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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The DVD Geek: America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

The Criterion Collection has taken a trio of popular classic films from the Sixties and early Seventies that were produced by Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson and Steve Blauner under the banner of BBS Productions and were considered the heart of the American New Wave cinema of the time, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and Five Easy Pieces, and have combined them with four more esoteric BBS productions, Head, The King of Marvin Gardens, Drive, He Said, and A Safe Place, in a DVD boxed set entitled America Lost and Found The BBS Story .   It is worth noting that Jack Nicholson was centrally involved in all but one of the seven films.  When he began working on them, he was a minor American-International Pictures headliner that nobody paid any attention to, and by the time he finished, he was a superstar.  While most viewers already own at least the big three films, one of them, The Last Picture Show, was in dire need of a fresh transfer, which Criterion has industriously supplied.  They have also supplied a welcome scrubbing and polishing of Head, and have come up with some terrific supplementary features for every feature.  But let’s not beat around the bush.  The one real reason why anybody would pay attention to this collection at all is that only Easy Rider had previously been released on Blu-ray, through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment  so that Criterion’s Blu-ray boxed set of the films is a fully loaded treasure trove of must-have movies delivered in the finest condition home video can supply, even though, for all intents and purposes, it is nearly impossible to differentiate the image quality between the Criterion DVD and BD versions of each title.  Each movie in the collection has English subtitling.

Criterion has given the Easy Rider Blu-ray a DTS track while Sony only sprang for a 5.1 Dolby track.  Under the supervision of co-star Dennis Hopper, who was the official director of the 1969 film, the movie’s musical score and a smattering of its sound effects were enhanced with a 5.1 mix a little while ago.  It was a welcome addition for many reasons, as commons sense would dictate that if the technology had been available at an affordable price, the film’s creators would certainly have done it at the time.  Most importantly, however, the film was attempting to explore America’s cultural divide, and was one of the most accomplished intentional depictions of the zeitgeist ever created on film.  Despite the accuracy of its portrait (Nicholson’s amazing monolog, “They’re scared of what you represent…” is as much an explanation of the Red State/Blue State animosities of today as it was an understanding of the ‘short hair’/’long hair’ conflict of its time), it is inherently, now, a film of nostalgia, and in the same way that all memory is an exaggeration, the depth and power with which the pop songs swirl out of the images like smoke from a hookah intensifies and embellishes one’s memory of experiencing the film in the past.  The effect of Hopper’s mix is made most compelling of all by the purity and force of the Criterion BD DTS delivery.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image transfer is essentially the one that was originally done for Sony’s DVD.  The Sony and Criterion DVDs are as indistinguishable as the BDs are, and the only differences between the DVDs and the BDs come from whatever improvements in BD delivery one’s home video system offers.  Sony’s BD has French, Spanish and Portuguese tracks in 5.1 Dolby and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.  Criterion has just English subtitling.  Sony carries over a commentary by Hopper from the DVD, along with the very good 65-minute retrospective documentary.  Hopper leaves longish gaps between comments, particularly in the film’s second half, but he does explain the basics of the production and what he was trying to accomplish, as well as providing a few interesting anecdotes about the shoot.  Of much greater value is the documentary, featuring interviews with Hopper, Fonda and a number of other cast & crew members.  They have many interesting things to say about the production (the motorcycles were designed to look cool, not to take cross country trips) and the film’s meanings.  They swear it was real marijuana they used for the pot scenes, and real rednecks they used for the locals who harass the heroes.  They also reveal how awful communes really were (they sort of staged one in Topanga Canyon—gosh, we hope we aren’t spoiling cherished ideals here), suggest that Fonda and Hopper were not as friendly with one another as they pretended to be, and ponder Hopper’s first three hour plus cut.  It’s full of juicy tidbits that fans will not want to miss.

Although misidentified as having been recorded in 2009, the Criterion presentations also have the Hopper commentary, and include, as well, an engaging commentary Hopper recorded with co-star Peter Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis that was used on the second Columbia TriStar LD release, reacting to the film as it unspools.  Some information is presented indirectly (apparently in early drafts of the script the pair were motorcycle performers who appeared at fairs) but there is plenty of direct insight.  Hopper often explains why he is evoking John Ford or whatever in a particular scene, points out his tactical errors (he forgot to shoot one important scene and only realized his mistake after the wrap party was over) and how he solved problems on the fly when the improvisational passages got away from him.  On the downside, the three tend to name all their friends as they show up in the group shots (even little Bridget is running around in the commune), although few laser disc owners will care for that much arcane detail.  Like the movie itself, at first glance the commentary may seem a bit unstructured and spacey, but it is rich in both information and reminiscence, providing insight, nostalgia and, contrary to the film’s moral, proof that free spirits can indeed survive and prosper in modern America.

The film and its supplements are presented on a single BD platter, but the remaining Criterion supplements, except for a trailer, are split to a second platter on the Criterion DVD.  There is a cool 2-minute black-and-white clip from the movie’s promotion at Cannes, another terrific 30-minute retrospective documentary from 1995 (Karen Black does a great imitation of Terry Southern; the documentary contains a number of points that are not broached in the other materials) and an 18-minute interview with Blauner, who is a little more frank than the others are about some of the conflicts that occurred during the various BBS productions (he has a very telling story about Jim McBride).

“There would have been no Easy Rider without The Monkees, so they should canonize The Monkees, just for that,” says Blauner in his interview on the Easy Rider platter.  The television series, The Monkees, was the kitten, and the group’s 1968 feature film, Head, was the cat.  Not nearly as lovable, but it has had at least nine lives after its disastrous first theatrical run and is recognized today as a relatively sophisticated cult comedy based upon the precepts of experimental and avant garde film.  Rafelson’s first feature, the script was written primarily by Nicholson, who was essentially on a director’s career track himself until Easy Rider turned him into a movie star.  A deliberately peripatetic collection of sketches, including meta-sequences about the film itself being shot (Hopper, in his Easy Rider getup, can be glimpsed in one such scene), you could probably put the film on Repeat Play and then step into it at any point and watch it until that point is reached again.  The film has a vague theme about the entrapment of fame or bad contracts, which is embellished within the individual sketches with various metaphorical constructions—the heroes are trapped in large black box, or in Victor Mature’s hair, or are stuck in a desert with a Coke machine that doesn’t work, and so on—but it also seems as intended to end the reign of the band—which had essentially broken up anyway before the movie was shot—by including footage from the Vietnam war (such as the infamous ‘street execution’ shot) and a general atmosphere of unease that is always undermining the slapstick comedy.  Much admired today, the film’s soundtrack was also a flop at the time because it had no easily hummable Top-40 style tunes that would have attracted fans to the film.  The musical numbers usually identify a shift in the film’s situations or tone, but play no specific function other than to serve as milestones in the 85-minute movie’s endless loop of activities. 

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1, trimming a little picture information on the top and bottom of the image in comparison to the full screen Rhino DVD, and adding a sliver to the sides.  The image transfer on Rhino’s version is essentially as colorful as Criterion’s, but Criterion has cleaned up the many speckles and scratches that marred the Rhino presentation, and the image is sharper, as well.  The monophonic sound is also richer, particularly on the BD. 

The four band members, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, supply a commentary, each one recorded individually and then intercut with the others.  The talk is not only about the movie, but about their entire experience as teenybopper idols, and it is consistently informative and reflective.  Nesmith has a great story about how they enlisted Mature’s participation—Schneider and Rafelson were afraid to call him, so Nesmith picked up the phone and dialed, Mature answered, Nesmith started talking to him, and Schneider and Rafelson thought he was putting them on.

There is a great 28-minute reminiscence by Rafelson on his creation of the band, the TV show and the film, a passable 28-minute analysis of what BBS accomplished as a whole by critics David Thomson and Douglas Brinkley (although we would take issue with some of their comments on the state of Hollywood films in the Fifties—they’re a bit selective), 19 minutes of intriguing black-and-white screen tests for the Monkees TV show that clearly demonstrate how much better the four stars were than others who were competing for their parts, a 5-minute color TV interview with the group to promote the film that is interesting for its roughshod staging, nine trailers and TV commercials, nine radio ads, and 7 minutes of unidentified audio ads accompanied by a nice montage of promotional stills.

The artistic pinnacle of BBS in general and Rafelson’s directing career in particular was the beautifully composed and enacted 1970 Five Easy Pieces.  You can’t really call Nicholson’s character a hero or anti-hero in the film, because he never commits a single benevolent act, although he tries to at a couple of points.  He is, instead, a villain, hurting or destroying the hearts of everyone around him because of his own selfishness and self-loathing.  He begins as an oilfield worker, saddled with a nagging girlfriend, a waitress played by Karen Black.  The viewer gradually learns that he is actually a former concert pianist and comes from a famous musical family, and he brings his girlfriend along, but then posits her in a nearby motel, when he learns that his father is ailing and goes to visit the clan.   The movie’s steady mix of drama and comedy, and the superb performances by everyone involved, demonstrate the infinite possibilities that character-driven dramas can manifest on film.  Beginning in the oilfields near Bakersfield California and concluding in the dripping Pacific Northwest, the film’s constant surprises and turns remain refreshing shifts in gear long after each change is readily memorized and anticipated.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The color transfer is the most problematic of the group, but that is only on a micro scale.  László Kovács’ cinematography is exquisite, but it is also heavily grainy in places and victimized here and there by the limitations of the lighting.  The fleshtones on Criterion’s presentation are often slightly pinker than the original Columbia TriStar release, to a point where the more subdued tones are less disorienting, and other colors seem a little oversaturated in direct comparison.  To this end, the enhanced accuracy of the BD may even be counter-productive, magnifying the image’s anomalies.  Still, it is a minor point, and the BBS Story collection as a whole, again with the exception of The Last Picture Show, provides an interesting survey of studio-based low-budget color cinematography, during what turned out to be a delicate and not well managed transitional phase in the technology of manufacturing celluloid.  In other words, all of the movies look a little messy.

The monophonic sound is solid and stable.  There are three trailers, a 9-minute interview with Rafelson discussing the writing of the script (the screenwriter, Carole Eastman, had her name changed in the credits to Adrien Joyce because she didn’t like Rafelson’s ending, which in fact is much better and less clichéd than her own), a very good audio-only talk by Rafelson that runs 49 minutes in which he responds to questions from an audience and discusses the earlier part of his career in great detail, and an interesting 47-minute catch-all collection of interviews about the BBS films.  Rafelson also supplies a commentary during the film, talking at length about the different performances, the story, the cinematography, the production logistics and many other aspects of the film’s creation.

The Baltic Avenue of the BBS slate, Rafelson’s 1972 The King of Marvin Gardens, is an occasionally comedic drama about two brothers, a late night radio monologist played by Nicholson and a would-be real estate developer played by Bruce Dern.  Shot in Atlantic City in the wintertime when nobody would get in the way of the filming, the narrative is incoherent, with no dynamic middle act to pick things up the way there was in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.  Dern’s character is trying to put together a deal that he will clearly be unable to close, and for all of the avowed independent spirit and defiance of convention of the filmmakers, a gun gets passed around until its use becomes inevitable.  Essentially, the 104-minute film is ultra-Hollywood in concept, trying to repeat the formula that worked before, but following that formula on a superficial level without understanding why the formula had worked.  The characters are eccentric, but uninteresting, and there is not enough revealed about the story to define their drives or make you interested in their goals.  Because of the film’s star presence—Ellen Burstyn also has a major part—and its scattered humor, it is watchable if you know what you’re getting into, but because of that same star presence, it is a distinct disappointment, and remains so on multiple viewings.

The picture quality on the Columbia TriStar transfer is very good, but the Criterion presentation has richer, fresher colors, and unlike Five Easy Pieces, there is no ambiguity in the improvement.  The monophonic sound is clean and solid.  There is a trailer and a brief text profile of Rafelson.  Rafelson supplies a commentary for 101 minutes worth of segments from the film, talking about how various scenes were staged, what the actors were like, and what he was trying to accomplish.  There are also 21 minutes of additional reflections by Rafelson about various sequences, with inserted recollections by Burstyn, Dern (with some black-and-white footage of Dern, strategically drunk, trying to master a monolog), and Kovacs.

By chance, Nicholson shot some real campus riot footage when he was at the University of Oregon (standing in, unpersuasively, for an Ohio college) making Drive He Said in 1971.  The only film Nicholson directed in which he does not appear, William Tepper plays a star basketball player suffering from an early case of midlife crisis, while in a parallel story, his roommate, played by Michael Margotta, suffers a genuine mental breakdown when he engages in extreme activities in an attempt to exempt himself from the selective service.  Dern plays the basketball coach and Black has a major role, with Henry Jaglom, Robert Towne, Cindy Williams and David Ogden Stiers in smaller parts.  The film has a substantial amount of male nudity, something Nicholson speaks about with enthusiasm and pride in the 9-minute interview that accompanies the film (the interview makes the entire Drive He Said viewing experience worthwhile).  A great piece of nostalgia, the film is actually quite similar to Richard Rush’s Getting Straight and the two would make a viable double bill if you have enough patience for the Sixties.  Indeed, while the movie was a flop in its day and has a limited appeal beyond the dramatic engagement of a few individual scenes, it does, like Getting Straight, provide a very adept portrait of how the Sixties fell apart. 

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The image is often grainy, but that is inherent in the cinematography and when the presentation is smooth, it looks very fresh, with bright hues and accurate fleshtones.  The monophonic sound is okay.  A trailer is included.

Jaglom’s 1971 debut feature, A Safe Place, shares the same platter as Drive, He Said on the BD, although each film appears on a separate platter in the DVD collection.  Tuesday Weld stars, with Philip Proctor playing her boyfriend, Nicholson playing a visitor she has a fling with and Orson Welles playing a magician who comforts her.  Less than a minute into the movie, most viewers will recognize that the film does not have a boxoffice-friendly pace.  On his superb commentary track, Jaglom offers different interpretations of his creation, one viable explanation being that the entire movie is a Proustian exploration of the memories and feelings of Weld’s character as she listens to a single song, although during the course of the movie, other songs can also be heard.  Championed by Anaïs Nin, the film can also be said to unfold with an innovative female sense of values and harmonic emotions, as opposed to the linear, goal-oriented ‘male’ structure that most movies follow (even Head).  Or, it can be seen as a completely incoherent mess, which is the easiest way to dismiss it persuasively, except that it clearly has a greater sense of purpose, while the contextual comparison in the collection, The King of Marvin Gardens, does not.

Weld never had the kind of breakthrough hit that allowed her spectacularly good looks to catapult her outstanding acting talents.  Instead, those two aspects of her career were unable to coordinate and, unwilling to play the Hollywood game (a vague allusion to one of her greatest roles), she remained an oddity who attracted neither the fervent critical adulation or the hormonal sex symbol adulation she genuinely deserved.  Nevertheless, it is all there on the screen, to be savored, especially for the complex thoughts and feelings that Jaglom is asking her to communicate with, at times, only her eyes.  Nicholson, on the other hand, was still working out the balance between the lazy personality quirks that were filling his cash registers and the portion that he still had to lose of himself and ‘work’ to be a fictional character and justify playing a role.  If Weld’s beauty and talent are the film’s anchor, then Nicholson is its energizer, and it is the thrill of seeing him do his thing that enlivens the center of the 92-minute feature.  And then there is Welles, finally being allowed to practice his hobby—the art of stage illusion—on the screen.  Jaglom’s inclusion of him in the film could be written off as pure, misplaced hero worship, but on a visceral level, his presence is even more exciting theanNicholson’s, and the nuance he brings to his interactions with Weld should be sufficient proof that there is reason behind Jaglom’s scattered amalgam of contemplative characters and their conflicts with one another.  It should also be noted that Gwen Welles, no relation to Orson, delivers a really incredible monolog about sociological fear, and makes an intriguing counterpoint to Weld’s character.

Jaglom will be the first to tell you that image quality was not his top priority when he shot the film.  That said, however, the transfer, particularly with the precision that the BD offers, is outstanding.  You can often see the makeup on the actors, and every color or tone is vividly defined.  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1.  The monophonic sound is solid.  There is a trailer, a 7-minute interview with Jaglom that serves as sort of an executive summary of his commentary, a fascinating 28-minute 1971 TV interview with Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich conducted by Molly Haskell (all three look so very young; even when Jaglom is trying to promote the film, he makes it sound like a boxoffice bomb), and a terrific 26-minute collection of outtakes (anything that has more of Orson Welles on the screen is a treasure) and screen tests, including what appears to be Paula Prentiss testing for Weld’s part (and turning the film, interestingly, into a farce).

For those who enjoy esoteric cinema, A Safe Place is worth viewing, but an even larger viewership ought to tune in to hear Jaglom’s commentary.  He explains his interpretation of the film’s events, shares frank stories about his life and career, and talks about working with the cast and crew.  The crew consisted largely of veterans who had no patience for Jaglom’s youth and inexperience, particularly since what he was asking them to do made no logical sense and clearly would not ‘cut’ properly together, until Welles pulled him aside and gave him a wonderful piece of advice—tell the crew they’re working on a dream sequence.  From there on out, everyone was gung ho.  “I went back to Orson and I said, ‘Why is that?  Why did that work?  I don’t understand.’  And he said, ‘You see, these are hardworking people.  They face struggles every day with real life.  They are committed to their sense of reality.  The one place that they’re given freedom, complete freedom, is in their dreams.  In their dreams, they don’t think that rules have to apply, they don’t accede to those rules, they’re free.  So, if you tell them it’s a dream sequence, you are freeing them from all the burdens of conventional thinking, and you’re doing them a great favor by liberating them from their concept of what can and cannot be done.’  And it worked.  There’s not a movie I’ve made since then that I haven’t at one time or another said to somebody, even actors, that as soon as I said to them, ‘It’s a dream sequence,’ it freed them to get creative themselves and contribute wonderful suggestions to what I was doing.”

When we reviewed Sony’s most recent DVD release of The Last Picture Show, we noted that the picture was overly soft and had a few stray speckles.  The image on Criterion’s presentation is a highly satisfying improvement.  It is sharpened, but not to a point of exaggeration, so that where director Bogdanovich wanted the greys to blend together, they do ease from one shade to another.  The film’s black-and-white cinematography is haunting, and even the minor changes that Criterion has achieved greatly enhance a viewer’s emotional response to the drama.  The 1971 feature is presented in its 126-minute ‘Director’s Cut’ format (the original theatrical cut has never been released on DVD).  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1, and the monophonic sound, with all of those Hank Williams singles wafting through the background, is crisp.  There is a commentary track featuring intercut reflections by Bogdanovich, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman and Frank Marshall.  Don’t think that Quaid snuck down from Canada just to share his thoughts, however.  The commentary is the one Criterion originally recorded for the LD.  Although Bogdanovich often points out the obvious to keep himself talking and thinking, the commentary is valuable, providing both production history and artistic insight.  He describes the different kinds of preparations he went through for the most important scenes, his reasonings for inserting the Director’s Cut footage, and specific problems he encountered along the way.  The statements by the actors concentrate upon craft, but their voices are more animated than Bogdanovich’s, adding a level of emotional understanding that mere transcription could never provide.  Hearing Shepherd describe how much fun she had kissing Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms is also a kick.

A second commentary, by Bogdanovich, originally appeared on Sony’s DVD release, and is even more instructive.  It was once something of a mystery as to why this film is so much better than any other Bogdanovich film, but listening to his commentary, which is new, and to the excellent 65-minute retrospective documentary, which also appeared on the earlier DVD release, it becomes much clearer.  For one thing, he was working off of a Larry McMurtry novel instead of composing an original script, so the emotional wealth and backgrounds of the characters were already thoroughly established.  But he was also chomping at the bit to make a major film.  He’d done Targets, but that was a somewhat larkish project, based in part upon the limited availability of its star.  For Last Picture Show, he went all out.  He rehearsed extensively, had every shot and every scene visualized in his head, and it all came together just as he’d planned it.  “This next scene, which develops into a fight with Jeff and Tim, this was all shot in forty-five different set-ups, and they were planned rather carefully, and the actors and I rehearsed the scene quite a bit.  I remember rehearsing that previous weekend, and I told them exactly where the cuts were going to be.  I actually planned it while we were rehearsing it, so that they knew how far it would go without a cut and where the cuts would be.  It was a complicated scene and we had to do it in one day, so we were very prepared.  Every single shot, as you see it in the picture, is exactly the way it was shot.  We did it in sequence, shot by shot.”  He had a few more hits afterwards, but he probably never had the same ‘fire’ in his belly.

Like Easy Rider, the film appears on one DVD platter, with supplements on a second platter, while for the BD, everything is fit onto one platter.  The excellent 65-minute retrospective documentary that appeared on Sony’s original DVD is presented, along with the 13-minute Bogdanovich interview that appeared on the most recent DVD release, 6 minutes of silent location footage that originally appeared on the LD, a 2-minute montage of silent screen tests set to Hank Williams’ Why Don’t You Love Me (one actress flashes the camera), and a 5-minute color interview with Francois Truffaut praising Picture Show, which he compares, oddly, to Summer of ’42.  The most worthwhile inclusion, however, is an amazing 42-minute documentary that was shot by the late George Hickenlooper during the production of Texasville in 1990.  Ostensibly a promotion of the latter film, it is actually a fascinating exploration of the creation of Picture Show, focusing on the citizens of the town where the film was shot and the people who served as models for author Larry McMurtry’s characters, and including penetrating reminiscences of the cast and crew and their messy personal lives.

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon