This entry comes following, respectively, a screening event and a definitively earth-shattering movie-news item that will rock the world of cineastes and collectors. Take a deep breath, folks, before you have a look at this IMDb news item. It accounts how Warner Home Video is seeing to it that every single title in their back catalogue will be released and available to the public on DVD. These special back catalogue titles will be issued and sold per demand with custom-made designs, made to order in their original aspect ratios at www.warnerarchive.com. Now, my fellow cinemaniacs, if that doesn't have your jaw dropping to the floor in amazement, I don't know what could shock or delight you. A Hollywood studio is releasing its entire load of titles on video! Everything! In Warner's case, that is 6,800 previously unreleased titles! I just used three exclamation points for three consecutive sentences, but to me, this is absolutely astounding in every damn way. Will other studios take it upon themselves to follow in suit? My brain's mouth is watering. What an image, that.
Secondly, the other night, I was privileged to see Jules Dassin's commercially iffy and (inevitably) controversial 1968 film Up Tight!, a "black-power remake" of John Ford's The Informer (1935), at Film Forum. Truth be told, I own a bootleg of this film, from a broadcast which edited the 104-minute film down to just below 87 minutes, deleting (among other things) a hilariously and, intentionally, over-played, overstylized and downright campy scene in a carnival hall of mirrors. Amusingly enough, any explicit reference to Roscoe Lee Browne's character being homosexual has been removed in this bootleg. So, once again on this blog, I behold the wonders of the city of New York, a place where film enthusiasts can delight in repertory theaters which screen retrospectives much more off the beat and track than anywhere else in the United States. On the occasion of this recent screening of Up Tight!, which is part of Film Forum's Tribute to Jules Dassin, critic J. Hoberman writes in The Village Voice, "A real polarizer in its day, Jules Dassin's lone post-blacklist studio movie was also Hollywood's first expression of black power. Consistent in its inconsistency, it represents Dassin at his worst (stagy, talky, unsubtle) and his best (evocative location work, well-choreographed violence and a passionate identification with the underdog)." On another note, Roger Ebert writes in his February 1968 review, "It's remarkable that a major studio (Paramount) financed and released this film." This last quote I considered when mulling over the film's indescribable aftertaste.
I exited the theater thinking about the film and its place in the Paramount Pictures history of the day. Granted, the film often lapses into laughably preachy segments and, at certain moments, prosthelytizes and moralizes shamelessly and tiresomely (e.g. "Violence breeds violence"), but the film's voice is nonetheless crystalline. Keep in mind that this is mainstream cinema's earliest depiction of the black-power movement, so it is even more remarkable to consider that the film was directed by a white man. The film possesses a distinctly black voice, and many other reviewers of the time commented on how the film felt refreshingly "with it" without ultimately seeming like an old fuddy-dud's vision of pervasive social/racial unrest. And in this way, Up Tight! feels very sophisticated. The bold choice of the Booker T and the MG's soundtrack also gives the story an extra on-the-fringe quality. In all honesty, the film (co-penned by Dassin and actress Ruby Dee) feels incredibly subversive for a "Hollywood production," not only in its choice of subject matter (when such a topic and its topicality were unfathomably atypical and anomalous within the mainstream), but also in its unfettered disregard for conventional sequencing and narrative progression. Towards the film's third act, there is a exquisitely staged climactic confession scene that left me speechless, but the director consciously travels a different road to get to that destination.
Up Tight!, by its very nature, is a polemical film. Opening with actual documentary footage (shot especially for the film) of the funeral march of Martin Luther King, Up Tight! places itself firmly into historical context, and remarkably at that, as if this opening were an attempt to prevent the film from dating in a traditional sense. The word for it is "wise". It also lends an additional weight to the proceedings. Dassin has enough foresight to realize, when other filmmakers were in a bubble naively ignoring the relative vision of the racial upheaval and its place in late 60's popular memory, that he can make his work in Up Tight survive as social document as opposed to just simply quaint sociological motion-picture time-capsule. In the Heat of the Night (1967), for instance, is fundamentally a good film, but it ultimately fails to take into account the times in which it was created. Up Tight! is also perhaps one of the first mentions of Welfare benefits in a major Hollywood motion picture. That's pretty substantial...and gutsy. The very release of the film inherently had political ramifications. As an afterthought, I also want to give a nod to Boris Kaufman's deliciously low-lit cinematography -- and at one point, his camera eye-poppingly defies gravity itself during a death scene.
So what's the point of all this analysis? Okay, here it is. Ebert, to reiterate, posed the question, "How was it that a major studio got behind a risky project like Up Tight!?" Now is my opportunity to pay tribute to Paramount as a studio that took risks more than most other studios in its day, i.e. the Gulf+Western acquisition of Paramount in 1967 and after. When a friend of mine fantasized about other studios following Warner Home Video's lead of releasing its entire back catalogue of titles, he brought up Fox. I immediately responded, "No, Fox was the most capitol-driven studio in Hollywood in every single era. Paramount is where it's at." Paramount established lasting relationships with directors and filmmakers (Roman Polanski and Otto Preminger were both under contract to Paramount as directors), whereas studios like Fox and MGM were intent on establishing lasting relationships simply with celebrity.
Here is another example of Paramount taking on risky material around the same time. Two years following Up Tight!, Paramount financed a film called WUSA (1970), starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins. This is another film that is not available on home video, and I own a bootleg of this film as well. The film tells the story of drifter Paul Newman taking a job as a disk-jockey at ultra right-wing radio station WUSA. Anthony Perkins plays a Welfare social worker who gradually realizes WUSA's sinister intentions...to prevent recipients from receiving Welfare benefits. Hmm, sounds like a blockbuster, doesn't it, guys? This was a film made just on the cusp of Robert Evans' takeover of Paramount, but no doubt the viability of the project came directly from the star-power of Newman and Woodward and not the material itself. The movie tanked at the box-office, of course, but the project was nonetheless always a risky business. The first thing we see in both Up Tight! and WUSA is that mountain with the stars around it. This is not even to mention a Paramount film as politically inflamatory as Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969). Even ostensibly more "commercial" films from Paramount in the late 60's had more of an overriding feeling of social critique and examined, in many ways, the socioeconomic divides that segmented the United States. Look at Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and watch how Richard Benjamin's "lower-class Jew" character navigates his way through a noveau riche Jewish family and their world of uber-suburban privilege, class indulgence and materialism, and eventually being somewhat seduced by it, only to "fall from grace" when the nouveau riche patriarch accidentally finds something he shouldn't have found. That film likewise examines something pervasive in the American tableau of the late 60's, albeit in a very delicate and discreet way.
In recent times, Paramount had the best arthouse subsidiary of the majors, Paramount Vantage, until it went belly-up amidst the economic crisis. Compare Paramount Vantage stock to Warner Independent or Focus stock. Since when are films like There Will Be Blood, Margot at the Wedding and Into the Wild bankable in eyes of Hollywood? Particularly in the case of Into the Wild and There Will Be Blood, these are films that could not have been made on-the-cheap, but carried the prestige of good directors working with fine casts. And what kind of studio finances and releases a film like Warren Beatty's Reds (1981), which is of course a Paramount picture? Of course, it being subsidized hinged upon superstar Warren Beatty's involvement, but nonetheless, a film about American socialists still must have been a risky venture.
My mind boggles at the prospect of Paramount following in Warner's footsteps. There are so many titles in the Paramount vaults that have never been released on home video -- titles that are as equally risk-taking as Up Tight! and WUSA which are awaiting rediscovery. In the case of those two films, these are two pieces of historical document, with narratives appropriately "formatted" for such a function. There are many more such titles, believe it or not, that fester in Paramount's vaults. Legend Films, a DVD company which has been releasing some of Paramount's back catalogue titles, has been working its way around to some of its more obscure titles, so we will see what happens. In my opinion, United Artists during the "Arthur Krimm period" (Krimm was head of UA throughout most of the 70's) was also on par with Paramount's love of risk-taking.
Looking back at it, Paramount was the standard for studios in the 70's. It brought in the most capitol, thanks in part to Robert Evans' and Barry Diller's leadership, and still managed to release films that could have very well been poisonous for recouping their investments. So, in the wake of the news about Warner Home Video and the Film Forum screening of Up Tight!, I thought I'd write about it. My mind boggles thinking if any other studio would follow Warner's lead, let alone Paramount. But Paramount's back catalogue is the one I am most enthusiastic about.
The Jewels of Public Domain: A Tongue-in-Cheek "Tribute" to Unintentionally Funny Budget-DVD Peccadilloes
So okay, we've all seen them...the DVD super-bargain bins in Dollar Stores, Wal Marts, K-Marts, Marshalls and your local filling-stations. Some people, more than skeptical others, have found themselves at least marginally intrigued and befuddled by these obscure titles. You know the ones I am sure -- I am talking about the ones that cost one friggin' dollar to buy. How could you pass up a deal like that, right? "Alright, that's a hell of a bargain! What's the catch?" You get big-name stars on the cover, "catchy" titles, you buy them thinking that it's just gotta be good with (fill in the blank) starring in it, you eagerly plop the disc into your player...wait, where's (fill in the blank)? Hold on...is that him/her with the (fill in a physical feature the star does not currently possess)? Not only that, (fill in the blank) is in the movie for five lousy minutes, sometimes less. And...jeepers, this movie really sucks! The disc soon turns into a drink-coaster for your next cup of coffee, or (God forbid) a teething ring for your infant.
"public domain: a range of abstract materials — commonly referred to as intellectual property — which are not owned or controlled by anyone, indicating that these materials are therefore 'public property', and available for anyone to use for any purpose."
It's a game, folks, and it's easy to play. Not only that, but it's easy for video consumers to lose. This is how they play it: Find public domain titles that have fallen out of copyright and then check the cast-list to see if there are any recognizable names. If there are none, toss the title out the window because they're not going to put it out. If there are names, plaster a recent, flatly-lit, low-resolution image of the star on the front and bill him/her first. Hey, why not...make the actor's name bigger than the title text so they know you mean business. Like I said, people take these titles home thinking "With a star in it like this, it just has to be good because the star makes it good" and they all too quickly find out they have been winked in the hood (that's hoodwinked for those not acquainted with quasi-jive from bespectacled schlemeils). It's just one of the quandaries of a classically, traditionally star-driven American film market. The star sells the product. That is certainly how studios and film-financiers think, and it would be naive to believe that video companies think any differently, particularly these budget DVD companies. It is pretty simple to exploit the "star makes it" way of thinking. Here are a few notorious well-known budget-release companies for your records: Miracle, Digiview, Alpha Video (hey, at least they have cool cover-art), GoodTimes, United American Video/Sterling Entertainment, Platinum Disc Corporation, Westlake Entertainment Group and innumerable others. Needless to say, this sub-market is a whole world unto itself, so you have every right to be skeptical.
In some cases, the video distributor will completely retitle the film (without the permission of the filmmakers) to make their product more appealing to genre fans. There are many hilarious examples of this. I know of one case where a through-and-through no-holds-barred art film, a heady and surrealist experimental-film/comedy adapted from an avant-garde novel by Ronald Sukenick called Out (1982), inherited the generically lurid retitle Deadly Drifter. Not only that, but Danny Glover, who is featured in the film as a supporting player, is given first billing on the cover. I am friends with Out's director Eli Hollander, and he informed me that he considered suing to prevent his film from being released in this way. Here is another amusing example: the Peter Fonda-directed 1973 time-travel movie Idaho Transfer was oh-so-tastefully retitled Deranged for some budget releases. I guess the mention of Idaho doesn't have 'em lining up in droves. I wonder if Peter Fonda has sour potatoes about that retitle job. An Ernest Borgnine film originally titled Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971) was retitled Guns for the Revolution on video, even though there are really no guns and no revolution anywhere in sight within the movie itself. A well-known Sally Field TV film called Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring (1970) was retitled Deadly Desires. The words "deadly," "seduction," "desire" and "danger" would seem to be a common thread for retitling, and are mixed and matched at will.
The other night, I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Ivan Passer's Born to Win (1971), starring George Segal, Paula Prentiss, Karen Black and a young pre-stardom Robert De Niro, on a new 35mm print at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This screening made for the true highlight of my movie-viewing month. This is ironic considering that I mentioned this film just last week in my post about the cinematic evolution of post-1950's New York City. Seeing a film print of this movie (which uses the 1970's Times Square location of the time like no other work has ever done) comes after multiple viewings of the film on a myriad of budget DVDs and VHSs taken from a muddy, faded, heavily edited public domain video print. The show sold out and the house was packed solid. Shortly after the screening, I spoke with one of the film's stars, my friend Karen Black, on the phone about the experience of seeing the film in its original form, with new, pristine negative elements, excellent sound quality and the scenes absent from all existing video prints...and this brought back some great memories for her. She was ecstatic to hear that it had been screened and she was reminded of the "new scenes" I told her about, which she had forgotten since the film's original release. Before Born to Win was shown, Ivan Passer's 1974 film Law and Disorder (1974) was screened. MoMA organized a small-scale retrospective of Passer's work, with his Intimate Lighting screened just the day before.
I was floored at seeing the print of Born to Win...absolutely floored. How much was lost in all the sub-par video versions of the film! I remember speaking with Karen's husband, Stephen Eckelberry, about how there are no decent video versions of Born to Win, which we both lamented to an equal degree. Every budget company has had a go at distributing Born to Win and it is hard to know which one is the best bet. The covers would have you believe that Robert De Niro is in the film's lead. On the front, they will plaster an image of De Niro taken so obviously from Goodfellas, Cape Fear (see the cover at the very bottom of this article) or Heat. And the descriptions would lead you to believe that De Niro's policeman character, who takes up about ten minutes of screentime, is the story's main figure and that George Segal's heroin-addicted hairdresser, the real main character, is a villain figure...and a supporting one at that. Born to Win has been retitled Addict for some video releases.
Are there other good budget titles out there, you ask? Are there good films that these budget companies got their hands on and marketed? Yes, yes, yes...and again, yes. You would never know it by how cheaply manufactured the products sometimes look, but there are great public-domain "budget" titles which, often through unfortunate circumstances, fell out of copyright and into public domain purgatory. Look at Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (1961) as a classic example. This is one of the great epic Westerns in movie history and, next to Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and My Darling Clementine, is certainly one of my favorite Westerns of all-time. You know, I actually feel like starting a scavenger hunt or something, the objective here being find as many public-domain budget DVD releases of One-Eyed Jacks as you possibly can. Trust me, there are literally tons and tons of them. How do you what the best one to purchase is? In this particular case, I can tell you that the DigiView release is the only letterbox DVD version I know of, but in most cases, short of buying all of them that are out there, you can never ever really be sure. Some titles in public domain I have bought copy after copy after copy of, in hopes that I'll find the best image and sound of a given title, only to be disappointed time after time. It's kind of a pastime of mine.
Another example of negligent budget-video-company conduct is a film I have grown to love. New German Cinema's Peter Lilienthal directed a 1982 film called Dear Mr. Wonderful, which was the first film that Joe Pesci made directly following his great success in Raging Bull. It is a quiet, intimate, deliberately paced drama -- a movie of heart that takes it time to tell a story with characters you really grow to care about. This is also a film I mentioned in my post last week about lost New York cinema. In a great deal of the cover art for the film, you will observe taglines that are so hackneyed, unimaginative and asinine that it's hard to know whether to buy the movie to watch it or to put its cover on the wall at a tongue-in-cheek exhibit about the undeveloped art of deceptive advertising. Take a look at these taglines and savor the schlock: "One man's dream...is another's NIGHTMARE!!!", "The mob wants his next act to be his last", "Life's a gamble" and numerous others. Needless to say, this is not a Mafia movie at all, nor do any Mafia members play major roles. They are simply background and the portrayal of any organized crime in the movie is strictly implicit. Oh, and just in case the consumer fears any boredom when viewing, the capitalized word "NIGHTMARE" is just as big as the damn movie-title text! Boy, is the purchaser going to be disappointed when they see the real film, which is about a Jewish family man, bowling-alley owner and would-be singer with pipe dreams of making the big time in Las Vegas, who ultimately must learn to live with what he has considering his lot in life. On some releases, the film has been retitled Ruby's Dream. One of my DVDs of this film, from Miracle, even has out-of-sync audio (out-of-sync by nearly five whole seconds). Taglines with budget companies are a funny business in and of themselves. For instance, a tagline for the aforementioned art film Out, a.k.a. Deadly Drifter, reads simply "An explosive plot against the government." Again, no "explosive plot" and no "government" in the film itself! The actual cover art featuring this tagline is below. This design is truly priceless.
Miracle's cover for Dear Mr. Wonderful features a photo of Pesci on the front clearly "borrowed" from Scorsese's Casino (a hard sell especially considering that Pesci sports a moustache in 1982's Dear Mr. Wonderful and does not have one at all in 1995's Casino). Also, consider the puzzling placement of a pixellated roulette wheel directly below Pesci's disembodied head. All of the pictoral elements look blended together by a myopic five-year-old honing his glaringly limited Photoshop skills. One of the covers of Dynamite Chicken (1971) features a grossly unflattering flashbulb image of Richard Pryor, blown up to such a degree of pixellization to reveal, up close and personal, a clearly MS-afflicted man with his mouth agape in what was undoubtedly a paparazzi capturing a candid photo of the comedian. Talk about unbecoming!
Okay, one more funny example, then I'll shut up. In 1969, an unknown Robert De Niro starred in an independent movie shot on Long Island called Sam's Song. The movie was never really released and fell between the cracks. In 1979, Cannon Films had a hot potato on their hands. They owned a film starring the then-unknown and now-megastar Robert De Niro. What do they do? They shoot banal, new, more action-driven material with piss-poor actors and use it to frame the old artsy-fartsy footage with De Niro. They retitle it The Swap, De Niro tries to sue Cannon to prevent the film from being released, but it gets out there anyway. That's not the end of the story. Budget video companies then retitile the retitle, naming it Line of Fire. This is an extreme case...a double-deception, if you will. And both version of the film (both the 1969 original and 1979 version of the film are available on budget releases) are pretty bad, with the 69 slightly bettering the 79. And then, of course, there are the priceless taglines: "De Niro is tough, cool...and an easy target for MURDER!!!" (again with the mega-capitalization, this time italicized, and the three exclamation points!!!), "Robert De Niro is murder on women, and they're murder on him!", "Never cheat the mob!" (again, using a would-be "Mafia hook" to sell a movie that has nothing to do with it), "Some answers are worth killing for..." and others. Please note that The Swap and Born to Win are often paired to make a "DVD Double Feature" package.
So what are some good titles from budget companies? There are a great deal of them, and ones that you will be shocked to discover have (or had) slipped into public domain. I'll name a few. Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1940, which I used a clip of in my film A Trip to Swadades), Vittorio De Sica's Indiscretion of an American Wife (the 1953 Selznick recut of Terminal Station), Dennis Hopper's masterpiece Out of the Blue (1980), D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Way Down East (1920), blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky's unjustly neglected Romance of a Horsethief (1971), Harvey Hart's thriller The Pyx (1973), Jeremy Paul Kagan's Patty Hearst-inspired drama Katherine (1974, starring Sissy Spacek), the fascinatingly bad The Driver's Seat (1973) starring Liz Taylor and Andy Warhol, the film version of playwright Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), Kinji Fukasaku's underrated all-star disaster movie Virus (1980, albeit often in painfully abridged versions), the Italian anti-war drama The Fifth Day of Peace (1969) starring Franco Nero, the 1970 spaghetti Western Death Rides a Horse (which has yet to see at least an adequate pan-and-scan of its 2.35 aspect ratio in America), the prescient sci-fi thriller Paper Man (1971), Tony Richardson's The Entertainer (1960) starring Laurence Olivier), the Barbara Stanwyck drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), among countless others. At one point, even Capra's all-time classic It's a Wonderful Life spent its time wallowing in the public-domain cesspool, but the copyright of that film was renewed not too long ago. Nevertheless, there are a great deal of films out there on this esoteric market that are worth the dollar or two you would spend on it. There are occasionally even inexplicable budget titles, like John Sayles' The Brother from Another Planet (1984), about which you wonder "How did that wind up in the bargain bin?"
I propose a retrospective screening series that would screen prints of the "hidden gem" public domain titles in an effort to show cinephiles that some of these forgotten films ultimately warrant second consideration and possibly new lives. They should be seen on their original print sources, no matter how bruised the elements are. I, for one, would relish seeing the breadth and depth of now-beloved cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' full and original compositions in Dear Mr. Wonderful or even rewatching Born to Win on the print I saw the other night. I cannot get that experience out of my mind. Like I said, it was like seeing that film for the very first time. I was sitting there audibly saying things like "Yikes" and "Wow" when scenes deleted from the DVD were playing out before me, and observing Jack Priestley's and Richard Kratina's incredible cinematography in its original glory. The cinematography was actually rightly labelled as underlit and clumsy when video critics saw the muddy, faded and darkened video prints. That film's feeling for New York and the 42nd Street of its day shone through on the 35mm print. There is, after all, something irresistible and right about light passing through celluloid. It's how everything shot on the medium is meant to be seen. Viewing Born to Win with an audience was also fascinating, in an effort to gauge how well it has aged. I am going to do what I can to spearhead a PaDHaG Print Screening (that is, Public Domain Hidden Gem Screening) here in New York. Kudos to MoMA for resurrecting Born to Win! Let us start seeing more screenings like this. There is an audience for them, as the packed house at the screening the other night proved. People were exiting the theater marvelling at how MoMA's screening was a far cry from the various video versions they had seen. I was one of them...and then I just realized that many in the audience must have unsuspectingly picked up the movie for cheap on budget video in the bargain bin of their local convenience stores only to be surprised at the film's worth, despite being misled and deceived by the tactics of the Budgeteers.
I picked up a copy of Matthias Glasner's The Free Will (2006) on almost a complete whim. I was intrigued by the seeming disproportion between the intimate-sounding, wholly character-driven subject matter and the epic running time, listed on the box as 163 minutes. An "intimate epic," if you will. Great, I thought. Why, you ask? Last year, I performed research for an advanced study of film kilometrique, a concept and a methodology chartered by early French filmmakers in 1917. It was called that because a film's length then was measured in footage and not time, thus the really long films ran for kilometers and kilometers. A great many of the kilometrique filmmakers were creators of French serials (e.g. Louis Feuillade and his 5½ hour Fantomas). The concept of film kilometrique (as opposed to the practice and method, which is a whole other ball of wax) involved the exploration of the film medium's practical techniques for storytelling and character-defining by using length, and often extreme length, to investigate the relatively "new-to-the-world" cinematic form of expression. "Uh huh," I hear you say, "what was the middle thing?" Okay, so basically, a lot of excessively lengthy movies were made by French filmmakers in the 1910's and 20's so that they could explore what meaning the length of their films had to the way they told stories -- and future filmmakers would capitalize on and continue this practice of making long movies to achieve the same results. Deep staging was often one of their most utilized tools. Often, running times of films and serials would be deliberately and often rather arbitrarily amped to accomodate their exploration(s).
I closely examined films made decades and decades after the inauguration of the film kilometrique experiment, like Chantal Akerman's masterpiece, and the undisputed textbook example of film kilometrique, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1978), various works by the "length-meister" himself Jacques Rivette (unfortunately I was of course unable to get my hands on a copy or a print of his legendary and rarely screened Out 1), various films from Warhol's "Empire period" and many others. Needless to say, this study took some definite time to execute in any real depth (hey, they're all pretty long movies, after all). So, when I saw that Glasner's The Free Will seemed to fit neatly into the "intimate epic" niche I had investigated in such depth, I decided to give the film a shot.
Within the first ten minutes, the most graphic, disturbing and unpleasant rape scene I have yet witnessed onscreen was playing out before me. Quite frankly, I was nearly traumatized by sitting there watching it and not doing anything. Hey, I know it's only a movie, but "proactivity" in this case is inevitable. I felt like I was being hit by an express train. It was followed, I might add, by the "scavenger" nearly mutilating his "prey". I was almost on the verge of turning the film off, because the filmmaker just seemed to be sadistically wallowing in the ugliness and the repulsiveness of the whole thing (and I never use the term "sadistically" lightly). And, in the great tradition of the good old kilometrique spirit, the scene is excruciatingly dragged out to considerable length. Eventually, the scene ended and, already weary and battle-scarred but still nonetheless intrigued as to what role the previous scene would ultimately assume in the film, I decided to press onward. It was soon after that I made the discovery. The filmmaker summons the audience to witness the horrible crime of a woman's rape and disfigurement, in gory detail, so that we the viewers must live with what we saw just as much as the character has to later live with what he has done to this chosen-at-random woman. To the casual viewer not ready to assume such a challenge, it becomes a question and a case of "Who the hell needs that? I got problems of my own!"
A great deal of people, for very good reason, would have (and have had) difficulty swallowing portrayals and depictions of such events on film. I honestly could not beg to differ. It is here that I make the assertion that it boils down to a question of audience responsibility to the material on display, which implies and entails a proactivity in our film-watching. The responsibility in the case of The Free Will, this "audience responsibility" to be proactive is every bit as equal to the filmmaker's responsibility to play such scenes as carefully and, most importantly, as motivatedly as is possible. So what of this question of audience responsibility? People most often do not like to work when they watch a movie. And on that note, The Free Will is decidedly not a film for everyone. You could most likely make that assumption from just reading my description of the rape scene.
Eventually, though, I did wind up greatly appreciating the experience of seeing the film, and can easily cite it as one of the most valid and vital recent examples of film kilometrique (all that jabber above in the first paragraph was not for naught, folks). We examine the rapist's incarceration and, upon his release, his latent deadly fear of the opposite sex...all in super-fine detail. The character is fleshed out and the filmmaker takes his time in sketching the issues, a patently strange sense of guilt for one, the character has developed following his own violent "acting out". Also, this is yet another example of a film shot on a shoestring, with gritty-feeling and often desaturated standard-def DV images. Quite anomalous, that...particularly in an age in which it seems that everything must look pretty, with supreme HD image-fidelity to boot. The cinematography, which certainly has its problems (i.e. my ongoing issue with underlighting which can be blamed on the facile exposure-latitude DV possesses), feels quite proportionate to the story being told. You see choices being made left and right, most of the time the right choices too, which stand as one of the film's great virtues.
In Jacques Rivette's Secret Defense (1998), which runs 170 minutes (for a story that would traditionally play out in just 90-100 minutes), Rivette uses the thriller genre as a foundation for exploring a character's evolution. In my opinion, Secret Defense is another cardinal work of film kilometrique. We follow the character, in real-time, on her way to murder someone. In one's surface estimation, nothing happens for the duration of fifteen minutes. No, instead, we are observing internal acting in the best sense of the term. Without words, the actor (and the filmmaker) are showing us what it is for an innocent to evolve into a not-so-innocent who has been cornered into committing a tremendous crime. Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays the lead in this film, takes us through the evolution as she switches from one Paris Metro train to another Paris Metro train and finally to a train en route to the country estate owned by her target. Just by the face and by Rivette's framing (toying with length and "dragging out scenes"), we gain a window into the character's internal landscape.
The Free Will does what Secret Defense does. In these finely observed moments, and often without words and with length and the long take as their friends, Glasner and Rivette respectively evoke the specificity of their characters' motivations and thoughts as they are happening...and we get to watch people in this cerebral netherplace. True, one might say that these films are at least occasionally mired in self-indulgence. I just do not choose to see it that way. Film kilometrique lives! So, all this boils down to responsibility. Are we willing to wager our comfortable film-watching m.o. for a more proactive form of media intake? What do you think? How blithely can you sacrifice your comfort-level to fully invest yourself in a filmmaker's chosen form, even if unpleasantries are part of the baggage?
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.