Thursday, January 25, 2007

Salacious Skydiver Sabotage:
The Coleman Francis Murders?


The recent tabloid murder of a Belgian skydiver, apparently motivated by a romantic rivalry has captured interest around the world. However, it's especially sure to raise eyebrows among one particularly small and dedicated group; cinephiles with a taste for old-school schlock and an affection for the dark bottom of the cinematic barrel. Enter 50-60's-era schlockmeister Coleman Francis and his seminal work, "Skydivers".


IMDB summary:
"In this cinematic ode to freefalling and java we meet Harry and Beth. They run a ridiculously unsafe skydiving school and consume the Gross National Product in espresso roast, just to get through their terribly troubled marriage. Harry cheats with a local town tramp, while Beth runs around, nonplused, making sure their clients don't plummet to their death . . . often. Eventually the spurned skank decides to teach Harry a lesson and pours acid in his parachutes, proving that unlike Maxwell House, not everything about the couple's business sense is good to the last drop."

And as Bill Gibron at Popmatters.Com explains him...

"So go ahead and praise those international auteurs who exposed the seedy, slimy underbelly of their beloved homelands. Champion those creative cinematographers that found beauty in the ordinary and grace in the routine. They can't hold a month old can of Spam to the life as lumbering mediocrity created by Coleman Francis. Instead of celebrating The Bicycle Thief or worshipping La Terra Trema we should point to The Skydivers, or Night Train to Mundo Fine as films that truly express the verisimilitude of the spiritless, colorless indifference that is reality. As much as we hate to admit it, Coleman Francis was in tune with the tedium of our life and times. He remains the true neo neo-realist." - Bill Gibron, PopMatters.Com


Coleman Francis is sure to be an unknown to most, except for morbidly curious seekers of grade-Z atomic-era cinema, or fans of the legendary Mystery Science Theater 3000 or MST3K, (I fall in both categories) which featured (and made fun of) most of Francis' films. His obscurity is admittedly deserved. A slovenly drunkard whose cinematic trademarks were a langorous pace, wretched lighting and framing, massively unphotogenic actors, and editing conducted with minimal regard to coherence of time, place, or the blocking of his actors. His films transcend the incompetence of the enthused and talentless rookie like his contemporary Ed Wood, and achieve an aesthetic badness so aggressive and complete, it can only be called a style.

Though even as B-movie fame goes, he never reached Ed Wood's iconic status. (even non-cinephiles have some awareness of Wood's infamy) His films were neither as lovably incompetent, or as comedy-of-errors funny as Wood. These were angry, mean, unlovable little things. Incompetent not by goofy missteps or inexperience, but with what looks like bitter, deliberate focus. Coleman's camera doesn't misstep or humorously slip out of focus, it hates the audience. Kicking the viewer with half-framed closeup shots of pockmarked faces and scenes of splayed men in filthy rooms that look as if lit with a penlight. Want coherent timelines? The camera skips forward through scenes and jumps around simple dialogue sequences like it's falling down stairs; anticipating by several years Seijun Suzuki's jumpy narrative style in the bright and charming 'Tokyo Drifter', though I admit I don't know if Suzuki was a fan. Characters conversing five feet away will look as if shot miles apart. His characters don't 'read' the lines, as much as they mumble, grumble, sputter, grunt, and chew their way through them (Francis included, starring in his own 'Red Zone Cuba') Francis is like Wood, minus the boundless, empty-headed optimism that made his efforts so clumsily endearing. Francis however, was apparently the greater realist.

Maybe life does imitate art? Or maybe Francis' bleak directing style and disjointed narratives of barely-in-frame ugly people cheating, murdering, and backstabbing one another truly had tapped into some primal truth of the human condition. Maybe he truly had cultivated a style with its own ugly integrity; what one critic speculated as 'neo neo-realism'. Now with such an uncanny intersection of Francis' vision into cold reality, one can't help but wonder if time will indeed vindicate his cinematic vision and render his small but hardy filmography increasingly relevant. Are we on the verge of a Coleman Francis renaissance? Are Francis' bizarre films seeing some sort of macabre cultural vindication? Almost certainly not. But at least it's fast-food for thought for fans of one of filmdom's great unknown anti-heroes.


-Nick



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