From Canvas to Screen

The unconventional route of Sandow Birks unconventional In Smog and Thunder

A fictional war between Northern and Southern California would seem like a natural for big-screen treatment. Californians would love seeing the regions battle like the Hatfields and the McCoys, and everyone else in the U.S. would love to see the Golden State implode.

However, even by the wild standards of indie moviemaking, Seal Beach native Sandow Birk's project seemed crazy. Films are generally based on books, stage plays, other movies or—increasingly these days—television. But the genesis for In Smog and Thunderis Long Beach-based painter Birk's critically acclaimed art show. True, it was one of the most popular exhibitions in the history of Laguna Art Museum, but—come on—these were paintings.

That didn't trouble Birk.

"It was so ripe to be a movie," he said of In Smog and Thunder's collection of satiric but epic battle paintings, propaganda posters and etchings. "It already had a narrative."

But if turning an art exhibit into a movie is not iffy, how about using the fictional North-South battle of California to spoof the U.S. Civil War? After all, few yuks have been mined from the War of Northern Aggression. And In Smog and Thunder doesn't stop there. It also lampoons the highbrow fussiness of the documentary genre, complete with well-aimed slings at the most sacred cow of the American documentary scene: Ken Burns.

"So many documentaries are tied down these days by techniques that Burns perfected," explains In Smog and Thunder director Sean Meredith, who has edited documentaries in addition to making short films. "So many places want the Ken Burns look and his sentimentality. The genre needs to be smashed up."

If In Smog and Thunder doesn't augur the beginning of the end for Burns, at least it hits the right targets. There's the solemn narrator, the obligatory historians vainly searching for profundity, and, of course, the heartstring-tugging scenes with soldiers reading letters from the trenches.

Of course, actors play historians and soldiers, but they're the sideshow. The star of In Smog And Thunder is Birk's paintings. Meredith's cameras zoom and pan over 100 pieces of Birk's art much like Burns' cameras tell the story of the Civil War with scratchy daguerreotypes of Lincoln and epic paintings of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The difference is Birk's satirical home front happens to be California. While the rest of the United States is preoccupied with a war on terrorism, the interstate rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco escalates from jealous taunts to violence.

A Southern California raid on a Big Sur pot farm ignites the Great War of the Californias. After the Los Angeles navy blows up the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Area forces commanded by Northern Brigadier General Susan Hwang retaliate by pushing Smog Town soldiers out of San Francisco in the Battle of Mission District.

The war skids to a turning point when Northern forces attack the Getty Center. With certain disaster looming, Los Angeles desperately seeks aid from San Diego, Tijuana and even Orange County, which is headed for its own trouble with right-wing militias.

* * *

In Smog and Thunder won best digital movie at Palm Springs' Festival of Festivals last year, and it played to packed cinemas at the Slamdance Festival this year. The 47-minute mockumentary screens at the Newport Beach Film Festival along with 34 other documentary films.

Finding a place on the Newport festival schedule seemed as if it should be a snap with the Orange County-boy-does-good angle and all. That's not quite how it played out, however. After In Smog and Thunder was submitted, rumors got back to Birk that festival organizers had rejected it as "too political" for OC audiences. As the In Smog and Thunder boys began planning a protest screening against humorless film commissars, word came that the rumors were just that. It actually had not been immediately accepted because festival documentary screeners were still wading through 1,200 submissions.

"It was not in the first cut to be accepted or declined," explained Keiko Beattie, the festival's senior programmer for shorts and features/special projects. "It was in the middle category, like a good majority of the films reviewed. Eventually, we felt this film had a lot to offer. It's not a regular feature. It's not a regular documentary. And the art work is incredible."

While Beattie scoffed at the notion the film was too political, there's undeniable political ferment in Birk's paintings. He never tells you where he stands, but it's easy to find his inspirations.

"He's dealing with social and political issues, what our life and culture is like in California, the increasing power of corporations, the way immigrants are treated in our culture," says In Smog and Thunder co-writer Paul Zaloom.

Birk lampoons art itself, starting with the Old Masters such as Jacques Louis David or anybody else who produced idealized paintings of the political bigwigs of the 18th and 19th centuries. Birk's signature style turns these Olympian paintings upside-down with the paintbrush version of a Bronx cheer.

Napoleon and his generals are booted out of their overly dramatic and heroic poses and are replaced by a cast of characters from California's graffiti-scarred streets. Instead of a sword-wielding noble on horseback, there's an immigrant brandishing a leaf blower. An unemployed actress packs guns and her headshots. Militant gays wear pride-parade togs as battle armor.

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