By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn September 2, 2010 at 4:48AM
I first saw Sean Baker's "Prince of Broadway" at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2008. Now, this sharp mixture of neorealism, social commentary and familiar American genres is finally hitting theaters, with a little help from Lee Daniels. The "Precious" director has lent his name to the movie as a "presenter," just as Oprah and Tyler Perry did for his own movie, in the hopes of boosting its profile. (Here's Thompson on Hollywood's interview with Baker and Daniels, and my interview with Baker.) Whether or not the stunt works, "Prince" deserves the attention.
The story of a counterfeit merchant in downtown Manhattan, Baker's movie brings a documentarian's eye to the illegal profession at its center. But the plot is pure Hollywood schmaltz, with the counterfeiter (the nonprofessional but impressively focused Prince Adu), an illegal immigrant from Ghana, getting a crash course in paternal responsibility when a woman shows up claiming that he fathered her son. By putting the routine arc of a family drama into impoverished circumstances, Baker delivers a smoothly entertaining narrative that's both enjoyably unconventional and comfortably familiar.
And that's not exactly the easiest commercial mix. During an event that I moderated at Apple's Soho store on Thursday (where Lee Daniels confessed "I fucking hate kids" but nonetheless found the child performance in Prince endearing), Baker told the audience that the movie has no VOD or DVD release plans yet. Elephant Eye releases "Prince" this weekend, and its positive notice in The New York Times may help give it an extra boost, but this is one movie that really has to fight for its audience.
But what little movie doesn't these days? How do you create an incentive for movie attendance when the studio releases dominate the media landscape? Perhaps movies like "Prince" need to offer ticket-paying audiences an additional dimension. (An in-theater demonstration of how to avoid counterfeiters, for examples, or panel discussions on immigration law.)
When good movies have a hard time finding audiences, it might be worthwhile to apply the WWWCD approach -- What Would William Castle Do?
Earlier this week, I caught a screening of Castle's "13 Ghosts" at Film Forum this week, as part of its ongoing Castle retrospective. A hilariously schlocky haunted house movie, its primary stunt involves the audience's ability to view the action through red and blue plastic lenses. When ghosts appear, the screen turns blue. As Castle explains in his onscreen introduction, viewers who don't believe in ghosts should watch the movie through the blue lens, which makes it look like the actors are reacting to thin air. True believers can watch the goofy specters through the red lens. As with most Castle movies, however, the fun is in the flaws of the gimmickry. The ghosts are clearly visible without looking through any lens at all, and their outlines are easily noticeable through the blue lens as well. Regardless, Castle's experimentation with enlivening the filmgoing process lives on with the current 3-D obsession, but there's no reason why specialty releases shouldn't capitalize on this approach in a more literate fashion.
The specific interactivity of "13 Ghosts" has limited applicability today. Subjective moviegoing has migrated to the home, where if you don't believe in ghosts, just change the channel -- or open a new tab. If it's important for small movies to get seen in theaters (and for "Prince of Broadway," it is), then they need to give people a reason to leave the comfort of their personal screens. But as far as "Prince" goes, just take my word for it and check it out.
William Castle introduces "13 Ghosts":