Arbus Rebus

Third Floor, Second Door on the Right, which concludes its run at the Cherry Lane Theatre on Aug. 23 and 24 as part of this year’s Fringe Festival, consists of a monologue delivered by one man to a journalist. The reporter has come to interview “The Man,” played by Allan Arbus (he played the shrink on M*A*S*H), about another man, his famous friend who, it becomes apparent as the play progresses, has committed suicide. And The Man explains why he’s reluctant to recall his friend’s life and ultimately fix it on a page for posterity’s sake.

Not only are his memories remote -“I can’t remember what the fuck he looks like,” he says at one point-The Man’s recollection of his friend is inextricably linked with his own self-image and limited by the boundaries of their relationship.

“We had made a kind of pact about what to take for granted, what to let alone,” he says, adding that the “only trouble” was that it “made each of us completely vulnerable to the other’s imagination.” And there are also the prejudices that the media brings to the issue. “You’ve all made up your minds about him, what do you need me for?” The Man asks the reporter.

It’s an interesting, if occasionally ham-fisted, meditation on the ingredients that get ground together and made into the sausage of nonfiction reporting, and it’s made even more interesting when you consider that it’s a creation of the family of the late photographer Diane Arbus. In addition to Allan Arbus, who is her ex-husband, the play was written by Arbus’ daughter, Doon Arbus, and directed by Doon’s half-sister, Arin Arbus, the daughter of Allan Arbus and teacher Mariclare Costello Arbus.

Diane Arbus, who is best known for her atmospheric images of society’s fringe dwellers, committed suicide in 1971. And although those who survived her have been quite effective at controlling and protecting her legacy, they have not been able to brush back all those who would attempt to interpret Arbus’ life and death. The most notable breach, of course, was Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of the photographer, which was written without the estate’s cooperation and is dismissed by those close to the family as a lurid tabloid interpretation of the photographer’s life.

Given that the spotlight is about to be shone upon Arbus’ life and work again beginning Oct. 25, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art unveils Diane Arbus: Revelations, the first major museum exhibition of her work in 30 years-the only one, indeed, since her first one, at MoMA in 1972-and Random House publishes a lush $100 companion book/catalog under the same title, it might seem that Third Floor, Second Door on the Right might have been an appropriately cautionary curtain-raiser to the hoopla that’s about to follow, a warning not to misinterpret Arbus. But Arin Arbus said that’s just not so.

“I will say that it’s a total coincidence, the fact that there’s this exhibition and book coming out in a month or so and that this play is being done right now,” Ms. Arbus told The Transom. “The play is actually not about her in any way.”

Ms. Arbus also said that the Random House book, which includes essays by Sandra S. Phillips and Neil Selkirk and an epilogue by Doon, who has been instrumental in her mother’s legacy, “sort of takes care of all the other spurious accounts,” but she reiterated, “I don’t think that this play has much to do with Diane.”

Arin Arbus, who is 25, said that Doon “wrote the play in 1973”-that would be a good five years before Ms. Bosworth even started researching her book-“and put it in a drawer or something.” A message left for Doon through Arin was not returned.

When Arin was looking for a play to direct at Willamstown, she said, “another sister of mine, Amy Arbus, suggested the idea of doing it. And she was the only one who could find a copy, and it re-emerged for the first time in 30 years.” Ms. Arbus said she was “knocked out” by the play. When Ms. Arbus and her play were accepted into the Fringe Festival, she said, Allan Arbus, who had retired “very adamantly” from acting, agreed to play the lead role.

On Aug. 17, the night The Transom saw it, the audience certainly seemed to be engrossed in the drama. Toward the end of the production, one theatergoer even tried to unsuccessfully steal The Transom’s pen because the sound of our writing was distracting her too much. “Well, good luck, Robert Benchley,” she cackled to us before leaving the theater.

On the other hand, Ms. Arbus said she really hadn’t considered the possibility of doing the play without her father, and he’s determined to head back to his home in Los Angeles after the final show. Meanwhile, Ms. Arbus will be working as an assistant director for Gerald Gutierrez on some projects.

Before Ms. Arbus hung up, we tried one more time to get her to admit that there was some connection between her play and the story of Diane Arbus.

“It’s fiction,” she said.

-Frank DiGiacomo

Shaolin Shocker

Though Miramax Films has long prided itself on its track record with acquiring and distributing foreign pictures, a small but vocal number of Asian film buffs begs to differ. They contend that the New York–based studio’s odd treatment of the much-delayed Cantonese kung fu/sports comedy Shaolin Soccer is but the latest example of Miramax’s disregard for the Eastern art form.

Miramax acquired Shaolin Soccer-written, directed by and starring comedian Stephen Chow-soon after it became Hong Kong’s highest-grossing picture of all time in 2001.

Miramax originally slated the film’s release for April, then moved it to Aug. 15, but in July quietly decided to bump the picture to an as-yet-to-be-determined fall release.

“It seems like they buy the rights but they can’t market it properly, so they just bury it,” said Chris Hyde, a digital-imaging administrator at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who writes about Asian cinema for the Box Office Prophets Web site and has been one of Miramax’s most vocal critics on this front.

Even before the delays, Asian film fans were up in arms over the changes that Miramax had wrought upon Shaolin Soccer. In preparation for its American debut, the picture was cut by 20 minutes, rescored and dubbed into English-all with the approval of Mr. Chow, who recorded his own English dialogue. The hope was that the Americanized version would draw crowds of kids to the 1,000 screens on which Miramax originally planned to release Shaolin Soccer in April. Miramax hoped to repeat the success it experienced in the mid-1990’s with the dubbed Jackie Chan movies Operation Condor (1997) and Supercop (1996).

But the studio’s changes only added fuel to the ire of Asian film purists, who have long been complaining about how Miramax-which they’ve dubbed “Miram-Ax” -has edited past Asian acquisitions, including Mr. Chan’s Legend of the Drunken Master, which was released by Miramax sister company Dimension. An online 2002 “Appeal to Disney for Respectful Treatment of Asian Films,” addressed to Disney subsidiary Miramax, garnered over 11,000 signatures asking the company “to cease the act of altering Hong Kong films.”

And on Feb. 13, Mr. Hyde posted on the Box Office Prophets site a “Dear Harvey” letter in which he charged that Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein has mishandled Asian properties so much that it has “alienated many fans to the point of fanatical hatred.”

“There are purists who don’t like the idea of re-editing and dubbing,” Mr. Hyde said in an interview with The Transom.

Of course, the counterargument, as Mr. Hyde himself noted, is that Americanization may mean that a wider audience gets to see the films, and in the case of Shaolin Soccer, Miramax seems to have had trouble making up its mind.

After test screenings of the dubbed version in Calgary, Canada, and Columbus, Ohio, proved “not as strong as we had hoped,” according to a Miramax source, the company decided in July that a subtitled print with many of the cut scenes restored will be released initially in three markets: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik told The Transom that attempts to fine-tune the film for an American audience were done in conjunction with Mr. Chow in an effort to draw kids, who have rarely warmed to subtitles. The release of Shaolin Soccer was delayed, he said, because Mr. Chow is currently filming and unavailable for the publicity campaign, in which they hope to make him a centerpiece.

Still, Mr. Hyde said that he doesn’t understand why the company would spend the money to dub, cut and rescore the film, only to retract the project in favor of a limited release of the Cantonese version.

“In this case, our well-intentioned overenthusiasm for introducing a dubbed version of Shaolin Soccer and the genius of Stephen Chow to younger audiences didn’t fulfill our expectations,” Mr. Hiltzik said, adding that some of the challenge in getting it to American screens stems from the fact that the United States is not a soccer country. Miramax has distributed Shaolin Soccer in Japan (where it has earned $20 million), France and Italy, where actual football players dubbed the dialogue.

“Of course, it would have been easier if it was Shaolin Baseball,” said Mr. Hiltzik.

But Mr. Hyde maintained that “Miramax’s record with Asian films is pretty sketchy.” He cited the Miramax purchase of the widely admired Thai film Tears of a Black Tiger, which has never been released.

“There’s been no DVD; it never went to theaters,” said Mr. Hyde. He also mentioned Hero, the Chinese- language Oscar nominee from 2003, which Miramax co-financed. “They’ve been playing the same sort of game with that,” said Mr. Hyde, pointing out that Miramax recently removed Hero from its 2003 slate.

Mr. Hiltzik said that Hero is currently slated for release in the spring of 2004, and that Miramax plans to show Tears of a Black Tiger at film festivals next year.

Miramax has a long history of releasing Asian films, including China’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), Hong Kong’s Iron Monkey (2001) and Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese animated epic, which was dubbed by American and British actors, including Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Gillian Anderson, in 1999.

Mr. Hyde said that no company has a sparkling record with Asian film fans, but that Columbia/Sony-whose specialty arm Sony Pictures Classics released the most successful crossover film of all time, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000-was probably the most reliable.

But Crouching Tiger, which was released with subtitles and grossed over $200 million worldwide, had the Western influence of co-writer and producer James Schamus.

Mr. Schamus, who has taught courses on Asian cinema in his capacity as a professor at Columbia University and now runs Universal’s Focus Features, which is handling the international distribution of Hero, declined to directly address questions about his competitor’s handling of Shaolin Soccer.

But, responding via e-mail, Mr. Schamus wrote that “one of the most delightful surprises” of Crouching Tiger was that “it was the kids and young people who ended up driving the numbers on the film …. Kids, with their earlier exposure to the Internet, were much less likely to be uncomfortable seeing a subtitled movie than their parents.”

As for Hero, Mr. Schamus wrote that, overseas, the movie “has broken box-office records in many territories and is an unqualified success throughout the world,” adding: “We are very much looking forward to its release here in the States.”

The Focus chief executive also addressed his experiences with the kind of vocal fan bases that are now giving Miramax a hard time. “I’ve now had experience with two films in a row (Hulk and Crouching Tiger) that have been the subject of very lively Internet fan discussions,” he wrote. “And I must say in both cases the Internet reviews and debates were far smarter than the mainstream ones.”

Whether or not it has been smarter, the Internet debate over Miramax has certainly been franker than the mainstream press.

Though Mr. Hyde told The Transom that he was “completely understanding of the idea that Miramax needs to turn a profit,” he was considerably less sanguine in his Feb. 13 letter to Mr. Weinstein. “I’ve read the articles where you claim that you’re driven by your love of films, that you were ahead of your time because you wanted to bring Asian films here a decade before Crouching Tiger,” Mr. Hyde wrote. “But you know, Harv, I really must doubt your veracity on this matter.

“People who love films don’t have them cut to pieces before allowing people to see them,” Mr. Hyde’s letter continued. “People who love films don’t let them rot away in darkened, refrigerated rooms for brutally long periods of time.”

“Anyone can make an outrageous claim in a letter, but this is completely unsubstantiated by the facts. Our long-standing commitment to the genre speaks for itself,” said Mr. Hiltzik.

Mr. Hyde-who suggested in his letter that Miramax should really harness the obviously energetic power of the Asian film community, since “rather than spending their hours in bitter excoriation of your methods they’ll instead crank up a free publicity machine for you”-said he never received a response to his “Dear Harvey” letter.

“Miramax does not seem to be all that interested in how the Asian film community thinks about them,” he said.

-Rebecca Traister

Pekar-Boo!

On Aug. 13, The Week magazine held a special screening of American Splendor, the biopic adapted from a comic book. The comic’s “characters” -Harvey Pekar, a 63-year-old retired file clerk from Cleveland, his wife Joyce Brabner, their adopted daughter Danielle Batone, and fellow file clerk and self-proclaimed “nerd” Toby Radloff-were on hand to answer questions.

Mr. Pekar, who’s played by Paul Giamatti in the film, recently has had a relapse of cancer after a 13-year remission. He didn’t look so good. He was wearing a white American Splendor T-shirt and was hunching over on a stool, his chin near his knees.

“I, uh, I did try to be part of the creative process when they were shooting,” he wheezed. “I went to the set.”

“You just went there to mooch food,” said Ms. Brabner, who is played by a frumpified Hope Davis in the film. Wearing clog-sandals with purple socks, Ms. Brabner did most of the question-answering.

In the film, real shots of documentary-style conversations with the couple on a white soundstage are spliced in with the scenes where actors depict their lives. In one of these white-soundstage scenes, the filmmaker asks Mr. Pekar a question about the script and he says he hasn’t read it, although he’d “flipped through to see how it was put together.” Someone asked if this part was scripted.

“To our utter embarrassment, it wasn’t. He really hadn’t read it. It was true,” Ms. Brabner said. “He’d cashed the check, though.”

Speaking of exchanging soul for money: Throughout the 1980’s, Mr. Pekar received a steady paycheck from NBC by appearing regularly on the Late Show with David Letterman. During these “everyman” spots, the clerk-cum-writer garnered as much respect from the gap-toothed host as the trick-performing stupid pets. Two of these actual episodes, with a more hirsute Dave and a thinner Harvey, are shown in the movie.

A third episode is not, and appears in the film as a re-enactment. In it, Mr. Pekar wore an anti-NBC T-shirt and mouthed off against General Electric, the network’s parent company. This scene is re-created with Mr. Giamatti and an actor playing David Letterman, who is shot mostly from behind. Asked about the lack of continuity, Ms. Brabner explained that NBC gave permission for the first two episodes to be used, but not for the one that included the inflammatory remarks. (The Late Show is not shooting this week, and neither Mr. Letterman nor the show’s executives could be reached for comment.) She added that the episode has never been aired since, and that it was just as well that the re-enactment was used, because during the actual episode Mr. Letterman ordered that the volume be turned up on Paul Shaffer and his band in order to drown out Mr. Pekar’s ranting.

It was just another example of the weird melding of reality and simulated reality that has inundated the family’s life since the project started filming in 2001. Ms. Brabner said there were times where they stayed at a motel because the National Geographic–style anthropological research of their home and lives was so overwhelming. At one point the costume designer, Michael Wilkinson, spent hours picking through her underwear to try and figure out the appropriate attire for her character. “And my underwear is Midwest, old-lady, keep-you-warm underwear, and he’s going through it all, and someone comes up and asks him, ‘By the way, what’s the last thing you worked on?'” said Ms. Brabner. “And he said, ‘Moulin Rouge.'”

-Anna Jane Grossman

Tracking John O’Neill

In his new book, The Man Who Warned America: The Life and Death of John O’Neill, The FBI’s Embattled Counterterror Warrior, author Murray Weiss uncovers a lot of fresh information about the controversial life and times of the man who, until he died in the World Trade Center attack, was considered the country’s foremost expert on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But a recent encounter on a Fox News Channel soundstage sounds like it could lead to some new additions to the paperback edition. Mr. Weiss, who toils by day as the New York Post’s hard-boiled criminal justice editor, told The Transom that on Aug. 14, he appeared on the cable channel’s morning show, Fox & Friends, to talk about his book, which Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi called a “must-read.” “On one hand, he’s this great guy going to the White House, fighting to get people to recognize the threat that Osama bin Laden poses,” Mr. Weiss said of O’Neill, who was the F.B.I.’s leading counterterrorism expert before he retired from the bureau and took a job as head of security for the World Trade Center in August 2001. “On the other hand, he had at least two different girlfriends who didn’t know that he was married until the funeral.”

After his segment, Mr. Weiss said, he was leaving the studio when a staffer stopped him and said: “Hey, Mr. Weiss. You know, my mother-in-law said she dated John O’Neill in New Jersey for years and years and that she was madly in love with him.” Mr. Weiss added, “And they were going to get married.” Apparently, the couple corresponded with each other for quite some time as well, so naturally Mr. Weiss asked the producer to contact him so that he could investigate. “It’s weird,” he said. “I walk off the set and there’s yet another woman popping up.”

Perhaps more will make themselves known when Mr. Weiss reads from The Man Who Warned America at the Borders book store at 461 Park Avenue on Aug. 21 between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

-F.D.

Arbus Rebus