Deception at the DMV

A true story from the archives. Enjoy!

By Christopher Pickhardt

– Copyright 2009

Last year, an idea was sparked in my head upon the realization that my driver’s license was about to expire. In the honor of good comedy, I felt it was incumbent upon me to mess with the system a little bit. So, in the tradition of comical pranks and inside jokes, I decided it was necessary to alter my appearance for my new license photo.

Given that idea, I did not want to just wear funny glasses, make a silly face or dress as a priest (as “Jackass” alumni Johnny Knoxville brilliantly did several years back) no, I wanted to take the idea much further. I figured if I am going to run with this idea, I might as well sprint with it. So, I chose to wear a wig; not just any wig, but a Bohemian-style wig I had purchased back in 1999 for a Qui-Gon Jinn costume I was assembling for the absurdly anticipated premiere of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (yes, I am a movie dork and proud of it).

This wig is wondrous; truly a cascade of flowing hair rivaled only by the manes of the most majestic lions of the Serengeti. The wisest investment I have made to date, bar none; this $40.00 special-ordered wig has paid for itself tenfold, as I have used it on countless occasions over the years whenever it was deemed necessary.

Whenever I wear it, I feel like the son of Sasquatch or some other starved, feral beast out to masticate the young of the privileged. Hear my roar! Upon placing the hairy crown over my scalp, I instantly feel the encompassing locks engulfing my face as strand upon strand either shoots up my nose like rebellious mustache fragments or taste them plunge into my mouth, aggressively caressing my drenched tongue as would a long full lover. Numerous bouts of spitting out hair, placement adjustments and glances in the mirror ensued as I secured the day’s prized adornment as a genuine element of my person. I even wore a rather captivating brown suit to further establish and project a grandiose image of myself to the subjects I was about to address within the stale, depressing walls of the local office of the Division of Motor Vehicles.

To pull off a stunt this brazen, one must confirm that all key elements are in place to secure proper execution. I could not leave anything to chance as the slightest oversight could bring my comedic masterpiece crumbling to the ground. The covert plot must be a success, so overcompensation and strict attention to detail was instituted to ensure personal hilarity. I went above and beyond my Six Points of Identification required by New Jersey state law to efficiently obtain a driver’s license renewal, taking with me in my arsenal of identity verification: my current NJ driver’s license, United States passport, High school diploma, vehicle registration and insurance cards, college diploma, Social Security card, and a current bank statement. I was confident I had the points in the proverbial bag, leaving the only one unpredictable variable in this equation, which was whether or not the keen DMV staff would buy my presumptuously daft appearance as gospel, or see through my façade and destructively heckle the grandest practical joke I had ever proposed.

With my doubts hovering in my psyche, although fairly low on the scale of deterrence, the rouse was now perfectly prepared. My suit looked dapper and dashing, the celestial hair magnificently flowing, and my confidence was rock solid. I chuckled mischievously as I took one more gander at myself in the mirror—tickled pink at how utterly ridiculous I looked, while grinning proudly at the risky self-imposed challenge I was about to embark on.

I was on a mission, not one of nobility, but of jest, and as I drove from my house to the local Division of Motor Vehicles I could feel the butterflies parading inside my stomach like kernels of popcorn exploding over an open flame. Perspiration omitted from my pores at a steady rate the closer I got to my intended target—slightly nervous about the wool I was about to pull over the inspecting eyes at the DMV. I took deep breaths and got into character as I jumped from the car and walked through the parking lot towards the agency’s entrance. I felt the eyes of everyone I walked past upon me, like a sudden pariah among a colony of disciples. Undeterred I ventured into the building where the motor vehicle constituency was located, feeling a soldier’s resolve in my veins like mother’s milk.

“No one can stop me now,” I thought to myself, as I approached the double-glass doors of the DMV, with adjacent heads turning as my presence appeared in their peripheral vision. Surely, I was a strange sight to behold in a venue usually comprised of boredom and impatience, but a well-dressed man wearing a wig to the DMV,was confidently not a summation I would gamble the bystanders were thinking upon witnessing my entrance into the busy home of state driving privilege. I speculated my ironic appearance would be regarded by the congregation as any number of characters in our diverse societal paradigm: a rugged beatnik, or eccentric artist perhaps, maybe a begrudged biker (hoping to be deemed presentable for a change by the masses) and possibly even an unrelenting hippie wearing a suit for the man, while flaunting long locks of rebellion for himself. Whatever the label I was given, there was no turning back now, as the momentous time had come to perform the prestige of a lifetime.

I got into the rather surprisingly short line for renewals in the back of the room near the door. I felt conspicuous, more conspicuous than I have ever felt before, like a shotgun hiding under a napkin. Beads of sweat were collecting under the wig and on my forehead, as it felt like the eyes of the nation were drawn on me. My heart pounded relentlessly, and my stomach was electrified, but I felt jazzed; starting to get into the rush that was slowly enveloping me from the inside out.

I followed the lead of the guy in front of me and moved a couple steps forward, now feeling a calm begin to wash over me. That soothing cool sensation was to be short lived, as my movements clumsily triggered the collection of documents tucked under my left arm to be regurgitated from their folder onto the floor beneath me in a manner not only mortifying given the tight surveillance, I felt was surrounding me, but scattered all over the place in a messy manner only a troublesome two-year old could arrange.

Immediate stares followed my horrendous display of attempted stealth—from the patrons waiting in the uncomfortable chairs all around, from DMV staff that casually looked up at me upon hearing the choice obscenity that slipped from my lips and from the two police officers standing nearby as added division security.

 I could feel the panicked sweat cascading down my head with salty pools beginning to collect in the nooks and crannies of my armpits and seeping like a sponge onto my eyebrows.  I quickly bent down to pick up all my identification documents, cursing my clumsiness and the premature attention I was currently receiving in the wake of my faux pas. It was only a collection of seconds in reality as I grabbed my passport, license and other points of identification, but in my mind, it was an eternity—like a lost child in a large department store, filled with terror and vertigo at the intense overwhelming sensations overcoming their every sense of being. Then like a flick of a switch the scrutiny was over, with my documents finally in order and back into their rightful folder and all the prying eyes reverted to their home positions.

Soon enough, it was my turn at the preliminary verification desk where a middle-aged woman was waving me over to inspect my points and to verify, I am indeed who I say I am. As I walked over to her, I felt cool and collected and most certainly back on my game. With a smile of pearly whites, I introduced myself to her and said I was here to renew my license. She was a very nice, pleasant person and I recall thinking she was almost overly kind, given that she worked at a place most deemed to be the closest place on Earth to Purgatory.

Any local branch of the Division of Motor Vehicles was a place you go only when absolutely necessary and never with the anticipation of a speedy exciting visit. Long waits prevailed here, feeling like a penance for the privileged gift of driving, which was granted to the masses by miserable, not particularly animated employees who worked at paces even snails would describe as lethargic. All the while we the waiting patrons are inflicted as we await the beckon of our name, with a level of boredom not soon experienced by those lucky few who transcribe tax codes into braille for a living.

It was this knowledge that made this woman’s cheerful demeanor that much more welcomed by me as I delivered to her all the requested points of identification, explaining that I brought WAY more documentation than deemed necessary, to ensure that all my bases would be covered.

The documentation review process went fairly quickly as I waited for the other shoe to drop and for her to question my authenticity. A momentary chill of nerves rushed through me as she inspected my license in a way a doctor examines an x-ray. I felt as though the gig could be up, as my current license was four years old and featured a photo of me bald and clean shaven. My youthful appearance in that picture was truly contrary to the bearded Yeti that was presented before her today.

“Wow, your hair sure grew,” she said to me in an amused tone as her eyes rose from studying the photograph in her hand to the man himself.

“I know, it grows like weeds,” I replied, in a matter-of-fact manner confidently peppered with a hint of dually amused dismissal. “It’s amazing what four years can do,” I continued with faux enthusiasm.

Before I knew it, I was verified and cleared with the properly signed paperwork in my hands and the finish line in my sights. The last step on my farcical journey was only a mere twenty paces to my right—a distance I traveled with steadfast self-assurance and thoroughbred agility.

The line at the main counter where the photos are taken, paperwork officially processed and currency exchanged was but one person long and as I joined the short procession, I was giddy inside like a child waiting to board a ride at Disney World. I stood there patiently for my turn while perusing the female specimens sitting, standing and mingling about the room in their skimpy shorts and spaghetti straps with their assets on display like strawberries on shortcake.

“Next!” I heard from in front as suddenly it was my turn to go. I deferred back to my 12 and headed to the counter where several women were stationed. A police officer paced behind them, surveying the room with minimal interest. As I approached, I felt the eyes again, glaring suspiciously at me from behind the counter. There was no paranoia this time, all eyes were tractor-beamed on me: the glowing suit, the pristine beard and Neanderthal hair, exasperatedly accompanied by a smile surely reminiscent of a used car salesman. I held my resolve and kept on trucking, submitting all my papers to the woman in charge.

Skeptical would be an understatement when describing the tone in her voice as the woman scanned my old license photo.

“This looks nothing like you,” she stabbed, as a wave of chills sank from my forehead to my groin upon hearing her accusatory remark.

“I know,” I shot back calmly. “I’ve been growing it out for a movie these last four years along with the beard,” I said confidently and deceitfully.

“I’m an actor and I have been producing an independent film for the last couple years, this look is necessary for the part,” I half-truthfully continued, knowing that all that information was technically true except for the part about growing out the mane in front of her; a white lie necessary in executing the elaborate escapade I was chest-deep in the middle of.

“Wow, it REALLY doesn’t look like you at all,” the persistent persecutor mused as her biting words enticed the cop and other DMV employees to congregate in a semi-circle behind her like rubbernecking motorists to an accident. This was clearly the most excitement this place has seen in a LONG time. I guess I do not blame them—how often do you see a guy sporting a bushy beard, with very long unkempt hair donning the sharpest suit outside of a courtroom in your local motor vehicle office?

The suit, I thought was a nice touch; a way to add a little class and validity to the wig. I thought I would be seen as a business professional that happened to enjoy long hair (an eccentric lawyer or small business owner perhaps). What I mistakenly overlooked was the sheer discrepancy between the two appearance factors. My intentions towards vindication had backfired eliciting the exact opposite reaction from these people: one of doubt, conspicuousness, and scrutiny rather than a preferred welcoming and procedural air. If I had worn torn jeans and a leather jacket with a Born to Ride patch on the back, I think I would have encountered a fraction of the prying eyes.

The vast contrast between my current appearance and the older photo she held in her hand was a clearly justified red flag, but not an antithesis that could technically be contested, as I was VERY prepared for just this scenario. Due to the brilliance of the immaculate portfolio of identification provided by me for specifically this purpose, only the hardest of asses would attempt to discredit the encyclopedic ensemble of credentials before them. As this woman of imposing authority studied me intently, I could tell that she began seeing the resemblances as she looked at my face, focusing on my eyes, mouth, and nose and comparing them to the details in my old license. It was a few moments later when she was taking into consideration the thorough dossier in front of her that I knew I had won. I could see in her face that there was no justification for dispute here, I was indeed the man I claimed to be and in minutes I would have achieved exactly what I came here to do.

“Ok, stand in front of the blue square on the wall over there,” the woman said to me in resignation. I obliged happily and prepared myself for the moment I had been anticipating. As this other lady—slightly older than the other, fiddled with the camera I readied the biggest smile I could muster and held it for whenever she decided to click the button. I stood there steady as a totem and braced feverishly for that fateful lens to capture my face—etching it in time what to me, was a true achievement in humor, my dearest friend and partner in arms. SNAP went the camera as the jubilation rushed through my body like the building of a huge sneeze. I had done it! The picture was taken, and I had won the day, fooling everyone in the room.

While I awaited my finished identification my thoughts went to Andy Kaufman and the countless stunts he pulled in his brilliant career. To pull this stunt off was if anything, a tribute to Andy and anyone else who dared to put everything on the line in the name of comedy. After all you cannot take life too seriously, especially if an opportunity is presented to you for a great practical joke. One would be remiss to think otherwise.

Any moment now, it would be ready. The anticipation of seeing the final product was killing me. I could not wait to lay my eyes on this absurd new license, and I was even more anxious to show everyone in my life what I had accomplished. Anticipating the hilarity that would ensue from this made every ounce of nerves I felt in the process well worth it.

The woman told me I may want to consider taking another picture soon after I was done with the long hair so I would more closely resemble my old self in case I was ever pulled over. I nodded in agreement with her, knowing full well I would never do that. This picture was way too good to only use for a few months. I wanted the delight of walking around with this photo for the next four years and was not concerned at all with any legal implications that could possibly ensue as a result, as I knew there was nothing illegal about it.

My signature was spot-on, I had all the proper identification and had all the answers to the questions asked. So, I did not look like my picture in person, do you have any idea how many people do not currently look like their license picture? I don’t have that answer for you, but I am sure the number is pretty high.

All these thoughts went out of my head as I was finally handed my new license (my first one featuring all the new digital watermarks and imprinting modifications, which ensured near-impossible forgery). Looking at it, I had to hold back the laughter as I gazed at the huge smile plastered across my face in the picture…and that waterfall of long brown hair accompanied by that colorful austere suit…oh man, I was impressed with myself for actually pulling it off.

I thanked everyone at the counter and said goodbye, further staring at the license as I headed for the exit. I could tell they were still watching me skeptically as I ventured further and further away from them like a camel fleeing the desert sun.

As soon as I could I paraded my new license around like a mother with a newborn. I showed it to family, friends, and coworkers to glorious, howling laughter and high marks. Some people laughed so hard they could not breathe; another friend of mine fell off his chair—satisfying results of a prank gone right. Accolades like these made me feel like a comedic god and further cemented my dedication to entertainment. Making people laugh can be addictive – a drug in itself, and one I am not ashamed to enjoy.

Laughter as they say is the best medicine and I am in total agreement. Too many people get consumed by their black clouds that they forget what really matters, choosing to focus their priorities in the wrong direction. We should take proactive steps on the daily basis to ensure that we spend a greater time smiling, laughing, and pursuing our dreams rather than engaging in negative preoccupation. We must do whatever we can to make ourselves truly happy and direct our energy towards activities that leave us feeling positive and fulfilled at the end of the day. For me, it was a prank containing a silly wig; a sharp suit and a wily smile…only time will tell what the next prank will be.

My Writing Journey

By Christopher Pickhardt

I have worked as a writer for the better part of the last ten years. Focusing primarily on copywriting (and SEO) and other types of web content, I have helped individuals and businesses with their online presence in various capacities. I have also written several scripts for film and television as well as collaborated with other writers on creative projects over the years.

Writing has been in my DNA from an early age and served as one of the strong-suits of my academic career. But earning a living through the written word took many, many years and a LOT of effort. Those of us with a creative streak know too well how hard it can be to make a living in one’s chosen field, so we often juggle other lines of work to pay the bills in support of our true passion. I have held MANY jobs in a wide variety of industries on my journey as a writer and all-around creative professional.

Corporate VIP Relocation Coordinator. Standardized Patient. Videographer. Video Producer. Video Editor. Waiter. Bartender. Market Research Panelist.

Those are just some of the titles I have carried over the years on my path as a professional writer. Each position allowed me to hone a different set of skills that not only helped me to be a well-rounded person, but also informed my creativity by offering a bounty of experiences to pull from. I am the person I am today because of the person I was years ago and the ups and downs of my story have truly enriched my life for the better.

 

Traversing the Corona Virus Roadblock

Empty NYC 2020

By Christopher Pickhardt

The world is on pause right now as it collectively battles the fast-spreading Corona Virus aka Covid-19. The proactive and preventive measures governments worldwide are taking in order to slow down the spread of the virus are unprecedented in modern times. From Shelter-in-place orders in California and New York City and social distancing measures across the rest of the country, governors are urging citizens to stay home as much as possible in order to prevent spikes in Corona Virus cases from inundating our already overloaded hospitals and healthcare facilities.

All non-essential businesses have been ordered closed in an effort to prevent mass gatherings of people. Cities around the world have come to a virtual standstill, with eerily empty roads and highways sitting quietly like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Since many of these measures went into effect early last week, millions of people across the country became unemployed overnight, as their “non-essential” jobs evaporated before their eyes. Schools and universities have been closed. Wait staff and bartenders, barbers and hair stylists, actors and actresses and all types of performers, all suddenly without employment. Restaurants are only permitted to serve take-out and delivery. The entire travel industry, including cruise lines, airlines, resorts and hotels have all been affected because of the virus. That leaves only grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, medicinal Marijuana dispensaries and a few other businesses open to the public. It has been strongly recommended that we only venture out of the house to either exercise (while honoring social distancing of at least 6 feet from the person next to us) or to pick up vital provisions like medicine and food. The rest of the time we must stay indoors.

As we all adapt to this new normal, there is a massive cloud of uncertainty hanging overhead. It is unknown how long we will have to remain bunkered down in our homes, as we have never been here before – at least not on this scale. The Influenza pandemic of 1918 aka “The Spanish Flu” lasted almost two years and affected 500 million people, but that was at a time where we were a lot less connected than we are today. It did not take long for the Corona Virus to spread from China to all corners of the globe. In three months this little virus has caused BIG trouble planet-wide. And in its wake, families are left doing what they can to get by day by day. We all have to take precautions to stay healthy – both physically and mentally, as we are continually bombarded by the media with stories of woe and tragedy, leaving us feeling a bit helpless at times and very uneasy.

I am trying hard to keep a positive state of mind in all this chaos and focus on proactive measures aimed at ensuring a cash flow during this crisis. As a creative professional I have taken a financial hit myself. Film, television and theatrical productions have virtually shut down nationwide, leaving an entire industry in a state of limbo until this pandemic calms down. Some casting is still going on, with a majority of opportunities focused on remote from home work. The voiceover industry especially is thankfully still up and running, so at least I have that. But my video production work that helps keep me afloat has all but ceased for the time being, as many companies are focused on simply surviving this epidemic rather than moving forward with marketing initiatives.

As employees across the globe switch to working from home, that leaves many companies running a physical skeleton crew at their facilities, which means my avenues for sales calls are limited at the moment. The couple projects my partner and I do have on the books are pretty much on hold for the moment, as the ban on public gathering prevents us from actively filming anything right now. Additionally, the few nights a week that I work at a restaurant to fill in my financial gaps has also disappeared before my eyes, as there is a moratorium on in-person dining in effect until further notice. So given that I am relegated to staying home, I am switching gears and turning my attention to writing for the foreseeable future. I am hoping to snag some new freelance writing clients to help weather this all-encompassing storm as well as working on some creative writing projects that have been resting on the back-burner for a while.

I hope this crisis will not last too long, but however long it does last I am going to make the best of this window and work to be as productive as possible. I pray we will all get through this Corona Virus situation safely and most importantly healthy. God speed.

 

Heavy Lies the Crown of Leadership

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Prairie
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Prairie, Texas February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Christopher Pickhardt

After day one of the Democratic National Convention last night in Philadelphia, what is clear (and what has been evident for some time) is that the party is broken, the political and economical system is rigged and America is divided. This was especially apparent after last week’s disastrous Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump was anointed the new authoritative king of the right wing.

The Democrats have chosen to anoint their own queen, Hillary Clinton, who has hungered for the Presidency as much as Bill hungers for a fresh intern. Clinton’s ascension to the Democratic nomination has been a tumultuous journey as we all know; fraught with party divisiveness, alleged voter fraud, the FBI email scandal and the now infamous DNC email debacle which has forced the resignation of committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who takes most of the blame for the committee’s blatant favoring of Clinton over Bernie Sanders; whose campaign they actively worked to sabotage. So it is suffice to say that the Democrats are truly a dysfunctional mess of a family who now after continued marginalization and unfair treatment, have asked the recipient of their venom – Bernie Sanders, to step up and fix the problems THEY CREATED. The amount of balls these party “leaders” are exhibiting are clearly gigantic.

But, Bernie is a big enough man to see the grand picture and will do what needs to be done to unify the party and ensure Donald Trump does not become our next President; regardless of hurt feelings, resentment and pettiness. Sanders has continually presented himself as a vessel for a MOVEMENT that is greater and more important than ONE MAN and his humble declaration of progressive change over personal ego is a unique marvel to witness.

Regardless of party or ideology, a political leader’s job is to show the way and to present ideas with conviction and heart. And most importantly, one must LISTEN to the people and actually HEAR what they have to say and then TAKE ACTION on their behalf. Bernie has heard the call and is following the will of the people in pursuit of a better America – a country that, as Bernie says, belongs to ALL OF US and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors. We can all learn a lot from this man, who has selflessly driven a movement with integrity, poise, unity and a deep deep love of country.

THIS is what a TRUE leader looks like.

So in the end it appears as though Bernie did not win the fight, but he has won the war. His ability to grow his campaign from a tiny upstart in New Hampshire to the behemoth grassroots movement it has become – all without big corporate donations, is an incredible accomplishment. Throughout this Primary season, Bernie was able to get over thirteen million votes and tens of thousands of volunteers to help spread his message across America and around the world. Bernie has also negotiated with Democratic leaders to adopt many of his initiatives going forward – like a $15/hour minimum wage, making public college tuition-free a reality and further combating climate change (among others) and he has forced the Right-leaning Clinton to move more to the Left.

[For the entire Democratic Platform look no further: https://www.demconvention.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Democratic-Party-Platform-7.21.16-no-lines.pdf]

In other words, his impact is unmistakable. Sanders’ efforts have set in motion a grand tide for change which have inspired a generation of young people, who will be the future of America, to take part in moving the country forward . They just have to show up and carry the torch Bernie has so graciously burdened himself with to this point. If the roars of applause he received last night as he approached the podium  to give the evening’s closing speech are any indication, Bernie Sanders’ appeal and popularity have not dwindled – even after the furor that his supporters unleashed as he officially endorsed Hillary Clinton less than two weeks before. The cheers, clapping and adulation lasted for what seemed like an eternity and as Bernie struggled to quell his following’s accolades, you could see on his face just how touched and humbled he was by this display. After all this time it appeared as though he was still not used to this kind of admiration.

Thank you, Bernie. Your efforts and passion will be remembered long after we are all dead. And that is a remarkable feat, for very few candidates linger in the collective memories for more than the length of the cycle. The 2016 Primary will be one for the record books and I know history will mark Bernie Sanders’ name with a huge bookmark.

Bernie in LA

The actor’s main struggle is chasing that next job.

Point Break Chse

By Christopher Pickhardt

Unless you are in a long-running TV show or play, you are always facing the inevitable hunt for the next gig. And even then, the future can still be uncertain, for a show or play’s future relies greatly on its audience – or lack thereof. It can be challenging and frustrating to not have job security; especially if you are not one of the Hollywood A-listers who demand millions in salaries.

As an actor, you must consistently apply to all relevant breakdowns on the casting sites, continually hone your craft in workshops and with coaches and self-promote yourself to the industry on the regular basis. You must audition, audition, audition and then audition some more. One must learn to BE COMFORTABLE in that room or face the prospect of continued unemployment. That means learning to RELAX and ENJOY the RIDE. The actor’s daily routine is tedious, meticulous and time-consuming – not to mention expensive. You must have discipline and perseverance if you want to get anywhere in this business. Like anything in life, it is what YOU make of it. Effort = reward. You can’t expect results without putting in the time. I know that more than anyone, believe me.

I find that this process can be hard to navigate at times, especially given all the obstacles that life and the world throws in front of us. It is SO easy to get off track or to fall victim to a lazy moment. But it is that struggle that makes the journey that much more rewarding, as you see the fruits of your labor manifested in front of your eyes. For me, it is the big picture and incremental progress that sustains my fight during the hard times. I am proud of the progress I have made in the last few years. I am further than I was, but still not where I want to be ideally.

So I travel further up the road, chasing this dream with no end in sight and no timeline to confine my path. I am in it to win it and will proceed until my dying breath. Why? Because I have no choice, this is who I am. And it is up to me to follow my heart and use my God-given gifts to make a life for myself that lives up to my potential. Every action brings me a step closer to where I want to be and God-willing, I will arrive at my destination sooner rather than later.

Every Dog Has His Day

OG Old Men

Meet Terrence, Clouse and Victor. These guys are brothers – in fact they are triplets. The two on the left in the white shirts are Siamese Twins and the third brother in the checkered shirt was born with them but unattached. So needless to say, he always felt left out during their childhood, as the conjoined brothers were very close. Often they would exclude the other brother, to which he always screamed and yelled to their parents for intervention. Usually the parents would force the Siamese siblings to include their lonely brother in their activities. Begrudgingly, they would oblige but not without protest or revenge.

One afternoon when they were 15 years old the Siamese brothers tricked their brother into thinking that they wanted him to join them in the basement to sneak some peeks at their father’s collection of Look magazines. As soon as their brother came down the stairs, they locked him in a closet where they had previously hidden a case of rotten fish from their uncle’s market. They laughed and ran upstairs leaving their poor brother in the closet for hours until their parents came home. The week of grounding they received for this cruelty was well worth it to these two evil cohorts.

But this was not the last time their brother would fall victim to their manipulative ways – in fact, for 70 years the two brothers always got the better of their gullible brother; partly because Victor had an IQ of 68 but mostly because he always believed his brothers would one day come around and include him out of love. He always gave them the benefit of the doubt – which never, ever worked in his favor. Sadly to make matters worse, as his brothers became very successful in their careers as exotic professional gigolos, satisfying women from all five of New York’s boroughs, their lonely desperate brother had no other options in his life but to become their assistant; always in the shadows of his two Machiavellian brothers, cleaning up after their messy escapades for table scraps.

It was not until the day in this photo, on their 90th birthdays that Victor finally got his revenge. He convinced his brothers to join him for Gelato and coffee in Little Italy to celebrate their landmark birthday. He told his brothers that Raquel Welch was performing a juggling routine at noon, to which his brothers became both aroused and delighted at the prospect of seeing such a famous vixen in the flesh. So they accompanied their brother to a square in Little Italy for a promised day of fun and games.

As they sat eating Gelato and awaiting Ms. Welch, the Siamese brothers began to get impatient as to what the delay was. Their brother reassured them that she was coming soon, knowing full well that she was not. He smiled to himself because what his brothers did not know was that he paid a young kid $100 to line the part of the bench where his brothers were sitting with industrial strength glue prior to their arrival. So in essence Terrence and Clause were literally stuck to the bench – they just didn’t know it yet. This fact would become evident in mere moments.

As Victor prepared for his grand prank he felt an anticipated rumbling in his stomach (the consequence of eating 5 dishes of rich creamy Gelato) which he deliberately brought upon himself for this fateful day. Knowing he did not handle Lactose well at all he was about to have a major incident in his pants. As the sensation got more and more urgent Victor knew he had only moments to accomplish his mission.

Right then, a Raquel Welch impersonator appeared in the square and began juggling cantaloupes. Terrence and Clause clapped in sheer joy and began singing to her happily. Victor grinned and swiftly excused himself (knowing that the timing was perfect) and walked behind the bench (where a ladder was lying in wait for him, thanks to the kid). He quickly stood the step ladder up and climbed it so he was hovering over his brothers. They were too distracted to even notice his absence.

Victor waited for the right moment – for when everything in his stomach was falling into place. Just as the faux Raquel added a watermelon to her routine Victor unbuckled his pants and dropped them to his feet, exposing his wrinkled behind to the world.

With a forceful push and a smile wider than a boomerang, Victor evacuated what must have been three gallons of wet waste all over his horrendous brothers. As Terrence and Clause struggled and panicked to get off the bench their despair only grew in bounds as they realized they were most certainly trapped. They screamed, they yelled, they vomited – all to their brother’s delight. Victor laughed the most maniacal laughter heard since the first bandit in a top hat tied a hero’s girlfriend to a train track back in the 1800’s. This was Victor’s proudest moment. His brothers were covered in what resembled pudding with meatballs. Victor got a lifetime of revenge in only a few short seconds.

As he climbed down the ladder and pulled up his pants he looked at his two sobbing, coughing brothers and smiled. He was proud of his accomplishment – his life’s work. He walked around to face Terrence and Clause and took a bow. He then said “happy birthday boys, payback’s a bitch” and calmly strolled away, leaving the spectacle of his siblings for the crowds of people all around to gawk at in horror.

As Victor was about a block away he saw a news van fly to the scene – to which he laughed very hard. He thought to himself how he was going to top this if they made it to 100 years old. He figured he had plenty of time to think about it. He hailed a taxi, got in and headed for home, telling the cab driver to stop at the grocery store first so he can get some Depends.

What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to Me.

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By Christopher Pickhardt

Just about ten years ago, in 2006, my best friends and I embarked on a grand creative journey. Out of the blue, we decided to form a production company (Crazy Elk Productions) and produce an independent film called ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate,’ an ambitious dark comic adventure film that consumed the better part of six years of our lives. It was  an amazing creative experience for us that I can look back on with a great sense of accomplishment (as I was heavily involved in its making in the form of co-writer, co-producer, actor and co-editor, among many other hats alongside director Jason J. Dale).

It was a monumental task producing an ambitious project like this on such a shoestring budget, but with that challenge came tremendous rewards. Now that the film is in the can and we are past the film festival submission wormhole, we are actively looking to get the film out into the world; which is a whole other challenge in itself, but one that has greater chances of success than it did just a few short years ago, when you consider the advent of the digital distribution age we find ourselves in. I feel good about the future of this film and look forward to the world feasting their eyes on it.

I felt it was apropos to share an essay that I wrote back in 2009 as we were knee-deep into production on this film, for it really provides a window into the world of independent filmmaking and into the soul of the grassroots artist. Additionally, make sure to check out the film’s trailer below the essay, which I have included for your joyous perusal…

  What Fight the Panda Syndicate Means to ME

We have had a motto that has somewhat guided us since we began this journey on ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’: what we lack in budget, we make up for in creativity. Given our meager resources I am very proud of what we have produced thus far. Lacking a large nest egg to cushion us, we have been forced to really get imaginative with how we have been making this film. Whether it is stretching the dollar to limits unseen by fund raising and bargain hunting or throwing away all conventional ways of storytelling and production, we have slaved since day one to achieve our filmmaking dreams. And as we watch the film come together in the editing process, like pieces of a puzzle, we stand behind another motto, one we adopted around the same time as the prior: ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is the greatest independent film ever made. A bold statement to be sure, and one ‘El Mariachi’ fans may dispute, but never the less, one I will stand behind until the day I die.

It is hard to put into words what ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ means to me. How do you express a love this strong in words? I can honestly say I have never loved anything as much as this film. IT is my baby, my passion and the single most important thing in my life. My best friends and I have been working on this film for over two years now, going on three this summer. We have spent countless hours producing this project: discussing, planning, shooting, sweating, problem solving, bleeding and pressing on, as obstacle after obstacle, problem after problem, and antagonist after fucking antagonist has attempted to get in our way. We will not be deterred, not by the naysayers, the worrywarts, the assorted Riff-Raff, the inevitable financial woes or any other unforeseen force that is always working against this film. But, that is the life of the filmmaker and even on big budget films; there are nothing but obstacles and problems to address. So one must just keep their chin up and soldier on.

‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ will be finished this year and then everyone can finally see the fruits of our labor, which is an independent film like no other. It is a film that transcends genres, is rich with character, ripe with humor, filled with action and danger and is truly a passion-filled ‘labor of love’ that started with four friends sitting around a kitchen table one night discussing ‘what if?’ This grand experiment, for lack of a better word, has grown into a family of creative artists over 400 strong from all over the north east. We are building a creative revolution, a collaboration of not only artists, but friends, who together are helping each other achieve their personal goals while striving for greater heights creatively and personally. This film is just the beginning of something truly remarkable, for it signifies that anything can be done no matter how impossible the odds against its success are and that if you work TOGETHER, ANYTHING can be achieved. ‘Fight the Panda Syndicate’ is just the first of many creative endeavors we will be working on together in all artistic realms in and out of film.

I sometimes find myself in disbelief at all we have accomplished. It is truly daunting to think of all we have been through since we started this film back in 2006. I pinch myself at times just to make sure this surreal dream is indeed a reality and not a sick Matrix-type joke I have been sleeping through. My dreams are unfolding before my eyes, almost too fast, and I find myself struggling to keep my mind on anything else. I can honestly say that ninety percent of the time I am not here; I am lost in my dream world physically present, but mentally on another plain going a hundred miles a minute in the idea super-highway. It is a place I don’t ever want to leave. Why would I want to?

This has been one HELL of a ride, filled with DRAMA the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. It is as if a door was opened into another world once production began on this film, bringing forth both great and terrible experiences; leaving our lives behind the scenes resembling a movie in itself. We have been through SO much these last couple years, both creatively and personally. Almost everyone involved with this project has had to deal with some pretty heavy shit, but we are still going strong, still fighting the good fight to get this thing finished. I am happy to say we are closer to the end than ever before with a rough cut actually in sight. The excitement is starting to brew, for nobody really has any idea what is in store for them! I am so excited for everyone I know and love to see this film that I feel high all the time, like I am floating along on a current of intense positive energy.

I am very thankful to God for the amazing family and close-knit circle I have been blessed with; I could not have asked for anything better. Without my belief in God and the strength that gives me and us each day, we would not have gotten through half the madness we have overcome. It is through faith and hope and the memory of my Mom that guided us through some of the hardest and darkest days and into the bright clearing we are at today. We have learned a lot and also gained much more wisdom these last couple of years; I know I am a better person because of it all.

In the end, experience builds strength, which in turn creates wisdom, which finally influences our character and makes us the enlightened people we are meant to be. I look forward to all the wonderful experiences the future has in store for us as we embark on a continuing quest for creative Zen – a place we can truly reach if we continue to work hard and to BELIEVE. And we will, I know it…right here in northern New Jersey, right under our noses; who knew?

Below, is the link to the film’s trailer:

The White Suit Incident

 

 

The White Suit
The infamous White Suit, in all its punishing glory.

Childhood, as we are very well aware, is the make or break period in our lives, there is no dancing around it. Our battle training begins in first grade and concludes freshman year of high school where we then generally enter the adolescence arena. Those formative years which are riddled with fluctuation, have a gargantuan role in shaping your academic and especially social position among your peers. I learned this from experience many years ago from an event which was scarring at the time but is rather hilarious to me now to reflect upon all these years later. This unique experience from third grade was integral in shaping my social status among my peers and effectively ensured that for a time, I was considered a weirdo or something along those lines. This experience, the time my Mother persuaded me to attend my first sleepover party in a three-piece white suit, has been deemed the White Suit Incident.

My Mother ALWAYS had the best of intentions and consistently put the interests of me and my sisters at the forefront of everything she did. In fact, it can be said that my Mother sacrificed SO MUCH to have us and lived her life FOR us. At eighteen she was diagnosed with Lupus, a terribly debilitating autoimmune disease that ravaged her body for almost forty years. Her doctors warned that having children would severely aggravate her condition, but she did not care and could not fathom the prospect of not having children with my father. So, in other words, my sisters and I felt the weight of what our Mother went through to bring us into the world. It is very poignant for me to reflect on all the educational and dramatic experiences my family shared over the years and the funny scenarios that have also helped shape the life I have lived. My parent’s guided us from our childhood through adolescence and into adulthood; their actions serving as beacons towards the right path…usually.

One piece of advice from my Mother (and its resulting event) was remarkably fateful and would prove to be more influential on my life than just about any other. Until that point – in Third Grade, I had never been invited to sleep over a friend’s house before, so understandably I was excited by the invitation. This wonderful invitation came from John, a newer friend, who was very good friends with (my good friend) Chris. Starting in first grade, Chris and I had become very friendly. I was kind of shy in the early days of first grade and Chris was notoriously loquacious from the moment I met him. Suffice to say we quickly became thick as thieves, as they say (and remain close today, more than thirty years later and counting). But back then, as I stated above, Chris was also good friends with two other guys in our class: John (whom you know) and Mike, whom I really did not begin to get to know too well until a couple years later in grade three, where this story takes place. So given my close friendship with Chris and our growing camaraderie as a group, I was invited to join the guys for a sleepover party at John’s house to celebrate his birthday one Friday night.

Elated and counting the hours until party time that spring evening, my Mom and I were packing my overnight bag with the usual roster of essentials: toothbrush and accompanying paste, pajamas, pillow & sleeping bag and the ever important clean underwear! I can only assume that in my Mother’s head this was some kind of grand occasion that called for only the best clothing, because I see no other explanation for why she said I should wear my white suit to this party. If I had previously attended a sleep over I would have been able to explain that these events are very casual, but being an overnight virgin, I did not know any better. Oh, the ignorance of youth…

My Mom was raised in Brazil in a very proper upper-class manner, attended boarding school along with her siblings and was always well dressed. So I gather it was this experience that shaped her views on her children’s appearance upon leaving the house every day, with no lack of influence from my Grandmother, who was even more dedicated to proper etiquette than my Mother was. I recall my Grandmother telling me upon my first trip on a plane that we should always dress nice for air travel. So it is not surprising looking back on it now, that my Mother always ensured that I wear proper dress clothing on the daily basis to school (slacks, nice shirt and loafers or some variation of dress shoes on my feet), with the firm caveat that I would be allowed to dress down and wear sneakers to school ONLY on the two days a week I had gym class. I bet you can imagine where this is going from here.

So given this upbringing, it was not even an issue when I was instructed to wear a three-piece white suit to the fateful sleepover party at John’s house. Not only was I used to formal attire and therefore did not think anything of it, but I was also a novice entering the world of childhood overnight escapades. In other words, I did not know what to expect. I just knew I was excited to have been invited to the party.

On the ride over to John’s house I felt the butterflies in my stomach jumping around as if they were bound to pogo sticks. The five-minute drive from my house to John’s across town felt like an eternity, with the anticipation of a night filled with misbehavior and the overeating of junk food corrupting my brain like an enveloping storm cloud. Although I had never been to a sleepover before, I had heard the roster of insanity that usually ensued once the parental units were out of sight, so now that the night was upon us, I was itching to get the evening started.

I finally arrived at the front door, dressed in my angelically-white ensemble that Hervé Villechaize (Tattoo from Fantasy Island) would have supported. Standing there with my bag, pillow and sleeping bag in toe, I excitedly rang the doorbell. My Mom was at the door behind me, ready to have the obligatory conversation with John’s mom that would ensure that her child was in good hands for the night. I can imagine parents must be nervous when their children become old enough to stay over other people’s homes, and unsure of how watchful these stranger’s eyes will be on their beloved child. To my Mother’s delight, John’s mom ensured her everything would be fine. A few moments passed as I said my goodbye to my Mom, walked through the door that was opened by John’s mom, who welcomed me in kindly and proceeded to point me in the direction of John’s bedroom where the guys were hanging out. I headed through the tidy living room, down the hall towards the bedroom, with a smile on my face and a skip in my step.

John’s bedroom was on the left-hand side of the hallway and I could see that the door was open. I announced my arrival and entered the room, where I saw John, Chris and Mike hanging out on the bed and floor, talking and laughing. To my surprise and to theirs, I was OVERDRESSED. It was as if a record skipped at the moment of my entrance, in classic movie fashion, where here instead of saying the wrong thing, I was WEARING it. I stood there in my formal wear observing the guys who were dressed in shorts; tie-dye t-shirts, no socks, looking totally comfortable and content. In sharp contrast, I walk in dressed for front row seats at an exclusive one-night only symphony at the New York Philharmonic. If the word awkward had never before had a definition, this moment would have been an inspired narrative to explain not only the word’s meaning but its definitive origin.

I felt like the eyes of the world were upon me as I put down my things and greeted the guys, who were snickering innocently with their mouths agape; undoubtedly shocked at the prospect of having a young butler crash their party.

“Hey guys,” I said, still happy to be part of John’s birthday.

“Why are you so dressed up?” Chris said, his tie-dye shirt burning a hole into my retina. “My Mom thought it was appropriate,” I said to him, deferring the blame. “She’s Brazilian, they dress nice there.”

“It’s a bit much for tonight, don’t you think?” Chris added. “We’re dressed like slobs,” he concluded in the most clearly evident self-awareness I had ever witnessed up until that point. I remember envying their pure comfort, wishing I could be in similar rags while simultaneously hating that neither my Mother nor I had thought to bring a change of clothes with me in case of a situation like the one I was presently experiencing occurred. “Sit down and get comfortable,” John implored. “We’re gonna have pizza soon.” And just like that, the moment passed. I sat down and we began to hang out, goof off and eventually devour several pizzas.

Looking back it must have been like that scene in Goodfellas where Maury was at the card game with De Niro, Liotta and Pesci during the sequence where he was close to being whacked and had no idea. Maybe that is why I always felt bad for him – the illusion of security among your peers is immensely intoxicating. We can never be too sure how genuine our acceptance really is at that young age.

As the evening progressed, I recall a trip to the local arcade for several rounds of video games, followed by pretzel-making back at the house afterwards or possibly before (I may have the food timeline mixed up), but regardless of order, it was a richly pleasing feast of fat and carbohydrates no doubt and the first time I ever made my own pretzel. The anticipation we felt waiting for them to be ready was intolerable and the increasing aroma of those fat, salty twists of dough teased our noses for what felt like hours. That first bite of warm dough and salty contrast was truly a marvel and one I will never forget.

The junk-food marathon of Roman Vomitorium proportions did not stop there, no sir. It continued with chips, cheese puffs, popcorn, ice cream and cake into the wee early hours of the morning as we watched back-to-back science fiction and horror movies in John’s basement. It was also the first time I had ever seen either of the first two Alien movies, which are classics to me now, but to a bunch of kids about 9 years old, were films that were too slow-starting to draw our attention at that age. We definitely turned both of them off after a few minutes, feeling bored with the exposition and impatient for some bloody action. Kids…

Next, I believe we perused scenes from various Freddy movies, as they were called by us (the Nightmare on Elm Street series, to the uninformed), and eventually settled on Creepshow as our feature presentation, a Stephen King anthology horror film, put together like stories from a comic book. This blood-fest was definitely more our speed and we watched it from beginning to end with great delight. To this day, I have vivid memories of this film, with The Crate, being the most terrifying and entertaining segment of the film. That horrifying creature is still one of the scariest monsters I have ever seen in a movie (bravo to Tom Savini for his wonderful creature effects). I was at a horror convention a few years ago and was told by the man himself, that that terrifying hairy beast with razor teeth and evil eyes was named Fluffy on the film’s set, which kind of takes away from the trepidation it is meant to evoke in the viewer.

Eventually we fell asleep, sometime in the early AM hours and awoke mid-morning that Saturday to a grand breakfast. Thanks again (if she is reading this) to John’s mom for preparing a memorable plethora of culinary delights for John and his ravenous guests. After breakfast we went for a walk in the woods near John’s house, eventually entering into a large area of undeveloped land called “the sandpits,” an apropos name for an area composed mostly of sand dunes and adjoining wooded areas hidden behind the local industrial park and residential neighborhoods.

Remember that feeling I had in John’s bedroom where the fog was lifted and I did not feel conspicuous in the white suit? Well, that feeling went away and the uncomfortable awkwardness had returned with a vengeance once we commenced our hike through the dunes of the sandpits. As I trudged through dense, cascading sand in my polished white dress shoes, ensconced in that cursed virginal white suit on an unseasonably-hot spring afternoon all I could think of was how ridiculous I felt in this getup. The entire ordeal was not exactly conducive to enjoyment or to cardiovascular activity for that matter. The only positive aspect to all this absurdity was that the sheer whiteness of my suit deflected the sun away from me a little bit, while assuredly blinding any birds that were unfortunate enough to fly overhead that afternoon.

I recall that we eventually split up into groups of two, Chris and John pairing up and Mike and I partners in expedition. Mike was very kind to me as he played down the white suit, insisting that I should not worry about it. I always remembered that in the years that followed, as it was a kind and thoughtful gesture. If memory serves, I think Chris and John had made some comments about my attire that morning, in a tag-team sort of fashion in an effort to bust my balls. I rolled with it the best I could, even if their remarks made me feel embarrassed. I did not feel like I fit in that afternoon as we hiked through the mountainous sand, which I am sure Mike picked up on as we navigated the mirage of dunes together. The more we trekked, the more uncomfortable I felt in my skin and especially in that fucking suit. I felt my body sweat like a leaking faucet and I was breathing heavily and cursing the manufacturer of the white equivalent of the Scarlett Letter I was trapped in. There is a reason athletes do not dress up for these occasions. My Mother apparently did not get that memo.

Do Brazilians hike in suits? Is that why their sexuality and raw animalistic attraction is renown around the world, because they dress to the nines for every aspect of their luscious tan lives? I should have consulted my Grandmother before she passed, for the dressing guidelines of South American sportsman. I have a sneaking suspicion there is a Portuguese expression for guys like me in this situation that would probably translate to “poor kid never had a chance.”

Thankfully, a little while later our hike ended and we reached the end of the sandpits, where Chris and John were already waiting. The four us headed out of the woods together headed back to civilization and by the time we got back to John’s house all our parents were already on their way to pick us up to go home. I remember being excited to strip off that suit and change into something, ANYTHING more comfortable and make sure my Mother explicitly understood what she had unknowingly put me through. I think I wore that suit MAYBE one more time after that day and it was for a holiday or some other special occasion.

Alas, in the end, I did survive the white suit incident and graduated from that to many other social and wardrobe faux-pas in my years from grammar school to early college; learning as I evolved, that white suits, red sweat pants & sweatshirt together, silk shirts or a jean Snapple jacket (although admired by me), were not fashions easily found among the pages of GQ magazine or likely to give you positive word of mouth among the female constituency. If I took anything useful away from that humiliating experience, it was that sleepover parties are a fairly casual occasion and the expectation of attire is on the lower end.

It is a testament to my perseverance and character that as embarrassing as that event was for me in the moment, I really don’t remember carrying it with me in the days, weeks, months and years that followed. It happened and I moved on from it. It was not until many years later that I learned of the profound impact that outfit had on me socially-speaking. I was informed probably around the time I was in college, that after the sleepover party, I was secretly looked at with an askew eye by Chris and the guys in the wake of the legendary white suit fiasco. It was completely unbeknownst to me, that from their perspective, I was “working off” that image for several years until I was officially accepted within their ranks. I guess it was cool of them to at least not make that fact obviously clear to me at the time. Or was it? Is it worse to not know? Who cares at this point?

You have to make your mark early and etch your name on the social totem pole as soon as possible or risk being the subject of ridicule and banishment forever from the graces of coolness. If only I had been given that memo in the third grade and allowed my Mother to read it, perhaps then the formative years of my life would have been drastically different. If I could go back in time now and change aspects of my life’s journey, I would probably decline because I am the person I am today because of whom I was back then.

We all make mistakes, have missteps and endure challenges as we evolve from children to adults, but hopefully we will learn from them and grow into stable, confident adults who can fulfill lifelong dreams and contribute to society. In a way I am now thankful that my Mom made me wear that monkey suit that night, not only because it gave me another unique story to tell years later (one that could only happen to me), but more importantly, because it allowed me to understand the value of making a good first impression; whether it is in school, socially, romantically or professionally. The first thoughts people have the moment they meet you are usually the ones that stick, so do what you can to make that first impression as great and as embarrassment-free as possible.

This landmark event also taught me to suck it up and make the best of any situation, because you don’t often get many do-overs in life. So even when you are shuffling through shin-deep sand in formal-wear, try your damnedest to shuffle exceptionally. My Mother had a saying that has stayed with me ever since I was a kid that is “always put your signature on everything you do.” I hear those wise words in my head all the time and consult them whenever I have a challenge on my plate. Maybe they guided me in the sand dunes that morning following the sleepover party and motivated me to just tough it out the best that I could.

In the end, whether we like it or not, our parents are with us forever – their voices, teachings and wisdom inevitably influencing us throughout our entire life, and no matter how painful or embarrassing certain events may be for us, they usually carry with them the most useful lessons. For me, it was a white suit. What was it for you?

 

The Revenant

The-Revenant-poster

Review:

The Revenant

***1/2 stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

The magnificent trailer for The Revenant that was released last year featured breathtaking visuals of the American wilderness inter-cut with harrowing action, a bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, the gruff-looking Tom Hardy and a harsh story-line of revenge, all underscored by the growing sound of breathing. It is this most vital intake of oxygen that serves as the key theme of this captivating and immersive film.

As anyone who has seen the trailer is aware, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass (loosely based on a real life fur trapper) is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his fellow outdoors-man John Fitzgerald (played by the always amazing and ferocious Tom Hardy). This is the basis for the film’s survival/revenge tale, which slowly unfolds before us with some of the most beautiful footage you will ever see on film. Visually this film is an unparalleled masterpiece which should net a third Oscar in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who is on an amazing hot streak (having received Academy Awards for last year’s Birdman and 2013’s Gravity) and will most likely produce a second in a row award for director Alejandro G. Inarritu (who collaborated with Lubezki on 2014’s best picture Birdman).

The Revenant may also win a best picture Oscar this year as well, especially given that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association made that very proclamation themselves at this past Sunday’s Golden Globes telecast. It certainly appears as though the blood, sweat and tears and apparent misery the cast and crew endured while making this film are paying off. The accolades, praise and award chatter the film has been receiving are understandable. There is so much excellence on display throughout the film’s two and a half hours that it is almost daunting to absorb.

The Revenant is definitely one of those films that will stay with you and linger in your mind for days, as the best moments are replayed all over again like a cinematic highlight reel. I was absorbed by the film’s ghostly atmosphere, with the vast expanse of the snowy mountains and bleak dark clouds overhead. I was sucked in by the tempered music, which featured the sound of a bell that rang softly in the background, underscoring the harrowing extreme conditions of our hero’s journey – both emotionally and physically. And I was awe-struck by the gorgeous photography that was painstakingly captured solely by natural light. No artificial lighting rigs were used to make this film, so you can imagine how long it took to get some of these amazing action sequences in the can – especially the scenes that featured long uninterrupted takes! Truly this is a feat of filmmaking if ever there was one and I would wager that not many productions can match this piece of work. The technical achievements of this film are the elements that impressed me the most, as the story is fairly simple. However, it is the way that Inarritu tells this story that makes it fresh and engaging to an audience that has seen everything – except nobody has seen anything like The Revenant. Few films have featured photography this stunning (except for maybe in a Terrence Malick film) or showcased the majesty of nature to such an extreme degree or delivered a grizzly bear fight that looked SO REAL that it is hard to fathom how the hell it was filmed. Everyone on this film pushed themselves and their creativity to the limit and each and every performer (both behind and in front of the camera) was one their game.

There is a lot of Oscar buzz floating around Leonardo DiCaprio for his work in this film and I expect it to intensify now that he has won the Golden Globe for this part. It was a deserved win for a terrific performance, but a fairly quiet one. DiCaprio did most of his acting with his eyes, speaking very little and carrying the film with a relatable determination of a man on a mission. DiCaprio surely gave his all for this part; having worn that scraggly beard for two years, slept inside an animal carcass and even ate a raw buffalo liver on-screen. That is dedication. This is definitely one of Leonardo’s best performances, but not THE best in my opinion.

I really felt he deserved the Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street. That was such a layered crazy performance that really showed a range and aptitude for comedy that we have never seen him exhibit before. If he does win this year I believe it will be a political win, given that there is a consensus that he has been overlooked and snubbed time and again. I do not disagree with that sentiment; the man is an incredible and reliable actor, who works his ass off on every film. I do not think anyone can ever accuse him of being lazy or phoning in a performance. I frankly do not get all the legions of Leo haters out there. You can’t rip someone apart continually because you did not like Titanic. The guy is a great actor.

Speaking of great actors, Tom Hardy, that powerhouse of a presence almost steals the movie, playing Fitzgerald, a ruthless rival fur trapper who cares only for himself, and manipulates the other members of the hunting party. One of his pawns is a younger naive man, Bridger (Will Poulter) who reluctantly goes along with Fitzgerald’s egregious act of abandoning Glass (DiCaprio) because he is not up to the task of standing up to the intimidating will of Fitzgerald, who is determined to get back to the fur trapping company’s fort to obtain his payment for this rough journey’s work. Hardy’s character is a guy who is not keen on authority and resents Glass, who has served as the company’s tracker as they travel through the wild in a six-month long quest for fur. Hardy’s Fitzgerald considers DiCaprio’s Glass a lousy guide who he alleges has led their party to considerable ruin and basically wants to cash out as soon as possible instead of traveling by foot through the mountains in an effort to avoid the Pawnee Indians who are in pursuit.

Fitzgerald also holds contempt for the company’s fair but stern leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), who Fitzgerald believes is mistaken for placing the company’s bounty of fur and their survival in the hands of a tracker that he deems incompetent. It is this building tension followed by that amazing grizzly bear attack (and one other major event I will not spoil) that serve as the catalysts for the film’s second act and eventual bloody conclusion.

In closing, I will reiterate that this is a marvelously made film with a bounty of texture and beauty, where every shot is a painting and every moment nuanced to perfection. In essence The Revenant is an art house film with a studio budget – truly a rarity in today’s blockbuster-hungry film climate. As I mentioned earlier, the theme of breathing or staying alive in other words, is a major thread throughout this film. Glass instills in his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) the idea that “if you can breathe, you can fight.” And as Glass struggles to survive from one potentially fatal obstacle to another on his vengeful journey, those words are echoed all around him – especially as he sees visions of his late wife and hears her voice guiding HIM through the darkness. Perhaps we can all take that message to heart during times of crisis. There is a lot of truth to that statement. If we can breathe, we most assuredly can fight. So as long as air is passing through our lungs, no obstacles are too large. All we need is the drive to push ourselves to the limit. Just like the makers of The Revenant did.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Spoiler-Free Review:

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

All I can say is the following: WOW, AMAZING, INCREDIBLE and AWE-INSPIRING.

I will break the mold a tad here and present my thoughts on this film in a rather unorthodox fashion today. As a longtime fan of the Star Wars franchise I have been through a lot over the years, which I am sure the other millions of fans can identify with as we have watched our beloved film series (the originals) evolve from a staple of our childhood entertainment to a mediocre trilogy of films (the prequels) that were supposed to be so much more.

This very (dare I say) traumatic emotional roller coaster us fans have experienced with this hallowed franchise also speaks volumes to the strained relationship we have had with Star Wars’ iconic creator George Lucas. It is this relationship with Luca’s world that makes the highly-anticipated arrival of this seventh film in the series so welcomed and is the reason why I have chosen instead to compose a thank you note to The Force Awakens’ creators instead of a traditional review. Here goes…

Thank you J.J. Abrams for making a respectful, perfectly crafted film FOR THE FANS to enjoy and not just solely as a corporate money grab. I found myself just sitting there in the theater entranced at times, like I was 6 years old all over again. It is clearly evident that this long-awaited film was made for the fans BY a fan. Each note and moment was exceptionally crafted, from the first frame to the PERFECTLY chosen last.

Thank you Kathleen Kennedy first and foremost, for taking the reins of Lucasfilm, secondly, for steering the franchise in the right direction and most importantly, for entrusting this grand responsibility to the perfect filmmaker, J.J. Abrams. I know Steven Spielberg also had a hand in referring Abrams for this job and for this assist Mr. Spielberg; I tip my hat to you.

Thank you Lawrence Kasdan for coming back to the world of Star Wars to write this film with J.J. (with additional early writing by Michael Arndt). Your contributions to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were remarkable and with The Force Awakens, were again paramount to this newest film’s success. You are a master of character and your voice is heard through these legendary characters’ dialogue.

And I would be remiss to not say thank you to the man who started it all, Mr. George Lucas. Sure us fans have some gripes and axes to grind about your countless tinkering with the original films we hold so dear, but our opinions and outrage have come from a place of love. Love for the world YOU created and painstakingly crafted for the rest of us to enjoy. Your vision, that grand horizon of adventure and imagination was so vast and enthralling that we were captivated from the moment we laid eyes on that impending Star Destroyer chasing that tiny spaceship through the dark abyss.

I applaud your ability to wrangle up the best people to help hone your creative vision and for the technological advancements that have come from those early blossoming days of Industrial Light and Magic. Film itself owes you a debt of gratitude and I raise a glass to your efforts and to your wise decision to pass the torch (or lightsaber) to Disney and allow it to burn forever.

I am one VERY satisfied fan and I feel very confident in the direction this new trilogy is headed. I feel good about the groundwork that is being laid down for Episodes VIII and IX and have the utmost trust in what Disney has in store for us, now that they are in control of the greatest film franchise in movie history. It was truly worth the long wait and I am counting down the days to the next one.