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Jeff Simon: Inspired six-year collaboration becomes Buffalo's 'Outlaw Film of the Year'

Jeff Simon

The North Park Theatre was almost full--on a Saturday morning no less. Empty seats were few and far between.

We were there to see Greg Sterlace's "Catcher in the Rye With Diamonds." Very few in that crowd knew that they were watching the odds-on favorite to be The Outlaw Movie Screening of the Year in Buffalo. They might have guessed it when discovering in the movie's credits that what they were watching was coming from a production company called Cease and Desist.

But it was no accident that the screening was free. Nor is it accidental that all future screenings will also have to exclude commercial intentions (i.e. film can earn no money).

What this small local miracle film has done is flout the copyrights of two of the most zealously protective estates known to humankind--the J. D. Salinger estate controlled by Salinger's family and the John Lennon estate controlled by his legendary widow Yoko Ono.

The film is truly remarkable in its originality and brilliance. And yet it must be immediately conceded that there is nothing recognizably professional about it. And that is very likely the very pre-condition that allowed Sterlace and his astonishing and prodigiously talented wife, Paula Walchowiak, to make this "micro-budget film" with total freedom.

It took them six years to do it in Buffalo and New York City, but their only concerns at every creative juncture were: 1) what should we do? and 2) will it be possible? They never asked themselves "will we be allowed to do it?"

Sterlace's way of telling the story of its inception six years ago: One day, he said to his wife, "let's go crazy and make 'Catcher in the Rye.' " Never mind that among both filmmakers and biographers in Salinger's lifetime, both he and his works were the third rail, never to be touched under penalty of artistic death. "I told Paula that Mark David Chapman had 'Catcher in the Rye' with him when he shot (John) Lennon (in 1980). And he used it for reasoning why he shot Lennon. And she said 'let's do the Mark David Chapman version.' "

In the annals of American artistic marriage, I don't think you're likely to find a more glowing moment of creative synergy than that one. It' a brilliant and inspirational idea that is characteristic of the wonderful partnership of Sterlace and Walchowiak--one famous in Buffalo's artistic community for its dedication. (She was the first local woman to report sexual abuse from Harvey Weinstein from when he and Corky Burger ran a hugely profitable rock promotion business.)

Said Walchowiak: "I'm very interested in motivation. I thought if we could dissect from that text the reasons why Mark David Chapman thought he was completing the book by murdering John Lennon that we would be seeing a really interesting psychological study. That excited me."

It has excited many of us beholding the project from afar just as much. It is a haunting paradox of American culture that Salinger's pivotal book--a literary rite of passage for American youth and as sensitive a book as there is about American adolescence--has become an inspiration for some of the most anti-social and deranged young men in America: Chapman who murdered the most controversial member of the most famous pop music group of all time outside his home in the Dakota; and John Hinckley Jr. who said he tried to kill Ronald Reagan so he could impress Jodie Foster. He was another "Catcher in the Rye" fan.

The erudite imposter in John Guare's play "Six Degrees of Separation" has--in his biggest scene--a meditation on that very disturbing paradox of the appeal of Salinger's exquisite book to some of America's least exquisite and most disturbed young minds.

Walchowiak and Sterlace used a sliver of that scene with Will Smith from the movie in the middle of their film. It's part of what's intended as a typical pop cultural reverie as Chapman inhabits his cell at the local Wende Facility.

Sterlace's well-known resume in Buffalo is this: he is one of the wisest, funniest and most indispensable Beatlemaniacs extant. He is the author of two books--one a guide to all the other books written about the Beatles and another a guide to all of their recorded music. Their scholarship is what you would expect from a man whose adult life has been spent in day jobs in libraries (currently the Kenmore Public Library). He was also the creator of four other movies and an '80s pioneer in cable access television. I know from personal experience that anyone consenting to appear on his show was entering the TV zone of a uniquely feisty and funny underground sensibility. God help you if you didn't know what you were getting into.

He was, early on, a punk-rock musician and his sensibility back then was congruent to what was being emitted from the Ramones, The Clash. the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys.

When you inquire about the chutzpah involved in such a bold and brilliant local movie project, Walchowiak said the two were inspired by Todd Haynes' student film at Bard called "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" which used the Carpenters' music to tell the story of the anorexic singer with puppets. A "cease and desist" followed and has carried the day since, making the film one of the famous underground cult films of them all.

Not only is the Sterlace/Walchowiak concept of the film creatively inspired, the unpaid contributions of their collaborators over six years are sometime mind-boggling, even as they are amateurish. The editing, especially, by Loretta Michaels and the cinematography by Emil J. Novak (whose day job is to be Buffalo's major comic book maven at the Queen City Bookstore) is consistently exciting in its virtuoso creativity. To accomplish such feats with so little money and professional involvement is close to heroic.

Sterlace and Walchowiak have looked at both the Beatles' music and Salinger's classic novel in a new way that illuminates brilliantly some dark corners of the American imagination.

Sterlace points out that there are tiny violent references to shootings in passing in "Catcher in the Rye." Guare pointed out that Salinger's hero, Holden Caulfield, constantly expressed disgust at the phoniness that surrounded him everywhere.

What would be little known until relatively recently (after Salinger's death) is that Salinger's World War II military service was probably more horrific and traumatic than that of any other famous American writer, whether James Jones or Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal. Only Kurt Vonnegut, whose presence in Dresden during the Allied bombing, approaches the horror that Salinger had to live with.

Salinger was one of the soldiers who liberated the death camps as the war wound down in the European Theater. During his World War II military service, he kept the manuscript of "Catcher in the Rye" with him which makes it, somewhat incredibly, a hair-raising war novel deep in its creative history.

In some eerie way, the horrors of the novel's creation seem to have been picked up on by deranged young shooters in ways no ordinary young middle-class American readers ever could.

It isn't only a teen's alienation we're reading in "Catcher in the Rye," but some of the alienation of a solder who has glimpsed the nadir of Western civilization.

Telling Mark David Chapman's and Holden Caulfield's stories together was such an  inspired idea that it far outweighss the film's micro-budget amateurism.

When you talk to lawyers about possible lawsuits and legal consequences, they see glints of light ahead that may not be the oncoming train its authors mostly foresee.

Buffalo intellectual property attorney John Delvecchio pointed out that Sterlace and Walchowiak's "anything goes" creative method is very much a product of our times in this digital and internet era.

"In this day and age, people just do stuff without thinking of the consequences," Delvecchio said. "We've been seeing it a lot. People just do things and worry later. Twenty years ago it was a whole different ball of wax." The Internet and total "access to information," he added, are certainly involved.

Though he can certainly foresee legal problems from the copyright law's strictures about "derivative works," he also understands that the law's doctrine of "fair usage" applies to "criticism, comment, news reporting and teaching."

"We are counting on 'fair usage, " Walchowiak said. "We never thought about it while making the film because we didn't think we'd get sued since there is no money being made. We want the 'cease and desist' now because we want a story. I don't know if it's worth it, but it's worth a try in our crazy minds."

Sterlace's feisty sensibility came from the punk rock decade--the decade of the Ramones, The Clash, the Sex Pistols and The Dead Kennedys.

But that is not now how Walchowiak sees the amazing thing that she and her husband have both wrought.

"We tend to be dreamers....but I would rather live every day of my life for a dream than live one day without one."

And then, in an inspirational quotation as eloquent as she is, Walchowiak reaches out to the eloquence of one of America's greatest figures--Helen Keller.

"Security is mostly a superstition, it does not exist in nature, nor do the children of man as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."


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