J.P. Somersaulter has reinvented innocence. He has created and populated a world where there is neither harm nor suffering nor even hard choices. Only bad dreams seep through, and these occur to only one unlucky person, the heroine of Somersaulter's eccentric new movie, Donna Rosebud.
"The movie starts out with this naive, silly kind of humor, I mean really silly kind of humor," Somersaulter told us. "And that's part of the way I see the world and life, and making this movie. And the other part of the movie has to do with--where does creativity and altruism lead to? You know, where's the borderline between that and mental illness?"
We were sitting on a bench in Graceland Cemetery, where most of Donna Rosebud was written and some of it was shot--though Chicago settings have never seemed so otherworldly and elusive. Somersaulter grew up in suburban Saint Louis under a different name. Lillian Somersaulter, who became his wife and collaborator in prizewinning animated shorts, used to be Mary Patricia. Neither ever took a film course.
"At one point Lillian was P.J. Saulter and I was J.P. Saulter and, let's see, we had some other names too," Somersaulter remembered. "And this reflected basically that kind of lack of integration, let us say, that we each manifested at the time. You do sense that there is a lot of pain in this movie . . . ?"
We did. Only someone acutely sensitive to pain could imagine so full a world without it.
Heavy psychological distress ended the marriage 11 years ago. But when Lillian remarried, J.P. Somersaulter was the best man, and he and Lillian continued to make movies together. He had gone to court once to make his make-believe name real; but now, alas, he found some reality is immutable by anything less than art. He and Lillian asked a lawyer if they could become legally brother and sister. Impossible--unless someone adopted both of them. And both, unfortunately, were adults.
Somersaulter made Donna Rosebud over five years for an astonishing $45,000. Lillian didn't take part, but her present husband, Michael Moats, was sound director. If you move in Chicago's young artistic circles you will recognize dozens of the 200 cast members. You're probably in it yourself.
"I went to art openings all the time and there was just this gang of people that I knew and I wanted them all to be immortalized and collected," Somersaulter said. "And so it's going to be a great film to show 15 years from now to selected groups of people."
You won't have many chances to see it before then. Somersaulter is screening Donna Rosebud at the Music Box August 13 and 14. And that may be it. He likes to think of Donna Rosebud as the wildly uncommercial early work that, once he's a famous director, will be rediscovered and hailed.
Who is Donna Rosebud? She's the local mayor, brilliant surgeon, best-selling author, major league pitcher, rock musician, and mother of seven precocious kids. In her world, the most earnest voice is always the most sensible, and common sense always prevails. Her love, Alonzo, is all men to his woman, and indeed in the movie he is played by seven actors.
Nothing troubles Donna Rosebud but her bad dreams--intimations of a world that happens to be our own. "The idea of aging without any choice is stupid," she muses. "You'd have to be able to be young again! It just doesn't make sense."
Walking out of Graceland, we asked Somersaulter if any particular grave here had inspired him. Yes, he said; he spent a lot of time at the remains of George M. Pullman. Beneath the sod, the father of the planned industrial community lay encased in concrete put there to guarantee the workers he'd befriended wouldn't dig him up and tear him apart.
Donna Rosebud is a dreamy, funny, and prodigiously filmic meditation on the bittersweet deal life is. Somersaulter's idea of paradise is a lot wiser than Pullman's. Somersaulter figured out that paradises are absurd.
A Reporter Breaks the Rules
Two weeks ago, we wrote about the press revealing its sources. The case in point was Oliver North accusing congressmen of telling secrets about the Achille Lauro hijacking, after he'd leaked to Newsweek about it himself. Newsweek called North on the inconsistency. In retrospect, this was a paltry episode.
Here is another story. It concerns a reporter responding to his conscience.
In 1981, the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch assigned crime reporter Roy Malone to the saga of Mark Molasky. Molasky was a rich man's dissolute son who'd taken over the family's periodical-distribution empire. The Molaskys "were always on the fringe of organized crime," Malone told us.
Already under investigation by the FBI, the business went bad in the 70s. Owing millions, Mark Molasky declared bankruptcy. But he hid his assets so cannily that creditors could not touch them. He was a hated man. Then his third wife, who was dumping him, handed the FBI videotaped evidence that he'd sexually abused a minor. And the sky fell in on him.
Bond was one million dollars--"unheard of for a case like this," said Malone. The idea was to both keep Molasky in jail and make him reveal his assets: "Every time he tried to make bond it would be encumbered in some way," Malone said. The chief judge of the Saint Louis County Circuit Court heard the case; he refused to grant a change of venue, though Molasky's lawyer argued that 84 pretrial newspaper articles had poisoned the community.
Convicting Molasky was a breeze--the evidence was on tape--and he was sentenced to 32 years in prison. A grade-school teacher who'd abused his students got 2 years at about the same time. "The attitude was, 'Oh, yeah, Molasky did it. And he did a lot of other things,'" Malone said.
Malone's role in all this was to write the details about Molasky's background. To get them, he'd gone to see the prosecutor. "You know how it works. You're on their side of this, they just assume it. He brings me into the grand jury room and the secretary brings out these tapes relating to witnesses talking about his assets, his property . . ." (The prosecutor denies this happened; revealing grand jury testimony is a serious breach of legal ethics.)
We asked Malone if the prosecutor had sworn him to secrecy. No, he told us, secrecy was a given. "It's the game we play. They know you're not going to tell where you got it. If you do, that well will be closed for future information."
Malone observed, "That's where the hypocrisy comes down on my part." If he'd promised the prosecutor silence, he'd have maintained it, come what may. But the deal went unspoken, and Malone had a moral loophole when he needed it.
The huge bond and long sentence required a public that abhorred Mark Molasky, Malone reflected later. The media created one. "You dredge up all the stuff and print it," Malone said. "We put stuff out there that would not be allowed in a court of law. Why even have a trial then? The trial is when you're supposed to learn these things."
In 1984, at a posttrial hearing, Molasky's father asked Malone where he'd gotten some of the facts in his articles. Malone slept on the question and decided even Mark Molasky deserved due process. When Molasky's father asked again, Malone told him.
Later Malone would sign an affidavit, which recently became grounds for a new motion that alleges prosecutorial misconduct. In May, Malone was banished to the copydesk to write headlines. Monday and Tuesday are his days off. He may yet be fired.
"What I've done here has been considered stupid by everybody I know," Malone told us. "Nobody understands me. They think that Roy just went off his rocker. One reporter came by my desk and said 'Dumb, dumb, dumb.' A friend said, 'Maybe you have a destructive tendency from when you were a child.'
"One of my friends told me, 'You had a crisis of faith,'" said Malone, who's 49. "'You've been doing it so long, and now you wonder if you've been doing the right thing.'"
Many of the faithful never know a moment's doubt. There's a sense in which, when a believer's faith is tested, it is tested for us all.
Intersection of Items
"What's your other item about?" said J.P. Somersaulter.
"A newspaper story out of Saint Louis," we said. "About a slimeball who took a videotape of his nude fiancee performing fellatio on a three-year-old."
"I know him!" Somersaulter shouted. "My mother sent me the articles." The name came to him.
"Mark Molasky! We were in high school together. I was a cafeteria monitor, and we got in a shoving match in the food line."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.