By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
Jason Harris carries in his pocket a single leather glove, the fingers cut at the knuckles. He calls it his Naruto glove, named after the hero of a popular Japanese manga comic. "He wears it when he's fighting ninjas," explains Harris as he stands in the DNA room of the downtown Wainwright Building, holding a small container of urine.
As a part-time urinalysis technician for the State of Missouri, Harris watches felons pee into cups. "I see a lot of penises roughly twenty a week," he says. "I've probably seen 400 in the time I've worked here." There are times when he'll draw notice from one of the men who has seen his show, Films in Black & White, on public-access station KDHX-TV (Channel 22). "They'll say, 'I know that dude from the cable show about movies.' I'm looking at their junk and they say, 'I didn't agree what you had to say about House of Wax. That movie was the shit.'"
On a recent afternoon, a man getting pee-tested is surprised to learn that one of Harris' co-workers doesn't know he has a television show. "You didn't know that?" says the man, who sports a bar-code tattoo on his neck.
"Never seen it," she says. "You're a celebrity, Jason? You've been hiding that from us. You're walking around famous and I didn't even know it. I'm going to have to ask for your autograph." Harris smiles and returns to his work. At this job, he rarely talks about his show. At his other gig, though at Blockbuster Video he's known as the resident expert when it comes to film.
Roaming the aisles of the Central West End store, Harris imparts his thoughts to customers, many of whose idea of a good flick is Madea's Family Reunion. He doesn't pull any punches and enjoys entertaining viewers with wild declarations. On the movie Tombstone: "I don't promote murder, people. Let me get that through your head. But let's be realistic about it. If you go to a restaurant and you're out west it's the land of outlaws and you look at me all crazy, I'm shooting you."
The 28-year-old Harris collects toys and comics, porn and movies. "I got Star Wars Burger King wristwatches next to copies of Black Tail," he exclaims. As for women other than his mom and sister he can take 'em or leave 'em. "All I need is toys, orange juice and cheese pizza." When he meets a lady he likes, he tells her, "I'll sleep with you, but right now I ain't interested in spending the three months it's going to take to get to know you. I've got books to read, movies to watch."
He doesn't drink, hates sports, is a strict vegetarian and says the Wu-Tang Clan changed his life. Movies are his singular passion. Pre-taped and aired on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 6 p.m., episodes of Films in Black & White have included "Best of the 90s," "Best Drama" and "Best Romance Films."
On a show called "Five Best Westerns," Harris is at his rambunctious best: "Wyatt Earp complete bad-ass. I always wanted to be Wyatt Earp. But I'm a lover, not a killer."
"See, on my block, everybody wanted to be Doc Holliday," interjects his movie-talk sidekick Mark Bluestein.
Dispensing heavily salted opinions is the basic staple of the shoot-from-the-lip show.
Jason Harris on Sofia Coppola and Lost in Translation: "I don't like her. I don't like little rich people taking away from people who are actually going out and doing something. She's rich. I can't feel sorry for her. It was a good movie, but it's like, dude, you don't have to work. You don't have to do nothing. Your daddy's Francis Ford Coppola."
Bluestein: "She wrote the movie! Give her a break! She's a horrible actress, but she has to do something to get into the movie business."
Harris: "I don't give a damn! Your daddy's Francis Ford Coppola. He did The Godfather, for God's sake. You should be producing and then calling it a day. Stop taking jobs away from everybody else."
Bluestein: "She wants to direct. Leave her alone."
Both of them are pitiless when they don't like a film. Bluestein on 2004's Welcome to Moosewood: "Gene Hackman deserves to go to Hell for this movie."
"He probably will," Harris fires back.
Discussing Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, Harris summarizes the plot and its main character thusly: "They torture him, they beat him, then torture him some more, beat him again, and then the movie's over."
"He likes his movies to start subtle and poetic the kind that ease in," says Jason Harris of his partner Mark Bluestein's taste. "I prefer it when the movie starts with a dude on a bed with a hooker. That's when I put down my piece of pizza and move closer to the screen."
Harris is a loose cannon with a keen Chris Rock-style brain. Bluestein plays the more conventional Roger Ebert type the yin to Harris' dreadlocked yang. A chubby guy with glasses, the 29-year-old Bluestein seems to relish his iconoclastic view of movies and the world in general. He says he hates the French and Texans and is obsessed with Elvis Presley, particularly the fat Elvis of the Vegas years.
Entering its third season last month, Harris and Bluestein's show has drawn a small, devoted following of viewers who dig the pair's raucous rundown on the good, bad and the ugly of movie-dom. On screen they refer to themselves as Jason the Jerk and Mark the Guru. They have no idea how many people see them from the potential audience of 60,000 subscribers to Charter Cable in the city of St. Louis the only place the show airs.
It's a simple setup, with a pair of cameras pointed at the two as they record the show at the Moolah Theater on Lindell Boulevard. As always, both of them are wearing T-shirts. For this shoot Bluestein is sporting a black Goodfellas T and Harris, seated to his left, wears one that reads: "To be honest with you, I'm a liar."
Says Bluestein: "His friends keep telling him that [Depp's character, Brasco] is a cop something isn't right about him. Pacino never believes it. Pacino sees this kid as a son because his own son is really a piece of crap. And the two of them form this bond, and that's basically what this whole movie is about this bond."
Harrison pounces: "A bond between a snitch. I liked the movie, but the problem is it's about something really bad. How far would you go to snitch on somebody? Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I'm for crime. I'm just not into snitching. You know what I'm saying? Donnie Brasco is a snitch. There are no if, ands or buts about it. Good movie, just the whole premise leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
Back and forth the conversation goes, enumerating the strengths and weaknesses of a generation's worth of gangster movies from Brasco to King of New Yorkto The Untouchables to Carlito's Way to Reservoir Dogsto The Godfather to Casino.And, finally, Scarface.
"The best gangster movie ever made," announces Bluestein. "And I saw it long before the rappers have been rapping about it, long before they made curtains and bed sheets and bought fake posters on eBay."
"It's a regular Shakespeare play," adds Harris. "The best quote in the whole movie: 'First you get the money, then you get the power. Then you get the women.' Now, what's funny about that women lead to your downfall in gangster movies, if you haven't noticed. That's the lesson for the day, kids. Women lead to your downfall. You just have to use them, and go about your business. No offense to women out there, but y'all bring a gangsta down."
There's nothing particularly novel about Films in Black & White. The template is worn: Two guys face the camera, show a clip from a movie and then ramble on about it. It is, in some ways, a poor man's Ebert & Roeper. And yet this show has a certain spark, a no-holds-barred attitude. Devoid of pretense or effete cinematic observations, the program is entertaining, unpredictable and, often, just plain silly. Discussing One Hour Photo,starring Robin Williams, Harris turns to Bluestein and cracks: "He's played in some crap recently. I thought it was going to be a nice little brown turd."
"Me and Mark have this weird relationship," explains Harris. "You see us together and we're totally different people. But then when we get together, we're the coolest chums, and it isn't fake. It's real."
The two met at KDHX, where Harris had been working since he was fifteen. Bluestein was fresh out of Broadcast Center, a St. Louis-based trade school, and began interning at the studio. One day Bluestein was admiring Harris' desk, piled high with comics and other pop-culture ephemera, when Harris walked up. The two started chatting and soon the subject turned to movies. And, like Pacino and Depp, they bonded. Harris remembers telling him, "We should do a show together."
At first Bluestein wasn't interested. His experience with film and television was behind the camera. But film was in his genes: His grandfather worked for a company that owned Powell Hall and the Fox Theatre. "We grew up with movies," says Carol Bluestein, Mark's mother.
"The first movie I ever watched was Jaws," recalls Mark Bluestein. "I stayed up all night watching that movie over and over again." His father, also a movie aficionado, composed a list of 100 films his son simply had to see. "It had everything on it," recalls Bluestein. "And I watched them all all the Hitchcocks. Watched Midnight Cowboy hated it. Saw On the Waterfront. Hated that. Loved Brando, but I hated the movie."
While at Hazelwood Central High School and during his post-high school years, Bluestein worked at theaters around St. Louis, including the shuttered Village Square, Westport Plaza and the North Twin Drive-In. He enrolled in the Broadcast Center where he now teaches and later, after a few years at a small Oklahoma country-music station, returned to St. Louis.
"Mark uses movies the way that some people use drugs and alcohol," says Carol Bluestein. "It gets him through life, I think."
The title of this season's premiere of Films in Black & White is fairly straightforward: "Movies That Should Have Sucked, But Didn't." And, in the not-so-humble estimation of Harris and Bluestein, that would include War of the Worlds, Escape from LA, Skeleton Key, One Hour Photo, Sexy Beast and Under the Cherry Moon.
Harris' favorite is Woody Allen's Match Point. Looking into the camera, he enthuses: "It's about a guy who basically has it all. He gets it all, but he wants just a little bit more. You've met this type of guy. You'll be downtown, and they'll be waiting in line to get a hot dog and they're saying, 'Oh, this line is so slow.' Chill out, man! What, it's only like 45 seconds to wait?'"
Bluestein chimes in: "I love it how you go from Match Point to a guy buying a hot dog."
Harris returns serve: "Because it's about a guy who has everything, and he wants this one girl, Scarlett Johansson. Right there, when you know you can't have a woman, you just get up and leave her alone. I know I do."
The ever self-conscious Bluestein worries about his thinning light brown hair the reason he often wears a dirty St. Louis Cardinals cap when taping the show. This season, though, he's decided to go hatless.
"You're sure I look OK?" he asks cameraman Don Golaszewski.
"Yeah," Golaszewski replies, "it's much cleaner, and it doesn't mess with the lighting so much."
Bluestein confides: "I never really wanted to do anything in front of the camera. This just kind of worked out. I still don't feel comfortable in front of the camera. Every time I edit the show and watch it, I can't stand it."
Harris has a round face, huge dimples, and wears little rectangular glasses. His long dreadlocks are rolled up into a fancy bun. ("On a scale of one to ten, I'm a six but my personality maybe lifts me up to an eight," he says later.)
He's more comfortable onscreen than Bluestein, but then, he's been in front of a camera for more than half his life. His first public-access experience occurred when he was thirteen, on a show called YAYS (short for Youth at Your Service). And he's been producing ever since, working on the popular St. Louis hip-hop series Phat Clips, a show featuring alt-rock videos and another focusing on R&B music.
"I like to think I'm the king of public access in St. Louis," says Harris. "It used to be [the late World Wide Magazine host] Pete Parisi, but then he passed and now it's moved on to me."
Unlike his peers in north city, where he grew up, Harris stayed away from the basketball courts and didn't march lockstep to a hip-hop beat. He preferred this quiet of his room, listening to Elton John and reading comics. Harris' neighborhood was better known for its drug trade than its film pedigree. Says his mother, Jane Clay: "The drugs were starting to take over, but he walked through it all being silly and friendly. He was wearing combat clothes before it was fashionable."
"You do not want to be caught at twelve years old listening to Elton John where I'm from," jokes Harris. "That's like waving the gay flag." For a while, in fact, Harris says his grandmother was convinced he was gay.
He adds: "My mom used to say, 'Jason, you a different type of child.'"
Fellow employees at the Blockbuster Video, meanwhile, poke fun at him for listening to Huey Lewis & the News, while friends chuckle about his fondness for indie-pop darling Sufjan Stevens: "You drive down the street playing that stuff and people think you're crazy," says Harris.
Growing up, he felt compelled to conceal some of his quirks, but now he expresses his nerdy qualities with pride. "Becoming a nerd is a lifestyle," he says. "I know being a nerd's kind of hip right now, but it's not something you just decide to do. It has to be your life. You have to know your anime, but you have to know the history, too. You can't straddle the fence. You have to be hardcore about it. You almost have to be born into that."
Mark Bluestein and his wife, Mandy, live in a bungalow in south St. Louis. He edits Films in Black & Whitein a back room that serves as an office and the storage area for his movie memorabilia. The couple share many common interests but have wildly divergent taste in movies.
"She gets stuff that I'd never consider renting," he complains. Then, as if on cue, the strawberry-blonde returns from an errand with a rented movie.
"What'd you get, babe?" he asks.
"RV," she says, referring to a critically panned slapstick comedy starring Robin Williams. Bluestein hated it. As she moves toward the kitchen, he grumbles, "See, what did I tell you?"
Bluestein stares at his computer screen and continues to edit the episode shot at the Moolah. He pastes in the introduction, a montage of classic film clips and a few choice sound bites among them, Bluestein saying: "You and I could make a better movie with two fat chicks and a donkey." The intro was recently uploaded to YouTube.com, the video-sharing Web site that has changed the way clips are watched over the Internet. The short clip has been viewed 60 times in the past week nothing to write home about but proof that someone out there is watching.
Beverly Hacker, manager of KDHX, says it's hard to measure how many people see the show, but Harris and Bluestein think they've got a decent following. "People on the street started talking to me about the show," recalls Harris. "People started coming up to Mark and saying something to him at Schnucks. Everyone started watching it. It was crazy."
Still, the numbers are small. Charter cable offers 150 channels of programming, most of it professionally made, market-tested, with paid advertisers. Drawing viewers to a relatively obscure local show is a challenge, with many would-be public-access producers shifting to video blogs that can be created just as cheaply, uploaded to a Web site and watched by millions.
"Initially, I thought I was going to do a public-access show," says Bill Streeter, producer of the popular Internet video blog Lo-Fi St. Louis. "But it felt like I could experiment more with a video blog than I could with public-access television. And the potential for an international audience rather than just a local audience was a more appealing idea to me."
Hacker says that the station is offering blogging workshops, which she envisions as the next logical step in the evolution of community media. "We feel like there's a real niche for us there. The thing that we provide, as much as anything, is teaching people how to do it better. It's not a threat to us."
Bluestein's focus, though, is trying to turn the rough footage from the other day into a coherent show. Onscreen, Harris is talking about the film Silent Hill, which surprised him by how good it was. "I haven't seen this many creepy characters since Hell Raisers II," he says. "So check it out. They got some hot nurses in there, too."
With that, Bluestein laughs and rolls his eyes. "People say they like the show," he says, "so I'll keep doing it until they say they hate it and then start working at McDonald's."