Sometime seven years ago, Jeff Rowe moved to Los Angeles. Two hours later, he was ready to leave-too many people were in his way. He had moved to L.A. to pursue writing and perhaps acting. Join the club. The reality of the situation dawned on him quickly: He was but a tiny fish in the ocean of Hollywood. Discouraged but not defeated, he persevered, and today he has his own film company, Small Man Films. I know, I know, everyone's tired of the small-town, local-guy-doing-well angle, but Rowe's story isn't so much one of overcoming the odds as one of empowerment.
I sat down with Rowe recently at Lucky 13 to discover what drives a man to make a film. Short answer: a restless ambition to question, to seek and to succeed. Having seen his comedy routine a couple of nights prior at the Funny Bone, I anticipated lively banter over a few (too many) bloody marys. But Jeff-Rowe-the-man and Jeff-Rowe-the-act are not the same entity. We discussed the history of New York City from its days as New Amsterdam to its modern incarnation as an American metropolis, bastion of commerce. We also talked about life in L.A. compared to life in Boise, the accompanying positives and negatives of anonymity and the tolerance and appreciation that constant exposure to diversity engenders.
One topic about which Rowe feels passionately is the power of media. Arguably situated in the nexus of American mass media (Hollywood), he holds an interesting perspective on the pabulum that is contemporary American television and major motion picture making. He considers the industry elitist, monopolistic and conspiratorial-yet another method that the "powers that be" utilize to manipulate the populace and ensure their tight grip on control. On some levels, he considers his new movie, I Gotta Be Better Than Keanu, to be on the avant-garde of an impending independent digital revolution; technology allowing the individual to circumvent and subvert the mainstream.
Rowe openly admits to having had an adolescent fascination with the idea of celebrity. "Movie star" seemed the perfect job to be rich, admired and adored, and free to do what you want. Though his achievement of that status in an industry saturated with mediocrity and hype has yet to occur, Rowe stands poised for the next step with the release of his first movie. Inspired by the national media's overwhelming and persistent coverage of the September 11 attacks, and armed with a digital camera and iMac, Rowe began working on the film in 2002. He proceeded to learn the necessary skills to develop his own film company-with a little help from his friends, of course. Approximately two years and $7,000 later, Rowe had roughed out the majority of the film. Following the 2004 presidential election, the resultant polarization of the United States into red and blue states fit neatly into Rowe's concept, so ... back to the "studio" to update the storyline. The result is entertaining and informative, possibly controversial; a film "about the importance of reading-investigating your own 'facts,' making your own decisions," says Rowe.
With elements of spoof, homage and exposé, I Gotta Be Better Than Keanu contains a little something for everyone. The movie tracks the progress of Common Paine (played by Rowe), a small town guy searching for fame, fortune and love, though possibly not in that order, in Hollywood. I had a strong sense of autobiographical leanings from Rowe in the early scenes. Common's first meeting with a sleazy agent/talent scout offers a surreal and pleasantly disturbing moment. Rowe weaves in music throughout these early segments to maintain the steady flow of Common's self-realizations: friends and relatives suggesting practical occupations; ridiculous acting classes encouraging spastic and exaggerated emotions; the despair and isolation of being on the outside looking in. Coupled with a crummy job waiting tables at a diner, these realizations allowed me to care about Common's struggles, though his luck changes when he notices the attractive neighbor across the street.
Throughout the film, Common preserves an acute self-awareness. His camera is a character in more ways than one. This post-modernist effect leads to an almost meta-movie-making: A movie about making a movie, or more accurately, a movie whose main character knows he's in a movie and scripts accordingly. Common's love interest, Angel, played by Hannah Harper, focuses this effect. His pursuit of her and her unwillingness to be "cast" as the lead female in his efforts leads to any number of quasi-intellectual discussions on the nature of being and evidences Common's shifting and peculiar reality. Despite numerous and languorous references (repetition is funny?) to Common's talents and attributes in bed, Angel holds out against Common's advances; however, she redirects his vigor and enthusiasm toward loftier goals.
With this redirection, the movie abruptly alters its course. Common hits the stacks in the library, unearths certain covert intelligence and determines it's his life's purpose to disseminate it to the world at large. The key word becomes "indoctrination." He spreads the word to those whose ears and eyes have long been filled with lies. This apparently was Rowe's message all along. He tricks viewers into becoming comfortable with an experience, a format they recognize and accept, and then BANG!-he hits them with political and social theory. He throws a lot of factoids out into the cosmos and encourages his audience to pursue and verify the depth of these conspiracies on their own. The final scenes impart a highly politicized charge to the film, and one scene addresses how the "corrupt" TV industry "even calls it programming."
Rowe has submitted I Gotta Be Better Than Keanu to several film festivals and has a busy circuit in the next few months. The film will also show in the Idaho International Film Festival this fall. Incidentally, numerous shots were done right here in Idaho with local folks involved at the Capital Building and out in Kuna. The title of the film refers to Rowe's questioning Keanu Reeves' acting skills, particularly after Devil's Advocate, in which in one scene Reeves has an affected Southern drawl, and in the next, voila, it's gone. That movie struck a chord with Rowe, a huge Pacino fan. Industry sources say that Keanu may make a cameo appearance in a later version of Rowe's film. I, for one, am anxiously holding my breath.