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.

Backgrounds are anything but elegant salons. Present-day street life is marked by garish fast-food signs, rundown check-cashing stores, and such famous landmarks as the 405 freeway and the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

Birk gives the same treatment to California's prisons, dirty cop Rafael Perez, and, most recently, an update of Dante's Divine Comedy with Los Angeles as the scene of heaven and hell. Of course, Birk wants to entertain, but he's also trying to get people to think.

"People know what I'm referring to, like the classical portrait of a guy on a horse. It's a traditional thing," says Birk, a 40-year-old with thoughtful reserve and an easygoing surfer's style. "So I can take that subject and add more stuff on it, like a gardener with a leaf blower for example. I can get people to think of what is the role of gardeners and leaf blowers in society and who we consider heroes and who aren't heroes."

The humor, the pop-culture references and the mere fact that he pays serious attention to immigrant gardeners (and others relegated to the peripheries of society) make him a unique artist in the view of Louie Pérez, guitarist for Chicano roots-rock band Los Lobos. Pérez commissioned Birk to paint cover art of a Chicano neighborhood for Los Lobos' 2002 album, Good Morning, Aztlan. Perhaps it was a little risky for a Mexican-American band to hire an Anglo artist to depict a Chicano scene, but Pérez thought Birk had something few others possess.

"I remember looking at one of his paintings of peasants going to battle—one of those peasants was wearing a 'VivaSelena' shirt," Pérez said. "I thought, 'Birk is really paying attention.' His paintings put a smile on your face, and they tell you something. He really captured California's multicultural state."

If Birk is one of the few who gets California's new culture and politics, his treatment of these subjects puts him in a unique position for a painter. He has been interviewed on public-affairs shows such as radio station KCRW's Which Way LA and public-television station KCET's Life & Times on such hot potatoes as the proposed San Fernando Valley succession and prison reform. Men's fashion magazine GQhad Birk modeling hip clothes in front of one of his Prison Nation paintings in 2001.

Laguna Art Museum director Bolton Colburn assigns Birk to a new Southern California art movement that includes celebrated artists Mike Kelley and Ed Ruscha.

"A lot of artists growing up in Southern California realized their vernacular didn't have to be modernist or postmodernist," Colburn said. "They could use pop culture for how they engage high art. It's about trying to engage a larger audience. Artists like Sandow are much more interested in bringing their art to people than having a conversation about it at a college."

* * *

Birk's jarring use of old art to create a new conversation began when he was dissatisfied with new painting as a student at the Otis Parsons Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

"Everything in LA was movies, TV and music," Birk said. "Painting really seemed sort of pathetic and anachronistic. So I did a semester in Paris and another in London, and I remember being bowled over by the paintings in Europe. The enormous French paintings were fantastic. It was great learning about the celebrity status of these artists and the big reactions they received when they exhibited their paintings at the salons. It was the equivalent of moviemaking in the 1800s.

"I was nostalgic for this time when painting could matter and when everyone would flock to see paintings. And I was sad I didn't live in those times. So I started to emulate that formula, that grandiosity, that romanticism."

With movies—or, at least, increasing the audience for his paintings—in the back of his mind, Birk wrote an In Smog and Thunder mockumentary script after the museum tour ended in 2000. Zaloom, a performance artist and friend, rewrote that script, specifically packing in a lot more jokes. Then . . . almost nothing went right.

"I think the problem with Paul and I is that we didn't know how to make a movie," Birk said. "We didn't even have a camera."

There were no takers for their script. They discussed making it themselves, but filmmaking classes they considered taking were canceled. A DVD company that produced a three-minute trailer for the project seemed to be the pair's savior—until the company went out of business.

Birk and Zaloom were close to dumping the project when they made a last-ditch attempt to revive it by enlisting the help of Greg Escalante, a Sunset Beach-based art impresario who helped produce the influential Kustom Kar art show at Laguna Art Museum in 1993 and a velvet painting exhibition at Huntington Beach Art Center in 1999. But the very idea of In Smog and Thunder made Escalante nervous. "When people hear the words 'documentary' and 'artist,' they run the other way," he said. "There is no upside to it."

But Escalante promised he'd help anyway, contacting one of the only guys in the world he knew with roots in art and comedy: Tom Patchett, the executive producer of the TV sitcom Alfand owner of Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica. The first cold call was a belly flop. Patchett's assistant said he wasn't funding anything. Patchett agreed to meet them, however, and the meeting felt like he was just doing them a favor.

After two hours of pitching, their luck changed. The In Smog and Thunder crew stopped talking, and Patchett started giving suggestions for the film. He even recommended Meredith as director and himself as executive producer. The flick was a go.

The movie was finished in 2001. Meredith declined to state how much it cost exactly, although one estimate puts it at less than $75,000. They even have a distributor—Doug Zwick of Pop Twist Entertainment—who hopes to line up a commercial run, believing audiences would hook onto the pop-culture references.

Those riffs in Birk's art could be used for a lot more, according to Los Lobos' Pérez.

"It tells people not from the culture that it's okay to appreciate stuff outside their culture," he said. "He's building bridges on a grassroots level, and that's how we need to communicate, that's how we're going to inform the powers that be. We do it one song at a time. Sandow does it one painting at a time."

In Smog and Thunder screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.newport beachfilmfest.com. April 9, 2 p.m. $8.

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