Strange Culture

April 28th, 2007

About a decade ago I got a call to come in and audition for a movie. The filmmaker was legendary video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, who was preparing to shoot her first feature film, Conceiving Ada. The audition was a very strange, dreamlike, and oddly pleasurable experience: I read a few lines from the script, Lynn smiled enigmatically, asked me to read some lines for another character, she smiled enigmatically again, and then we chatted for a while -- not about her film, just about stuff. I vaguely remembered being offered tea and sweets and some point. There was none of the typical pressurized, cattle-call vibe that you usually get at auditions. Even though I was even obscurer than I am now, and Lynn was already celebrated in the art world, she treated me as a colleague.

As it turns out, there wasn't a part for me in Conceiving Ada -- though there were parts for the sublime Tilda Swinton and Francesca Faridany, among many other fine actors. But that didn't really matter to me -- I felt that, with my audition experience, I had participated in the project anyway.

Cut to a few years later. I was working on my first feature film, Haiku Tunnel, with my brother Jacob, when I got a call from Lynn: she was working on a new feature herself, a sci-fi exploration of contemporary life called Teknolust. I went in and had another dreamlike, pleasurable "audition" -- and this time I ended up in the movie. Even better!

Now jump a few years further. One day Lynn invited me out to brunch in the City and told me about this friend of hers, an artist named Steve Kurtz, who was caught up in a nightmarish, Kafka-esque situation: He had woken one day to find his beloved wife, Hope, dead. He called 911, and when the paramedics came they saw these petri dishes with what looked like it might be scary stuff in them. (Actually, it was harmless biological material that he was using for an art project.) By the end of the day, Steve was in FBI custody, his house was sealed off, and his wife's body impounded. Amazingly, even though everyone now knew that the stuff was harmless, Steve was still facing a possible 20 years in jail.

Lynn was determined to get the word out about Steve's plight by making a movie. For legal reasons, Steve couldn't talk directly about his case, so she was asking several actors she knew -- including Tilda, Peter Coyote, Thomas Jay Ryan, and me -- to tell the story in a film that would be part documentary, part dramatization. Working, as always, on a shoestring, that's what she did -- and the result, Strange Culture, is a beautiful, moving call to citizenly action. It rocked Sundance this year, then the Berlin Film Fest, and now is having its Bay Area premiere as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. (I'll be attending the first screening tonight at 6 at the Castro.)

I fervently hope that with the movie's continued dissemination, so many people become aware of Steve's situation that he will be released from this nightmare. In the meantime, his long-delayed trial is scheduled to begin by summer of 2008, if not sooner.

Entry Filed under: citizenship,let's digress

1 Comment

  • 1. Ben Meyers  |  April 28th, 2007 at 10:04 am

    The book Steve was working on at the time of Hope’s death, Marching Plague, is also a fascinating examination of the cultivation of fear, and the political uses of a climate of fear. It’s a short, smart read, and totally relevant to this film.

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