James Ellroy, the author and former Kansas City resident, stands in front of a filmmaker on a city bus that stops and starts and farts its way through downtown Los Angeles with all the unromantic herk and jerk of metro buses everywhere. "I have wheels of my own now, so I never ride the bus," he tells the camera. "This is an interesting archaeological expedition that you're taking me on. I've got some righteous, boneroo bus stories."
For the camera, Ellroy recounts filthy tales of young couples engaged in acne relief, of sex aboard criminal-transport vessels. He relates these bizarre memories with a straight face and unflinching eyes. And he keeps saying very messed-up things, things like pudenda to describe the female genitalia.
"Some things you had to watch for on the bus when I was a kid was queers and taking the Western Avenue bus back on Thursday night," he says. "The tough black kids that went to the roller rink on Hollywood and Western [would] kick your ass in a heartbeat. You had to stare in your lap and pretend they didn't exist. I always sat at the back of the bus, not out of any kind of solidarity for them but because it was easier to whip out my short dog, a Thunderbird wine, and drink it."
The filmmaker is 47-year-old Ben Meade, a film instructor at Avila University who lives with his wife and the youngest of five children in a spacious home in Lenexa near Shawnee Mission Park. For the past year, Meade has questioned dozens of Kansas Citians about what it means to ride the bus in these Hummerfied times. He began with bus drivers, shifted to bus riders, then turned his question to people visibly repulsed by the notion of boarding a city bus.
He added to these interviews a gold mine of archival footage, inane send-ups and the occasional exercise in visual flair. The resulting Das Bus proves in a cramped eighty minutes that, on any given day, Kansas City is far more interesting than one might imagine -- and far more pathetic.
Today, Meade sits in his basement studio, putting the finishing touches on one of three musical interludes in the film, using footage that merges the unholy trinity of a metro bus, Nazis, and local hair-metal band the Baloney Ponyz. Meade cackles throughout, stopping only to question his own acumen. "Bad, very bad taste, the whole thing is very bad taste," he says.
Meade calls Das Bus an "experimental documentary," a label that essentially liberates him from the truth-telling responsibility linked to traditional documentaries. "What happens is, I take real occurrences, real footage, and create a film that is part fact and part fiction," he says. "Not a docudrama, because there's really no drama to them -- it's just more of an experience where you create some reality, you create your own experiences in the film."
Creating reality, even toying with it, is a controversial enterprise. As Meade well knows. In March 2001, while he was working in Budapest, Hungary, Meade acquired a set of 8-mm film reels dating from 1948 to 1964. Once belonging to the Locsei family, the movies had fallen into the hands of a moving-company owner. Shocked by what he saw on those reels, the mover had turned them over to an acquaintance who turned them over to Meade.
Shot in a suspiciously professional style, the Locsei "home movies" revealed a family with no apparent qualms about allowing its arguably strange behavior to be filmed. (In one scene, mother Locsei appears to hold son Erno's penis as he urinates.) The reels also presented vague documentation of Mr. Locsei's livelihood as a supervisor for his government's eerie, postwar task of collecting, organizing and returning thousands of valuables stolen from Hungarian Jews who'd been sent to concentration camps.
A spellbound Meade became obsessed with the quality and ambiguity of the films and concluded that the Locsei family mystery would be the subject of his first feature-length endeavor. He returned to Budapest and tracked down the family's two living members, Erno and his sister, Atuska.
Both siblings suffered noticeably from mental illness. Only Erno, a severe alcoholic, cooperated, submitting to the film crew with the same passivity he had displayed as a youngster. (The movie suggests that Meade and his Hungarian codirector may have supplied Erno with booze.) Nonetheless, Erno was an unreliable source, unable even to identify his parents when Meade first showed him the family's home movies. Realizing he could never fully solve the Locsei riddle, Meade took another approach to complete Vakvagany.
Simultaneously informing and misleading, the film provides no answers. Instead, Meade takes the liberty of juxtaposing the Locsei home movies with modern glimpses of Erno and Atuska but ultimately leaving viewers to decide what, if anything, to believe. Meade supplies three commentators -- loutish author Ellroy, dogmatic filmmaker Stan Brakhage and overanalytical psychiatrist Roy Menninger -- each of whom volunteers his own questionable take on the Locsei images past and present.
"I lead you around in that film with three people who are all full of bullshit, and I love them all. They're all good friends," Meade says, noting Brakhage's death in March. "You don't have enough information to make a story, and you get led all over the place. That's why people come out of the theater, and husbands and wives are arguing with each other. People are mad at me -- because they were put into a very ambiguous situation with something very ambiguous, with no closure to it, and they leave, and they're upset."
In every audience that sees Vakvagany, there are people appalled by the filmmaker's ethics. "The reaction with Vakvagany is generally that I violated people's rights, that I exploited people for personal gain, that I didn't give enough information, that I'm giving unfair representation of this family," Meade says.
He disagrees, of course, but admits that in the chaos of filming, he probably went too far. Near the end of Vakvagany, viewers follow Meade as he breaks into Atuska's home. There's a moment of concern for the reclusive sister's well-being, but Meade's motive is clearly to get her on film. When a heated exchange erupts on Atuska's lawn, Meade keeps the camera focused on her, despite her furious protests.
It's easy to criticize Meade for the invasion, but such objections seem beside the point. He has already burrowed far into the Locseis' private lives. That he would film Atuska against her will seems a natural step along an already debatable path. More troubling is an off-camera voice in the same scene, that of Meade's codirector, whose words to Erno and Atuska go untranslated.
Ethical or not, the Atuska scene is easily Vakvagany's emotional climax, a voyeuristic peak at a troubled woman whose life viewers have already analyzed on the flimsy basis of a few childhood images. Therein lies Meade's accomplishment: Although no one could possibly form a legitimate conclusion with such purposely limited information, viewers will try anyway.
The harshest reception for Meade and Vakvagany occurred last December in Amsterdam. Meade and his wife barely made the screening after a sleepless transatlantic flight. When the movie finished, Meade says, it felt as though all 300 people in attendance were driven to mutiny.
"This guy in Amsterdam said to me, 'You got to understand, we're usually not this verbal and vocal and hostile, but this is an outrage!'" Meade recalls.
Such outrage has clearly fueled Meade's run with Vakvagany, which continues to screen at festivals. Earlier this year, the Sundance Channel bought the broadcast rights and aired it for the first time May 1. Four days later, the movie screened at Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America. In all, 21 festivals around the world have shown the movie. It's also won Meade several prizes, including Best Documentary Feature at the Sante Fe Film Festival.
He hopes the attention will help him sell Das Bus to festivals. If it does, film viewers around the world will catch a glimpse into a Kansas City that even some Kansas Citians might not recognize. For locals, the buildings and skyline will stand out, but the characters may seem otherworldly.
Das Bus marks a lighter turn for Meade after Vakvagany; it's much more likely to inspire laughter than rage. But some rage might be in order.
Two years ago, Meade, his brother-in-law and another man ate lunch at the Peanut at 51st and Main, an occasion that launched Das Bus.
Meade had just returned from Budapest, where he'd spent two weeks following and filming Erno Locsei for what would become Vakvagany. Exhausted by the experience, he grabbed lunch with the two men, both Kansas City bus drivers. They began telling Meade stories about on-bus antics, including one about a naked, 300-plus-pound woman chasing down a city bus and demanding to be let aboard.
Meade couldn't believe it. Later he prodded his brother-in-law, Gary Triggs. "This stuff happens," Triggs assured him. Meade decided to make a movie. He called the Kansas City Area Transit Authority and asked for access to the agency's employees and buses. The ATA agreed.
In the year that followed, Meade listened to more absurd stories. He found that, when pressed, bus drivers are adept at applying tourniquets. He discovered that the most dangerous thing a bus driver can do is refuse a passenger's transfer. He learned the term trolley dollies, a reference to bus-driver groupies.
Das Bus stutters somewhat at its start, but takes off with an unexpected cameo by a local celebrity who provides telling commentary about the state of buses. It then moves into a series of vignettes -- some unforgettable, such as a staged event featuring a busload of identical twins -- all the while driving itself toward a surprisingly pointed statement about the quality of life in Kansas City.
"This film is pretty much insane," Meade says. "It started out as this documentary about bus drivers and developed into this whole thing about urban myth and culture and what people think, what they believe."
It says a lot about Das Bus that Meade has separated the film into two computer files: one for "real" scenes, another for "fake" scenes. That division is at the heart of what he wants his film to do, which is to lead viewers to believe he's taking the predictable road -- the documentary on bus drivers -- before throwing at them a myriad of contrived events, bullshit artists and clueless commentators.
"It's going to annoy a lot of people," he says. "It's very easy to follow, but at the same time it's not, because you don't know what's real and what's not. And that's the game I want to play with this."
Unlike Vakvagany, though, Das Bus makes a certain argument that looms throughout the film. With his last film, Meade asked viewers to absorb information and cast their own judgments. This time, he shows the effect of ill-informed judgments.
While making Das Bus, Meade learned about the sorry state of Kansas City's bus system and about Kansas Citians' general apathy regarding public-transit issues. He wasn't just making a movie about the bus; he was making a movie about the bus in the quintessential car town.
Some car drivers told Meade that the bus was simply a thing of the past, that buses were for people who didn't have cars, that such people were commonly degenerates. Others suggested that something about Kansas City in particular made public transportation a worthless investment.
In other metro regions, entire cities work together to support a cohesive, dependable transportation system. If such a partnership were in place in metropolitan Kansas City -- and one is not -- interested citizens might rely on buses for rides to work and back, to the airport and back, even to Lawrence and back.
Meanwhile, Kansas City's public transportation system can't even provide round-trip service to the premiere of Das Bus at the Glenwood Arts Theatre in Overland Park on May 30. Buses will stop arriving near the Glenwood at 5 p.m. that day, two hours before the movie starts. On weekends, buses don't go there at all.
On a warm April afternoon, Meade sequesters himself in his basement studio, a soundproofed room littered with television monitors and musical instruments. Even seated, he is animated, talking loudly and excitedly, the sort of energetic person who makes you wonder if you're not missing a gland or two.
He clicks through many of his interviews with bus drivers. Faces appear on his monitor for a flash before being replaced by the next. To a person, they represent the various career paths, not to mention talents and hobbies, that make Kansas City's bus-driving fraternity one of the most diverse sources of oral history around. One man holds a ventriloquist's dummy on his lap.
Meade stops on a white man with graying hair. "He was a really interesting guy," he says. "I really liked talking to him, because he just makes sense."
Last October, Meade went to Chubby's on Broadway to film this man, a part-time bus driver who'd spent the first 27 years of his career working for the financial firm E.F. Hutton (now Solomon Smith Barney).
Meade cues the interview. On the monitor, the man begins talking, explaining how he became jaded by the excesses of capitalism after too many years in the financial business. When he retired, he says, the opening for part-time bus drivers became a sort of calling.
"This was a chance to do something that was far more important than being a stockbroker," the driver says.
Unfortunately, that quote didn't make it into Das Bus, but it means something to Meade. Only a few years ago, Meade was a stockbroker, making loads of money but finding the job less and less fulfilling as the years went on. "It became like a disease," he says. "The last six or eight years, I was doing it full time. I didn't believe in it anymore, probably because I didn't believe in the people I was dealing with."
Four years ago, Meade traveled to China on a trip sponsored by his employer, MetLife Financial. An amateur filmmaker since age eleven, Meade brought along a couple of cameras. Once he was there, however, his excitement turned to disgust. The company had rented a section of the Great Wall and closed it off so that company officials, such as Meade, could dine atop one of the world's great wonders without being disturbed by locals or other tourists. The company had draped banners featuring MetLife mascot Snoopy over the Great Wall. "It was the most outlandish, horrific thing I've ever experienced," Meade says. "It was pure, unadulterated capitalism."
Later, at a MetLife gala inside a rented portion of the Forbidden City, Meade turned his camera on his fellow man. He filmed both his bloated colleagues and the Chinese citizens who had applied to serve them for the evening. Back in Kansas City, he edited the images together and produced Bailar, an eight-minute short based on the juxtaposition.
By then, Meade's attention had drifted away from his job. In 1993, his younger brother committed suicide, and Meade began detaching himself from his life as a stockbroker. He started working part time and earned a master's degree in history from Baker University. In 1995, Meade was accepted into the doctoral program in film studies at the University of Kansas. During his second semester, Meade met Dotty Hamilton, head of the communications department at Avila University (then Avila College). Hamilton asked Meade to teach a course in horror film at Avila, and Meade agreed, adding the teaching duties to his full-time course load and part-time job.
Four years later, when Meade received his Ph.D. from KU, Avila hired him for a tenure-track position teaching film and video production. Then, while presenting his doctoral dissertation in Copenhagen, Denmark, Meade was asked to become a guest lecturer at Janus Pannonius University in Hungary. Again, he accepted. And along came the Locsei home movies.
"This means a lot more," Meade says of his new career. "If you can imagine, you're out there selling financial products, and you think: Oh, I'm doing this great thing for people. That doesn't even compare to being in Amsterdam, showing my last film and having 300 people stand up in a theater and wanting to have me lynched."
At 39, Meade had decided to reconnect with his creative side. In six years, he dissolved his former life to advance his artistic vision. Then, in March 2001, he was diagnosed with colon cancer after a routine checkup. His doctor told Meade that if he had waited six months longer, the cancer might have spread beyond control. But as it happened, Meade recovered fully within weeks of the diagnosis.
Still, mortality wouldn't leave him alone. Last September, while he was screening Vakvagany at the Great Lakes Independent Film Festival (where he won the prize for Best Experimental Film), Meade took a phone call from his mother in Kansas City, who told him that his other brother had died of a heart attack.
These events helped shape Meade as a filmmaker, reminded him that there were some things he couldn't control. Several months into making Das Bus, he thought he might have to call it quits. Inspired by all the bus stories he'd heard, Meade had jumped on board with a camera and hoped to film the insanity as it occurred. But nothing happened. Meade had wanted to make the movie a certain way, but it wouldn't work for him. Eventually, he returned to his initial source of inspiration.
The original bus stories became the movie. The drivers became the characters. His job, he realized, was to record their anecdotes as well as those of bus riders and car drivers, then fill in the gaps.
"Tons of Fun" Tina is running both late and no less than 200 pounds overweight on this crucial Monday morning on the production calendar of Das Bus.
A small film crew and a handful of onlookers wait near the corner of Pershing and Grand, beneath the folds of the Hyatt Regency, Crown Center and those clean-cut card creators at the Hallmark headquarters just beyond. Meade assures them all that Tina confirmed last night, but to make sure she hasn't come down with a case of stage fright, he calls her from his cell phone.
As it turns out, she's come down with a case of something else. From the passenger seat of a sedan barreling from Grandview to Crown Center, Tina, a self-described "fatty stripper" on hire for the morning's shoot, explains that she had a bad run-in with a household cleaner and that her substantial body is covered with sores. But she's on her way, and Meade hangs up satisfied if a little anxious.
The production would be less conspicuous if it weren't for a metro bus parked along Pershing Road, the day's large, inanimate prop to go along with its large, animate one. Outside the bus stands uniformed driver Steve Provance, the man whose story is being re-created today. Several years ago, on almost this same spot, Provance was driving the 27th Street bus when he noticed a naked woman of improbable girth chasing him down the street, lipstick smeared across her face. "That's the strangest thing I've seen, and I've seen a lot of strange things," he says while waiting for his nude tormenter reincarnate. "You never know what's around the curve and up the road."
The idea is to splice Provance's telling of the story with shots of Tina hauling down the sidewalk in all her glory, pounding on the bus and demanding entry. "I want as much as I can get," Meade tells his crew. "As radical as fucking Jerry Springer."
Radical but quick. Without a permit, Meade figures they need to get the shot in one take and flee. So Tina's little starlet routine is wearing thin.
Finally, more than thirty minutes after the shoot was scheduled to begin, Tina arrives draped in a light-blue shirt, jeans and white sneakers. She takes a few minutes to disrobe, then covers herself with a plaid sheet. Meade paints her face with red lipstick and gives her some last-minute instructions.
Pershing Road goes quiet. All morning, traffic has crept by on Grand Avenue. Now it comes to a fortuitous halt. Meade calls action. Tina drops her sheet and sprints sluggishly down the sidewalk, screaming, "Stop! Wait! Let me in the bus!" Her body wags and waves like a gelatinous flag. As she stops and pounds on the front door of the bus, demanding passage, Provance drives off, just as he did years ago. For a long moment, Tina stands on Pershing Road, naked, alone, big.
Meade calls cut. Within minutes, the crew members pack up their gear and vanish. Tina, still smeared in lipstick, dresses herself and ducks into a friend's car. Meade thanks her for a job well-done, crosses the street and disappears into a parking garage, shaking his head and giggling like a kid.
"Das Bus is a lot about who I am, the way I perceive the world," he says later. "I like to look at the world in a humorous way, but always with the understanding that underlying everything is something serious."
Last October, Meade discovered a single 16-mm reel of film. The reel contained a 1969 news clip by two young reporters named Stan Cramer and Wendall Anschutz. The focus of that report was an ailing city agency making changes to keep up with the times.
"If they don't, Kansas City will never be what it's expected to be, nor will it be what it is now," Cramer reports. "The city as a focal point of all activity will die."
It was an incredible find. To that point, Meade had collected some great interviews and conjured some memorable re-creations, but Das Bus still lacked a spine. Nothing tangible connected the film's different threads. More important, nothing sufficiently addressed the seriousness of the public-transportation problem in Kansas City.
Meade does not understate the reel's importance to Das Bus. "The glue that holds it together is this film," he says.
Of the various reactions sure to follow Das Bus, none should be more interesting than that of the ATA, without whose blessing Meade couldn't have made the film. "I told them it was a G-rated movie," Meade says about his initial pitch to the ATA. "Yeah, right. That didn't happen at all."
But ATA officials haven't been pestering Meade about ratings. Instead, their concern, expressed increasingly as the Das Bus premiere nears, is about how the ATA is represented in the film.
Meade doesn't exactly give them a free pass. But the ATA also draws its own criticism, particularly when its marketing director, Cindy Baker, touts a plan to increase ridership by giving city buses a new paint design for the first time in decades.
Of course, it's a boring idea that shows only a modicum of imagination and zero respect for human intelligence. But when Meade places the interview next to archival footage of a drab ATA bureaucrat making the same hopeless statement to a strapping young Anschutz more than thirty years ago, it becomes something else, funny but annoying. After all, these are the minds charged with restoring public transportation in Kansas City.
Without even trying, Das Bus makes a caustic comment on "new" trends in transit.
"Did you see the experimental rail bus?" Meade asks from his basement studio, then cues up another clip from the 1969 report. On the monitor appears a black-and-white shot of a seemingly normal city bus. But then the bus drives over a set of train tracks, and rails lower from its underbelly. Within a few moments, the bus starts chugging along a train line. Then the driver flips a switch, the rails recede and the bus operates on streets again.
Thirty-four years ago, the experimental rail bus was touted as the next big thing.
Thirty-four years ago, Wendall Anschutz stood outside a city bus and interviewed a bland ATA bureaucrat about an idea for new paint schemes. Today, Anschutz has dropped the microphone and committed himself to public-transportation issues. "I feel that mass transit has been virtually forgotten in Kansas City," he tells the Pitch.
As a KCTV Channel 5 newsman, Anschutz heard many Kansas City leaders dodge the issue by saying that mass transit needed more study, study, study.
Three decades' worth of studies resulted in an $800 million plan for starter light-rail lines down Main Street and Troost Avenue, a plan voters rejected in August 2001. As it turned out, what mass transit really needed was more support, support, support from Kansas City leaders. The light-rail initiative simply couldn't overcome a curmudgeonly Chamber of Commerce and a lack of enthusiasm from Mayor Kay Barnes, who lent light rail her tepid endorsement and then sat by and watched her fellow Northland voters trounce the plan on Election Day.
Transit backers such as Anschutz were left licking their wounds. Now they're pushing something called Bus Rapid Transit. At a fraction of light rail's cost -- and without an election to kill it -- an initial BRT line would dedicate a single lane of Main Street to city buses during rush hour. It would equip special buses with gizmos allowing drivers to fend off red lights. The goal is to make BRT the first in a series of overall improvements to public transportation, including a commuter rail line from Overland Park to Union Station.
But that takes money. And right now Kansas City spends only a fraction of the money other cities invest in public transportation. St. Louis, for example, spends an average of $71 a citizen on transit. Dallas allocates $156 a citizen. Denver pays $168. Minneapolis, $97.
Kansas City? Just $33 a citizen on public transportation. "The bottom line is, we're getting what we're paying for," says ATA Director Mark Huffer.
Plenty of people are fine with that. Kansas City, after all, is a car town -- the Mid-America Regional Council says more than 90 percent of trips made in the city are by car. But though the dominant perception is that public transportation doesn't matter, there is also a minority position throughout the city at least worth acknowledging, one that generally involves two groups of people.
The first comprises the approximately 30,000 Kansas Citians who depend on public transportation every day for "access," as one Das Bus interviewee puts it. That Kansas City offers them nothing more than a piecemeal public-transportation system under the constant threat of cutbacks (not growth) seems a pathetic reality, as bemoaned on the exhaustive Web site www.kcbusstop.com.
A few years ago, Heidi Schallberg moved back to Kansas City after living in -- guess where? -- Denver, where she'd come to rely on that city's public transportation. Upon experiencing Kansas City's bus system, Schallberg created a Web log as a means to vent. She updates the site daily, adding anything from a local transit news item to a bittersweet rant about her recent trip to transit heaven -- Portland, Oregon -- and her saddened return home.
The second group is composed of people who believe that public transportation is the key to progress, as vital to downtown revitalization as a performing-arts center -- something to be expected of a city that dreams beyond mediocrity. As Stan Cramer said, without good public transportation for citizens and tourists alike, "Kansas City will never be what it's expected to be." Many people, car drivers among them, believe that.
"The reason I don't ride the bus -- as much as I used to, anyway -- is it's so slow," says one Das Bus interviewee, a young white guy sitting at a bus stop. "There's nothing to do; there's nothing to look at. This city's boring. Besides that, you're stuck. You're stuck in traffic for block after block. That bus hits every single red light."
If he stopped, his comments would be just another slam on Kansas City. But then he offers a suggestion, the slightest request for a better system and a better city. Dedicate a single lane for the bus, he says -- "just dedicate it only for the bus."
If ATA officials come out of Das Bus angry, they'll be suffering from a tragic case of shortsightedness. As a whole, the film is not only an indirect commercial for the ATA but also a blatant advocate for a better public-transportation system in Kansas City.
For Das Bus, Meade interviewed several people who would not, could not and supposedly should not ride the bus. Some of them, especially Big Dude's Music City manager Bill Gladden, riff so well on the bus topic that it hardly matters that their objections to public transportation make no sense. "The end of the line, you know what I mean?" he says. "The end of the line is, like, a bus term. You're at the end of the line. It's like death for car people."
Others treat the issue more seriously, giving straight-faced answers that tend to make even less sense. One businesswoman says she won't ride the bus because a friend told her that bus riders cough on each other. A Plaza-based accountant discounts the bus by noting that he rarely sees one that isn't empty.
The honest answer is that they don't want to give up their cars, and both cop to it. But instead of leaving it at that, they choose to marginalize public transportation and those who use it. Not only is a car better, but the bus also is a madhouse. People cough on each other.
Das Bus could just treat these perceptions as absurd and humorous. Instead, Meade gets more mileage out of them, suggesting they might actually be harmful -- directly proportionate to the way Kansas City invests in public transportation.
After the seriousness of Vakvagany, Meade went in a lighter direction for his follow-up. So Das Bus became a film about bus drivers. But it turned out that Meade wasn't finished playing with reality, so it also became a film of fact and fiction. But then Meade couldn't avoid the dark side of things, so it also became a film about a Kansas City weakness. And Das Bus ends this way, with a depressing montage set to the stirring voice of Kansas City resident Iris Dement. I can see the sun's settin' fast, she sings wistfully, and just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.