Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mill Valley Theater Screens UFO Documentary

James Fox W Border

Marin filmmaker takes UFOs seriously, even if nobody else does

By Rick Polito
Marin Independent Journal

      JAMES FOX has heard all the jokes, seen all the smirks. He can sense the disbelief long before the eyes start rolling.

     The Bolinas filmmaker doesn't blame anybody for any of it.

     He rolls his eyes, too.

     "I would say 95 percent of it is absolute hogwash," he says of UFOlogy and the cottage industry of conventions, books, movies, tapes and trinkets orbiting a widespread belief that extraterrestrial spacecraft are cruising earthly airspace.

     But that didn't dissuade Fox from throwing his name into the debate. The boyish 37-year-old who says he "was never known for being the quiet child" has produced not one but two UFO documentaries. He just looked at the other 5 percent. "This is the 5 percent we focus on," Fox says.

     That 5 percent keeps him right in the middle of eye-rolling territory.

     On Friday, the eyes roll right into Mill Valley. "Out of the Blue," the second of Fox's two UFO documentaries, screens at the 142 Throckmorton theater. Next month, a "director's cut" airs on the Sci-Fi Channel.

     At this point, Fox doesn't know which is harder to believe, that aliens are visiting Earth on a regular basis or that a guy who grew up in Bolinas and majored in French at San Francisco State is making documentaries about flying saucers.

     And being taken seriously.

     At least by some.

     Fox's Web site quotes a positive review from Skeptic Magazine, and Stanton Friedman, a certified non-skeptic who has been on the flying-saucer lecture circuit for nearly 40 years, calls the latest film "one of the half-dozen best" UFO documentaries. And he's seen all of them.

     "There's an awful lot of garbage out there," Friedman says.

     That's the sort of thing Fox heard when he started his research. When he told his family nearly 10 years ago that he was going to make a documentary about UFOs, the reaction was not entirely supportive.

     "They basically laughed at me," he recalls.

     His father, journalist and author Charles Fox, took it especially hard. "He probably spent a good year and a half trying to turn me around," Fox recalls, remembering the patriarch's "deep sense of paternal obligation."

     But he made the documentary anyway.

     A "sighting" Fox experienced in the desert 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas was all the proof he needed that the proverbial "something" was out there. He was driving with friends at nightfall when they saw a "saucer-shaped object" flying, darting, stopping, hovering, doing all the things that UFOs are supposed to do.

     He even videotaped it. It's a bad videotape. The real ones always are, he maintains. "If it were too good it would have to be fake," Fox says.

     And when he told people about it and showed them the tape, he got the same response he might have given anybody who made such a claim. "They all said, 'What drugs were you on?'"

     Fox wasn't on drugs. He was on a mission.

     "I wanted to see what this was all about," he says.

     He started by looking at what had already been done. "I got all the UFO films I could possibly get my hands on, and I thought they were awful," he says. Using that as a guide, Fox limited the interviews to what he calls "trained observers," mostly astronauts and military officers.

     And he threw out any accounts that he "didn't add up."

     He also stopped telling people he was from Bolinas. "I just said 'Marin.'"

     What he was left with was what he thought were credible stories. "When you get to the 15th or 20th high ranging military officer you sort of have to ask, 'How much longer can I dismiss this evidence?'" Fox says.

     When the first documentary, "UFOs: 50 Years of Denial," got picked up by the Discovery Channel, Fox felt vindicated, perhaps not by the skeptics but by his family.

     "The entire family was swept off their feet," he says.

     The second film simply grew out of the first. He became a part of the UFO community, a person to call. He recalls hearing the refrain "This is the film we've all been waiting for."

     None of it has been easy. The step through what Friedman calls "the laughter curtain" never is.

     "Fear of ridicule" is what keeps a lot of UFO believers quiet, Friedman says. The UFO lecturer and late-night radio guest says Fox had the same motivation many in the field have to march through a gauntlet of skeptical derision.

     "Many of us who have spent a great deal of time on this subject are convinced we're dealing with the biggest story of the millennium," Friedman says.

     When Fox contacted him, Friedman says his advice was simple. "If you're going to do this, you'd better have the facts in hand."

     Fox's father had some of the same worries. When his son told him the subject of his documentary, the elder Fox was afraid his son was surrendering all hope of credibility. "I said, 'Don't go there. Nobody goes there,'" Charles Fox recalls. "That's Looney Tunes."

     But the son who "always danced to his own tune" made the films anyway. Charles Fox says his son "pulled it off." The films "work in that they inject a bubble of doubt into your head."

     Fox brought his son along on many magazine assignments and believes that some of the questioning mentality may have been passed down.

     "I think that got into his blood," Fox says, but he doesn't know where his son got that urge to challenge the accepted wisdom from such extreme angles.

     The younger Fox isn't sure why he does it, either. Fox calculates he made $7 or $8 an hour" producing "Out of the Blue." He just has a need to question things, to sort it out.

     "I like to try to make a difference," he says.

     Now the filmmaker is stepping into a different fray but with familiar landmarks. Friday's screening will be a benefit for Energy Next, a nonprofit Fox founded to produce a new documentary, this time on "alternative energy."

     Fox says he wants to rip the "alternative" label off the subject and take the idea of green living out of the "hairy armpits and raisinette date cake" demographic.

     But he's stepping into the conspiracy theory landscape again. And he knows it. Fox talks about an all-powerful international oil industry quashing energy-saving innovation. He's ready to bring up whispered stories about carburetors that gave V-8s 65 mpg. He's ready to look for patents on world-changing technologies that were deliberately derailed by the energy concerns.

     "The whole word 'alternative energy,'" he says. "Is almost like saying 'flying saucer.'"

     He's ready for the eye rolling again.

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