Readers and writers unite

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – It’s six years and going strong for Maine readers and writers, as authors present workshops all weekend on the written craft at the Maine Festival of the Book. There are more programs and free offerings for lit lovers of all ages.

Sarah Cecil, executive director of Maine Reads, the non-profit literacy group which hosts the Festival, is proud of the annual event. “It’s bigger than ever,” Cecil said. “Last year, we had to cut out programs. There wasn’t enough room. Now, we’ve added more, and expanded our space.” The headquarters for the Festival, the book sales, and adult programming will still be at the Ambromson Center, while the youth programs will be at Luther Bonney.

Cecil comes from a long literary line. She had worked with Mary Herman, former first lady of Maine, to get non-profit status for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which she left in 2004 to join Maine Reads. She has been with the Maine Festival of the Book since its inception, in 2007, when she collaborated with the Blaine House again, working with Karen Baldacci to get the festival going. “Last year, we were heavy on fiction, by random chance,” Cecil said. “This year, we have more history and biography.”

One of the biggest challenges is how the Festival attracts so many authors, more than forty of them from all over the country. “First, it helps it they have a new book out. Second, so much of what we try to do, and really the strength of the Festival, is oriented around author conversations. It’s a critical piece, to have people who enjoy each other, presenting with each other,” Cecil said.

Charles Shields and Chip Bishop are both biographers, and are friends with each other. Young adult authors Amalie Howard, Elizabeth Miles, and Sarah Thomson asked to present together. Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Arielle Greenberg, and Steve Luttrell, founder of the Cafe Review, are poets who know each other. Susan Henderson, Jessica Keener, and Leora Skolkin-Smith approached Cecil about presenting together, their talk one on “illness as an opportunity in fiction.”

“For every writer on the schedule, there was perhaps as many people as five times that approached,” Cecil said. “Many wanted to were in another part of the country, or had something else going on. It’s a labor-intensive set-up. You get to learn a lot about their lives.” Sometimes, presenters are joined around a theme, and get to know each other while working on their program.

Debra Spark lives in North Yarmouth with her husband and son. She’s a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Spark presents today with Jessica Treadway about “the consequences of using true events, borrowed dialogue, and friends’ anecdotes in novels and stories.” Spark’s latest work, “The Pretty Girl,” a novella and several stories, is about art and deception. She described her earlier work as more that of a magical realist, but thought it was less so now. She also did not think that Maine was used that much in her fiction, although the excerpt she will be reading today takes place in Maine. “It’s easier for me to write about a place that I don’t live in,” she said.

Peter Behrens, the novelist who splits time between Maine and Texas, will be presenting with his college professor, Clark Blaise. Both will be reading from their new books, and discussing what can be taught and learned about writing. Behrens’ last visit to the Maine Festival of the Book was five years ago. “Actors read from my book, ‘The Law of Dreams,’ and I was worried. The book features the Irish, and I was afraid people would do bad Irish accents, but that didn’t happen,” he said. The novel was set to music composed by Paul Sullivan, also from Brooklin, Maine, and sung by Rosie Upton, in an arrangement called “A Terrible Beauty,” based on a line from the William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Second Coming.” The musical was performed at the Irish Arts Center in New York and the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

His family loves living in two distinct places, but Behrens said the locales are quite similar, actually. “It’s great for us. Both Marfa, Texas, and Brooklin, Maine, are small towns, surrounded by natural beauty. Sure, one’s a desert and the other a rocky coastline, but there are some parallels. Our son, Henry, gets to be mythic to his classmates in both places.” Behrens new book, “The O’Briens,” is a mixture of fact and fiction.”It’s sort of a novel, and also about my grandfather,” he said. He looks forward to reading from his new work Saturday morning and at the Irish Heritage Center in June.

Heidi Julavits gets to talk about bad people. She is teamed up with Brock Clarke in a program called “I hated these characters,” which is today at 1:30. A while back, Julavits had stopped reading reviews because she found negative criticism tough to take. “People say that they can’t relate to a character, or that they don’t like a character. I guess I never thought of it that way,” she said. “I think someone with more flaws is more interesting.” When the New York Times praised her latest work, “The Vanishers,” and especially its narrator, Julavits said she was nearly in tears. “Finally,” she said. Her favorite antagonists are Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s writings, and the narrator of “The Cutters,” by Australian writer Thomas Bernhard.

The Deering High School grad burst onto the literary scene with a scathing essay against “snarky” critics in the inaugural issue of “Believer” magazine, which she co-founded with her husband, the writer Ben Marcus. Now, 88 issues later, “Believer” is still unsettling people with its hip humor and nervy style. The latest issue is the Film special, with a free DVD of “The Wolf Knife,” a film by director Laurel Nakadate. “We were a little unsure about using that film,”Julavits said. “Some people loved it, but others walked out during the first fifteen minutes.”

Julavits balances her fiction writing, magazine editing, and teaching with raising a family. It’s been six years since her last book came out, and Marcus’s “Flame Alphabet” is his first novel in nine years. Teaching at Columbia University has held their collective focus while they raise their two children, Solomon, aged three, and Delia, who is almost eight. When asked if she thinks her kids will become writers as well – if they are showing any early authorial signs – Julavits said “Well, Solomon just runs around and breaks stuff. But at our daughter’s parent-teacher conference, the teacher told us she was an incredible writer. It sort of depressed both of us. We want our kids to excel to be something more.”

Fans of Julavits, Behrens, Spark, and many others would argue that these authors give us more than enough. You can meet your literary heroes this weekend at Maine’s Festival of the Book, held at the Abromson Center and Luther Bonney of the Portland USM campus.

Highlights
Saturday 7 pm – Poetry party at Local Sprouts
Sunday 10 am to 3 pm – Book Arts Bazaar at Wishcamper Center USM
Sunday 7 pm – Longfellow’s Shorts: Morgan Callan Rogers, dramatic reading at Portland Stage Company

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Cesar Chavez Day

2nd annual tribute features granddaughter of activist

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Christine Chavez will speak Saturday at the First Parish Church on Congress Street, at the 2nd annual celebration that honors her grandfather, Cesar Chavez. President Barack Obama is in town this weekend as well, and as a long-time supporter of Chavez’s work, it was no surprise when the White House this week proclaimed Saturday a day to remember the labor activist and hunger striker who formed United Farm Workers fifty years ago.

Chavez would have been 85, and his granddaughter, who works for Obama in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will speak of his legacy in the 21st century. She was first arrested for protesting when she was four years old, and has since lived a life devoted to civil rights.

“Beyond her work with the UFW, Chavez has closely worked with Service Employee International Union 1877, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees,” a press release for the event read. “She has engaged in numerous personal projects, including involvement with the Latino and African American Leadership Alliance and the Gen II Project, which involved a peace delegation of children and grandchildren of notable world peacemakers to meet with foreign leaders on human rights violations.”

Chavez will address locals assembled for the event from a variety of political and commercial persuasions.

Michael Brennan, mayor of Portland, Rev. Christina Sillari, and Dr. Gerald Talbot, NAACP Founder & former state legislator, will all speak. Dr. Ralph Carmona, executive director of the Maine Global Institute, which is hosting, will give opening and closing comments.

“Christine Chavez grew-up in her grandfather’s non-violent civil rights movement of pickets and protests. She faced the first of many arrests for civil disobedience at four years of age. Taking to heart her grandfather’s legacy, she has come to master the art of modern day campaigning and community organizing,” according to the press release. “She previously worked for the California Legislature and as UFW director on pubic campaigns aimed at protecting farm worker and immigrant civil rights.”

The First Parish celebration began locally last year when Carmona initiated it. He had moved from Sacramento, California, in February, 2010, where he’d been teaching political science at American River College. In 2004, he and Vana Smith, a native Mainer, were married, and six years later they switched coasts. “We’d visited Maine before, and had always loved it,” he said.

When first arriving to Maine, he worked on fundraisers for a Portland immigrant initiative ballot measure and the local Democrat Party, and taught a course called “Portland’s Future” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at USM. These experiences coalesced into a decision to run for mayor of Portland. That bid was unsuccessful, but since that time he has remained active in civic affairs.

He met with Governor Paul LePage regarding general assistance, and they discussed the Cesar Chavez conference room, whose name-plate had been removed. “I’m disappointed in the court ruling,” Carmona said of the recent decision supporting LePage’s acts. Though that disappointment doesn’t sap his energy to keep pushing the Maine prospect of population change.

“It’s an inevitable demography,” Carmona said. “Portland High School is 35 percent immigrant. But Maine is the most elderly state, the most homogenous state. We need young people with skills. Without the Sudanese and other African immigrants, we’d have zero population increase.”

In dealing with what he described as a “gray tsunami,” a dangerous storm of only elderly, Carmona said the purpose of Maine Global Institute is to tackle different forms of migration, high and low end immigrants, Africans, young people, and retirees. “People come and form niches. The Irish did it, the Jews did it. The African immigrants are doing it now,” Carmona said.

The next step for MGI is to formalize an advisory group. “We don’t want a board-of-directors type of group,” Carmona said. “We want to help assist the state in creatively integrating increased diversity, through economic and sustainable growth.”

These changes won’t come easily, he asserted, and will require a wide variety of people to work well together. Evidence of that mixed group will be on hand Saturday, as two panel discussions explore the many facets of Chavez’s life.

Christopher Hall, senior vice-president of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, will moderate a discussion called “Cesar’s Values and Human Capital.” The panel will include Dr. Abdifatah Ahmed, executive director of Atlantic Global Aid, Shawn Moody, president and CEO of Moody’s Collision Centers, Jennifer Hutchins, the executive director of Creative Portland Corporation, Charles Scontras, labor historian at the University of Maine, and Juan Perez-Febles, monitor advocate at the Maine Department of Labor.

Dr. Ronald G. Cantor, president of Southern Maine Community College, will moderate a discussion called “Cesar’s Values and Human Rights.” The panel will include Robert Talbot, of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, Ricardo Cabezas, president of Centro Latino, Rev. Sillari of First Parish, El-Fadel Arbab, Darfur genocide survivor and educator, and Marc Mutty, director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

This type of dialogue is an important first step, Carmona said. “I’m willing to bet that, in two to four years, we’ll be dying for more migration. This is a real opportunity for us to embrace the challenge, make Maine more receptive to these immigrants. People must realize that migration as human capital matters, regardless of income or color.”

If Maine fails to opens its arms to a growing diversity, Carmona is concerned that, like much of the nation, our provincial nature will come back to haunt us. “Our American economy is concentrating in an unprecedented fashion and people are making less than 30 years ago, often less than their parents. Public sector unions are struggling and private sector unions have been in major decline for more than 30 years. Laboring people are suffering because respect for the economic value they add is diminishing and destroying the middle class,” he said.

Members of OccupyMaine are intent on making President Obama make good on the Chavez promise when he’s in town this weekend. They want to dedicate a plaque to Chavez in Lincoln Park, to commemorate where he spoke in 1974, and where the Occupy movement was stationed for much of the past year. “Friends of Lincoln Park” is mainly made up of Occupiers, according to Heather Curtis, “and people who want the park to become a civic center where you can engage in public discourse.” Curtis, one of four individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by Occupy Maine against Portland, said it’s fitting that Obama sought to honor Chavez, but wants to hold the President’s “feet to the fire.”

“There are a lot of billionaires in town this weekend. He’s having an expensive party at the Portland Museum of Art, and so we’re serving soup on Congress Square. We think he’s the best man for the job, but we want the big money out of politics,” Curtis said.

If anyone’s message could unite such disparate parties, perhaps it is the lesson taught by Chavez. “Equality Maine and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland are both sponsoring the event. Only someone like Cesar Chavez could bring those two together,” Carmona said. “He was the only civil rights leader in the 1970’s to support gay rights. His granddaughter supports gay marriage. Like her grandfather, they were both committed Catholics.”

Dinner-theater

Venue dons nouveau chapeau

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Known most nights a week for bass-pounding club music or live local bands, the Venue tried out a different sound last Saturday – dinner and musical theater with a distinctively French flavor.

“Chanson: If we only have love” is a tribute to the lives and music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, French singers whose own tragic lives can be traced through their lyrics. The musical revue was written by Gar Roper, co-owner of the Venue, and was performed by the Freeport Players. A longtime fan of music as well as a restaurateur, this is the first time Roper has fused the two. The theater side of the Venue was packed, but the pub side had its fair share of Saturday night regulars, and Roper was doing his level best to handle the challenge.

“Where’s the green room?” Betsy Roper asked her husband.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said.

Although a relative novice, he was able to juggle all of these jobs with aplomb, demonstrated as he went in search of a coat rack and stopped at the bar to make sure the pub-food sports bar patrons felt comfortable in this foreign surrounding. They were in to watch college men’s basketball Elite’s Eight, and they were a bit bemused by the dinner-theater crowd. A writer from New England Biker News stopped by to talk. She was looking to have the Venue as a stop on an upcoming motorcycle run.

The Venue waitstaff were caught in a culture clash, as well, as they seemed dressed more for the club than French music. “This night really is the biggest challenge for them. They’re young… ” Roper said, “But the single-style club runs only as a fad, and then fades. We’re in for a longer experience of food and entertainment.” To make room for the packed house of theater-goers, the Venue had to shift a moveable wall towards the pub crowd, and the fusion was complete.

“This is our first foray into dinner-theater. We’re thinking of doing it Sunday nights,” said Roper, a novelist and poet, whose main business is as an independent market research consultant.

The restaurant was retrofitted for the evening, the stage set up with cafe tables, wine bottles, and glasses in a continuation of the audience, who dined before the show. Draperies to one side were from another event, but Roper kept them up. “They look Parisian, like Gertrude Stein’s parlor,” he said.

Even though the career paths of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel were about fifteen years apart – and they never sang together – in many ways, their music can be coupled, “celebrating the triumph and tragedy of Paris and her people,” Roper said. This was an encore performance. It had more of the joys of a celebration than the jitters of opening night. “The stars have had extra months to prepare and practice.”

When introducing the meal, Roper joked with his guests that they were offering the best in French food – “porcupine, armadillo, sting ray.”

The menu consisted of a three-course meal, featuring first a salad. “Just a little Italian dressing, and let it work its way for everyone,” Roper advised the head chef, Paul Mataraice. Next came a choice of prime rib, baked stuffed haddock, or vegetable lasagna with white cream sauce. One would have a Bordeaux, if following Betsy’s advice for a wine with the meal, a Sea Glass Chardonnay if one followed Gar’s lead. For dessert, folks enjoyed cannoli and coffee or tea.

The show opened with a series of images from Paris in the 1920’s, projected on a back screen, initially positive with piano music.Then the bombs come, and familiar architecture becomes a scene of ruin. The screen darkens and lights come up on five characters in black.

Jane Bradley is a singer and keyboard player in the local band “Not too Shaap.” Ellen Ebert has been involved in theater in Freeport for nearly twenty-five years. Daric Ebert started his career as a “stage dad” for his daughter Emily who was in “Hold on Molly,” the first production of the group that became Freeport Players. Marc Brann narrated the show and sang a couple songs. Elizabeth Guffey was central of the five performers, literally at the middle mic for the first number, and as managing/artistic director of Freeport Players. She sang the Edith Piaf pieces and was particularly powerful in “L’hymme a l’amour,” a declaration of unbounded love.

The audience was treated during intermission to a special guest singer. Marie-Claire Owens, a nine-year-old songstress, belted out “Caresse sur l’ocean” from “Les Choristes.” Even though she was tuckered out from a 9 am basketball game, she still roused the crowd with her version of the French song.

“Chanson” is the fourth play that Roper has written. He also has a comedy with the characters Tom Lehrer, Shelly Burman, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby. He wrote a musical tribute to the American protest music of the 1960’s, and he’s got a spoken-word piece that features poets T.S. Eliot and Maine’s own E.A. Robinson. “But this is the first time we’ve been able to mount one of the plays,” he said.

“I’d like to see the arts expand across all of Portland. This should be seen as the northern terminus of art and culture in New England, like a Nashville of the north,” said Roper, who channels these thoughts into OMNI, his think-tank company which stands for Open Minds, New Ideas.

The Ropers have been married for 47 years, and they have seen their share of varied professions. From 1989 to 2007, they owned and operated a summer camp in Poland Springs. Once Camp Pesquasawasis, run by the Diocese of Portland, the site next became the Samantha Smith World Peace Camp, named for the Maine youth who wrote to Yuri Andropov, then Soviet Premier, telling of her fears of a nuclear war between their countries. By then, the Ropers were involved. Their daughter, Jane, visited the Soviet Union in 1988, and the following year twenty-six Soviet campers came here. Their son, Kevin, is in a band called “The Project” and is beginning to teach music. He’s trained in the Suzuki method and will be likewise showing his students how to play by ear. Betsy says she is supposed to be retired, but she stays busy with family, activities, some of the accounting, photography, and genealogy.

A couple of younger kids who attended the dinner-theater were asked what they thought of it. “There were some familiar melodies,” Ryan said. “I liked the way their stories were weaved in,” said Natalie.

Venue schedule
Sunday – jazz luncheon
Monday – sports/wing night
Tuesday – Best of Portland (local bands, open mic)
Wednesday – Blues Jam
Thursday – 18+ club night
Friday – 207 DJ light show
Saturday – live bands

Salt Institute

Telling tasty stories for forty years

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – The Salt Institute documentary school celebrates its 40th birthday next year, and Donna Galluzzo, executive director, is already amped up about the event.

Currently juggling an international photography exhibit, two directors’ receptions for the Maine Jewish Film Festival, and its regular grueling student schedule, Galluzzo got a chance to catch her breath yesterday. She’s thrilled with their current endeavors, but still was able to take a quick look to the future.

“The number of students we work with hasn’t change too much over the years, but our budget had expanded,” she said. Galluzzo has worked for Salt since 2000 and was a graduate herself in 1997, when the school was located on Pine Street. “It’s been a thrill to work in Maine.”

Salt Institute moved to its Congress Street location in the summer of 2008, into what was Yes Books in the front and the old Casco Bay Weekly in the back space. There was one, non weight-bearing wall between the two spaces, and Salt knocked it down when designing their school. Galluzzo and Christine Hines, from Salt, worked with Erin Anderson (a designer) and Paul Lewandowski (an architect) from SMRT, the local architectural firm started in 1884 by John Calvin Stevens. Lewandowski is also on the Salt board of trustees. The Freeport contractor, Zachau Construction, built the school.

The school has a clean, sharp white-walled gallery and a red-paint workshop or lecture area, as well as offices for staff and workspace for students. But despite the beautiful inhabitability of space there, Salt students spend most of their time scattered throughout the state, on location as they document their research. They are in the Congress Street school once a week for classes, but spend most time on this project-based curriculum in the field.

“That’s one of the great things about this school. Our students get to go out there and do it, spend time all over the state. Maine has been really good to our kids over the years. They’ve been excellent hosts, opening up their homes, their lives, for our students to document.”

Salt Institute, whose booklet says “Storytellers Wanted,” has used photography, non-fiction writing, and radio to tell “1,736 stories and counting” over the last four decades. Students each fall and spring semester immerse themselves for fifteen weeks in one of these three track specialties, and also collaborate with other students on a multimedia project. Salt has collaborated with several Portland groups over the years – SPACE Gallery, the Telling Room, and Casco Bay High School, for example – to tell their stories with several distinct but harmonized voices.

“We’ve had a long-standing collaboration with the Maine Jewish Film Festival,” Galluzzo said. The Festival, which ran this past week and wraps up today, held two events at Salt. “Crime after Crime,” a powerful documentary about Debbie Peagler, an incarcerated domestic abuse survivor, and “Dolphin Boy,” about an Arab teenage named Morad whose family turns to the restorative power of nature, played this week. The films’ directors held receptions at Salt Institute on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to discuss their work. Yoav Potash, director of “Crime after Crime,” is passionate about change and hopes to influence Maine law to allow evidence of domestic abuse to be used as a legal defense. Salt teamed up with Family Crisis Services, the city’s domestic abuse agency, to host the Wednesday reception.

“We connect really well in Portland,” Galluzzo said. “Everyone is interested in collaboration. We work well together without stepping on each other’s toes.”

“Flash Forward” is the photography exhibit currently on display in Salt’s gallery. The exhibit is from Toronto, and features “the next wave of photography professionals.” Salt is hosting a small cross-section of the works which make their way to Boston next, and then across country. “We’re very excited to kick it off,” Galluzzo said.

Three times a year, Salt exhibits professional work, and twice a year, student shows take over the gallery walls. The Spring Student Opening is scheduled for May 17, from 5 to 8 pm. Galluzzo couldn’t comment on works in progress – kind of a documentarian’s rule – but visitors to the school can look at work from the Fall 2011 graduates through a digital tour on the gallery computer.

Five students in the writing program chronicled the personal and the political, with a variety of texts from the relationships between a parent and child to Occupy Maine, bath salt abuse, and burning trash.

Ten students in the photography track illuminated the screen with images of Old Orchard Beach in off-season, personalities whose “eyes have seen a lot,” and a moving pictorial tribute to “Dear Raymond,” from which we are to “let us recognize ourselves in the old man.” These photo exhibits also showed people searching for something: either faith at the Deliverance Center or the next party at a St. John Street shared-living space.

Ten students in the radio program created podcasts on education, (the Reiche School’s “no principal principle” and a student exchange from China to Millinocket), American nuns, and Maine lumberjacks.

There are also ten multimedia projects on the gallery’s computer from the Fall 2011 work, beautifully technical displays that combine art, music, comics, writing, photography, video in a variety of clever ways.

Another way to taste a sprinkling of Salt is through Downeast magazine’s website, where the institute posts a lot of its product. Visit http://www.downeast.com/blogs/salt-stories to read and see all about the last sea urchin in Maine, maritime life at the Isle au Haut and Port Clyde, and the St. Paddy’s Day plunge.

Hebrew Hammer hits home with ‘frozen Chosen’

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Even after ten years, director Jonathan Kesselman still gets nervous when screening “The Hebrew Hammer,” his shocking comedy that’s sure to offend just about everyone. One Longfellow Square was packed with film fans of all ages Monday night, but when the director took the stage during closing credits, a few folks headed out. It turned out to be more a matter of crossed wires than audience distaste; in fact, fans laughed heartily (and at the right times) throughout.

Kesselman took questions from those who lingered, “the frozen Chosen” as he called them. One man joked that he represented people from the two or three tiny nations he failed to offend in the film. Another asked him what he was working on next. “Some short films, commercial work. Some pretty cool stuff for Nintendo that I can’t talk about,” Kesselman said.

A woman asked him if her mother was proud of him. “She was proud of me at first. Then she disowned me,” he said. “But she was proud of me when she disowned me.”

Kesselman was on-hand to discuss his film, shown as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival which runs this week. He loved being in Portland again, and said this city’s restaurant compared favorably with those back in his East Village, New York, neighborhood. “Yeah, I hate to admit it, but your food’s better here.” Kesselman had only been in town a day and had already dined at David’s, Caiola’s, and El Rayo.

Billed as the “godfather of the Jewxploitation film, Kesselman was born and raised in the mean streets of the San Fernando Valley,” according to the Film Festival’s program guide. “The Hebrew Hammer” had its world premier at the Sundance FIlm Festival in 2003, and played a number of international festivals before being picked up for theatrical distribution (Hanukkah 2003) by Strand Releasing in conjunction with Comedy Central and Paramount Home Video. The director said reaction to the film was nerve-wracking, at first. “The Anti-defamation League in Chicago had wanted script rewrites until after a screening convinced them it was not anti-semitic,” he said.

The film opens with the kosher crimefighter’s theme song, sounding like “Shaft” and featuring lyrics Kesselman wrote himself. Michael Cohen composed the music. The film’s soundtrack also features Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and klezmer music, a Yiddish style of high clarinet sounds. “It was a challenge to blend klezmer and funk,” he said.

The film, considered a cult classic and listed by Vanity Fair as a top-five holiday movie, has a star-studded cast, featuring Adam Goldberg as Mordecai Jefferson Carver, the title character, and Andy Dick, as Damian Claus, Santa’s evil son. Peter Coyote plays Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal of the Jewish Justice League and Mario Van Peebles plays Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front. Peebles father Melvin was the original Sweetwater from the films Kesselman owes an allegiance to, and he makes a cameo appearance here, along with his grandson, “to pass on the damage.” When asked how a young upstart was able to land such great actors for a new film project, Kesselman credited the content. “If you want good actors, you need good writing.”

Kesselman made the movie a decade ago, after he was rejected by USC. “I didn’t get in to film school, and I was pretty angry at the process.” He wrote the script in seventeen days, in a creative flurry he describes as different from his non-fiction work. “I could see three scenes ahead.” Much of his other writing, like a documentary he made about his father for the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, is more methodical, since “you already know where you’re going.”

Mordecai’s character actually appears earlier, in a short spy spoof called “Subterfuge,” before expanding into “The Hebrew Hammer.” The director was asked to discuss how he made his comedic hit. “We filmed in New York – thirty-three locations in twenty-two days, all over Brooklyn, Queens. The Jewish Justice League was at Grants’ Tomb. When we were filming, a real pimp saw the Cadillac and said, ‘All right! A Jewish pimp!'”

Kesselman has finished writing and will direct “The Hebrew Hammer 2: Hammer vs Hitler.” He won the 2009 Simon Rockower Award and the 2009 Gold Medal IPPIE award winner for best multi-media feature for his series, “Writing in My Father’s Footsteps.”

Kesselman also completed production of the television pilot, “Grow,” a dark comedy that explores the world of a Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Dispensary, starring Fran Kranz, (currently in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway) and Jamie Hector (“The Wire”). Kesselman says the show is like HBO’s hit series “Weeds,” only “darker and funnier.”

Kesselman wrote the script for “Grow,” as well as directed it. “At one point, the characters are in a bar, and one says “You know, this place reminds me of Cheers.” The other one says, “Yeah, but here, no one remembers your name.”

Someone asked what’s on-deck for the director. Next week, he begins filming “Sexy Daddy,” a gay, incest comedy for Will Ferrell’s website “Funny or Die.” The script was written by Kevin McDonald. Dave Foley rewrote it and will play the title role. McDonald and Foley are of “Kids in the Hall” fame. “I like saying dangerous, uncomfortable things that make people laugh,” Kesselman said. “I like things that push people’s buttons.”

Reel variety

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – The 15th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival is more diverse than ever, in both its cinematic content and the audience it hopes to reach. A hip ad campaign using stereotype-bending photos and social media is aimed at bringing in first-timers who will be in for a variety of visual treats.

Kari Wagner-Peck, executive and artistic director, credited the way local groups have worked together for the unprecedented offerings this year.
“We’ve been able to add a day to the festival, and more free programming than ever, thanks to this community,” she said. The Quimby Foundation gave MJFF $28,000 (the organization’s largest-ever donation), Garrand advertising agency helped with marketing, and local venues opened up their spaces.

Larry Vine, chief creative director at Garrand, said “It’s important to help expose people to other cultures. It’s how we learn to appreciate each other, how we get along.” Hoping to combat misconceptions about the Festival as appealing only to a Jewish audience, he said “It’s like any foreign film. A good movie is a good movie.” Vine, who is also a board member of MJFF, said Garrand helped out by sponsoring the opening night, as well as offering pro-bono work on the ad campaign. “They were great,” Wagner-Peck said. “Because of them, we basically had our own Mad Men.”

Joe Rosenfield, board member of MJFF and its marketing director, said the advertising campaign this year was aimed at attracting a new and younger audience. The non-profit arts group received a $1,500 visibility grant from the Maine Arts Commission with the specific purpose of targeting 18-36 year-olds, using social media. “We’ve had great results. Our facebook page (Maine Jewish Film Festival) has 160 likes in just three weeks,” he said. “We’re not really targeting just people of the Jewish faith, as much as film buffs.”

The ad campaign features photos of people – a priest, a blond family, someone with tattoos – from all walks of life, a variety of potential fans. The slogan (“You don’t need to be Jewish. You just need to love good films”) comes from a 1950’s advertisement for Levy’s rye bread, Vine said. “We are trying to bring a bit of humor to the campaign,” Rosenfield said. He also touted the diversity of this year’s films. “Thursday night, we feature a film from France (‘The Names of Love’ by Michel Leclerc), ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ (directed by Jonathan Kesselman) is from the United States.”

Akari offered its salon for the sold-out opening night party. Allan Labos, the owner, said it was his first year involved with the festival, and he was looking forward to helping kick it off. “We’ve changed the layout and design to accommodate 200 plus people,” he said. Their proximity to the Temple Street theater made Akari a natural venue for the soiree. “There will be live music, hors d’oeuvres, beverages. We’ll be promoting the films on large-screen TV’s. Hopefully, we’ll reflect what’s going on at the festival.”

Writer repays the muse

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Nicholson Baker was in town last night to repay a favor. The author was inspired by the Longfellow House when he was researching a novel about poetry. “I had such a feeling of place,” he said of his tour through the Portland poet’s rooms, “learning where this poem was written, or that one. I imagined John Greenleaf Whittier standing in the shadows.” The real-life experience infused his fictional world, much as his writing “The Anthologist” in his barn’s loft mirrored the narrator’s experience, a free-verse poet writing about rhyme.

The Maine Historical Society provided grist for Baker’s mill a second time, when he visited the Brown Library as part of his research on “Double Fold,” a non-fiction work that recounts the efforts of Baker and his wife to preserve newspapers that libraries were sacrificing to microfilm.

So Baker felt he owed a double debt to MHS, and Richard D’Abate, who is retiring after sixteen years as executive director. They met at a time when Baker was admittedly angry at many librarians, but D’Abate inspired a positive feeling. “His ideas with melding text and things, and his enthusiasm – it’s a precious emotion.”

In a program called “Hold On: The Privilege of Keeping Old Things Safe,” Baker took the audience through his own recent work at the Brown Library, researching the Quakers first, and then, more thrillingly for him, reading the diary of Maine Civil War solider, John Mead Gould, author of the History of the Maine Regiment. The diary adds a second layer to the military history, showing the after-effects of war on the later banker and pacifist who lamented the US entering into a war with Spain and street brawls inspired by an international prize fight broadcast by telegraph. The diary revealed tragedy as well, and Baker did not want to linger long on the story of Gould’s 29-year-old daughter, worried about for page after diary page while missing in China with eventually the worst confirmed. Despite the sadness, he still saw a literary trip to the past one worth taking. “Reading through these diaries, especially in manuscript, is a useful, slowing down of time,” he said. “We live in a shell of todayness. Being in a library, you break out of your own shell, and enter another shell for a while, like a hermit crab. It’s like you’re reading an unpublished novel. You’re forced to slow down and read a life that doesn’t have as many advocates.”

Baker then spoke of his own “amateur” efforts to be a librarian, charmingly humble when recounting his gargantuan efforts to preserve the last remaining print copies of some of world history’s most important newspapers. Beautiful bound originals were being cut up and sold for scrap, “Newspaper of the Day You Were Born” for $30 each. The New York Times did not even keep a print copy of their own paper. Microfilmed copies seemed a viable space-saver, but Baker’s quest to preserve them helped him and others see the dramatic difference between an original artifact and a blotchy copy. “Microfilm makes history not like us,” he said. “We’re removed. There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures, but we need libraries to hold on to the originals.” Baker’s efforts were eventually donated to Duke University Library, in five tracker-trailer trucks of carefully handled works of journalistic art.

“Newspapers changed my life as a writer,” he said. “I realized one million readers were looking at a Chicago Tribune headline (“Bomb 4 Doomed Jap Cities”) and all silently assenting. There was no outrage.” Baker was sufficiently seethed to write Human Smoke, about the tiny missteps that led to the bombing. He collected scraps of thoughts in his car for inspiration, as the loft served as writer’s desk for the poetry novel. In creating “Box of Matches,” he and the narrator rise early and write by firelight.

Though he loves the artifact of a Civil War diary, and crusaded to save endangered newsprint, Baker still revels in new technology. He has written about video-gaming with his son, and awakens early with an iPod novel so as to leave the bedside light off. He said he misses the sound of the typewriter, especially the busy sound of other people’s typewriters “Fop, fop, fop, fop – I loved that sound,” he laughed. “I was always self-conscious about how much I had written. That’s the benefit of computer keyboards. The double click makes it seem like you’re writing more.”

(The program was part two of a seven-part series called “Conversations about History, Art, and Literature,” celebrating Richard D’Abate’s contributions to Maine’s cultural life.)