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The Bus Stopped Here

Along for the ride on the Silver City Express.

"Dickie Pilager cares about Colorado...;" The political ads were all over CNN last Friday morning, as Pete Coors commercials alternated with the latest swift-boat torpedoes. So when the start of Richard Pilager's stump speech for governor sounded at 7:24 a.m., it seemed to fit right in. But Pilager -- who looked a lot like Chris Cooper acting like George W. Bush -- was out to fill not ballot boxes, but movie-theater seats. He was campaigning for Silver City, the political mystery made in Colorado last fall that would have its Denver premiere just twelve hours later, then open nationwide on September 17.

Life was beginning to imitate the art that was imitating it.

7 a.m. Wednesday, September 8, Denver

The cabbie loves John Sayles. Everything the filmmaker has done, from Sunshine State to Lone Star to Matewan to Return of the Secaucus Seven. He loves the horror flicks that Sayles starting writing for B-movie maven Roger Corman after he arrived in Hollywood. He really loves Alligator, the 1980 movie whose Sayles-penned script twists the urban legend of a kid's pet flushed down the toilet into a monster that terrorizes Chicago. Sayles has written Hollywood movies, too; he was one of the many casualties of The Alamo and is now at work on Jurassic Park 4, although he promises "there's no truth to the rumor that Benji is eaten." Those gigs help pay the bills, and independent filmmakers who want to stay independent -- who want to make $6 million movies that might be politically unpopular with the big-money people -- have plenty of bills.

This cabbie knows all about the high price of independence. After thirty years in the computer business, he's driving a taxi. But he likes the freedom, likes the people. He'll talk to them about anything. Especially the movies of John Sayles.

7 p.m. Wednesday, Santa Fe

Inside the Lensic Performing Arts Center, Sayles is signing copies of his book, Silver City and Other Screenplays. Outside the restored movie palace, people are holding up fingers. Need one ticket. Need two. It looks like the scene outside Invesco Field at Mile High -- if rabid Broncos fans wore black and lots of silver jewelry. Santa Fe is the first city to host a showing of Silver City, which otherwise has been screened just for critics. Although Sayles's latest was filmed one state to the north, New Mexico loves movies -- and has an active, well-funded state film commission to prove it. The evening is a benefit for the New Mexico Women's Foundation, which supports the GirlsFilmSchool, and it's completely sold out. David Byrne, who played this town the night before (and Denver before that), has scored a ticket; others are not so lucky.

The signing done, every ticket gone, Boulder's David Barsamian, host/producer of Alternative Radio, appears on the stage to introduce Dan Perkins, who, as Tom Tomorrow, produces "This Modern World," a cartoon that runs in Westword and dozens of other papers across the country. Perkins, who's been sitting by Sayles and signing copies of his own The Great Big Book of Tomorrow, now offers a slide show of his cartoons, including one mocking such esoteric voting techniques as "origami" ballots. That brings down the house.

The progressive revival continues as Sayles introduces Steve Earle, a new member of the filmmaker's bandwagon, whose song "Amerika v. 6.0" plays at the end of Silver City. Earle wrote the song for another movie, until that filmmaker -- or the people funding that filmmaker -- decided it was too edgy. But it was just right for Sayles and Maggie Renzi, his partner/producer. Earle starts out with a song from his new album, The Revolution Starts Now, that you'll never hear on the radio -- not that many mainstream stations play him in the first place. "Fuck the FCC," he sings. "Fuck the FBI. Fuck the CIA. I'm living in the mother-fucking USA." In the back of the house, the soundman is rocking out. "I do believe we're living in a time when it's important to say 'fuck' as loudly and often as possible," Earle tells the crowd.

And then out walks Kris Kristofferson, who plays the conniving kingmaker in Silver City. Whenever he has a part for a "son of a bitch," Sayles says, Kristofferson is his first choice. Kristofferson and Earle join up for "This Land Is Your Land," which Woody Guthrie wrote because he didn't think "God Bless America" was inclusive enough, according to Earle. Both George W. and John Kerry have tried to include this song in their campaigns, but it's never before sounded so right. Earle encourages everyone to sing the more inflammatory verses.

"Our goal is to reach out to more audiences than the normal art-house circuit," Renzi says. "But this is our audience, and we need to reach out to them, too." She talks about how in May 2003, she and Sayles realized that they had to do something that might make a difference in this election, and came up with Silver City, a movie that never mentions a political party but makes its allegiances very clear. So are the loyalties of the cast: In addition to Kristofferson, along for the ride are Daryl Hannah, who plays Dickie Pilager's slutty yet savvy sister; Michael Murphy, who plays their father, a Colorado senator; Mary Kay Place, Sal Lopez and Luis Saguar.

The theater is so crowded that there's no room for the actors to stay for the movie, which they have yet to see.

8:45 a.m. Thursday, Santa Fe

The "Silver City Express," the bus that will take Sayles, Renzi and the cast members to Denver (after a stop in Colorado Springs) pulls away from the Hotel Santa Fe. Kristofferson's three children settle down for what will turn into a solid day of homework. In the front, where Sayles and Murphy are sitting, the talk is of movies and politics, politics and movies. The Bush twins. Sylvester Stallone and Kirk Douglas, fighting over the size of their trailers. White House strategist Karl Rove, who once lived in Kokomo, a town outside of Leadville that was buried by mine tailings. Richard Dreyfuss plays a Rove-like character in Silver City; Leadville plays Silver City. Danny Huston, the movie's lead, is barely visible in a New York Times photo taken the day before at the Venice Film Festival, where he's touting a movie he made with Nicole Kidman. The Silver City crew will meet up with Huston this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival; from there, Sayles and Renzi move on to Los Angeles (where September 14 is "John Sayles Day"), Atlanta, the San Sebastian Film Festival.

In the back, Earle -- fresh from the protests outside the Republican National Convention -- is singing, with Kristofferson occasionally joining in. He'll keep singing most of the day, although at mile marker 427, he pauses to ask, "Are we there yet?"

Not quite. The bus stops at the rest stop just north of Trinidad for lunch. A few union and town officials are waiting there to meet Sayles -- Matewan, which dealt with the West Virginia coal strikes of the early '20s, made him a hero to the labor movement -- and talk about the Ludlow Massacre. Sayles studied that tragedy when he made Matewan and thought about writing it into Silver City, a movie already packed with many -- perhaps too many -- Colorado references. So there was just no room for the sorry chapter when Colorado's "little cowboy governor," as one of John D. Rockefeller's managers called him, brought in the National Guard to break the strike against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. On April 20, 1914, Colorado's own militia slaughtered twenty striking miners and their families. It would have been worse, but the engineer of a passing freight -- the man whose name Chris Cooper bears in Matewan -- sped up and put the train between the fleeing miners and the guns. To this day, when a train passes the site of the slaughter, the engineer blows its whistle.

While Sal Lopez reads an account of the Ludlow Massacre from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, a woman leaves her RV to snap a picture of Kristofferson.

At mile marker 88, the bus passes a billboard that says "Welcome to Colorado. We'll treat you like family. Please treat us like home." Earle launches into "Condi, Condi," his calypso-like love song for University of Denver grad Condoleezza Rice. At mile marker 116, I-25 becomes the Ronald Reagan Highway.

7 p.m. Thursday, Colorado Springs

"We're in the heart of darkness, the belly of the beast," says Dan Perkins, kicking off another sold-out evening, this one at Kimball's Twin Peaks Theatre in downtown Colorado Springs. Earle won't play now -- he'll do that later, at a benefit for the El Paso County Democratic Party -- but he does tell the audience that this town was the only place to ever cancel one of his concerts, because tickets just weren't selling. Here he's singing to the converted -- "every liberal within a hundred-mile radius," Perkins jokes -- including Michael Merrifield, the only El Paso Democrat in the Colorado Statehouse. (Chairman Ed Raye later points out that El Paso's 72,000 registered Democrats make up the fifth-largest blue bloc in a Colorado county.)

Renzi thanks Newmarket Films, the distributor that's giving the movie a big push -- perhaps, she suggests, as "an act of contrition" after its success with The Passion of the Christ. But they'll take help wherever they can get it. "Democracy is a conversation," says Sayles. "We were only hearing a one-sided conversation."

Once again, there's no room for the actors and crew; they'll see the movie in Denver.

9:15 a.m. Friday, Colorado Springs

Even before the bus starts moving, the passengers are clamoring for coffee. Starbucks, preferably.

But there's no time: Sayles must be in Denver by noon for an event at the Denver Press Club. Then there's another signing at the Tattered Cover, while Earle makes an in-house appearance at Twist & Shout -- a declaration of independence at Denver's two most renowned independent businesses. So the bus continues north, right past the exit for Focus on the Family. Materials from Reverend James Dobson's organization provided hilarious fodder for Dickie Pilager's position papers on the movie's bogus political website (www.dickiepilager2004.com). "Dickie Pilager believes in the family...;"

The Colorado Springs Gazette's coverage of the previous night doesn't distract anyone for long -- "This isn't exactly the New York Times," Michael Murphy says -- but it could be worse. After all, Kristofferson told a reporter with the CBS affiliate that his character was modeled on Adolph Coors, great-grandfather of the U.S. Senate candidate whose ad ran right before the Dickie Pilager commercial this morning.

Murphy has his own example of life imitating art imitating life. He was at the Democratic National Convention to make Tanner on Tanner, an update of Tanner '88, Robert Altman's political satire, in which he played a fictitious Democratic presidential candidate. Murphy's not sure how many of the people who play themselves in Tanner, everyone from Howard Dean to Tom Brokaw, realized that he was an actor rather than a politician they just hadn't seen for a while. (Since I have one line in Silver City -- playing a real reporter! -- I can sympathize with their confusion.)

At mile marker 188, Earle breaks out his guitar.

7 p.m. Friday, Denver

If the other stops were Democratic routs, the chaotic scene at the Paramount Theatre is Florida on Election Day 2000. The line for will-call tickets stretches down the block; the line at the lobby bar is almost as long. Upstairs, the Rocky Mountain Progressives are celebrating their one-year anniversary with a rousing rally, addressed by Sayles. Down front, people filtering in from the Denver Film Society benefit, where Mayor John Hickenlooper read a proclamation naming this Silver City Day, are giving the ushers fits.

Finally, Barsamian introduces Perkins who introduces Sayles who introduces Earle. As he launches into "Fuck the FCC," one audience member raises a fist; another spills a cocktail. Whether because of the late start or the liquor, the Silver City Express comes to a screeching halt. Earle's set ends early and the movie begins without a break to introduce the mayor, the crew, the actors.

But at least they finally get to see the movie they filmed here last fall -- the first major movie made in Colorado in many years, and maybe the last for many more, since the state's film commission has been disbanded, its functions folded into the Colorado Office of Economic Development (which two weeks ago didn't even know that Sayles's film would premiere here).

"Filmed Entirely in Colorado," the credits say at the end of Silver City. "Thanks to You All."

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