Tag Archives: American Independent Film

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 1 (1968)

Many fairly awful foreign films have nonetheless gained a large cultural cache in foreign countries simply for their being foreign; and as the process of orientalizing another culture obscures the particulars of the culture orientalized, so does the naming of the process “orientalizing” obscure the particularities of how different cultures orientalize. In an incident that has since become notorious, the Italian director Antonioni hired the US guitarist John Fahey to score his film Zabriskie Point. At dinner one night, the two both got very drunk and one or the other initiated a fistfight over Antonioni’s cartoonish hatred of the United States. Fahey was fired from the production, and the finished film is possibly the weakest of Antonioni’s mature period, an angry empty caricature, the dull zombified rock and roll club scene in Blow-Up extended to feature length.

The US was similarly orientalized by the French New Wave, but with a distorted view of American tropes that were in fact far more exciting than anything going on in the US itself at the time. These were subsequently internalized and regurgitated in distorted form to make the bulk of the puzzlingly vaunted “New Hollywood Cinema” of the 1970s. The distorted vision of the cultural from one place fascinated by the position of the other as the place elsewhere to be dreamed about projected back so that the place that the dream was overlaid upon begins to dream someone else’s dream as the dream of itself. In China, McDonald’s is a sit down restaurant where you might take a date for reasons of US cultural garbage being taken as cosmopolitan there for their representing a place that isn’t China. And in the US, competitors to McDonald’s have attempted to make a thing that looks like a high end McDonald’s where you can sit down and order a beer; weird commercial mongrels like the Burger King BK Burger Bar in NYC attempt to bring the vision of the US that exists in China to the US itself. I have no clue whether it’s been successful in doing.

The uncomfortable lesson here being that cultural diffusion works largely on the creative power of misreadings and projection; the rest of the world in some manner exists as a more loosely regulated fantasy playground for the mind to imagine further places elsewhere.

(At this point I stopped typing and walked off to make some more coffee. On returning I found myself befuddled trying to figure out exactly where I was going with the pile of text I’d just typed and you presumably just read. Whatever. I’ll run with it. I’ll even leave in the part in italics where I’m talking to myself.


Yeah, that’ll show ’em.)

So what the hell does any of that have to do with William Greaves’ 1968 film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, like its name suggests, is a lot of things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be together collapsed into close quarters that still, somehow, manage to roll off the tongue musically.

The concept of the film: Greaves is ostensibly directing a film with two actors, but while he’s doing this, a second film crew has been hired to film the making of the film, and a third crew has been hired to film the entire process of the making of the film itself and the making of the making of documentary. The gag being that Greaves doesn’t actually have a film at the center, but just a single scene of a white couple arguing with each other in Central Park about whether or not the man has been having homosexual affairs. Greaves keeps shooting this one scene repeatedly for 10 days, eventually having to replace his first two actors who sense something is awry. His crew isn’t sure whether to mutiny. They start secretly shooting meetings where they themselves try to figure out what the film is and how to deal with the distant Greaves, shooting footage that Greaves in turn ends up using to compose the bulk of the finished product. Unsure whether Greaves is secretly misogynistic, homophobic, incompetent, or eventually whether the entire process is in fact a conspiracy engineered by Greaves to get them to want to mutiny and make the actual film themselves in these secret meetings, the term “troll” as we know it not yet plugged into the cultural consciousness. Despite it all they keep following each other with cameras.

The result is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, one that seems to have directed itself out of Greaves’ own steadfast refusal to direct it and somehow still ends up having brilliant thematically coherent sound design and mise en scene which seems to arise from the combination of Greaves’ extremely keen eye as an editor and luck bordering on the mystical. The scenario creates its own sight gags. They’re glorious.

And the scene itself, like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film, and like my review of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film that I’m currently writing but will have already written by the time you’re reading this, is an exercise in evading acknowledging a lack of a larger point. Like a Rube Goldberg device, it doesn’t actually do anything, but also like a Rube Goldberg device it doesn’t actually have to do anything. The endless series of distractions from the possible lack of a something, in this case Greaves’ fictional film, is the something. Several shots of individuals are held speaking about what the film is, attempts to bring it to the stasis of coherence, find their monologues drifting as the soundtrack picks up other people talking and the sounds of Central Park; their speeches aren’t entirely audible and this is the point. Life intrudes.

Even shots of the scene, when shown from the level of their straightforward being the “film” itself are shown from two slightly varied perspectives simultaneously with the same soundtrack and a gulf of black screen between them. The scene itself is split and there’s nothing at the center; if the film had been shot straight as a dramatic piece this all still would’ve been lurking in the background.

Greaves makes the most of his own purposely taken stance in the process as a non-entity and locus around which the chaos can happen in a number of shots showing him wandering around at a distance looking like a mock up of a man in serious thought. Greaves the comic cipher grows in cinematic presence/absence as the viewer figures out more and more the prank being played; by the end the slightest reaction shot was enough to make me burst out laughing.

Why this film took 35 years to be discovered is beyond me; I guess like a lot of other great works by black filmmakers from the time period it was suppressed by whatever forces institutional racism or philistinism decides to manifest themselves in that day. It’s better than the vast majority of what’s considered “avant-garde” or “experimental” canon by the Jonas Mekas crowd. Watch it.

Last Night at the Alamo (1983)

Pennell got better in a hurry for his second feature, a Texas spin on The Iceman Cometh. Pennell widens his scope and gets nearly every detail right. He lets Kim Henkle(The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) take over writing chores. Despite the seeming incongruity between the two men’s styles, both come through and do exceptional work. Henkle wisely writes an overabundance of dialogue so that it can flow naturally with overlap and remove the artificial staginess that marred some scenes from The Whole Shootin’ Match. Characters are more fleshed out, and there are more of them. Pennell handles his actors perfectly; their interactions are exemplary ensemble work, each maintaining his distinct character while still adjusting his performance to the presence of whoever else is in the scene. Pennell also creates his most deeply flawed and fascinating character study, Cowboy, as played by Sonny Davis.

Though the plot sounds like the old cliche of the group of friends who must save their favorite place before it gets shut down, Pennell has much bigger things on his mind. Plot here is used as a sort of red herring from the real point and purpose of the film; though the bar is shutting down, the doomed atmosphere comes from the sadness and lack of purpose most of the patrons’ lives seem to have. Some of them hold a fanciful notion that the Alamo bar is a tight knit community and connected to the bar itself, but most of them already have plans to patronize a bar down the street. Each character reveals their weaknesses by the film’s end, but its to Pennell’s credit that he manages to avoid pointing at them and moralizing; he’s clearly been in very similar situations, and given the rapid decline in his filmmaking capabilities due to alcoholism following this piece, he may see a lot more of himself in Cowboy than he’d like to admit.

Strongly recommended. Now where’s a copy of Doc’s Full Service?

The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978)

Eagle Pennell’s great lost film is finally available in some form thanks to the kind fellows at Landmark films, who I must point out have put together an exceptional DVD presentation of it. Having wanted to see this for a long time, I can’t say I was disappointed, though I also can’t claim to have been blown away. The amount of talent and raw instinct on display here from someone with no background in film beyond making one short is astonishing. The script is very strong, though certain scenes feel a bit stagey. This could mostly be attributed to lack of shooting funds, and thereby lack of time to rehearse the scenes out properly. Pennell however does right by his setting; every frame oozes Austin Texas and he doesn’t coach any of his actors out of their dialects. This makes them feel like specific characters as opposed to archetypes.

The story is a simple but effective one about lives of extremely limited social mobility. Two friends, Frank and Lloyd, played by Sonny Davis and Lou Perryman respectively, are two friends constantly trying out new get rich quick schemes. Both are good natured, if clueless, and their plans always end up in failure. The manner in which Pennell shows their failures and their responses to them gives the sense that they’ve been getting rejected for a long time. Both seem aware on some level of the futility of what they’re doing, Frank moreso than Lloyd, but cover this despair in alcohol and comradery.

Pennell’s position as a real life alcoholic who was unaware of it at the time he made the film(at least if Roger Ebert’s anecdote is reliable) gives him a fairly unique stance on the issue. At no point in the film does either character blame the alcohol for anything that happens to them, and it seems to be mostly just a fact of life for them, a way to cover much deeper problems that can’t be so easily resolved. Though hyped as a sort of white trash Killer of Sheep, this film has a much more conventional structure than that one, though the exploration of the despair and struggle to maintain hope and dignity in a bleak social setting gives the two a certain kinship. Pennell explores these character’s hopes and dreams(in a dream sequence that would seem to be out of place but works) without denying the situation that makes them seem sensible. When a drastic event happens right before the film’s end, its mostly effective since the movie was pointing to it all along, not in any clever furtive way, but as sort a hovering possibility.

Chuck Pennell’s score is excellent, and helps carry some of the weaker montage sequences.

An Introduction to the Works of Mark Rappaport

I should mention that I’m friends with Rappaport. I helped him with his fight with Ray Carney and gave the push for him to publish his absolutely delightful book of fiction and essays The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much in the native English it was written in. I sought out his acquaintance because of the admiration for his work I express in this essay, and therefore I don’t feel there’s a conflict of interest. However, such connections should be noted.)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Mark Rappaport, though retired from making films, is still busy at work recombining images and impressions of films past in his photo collage work. Despite this, he is the very short list still for the greatest living American filmmaker because of the absolutely essential work he did, first in his early fictional narratives from 1974’s Casual Relations up through 1985’s Chain Letters, then in a second phase of fictional autobiographies of movie stars that have an utter lack of use for the tenets of realism that’s inspiring, especially seeing how they were made parallel to the dire trend in more commercial US cinema of “realist” (re: swearing and torture scenes) genre films that proliferated in the early 1990s.

Rappaport’s stance on the narrative and “psychological” shibboleths that loiter, tired but possessed with insidious powers of seduction, in the dire waiting room of the vast majority of American and world cinema collecting gilded dildos and money in a manner that inclines one to agree with the psychoanalytic tendency to trace the origins of such tendencies to the infant’s urge to play with feces, is revolutionary because it doesn’t violently reject such things in search of the real, but deflates them so they’re no longer gods to be venerated or scorned but half-remembered scraps in the junk pile ghost story of consciousness. While often screamingly funny, they’re just as often uncomfortable as listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Frequently in the same segment.

While his early shorts are amusing, especially Blue Movie, the best place to come to an appreciation of Rappaport’s distinctive style is his first feature Casual Relations, a collection of around 12 shorter meditations on the place of boredom, apathy, and in-between moments. It doesn’t have quite the same Jamesian complexity of his later narratives but is, as these sorts of things go, straightforward, hilarious, and more digestible. Casual Relations establishes Rappaport as perhaps the only American filmmaker to understand the artistic potentials and the specific textures of what’s been crudely dubbed “the postmodern condition”-he’ll use outdated stylistics for his own purposes and switch them out frequently and without concern for reveling in or directly and narrowly commenting on them-they’re language, and language is a tool that he’s free to use however he sees fit and established style something he can pick up or discard at whatever tempo he chooses. An especially memorable sequence superficially resembling Rashomon perhaps best sums up this peculiar film whose greatest asset is its lack of a center. A stabbing or shooting occurs, and we see it in various states of revision until it comes up against the void of meaninglessness and becomes more and more absurd. Pluralism isn’t the keyword but rather the emergence of something more sinister, more given to dangerous laughter, something more all-encompassing, a trap perhaps…it’s no accident the film ends with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” playing over a blank screen and then credits…

The later films tie their strands together in more complex ways than simply a shared theme make them more complex. It took me three failed runs through his later Local Color before I could allow myself to be ensnared in it’s internal logic, but on the third time it was sheer delight, dread and awe that the movies could do such things. The film, his third (I’ve yet to track down a copy of Mozart in Love though it’s now available on Fandor and I hope to review it here soon) is his masterpiece, though in a body of work this good that means it’s a split second finish. A story of incredible complexity and one of the only, maybe the only, besides Rappaport’s own The Scenic Route, film to take the innovations of the greatest post-war writers in prose, the Pynchons and Barthelmes and Gaddises, and employ them to film on the same level to and sometimes even surpass them. To recount the plot here would be to miss the point; the plot is so byzantine and winding that it seems so on purpose so as to force the viewer in being overwhelmed to let go and stop reading it the way they’ve always read films; as things with characters who have goals and represent eternal melodramatic forces. Nothing is so cut and dried here. Character isn’t a matter of surface level coherence but of self-contradiction, petty urges with unknown origins, layers of masks draped one over the other like thatch over a pit. Attempts have been made to imitate the power and unusual tone of this film in later films to such dire effect it would be insulting to Local Color to mention them here. Some of these attempts were by filmmakers I’m not even sure saw Local Color, maybe the impetus came to them half-digested in dreams. Such things happen…

This is getting long, so I’m going to split it up into two articles. In the second installment I hope to go over his later shorts and fictional documentaries/autobiographies.