Review and Interview: Ghostbox Cowboy + Patti Smith, Horses + General Magic

Helen Highly Fears Ghostbox Cowboy, Talks to Writer-Director John Maringouin, Comments on Patti Smith and Horses, and Gives a Shout-Out to General Magic

I gotta start with an opening paragraph that will feed the Google search-engine monster the info it needs, and also give you a heads-up that I spend a long time railing against this film, but in the end… Helen Highly recommends the movie Ghostbox Cowboy, written and directed by John Maringouin, which saw its world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival 2018. And if Patti Smith (my hero) can use the word “motherfucker” three times in every sentence, which she recently did in and at the premier of Horses, the new and intentionally-terrible documentary film about her, followed by a bizarrely-hostile live performance at Beacon Theater (yeah, I know she was a punk rocker, and she still can rock like no one else, but she’s 70 beloved years old now and has essentially accepted the role of Goddess Mother Earth, so… fewer “motherfuckers” out of her mouth might be in order)… all that and be only praised and worshipped by the press the next day, then that gives me permission to say this:

This motherfuckin’ movie is totally bat-shit crazy, and it plays like you took a dose of bad acid and had a terrible trip (and don’t tell me it was funny, motherfucker!) and just like an acid trip, you will finally come down, and you will be exhausted, and you will realize… there were an awful lot of potentially meaningful thoughts and images in that experience, which you may wish you never had, and it may or may not have changed your life, for good or ill you’re not sure… but it was kinda cool and yeah you’d do it again.

Patti Smith, in Horses documentary

Patti Smith, in Horses documentary

This movie had me running home, alone and in the dark, scared for reasons I didn’t understand, but definitely totally freaked out, looking over my shoulder for I don’t know who or what. Man, what a relentlessly grim, dark, bleak, terrifyingly phantasmagoric dystopian nightmare of a movie. I tried to shake it off before I went to bed. I couldn’t. I woke up in a wobbly and disoriented state, having dreamt about it, and then sat down at my computer and saw email from the film’s P.R. guy thanking me for attending the screening and asking if I would share my thoughts on the film. What the fuck, motherfucker?!

I sat down to write him a raging letter – blame him for horrifying me for no good reason, with his awful, perverse movie, and faking me out in the first place by giving me press notes that called it a comedy. A comedy?! This is a horror flick! For me, it was more disturbing than Get Out. And okay, Get Out did have some comic elements, and I even loved it for being such a genre-bender, but… this was different. I don’t have many horror films to compare this with because I tend to stay away from horror, but I know a terrifying movie when I see one. (For the record, I avoided the movies in the Tribeca “Midnight Series” – especially the zombie movies, and this should have had a Midnight Series warning label on it.)

Here’s how my email started: “You already asked me if I liked it and I told you NO! Don’t you remember that you tried to ask me after the movie last night if I had liked it, and I pushed you aside as I ran out of the theater and down the stairs, visibly shaken, saying it was the creepiest movie I had ever seen?!” I fully explained the unpleasant circumstances: I was dutifully watching the back-to-back-to-back pre-Festival press screenings, and this was the last film of the night, and I had my notebook in my hands but became so petrified as I watched the movie, that I literally didn’t move and didn’t write a single word in my notebook.

And then, at some point late in the movie, I finally extricated my brain from its twisted grip and I caught my breath and looked around me and realized that nearly all the other reporters had left the theater! They had the good sense to get the Hell out of there! And suddenly I realized I was alone, in the dark, with this hideous, evil film. (I couldn’t use enough adjectives to describe my very-visceral experience.) But I had stayed this long, so I gritted my teeth and stuck it out to its bitter end. And then, once outside, I was alone late on a weeknight on a deserted street in Tribeca, with this disturbing film breathing down my neck, and it followed me all the way home and into bed and even woke up with me in the morning. Sheesh.

I, a stranger and afraid, in world I never made. – A.E. Housman

And now I was writing an email about it. And as I typed, and the more I detailed my thoughts, the more I pulled my thoughts together (as I always do in the process of writing), and I started considering exactly what was so upsetting to me about this movie. I was looking for a way to describe the depth of the horror and ugliness, and what I came up with was….

Remember that scary part of Pinocchio where he goes to Pleasure Island, which at first seems colorful and fun like an amusement park, but quickly becomes dark and scary, as Pinocchio realizes that it is actually a land of sin and debauchery and brutality? And Pinocchio had just wanted to be a “real boy,” but he was tricked and robbed by false friends, and taken to this place where everyone he meets is a soulless, ruthless exploiter of the hopes and dreams of others? (long pause. brain wildly racing.) And there is one especially repugnant scene where they dress him up in a wig and costume and force him to perform for a miserable audience? O. M. G.

 

Pinocchio's Pleasure Island

Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island

Ghostbox Cowboy is the Pinocchio story? Yes, it is! Well, if that’s true, then I guess maybe that lends some credence to this movie, because Pinocchio is considered a canonical piece of literature and has inspired hundreds of adaptations. I mean, that’s some worthy material from which to borrow, if that’s what is going on here. (FYI, according to Wikipedia, Pinocchio has been adapted in over 260 languages worldwide. That makes it the most-translated book, other than the Bible, and one of the best-selling books ever published.) But I only remembered the Pinocchio story from my childhood brain – the fear and horror I felt, which was so much like what this movie had made me feel. I didn’t immediately remember all the details.

I was remembering the visuals from the Disney movie more than anything else, which btw was made a lot more child-friendly than the original. Although it is significant that I also had the book as a child and so the book is lurking in my memory banks too, and my mother had a rule against abridgements, so all the childhood stories I read were the real deal. For example, I had to read the authentic Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, all 272 pages. In the Oz book, I think some of the most boring parts were left out of the movie, but the children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, definitely included some dark and scary parts that didn’t make it into Disney’s film, including the brutal death of Pinocchio at the end, which was instead changed to a happy ending.

So, I Googled Pinocchio. In addition to the Wikipedia info above, what I found was amazing. For you to appreciate all the significant similarities, as I did as I sat there, I guess I need to first provide you with a synopsis of the Ghostbox Cowboy movie. But my major point is that suddenly I went from hating this movie to being fascinated by it. I had so many questions! I started my email as an angry rant and ended it with a request to interview the director, which I did and is included below. Here’s a short synopsis, provided by the filmmakers:

“This darkly comedic morality tale examines a wildly ambitious Westerner who tries to get in on China’s tech boom and finds that he may not be up to the task. Texan Jimmy Van Horn (David Zellner) is a cowboy huckster who arrives in the booming city of Shenzhen with a couple of bitcoins and huge ambitions of parlaying them into economic success. Lucky for Jimmy, he’s got a friend holding open the back door to this accidental “Shangri-La” – Bob Grainger (Robert Longstreet), who’s gotten new teeth, a blonde wig and looks twenty years younger. He promises to do the same for Jimmy in six weeks. Using a startling visual language, this film offers an excitingly fresh, complex perspective on China’s economic growth and the gold rush mentality it inspires.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there’s a lot more to it, and it’s difficult to describe, at least for me, for whom the movie was a kind of blurr. (They’re not kidding about “startling visual language.”) Here is a bit more detail, written by China Underground Cinema:

America is dead. And washed-up tech entrepreneur Jimmy Van Horn is pushing the reset button. He’s moving himself and his shell company to Shenzhen, China. – China Underground Cinema

Ghostbox Cowboy poster

Ghostbox Cowboy poster

CUC continues: “Shenzhen: A fishing village 3 decades ago, now the biggest city you’ve never heard of. A fantasia of craven capitalists where wheels of industry spin so fast it’s ‘literally impossible to walk down the street without making money – if you know the right people.’ Lucky for Jimmy, he’s got a friend in Bob Grainger, who has been living there a long time. Bob’s got friends too, like Vincent X — a 25 year old Chinese tech heir who employs thousands of migrant workers making everything from iPhone knock offs to KFC toys. And his sidekick ‘ The Specialist’ – a 29 year old from the Mojave Desert turned Chinese Sourcing Lord with a profound disdain for his fellow Americans. With friends like them, who needs enemies? But in China enemies make dreams come true.”

Wow, right? So, I will take you to my interview with the writer-director John Maringouin (along with some after-the-fact commentary by me, in parenthesis):

So, I will take you to my interview with the writer-director John Maringouin (along with some after-the-fact commentary by me, in parenthesis):

… a post-apocalyptic dystopia, except there was no real apocalypse; it’s as if humanity is the apocalypse…

HH: Let’s start with the genre issue. You call it a comedy.

JM: Yup.

HH: How is it a comedy? I understand that all comedies aren’t necessarily funny, but the classical definition of comedy is at least a circular structure.

JM: Yes, it is circular: it goes from one blank region to another. (HH is surprised that JM does not flinch at my introduction of academic stuff like classical definitions of genres.)

JM: It starts at a Walmart in the desert and he ends up in the Chinese version of the same – a blank space in the desert. (Hmm. Okay. If you think of it that way, I guess.)

HH: (pushing my luck) But there’s no wedding at the end. Traditional comedies end with a wedding, or some type of happy union.

Ghostbox Cowboy sings at a wedding

Ghostbox Cowboy sings at a wedding

JM: (again, not even a pause) Yes there is. There is a wedding at end. He’s at a wedding. He performs at a wedding. (Well, sort of. I should have said in the interview that the wedding in the movie was not at all joyous; in fact it was a major humiliation and a kind of sadistic experience. But we only had 15 minutes, and I didn’t want to waste them debating the nature of comedy. I was eager to get to the Pinocchio thing.)

JM: The wedding is the very last thing that happens before, well … without giving away too much about the ending.

(Damn it. Is this the place that I am going to have to write my treatise on “spoilers”? I always figured I’d save it for a more “important” review. Well, just briefly: I think the idea of spoilers is silly. We all know how every Shakespeare play ends, and yet we watch them over and over. We listen to the same songs we like over and over. Hey, we even recently watched the new version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – a murder mystery! It’s been done over and over, but the ending never changes. Still, we watch it. Knowing the ending does not “spoil” the experience. More on this subject another time. But for now, I am revealing a bit – not all – of the ending of Ghostbox Cowboy. Okay, motherfuckers?!)

HH: I can’t think of another comedy that ends with the death of the lead character.

JM: (laughs) That’s true. I think maybe it’s a comedy in the same way that Dante’s Inferno is – you know, part of the Divine Comedy. They call that a comedy.

HH: Well.. those are some lost brain cells for me. I can’t recall the exact dynamics of that story. I’ll have to look it up later.

[Hey, kudos to John for remembering so much from his dramatic literature class in college. I mean, this guy ain’t the least bit stupid. And I clearly got the sense that he knows what he’s talking about and that he was well aware of the type of movie he was making, and why, and how. This much I knew: Dante’s Divine Comedy detailed a soul’s journey toward God, which might also be considered true of John’s movie, sort of. So, it’s not a completely absurd comparison to make. Although that is not the real point. The real point is below (for those who are interested in a little historical literature lesson, which I just learned myself).

Here’s the deal: Dante called his dramatic poem a comedy because there were only two “genres” back then; in the ancient world, all literature was classified as High (tragedy) or Low (comedy). And according to what the internet tells me, the real key was the type of language used. Tragedy was written in the High style, using the language of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church – Latin. And they were usually epics with a structured progression into a tragic end. Thus, Latin and tragedy were the ideal combination for true – and serious – poetic expression. Whereas the Low style (comedy) was written with common vernacular and usually ended happily. So, Dante technically could not call his epic dramatic poem a tragedy, even though it contained a structured progression to a tragic end and did not end happily. If he didn’t write in Latin, it was by definition a comedy. If we stop here, then John is playing dodge ball and not answering my question with sincerity (because unlike Dante, he has a full spectrum of genres with which to identify).

Dante's Inferno

Dante’s Inferno

However, there is more: Some academics theorize that Dante chose to title his epic dramatic poem a comedy, not because he couldn’t write in Latin, but in an intentional attempt to transcend the notions of High and Low styles and to challenge the belief that vernacular was incapable of true poetic expression. Dante was saying, by calling his epic a comedy, that poetic expression is not confined to parameters of a categorical language. Dante was making a point that mankind is naturally poetic and every man expresses themselves creatively as they etch their unique path through life with their choices.

So, Dante wrote using his native Tuscan dialect and created one of the single greatest literary feats in history, speaking to all peoples through this revered masterpiece, which was written in the language of the common man, with the intensity of a literary genius, uniting humanity through the commonality of Death (not High language). That’s some heavy shit. But, if we agree that John Maringouin is one Hell of an intellectual, which he just might be (despite this seemingly terrible horror flick), then our director was answering in full earnestness.

John knew what he was saying. He was saying that his movie spoke in a “common vernacular” (as in phantasmagoric trippy gonzo filmmaking) and … even though we get Death at the ending, the larger point is the style of “language,” which justifies calling it a comedy. To some extent at least, the medium is the message, and even shaky-cam bat-shit crazy horror can be a masterpiece of filmmaking and human expression. So be it John. I totally give you the Win on that point. Although, if so, I think you need to stop keeping the tragic end a secret; go full Dante. The idea of spoilers are for lessor thinkers.

Of course, The Divine Comedy had three parts, only the first one being the Hellish Inferno. So, I might pose another question to John: Should we expect two more movies to flesh out the trilogy? I won’t press that point. The Win still totally goes to John, especially considering the rest of the interview.]

HH: It’s just that I was so freaked out and scared by it, and I was even haunted by the darkness later, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around “comedy.”

JM: Well. I love that you felt that. That’s great. I wish it were more of a horror movie. I love horror. I love the genre. I’m glad that you reacted to it that way.

HH: When you say you love horror, what is it you like about horror? What appeals to you about it?

I have a problem with generic cinematic cuteness. – Maringouin

JM: Anything that’s psychological – very dark psychology, or emotional terrorism, like that.

HH: Yes, that is how I felt during this movie. That’s not what you were going for? I know I’m not your target audience.

JM: I hope it appeals to a wide audience. I hope it doesn’t fit into any one genre, really. I think it’s an action movie. I think it’s a thriller. It’s also got some documentary elements. And maybe horror. I love that it had such an intense effect on you.

HH: Well, we can move on and talk about the politics. Obviously there is a socio political component.

JM: Yeah, I think that’s in the background. But to me it’s funny. Ya know, the whole thing is just funny. Really. But I can understand how some of it comes off as being a little strange. (Very strange claim, indeed, calling this nightmare funny, IMHO, but… I believe he means it.)

HH: Okay, this is my other issue with the movie. There were no likeable characters.

JM: That’s my favorite thing about it! I don’t really like movies with likable people. Not that I root for bad guys. But I root for…bad characters, I mean I want to see guys that are grimy and sleazy…

HH: You want to see them succeed at being bad?

JM: I have a problem with generic cinematic cuteness. I want you to be able to see the pores in the noses of my characters. And also just see their worst sides.

HH: When I first thought of writing about this movie, I thought I might call it a post-apocalyptic dystopia, except there was no real apocalypse; it’s as if humanity is the apocalypse. Everyone is everyone else’s worst enemy. Do you think people are inherently evil?

Either way, it’s interesting as Hell (literally and figuratively).

JM: No, I don’t. I think people are inherently complicated. And I certainly think the film is inspired by a sense of crisis – a global crisis that is not necessarily … The question is, is it real or imagined? Is it something that the media is pushing forward? Is it a mass hallucination?

HH: You call it a morality tale…

JM: I didn’t call it a morality tale!

HH: Well, your PR guys did! It’s in the first line of the synopsis. (He laughs.) What’s the moral?

JM: I guess it’s a tale of morality in that we’re dealing with characters that have no morality. I think it’s morally ambiguous.

HH: So there is no moral to the story? Are we supposed to take some message away? Is it just “Life sucks and then you die?”

Pinocchio book illustration

Pinocchio book illustration

JM: There’s plenty to take away. But it definitely wasn’t intended as a lesson. I hope that you’re left with a feeling of…  great mystery. (?)

HH: (Here is where I introduce the idea of the Pinocchio story. I will spare the reader my repeating myself, from above. But I explain how I came to think of the Pinocchio story and how amazed I was to find so many similarities. JM listens intently. He seems fascinated, but he insists he was completely unaware of any correlations.) So, Pinocchio was in no way an inspiration for your movie?

JM: Well, I think maybe whatever archetype Pinocchio is based on might have influenced me… some universal dynamic that both stories share.

HH: You know, Pinocchio was written during the beginning of the industrial revolution in Italy. Middle class values of discipline and hard work were becoming more important. And your story takes place, sort of…

JM: Yeah, it’s the industrial revolution for China. So that’s interesting, that parallel. Definitely. Although, it’s not so much about the Chinese culture as Americans reacting to it. There’s a gold-rush mentality. Americans think they can just go to China and get rich just by being an American in China. It’s about vulture capitalism; the characters are driven by a money-for-nothing mentality.

HH: Well, Pinocchio also suffers from laziness and is warped by the idea of free stuff that turns out not to be free. But he is driven by a big ambition. He has a big wish to be real boy. What is Jimmy’s wish?

JM: I don’t think even he knows what he wants except that he’s got this desire to… do what most Americans think they should be doing.. to get ahead …to kind of be somebody. And he finds that sort of American dream lacking. So he goes to look for it in China.

HH: You said he wants to be somebody.

JM: Yeah, he wants to be a real person.

HH: Real person/real boy.

JM: Right.

HH: And he is tricked by false friends, like Pinocchio, and robbed, and exploited, and humiliated and…

JM: Yes, that’s another big similarity. That’s interesting. (laughs) After this I will need to go look up that story.

Pinocchio with false friends, fox and cat

Pinocchio with false friends, fox and cat

HH: Actually, there are a few other amazing similarities. Pinocchio has these gold coins, and his false friends tell him that if he plants them in a certain place and leaves them overnight, they will grow into a tree full of gold coins.

JM: And Jimmy has bitcoins! And he is being told they will grow into a tree of more money, but they are stolen from him. Wow.

Bitcoins in the News (click to read): Warren Buffett says bitcoin is “rat poison.”

HH: And you know how Jimmy is reduced to working as an “American model” for money, except he never gets paid? They essentially enslave him and force him to put on a wig and go out and sing and perform, against his will? The same thing happens to Pinocchio; he is bought and sold like a slave and forced to perform against his will. But what strikes me the most is that they both are forced to wear a ridiculous wig.

JM: It’s all about transformation. (laughs again)

HH: And Pinocchio gets turned into a donkey and you have a whole thing about “swamp donkeys,” which are not exactly the same thing, but still it’s … a coincidence.

JM: Well, our swamp donkeys are kind of wheeling dealing middle men – who, if anything, turn other people into dumb animals.

HH: Well, in Pinocchio, the guy who turns kids into donkeys ends up as a donkey himself, so… just saying. It’s just weird.

JM: (laughs) Yeah, it is weird.

I guess it’s true what they say: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In response to failure, General Magic went for the stronger and Ghostbox Cowboy goes for the kill.

HH: Okay, so for Pinocchio it’s a morality tale. He acts like a jack-ass and he is literally turned into a jackass. You don’t think there is a similar lesson in that Jimmy acts like a stupid American and so he is turned into this grotesque cartoon of a stupid American – with the blonde wig and fake tan and big white teeth?

JM: Well, that definitely happens to him. I just don’t know if he learns any lesson from it. He’s chasing an ideal of … the tech entrepreneur … this sort of new masculinity.

HH: So he wants to be a NEW kind of real man?

Ghostbox Cowboys swamp donkeys

Ghostbox Cowboys swamp donkeys

JM: This new masculinity, as I call it, is embodied by Elon Musk. And those sort of guys… everyone is sort of chasing… they’ve been evangelized by Tim Ferriss and his idea of The Four-Hour Work Week, where if you work for a living, you’re a loser. It’s like they all aim to be an alpha male who has his whole life outsourced. His products are made in the third world and his secretary is in Pakistan and everybody works for pennies an hour, but he’s riding a jet ski and works four hours a week — this sort of new capitalist, which I feel is everything that is wrong with the world.

I was fascinated by characters who were trying but failing at this modern vulture capitalism.

HH: Okay, so have you heard about this other movie that is at Tribeca, called General Magic? It’s about a group of people who had grand ambitions about changing the world with their technological invention, which was essentially the iPhone but way before its time; there wasn’t even internet yet. This is a true story; it’s a documentary. So these people invested everything, money as well as heart and soul, in this venture and then failed spectacularly, in public, and lost everything, and were totally humiliated, and there were even elements of betrayal in the story too. And it’s also about how they sold this tremendous idea before they really had the product. The had an IPO on the stock market and everything fell apart. They failed in a huge way at big-time capitalism.

General Magic landscape contemplates the future, after failure

JM: Yeah, I know about that story.

HH: BUT… the movie shows that ultimately each of these people went on to do great things with their lives. The story of the movie actually challenges our ideas of what failure is and how we define it and respond to it. It’s about how failure is not the end. What do you think about that in terms of your characters who are failing?

JM: I think that is different in some very significant ways. I mean, yes they were trying to make it big in the tech boom, but … those guys in General Magic were truly working hard. They were building something. Those guys were at the beginning of creating this fantasy… this fantasy that outsiders had of magical success and easy money.

(Well, I guess it’s true what they say: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In the face of failure, General Magic went for the stronger, and Ghostbox Cowboy goes for the kill.)

JM: But it’s a very different scene now. My story isn’t history; it’s current. It came from my own life, and things I saw.

HH: Tell me.

JM: I live in San Francisco where there’s nothing going on now but tech. And I’d been working a day gig shooting commercials for product videos for Apple Store products.

HH: The General Magic movie is about Apple products, just btw.

JM: (laughs) Yes, but that was early 90’s, right? It’s the preceding generation to my characters.

HH: Okay, so you were working on this commercial gig…

JM: Well, I was able to sort of see behind the curtain of that world, and everything pointed to a really murky, absurd underworld behind it and it seemed to have a real complexity of fraud and hijinks that I thought would make a really great crime film. So, that’s where I was coming from. And all roads pointed to China. I’d heard a ton of chatter about it being a land of dreams where all you had to do was show up and you’d be rich just for being a westerner. For Silicon Valley folks, Shenzhen was the new frontier – a world that pays you just to show up and be a fuck-up.

Jimmy Van Horn goes to Shenzhen

Jimmy Van Horn goes to Shenzhen

HH: Just as a sidebar: Your depiction of Shenzhen was incredible. You really shot on location, right? How did you manage that?

JM: Yeah, we shot there. We shot the street scenes kind of guerilla-style. But the China in the film comes very much from the character’s romantic illusions of it. It starts out as this fantastical place but then its dark side emerges slowly.

HH: Which brings us back to Pinocchio. You know, there was this one place where Pinocchio went that was called the City of Catchfools. That’s like the perfect name for the city in your movie.

JM: Ha! Yes, it is. And it’s a very warped reality. Because you’re talking about a POV story. It’s a POV movie for sure. You’re seeing through the eyes of a person who kind of ignores what’s in front of him and plugs in assumptions.

HH: Is that what made it feel so terrifying for me? It was definitely an askew perspective in what looked like a very true-to-life world, and it was so… completely alienating. You communicated that visually in an astounding way.

JM: I’ve had a few personal experiences with dislocation and disassociations. I believe our world is being converted daily into a new place, which isn’t tied to the past or to any kind of identity. There’s a kind of somatic feel. There’s a comfort in that and also a terror. There are places where you feel you can lose your soul. Empty parking lots. Brand new buildings, unfinished. Strip malls.

HH: Ah! See, you admitted terror.

Ghostbox Cowboys places where you can lose your soul

Ghostbox Cowboys places where you can lose your soul

JM: To quote Housman: “I, a stranger and afraid, in world I never made.” (He’s quoting Housman? Housman the English scholar and poet who died in 1936? Oh yeah, this guy is a big-time intellectual. Who’d have guessed it? He looks like a regular dumb jock.)

HH: Okay, so the movie had a totally weird and creepy atmosphere. That I totally get. And that actually was kind of cool – the cinematography. And I’m sure that’s a whole different subject for a different interview. But the characters… what part of your brain did they come from?

JM: Some of those guys were real guys, playing themselves. “The Specialist” lives and works in China and doesn’t want his name revealed. There was a true documentary aspect to the movie.

HH: But Jimmy was fictional, right?

JM: Fictional in my movie, yes, but guys just like him are plentiful.

HH: So, Jimmy is just a fake wanna-be big-shot who can only drop into China and fuck up? He starts and ends as a wanna-be big-shot who can’t make it happen? His character is static? He doesn’t learn or change? And that’s why he has that tragic end?

JM: Well, he changes. He definitely evolves through the film. He changes from an impenetrable cocky personality into a much more vulnerable and real person. In fact, the very moment that he realizes that he’s become real is the moment that he makes his big decision – at the very end.

HH: Ah, so in his case, he becomes real and it kills him.

JM: Well, Jimmy has a choice. He can become a real person, live as a real person, or stick to his… sort of…entitlement mindset, which is kind of the point – he is an American that… he doesn’t …

HH: Got it. (Okay. So I’ve spoiled part of the ending, but I won’t spoil the truly fascinating details about his death. It’s one of the most bizarre scenes ever. And it’s attached to this story that is told earlier in the movie… this incredible, long, convoluted, kind of shaggy dog story, which is beyond strange, and I guess it’s sort of comic when we first hear it, but it comes back at the end and is a key part of this tragedy – this tragic/comic death at the end.)

And for all the grotesqueness and horror and misery, and the greed and lust and selfishness (it really is the full litany of biblical sins)… despite all the that, and no one is a good or even a likeable character (but I must say, they are plenty colorful and peculiar), despite kind of loathing this man, I did feel for him at the end. Maybe I didn’t feel sympathy. But I felt his trauma. I felt his pain. I felt his shame and hopelessness. It’s a vary painful movie to watch. Or, at least it was for me. I guess if you’re more like John, you will think it’s hilarious. Either way, it’s interesting as Hell (literally and figuratively). Definitely get some booze and download this movie, wherever it ends up. You’ll have lots to talk about. It will certainly fill your entire evening, and maybe the next day too.

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p.s. This is a Q&A I got from the press notes, but I think it’s something that an audience might wonder (as I did), so here it is:

Q: The American characters have a lot of “Trumpian” qualities – the “folksy” business talk, the love of the “deal,” the blonde wigs, fake tans and fascination with China. Was this planned or a semi-documentary reality captured in the process of shooting?

A: The Americans with tans and blonde wigs were shot in the summer of 2015, before Trump was really a thing. I had this idea of a middle-aged, bald con-man trying to appear young to fit into Shenzhen’s “under 30” culture. Nothing to do with politics. But when we got back to the U.S. after shooting…it instantly felt eerie and premonitory.

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Click for More about my unintended Patti Smith insult (and documentary and concert review).

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Mat Delman, at IonCinema, writes an excellent review of Ghostbox Cowboy, and he manages to explain some of the fascinating plot details that I left out. He also beautifully captures the spirit of the film, calling it, in his review title, a “No-Frills Pynchonian Mind-blowing Masterpiece.” If this film interests you, you should check it out:

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