John Cassavetes’ first film was called ‘Shadows.’ It was made in 1959 and I think it might be the greatest film about race in America that’s ever been made. Cassavetes has always struck me as having an element of that required con-man aspect of the personality that is present in many good actors. When he talks he seems impressed with what he is saying and he knows how to deliver it with just the right amount of humor and a few self-deprecating remarks. But he means every goddamn word of it and he puts all of his thoughts into his film works. He’s one of those rare objects of confusion that sometimes crop up in American art. I’ve been watching a bunch of his films lately and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a filmmaker so interested in looking at the inability of the American adult to understand or even perceive the meaning of their habitual mannerisms. For me, his films illuminate what it means to be a grownup and how the performance required of grownups contrasts with what they really want to be.
Cassavetes on making ‘Shadows:’
That people can go out with nothing and through their own will and through their determination make something that exists… out of nothing. Out of no technical know-how, no equipment. There wasn’t one technician on the entire film. There wasn’t anybody who knew how to run a camera… walked in and started to read the directions of how to reload it. Got a Movieola and looked at it. Did all the things in the world and we made eight million mistakes. But it was exciting and fun.
This is a 1968 French documentary that was probably shot just after or during the making of his great marriage disaster film, ‘Faces.’
Surrealist art great, Man Ray, made this film in 1929. It follows a pair of indecisive travelers who base all their action on chance. They head out to a fabulous chateau in the hills and wander around inside and out. They run into four odd persons who enjoy swimming and running about as if the place is their private gym. But what is Man Ray doing here? Why all these shots of windows, lamps, sculptures? He is finding the abnormal in the normal. Wherever he happens to be with a camera he can make the surreal. He’s functioning as an artist, looking for odd angles, shadows, contrasts. He is also diving into the great current of his culture. The house is a castle filled with fine objects and great art. Man Ray is expressing his enthusiasm. This is an extremely childish film. I mean that as a compliment, though I really see nothing exceptional in works for children. But for an artist to function as a child for a certain amount of time is extraordinary and beneficial I think. But that kind of thinking must end and lead to its own destruction. In other words, I do not think any children’s author or illustrator should ever continue to work in that way for more than a few years. Then it is time to think about serious things and to make things that upset people. Perhaps that is my main criticism for most of the things I have seen by Man Ray. He seems a little bit too pleasant. I might be wrong about that. I have to look a little more.
‘The Living Want Me Dead‘ is a short independent horror film that’s won a bunch of awards at festivals because it deserves to. I enjoyed every minute of this wild ride along with a desperate slacker as he realizes that he’s been contaminated with a substance that causes everyone within sniffing distance to want to disembowel, devour, decapitate and dismember him. He’s hounded by vomiting, mouth-foaming lunatics who simply won’t rest until he’s dead. It’s a clever commentary on the overdone zombie genre that manages somehow to be frightening and hilarious at the same time. The film was written and directed by Bill Palmer who employes techniques typically seen in independent feature films. Vimeo is full of filmmakers who want to strut their pro-quality stuff, but very few of them make anything I can watch for more than several seconds. I’m sure that director of photography Jeremy Hayward had a lot to do with this because the camera work is fluid and clear, even when following intense action and movement.
Director Palmer handles his equipment, crew and actors without letting the job overwhelm his natural instinct for telling a ripping good story and making us want to know what’s going to happen next. In fact, he made much of his own equipment, including a simple rig for filming underwater! He used water guns to shoot fake blood. I love that kind of filmmaking. And I love that he did it all without ridiculous shooting permits. He just hit the side streets with his little crew and turned the whole neighborhood into what I imagine was a hell of fun time. He has created a tight little view into a California suburb at Christmas time by littering the landscape with decorations that lend a sort of lunatic and false joy to the dark comedy and spurting blood.
So the main character, played to intense and despairing perfection by Adam Conger, tries to get away from his attackers by lying low at a friend’s house. Conger really hits his role on the money. He’s perfect as the overwhelmed slacker-type dude who’s actually fairly driven and maniacal in survival mode. But he just can’t seem to find a good way to explain the desperate situation to his friend who is played with great comic ability by Tony Nunes. I believe that during the violent proceedings in his backyard, this friend is primarily engaged with heating up a HotPocket. Needless to say, the hero’s plan for lying low does not work out very well!
This film’s writer and director, Maureen O’Connell, is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The school doesn’t make a good first impression with all its diction and dialects. But her film does. I’m a bit of a jerk about British drama training. Derek Jacobi once made an offer of employment that I refused while asked for another beer. That’s my general attitude about the Kenneth Branagh tribe. Nobody’s ever produced duller Shakespeare than Mr. I-Am-a-Hard-Working-Shakespearean-Dammit! O’Connell comes from Ireland… usually an ace up an actor’s sleeve… except in Mr. Branagh’s case. If O’Connell can keep RADA off of her back, she might just have something very fine going on as a director. She’s made a great film here. There are some technical issues with sound that annoy me, but they seem easily solvable by simply converting a stereo track to mono and blending a few audio transitions together. Someone could fix that up in a few minutes for her.
The film is about a comfortably middle-class girl who seems disconnected from her family and friends. She takes a sudden turn toward what I can only call suburban violence. The film builds quietly toward a surprising viciousness that seems very real. O’Connell darts around the action like she’s making a documentary. She works well with actors, somehow getting large groups of them to create scenes that are shockingly realistic and disturbing. There’s not a hint of awkwardness in her camera work. In fact, she seems, along with director of photography Arthur Mulhern, to revel in what I call the messy image. It is my belief that only people who seek out messy images can become great filmmakers. I will not explain that too much. It should be obvious to any filmmaker. The film contains a crystallizing and gorgeous image where O’Connell points the camera into the sun and tracks a running group of teenagers after a fight. It’s a great image that violates the norms of video photography. In fact, I notice quite a bit of light leaking into the lens during the film. O’Connell’s violence is shocking but also mesmerizing. She approaches it in a slightly off-kilter manner that I can’t quite get a handle on. Just when you think it’s time for her to calm down and quiet things, someone gets kicked in the face. She just has a natural sense of drama.
Her lead performer, Marilyn Bane, conveys her role brilliantly. She is a cross between likeable innocence and brute savage that I want to hit with a baseball bat. Really fine work. All the actors are terrific and the group of ass-kicking girls is just horrifying.
So this Maureen O’Connell is probably going to be making something very fine for the BBC soon. Get ready for it. Because it won’t be pretty. But it’ll leave a big bruise for a long while. She’ll most likely have to get over all that RADA stuff. Although, to contradict myself slightly, she does do this nice little Romeo & Juliet thing that I listened to!