'After I Burned Down The Studio, I Was Thirsty, And An African Man Does Not Take Up Lindy Dancing For The Sake Of Boasting' — An INTERVIEW with ROBINSON DEVOR
Mar 30, 2009, 07:59
Independent film is becoming increasingly marginalized, there's not much wiggle-room between mumblecore gunk wherein a bunch of self-absorbed young people that end up having to take a road trip for some reason shot with the visual pizzazz of pointing a handicam at your neighbor or the slicker 'n' slick glossy-as-all-git-out product of an ambitious eye-on-the-prizer, looking to stick their spit-shined shoe in the door so they can go on and make the same kind of big budget vapor every other big-budget buttlip turns out. Top it off with a dollop of shitty economy, add a dash of an increasingly stupid public, a few scoops of shrinking avenues for distribution, a healthy spoonful of industry that is on its way to the glue factory, and stir it with more competition than ever. The world is tough for hard-to-market films, if they're even made at all; their most likely destination is getting consigned to the dust.
That's why it's great to see guys like Robinson Devor working, quietly making mysterious little masterpieces—intelligent and accessible films that are unlike anything else being made today.
I first saw Devor's work when I rented the bizarre little movie (Devor describes it as "somewhere between propaganda and documentary") Angelyne co-directed with Michael Guccione (no relation to the pinky-ringed sleaze merchants). The movie remains obscure (as of 3.20.2009 it isn't even listed on the internet movie database), but it is well worth seeking out because of its bewildering, unique subject. Angelyne—who makes the typical Russ Meyer heroine look like a Popeye's girlfriend—is a well-nigh inscrutable Los Angeles based billboard queen and performance artist du jour with a shatterproof facade. The movie managed a VHS (remember those?) release, which did surprisingly well for the limited half-hour documentary market. I dug it, so does most everyone that saw it—including one Werner Herzog, who had been planning his own Angelyne doc.
After this mini-masterpiece, Devor did a bootlegger's turn with his excellent adaptation of Charles Willeford's The Woman Chaser, featuring a superlative performance by Patrick Warburton as a solipsistic, unintentionally hilarious sociopath. Warburton plays Richard Hudson, a beefy self-centered lug that is not only erudite about art history, but isn't above kicking a wayward employee square in the ass. The movie is funny, frightening and does justice to Willeford's, deceptively deadpan tone. I saw it in a packed theater and remember the general vibe being an audience really loving it, but critical reception was mixed, it was never the breakout hit it deserved to be, and the DVD release was botched.
On the basis of The Woman Chaser, Variety named Devor one of “10 Directors To Watch” in 2000, even though their own critic/descendent of slave-owners Godfrey Cheshire, called the picture "an unoriginal would-be comedy," that feels "like a student film." Cheshire, of course, is totally and completely wrong, there aren't many characters like Hudson in filmdom (when was the last time you heard a line like; "actually, their faces would probably look the same way if they were really watching a body on fire"?), Hudson's bizarre, nihilist B movie-within-a-movie he directs is unlike anything ever made, and the film's production values (you want to give a production manager a heart attack? Combine "low budget" with "period piece") are great. The movie, with its gorgeous, black and white photography, never looks or feels cheap. It's smart, funny, bent, and anchored by terrific performances, so it wouldn't matter anyway.
Devor's next effort is Police Beat, an entry in the not-especially-crowded genre of episodic Malick-esque noirs about lovesick Senegalese police officers in Seattle all narrated in the Wolof dialect. The movie doesn't open with a drug deal gone horribly awry, or a world-weary detective ducking under yellow tape to investigate a horrendous crime. Instead, after a montage of police code and abbreviations, there is the sound of water serenely lapping on the shore, and then a fade into a barefoot dead body floating in the tide, as a cop stares at it while recalling his absent girlfriend in subtitled lovelorn Wolof. He's a beat cop, patrolling Seattle on his bike, who spends most of his time by himself, but sometime he is joined by another police officer, who is having an increasingly intense relationship with a prostitute.
The movie doesn't end with cuffs going on a crime lord, a mansion exploding, or a cop putting a hollowpoint through the head of the perp that killed his partner, instead we get a tire swing, creaking like a noose in a suburban backyard. Our narrator and hero is known as Z, (his last name, never mentioned in the movie is, 'Kingshasha'—at least that is the best I could come up with off squinting at his nametag on my cheap television) is paranoid over his girlfriend taking a camping trip with a male companion and not returning his calls, interjecting his elliptical and poetic thoughts, intercut with real-life episodes of everyday human weirdness culled from real Seattle Police reports.
Experimental structure? Sun dappled exteriors? Longing narrated reveries and magic hour seas? Documented surreal incidents, intercut with imagined interpretations of scenes the Officer wasn't there to witness? A police officer reviewed the film, and according to Devor "he found it a bit too arty."
The movie marked Devor's first collaboration with cinematographer Sean Kirby, who captures all the verdant greens and blues of the northwest, injecting it a real sense of urban landscape that's rare in contemporary American film. For Devor "thinking and dreaming in Seattle is a great allure... I probably have a bit more autonomy to try strange things in Seattle. Not sure if that could happen as much in LA."
I asked Devor what fortuitous circumstances allowed the two to meet? "Sean appeared beside me in a bar one day in Seattle. he was very nice and persistent and to this day has the best attitude of any on-set collaborator I have worked with. He knows I will bend over backward to let light dictate a story. In return, I provide him with three lights to work with." Devor's films have all been low budget, but they're filmed with enough flair and flourish that it never feels like it. I ask if he has had many brushes with mainstream, studio Hollywood. "A few. I have been snatched up and dropped by all the major agencies. We've worked with a few notable producers, too. Some things are in the works, still. Other things have crumbled in a cloud of development dust."
Police Beat also marked Devor's first collaboration with writer Charles Mudede, whose column of the same name provided much of the interludes in Devor's film: "Charles Mudede is a gifted cerebral being. He is also an exceptional clown. I have nothing but fun working with him, which we do often." Here's a sample of the poetry of the almost-mundane from Mudede's Police Beat column (this particular snippet is from 12.19.2006) "And whereas pity is always low-down, always ignoble, hate has the honor of sharking the same emotional realm and register as love." What is the subject being rhapsodized about? â€¦A man in a wheelchair that assaulted his caregiver and a nurse. The same kind of incident featured in the film, no big busts, chases, or emotional and action crescendos, but the everyday bubbles of people sometimes doing things that aren't allowed.
All these collaborators hopped onboard for Devor's next, and most widely seen film, ZOO, an impressionistic documentary on the sad case of a man, referred to by his internet nickname, “Mr. Hands” who died after having anal-intercourse with a horse. The story became the most-read in the Seattle Times in 2005 (in fact, three of the most-read stories in the top 10 involved the case) mostly as a grotesque curiosity and/or punchline. The movie isn't a simple expose, but is an elegant series of mesmerizing recreations over audio recordings from some of the participants. Devor found the Zoophiles involved in the case "to be like any other person—unique yet universal." I was struck by many of the reviews saying how Devor was sympathetic to the Zoofiles, like that fundamental and positive human quality was now something to behold with pity and disgust.
Hey Devor, what was your approach? Objectivity? Sympathy? "Charles thinks the movie is about community, but I actually believe the movie is about love, and its elastic, elusive and ephemeral qualities." I thought the movie, with its nearly fetishistic and eroticized nature photography, was about the insoluble sexual urge, oozing out of the deepest and primordial currents of the human psyche.
The documentary has its most structurally unusual moment when actor Michael J. Minard, who plays the roll of "Cop #1," sits and talks to the camera about his own audition for a part in ZOO, and his own first-hand experiences with death. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the scene's inclusion, and asked Devor about it: "Just to say that, hey, a man died. Don't forget that first. And some people felt awful because they couldn't save him. Don't forget what that must have been like, because they tried." (Look up "Mr. Hands" on Youtube and the first hit you get is a bunch of grinning frat boys screaming and laughing in disgust as they watch a man dying painfully). Given the sensationalistic subject the film's hypnotic approach, I asked Devor if widely praised documentarian Errol Morris was much of an influence: "He's the boss. Philip Glass, lyrical visuals plus a great, patient and unobtrusive ear. Big influence." The movie humanizes the participants, and I was curious what they thought of it "I believe they thought it was fair. But they were hoping for a 60 Minutes approach." Instead, they got a movie that's like watching a painting while they get to explain themselves to you personally and privately. It's too bad Devor abandoned his original title, In The Forest There Is Every Kind Of Bird.
Devor's films are full of striking compositions and creative use of light. Angelyne has a striking interlude with a man swinging on workout rings on an LA beach, there's a diver splashing into a pool filmed from under the water in The Woman Chaser (a shot that only lasts a second and predates Bill Viola's Five Angels For The Millennium), Z, on the very edge of exposure, standing on the cement staircase that leads into the ocean in Police Beat, a frantic man running across a freshly plowed field in ZOO, his footsteps trailing like a contrail on his path to an overpowering horizon.... I asked Devor if he had any training in photography. "Not really," he replied.
Already, Devors movies have left some indelible moments, Joe Durrenberger, as forgotten actor Chet Wilson, sinking his foot into a muddy trench during his impromptu audition, then smiling beatifically when he actually sees the film-within-a-film he starred in, A man's disturbing blank happiness as he calmly explains why he tore a goose's head off in Police Beat, Mount St. Helens perfectly framed though a window in ZOO. I asked Devor what he has coming up. He replied that he's still working on North American, which he shot for twenty five thousand dollars with a crew of 10 people. "It's about a commercial airline pilot who flees from God into the Seattle Park system. Inspired by an Air Canada Pilot who heard the voice of God mid-flight and had to make an emergency landing." Devor's summary reminds me of Officer Z in Police Beat, happily pretending to be a pilot in the cockpit of a derelict airplane—"relax, and nobody will die," he says cheerfully). The movie "will be married to some essayistic elements dealing with Frederik Olmsted and his ideas on public space, as well as his look on racism in the old south." It's nice to see a filmmaker using words like "essayistic," "public space" and "Frederik Olmsted" and the lack of words like "hitman," "video game" or "remake."
The b-b-big news is Devor's next feature is an adaptation of quintessential early 20th Century drifter Jack Black's memoirs, You Can't Win, which he will begin prepping soon. Devor plans to go with a less impressionistic style. "I think there will be a bit more rigorous visual storytelling, though not sure if I would call it stylized... It's going to be great. Tough to adapt such a dense sprawling book, but it will be my biggest film—2.5 million budget. Shooting in Northwest... Maybe marrying some Chinese ghost story elements to the tale, but boy that book speaks for itself."
And how. For those readers not familiar with William S. Burrough's favorite book You Can't Win, it's Mr. Black's memoirs as a turn of the century hobo turned minor-league criminal and opium addict. Filled with musings on futility and regret, written with a palatable sense of wistfulness and clear-eyed lucidity (Black later, allegedly committed suicide via drowning) and for my money (which admittedly, is very little) Burroughs can't touch it with a ten foot pole.
A friend of mine worked for former art house darling David Gordon Green (well before Green made what I found to be a drug-themed snoozer disturbingly bereft of humor—The Pineapple Express—his remarks carried a bit more heft) what kind of movies he likes to see. Green told him that if he was gonna pony-up some hard-earned independent film dough to catch a flick, he just wanted to see shit blow up. I shared this with Devor, who I have a hard time picturing eating buttered popcorn while watching Jason Statham dropkicking anonymous henchman into the great exploding beyond, and asked him what he likes to see when goes out to the movies... "Not that. I want to see reeds moving in unison with the wind."
I am reminded of a probably apocryphal story about the Hollywood suits offering F.W. Murnau as much money as necessary, to take as much time as he needed, to shoot whatever he wanted, the result being his adaptation of Hermann Sudermann's 1929, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, a handsome frontrunner for the best film of all time. I asked Devor, if given the same deal, what he'd want to do: “The Journal Of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen.” If only a deep-pocketed Patron would hand Devor, Kirby and Mudede an Imax camera and a burlap sack full of gold bullion, if only to see "clappers summon the black, slow elephant of eternity into the skies" in the local movie house.
1* Critic/cinefile Chesire also claims that Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box "cleverly interweaves dazzling performance segments with fairy-tale-like chronicle of its heroes' early lives... [The piece of shit movie is] an imaginative tour of their realm and its kismet-touched history," hopefully one day you'll see Chesire with a shoeprint on his crotch, moaning that someone had just kicked him in the balls. He would have deserved it.
2* Honestly, what is really so bad about sexual relations with a horse? One of the voices of stone cold reason in the entire movie ends up being, of all people, Rush Limbaugh, who offers a prescient insight in an excerpt from his radio show; obviously, it was consensual—and who hasn't been leg-humped by an amorous pooch? Soviet astrophysicists & astronomers Iosif Shklovsky and Nikolai Kardashev were having a chat in the Byurakan mountains when they saw a donkey get an erection when it noticed a passing human female. Maybe they should have stopped and lectured the donkey about proper interspecies relations? What is really so awful here? Its not causing physical harm to the horse (I don't see why the horse wouldn't enjoy it more then getting sat on by a tubby cowboy), and I can't think of any logic-based, successful argument that the horse is 'emotionally' harmed by a sexual relationship with a human. What, it's going to make it more difficult for the horse to deal with future equine-exclusive relationships? The horse is going to be rejected by his horse buddies because of the social stigma? My ass. What mammal doesn't like having its genitals consensually touched when aroused? The thought of a man having sex with a horse just makes people disturbed (and again, the man was the recipient of this act). The eagerness of the American public to scramble for moral high ground to issue self-righteous tsks tsks, especially when confronted with something sexual in nature (witness the sad popularity of sanctimonious schadenfreude-fest To Catch A Predator) is something to behold. Why are sexual deviations perceived as a personal affront?