The Big Why!

February 25, 2012

by Robert Kane Pappas

I could probably find the script – lying somewhere down here in my basement office, the dungeon where I have been making films for a long time.  But the place is swamped with them so I’m not going to look.  I’ll just try to remember what I can. 

Cat Colvin, a woman I know, sent the screenplay to me to read and comment on – in, I think it was 2006 – her sister Marie Colvin was the author. Marie got blown up yesterday in Syria. 

It’s a feature film script. The main character is a woman Journalist, living with or married to a man in London, who feels compelled to rush off and cover terrible atrocities around the world. The relationship doesn’t go well. He cheats in her absence. 

I gave notes on the phone. My feeling about it was akin to how I felt about parts of Nathanial West’s “Miss Lonely Hearts” where this newspaper editor reads and responds to pathetic letters of human suffering sent in to the paper he works for.  

In Colvin’s script I kept thinking – why? Why does she do this? Why try to intervene in such hopeless situations? Why not stay at home and make the relationship work? I remember in Miss Lonely Hearts (which I read 30 years ago) the character had a girlfriend, and I kept hoping he’d get it together with her and settle down.  But he doesn’t and it ends sadly. 

I recall critiquing Colvin’s piece as a professional, explaining the need for some dramatic scene so that we know why she runs off to war, runs to danger, at the expense of her relationship. 

I may now be able to answer the question – but I need to backtrack. 

I hadn’t spoken to Cat Colvin for several years. Yesterday at 5 AM I woke early, and soon afterward Cat popped into my mind. I was thinking about whether she was still with that  guy from Boston.   

Sometime after 6AM I turned on CNN. Breaking news “journalist killed” flashes and a photo of a female with an eye patch appears on screen.  I knew instantly it was Cat’s sister because she had told me Marie lost an eye in some war.

I found yesterday’s coincidence odd and as the day wore on – for different reasons – disturbing.

I came to know Cat in 2000.  She, like her sister, had gone to Yale and was now working as a lawyer for IFC Films, part of Rainbow Media and Cablevision.  I had made an independent film “Some Fish Can Fly” that had been released briefly and was now being bought lock stock and barrel by Rainbow Media for not much money.  Cat was on the other side of the deal and we dealt pleasantly with each other concerning “film delivery items.”

In his film review, the Los Angeles Times critic, Kevin Thomas, noted that the filmmaker (me) appears to have made the film more than once:

     “The film, furthermore, is as ambitious in its structure, with Kevin vainly attempting to make a film drawn from his ambivalent romance while he has yet to come to terms with its ultimately impossible nature.”

 Pathetic but true. I actually had made the film twice -12 years apart -in the US and Ireland. I failed a little less the second time. Not enough money both times. Years of toil and poverty.


Days before the deal was to be closed with Rainbow, I pulled out. After all the SAG wage increases and such, my personal take would be around 10 thousand dollars for 3 years of work and I was giving away the copyright. I thought I might want to make the film again in a different way so I said no.  My partner was angry. I’m not sure what my wife thought.  I do know she doesn’t want me to make that film again.

In the summer of 2003, I had finished a cut of “Orwell Rolls In His Grave” a feature documentary I made about the Corporate News Media. I had begun filming in 2000, before 9/11.  I showed the film to Cat, who showed it to her boss at IFC.  There was interest and phrases like “we love it.”  IFC seemed to want to distribute the movie. Unlike my films about impossible love, this film dealt with our impossible media situation, and the havoc that such centralized media power does to our political system. The film itself was made during to the Florida Recount and the run up to the Iraq War.

Cat seemed sure a deal was going to happen.  Then there were delays, scheduling difficulties, all the while she continued to hear that “the boss loves it.”  This went on for a couple of months. Finally, another executive gave me a heads up. “The IFC is never going to buy this film, your movie goes against their business interests, the decision has come from upstairs”

I then call Cat: “But your boss just said he loves the film and wants to distribute it”

Cat responds simply: “He’s a good liar”

And so it went with “Orwell Rolls In His Grave” – a hit at festivals – untouchable for the major distributors, despite the interest and praise. It was like asking Turkeys to publicize Thanksgiving.  No film had ever discussed the media in such stark terms. Orwell Rolls… has become a ‘cult classic’- professors use it at Universities, libraries.  The film popular in places like Belgrade, Israel, Iran…

Why ever make such a film?

I have a new film “To Age or Not To Age” and a series on aging research and the implications.  I spent the last 5 years filming the molecular biologists, stem cell researchers and geneticists.

One of them – an Outlier – Aubrey De Grey, thinks there are people alive today who may live to a 1000 years or more. Aubrey looks medieval with a beard more than a foot long. He wants to get rid of aging and disease as a cause of death – a minor goal. Aubrey’s view nets him ridicule. I asked him why he got involved in aging research?  He responded; “I wanted to make a difference to the world”

I think his answer goes to why Marie Colvin’s character went to war.

It’s existential.  She was trying to intervene in the seemingly unstoppable human misery.  She wanted to do the impossible. Graft sense and meaning onto absurdity.

And this is the likely reason bloggers blog, and whistleblowers risk their careers – and why I make impossible films.

And why I woke up yesterday thinking about Cat Colvin.

We are all in this together, trying to push the rock up the mountain in our own ways.

 I read a response to a William Rivers Pitt blog last week that summed up Marie Colvin’s why.

It quoted the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it”.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Al Price April 4, 2012 at 5:09 am

I appreciate the fact that you haven’t abandoned your quest. I have become a firm believer in the butterfly effect and, just as Moses never made it to the Promise Land, I’m afraid we all may never know the lasting outcome of any of our actions. Keep the faith. In my opinion, it is the trying that counts.


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