Like some unholy combination of The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and The Day of the Locust (1975), The Savage Eye (1959) is a kino-essay on American desolation penned by three directors (Joseph Strick, Sidney Meyers, and blacklisted Ben Maddow) and as many cinematographers (Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt, and a young Haskell Wexler). The 65-minute feature's thin fictional frame story of a spurred Los Angeles woman, Judith X, is no story at all, but rather a vehicle for disembodied anomie. The film is every bit the modernist plaything, complete with a dual voice-over narration, weekend-long time-span, digressive cinematography, spindly Leonard Rosenman score and mechanized portraiture of the metropolis. If The Savage Eye works as a reclamation of the homegrown surrealism borne of street photography and pulp fiction, it's also no surprise that codirector Strick later filmed adaptations of both Ulysses (1967) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977).
Pinning the nadir of western culture to female consumption is all too typical of the era's would-be beats, but a sequence like the one in which the male voice-over (pompously listed as "The Poet" in the end credits) asks Judith to read other women's trivial thoughts is disturbingly cruel. The Savage Eye is diametrically opposed to melodrama, allergic to pathos. It's difficult to imagine how incendiary it must have seemed in 1960, when Hollywood was just beginning to awake from its long Hays Code slumber. One emblematic shot closely frames a dowdy coupling: he plies her with drinks as she evaluates the bargain being struck out of the corner of her eye. There is an admirable directness to self-contained scenes like this one. With studio noirs, a desultory atmosphere is conveyed peripherally, in a lick of the lips or sweat on the brow; The Savage Eye takes seediness as its subject, like a Weegee book come to life.
The stage may be vulgar, but the players are deathly banal. Judith fantasizes about her ex's lover's violent end as she retrieves the mail, a picture of everyday malice worthy of James M. Cain. And yet, no matter how savage this eye means to be, there is a creeping melancholy tugging at the handheld shots of haunted diner cars and half-lit neon. San Francisco Cinematheque screens this dream of a lost city in a fresh restoration print alongside Strick's earlier document of Los Angeles playing itself, Muscle Beach (1948).
THE SAVAGE EYE AND MUSCLE BEACH
Wed/18, 7:30 p.m., $6$10
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF