Penny For Your Thoughts

A man sets up his table on the street, places a money jar atop it, puts up his sign and waits for passersby to show interest in what he’s selling. He’s not peddling used books, although he is well-read; nor is he dealing drugs, though he enjoys smoking pot from an impressive-looking bong. Rather, the protagonist played by Jason Fisher in his short film Conversation For a Dollar sells just that; he gladly holds forth on any topic brought up by a paying customer.

I recently had the chance to interview Fisher, who remarked that his concept for the film sprang from his fond childhood remembrances of Boston’s legions of street performers. This long-held fondness, he continued, melded with an intellectual spirit that owed something to his “own love of language and ideas,” yielded a black-and-white film whose ideas and conceits can be surprisingly colorful. Questions about Han Solo, Thundercats and the meaning of life all get equal time at his table, and he’s as at ease wrangling a phone number out of a pretty young math student as he is at battling a ninja.

Though long a lover of film, Conversation For a Dollar is Fisher’s trial film. Filmed on a tight budget, production was difficult and tedious; Fisher says they “worked for four months, saved and borrowed enough to shoot and process three days of film, worked for two more months, saved and borrowed enough to shoot and process one more day of film, worked for four months, saved and borrowed enough to edit and have a print made,” all in order to nourish a half-hour-long independent film to maturity.


The film, as one might guess, is extremely talky and incorporates myriad visual gags into the work. At one point, the protagonist is chased across the screen by a funny-looking monster; at another, somebody asks him about his personal hero while he is dressed as Hugh Hefner.  And throughout, the film’s often eccentric questioners—a large robot, a philosophizing guitarist, a strait-jacketed kook and a pillow-clutching man walking through the streets in baggy pajamas, among others—succeed in stimulating the viewer with their odd appearances.

That he is self-appointed, of course, means you take your chances when you pony up your money and ask him something. He holds no degree in conversational arts, nor does he flaunt any other credentials that lend weight to the quality of his operation. He does, as mentioned above, possess the book-smarts to craft articulate and lucid answers to the questions put to him. Yet his ideas, frankly, are not that interesting. There is little reason for the intelligent viewer to sit through another discourse on the problems of our society’s increasing addiction to artificial realities. Consider also his shallow thoughts on language and mathematics: Words and numbers, he says, mean nothing when removed from their contexts. Only those who have been trained to recognize the ways in which they can be put together to represent ideas can make any use of them.

Simply put, Conversation For a Dollar breaks far less new ground when exploring questions of sociology and communication than it does when it dares to think outside generally contemplated field areas and arrives at compelling conclusions. The protagonist’s lecture about the flashing-for-beads “microeconomy” that arises in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is one of the more skewed examples, and his disquisition on the shape of the universe provides a surprising amount of interesting information to those of us who have never taken an astronomy course. And he gives what could have become a tired “is my waking life a dream?” sketch an abnormal punch with his well-written description of his dreamed identity as a butterfly—a dream he describes as so intense and vivid that he was left unsure whether he was a man or an insect upon waking.

Ultimately, the sheer diversity of the subject matter, endlessly alternating between the skewed and the informative, ends up allowing the film as a whole to connect with every section of your mind in some manner, though it may not leave every part entirely sated. Fisher credited this “alternation of heavy and light material” in the film to the Taoist concept of “tai chi—the cosmic dialogue of yin and yang.” Indeed, he said, many of the film’s insights have their groundings in Eastern forms of philosophy and religion: “The Eastern systems of thought are most consistent and practical in their approaches to existential and epistemologic science, they are empirically based and make as few assumptions as possible.”

Fisher is currently in the process of submitting Conversation For a Dollar to film festivals, setting up screenings for the film at colleges and cinemas throughout North America and selling videotapes of the film through its website, He has been working diligently at expanding the film’s reputation, despite his self-described handicap of being “an independent with no agent and no money.” In any case, he said, he intends to continue making films. Currently, he is fashioning a script about “a group of friends struggling to produce an independent hip hop album.”

Hip hop, in fact, was mentioned by Fisher as among his “primary influences” in creating Conversation For a Dollar. “Versatility of content and expression,” he said, “is an essential element of this musical form” and of the film. And, truly, the chance to explore the film’s diversity of tones and attitudes constitutes a sizable portion of its appeal. The material in Conversation For a Dollar is delivered in such a palatable and speedy style that it’s difficult for the viewer to find the time to retreat into one’s mind long enough to determine the value of all of the opinions that the hero has dished out. If, upon later doing so, one finds that the film’s most pleasing moments were tempered more by a healthy sense of the bizarre than by intellect, odds are that the discovery won’t seem terribly unsatisfying.

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