'Beauty' Fights Back

Author and activist Ellen Snortland’s documentary on women’s self-defense screens Friday at Laemmle Playhouse 7

By Justin Chapman, 11/10/2016, Pasadena Weekly

Ellen Snortland first published her book “Beauty Bites Beast: Awakening the Warrior Within Women and Girls” in 1999. A powerful treatise calling for women to take charge of their own self-defense both verbally and physically when being attacked, she has spent the past 10 years turning the book into a documentary of the same name.

The film just finished a weeklong run in New York City and begins a second weeklong run starting tomorrow at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The film will air four times a day until Nov. 17 as part of a campaign to make the documentary eligible for the Academy Awards and Independent Spirit Awards.

“I primarily identified as a writer and author, not a filmmaker,” said Snortland, a longtime Pasadena Weekly columnist. “But I thought, ‘You know what? There are a whole bunch of idiots that make movies all the time. I’m an idiot, I can do this.’ I’m a little bit of a poster girl for ‘it can be done.’”

Taking Action, Saving Lives

The documentary is a natural extension of Snortland’s lifelong work around women’s self-defense. She serves on the board of IMPACT Personal Safety, a nonprofit started in 1985 that trains women, men and children in full-force, full-impact self-defense and boundary-setting techniques. She grew up in Colorado and South Dakota, received a juris doctorate from Loyola Law School, founded the first all-female theater company in the early 1970s, acted in and directed several TV shows during the 1980s, attended United Nations world conferences and annual UN meetings as an nongovernmental organization (NGO) delegate and journalist and wrote and performs a one-woman show about growing up as a Norwegian American. She is also the co-author of “The Safety Godmothers: The ABCs of Awareness, Boundaries and Confidence for Teens” with Lisa Gaeta.

The documentary was funded entirely by individual contributions as small as $5 all the way up to $100,000. The project has cost about $250,000 as well as another $250,000 with in-kind contributions. In partnership with Providence Entertainment Group and El HaLev, “Beauty Bites Beast” screened in Israel earlier this year and has been accepted into the Nova Scotia Sunrise and Delhi International film festivals.

The documentary was scheduled to play at the 40th Montreal World Film Festival in September, but managerial and financial problems led to last-minute resignations of many staff members and cancellations of two-thirds of screenings. “Beauty Bites Beast” played for 12 minutes before the projector broke down. One of the festival jurors was found dead in his hotel room. (Read Snortland’s column “When ‘Best’ Isn’t Good Enough” in the Oct. 6 issue of the Weekly for the full story).

Undeterred, Snortland is aiming high by applying for the Academy Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards because she believes the film’s message is so important that it saves lives.

“I made it for people to take action,” she said. “To make sure they get their children trained in what we call empowerment self-defense. I want them to come away with the understanding that the drive to defend oneself is not a gendered attribute. And I’m out to impact at a policy level. We want to get DVDs to legislators, to the people who make decisions about grants.”

The documentary points out that the Violence Against Women Act of 1993, its reauthorization in 2013 and the White House Task Force on Ending Sexual Assaults Against Students in 2014 include no mentions of self-defense.

“It’s all oriented toward before and after being attacked. There’s nothing about what to do during an attack,” said Snortland. “My movie is the ‘during’ part. In the surveys we hand out at screenings we ask, ‘Has your view of violence against women shifted after seeing this documentary?’ Our ‘yes’ rate is 90 percent.”

Ending Violence Against Women

The documentary came about after Snortland met an American in 2006 who owned a factory in Tijuana. At the time, hundreds of women were being kidnapped, raped and killed in Juarez. The factory owner read the “Beauty Bites Beast” book and asked Snortland to train his female workers in Tijuana on how to defend themselves. She agreed, as long as she could film the sessions. Those scenes are among the most powerful in the film, showing impoverished women undergoing a remarkable transformation in realizing that they are not powerless to defend themselves. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, delivered their graduation speech at the end of the sessions.

Nagin Cox, an assistant at IMPACT and spacecraft systems engineer at JPL, also traveled to Tijuana with Snortland to help train the women. Cox called the experience “amazing and rewarding.”

“The themes of empowering women and women’s self-defense are universal,” said Cox. “It’s not just about women learning to physically defend themselves; it’s about women learning that they have a right to their voice, that they have a right to be heard.”

Dr. Munazza Yaqoob of the International Islamic University invited Snortland and her husband Ken Gruberman, who serves as co-producer of the film, to screen “Beauty Bites Beast” to a group of 300 Islamic female scholars and researchers at the Critical Thinking Forum in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore early next month.

“We are blown away by the prospect of sharing the liberating message of ‘Beauty Bites Beast’ with young female Islamic scholars who are ready, willing and able to take on shifting the conversation about ending violence against women,” Snortland wrote on the Indiegogo campaign she created to help fund the trip.

“Female elephants, lions — all are just as fierce in self-defense as males,” feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem said about the documentary. “Only our species is taught to be ‘feminine’ and defenseless.  ‘Beauty Bites Beast’ shows how women around the world are taking back our strengths and lives.”

For more information, visit beautybitesbeast.com.

'Together Again'

Comedy legends Eric Idle and John Cleese of Monty Python reunite for a two-man show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium

By Justin Chapman, 11/03/2016, Pasadena Weekly

On Nov. 18, 2014, Eric Idle interviewed fellow Monty Python member John Cleese at the Alex Theatre in Glendale about his memoir, “So, Anyway …” The video was viewed more than a half-million times on YouTube, proving to Idle and Cleese that there is still a healthy appetite for everything Monty Python-related. Cleese got the idea to take their two-man show on the road.

Following a successful run last fall on the East Coast as well as a sold-out run in Australia and New Zealand in February, “Together Again at Last ... For the Very First Time” has embarked on a third tour on the West Coast and Canada through at least Dec. 3, including a show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Nov. 11.

“It was just something rather wonderful, two old people getting together after 50 years,” Idle, 73, told the Pasadena Weekly in a recent phone interview. “It wasn’t something I planned, but it turned into a very pleasant evening with an old friend talking about old times. It’s become more like a double autobiography in an odd way now.”

Silliness Required

The show is partly scripted and partly improv, combining storytelling, sketches, musical numbers, exclusive footage and aquatic juggling.

“We gave it a shape but we don’t lock it down,” said Idle. “So we can go anywhere we want to, which is great at our age because we forget the words to sketches and we can just own up. And then the audience laughs even more if we’ve forgotten it. But we don’t go anywhere that we’ve been; we don’t do Python sketches that they know. We do stuff from other things we’ve done that we like and make us laugh still.”

Although they haven’t performed the show since the Brexit vote, Idle said the topic will likely come up during the new tour because he was against the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and Cleese was in favor of it.

“I’m sure Brexit will come up and we’ll abuse each other,” Idle said. “John will say how wonderful it is and I’ll point to how many pounds I’ve lost. It’s amazing to me that something as stupid as a referendum did this, which is the wrong way to deal with something so complex. It was an opinion poll; there’s no legal basis requiring the government to act on it. If they had any balls they’d say, ‘We think this is a bad move.’ You want people deciding these things who know what they’re dealing with, not people who are frightened of immigrants by endless headlines in the Daily Express. It is insane.”

Fun Science

The comedy icons have created a whole new act two for this tour that focuses on how Monty Python remained popular for more than a half-century and where they stand now.

“There’s sort of a nice banter that is established very early on when [Cleese] is complaining about how much he’s paid in divorces and then he attacks me for being with my wife for nearly 40 years and says it’s for lack of imagination, and I say, ‘Well, yeah, but [one woman] is a lot cheaper.’ There’s a nice level of affectionate banter and memories. It’s a very sweet, unusual show.”

Cleese told the Weekly last year that “Together Again” is “the most enjoyable project I’ve ever had.”

“We came off stage after [the original Alex Theatre show] and all we knew was that the audience had laughed a great deal and we couldn’t quite remember what we’d said,” Cleese said.

Idle’s latest project is a musical Christmas special for the BBC called “The Entire Universe.” The show covers the entire history of the universe with “real science that’s interrupted by real silliness,” Idle said.

“Everybody watches TV at Christmas because they get together with their relatives and they can’t stand each other so they get drunk and watch television,” he said.

At the end Stephen Hawking sings “The Galaxy Song,” which Idle wrote for the 1983 film “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.” Tim Peake, an astronaut who spent the summer on the International Space Station, also makes an appearance.

“When we got the idea we just thought, ‘This is just such a great subject. We have to do something really silly with it,’” said Idle. “As you must.”

Carry On

Although well known as an actor and singer-songwriter, Idle said he prefers writing to performing. He is the author of the novels “Hello Sailor” and “The Road to Mars,” as well as the musicals “Spamalot” and “Not the Messiah,” a parody of the 1979 film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

“I get to stay home here in LA and hunker down and write, and bit by bit you try to isolate what you might want to be interested in and what’s worth doing in the short amount of time left, and what you don’t want to do,” said Idle. “It’s been fun ever since ‘Spamalot’ to be able to say, ‘What do I actually want to write?’ I try to keep myself interested and honest.”

“Spamalot,” which premiered in 2005, is a critically acclaimed and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

“We wrote ‘Spamalot’ as a series of little sketches, and then we crammed it together,” said Idle. “It was a very fun show to put together and rehearse and change [from the film], because you have to change things from what they are if you change the medium. Although there was almost nothing we couldn’t do on stage because they’re just pretending to ride horses.”

After “Spamalot” premiered, the Pythons lost a lawsuit by Mark Forstater, a producer of the original film. The court ordered the Pythons to pay £800,000 in fees and back royalties to Forstater in 2013 because “Spamalot” was so similar to the film.

To pay the settlement, the surviving members of Monty Python performed a reunion show in 2014 called “Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go” at the 20,000-seat O2 Arena in London that sold out in 43.5 seconds. Founding Python members Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Idle and Cleese all participated. The sixth founding member, Graham Chapman (no relation to the reporter), died in 1989 at the age of 48.

Cleese infamously delivered a brilliant, oddball eulogy at Chapman’s funeral, saying, “I guess we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, such capability and kindness, of such intelligence should now be so suddenly spirited away at the age of only 48, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun. Well, I feel that I should say, ‘Nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard! I hope he fries.’”

Idle performed his fan-favorite song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the funeral.

‘Let’s Do It’

Following the 2014 reunion show, Palin made it clear to the rest of the group that he was no longer interested in doing Python shows. A few years ago, Jones began developing dementia, which was publicly announced in September. With Gilliam busy directing films, that left Idle and Cleese to carry on the Python banner.

“We got a very generous offer to do a show in Australia, and Michael, who’s always polite, just didn’t want to do it,” said Cleese. “Eric and I said, ‘Well, if Michael doesn’t want to do it, is there any reason why we can’t do something like we did in Glendale?’ We thought about it for a while and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Idle pointed out that the upcoming performance of “Together Again” in Pasadena is practically a homecoming for the show that was born next door in Glendale.

“I love Pasadena,” said Idle, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s where I go for my day off. I get all my tea from Chado [Tea Room] and I go to Vroman’s [Bookstore] all the time. It’s kind of normal. It’s not like Beverly Hills, it’s a real place, a lovely little small town.”

For tickets and more information, visit cleeseandidle.com.