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Hollywood Noir

Flick Chick


Published November 1, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

The Earth will soon be toast, according to 1974 Middlebury College graduate Michael Tolkin. The 56-year-old screenwriter delivers this disturbing observation with matter-of-fact simplicity, both in his new novel and during a recent phone call from Southern California. "The world is dying," he says, echoing his lead character in The Return of the Player.

The Grove Press publication is a sequel to Tolkin's The Player, a 1988 tragicomic tale about the Hollywood system that has employed him for almost three decades. His Oscar-nominated script became a sharp 1992 satire with the same title directed by Robert Altman. In the original book, thirtysomething protagonist Griffin Mill let nothing stand in the way of success. Even murder. Almost two decades later, on the page he's still somewhat sociopathic as an aging studio executive whose marriage and career have stalled in a miasma of existential dread.

"We're all overloaded with information and in a panic," Tolkin suggests. "Griffin is in a perpetual panic, consumed by vanity and genuine fear. He's my hero, but he doesn't really fit that definition."

This type of "hero" can't save us from the global environmental catastrophe Tolkin envisions. Perhaps that's why the wordsmith is currently finishing a feature-film adaptation of The Martian Chronicles. Author Ray Bradbury's 1950 science-fiction classic follows futuristic voyagers who colonize the Red Planet because - you guessed it - the Earth is dying.

Although Tolkin's American studies major earned him a Middlebury magna cum laude designation, he had transferred there after a less stellar two years at bohemian Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

"I partied and boho-ed my way out," Tolkin notes. "Steely Dan was the school band. We knew how to have a good time."


When a glass soda bottle falls from an airplane in 1984's The Gods Must Be Crazy, the mysterious object instills avarice in a diminutive Bushman's otherwise harmonious tribe. He sets off to return this useless treasure to the deities he assumes dropped it by mistake.

A similar cultural confusion fuels Ning Hao's unhurried, whimsical Mongolian Ping Pong, on tap at the Savoy Theater this weekend in the "Can't Wait 'til March" series. Seven-year-old Bilike (Hurichabilike) finds a small white sphere floating in the water near his family's yurt on the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia. He suspects the thingamabob may be "a glowing pearl" sent by the river spirits.

Bilike and his two best pals (Dawa and Geliban) eventually learn that their trophy is a ball used in the "national sport" of table tennis. They believe it's the only one in China, however, and vow to restore the precious orb to the government. After the trio's misguided attempt to reach Beijing via the Gobi Desert, possessiveness threatens their friendship.

Meanwhile, Bilike's teenaged sister (Wurina) wants to study performing arts in the nearest town, and Bilike's father (Yidexinnaribu) starts building the dream house he has seen in a Western magazine. Fascinated by modernity, these semi-nomadic people with herds of sheep and horses are poised to see their beautiful, remote region become a landscape of change.


A few weeks ago in New York City, Liz Canner was wooed by industry representatives lusting after her documentary-in-progress, Orgasm Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure. The New Hampshire filmmaker, 38, lives in Hanover but operates a studio across the border in White River Junction. At Manhattan's annual Independent Feature Project Market, she enticed potential distributors with a 20-minute clip from her latest work.

"I had 25 meetings, supposedly the most for any film there," says Canner, who now must edit a rough cut to show her cinematic suitors. "And we did a wonderful fundraiser at Gloria Steinem's house."

The picture's feminist message apparently comes with some laughs. "It's a humorous and informative odyssey that explores the mixed messages, corporate greed and outright quackery women confront in their quest for sexual pleasure," explains Canner.

The Massachusetts native was inspired by her former job at a pharmaceutical company that researched Viagra-like drugs for women. "I wasn't planning to make a 'sexposé,'" she says. "That just kind of happened. I was burned out on social-justice issues and wanted a more light-hearted subject."

Canner's previous nonfiction films addressed topics such as electoral fraud, police brutality and globalization. In the Big Apple, this commitment to substantive content was matched by her knack for promotion. "We handed out pill bottles with candies inside," Canner recalls. "Orgasm Inc. was printed on the label."


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