Bruised, Not Beaten

The best thing I’ve seen on the tube since HBO’s Unscripted is another HBO thing — a 90-minute documentary called Left of the Dial.
It premiered last night (3.31) and will air next Tuesday and Friday a few times. For some reason HBO isn’t showing it today or Saturday or Sunday. Why? Because it’s a political doc and viewers are — what? — presumed to be in a non-receptive, beer-drinking mood on weekends?

This is a good meal, dammit…satisfying and nutritious. If you ask me it should play this weekend as a respite or a detox from the cloying machismo of Sin City.
Directed by Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan, Dial is about the launch and near-fatal crash last spring of Air America, the leftie radio talk-show network.
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Just a week or so after Air America went on the air last March 31st, everything started to fall apart financially.
Two major-market stations that had been contracted to broadcast the show in Chicago and Los Angeles claimed (accurately, as it turned out) that checks written to them had bounced, resulting in Air America being yanked. Evan Cohen, the station’s founding chairman and big money guy, stopped coming to the office, and everyone began wondering if the whole deal might collapse.
But the station hung on, eeking by on this and that cash infusion or Peter-paying-Paul maneuver. And then the ratings showed that Franken had beaten Rush Limbaugh and Rhodes had out-pointed right-wing talk show rival Sean Hannity. Sponsors started to show limited support around last December. Air America had a new lease on life.

Janeane Garafalo

Today 51 stations are carrying the show and things look hunky dory.
The story of Air America’s near-meltdown is a kind of metaphor about the scary dips and turns and unfair curve balls that always seem to get thrown. Life can be rough and disheartening, but if you’ve got the pluck and the stamina and if God smiles a bit, you can make it through and possibly even prosper.
Left of the Dial is not just some piecemeal, fly-on-the-wall observational piece. It tells a good story and is packed with strong characters.
There’s Al Franken, the clever, sardonic figurehead guy…charismatic and great with the quips, but privately shaking his head and frowning and muttering to himself as things get worse and worse.
There’s Randi Rhodes, the neurotic, under-appreciated talk-show host with the Zabar’s sensibility and hair-trigger temper.
There’s Cohen in the role of the villain…the hustler who totally flim-flammed everyone and bounced checks and led Air America to the brink of ruin.

Air America’s Al Franken (l.) and COO Carl Ginsburg as the meltdown phase began.

There’s the decent soldier, David Goodfriend, Air America’s general counsel who feels so stunned by Cohen’s betrayal that he eventually quits rather than let the fiasco tarnish his rep.
There are the insecure talk-show hosts — Janeane Garafalo, Sam Seder, and “Morning Sedition’s” Marc Maron — wondering about how to get through this and fretting about their on-air material and wondering if they’ll get canned.
There’s Carl Ginsburg, the network’s executive producer in the role of the tough realist, grappling with the day-to-day expenses…the kind of hard-nosed financial affairs guy you always want on your team.
I love the scene when a couple of staffers find out about the bounced checks from reading the Drudge Report. When there’s bad stuff going down inside a company you never hear the straight dope from the guys at the top. The rumor mill always has it first.
My favorite moment is when a crisis meeting is called and “silent investor” Doug Kreeger politely asks Farrelly or O’Callaghan (or their cameraman) to please turn off the camera, and of course the tape keeps rolling. And we hear the whole “all right, people…don’t panic, we’re fine” speech.

Al Franken and Air America colleagues just after Franken’s debut show had concluded.

I knew something was wrong with Air America’s operation when I tried to listen to it online last April and I couldn’t get anything. Now you just click on “listen” and it plays on Real Player and Windows Media, no sweat.
I remember a statement or press release of some kind that Franken put out during the crisis that said, “Don’t believe these check-bouncing rumors…we’re doing fine…the righties are just trying to make us look bad.”
I’ve always loved Franken’s humor and I’ve read his two books and all, but in person he’s a bit chilly…a bit of a snob. I guess we can’t all be schmoozers.
Anyway, consider Left of the Dial a must-see.

Et tu, Lebowski?

Who could have predicted when The Big Lebowski opened seven years ago it would one day become the new Rocky Horror Picture Show? And perhaps a bit more than that?
I don’t know how many thousands of Lebowski freaks are out there, but I know they`re into seeing Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 stoner comedy repeatedly. They’re into memorizing the lines (“Am I the only one here who gives a fuck about the rules?”) and dressing up as Jeff Bridges’ Duderino (or John Goodman’s Walter or Tara Reid’s Bunny) and bowling and slurping down those White Russians.
And over the last two or three years, they’re into this general party-down, journey-to-Mecca thing at these homey fan gatherings known as Lebowskifests.
If I wasn’t so lazy and disorganized I would have called the great Jeff Dowd — the L.A. movie industry guy whom Joel and Ethan Coen based their Jeff Lebowski character on — and asked him to get me into the first L.A. Lebowskifest last weekend.

Producer’s rep Jeff Dowd (a.k.a., the original “Dude”) with Cami Hermann (r.) and Ben Reilly (l.) at last weekend’s Lebowskifest.

It happened last Friday night at Hollywood’s Knitting Factory and then at some bowling alley on Saturday, and the main vibe, according to Dowd, was all about “a tremendous camaraderie” and “real warmth and affection” among the fans.
Jeff Bridges performed a set with some Santa Barbara-area band he plays with, Lebowski costar Peter Stormare did the same, and David Huddleston (“I’m a Lebowski, you’re a Lebowski… what?) attended the bowling alley party on Saturday.
No Coen brothers, no Philip Seymour Hoffman, no Tara Reid, no Ben Gazzara, no John Turturro…but no worries and all things in good time.
The first Lebowskifest was produced in Louisville, Kentucky in October ’02, by a couple of local guys, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt.
Since then they’ve staged Lebowskifests in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (while keeping the Louisville event going, of course). Russell says they’re thinking about doing an Austin version sometime soon.
Russell and Shuffitt should do them all over. Orlando, Bangor, Seattle…maybe even Europe. All a Lebowskifest needs are fans, and there are middle-aged, out-of-shape boomer types who bowl and smoke too much pot and get Lebowski‘s absurdist stoner humor in every corner of the globe.
Russell says there are three documentaries being made about the Lebowskifest experience.
A couple named Robin and Rose Roman are working on one. A guy named John Nee, who has an outfit called Idiot Works and who also works for Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, is doing another. The third Lebowski doc, called Over the Line, is the sire of an L.A. guy named Eddie Chung. (It’s currently in post-production and may be viewable, says Chung, within a month or two.)
Here’s some of what Dowd told me last Tuesday about the L.A. Lebowskifest and the general tangents:
“This thing always sells out. It sold out here before last Thursday’s [3.24] Los Angeles Times story hit. These guys have no publicists, no paid advertising.
“The two nights were totally different. Friday night is kind of like a pre-party…a lot of different bands played and the surprise guest was Jeff Bridges and his band, who played a full-on set.” (There’s some information about Jeff’s group on
“I spoke to this Latino family from San Diego that drove up to attend. A whole family… father, grandfather, kids…he was talking about how at Xmas time, they first watched it together. You wouldn’t think that a relatively straight, relatively conservative Latino family would be into this film, but they are. It’s an annual Xmas event with them.

Fan Cami Herman (l.), The Big Lebowski costar David Huddleston,

“I make a thousand new friends when I go to these things, but forget me…it’s the same emotional thing with everybody who comes. It appeals to all people…people who like to have fun watching the movie with their friends. For millions of potheads, it bears repeat viewings. It’s one of the few films you can watch over and over.
“I was up at Sundance four years ago and this guy recognizes me. I just got back from Korea, he says, and we used to watch that movie a couple of times a week out on a missile base. Now, what condition are these guys at a high-security missile base in if they’re watching The Big Lewbowski?
“As Francois Truffaut once said, it’s a phenomenon sociologique. It’s a pretty big thing. It’s really popular at this Wall Street brokerage firm I’ve heard about. It seems to bring out the subversive side in people
“The Saturday night thing was great. There was a guy dressed as Moses. There was a bowling pin girl, and a half-and-half carton with Bunny Lebowski thing on the back. Guys in CSI type lab coats. Quite a few guys like that. There were tons of Walters.
“Some guy from Ecuador had flown up. There were two girls who showed up in towels. There was this guy who showed up in torn Army fatigues….he was supposed to be a guy who died face down in the muck in Vietnam…this is the bizarre part. People don’t just come as characters — they come as lines out of the movie.
“When I first heard about these things I thought it might be full of Star Trek-type fans… you know, get a life types…but it’s not. This ranks right up there with one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. Somebody said to me the other night – “Have you met any person [at a Lebowskifest] you didn’t like?”


I thought I was a little Sideways-ed out, what with the Spirits and the Oscars and then watching a heavily edited version on the plane coming back from Argentina, which was awful.
Every funny joke, it seemed, had been ruined by those stupid verb and noun substitutions the airlines always require.
In the theatre version Paul Giamatti is telling Virginia Madsen he was really going to tell her about Thomas Hayden Church getting married, and she says, “But you wanted to fuck me first.” In the airplane version she says, “But you wanted to fool me first.”
Men and women are dishonest with each other all the time, but Madsen wasn’t on about being fooled. Why couldn’t she say, “But you wanted to do me first”? Or “have me first”?

Sideways DVD, out Tuesday, 4.5.

I called Sideways director and co-writer Alexander Payne about this, and it turns out he chose the alternate dialogue himself. Oh.
Payne said he saw the airplane dubbing process as an opportunity to be droll and make substitutions that are so dopey-sounding they’re almost hip. He said that Joel and Ethan Coen edit their airplane dialogue with this attitude.
Anyway, the Sideways DVD is out on Tuesday (4.5), and it’s great to have a copy sitting there on the DVD shelf, like a friend I can be myself with.
I haven’t seen the behind-the-scenes featurette or the seven deleted scenes. I only just picked up a copy on Thursday night.
But I’ve listened to some of the commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church, and now I’m looking forward to hearing it all. It’s on the same pleasure level as the talk between Kurt Russell, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale on the Used Cars DVD, and that’s saying something. Smart, amusing, easy-going banter between a couple of very planted dudes.

Accidental capturing of transition from one over-the-shoulder shot to the other during Pacino-De Niro Kate Mantellini scene in Michael Man’s Heat.