiences” of his life as a writer.
“We hung out at the memory care facility for a couple of hours, just talking about various things with him and (wife) Rita. And then at the end, I was waiting for my ride to pick me up, and David put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I made a new friend today.’ And it was kind of devastating. But then as I walked away, I was in tears,” said Seitz.
“I thought about it and the idea that David met me again and called me his friend is a great compliment. Like, if he had no memory of knowing me before, and he spends a couple of hours with me and says I made a new friend today — well, what higher praise could there be from one human being to another?”
Perhaps a 500-page book honoring one of your greatest achievements? “The Deadwood Bible” is now available at MZS Press.
Walter on Walter: Walter Chaw looks at Walter Hill's 'Deadwood' Pilot
According to Matt Zoller Seitz, author of “The Deadwood Bible,” HBO had a difficult time casting the central character of Al Swearengen for their acclaimed series, “Deadwood.”
Creator David Milch pushed for “Married with Children” actor Ed O’Neill, but HBO quickly nixed that idea. They eventually went into a “bake off” audition between two Irish actors, Patrick Bergin and Ian McShane.
“Bergin was good, but Ian McShane was sensational,” says Seitz.
It turns out that McShane — who would become iconic for his performance as Swearengen through the series’ run — had a bit of an ace up his sleeve.
In addition to his memorable films like “The Warriors,” “48 Hrs.,” and “Streets of Fire,” famed director Walter Hill was brought in to direct the “Deadwood” pilot.
“The reason Ian McShane was sensational was because Walter Hill wanted him,” says Seitz. “(McShane) went to (Hill’s) hotel room the night before and Hill basically told him exactly how he wanted to read the part.”
Seitz’s fellow critic, Walter Chaw, has written about the iconoclastic filmmaker and his films in the book, “A Walter Hill Film: Tragedy and Masculinity in the films of Walter Hill.”
Chaw is headlining a recurring segment for Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” on Hill and his films, called “Walter on Walter.”
He says the Deadwood pilot carries a lot of Hill’s trademarked themes and motifs.
“It is a distillation of Walter Hill’s ideas about male relationships, a relationship between Wild Bill and Seth Bullock in particular,” says Chaw. “Then there’s Al Swearengen and there’s all of these kinds of masculinity coalescing in this place that’s trying to learn how to be a civilization.”
Chaw also thinks the pilot was gorgeously filmed by Hill.
“Hill gives (the pilot) a thing that I think the rest of the series maybe lacks a little bit, as much of the all-time American masterpiece as it is,” Chaw says. “I still miss the brevity and the efficiency of action that Walter Hill brings to it.”
Chaw points to an exchange toward the end of the pilot between Wild Bill Hickok and Seth Bullock, who Hickok has kindly nicknamed “Montana.” Both men are newcomers to the town of Deadwood and former lawmen. They enforce justice on the main thoroughfare to a nefarious road agent suspected of murder. After the road agent is gunned down, Wild Bill says, “Was that you or me, Montana?”
“It’s like something by Eugene Manlove Rhodes or something. There’s extraordinary brevity and poetry to it,” Chaw says of that line. “Wild Bill never talks like that again throughout the course of that series.”
“This is Walter Hill coming in as a guy who never can resist rewriting some parts and asserting himself a little bit, asserting his authorial presence in the pilot of Deadwood and saying, ‘Yeah, you know, this is a beautifully conceived project that I’m going to tweak and make it just a little bit finer,’” he continues.
Chaw notes that Hill won an Emmy for Best Direction for the “Deadwood” pilot. Unfortunately, that was the extent of Hill’s involvement with the series. Due to creative differences with Milch, Hill’s lasting legacy might just be the casting of McShane. Chaw states that it’s not surprising this creative pairing was short-lived.
“I think Hill saw certain things in a way that was more abbreviated than Milch does,” he says. “It’s an amazingly written but densely written series. And you’ll find there are very few speeches in Hill’s movies.”
“All of his movies cook. He doesn’t like what he would call the ‘conversations by the campfire,’” Chaw says. “‘Deadwood’ is a series that’s defined by the writing, whereas Hill is more defined by the motion.”
John Armstrong is 'Guilty of Everything'
This is the best-written book I read this year. I just finished reading it and it was massively fun. Happy new year YOU pic.twitter.com/spF267C9SI— Mr. Bob Odenkirk (@mrbobodenkirk) December 31, 2022
The book that Odenkirk praised was “Guilty of Everything: 21st Anniversary Edition.” It was written by my fellow Vancouverite John Armstrong. He’s the founding member of one of my favorite punk rock bands, the Modernettes.
It got me thinking: how did Odenkirk discover Armstrong’s book before I did?
So I asked Odenkirk about Armstrong’s memoir and the next thing I knew, Odenkirk sent us a video message to share with Armstrong. Odenkirk said he was “knocked out” by the book and he hoped to meet Armstrong one day.
Armstrong seemed thrilled that his memoir got the Odenkirk bump. He joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” to talk about the enduring legacy of the Modernettes and the life-changing friendship he had with fellow punk rocker, Art Bergmann.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Armstrong quit school and moved into Bergmann’s three-bedroom apartment in White Rock, British Columbia.
“The first thing he (Bergmann) taught me was you have to write songs,” Armstrong told “BETA.“
Bergmann told Armstrong” “You could probably throw a beer and hit a really good guitar player. But if you write songs, you’re ahead of the game.”
While Armstrong learned to play, Bergmann would lay on the couch and instruct him on what notes to play.
“And then (Bergmann would say), ‘Don’t look down, don’t look at the neck. You can’t stand on stage and look at the neck while you’re playing. You have to look at the audience.”
Armstrong loves Bergmann’s guitar playing, calling him “The Man of a Million Chords.”
“To get from A to D, he’d play like six chords in between.They’re called passing chords, and he’d be adding a note with a finger and then changing it and adding another note and it just flowed. That’s probably the most important thing I learned from him,” Armstrong said.
As the lead singer and guitarist of the Modernettes, Armstrong went by the name of Buck Cherry. “Like Chuck Berry, only sideways, sort of,” he writes in his book. Armstrong was able to monetize the name by licensing it to the American rock band, Buckcherry.
When the Modernettes first formed, it didn’t have a bass player. Armstrong told “BETA” he knew of Mary Bethlehem Wiwchar — stage name Mary Jo Kopechne — from the early punk rock scene in Vancouver. A friend told Armstrong the band needed a bass player, and he should get Mary.
“Everybody called her Pebbles because she had her hair tied up in one of those weird pigtails that’s on the top of her head. You know, just the one thing that kind of sprouts like asparagus. And she wore a leopard print, almost like a caveman dress,” Armstrong recalled.
“And I said, ‘Who’s Mary? He says, ‘You know, Pebbles.’ And I went, ‘Oh, well, sure. Her and I don’t like each other so much,’” Armstrong said. “He talked me into it. She came over. Learned the songs pretty quick. And I thought, yeah, well, if it doesn’t work, it’s only one gig, right?
“Next thing I knew, it was six years later. And we’re married.”
The Modernettes’ most popular song is “Barbra.” Its origin comes from a mix of tequila and Jan and Dean.
“The drummer in the Pointed Sticks lived downstairs from me in a house that had been turned into two apartments,” Armstrong said. “And I was downstairs with him, drinking. And he was on to a Jan and Dean kick. He had a double LP of Jan and Dean’s greatest hits, and he played it. He turned it over, played the other side. Then he got the second LP and played both sides of that. And then he went back to the first one, put it on again, like he was just going to play it over and over.
“And I said, ‘Oh, come on, Robert, please, can we have a break from Jan and Dean?’
“And he said, ‘When you write something as good as ‘Dead Man’s Curve,’ then you can tell me to take Jan and Dean off the record player. And I was about halfway through the tequila, and I went, ‘Fine, then I’ll go and do just that.’ And I took my tequila and went upstairs.
“And I plugged my guitar into my little amp and wrote this song. I don’t know where it came from. I wrote it in about as long as it takes to play it. And I was so drunk that I misspelled Barbara. And that’s why it’s ‘B-a-r-b-r-a.’”
But despite the story, Armstrong doesn’t like the song.
“I think it’s like a lot of people. You know, the comedian wants to play Hamlet. The skinny guy wishes he had better hair and the fat guy wishes he was skinny. And everybody wants to be, but they’re not,” Armstrong said. “I wrote what’s proved itself to be a pretty good pop rock song, but I wanted to write great art.”
One of the Modernettes’ songs that Armstrong is very proud of is “The Rebel Kind.”
Somebody told Armstrong that “The Rebel Kind” was going to be included in the next “American Recordings” album that producer Rick Rubin was working on with Johnny Cash.
“That would have been, you know, like Johnny Cash singing my song. OK, I’ll take that. The fact that it was even on the list, that was a pretty huge compliment,” he said.
‘The songs survive’
It’s been 43 years since the Modernettes began. Why does Armstrong think we’re still talking about his band?
“I wish I had a good answer for that. You’re not supposed to say this kind of thing, but we were a really good band. I wrote really good songs, and Art (Bergmann) was right. You know, the songs survive,” Armstrong said.
It’s no wonder that Armstrong’s memoir is so well-written. As a journalist for The Vancouver Sun, he won a B.C. (British Columbia) Newspaper Award in 1992 for his story, “Too Much, Too Often: The Lonesome Death of Johnny Thunders.”
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