The Secret Cinema (1968)

All the world is a stage, but only some people are in the movies.

All the world is a stage, but only some people are in the movies.

There is something both magical and inspirational about a filmmaker who circumvents the system and finds a way to deliver their original voice to the big screen. Shot on weekends with equipment and film stock ‘borrowed’ from a television ad agency, Paul Bartel’s The Secret Cinema tells the story of a young woman who believes her entire life is secretly being filmed. The exploits of Jane are a major sensation with all of her friends. Even her own mother comes out to see what misfortunes Jane will encounter next. Unable to secure proof of her theory, Jane quickly goes insane as whispers and clues solidify her speculation. IfThe Secret Cinema sounds like The Truman Show it is worth noting that Bartel’s story predated The Truman Show by several decades. I am was moved by the paranoia portrayed in Bartel’s film and at an economical 28 minutes, I am more impressed with him ability to craft a well-constructed, entertaining and thought provoking short on a shoe string budget. Mark another victory for David over Goliath.

Pull My Daisy (1959)

It was to be a night of drunks, drug addicts, and beatniks. Due to a technological snafu, we were unable to watch The Connection, so we jumped right to Pull My Daisy. Personally, this film is hit or miss for me. I’ve seen it and loved its off-beat rhythms and its air of spontaneity. Tonight, agitated by the technical problems I found the antics of the Ginsberg, Corso, Orlovsky, et al. to be agitating, juvenile, pointless. Their free-spirit flew in direction opposition to my planned agenda. I cannot help it is the night ran amiss by things seemingly out of my control.  Still, I felt responsible and could not easily get over the need to change the plan. Perhaps, I would have made a lousy beatnik. In fact, I know I would.

On The Bowery (1957)

Like a night of drinking, On the Bowery takes on many moods. While it is easy to laugh along with the drunken antics of the barflies that inhabit the stools and gutters of the Bowery, there comes a time when laughter turns to sadness and empathy. I am more inclined to over look the minor faults of the picture and simply praise the Lionel Rogosin for his open, nonjudgmental depicting of a destructive lifestyle. The weathered and craggy faces of the derelicts that stumble through this picture is as harrowing as it is honest. The authenticity of both the faces and places that fill each frame of this picture are miles apart from Hollywood. No wonder if comes from New York and the mind of a true independent. When Lionel Rogosin shifts the picture from pure documentary into the realm of docudrama through a rather contrived narrative, its easy to groan. He allows a happy ending to gives us an escape route, though I cannot personally believe that our protagonist, were he real, could so easily escape. No, I am sure he’d find his way back to the Bowery and even Rogosin hints at this unforeseen fate.

Little Fugitive (1953)

Running away from Hollywood's trappings

Running away from Hollywood's trappings

When I located Little Fugitive on the Internet Movie Database, to create a link, I was struck silly by the five films that the IMDB was recommending to me. Right there, as plain as day the site states – If you enjoyed this title, our database also recommends:

The Warriors, City by the Sea, Grace is Gone, Jaws 2, Fahrenheit 9/11

What exactly are they assuming I enjoyed about Little Fugitive? And, what exactly do these films have in common with Little Fugitive?

I consider Little Fugitive to be a cornerstone of American independent cinema. It is a small miracle; a wonderfully crafted, touching example of how a small idea working well within its limitations can make a huge impact.

So, why recommend Jaws 2? Why not the first Jaws? Last I recall, the shark was prowling the coast of Amity not Coney Island. I am sure the Coney Island connection may explain why The Warriors gets suggested, but I can think of ten other films, more in the spirit of Little Fugitive that also have scenes at Coney Island. I don’t think City by the Sea has anything to do with eight year old runaway or Coney Island. I never saw it, but I think it had something to do with Atlantic City and Al Pacino or was it Deniro. Does it matter? Grace is Gone is another film I haven’t seen, but I know it has something to do with John Cusack taking his kid’s on a road trip before telling them their mom died in the war on terrorism. So, perhaps there are issues of innocence at play in each film. I give that one a pass. I guess I am also supposed to give Fahrenheit 9/11 a pass because it was a hugely successful independent film and so was Little Fugitive. However, if that was the standard for a recommendation, why not the Blair WItch Project? At least that was fictional and about lost youngsters.

I only wish one could do a reverse recommendation. I want a way to see what films would point me to Little Fugitive. Would Under the Rainbow send me to Little Fugitive or would Natural Born Killers recommend Little Fugitive to me?

Speaking of Natural Born Killers, a young man here in Milwaukee just killed his girlfriend. His excuse? He had watched Natural Born Killers one too many times and something snapped inside of him. The victim was slated to be an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall. Now, I just know that somewhere, probably even on the campus of UWM, some professor has shown or is showing their class Natural Born Killers and treating that piece of garbage like a piece of art. While Little Fugitive does not even get mentioned or shown. Here is a film that re-affirms the joy of life and instead we have instructors who would rather teach classes on Tarantino, Stone, or torture and violence in films. Why teach that when its obvious that so many young adults need to be reminded about the value of life? Is it easier? Is it cooler?

The Exiles (1961)

No longer in exile, thanks to Milestone Films

The neighborhood is gone, but the film is finally coming to theaters and home video

A somewhat forgotten film that deserves to be recognized as a key work of American independent cinema, right up there with Cassavetes’ Shadows. The Exiles is a docudrama about a night in the lives of American Indians living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles. Between drinking, card playing, skirt chasing and moments of isolation, a series of wonderful interviews serve as narration allowing the viewer to peer into the introspective thoughts of key characters. It reminds me of tactics later used by Godard or Rouch, and yet this predates much of the new-wave and was released the same year as Chronicle of a Summer.

When I first saw a clip of this film in Los Angeles Plays Itself I grew obsessed with seeing it. With some persistence and luck, I was able to track down a copy. It’s three years later and it appears the rest of the world is about to discover this film. Milestones, the same company that put out Killer of Sheep, is about to release this on DVD. I couldn’t be happier and I can’t wait to see the new print of this film. It is such a wonderful glimpse into a world now long gone. Let’s hope the film stick in people’s minds longer than when it was first released.

Shadows (1959)

Can Shadows fades?

Can Shadows fade?

Could it be that Shadows is losing appeal with me? It has never been my favorite Cassavetes’ film. While I understand its importance and can easily forgive its rugged edges, it doesn’t carry the emotion weight of his other work. Shadows throws too much of its weight on Lelia’s shoulders. She can handle it and she shines when dancing with David. The rest of the film now feels too familiar. Whereas, films like Husbands and Faces and Opening Night, still confound me with their emotional shifts. I guess its time for me to go see the original version of this work, if Ray Carney is still allowed to show it in his classes.

Laws of Gravity (1992)

Not on DVD!...Is this the fate of independents?

Not on DVD!...Is this the fate of independents?

I first saw this film as part of a double feature. Laws of Gravity played with Man Bites Dog, both were part of a film festival themed around ultra-violence. The years was 1994. Independent cinema was booming. Nick Gomez was being hailed as a director to watch. So, how come I don’t hear many folks talking about this film today?

I can’t even find a proper DVD release of this film. While others like Tarantino and Kevin Smith went on to cult superstar status, Nick Gomez has made a steady career of directing television shows. The shows he directs have some clout – Homicide, The Shield, Veronica Mars, Dexter, but none of this subsequent work compares to his first feature film.

The Brooklyn losers that populate Laws of Gravity are one spark away from erupting into a fit of violence. They are trapped between the irresponsibility of youth and the pressures of manhood. They rise up only by tearing each other down. Gomez captures all of the action in very intimate, claustrophobic framing. As the vocal sparring escalates, there is no where to escape. It’s uncomfortable watching these wanna-be criminals destroy their lives. Even if their arguments do not end in body blows or bullets, the constant verbal abuse takes its toll and reminds me words can hurt just as much as sticks and stones.

It’s been over 15 years since this film was first released. Today it deserves recognition, if not for being one of the greatest, most harrowing independent films released during that early 90’s frenzy of indie cinema, than for possibly out doing Goodfellas for its use of the F’word.