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'Goat' takes bull by the horns

TORONTO - The Dude was right.

Faithful readers will recall that within four minutes of my arrival in the press office on the opening day of the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, I was ambushed by the Dude, who said, "This one you gotta see!" and warmly pressed into my hands a flier for a movie named "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish."

Thursday night I attended the world premiere of the goat and fish movie, and bathed once again in the kind of joy mixed with relief that an audience feels when it senses it has discovered something. There was a standing ovation for a remarkable supporting performance, and then one of those situations where no one wants to leave the theater.

The Dude, you may remember, is named Jeff Dowd and is a Producer's Rep so colorful that he inspired his friends the Coen brothers to base "The Big Lebowski" on his untamed personality. He turns up at film festivals like a racetrack tout. At Sundance this year, he cornered me at the luggage carousel at Salt Lake City Airport, before I had even retrieved my bags, and was whispering "The Blair Witch Project" into my ear. He was not even Repping "Blair Witch." Like all good touts, he likes to share a sure thing even if he doesn't have money on it himself.

In the case of "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish," he was Repping a movie that was made for about $40,000 in a shooting schedule of 12 days by three pals. The movie was directed by a New York University graduate named Kevin Jordan, stars his best friends Derick and Steven Martini and was co-written by Kevin and Derick. Kevin and Derick are 25; Steven is 23. The movie is about the romantic adventures of two brothers in Los Angeles, and it's sweet, goofy and funny. The standing ovation was for a supporting performance by Bill Henderson, a singer and actor ("City Slickers") who plays a 90-year-old veteran of the black movie industry. "You're certainly not 90, are you?" I asked him. "Not as yet," he replied.

The other evening at the Cumberland, I experienced deja vu, remembering the 1995 Sundance premiere of "The Brothers McMullen," another low-budget brothers movie that warmed audience hearts. There was even the same sort of reunion; Jordan's parents and various friends and relatives were in the audience, and we got the obligatory line, "Look, Ma! I'm a filmmaker!" for his mother, Eileen. Jordan's dad was there, too - Bill, the lobster man from Brooklyn.

Standing around afterward were buyers for some of the indie distribution companies - figures who are expert at melting into the shadows after unsuccessful screenings. "Do you own this film?" I asked Jeff Lipski of Godwyn, and he replied with the two words that filmmakers dream of, "Not yet."

The movie's title, we learn, comes from nicknames given to the two brothers by their grandmother, who was half Italian and half American Indian, and named them in their cradles: "Goat on Fire" for the older, dour brother Chris (Derick Martini) and "Smiling Fish" for the younger, cheerful Tony (Steven Martini). Their parents met as tourists on the Universal Studios Tour. They were orphaned "due to an unfortunate traffic accident on the 105 Freeway" and are sharing a house in a lower-income Los Angeles neighborhood.

Chris works as an accountant. Tony vaguely moves on the fringes of the movie industry, like every third person in L.A. They both make romantic moves during the film. Chris, whose girlfriend cries during sex, meets a beautiful Italian girl named Anna (Rosemarie Addeo), who is an animal wrangler and turns up for one date with a chicken named Bob. Tony falls in love with the woman who delivers his mail (Christa Miller); she is from Wyoming but is in L.A. so her daughter can audition for a role on a sitcom.

These love stories may put you in mind of the romantic difficulties of "The Brothers McMullen," but "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish" doesn't have the darker undertones (even though it does contain the obligatory unanticipated pregnancy). The film is lighter and sweeter, more effervescent.

And it contains the unforgettable character of Clive, the elderly uncle of the man Chris works for. "Pick up my uncle at the home where he lives and bring him in to work," the boss tells him, and Chris comes to treasure his daily encounters with Clive, who was a sound man on "race pictures" made in the 1930s and '40s by and for African Americans. He tells stories of Paul Robeson and the other greats and explains his theory that when a man and a woman really have chemistry, it makes something crackle in the sound of their dialogue.

Clive is blunt and to the point at all times. "What are you going to do at the office?" Chris asks him. "Bull- - - - and busy work," he replies. He is assigned a cubicle like all the other workers, but immediately builds a tent over it, moves in a decorator lamp and furnishes it like a cozy little room. Inside, behind the tent flap, he tells Chris stories of the great love of his life. It is not only a wonderful performance, but a key one, since he is the screenplay's conduit for a romantic world view that helps the goat on fire understand his own life.

Friday morning, not too early, I debriefed the Dude on what was happening on the Rep front.

"There's a lot of interest," he said. "I can't name names, but a lot of people are talking to us about the picture. What you gotta understand is, this isn't about the highest bid, it's about a marriage. This is the kind of movie where the distributor has to understand it's about reviews and word of mouth. The way things are today, with films moving out of the theaters so quickly, you can't open a picture like this on 1,000 screens. The filmmakers have to visit the key cities, do a couple of days of publicity, get the word out and then the audience will find it."

Are you weighing offers?

"The way this will work is, more people will see the movie at the industry screening on Friday. Then at the Uptown on Saturday. But a lot of people pulled out of town by midweek. They'll have to see it. This isn't the kind of movie you describe to your partners over the phone. They gotta see it. We'll have screenings on Tuesday and Wednesday in New York and L.A."

The print shown here, he said, was out of the lab less than 24 hours. Jordan and his actors saw it for the first time Thursday. "A $40,000 picture like this," the Dude said, "after it's picked up, they'll spend at least that much on post-production. Tweaking, getting the balance right, cleaning up the soundtrack, just like they did with `Blair Witch' and `Brothers McMullen.' "

I'd just typed those words when the phone rang. The Dude again, still Repping.

"I was just thinking," he said, "in a competitive marketplace, the key to this picture is, it's a date movie. If I'm a 25-year-old guy and I took someone to the movie, that could be the start of a special evening. Or two girlfriends, going out to the movies together, ideas about dating and life. Even if I was two guys, it would hit home."

Although I can just about picture the Dude as two guys, I sense that Repping is beginning to segue into Spinning. Which is, of course, the next step.

Note: The film was theatrically released as "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire".

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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