At one time in my life, throughout a nearly three-year time span, I governed and facilitated a university screening series called Film Fridays. Mostly rare and/or esoteric titles were shown. A film would be screened every week, most often on video formats as they were made available, and a presenter would discuss the film, why it was chosen and the meaning it had for them to screen it. At one of the weekly screenings, a friend of mine (a filmmaker himself) screened Steven Soderbergh's Bubble (2006) alongside Francis Ford Coppola's The Rain People (1969). The discussion that followed concerned the endless possibilities inherent in regional filmmaking, a topic about which the presenter, a native of Oklahoma City (who would soon after that screening move back to that part of the country), was quite passionate.
When I recently purchased by 3-disc set of independent filmmaker Eagle Pennell's recently re-released The Whole Shootin' Match (1978), I flashed back to the post-film discussion at this screening. After all, The Whole Shootin' Match was the film which allegedly inspired Robert Redford to spearhead the Sundance Institute. Shot on a shoestring budget in Austin, Texas in grainy, black-and-white, 16mm stock (and a fast film stock at that), this drama tells the simple story of two "loser" friends who are intent on finding a way to get on the dole and on their way to their big break.
While watching the film, I stopped midway to actively think about other regional filmmaking efforts I have witnessed in my film-watching heretofore, and their relationship(s) to The Whole Shootin' Match. I looked across the way to one of the many bookshelves in my apartment which house DVDs. On one particular bookshelf, I have arranged an American Independent section of the collection, featuring films like Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970), Bruce Schwartz's In MacArthur Park (1977), Joseph Strick's Road Movie (1972), Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), Rob Nilsson's Northern Lights (1978) and others. I immediately, then, started thinking about the many efforts that have been made to not only get films made outside the Hollywood system on the independent circuit but to also get them made outside the bustling, "artistically fertile" urban environments which have, as if by default, assumed the role of an artist fusion...a mass, unofficial artists' commune. The individuality of independent cinema, particularly American independent cinema, rests in our collective interest in specialized regional filmmaking. I thought of a friend of mine, Mark Thimijan, and his recent successes in shooting independent films, a feature entitled Barstool Cowboy and a short entitled The Girl Who Could Run 600 Miles Per Hour in his native Nebraska.
I then continued watching The Whole Shootin' Match , confessedly an often technically ragged piece that uses the "charms" of a low budget to render what we are seeing a singularly and supremely emotional experience, one where investments are made and the heart and passion of the filmmaker is deeply felt. One is drawn in the strangest of ways to the wild, impulsive zooms, the rough pans, the super-directional lighting, inconsistent exposures and all the other inconsistencies in ways where we are shrugging and saying, "In any other film, I lose my patience...but with this, I am locked into it and, amazingly enough, gain a heightened appreciation from these 'distractionary elements'." Keeping in mind that this film was shot on an astounding $30,000 budget, it's all the more something to savor and a morale booster for those regional filmmakers looking towards the completion of their opus.
I was similarly delighted by Watchmaker Films' DVD release of this film. Great care has been taken in the transfer and a great deal of effort has been made in the supplements department. There are two commentary tracks for the film itself, a 46-page booklet detailing the film's creation, reception and legacy, as well as a soundtrack CD, an earlier 28-minute short film by Eagle Pennell (A Hell of a Note) and a full-length documentary about Pennell (The King of Texas).
There is a certain grainy black-and-white to be had here as well. For one who has shot a film where the "grain factor" on the black-and-white image was quite high (to the extent I had it manipulated in processing by pushing underexposed stock), the feeling of a homemade, but nonetheless presentable, feature-film was yet another irrestible element. The struggle of these two impetuous backwoods boys as they attempt one backward scheme after another (whether its polyurethane or flying squirrels) makes for a very endearing story, told the best way shoestringers know how: with a motto of "the rough-hewn is the best-hewn".
Every effort made in regional filmmaking most decidedly renders different results. For example, in Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance, which Time Out called "a scathing portrait of the American macho," a wildly improvisatory style that seems all too becoming of American independent cinema young and old is, here, aptly used to explore the actor's (and vicariously, the viewer's) conception of this archetype in American culture. The mystification cum demystification of the West can be grasped simply by observing how the actors on display choose to demonstrate their image of the archetype. Jost uses long (read LONG) takes to do so, and takes us on the road in a very regional-filmmaking way, in an effort to get us to witness how the actors delineation of the given archetype morphs from port to port, from encounter to encounter, in locations that feel (and are) very real to our image/conception of them as well as to the reality itself. It most importantly makes no concessions to any momentary quaintness, and uniformity not the least bit inherent in the stream of interactions.
The "word on the street" would lead you to believe that finely observed quotidian flourishes from moment to moment are always and forever the bread and butter of regional-filmmaking indie works. That would also seem to be the allure it has for cineastes. In Bruce Schwartz's little seen AFI-financed In MacArthur Park (1977), the lead character makes an unwilling exodus from the Indian reservation of his youth to the big city, resolved to support his family outside the community following a local tragedy involving the encroachment from outside of their land, including their entire food supply. Moving to L.A. for work to support his family, he mugs and accidentally murders a man in desperation in the eponymous Los Angeles park. The sometimes clunky acting, the technical inconsistencies and occasionally questionable editing cannot hold a candle to the tone Schwartz evokes with images of the reservation in its halcyon days. Schwartz described the film as "the story of a man who fell through the cracks -- a man lacking the skills one needs for survival in modern society." It also about the abyss that exists between where the man came from and where he has wound up. It is a simple film...pick up a camera and shoot it. The actors explore, in a similar way to that which we observe the actors doing in The Whole Shootin' Match. Wanda, directed by Elia Kazan's wife Barbara Loden, uses a similar construct. It relies on being wholly, totally 100% organic, without falling on the heels of contrivance or, daresay, tedium.
Rumor has it that Watchmaker Films is now restoring Pennell's second feature, Last Night at the Alamo (1983). One of the marvels of home theater...you can catch films that (inevitably) fell past the radar on the first go-round.