A director reveals his most recent Fandor film adventures.
When you want to change your life, change your diet. I make films, but for a filmmaker, I don’t watch many. I never know the movies that are up for Oscars. I’ve never worked in a video store. Really, when I do watch stuff, it’s usually crappy TV. And if I watch much more of that… well, you are what you eat.
But now, Fandor has offered me a feast, and I’m gonna be sharing with you my journey across their vast buffet of independent film. I’m doing this to make myself a better artist, and to help cut a path for you through the lush Fandor forest (or buffet – see previous metaphor).
I’m watching three or four Fandor films every week from now until I shoot my next film or fail to pay the internet bill, whichever comes first. Today I’m starting with a few films by people I already know that I like, but I’ll also be diving in for lots of deep cuts.
This is the re-education of one independent filmmaker.
OPENING NIGHT (1977), directed by John Cassavetes
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY STARRING GENA ROWLANDS WHO IS THE BEST
“Don’t be afraid. I love you. You’re a wonderful actor, Maurice. We must never forget this is only a play.”
An amazing cast swirls around Gena Rowland’s performance as star actress Myrtle Gordon, in previews for a new play, whose focus crumbles after she witnesses the death of a fan. As the Opening Night (see what I did there?) approaches, Myrtle keeps everyone working on the play guessing about
whether she will make up her own lines, fail to show up entirely or cause any number of other wacky, drunken, play-wreckin’ hijinks. I use the word ‘hijinks’ because, though it can be quite sad, this film is structurally comedic – the question of each sequence is always “what will Myrtle get up to this time?” – and Ben Gazzara slides right into the role of the straight man as the firm, frustrated director trying to keep the show together. Their rapport is respectful, funny, and earnest. Even the tensest scenes are brimming with love.
Cassavetes’ films with Rowlands are timely and timeless in their social relevance, especially in regard to gender roles and a special kind of dying masculinity. These are also films about people who care about their jobs. It’s a film about pros, made by pros. There is nothing remotely amateur about Opening Night’s themes or execution, especially the performances. This is pro s–t.
SHOULD I WATCH IT THO?
Super duh. Put your phone away and don’t worry about the running time. You could watch two hours and twenty-four minutes of Gena Rowlands filing her nails and be better for it.
SHOULD I PLAY A GAME WHERE I DRINK WHENEVER MYRTLE DRINKS?
Nope. Definitely not. You will die. Someone told me this movie was about alcoholism. I’m not sure it’s presented that way. I think Cassavetes saw alcohol abuse as a symptom, not a cause, and the movie is better for it. Either way, this is not a party movie.
Myrtle was my great-aunt’s name.
DARK STAR (1974), directed by John Carpenter“Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap. Find me something I can blow up.”
This is the first film directed John Carpenter (Halloween, anything where Kurt Russell has an eyepatch) and it was actually a student film, padded after-the-fact for a feature release. Judging by mustaches and music choices, Dark Star is set in an alternate universe where America started exploring deep space in either the 1970’s or Brooklyn circa 2007. The
crew of this spaceship have aged three years on a twenty year mission. Basically it’s about how terrible it would be to live on a cramped spaceship with two other dudes forever. There’s a bit with a monster — basically a beachball with flippers — that famously got retooled by writer (and actor!) Dan O’Bannon for a little script called Alien. This sequence is the comedy version, and despite bad acting and a set that shakes, it still manages a scary bit with an elevator (albeit one that ends up going on too long). That’s kind of the deal with Dark Star.
The most fun character is the only remotely female-ish one, the ship’s soothing (and sultry?) computer interface (who later morphs into ‘Mother’ in Alien). The best scene comes when one crew member has to speak with the frozen corpse of his dead captain and the corpse just wants to talk about baseball, which seems to have ended for good, fifteen years earlier. Even after passing into the greatest of all unknowns, he’s still sticking to something he loved as a child.
SHOULD I WATCH IT THO?
Definitely, if you geek out over John Carpenter’s later work or the Alien movies.
WHAT IF I DO NOT GEEK OUT OVER THAT STUFF?
Then maybe it would work well with a drinking game! This is a much better party movie than Opening Night. Also, in general, the last third is the best part.
When trailers for Gravity came out, I thought it was gonna be about Sandra Bullock just floating further and further away from Earth and coping with it and I thought that sounded amazing. The end of Dark Star is kind of the movie I thought Gravity was gonna be.
Aboriginal elders oppose a mining operation on land they consider important for the green ant. The white dudes who want to mine there consider the same land important for destroying and profiting from that destruction. Conflict!
Actually, the conflict is glacial. Where the Green Ants Dream is a gentle, quiet movie, and the white Aussies in power mostly try to show kindness to the Aboriginal activists, but they’re just so convinced that the Westernization Machine can’t be turned off once it’s been switched on. Bruce Spence, a man who is so tall and slender that you may think the film is in the wrong aspect ratio, plays White-Company-Man-Who-Gradually-Comes-To-Side-With-the-Good-Guys. The two Yolnga actors, Wandjuk and Roy Marika, are more intriguing, but we learn almost nothing about their characters. They’re coming from cultures that are among the oldest continuing on the planet, and the film slowly suggests this world as their post-apocalypse. Director of Photography Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein really locks down that imagery.
SHOULD I WATCH IT, THO?
Yeah, you should, but it’s a bit slow and the perspective left me wanting. There is a heart-wrenching moment in the (wigged!) court scene when a man takes the stand to speak, but there is no one left in the world remaining who understands his language, including the other Aboriginal men in the room. I’m glad Herzog made this film and I think you should see it, but I would also love to see that lonely man get to make this film, the way he’d tell it.
WHICH ROLE SHOULD KLAUS KINSKI HAVE PLAYED?
Many of Werner Herzog’s Greatest Hits include raving mad lead actor Klaus Kinski. I’d say he’d be good here as Old Lady Who Thinks Her Dog Is Lost in the Mine, but then there would be no women in this film. Next week we’re going to have to see more women. It’s almost like there’s a horrible gender imbalance in film or something.
Because of a button-pushing accident, I inadvertently played part of the Heathers soundtrack under this film for a whole scene without noticing. I mean, I noticed, but I was like ‘Werner, that’s a bold choice.’
That’s what I watched this week.
All three stories are about professionals at work: in space, a mine or onstage. All three movies reflect where their directors were in their careers: Carpenter’s amateur Dark Star depicts the first human explorers cluelessly feeling around in dark space, while Cassavetes’ heroine in Opening Night has gone pro, but she might drink herself to death on stage, the way Cassavetes, ten years later, left mounds of unfinished work after his death of cirrhosis. And at the end of Where the Green Ants Dream, our friendly geologist seems to have decided to take his knowledge and talents out of the commercial mining field, the way Herzog, to this day, is always searching for a new place his particular set of skills can be valuable (such as soothing your children with classic bedtime stories):
Now, time to get back to work! John Cassavetes just reminded me how to write dialogue.
Colin Healey rides a silver bike (not real silver) named Tin Man. His first feature film, Homemakers, can be seen here on Fandor. If you think he’d like a movie, tell him in the comments, and he’ll watch the hell out of it. You can follow him on Twitter, too, @colignonpe, if you like that sort of thing.