One film is narrated by a boa constrictor, one film has an “ad-hoc harem of hippie girls” wandering throughout and yet another stars a mentally disabled sex addict in a semi-autobiographical context. When described separately, the films that make up the Block Museum film series I'm Almost Not Crazy: Outsider Cinema By Hollywood Insiders resemble pieces of a Salvador Dali painting – oddball and absurd, and absolutely enthralling as a result. But what really categorizes these movies is something even less predictable.
“I think it’s important to look at unsafe, genuinely risky artwork,” says series curator Spencer Parsons, an assistant professor in the RTVF department. “Artwork that didn’t just court failure, but in fact, totally failed at the box office…and were also written off artistically.” He explains that, due to the surreal and radical nature of the way these films were made, it was difficult at the time to accept them. Thus, along with living outside of traditional filmmaking methods and plot devices, these movies have outsider status from a standard of critical acclaim. They’ve never truly been recognized for the works of art that they are, until now.
For example, there's plenty to get excited about artistically when it comes to The World’s Greatest Sinner, a 1962 film that remains fascinating primarily because of Timothy Carey, its director and star. Carey, who had worked with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory, decided to make a truly controversial film. He stars as an insurance salesman who envisions one day that he is God. The film centers around the salesman’s transformation into an Elvis-esque, rock 'n' roll evangelizer that calls himself “God Hilliard” and stages absurd and powerful performances across the country.
“Tim Carey’s performance in [the film] is really something…bizarre and beautiful…more like a possession by the character than a portrayal,” says Parsons. In fact, he explains, “as the film progressed, the other collaborators wondered who was actually directing the film – Carey himself or his character, God Hilliard.” If such a seamless melding of director, actor and character in Sinner isn't enough of a draw, it's worthy to note that a boa constrictor narrates the film.
But even boa constrictors can be out-weirded. The Last Movie, a film directed by Dennis Hopper as a follow-up to the box office success Easy Rider, is an example of what happens when an outsider's work is refused recognition even as a cult film. The plot of the film certainly has an esoteric flavor in and of itself – it revolves around several layers of filmmaking reality in which a failed attempt at shooting a traditional western in Peru leads to local tribesmen shooting a pseudo-film with fake wicker cameras and “all-too-real violence.”
However, the way it was made is what truly lends the film to the outsider genre. “Hopper’s frustrations with traditional filmmaking, along with his status as a countercultural icon, led him to shuffle the deck in a way that broke the ‘Hollywood illusion,’” says Parsons. For instance, “there are outtakes [included] in the film itself, and you see Hopper directing people within the film itself.” Despite the film’s obvious merit as an artistic exercise, “it was met with absolute derision and effectively disappeared for years; it’s never been on video or DVD.”
By weaving a disconcerting narrative from uncharted storytelling territory and being booed for his efforts, Hopper falls prey to the reactionary nature of human taste - at least, according to Parsons. "Films [that are] deliberately provocative…outrageous, and off-the-reservation [are] traditionally considered failures," he remarks with some sadness. "At least at the time they were made."
The rest of the films in the series – three of them have been shown already – are equally, if not more, off-the-wall, yet each of them also sounds captivating by virtue of their very strangeness. It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE was conceptualized and written by Steven C. Stewart, a man with severe cerebral palsy, who needed a “Hollywood insider” like Crispin Glover to fund and support his work (the money actually came from Glover’s role in Charlie's Angels). And Love Streams stars director John Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands as brother and sister, lending a “nervy and disconcerting, incestuous quality" to the film. "There aren’t a lot of directors who’d feel free enough to do that," says Parson.
One could argue that some of the themes in these movies are rather too crazy, but Parsons disagrees, citing the potential for positive influence on Northwestern film students and all budding artists.
“There’s a tendency in our culture to encourage young artists to 'play it safe,' to make independent films ‘the right way,’” he remarks. “[But] it’s really interesting for students, as they discover their own aesthetic…to also see the work of artists who break the rules, and by doing so, discover those rules. A lot of the time we tend to make students tamp down their outrageous ideas… But we also want examples of when those crazy ideas actually work. In seeing work like this, perhaps students can be inspired to innovate, even in situations where they are following traditional structures and rules – or even,” he grins, “to go a little crazy.”
I'm Almost Not Crazy: Outsider Cinema by Hollywood Insiders features a different film every Friday at 7 p.m. at the Block Museum.Tomorrow's feature will be Orson Welles' 1973 cinematic essay F for Fake.Tickets are $4 for students and faculty and $6 for the general public.