"Fished" out of the archives in memory of Bill Henderson (1926-2016).-Ed.
by Bill Chambers The movie is called Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish. I have it on my list of what to see during the Festival--near the bottom. Its premise sounds congenial enough, but that title has obviously been conceived to inspire double-takes.
Then one day I check my pressroom mailbox and find a postcard-size ad for the film. Therein lies an even bigger attention grabber: "Martin Scorsese cordially invites you..." Scorsese is, essentially, "presenting" the project, meaning he has no financial stake in it. He has granted the use of his name on this "invitation" as a favour to NYU grad and Student Academy Award winner Kevin Jordan.
My colleague Chris and I attended a press and industry screening last Friday afternoon. The way a press and industry screening works during the Toronto International Film Festival (T.I.F.F.): you show up, you present the appropriate ID, and if you're with the media you must sign in before entering the theatre. It's so painless that no one ever feels guilty for leaving before the movie has finished. I've seen TV critics take off on a picture fifteen minutes in and review it the next day. Film festivals breed impatience.
Few walked out on Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish, though. Jordan and brothers Steven and Derick Martini wrote this charmer; the Martinis also star as brothers Tony and Chris, respectively. (They were nicknamed "Goat on Fire" and "Smiling Fish" by their Native American grandmother, an inconsequential plot point.) Chris's girlfriend ("Felicity"'s Amy Hathaway) of several years is keeping secrets from him; promiscuous Tony is keeping all of his girlfriends a secret. The siblings are looking for love in the wrong places, of course. ("The Drew Carey Show"'s Christa Miller plays one of the romantic pursuits.)
The Martinis are surprisingly natural actors--no Clerks-level performances here. But jazz singer Bill Henderson, as the ninety-year-old, donut-loving black filmmaker who befriends Chris, steals the show. The laid-back Henderson has been a Hollywood bit player for years, appearing in Lethal Weapon 4 and Clue among many, many others. Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish could prove a breakout role for him.
Henderson was there at the launch party for the film, which took place post P/I screening at a club called "Blues on Bel Air." I was taken aback by the free menu: whole lobsters, smothered in butter, as well as gourmet pizza slices and Sleeman's beer. (I was later informed that Jordan's father owns a lobster restaurant.) The food was delicious. Other guests included the Martinis (Steven carted around an acoustic guitar like a security blanket), Hathaway, the CHICAGO READER's Jonathan Rosenbaum, and producer's representative Jeff Dowd, who served as a model for Jeff Bridges's character in The Big Lebowski. (Dowd is referred to around Hollywood as "the Pope of Dope.")
Photographically speaking, Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish confused me. It looked as if it had been transferred from video, à la The Blair Witch Project, although the production values were top-notch. I caught Kevin Jordan's attention and asked him why this was.
"We shot it on Super16, but we transferred a video copy to 35 for this festival," mainly because of time constraints. That explained why the stock appeared pixellated at some points but grainy at others. Jordan also said that release prints will be struck from a blow-up of the Super16 negative, not videotape.
Jordan seemed on top of the world. I congratulated him on a fine motion picture, one I lamely declared would be a "hit" (whatever that means). Too much Sleeman's.
Later, after performing some mean blues numbers to a crowd that seemed to have doubled in size at the promise of his music, Henderson did a meet-and-greet (ladies a third his age were swooning). He even posed for two pictures with yours truly, first "seriously" and then with a big smile.
"Are you an actor?" he asked me.
"Nope, I'm a critic. But I want to be a director." (I may as well have answered, "Insert clichée here.")
"You should talk to Kevin. He did a great job."
"Yeah, he sure did. You were fantastic, too," I added.
"Thank you," Bill gushed. "It was from my heart." Originally published: September 19, 1999.