Finally. One year after an hour-long excerpt from a three-hour rough cut was screened at the Newport International Film Festival, Buddy, an 86-minute documentary on disgraced Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, will be shown at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. (Screenings of the world premiere will be on August 11 at 7 pm and on August 13 and 14 at 10 pm at the Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, Providence.)
Itís not just that Inquiring Minds Want to Know. Purely tabloid interest was exhausted around water coolers years ago. We are now in the Mythic Dimension stage of journalistic and creative Cianci studies. Hubris and compulsive self-destruction have been examined in a stage play and a comic novel, and ProJo reporter Mike Stantonís 2003 downfall chronology, The Prince of Providence, is being turned into a screenplay by David Mamet, to be filmed by Rhode Island director Michael Corrente.
Filmmaker Cherry Arnold has been working on Buddy since January 2002, when the indictment-threatened mayor finally agreed to let her film him during meetings and gladhanding activities, through his trial, and up to his imprisonment. As the final film shows, Buddy Cianciís accomplishments were truly impressive. It took political savvy and breathtaking charisma for an Italian-American Republican to boot Irish Democrats out of City Hall in 1974, where theyíd been entrenched for 30 years. For that first election victory, the crusading chief prosecutorís posters bragged he was "The Anti-Corruption Candidate."
Narrated by actor James Woods, a Rhode Island native, the tightly edited film colorfully conveys how Cianciís suspended sentence for assaulting the lover of his ex-wife left him a macho folk hero. After that, hosting the most popular radio talk show in the state didnít hurt his sense of political invulnerability. Personal vulnerability was a different thing ó the camera shows one person and then another ask after his strung-along girlfriend Wendy as he has to tell them she is getting married that very day. But although the film has a developer give examples of the mayorís vindictiveness, it makes the point ó several times ó that of 27 Plunder Dome charges against him, the only one that stuck, for conspiracy, wasnít accompanied by any testimony against him.
There was a lot to cover. The filmmaker isnít as frustrated as she might be at having to boil down nearly 100 hours of her digital video and borrowed footage into an hour and a half. Outtakes and trimmed scenes and much of two lengthy interviews with Cianci that couldnít fit will eventually be seen.
"The DVD is going to rock," Arnold says.
Arnold has an unlisted number these days, because a lot of people have contacted her "to try and influence the editorial content of the film" or ask for advance copies. The Providence native has come a long way from her major in English and minor in political science and art history. She got her BA from URI (she won't say when) after stops at two prior colleges. In the late 1990s, she earned a nest egg in Internet and venture capital enterprises, which gave her time to pursue other interests. One of them was to study documentary film writing and film production at the Maine International Film Workshop. A longtime yoga practitioner, she also got training to teach the discipline, which she also does today.
Arnold spoke in the Providence office of her Big Orange Film Productions, whose location she keeps as close to her vest as her phone number.
When did you first say to yourself that this would be a great film to make?
The first time that it appeared on my radar as even an idea for a film was when Dan Barryís article came out in the New York Times Magazine in December of 2000. I thought: "Wow!" It was a great film, right there. I had my own personal knowledge of him and his story and thought this could be a great movie. But I couldnít take on doing that movie until the winter of 2002, so I thought someone else was going to do it ó it just seemed very obvious. What I found out was that HBO, PBS, Discovery were all [being] pitched by seasoned producers who wanted these networks to back them financially . . . So I naïvely jumped in, not realizing what a huge story it was.
I took the idea of this film being a window into city politics very seriously. And so I spend time studying city politics, going to a couple of classes that James Morone teaches at Brown, interviewed him for the film, read a couple of books that he recommended. So I really wrapped my head around Buddy Cianciís world, and it made much more sense to me, the backdrop for his story.
Your working title was Buddy: An American Story. Does that mean we are to see his progression as typical?
To me, I think he and his story are universal. Iíve always thought that his story was like a Shakespeare tragedy. In all those stories you have these people whose virtues and strengths are also their vices and flaws, and they self-destruct in different ways. The more we got into the editing and shaping of the film, the less it was about politics, the more it was about this guyís character.
This guy is incredibly complex. You canít really classify him as good or bad ó heís got everything in between. Heís brilliant, visionary. He can be very generous, kind, incredibly funny, but at the same time really insecure. He can be really mean; he can be really vindictive. The same things that made him be so successful ó the big ego and the drive to make Providence like the best city ever ó also were the ingredients that gave him a lot of hubris, basically brought him down in the end.
How did you convince him to let you film after he was indicted? Did he believe he would come across in a favorable light?
It wasnít easy to convince him at all. I sent many proposals and pitch letters and he finally took a meeting with me. That was two hours of trying to convince him. He wanted some editorial control over the film, and I told him that wouldnít be possible. He wanted to know what I was up to ó understandably.
What feedback have you gotten when you screened the rough cut, and how has that affected the final version?
In general, when youíre doing a documentary as opposed to a scripted narrative film, the feedback process and revision process is so vital. And so we did about 12 cuts of the film, and each one of those cuts we got feedback on, from my advisers, from friends, family, filmmakers. I sent it to people in California who didnít know anything about Buddy Cianci, just to try and get a feeling for what are we missing, to benchmark against the goals we are trying to achieve and [determine] how people are really seeing the film.
People want to know who Buddy Cianci is, and thatís really hard to answer. And so we worked hard ó without getting into psychological analysis, what we were trying to do was show people where this guy came from, you know?
What did you learn about Cianci that you didnít know before you began this project?
As far as Cianci goes, I really learned that it was the perfect job for him, because heís so smart and could keep so many plates spinning at once, and knew how to put this person with that person or pit this person against that person. He had that birdís eye view at all times and knew the whole city so well that he was actually really an effective mayor.
Issue Date: August 5 - 11, 2005
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