by Alan Swyer
Facing what would hardly be his first invitation to a film festival, Mike Donner was uncharacteristically unsettled as he boarded a Southwest jet headed for Nashville on a Saturday in April.
Had the screening involved one of his previous efforts – his movie about the Latinization of boxing, his look at the breakthroughs in the treatment of diabetes, or his examination of the rise and fall of a black cultural mecca in Los Angeles – Donner’s mood would almost certainly have been infinitely more upbeat. But flying to a place known as both “The Buckle Of The Bible Belt” and “The City Of Steeples” with a documentary about Eastern spirituality in the Western world seemed at best questionable, and at worst patently insane.
Nor had a lengthy call with the festival’s program director put Donner’s mind at ease. “I like work that’s edgy and biting,” Todd Gallagher explained, which for Donner confirmed that his film was chosen with the hope that it would provoke. That belief was heightened when Gallagher added, “There’s nothing I love as much as a violent collision of cultures.”
Unable to snooze on the flight, Donner allowed his mind to drift. That he had a career as a filmmaker still was a source of wonder to him, since his reasons for going to Hollywood, where he arrived knowing not a soul, owed almost as much to getting away from cold winters, and from his family, as it did to his love of cinema. That he had become known as a documentarian was even more surprising, given that it was a form he turned to only when an extended Writers Guild strike made production of scripted material impossible for an extended period of time.
But then, instead of being planned or premeditated, virtually everything in Donner’s life had been ad hoc, which he often joked also meant in hock. That was particularly true when it came to career, where it was a combination of fate, contrariness, and orneriness that generally dictated his decisions.
That was why, in rare moments of repose, Donner had to shake his head at the path his life had taken. Given that his mother continually warned him about being judged by the company he kept, could it be purely coincidence that he once made an instructional baseball video with Pete Rose, or did a music video for the late Ike Turner?
Yet as satisfying as making documentaries was, more and more Donner felt the need to do something more personal – something not just about his interests, but indeed about him. Yet every time he thought about writing an autobiographical script, or taking a crack at a novel, an overture about yet another film project allowed him to duck the challenge of tackling something that would address his past.
At the Nashville airport, Donner was met by an effusive festival volunteer named Mitzi, who immediately made an unsuccessful attempt to help with his luggage.
“Excited about tomorrow afternoon?” Mitzi then asked as she led him to her pickup truck.
“Isn’t the screening in the evening?”
“Sunday night can be kind of slow, so Todd moved it to right after folks get out of church.”
“First Jesus, then Buddha and Krishna?” Donner asked uncomfortably.
Donner chose not to reply.
After depositing his bag at the motel adjacent to the multiplex housing the festival, Donner was led to the reception tent where Todd Gallagher shook his hand gleefully.
“This is going to be epic!” Gallagher gloated before handing him an all-entry pass, plus schedules for screenings and related events. “Help yourself to wine and chow in the filmmaker hospitality area, then catch one of the screenings.”
After downing three glasses of wine while sampling foods nowhere to be found in health-conscious Santa Monica – fried catfish, cornbread, biscuits and gravy, banana pudding – Donner passed on both of the late-night screenings, then went to his room and called his girlfriend.
“If I die tomorrow, it won’t be from lack of cholesterol, salt, or sugar,” he told Bonnie.
“You’re not dying so fast,” she countered.
“Aren’t you exaggerating?”
“At a time when mosques get bombed and a synagogue got shot up?”
“You really think people will show up on a Sunday night looking for mayhem?”
“They just changed the screening time.”
“Right after church.”
Despite herself, Bonnie gulped.
Never much of a sleeper, Donner tried hard to convince himself that he was overreacting. Yet despite his effort to dismiss his fears as stereotyping, he tossed and turned until dawn, then tiptoed down to the motel’s tiny workout room. There he did his best to lessen his anxiety with three ferocious sets of push-ups and crunches, followed by forty-five minutes on a treadmill.
After a brief nap and a shower, Donner went downstairs for brunch. Strikingly out of place in his Laker t-shirt and cutoff shorts among folks in their Sunday church finest, he tried unsuccessfully to appear relaxed and inconspicuous by fiddling with his iPhone, then sent a text to Bonnie: I’ll never make it out of here alive.
Someone’s overly dramatic, she replied.
Nope, Donner responded. Realistic.
“Anything else I can get you?” asked the waitress, after Donner pushed aside what was left of a plate laden with fat, carbs, sodium, and sugar.
“A dialysis machine?” When his joke resulted in a blank stare, he smiled. “Just the check.”
Time crept ever so slowly as Donner waited for the screening time to near. Then, having donned his usual Q&A attire of a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a gray sport jacket, he rode the elevator down. Stepping out into sunshine, he took a deep breath, then did his best to feign nonchalance as he strolled toward the multiplex.
Due to his preference for observing the audience while it viewed one of his films, Donner spurned the third row seat reserved for him. Instead he took a spot in the rear, then watched the least diverse crowd imaginable fill the theater.
Once the doors were closed, Todd Gallagher addressed those assembled. “Thanks, everybody, for coming out,” he began. “I’d like to tell you that the film you’re about to see features Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and all your favorites, but last I checked they’re not gurus, rinpoches, or Zen monks. But I do think you’re in for a special kind of treat. Best of all, the filmmaker, Mike Donner, has flown in to do a Q&A after it’s done.”
Hearing applause, Donner thought of the gladiators in Rome who received cheers before fights to the death. Then he girded himself as the lights went out and the film began.
Fearing the worst, Donner was pleasantly surprised when the playful on-screen segment about Zen koans elicited a measure of laughter. But, knowing what was coming, he was not the least bit shocked by the grumbling when Professor Robert Thurman, aka Uma’s dad, castigated George W. Bush for stating that problems for the planet’s future troubled him not at all because he would no longer be around to witness the damage. Nor was there any way for the filmmaker to miss the collective wince when, after a series of educators, historians, rinpoches, gurus, and Zen masters lamented the narcissistic Western use of I and me, came a montage of sound bytes from the current president: “No one respects women more than me,” “No one reads the Bible more than me,” “Nobody knows the system better than me,” and other such boasts, followed by “Nobody is better on humility than me.”
Yet despite the laughs and groans caused by the film’s emotional roller-coaster ride, no chairs were thrown, no guns were drawn, and no riot erupted. Instead, as the end credits rolled, there was significant applause, followed by more clapping when Todd Gallagher introduced the man who made the film.
Still somewhat uncertain, Donner ambled toward the front of the room, shook hands with Gallagher, then took hold of the microphone.
“Thanks for the welcome,” he said to the crowd. “Any questions are fair game with one exception. Please don’t ask me about the orgy that wound up on the cutting room floor.” Greeted by nervous titters, Donner shrugged. “Guess I’ll save that line for New York or San Francisco. Anybody?”
As hands went up here and there, Donner nodded toward a white-haired woman in a yellow dress. “Ma’am?”
“Are you a meditator?” she asked.
“Yes, but I cheat,” replied Donner, generating some titters. “Instead of sitting silently, most of the time I use headphones while listening to a CD. Anyone else?”
“I can’t say I share your politics,” said a heavyset guy in an ill-fitting suit, “but you made me think. And my wife can attest to the fact that that’s not easy.” That engendered a playful nod from the woman with teased hair seated next to him. “But if you don’t mind my asking, what’s the first step in making a documentary like this?”
“Other than finding some money? For me the first step is having a firm sense of the film I want to make. But the second is hoping to find an even better one while I’m shooting. And I’m not trying to be flippant. Sometimes, somebody I’m interviewing will say something that opens up an entirely wonderful and unexpected avenue. Next?”
“Why do you always have to be such a goddamn know-it-all?” cried a familiar-sounding female voice.
Turning toward the right side of the screening room, Donner spotted what looked like someone who lived not in Nashville, but in Brooklyn: his sister.
“Rikki?” he asked, squinting in disbelief.
“Never listen to anybody, do you? Always so cocky. Always so goddamn full of yourself. Think mom and dad would be proud of your gurus in their orange dresses? Or your monks with their silly shaved heads?”
Hoping that his imagination was playing tricks on him, Donner ducked the question and turned toward the other side of the room. “Anybody else?”
“What was your budget?” asked a young guy in a Vanderbilt sweatshirt.
“People often talk about high budget, medium budget, and low budget,” Donner began. “This one, if the truth be know, was closer to no budget. Our principal costs were travel and lodging, plus fees for cleaning up the sound, the graphics, color correction, and the rest of post-production. Anyone else?”
“Is a meditating shithead still a shithead?” came another strangely familiar woman’s voice.
Donner turned to gape at someone else he had not noticed before, a redhead who looked remarkably like an ex-girlfriend from his high school days in New Jersey.
“Emily?” he asked.
“How come with all the mumbo-jumbo about awareness, enlightenment, and oneness you didn’t find time to mention cheating on me with my very own sister? Huh? Huh?”
Starting to wonder if someone had drugged his breakfast tea, or maybe slipped a mickey into his water bottle, Donner took a moment to gather himself, then looked elsewhere.
“Next?” he asked hopefully.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” began a woman in Tennessee Titans football jersey, “how’d you choose this topic?”
“Knowing that Buddhism, and to a lesser degree Hinduism, adapts as it comes into contact with other cultures,” Donner explained, “I felt it’d be interesting to examine the role of women, the use of technology, and other things that are quintessentially American.”
“Well, I think you did it really well.”
“Don’t tell ’em how much I paid you to say that,” Donner joked as Todd Gallagher approached the microphone.
“How about one last question?” Gallagher said, leaning toward the mic.
Though several people raised their hands, another woman with a voice that was even more familiar than the others Donner spoke up.
“Who in hell do you think you’re fooling?” the middle-aged brunette demanded, causing Donner’s jaw to drop as he turned to get a look at her.
“M-Mom?” he muttered, fully aware that his mother had been dead for nearly three-and-a-half years.
“You bet it’s me!” she answered. “The one who changed your dirty diapers. And who you drove crazy the whole time you were growing up. Couldn’t be a doctor, could you? Or a lawyer. Or even a dentist. Nah, you had to be one of those arty types!”
“Please, nothing. Still think you’re so damn special, huh? Well, to me you’ll always be a little snot nose making believe he’s hot shit!”
While Donner stood there dumbfounded, Todd Gallagher grabbed the microphone. “Thank you, Mike Donner,” he announced. “And thank all of you for coming.”
His head still spinning, Donner was on his way to the motel when he heard his name called.
“Can I bribe you to stay on for another couple of days?” Gallagher asked as he caught up to him.
“Seeing how well things went, I can slot in another screening. It’d be great to have you there.”
“Thanks,” said a surprised Donner. “But duty calls.”
“I get it. But if you happen to change your mind –”
“Well I wasn’t mauled, beheaded, and burned at the stake,” Donner informed Bonnie by phone once he was back in his hotel room.
“Anything special, strange, weird, and exciting?” she asked.
“I’ll fill you in when I get back.”
“Can’t wait to hear.”
“Can’t wait to tell you.”
Hanging up, Donner sat on the edge of the bed, still unable to understand what in the world had transpired.
That led him to wonder about the strange turns his life had taken. How could a kid from a blue-collar town in New Jersey find himself in France, writing the Paris section of a Simon & Schuster travel guide for the youth market, and boxing on the Paris University boxing team? Then teaching French at Pepperdine University while trying to get a foothold in Hollywood? Even more amazing, how could he wind up being befriended by artists he first heard on the juke box of a soul food restaurant in Newark, among them Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Ike Turner?
Lying down, Donner found himself overwhelmed by thoughts, memories, and anecdotes, some hazy, others surprisingly clear, from his even younger days. First was the time when, at a very early age, he was asked at a large family dinner what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A garbage man!” he exclaimed, eliciting laughs from the grownups, followed by a question from his Aunt Clara: “Why?” “Because,” four-year-old Mike Donner responded, “They’re big, they’re strong, they get dirty, and they get out of the house before the screaming starts.” Needless to say, a tirade from his mother ensued on the drive home.
Next came a vision of car trips in the middle of frigid winters with all the windows open so that the smoke from his mother’s cigarettes would escape, coupled with threats that she would kill both him and his sister if either dared tell their dad that she was smoking.
Then came a barrage of other snippets. His father’s unexplained repugnance toward soup. His sister constantly squealing on him whenever he did anything he wasn’t supposed to do. His mother slamming his kid brother’s head against the wall until Donner pulled her off of him. His forging both his parents’ signatures on forms on paperwork sent home from school so that he could thereafter write notes giving false explanations for his absences on days when he skipped school.
Those early memories were then followed by later ones. There was his suspension from high school for bringing a scurrilous fake issue of the school paper to the printer in place of the real one. And the way he and a friend financed Saturday evenings at Greenwich Village jazz clubs by peddling mixtures of catnip, oregano, and twigs to unsuspecting tourists from Long Island. Plus the time he and Emily’s sister Kate took off for Florida during Easter break without telling anyone.
As still more blasts from the past filled Donner’s head, it dawned on him that would mattered was not what had taken place during the post-screening Q&A, or how, or even why.
What mattered was that it was surely, indubitably, unmistakably a sign.
If ever he was to find – or make – the time to do something personal, or better yet something truly autobiographical, the time had clearly come.
Someone else could make the film he’d been approached about dealing with the biggest upset in the history of college sports. And another filmmaker could handle the one about the first crossover Latino rap group.
In the weeks and months that followed, the voices that somehow materialized during Donner’s Nashville Q&A would resonate in a story that, for good or for not so good, would memorialize what he had long termed his “misspent youth.”
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel “The Beard” was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
Alan’s last feature for New Pop Lit was “Jerry and Me.”