Friday, April 22, 2011

Independents: Little Fugitive (1953) and O.C. and Stiggs (1985)

Fittingly my last entry on the wave of new films arriving on Netflix Watch Instantly on April 22 is on the day itself.  There too many worthy films to mention in one entry, so feel free to check the Google Reader Shared Links widget on the right hand side of this blog or visit my Shared Items page.

Today is also the first time I've focused Quick Pick selections on American independent features, and as you'll see I'll use the category very broadly to discuss films that are part of the history of American independent filmmaking.

Morris Engel had the "independent spirit" long before that became a widely used term.  He and his collaborators, his later wife Ruth Orkin and writer Raymond Abrashkin, produced The Little Fugitive on a $30,000 budget, and its influence has been significant and long reaching.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screen Story, and it won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.  It's immediate influence was felt in the work of American independent pioneers such as John Cassavetes and French New Wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut.  Truffaut later said about The Little Fugitive, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie."  In 1997, the film was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry for its historical and aesthetic significance.

The Little Fugitive (Morris Engel, USA, 1953, 80 minutes)
Netflix: Sibling relations get tested when Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) must care for his younger brother, 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco). Lennie and his friends soon tire of Joey always being around, so they pull a practical joke on Joey: They tell him he killed Lennie. Believing Lennie's pals, Joey heads for one of the world's largest playgrounds -- Coney Island, where the amusement park and its characters come to life through a child's eyes. Netflix link.

Robert Altman always had a liminal status in as a maverick in Hollywood, but even when he was working overtly in genre filmmaking, he has had a lasting influence on American independent filmmaking.  If we take Popeye (1980) as the box-office bomb that exiled him from Hollywood, and The Player (1992) as his return to the fold, then O.C. and Stiggs is an interesting example of what Altman was up to out in the wilderness. The truth is that he made 7 1/2 feature films in that period (if we include his segment from Aria) and several other television projects like Tanner 88, so he always considered calling The Player a comeback film somewhat absurd.  But the mid-1980s was indeed a rough period for Altman.

I had a chance to talk to producers of O.C. and Stiggs, Ted Mann and Peter Newman, when they were in Madison, Wisconsin for a screening of Stuart Gordon's Space Truckers.  They explained that Altman was not always easy to work with during the production, and that Altman had significantly changed what they believed had been a very strong script.  While Altman was known for intelligently deconstructing many popular genres, perhaps assigning him to helm a 1980s teen-sex comedy was not the best idea for anyone concerned.  MGM shelved the film for several years, giving it only a limited release in 1988.  Altman later conceded in an interview included in the Tanner 88 DVD that the film didn't work, and he elaborated on those comments in the eventual DVD release of O.C. and Stiggs ("The screenwriters hated me and I hated them in return").

But the film does have its supporters, and perhaps the best articulated defense (which acknowledges its shortcomings) is Nathan Rabin's entry on the film in his My Year of Flops series.  Rabin writes:  

Altman argues that audiences and National Lampoon wanted Robert Altman's Porky's and were flummoxed when he delivered a satire of teen schlock instead. I think O.C And Stiggs is a satire, but less of teen sex comedies than of the things that always enraged Altman: consumerism and hypocrisy and racism and the narcissistic self-absorption of well-fed Caucasians. Here Altman occasionally comes off like the misanthropic cheap shot artist his critics have always accused him of being–like pretty much all '80s teen sex comedies, this seems to think homosexuality is inherently a laff riot–but behind the snark lies a genuine shiver of revulsion towards the complacency and sun-baked decadence of the Reagan '80s.

Several Netflix users have joined Rabin in the defense of O.C. and Stiggs in the comments section for the film.  Personally, I believe that there is nothing better than Altman in top form (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) and nothing worse than Altman when he's bad (Beyond Therapy, Pret-a-porter).  But I'm looking forward to finally catching up with O.C. and Stiggs, if only to see how I feel about the debate over the film.

O.C. and Stiggs (Robert Altman, USA, 1985, 109 minutes)
Netflix: Two teens try to destroy a suburban family in director Robert Altman's risqué comedy, which follows misfits O.C. Ogilvie (Daniel Jenkins) and Mark Stiggs (Neill Barry), who see red when an insurance salesman cancels the policy of O.C.'s grampa (Ray Walston). Bent on revenge, the youngsters carry out a vendetta against the loutish salesman (Paul Dooley). The high-powered cast includes Jane Curtin, Martin Mull, Dennis Hopper and Louis Nye. Netflix link.

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