Santa Cruz Good Times

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Apr 19th
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Blowing Off Brenda

The famous Polish Brothers take a road trip, rattle Santa Cruz and chat up their mind-bending indie flick Northfork. But they’re not hitting cruise control just yet.

When Michael and Mark Polish mount Brenda it’s hard not watch in a bit of stupefied, surreal fascination. They’re not quite panting, but they are grinning ear to ear as their hands scale Brenda’s long, smooth body.

Clearly, the brothers Polish are fond of the lady, even though they’ll most certainly dump her the minute Daryl Hannah arrives.

Wait a sec … let’s shift gears. This whole visual on Brenda is actually where the story ends—the climax, so to speak—and in this case, surprisingly enough, considering the people involved, it’s best to go linear, even though frothy tales suggesting ménage a trois sound much more adventurous and delicious when read back aloud to others sitting in the room with you. (Go ahead … I’ll wait.)

Back up. It’s one hour earlier. I greet Michael and Mark Polish early on a Monday morning in the lobby of GT. I recognize the now-famous twins immediately. Of course, I spotted them the evening prior at a special screening of their new film Northfork at the Nickelodeon Theatre but I’d like to think I simply have a photographic memory and can recall all the press the two generated when they practically turned the film world upside down with their debut Twin Falls Idaho in 1999, and later, with Jackpot in 2001.

In reality, I really can’t recall all that, but I am keen on the hoopla surrounding the two. Twin Falls Idaho, for starters, was a 35mm flick, made over 17 days, for half a million dollars. Michael directed, and the brothers shared writing credits. They also starred in the movie, playing a pair of conjoined Siamese twins, one dying, who have a love affair with a woman. More sympathetic than outlandish, it’s certainly a film that sticks with you. Meanwhile, the duo followed the same directing-writing route with Jackpot—although they didn’t star in the film. But Jackpot was original. It pricked the creative fingers of many Hollywood hotshots familiar with more conventional methods of filmmaking—its 24-frame Hi-Def digital imagery was considered a cinematic feat. While Jackpot’s story chronicled the ups and downs of pursuing the American dream, Northfork, quite hypnotically, showcases the death of American frontier through the use of symbolism and subtext.

As I escort Michael, Mark into to my office, Michael quickly ruffles his hand through my hair and comments on the way it’s parted. Mental note: friendly; touchy-feely. Michael is bearded, looks purposely laid back in a pair of ripped blue jeans and pullover knitted cap. Meanwhile, Mark, smooth-shaven—the actor-writer—sports a French Connection UK navy blue zip-up. Jonathan appears trés relaxed in white and tan.

Time for confession. What the hell were the brothers thinking when they set out to make Northfork?

Michael responds first: “Yeah, we either get, ‘It’s a brilliant masterpiece!’ or ‘I don’t get it,’ which, when you’re making art, is a good thing,” he says, “but I do think we try to … make a movie experience. I’m a big fan of cinema so I try to make a good movie, no matter what, and we try to tell a story. But the way we are going to film the story is a little different.”

That’s quite the understatement. Dreamy. Perplexing. Haunting. Fascinating. Odd. Northfork is all that. The camera angles have purpose. The lighting offers more than just mood. The shift between reality and fantasy create a fluid, moving, visual symphony. Still, it’s far from a no-brainer movie experience. You have to think in this one, folks.

The 411: It’s 1955 in the fictional town of  Northfork, Mo., where a new hydroelectric dam has sent its residents packing on the eve of a mass flooding. Some folks, hoping for a miracle, hang on. One man, so Noah-like in his intentions, builds an ark-like structure under his house and even totes around two wives. The actors: Nick Nolte is a priest, Daryl Hannah, Anthony Edwards and Robin Sachs are angels; James Woods embodies the defeated soul of an evacuation committee member, tormented by the times. Nolte’s Father Harlan cares for an innocent, sick, young boy, Irwin (Duel Farnes), who’s been abandoned by his parents. It’s Irwin’s fantastic fantasies that send the film moving through two realities. In Irwin’s imagination, he’s befriended by a gaggle of angels searching for a lost member of their clan. Irwin claims to be that member. Meanwhile Woods et al, including Mark Polish, who plays Woods’ son here, do their best to evacuate the rest of this mostly desolate town.  Throughout the Polish experience, there’s manna for the mind by way of delicious dialogue: “We are all angels. It is what we do with our wings that separates us;” and “You’re either halfway to heaven or halfway to hell.”

That particular line, when recited back to Mark Polish, forces him to sit up on the maroon cushions of the small sofa that had claimed he and brother Michael as its own only moments earlier. “Yeah …” he says with pride, eyes widening. “That ‘halfway to heaven-hell’ line … that was kind of what I thought Earth is, you know what I mean? In the movie, everything is in limbo. And the ‘wings’ line … those lines came when we read the story over, when we were done with the first draft and we went back and put some of those lines in there. The best writing is our rewriting.  Our stuff is good when we can go back to it a couple of times and polish it.”

“When you polish it,” Michael chimes in, “that’s what makes it pretty, like making a cake. The best thing about making a cake is putting the frosting on it.  That goes for writing.”

So begins a playful game of verbal ping-pong with Polish Brothers.

Mark? Care to grip psyche’s rubber paddle and toss one back?

“I am fascinated with subtext,” he says. “I’ve always been really fascinated with the undercurrent of people’s emotions and what their real motives are. There are very damaged people [in the world] and underneath is this thing brewing. Subtext has been taught in all the great literature. We put subtext and heavy symbolism in our films and it works really well in Japan, but in the States, it’s very heavy handed because people are not used to seeing the metaphor about the two-dollar bill or the motif about dying on the cross, and religion, because all of sudden, you are [considered] blasphemous, but we use symbols to explain something that is deeper and hard to touch.”

Michael’s turn: “Unfortunately some people take our genius as pretentious and there is that fine line all the time … it always depends on who’s receiving our work.”

About making Northfork, they share stories about financers pulling out, and watching the balance of their American Express Cards dwindle after opting to just use their own funds until the movie was sold to a studio. Even after two noteworthy films, the Polish Brothers opted not to pitch the film first.  More than $800,000 in debt when the film completed shooting, they released a collective sigh after Paramount Classics swooped in and purchased the film for around $3 million.

As the hour rolls on, the Brother’s emotionally undress before me. They were born in Sacramento. They’re half-Mexican, half-Austrian—their lineage reveals how their relatives left beleaguered Europe for Brazil, worked on a coffeebean plantation, and then, Michael says, “they took off to Montana.” They were both inspired by the films Once Upon a Time in America and Excalibur, but never really planned on becoming filmmakers together. But when they did, it was like “the puzzle pieces fit,” says Mark. From the get-go, they seemed more interested in creating “art” than conventional mainstream films. They are “compared to David Lynch” but rarely have seen his films and don’t understand the comparisons.

Sensing they are deep—and judging by their three films, who can blame me?—I ask what their most recurring inhibition is. Michael, daredevil he, responds with: “Why don’t you tell us yours first.”

Perfect. I love it when people want me to talk about me. Hoping to probe deeper into my own neuroses, I confess that I tend to doubt myself.

“How very Catholic of you,” Mark muses.

“Were you both raised Catholic?” I shoot back, hoping to share the story of the lisping priest at St. Charles Boromeo, where I attended many Sunday masses back in Chicago.

“We’re recovering Catholics,” Mark jokes. (Although he's really not kidding.)

We high five each other.

Their inhibitions: Michael fears he’s “always striving” and “trying to find what’s best for the story” they are working on. He admits to thinking their work is “never good enough.”

Mark says he’s “always trying to find the purest thought to communicate” their vision and hopes “people are understanding what we are trying to say: I am never going out trying to turn people off …  I am always going to turn you on to what we are trying to say.”

There’s talk of upcoming projects. The Brothers, along with fellow producer Jonathan Sheldon—resting patiently in the corner of GT’s office, in front of battered poster of Run Lola Run—are developing a 12-part mini-series for the Sci-Channel based on the bestseller “American Gods.”

“That’s breaking news, by the way,” Michael points out.

There’s also talk of this team creating an ongoing television series about a group of misfit lawyers who take on pro bono cases.

And then, they mention Brenda.

“We really want to trade Brenda in,” Michael says of the internally battered “bucket of bolts” of an RV they rode into town on.

“This is the first time Paramount has ever done this—filmmakers on the road,” Michael explains. “They figured [the RV] would be OK, but it’s bad news. We were driving across Highway 17 and we were clipping stuff, leaving rubble on the road. The dashboard moves, man. You’re driving this thing, you hit a bump and the dash just goes up.”

Mark laughs. “If the studio knew the liability they had ….”

The roadtrip—a PR tour of their own unconventional creation—may be the reason they’re in town, but fortunately, Santa Cruz is a town they know about. “We actually picked towns we wanted to go to,” Mark explains, noting the significant amount of indie films that have played well locally, including their own.

“The secondary markets [like Santa Cruz], never get to see the filmmakers,” Michael adds. “I’ve heard of the Nickelodeon—this city is awesome. I’m going back and telling other filmmakers to come up here.”

In the meantime, San Luis Obispo beckons, then Phoenix, and after that, New Mexico. Northfork co-star Daryl Hannah joins The Polish Brothers Road Trip in four days.

“Hopefully, by that point, we’ll have traded Brenda in,” Michael notes, chuckling under his breath.

Poor Brenda, I think. It’s only fitting that I ask to meet her.

Five minutes later, directly in front of the Calvary Episcopal Church in Santa Cruz, Michael and Mark Polish mount Brenda. It’s hard not watch in a bit of stupefied, surreal fascination as they climb the back ladder of the RV and head for the roof. They’re not quite panting, but they are grinning ear to ear as their hands scale Brenda’s long, smooth figure. Meanwhile pictures are taken. Surely, aboard Brenda, they can feel the whispering breeze of film success. They must—from where I’m standing, they appear to be on top of the world.

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