What's My Line?

Get ready for Denver's close-up.

This was better than sending out a cheery Christmas letter: So you believe in mandatory sentencing.

By Saturday evening, my voice mail was full of messages from people across the country, friends and former colleagues who'd crowded into showings of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- which, at most theaters, is preceded by a trailer for Silver City, the John Sayles movie shot in Colorado last fall. In a stretched bit of casting, I play a reporter in that movie and utter exactly one line.

So you believe in mandatory sentencing.

Testing his metal: Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager in 
Silver City.
Testing his metal: Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager in Silver City.

And that line made it into the trailer, certainly not because of my hideous performance (an allergy to the movie makeup had given me a forehead of Herman Munster-like proportions, and then there was that directive to dress like a daily newspaper reporter), but because the line elicits a stunningly stumbling, bumbling response from Dickie Pilager, a politician who bears a marked resemblance not just to Chris Cooper, the actor who plays him, but to the grammatically challenged George W. Bush.

Here's Dickie talking on www.dickiepilager2004.com, a website set up to push Pilager for governor of Colorado in 2004: "Remember what frontier justice is? It means that if you break the law, then we introduce you to Mr. Rope and Mr. Low Hanging Tree Branch and Mr. Lynch Mob. To keep our families together, we need to keep our kids away from these drug dealers, and the way to do that is to get them off the streets and into the nooses...The family is the cornerstone of Colorado. I don't know what happened to the Anasazi cliff dwellers of our past, but I am sure they really cared about their kids, and their kids..."

That's not quite as good a sound bite as the one that George Bush uttered in New Hampshire in January 2000 -- "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family" -- but, hey, Dickie hasn't been in politics that long.

In fact, Dickie didn't enter the political arena until early last year, when Sayles and his partner/producer, Maggie Renzi, decided that 2004 would be the perfect time to release a political film -- a political film that parodies the Bush family even as it serves up a murder mystery. But because Sayles had filmed Lone Star in Texas, he and Renzi decided to set their successful father/slacker son duo in Colorado, where environmental and immigration issues are also major concerns. And once they decided to make the movie here, they worked fast, filming it in just six weeks last fall.

Silver City opens by a mountain lake, where Dickie is filming a political ad (former Westworder John Ashton plays the director) and reels in a dead body -- much to the horror of Richard Dreyfuss, his Karl Rove-like handler. And after that? Well, this is a murder mystery, after all.

But it's one with such a mission that Renzi and Sayles were willing to put up their own money to make the movie. And then NewMarket Films, which had a huge hit with The Passion of the Christ, picked it up, and the trailer was hooked to Fahrenheit 9/11, the number-one box-office draw this past weekend. And now Silver City is set to open September 17 in 25 major markets, with a special premiere at the Paramount Theatre on September 10. Denver, get ready for your close-up.

But first, Sayles and Renzi took the film to San Antonio, home of the Alamo -- "Don't blame me for The Alamo," says Sayles, one of numerous writers on that script -- and site of last week's convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a group that shares many ties with the filmmakers. Twenty years ago, Michael Moore would go to these conventions as a founder of the now-defunct Flint Voice. Journalists "help connect the dots," notes Sayles. And next week, he'll be talking to another group that does the same, the American Civil Liberties Union -- whose convention agenda also includes Howard Dean debating the Patriot Act with Colorado's current governor, Bill Owens.

So you believe in mandatory sentencing.

Filmed primarily in Denver and Leadville (Karl Rove once lived nearby, in a town that's now buried under mine tailings), Silver City makes all of Colorado look glorious (if corrupt), with that heart-aching autumn palette of blue and gold. It's enough to make anyone want to move to this state. If Dickie Pilager isn't elected governor, that is.

"Though the environment is a big priority, we have to remember that our great state was built upon the exploitation of our vast resources," says Dickie on his website, a hilarious sendup of political websites that comes complete with a Colorado Constitution and legitimate information on registering to vote. "In the 1700's, French trappers founded our first towns based on the fur trade, and in the 1850's, our gold rush created dozens of mining towns throughout the state by destroying our natural resources. Careful management and destruction of our mineral, water and timber resources will guarantee for future generations the abundance that we enjoy today."

The movie ends at the lake where it begins. But this time, it's not a body coming to the surface; it's hundreds of dead fish. Amazing how Ping-Pong balls can make frozen fish float, offers Sayles.

Amazing how the truth somehow manages to emerge.


Wipe Out

"All good things happen through mushrooms," says Jason Salzman. "That's the theme of my life."

Of course, it's not quite that simple. Salzman is the son of Manny and Joanne Salzman, the LoDo pioneers and eternal urban activists who also founded the Telluride Mushroom Festival 25 years ago. Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry's fame, attended the festival several times -- he even made ice cream out of a certain Chinese mushroom -- and when Jason Salzman wrote his first book, Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits, he sent a copy to Ben & Jerry's Vermont office.

And when Ben Cohen, the company co-founder who's also the president of TrueMajorityACTION.org, wanted to do something to influence this election, he contacted Salzman, who runs Cause Communications here in Denver and specializes in "the political how-to genre," he says. "That's my writing niche." The result is 50 Ways YOU Can Show George the Door in 2004, an activist's guide with suggestions "for practical, concerned, and busy people"; "for anti-Bush patriots with time to spare"; and "for the anybody-but-Bush guerrilla." Those divisions were Cohen's idea. But most of the recommended activities are pure Salzman.

Chapter 25, "DJs to re-defeat Bush," for example, outlines the politically correct songs you can request over the radio -- assuming any station in your market still accepts requests. There's Ani DiFranco's "Self-Evident," John Lennon's "Imagine," and anything by the Dixie Chicks. Or you can take it one step further and go for guerrilla karaoke, a concept that Salzman tested at Armida's, a local hot spot, armed with a draft of the book -- which includes song parodies by his wife, Anne Button, as well as some available on the web. "We went in and assessed the situation," Salzman remembers, "and decided to do a simple song. We looked through the DJ's list, and 'Light My Fire' was there. So we submitted our names -- we called ourselves the Bushwhackers -- and then they called our name."

Then they stood and sang "Liar."
You know that Bush is so untrue,
You know that he is such a liar.
Every time he says to you
Iraq is not a big quagmire.
Georgie Bush's pants on fire.
Georgie Bush's pants on fire.
They might set the world on fire.

"A couple of the tables were kind of quiet," Salzman says. "Other people were clapping, and one guy gave us a standing ovation. Then the DJ said that the bar is for drinking or having fun, not for politics, and please don't do it again."

50 Ways, which is now on sale in bookstores across the country, includes many less dramatic but no doubt equally effective ideas, including everything from Cohen's favorite chalk-stamper scheme (complete with directions on how to make the sidewalk-stenciling tool) to the standard e-mails to the editor to campaigning costumes: Dress like a bunny, and carry a sign that reads "Lettuce Vote Bush Out." And when all else fails, do what Salzman and Cohen did at the recent Book Expo in Chicago, to draw a little attention away from Bill Clinton and his big book: Put "Wipe Bush Out of Office" toilet paper in the bathrooms.

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