Smog and Thunder is a mockumentary about a California civil war set in a vaguely recent past. Completed in September 2002, the filmmakers are now exploring distribution outlets and the film festival circuit. In November it premiered at the Festival of Festivals in Palm Springs, where it won the award for Best Digital Film. It was also selected to screen in competition at Slamdance in January 2003 in Park City, Utah. Slamdance had over 2800 entries and chose 28 of for the 2003 festival.
The film was produced and directed by Sean Meredith, and written by Sandow Birk and Paul Zaloom. The Great War of the Californias was the ultimate calamity in a state strewn with calamities. Based on the paintings of Sandow Birk, this film explores the history and the stories behind California's tragic conflict. The paintings and propaganda posters convey the intense hatred that had built up between Los Angeles and San Francisco. When the powder keg ignited, the state was quickly consumed by this horrible war.
In Smog and Thunder tells its story through the humble words of the soldiers and citizens who lived through it: infantry privates, civilian yuppies, traffic reporters, colonels, generals, and gardeners. Our crackpot historian, who smooths over war crimes with juicy gossip, leaves you feeling confused and inferior. This grand procession makes you wish there were even more wars.
The story of Sandow Birk's fictional war is told through a large body of artwork that has been exhibited as an historical farce at two California museums, the Laguna Art Museum and the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Complete with models, dioramas, and an audio tour, the museum was played up as the arbiter of truth. This idea is expanded upon in this mockumentary, which challenges media conglomerate hype and exploitative spectacle with its own counter spectacle. In the same way that Ken Burns used actors to read letters home from war veterans over the super-slow pans of Civil War cabinet photos, In Smog and Thunder spoofs these narrative devices and expands upon them: the film's audience doesn't know if they're listening to actors portraying the witnesses of the war or if the actors are doing a send-up of documentary actors.
Claudine Isé, an assistant curator at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum, wrote about the project, "Although viewers know from the get-go that this account of the Great War cannot be accurate, the conflicts portrayed . . . reflect many of the material and social realities that confront Californians today." And, as such issues as immigration and over development descend upon America's Heartland, the political hot-button issues that California faces are popping up across the country.
Sandow Birk collaborated with writer/performer Paul Zaloom to create the audio tour for his exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum and they worked together to expand the tour into a film script. In August 2001, as the first rewrite was being completed, Birk met Sean Meredith, who quickly jumped at the project. Meredith was drawn in by the paintings' classical forms and comical details, which are complimented further in the film by Zaloom's serious narration of lines like, "Northern Brigadier General Susan Hwang marshalled her forces to defend her beloved Tenderloin, ordering the troops' extra rations and putting the whole thing on her credit card."