How Art Begins

Four years ago, Alexandre O. Philippe (shown here with his financée, Vanessa Bogehold, tonight at the Starz Filmcenter) had an hour to kill at Denver’s airport. He strayed into a bookstore and found himself holding The Klingon Hamlet, a “restoration” of Hamlet to the language of the fictional villain race in Star Trek. “Right then and there, it was as if this thing was begging me to do something with it,” Alexandre said tonight.

Most people would ignore a prompting like this. Instead, Alexandre tracked down the Klingon Language Institute and traveled to Essington, Pennsylvania, to film 33 hours of footage during four days of a KLI conference. The result is “Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water,” a full-length documentary which opens tomorrow night at Starz. An incredible amount of work and a quarter of a million dollars have gone into the making and marketing of the movie, with many pitfalls along the way. The latest was that the distributor sent a copy of the film for tonight’s showing that was out of synch in many places, the words not quite matching the movement of the speakers’ lips. Alexandre handled this snafu with characteristic aplomb and directness, telling us he would be calling the distributor right away to find out what happened.

I have been following Alexandre’s work because we swap homes with his mother, Françoise, in Cannes. Filmmaking is clearly a tough way to make a living. But every time I see him presiding at a showing of one of his creations, I am struck by the joy in his face, the eagerness of his life. He is a man who works hard and trusts his instincts, which, I am sure, are getting better and better all the time.

The theme of language and culture in “Earthlings” resonated strongly with me tonight, because of Darlene’s and my efforts to learn French during our recent stay in France. Alexandre grew up in France and speaks flawless English, with only a trace of the usual French speaker’s turning of “th” sounds into “d”s. One star of the film is a guy who is trying yet again to pass his proficiency test in Klingon, requiring a score of 80. It hurts when we find out he only scores a 22. It’s incredibly difficult to learn a foreign language, and the effort to do so expands the mind, whether the language is “real” or fictional. It’s even more difficult to hear a small prompting in an airport and spend four years turning it into the reality of a movie. “Earthlings” is the latest of Alexandre’s skillful blurrings of reality and ficiton in his picture shows. I can tell he is a serious artist because of how much fun he has doing it.

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