In local filmmaker Paul Bishow’s take on Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, George Bailey is a crackhead who mismanages a punk-rock band.
On a tree-lined street in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, Paul Bishow preps his cast members for their next scene. Dressed in black shorts, an untucked denim shirt, and faded black Chuck Taylor high-tops, the ponytailed director—one of the deans of D.C.’s underground-filmmaking community—is patient and gentle with the actors in his latest project, It’s a Wonderful Horrible Life, a spoof on the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
“So this is what you need to do,” Bishow begins, speaking softly. He is explaining his ideas for a scene that parodies Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and Donna Reed as the future Mary Bailey on their first date, in which they kid around outside the old Granville house. As in the original, the two actors hurl rocks at the house—but then the Jimmy Stewart character turns to the Donna Reed character and asks, “Hey, wanna go inside and smoke some crack?”
“Sure,” she says, and in they go.
It’s no big stretch. “Just this morning, I just saw a crackhead outside my house,” Sashi Obhi, who plays the Donna Reed character, notes when the action stops. “He was sitting on his bike, smoking crack.”
Here on Ingleside Terrace NW, where the bulk of Bishow’s latest project is being filmed in digital video, life is wonderfully horrible—and could not be more unlike life in Capra’s Bedford Falls, N.Y. Shot on a budget of damn near nothing, It’s a Wonderful Horrible Life has none of the brilliant decor that went into Capra’s $3 million 1946 Christmas story. And the values of perseverance and personal responsibility that Capra presented are completely inverted by Bishow in his topsy-turvy treatment.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfect film to parody because, Bishow points out, it has never been the upbeat feel-good flick most people think it is. “It was kind of a strange movie,” he says. “It’s kinda bleak, a movie about a guy who never seems to do what he wants in life but winds up happy anyway. But people misread this movie across the board. At the point where Stewart goes to commit suicide, it’s completely out of character, because he hardly ever did anything else on his own.”
Although Capra’s vision was suited to an audience looking for optimistic answers in the aftermath of World War II, Bishow considers the movie too simplistic for today’s filmgoers. If Capra had a timeless message—that one man’s simple life can touch so many others—then Bishow has a timely message for our decrepit modern era—that one scumbag’s existence can transform the lives of his loved ones into a living nightmare, and that anyone who screws over so many people pretty much deserves to die.
Mitch Blakely, who is short and disheveled and looks nothing like the statuesque Stewart, seems tailor-made for the antihero part. He’s not pleased today, for instance, because he can’t get a beer, a clear violation of his “A.D.O.S.” rule, which stands for “Always Drunk On Set.”
In Bishow’s film, there’s no sentimental hogwash, no conventional moralizing, no “Capra corn.” Blakely plays Mickey Solo, a gutter punk who drags friends and family down into the muck and mire of his own shabby existence. Instead of meeting an angel who shows him how bereft the world would be without him, Solo runs into a demon who shows him how improved things would be by his death.
The house that stands in for the cobwebbed old Granville place is the run-down three-story structure where the core of the cast actually lives. Pending repairs of leaky ceilings and other alleged housing-code violations, they’re all on rent strike these days. Blakely makes his home on the first floor with his dog, Freedom. Obhi, who brings a hip, intelligent edge to the Reed role—and is every inch the drop-dead-gorgeous ingénue—lives one floor up with her dog, Rock Star. And Al Armbrister, who plays the demon in Bishow’s twisted update and is a bike messenger in real life, revels in punk-rock squalor up in his third-floor flat. His band, Flinch, is producing the soundtrack for the movie and also makes several appearances, most of which were filmed at a raucous gig at the Grog ‘n’ Tankard on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
They are a lovable bunch. They all work for nothing, except beer and wine—lotsa beer and wine. And when the action starts, they all immediately start to improvise their dialogue, drawing on personal experiences for inspiration.
The film opens with Capra’s original credits rolling with the names of Bishow’s cast digitally superimposed. (Bishow may freely borrow from the film because, as a result of a 1974 clerical slip-up that prevented the renewal of its copyright, It’s a Wonderful Life is in the public domain.) As the action gets under way, a flickering flame that embodies a devilish voice is instructing a wannabe demon on how to earn his horns. The demon is then dispatched on a mission that should be a breeze: “Just let Mickey Solo mess up on his own,” he is told.
George Bailey pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but Mickey Solo goes nowhere. He just does his level best to get over on everyone. (He always tries to pay the punk-rock band he manages in candy corn, not cash, for example.) “George Bailey has a very special place in his community, whereas Mickey Solo is just a nobody,” Bishow explains. “He thinks of himself as trying to help people by selling them weed.” This makes sense to him, Bishow says, “because the weed thing is a very socially connected kind of thing, as opposed to just doing business.”
The whole cast descends into a discontented rabble until Solo finally dies, putting them all out of their misery. Bishow hasn’t shot the ending yet, but he says, “We want to hit him with a truck, which goes back to the old joke about that being a good way to end any movie: ‘You can always hit the guy with a truck.’”
That final scene is a reference to an earlier film in Bishow’s extensive body of work called He Didn’t Wear the Back of a Truck. Back of a Truck features Blakely as he haplessly tries to develop a “properspirant”—as opposed to an antiperspirant—that makes you stink so bad that you smell “like the back of a truck.” It is the second flick in a loose trilogy that also includes Wet Streets at Night, Bishow’s personal favorite of his films, in which Blakely plays Mick Low, a singer in a punk-rock band who embraces the free-wheeling musician lifestyle but never gives a flying fuck about the music, and Back to Good Head, in which Blakely plays a New Age guru out to scam his fawning followers.
It’s a Wonderful Horrible Life references all three films in the trilogy, but Bishow says that his current production is “a strange movie in that the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person. Mickey Solo is his own worst enemy. He undoes himself, and the demon is sort of an observer more than anything else, although he really enjoys it.”
Born in Long Island, Bishow started making movies in the fifth grade. After that, he took a filmmaking class in high school and made a couple of movies for English classes, he says, “because I didn’t like writing. I find it painful physically.”
In the ’60s, after a stint at New York University film school and under the influence of American avant-gardist Stan Brakhage and Austrian director Fritz Lang, whose vision of a world largely populated by prostitutes and psychopaths profoundly resonated with the young auteur, Bishow found himself making “experimental” films. It’s a term that makes Bishow bristle because, he says, “it’s not the right word. It has to do with science and control groups, and that’s not what’s going on.”
When Bishow arrived with his girlfriend in D.C. in the late ’70s, he explains, “We started making movies and meeting other people making movies, so we decided we needed to show them.” At d.c.space in the early ’80s, he started showing his work—along with anyone else’s—at a weekly show called “I Am Eye.” In 1986, Bishow was hired as a projectionist at the old Biograph Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Recently, Bishow has revived “I Am Eye,” screening films at the Black Cat, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and occasionally at the District of Columbia Arts Center. And for the past three summers, he has been the projectionist for the weekly Screen on the Green film series on the National Mall, sponsored by HBO.
On an August Monday evening on the Mall, Bishow stands behind his projector in a silver Airstream trailer guarded by three squad cars from the National Park Service. Light from the projection booth shines like a beacon beneath heavy, lowering gray skies. Tonight, Bishow is showing MGM’s 1956 classic Forbidden Planet, starring Walter Pidgeon and a young Leslie Nielsen. Hands on his hips, Bishow seems to be thoroughly enjoying the science-fiction twist on a Shakespearean play. “It’s The Tempest,” he points out.
There are only about 1,000 people here tonight because of the rain, which is threatening. So far, only one showing this summer has been completely rain-free—Singin’ in the Rain. Again tonight, the heavens are full of electricity, and lightning splits the black sky behind the giant screen in front of the anxious moviegoers.
As the rain starts to drizzle, toward the end of the film, the crowd huddles under umbrellas, sipping wine. Bishow invites me into his trailer. “Walk lightly,” he cautions. “You don’t want to jog the reel.”
The very next night, Bishow is back behind a projector, this time for his weekly “Unamerican Activities” show at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room on Columbia Road NW. Actually, he runs two projectors at once, showing both All the Way to Jerusalem, a documentary about Eugene McCarthy’s failed bid for the presidency, and Cinema of Revenge, a documentary Bishow made in 1985, which features a lot of outtakes from his other movies, including footage of a protest at the Key Theater when it reopened that same year as a fourplex and its management refused to hire union projectionists. The two movies are projected onto a screen behind a musician, Jay Rees, who does three things at once: He sings, plays guitar, and stomps a foot drum. Bishow says he got the idea of showing two movies simultaneously while working as a projectionist. Whenever he was about to change reels, there was always the “temptation to hit the button and run both reels at once.”
When I catch up with him the following week, Bishow has traded in his projector for his camera in order to shoot an early scene in It’s a Wonderful Horrible Life, before things unravel completely for Mickey Solo, before he mutters those fateful words, “I wish I was…” The location this evening is an old Victorian row house on Logan Circle, beautifully appointed with antique furniture, oriental carpets, and a sparkling chandelier.
Bishow lights the room and gets busy dressing the set. Essentially, this means making a mess of things—which irks the house’s owner, Anna Tucker, because she’s a preternatural neat freak. Besides, tomorrow morning she is due in surgery as a veterinarian. She goes along with Bishow’s interior decorating, though, because she’s an old friend; she used to manage the Biograph when he was running the projector there.
Beer cans and old newspapers are strewn around the living room, and a painting is tilted sideways above the mantelpiece. “Hey, this almost looks like my place,” says Blakely, who then prepares to deliver his lines. “Can we have a scene where I come in and ask for beer, just so I can get one?” he asks.
“Sure,” Bishow replies kindly. He reaches into a paper bag for a can of Budweiser for Blakely. After all, nobody works for nothing. CP