The cult director comes to town with his latest, plus some of his greatest
FILM "Legendary" is a term often applied to artists distinguished by either ubiquity or scarcity. Monte Hellman definitely falls in the second camp — nearly 80, he's just made his first feature in 22 years, causing a flurry of interest in the sparse 10 he made during the prior three decades he was, relatively speaking, active — movies hardly anyone saw when they came out since none were more than a blip on the commercial radar.
That of course aided his reputation as a fascinating oddball working — when allowed — on the B-movie margins of mainstream entertainment, yet never quite at home there. Presumably this status, and the small number of projects he's realized (let alone had a satisfying amount of control over), has been a cause of some frustration. Yet the laconic distance from emotional display or anything else that might pander to the audience's easier responses — even in genres as typically uncomplicated as the western or horror movie — suggests a filmmaker who might well enjoy being perceived as the rugged, tether-resistant outsider. Lord knows it's impossible to imagine him directing something brash, accessible, and popular.
Not that his interview quotes have ever revealed a willfully elusive nature. Hellman appears at the Roxie Friday, July 22 (and at the Smith Rafael Saturday, July 23) when his new Road to Nowhere opens, so you can gauge for yourself just how the man does or doesn't feed the enigma his films have built around him.
After that night, the Roxie plays Road on double bills with the four movies that most shaped his cult following, offered in a mini-retrospective called "Monte Hellman: Maximum Minimalism." They're all road flicks in one way or another — the typical Hellman film, if there be such, is a one-way trip of some urgency but no certain destination save oblivion. Its protagonists' circumstances may be desperate, but they themselves ruffle an outwardly sardonic, existential cool as they ride into the incinerating sunset.
Hellman got into the business via Roger Corman, Hollywood's all-time greatest nose for cheap young talent from Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese to James Cameron. His first directorial job was 1959's The Beast From the Haunted Cave, about a giant spider — a movie notable for being better than it needed to be, since it didn't need to be any good at all, though no indicator of a distinctive sensibility. Nor were two 1964 action movies shot back-to-back in the Philippines, Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell, though they commenced his brief but key collaboration with Jack Nicholson (who wrote the first as well as acting in both).
The next year they did another two-for-one deal for Corman, Nicholson now producing as well. Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting were low-budget westerns shot in Utah, intended for the bottom half of drive-in and grindhouse double bills. As Hellman later said, the expectation that they'd fly so far below radar was freeing: "Any thoughts about doing something different were for our own satisfaction. We never thought that anybody would notice."
Evidently Corman and/or distributors noticed, because these two idiosyncratically spare Old West odysseys into ever more desolate (and deadly) terrain wound up being sparsely released around the globe as a seeming afterthought over the next many years, then falling into public domain limbo. (You can still find cheap dupes on fly-by-night labels in $1 bins.) The Nicholson-penned Whirlwind has him, a young Harry Dean Stanton, and Rupert Crosse (1969's The Reivers) as itinerant cowhands mistaken for killer bandits, chased into the desert by vigilantes who'll shoot first and hear claims of innocence later.
In The Shooting, Nicholson doesn't appear until midpoint, joining Millie Perkins as a second black-hatted angel of death hiring two cowboys (Warren Oates, Will Hutchins) to lead them on a trek whose slowly revealed actual intent turns the guides into captives. That film, written by Carole Eastman (who later cemented Nicholson's post-Easy Rider stardom with 1970's Five Easy Pieces), not only introduced Hellman to his acting muse Oates but attracted enough stealth attention as a strikingly stark genre statement that it was shown out of competition at Cannes.
His mythos already growing in inverse proportion to his films' popular exposure, Hellman found himself one of the more experienced directors to benefit from the major studios' early 1970s panic — the old system having largely collapsed, and no clear roadmap to the future in place, they greenlit anything that seemed like it would appeal to the fickle new "youth" audience. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was one of many fascinating commercial flops that resulted, a cross-country race with a stubbornly detached, becalmed pulse, Oates wryly chewing scenery that included rock stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (as "The Driver" and "The Mechanic" respectively). The two had never acted before, and never would again — indeed you could say Taylor never has, since Hellman's cryptic communication on set left Sweet Baby James stiff as a board. This effect winds up seeming part and parcel of the film's droll in-joke tenor; it's an action movie about extreme acceleration, yet one that absolutely will not get agitated.
There was even less hope of commercial benefit from Cockfighter, a 1974 adaptation of a Charles Willeford pulp with Oates — one actor who never needed being told what to do in the claustrophobic Hellman universe — perfect as the mute loner drifting through an unlovely small-town America of sleazy small-time operators, wayward wimmen, and bloody gambling "sport." It's the last film in the Roxie's mini-retro, alongside the Corman westerns and Blacktop.
Hellman's subsequent career has largely been off the map — as a director and editor for hire, often fixing problems (like directors who die mid-production) without screen credit. Among films with his name on them, 1978's China 9, Liberty 37 was an Italian-produced, internationally-cast western that's okay but uncharacteristically driven by sex and sentiment. (Oates' rancher says "There ain't no soft-hearted gunfighters," but that's exactly what impossibly handsome Fabio Testi plays.) Direct-to-video killer Santa Claus sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989) shoehorns just enough eccentricity into the slasher formula to be bearable for Hellman completists.
But the prior year's Iguana is something else: Shakespeare's Tempest (with a little Robinson Crusoe) in reverse, a willfully misanthropic castaway adventure in which the facially deformed Oberlus (Twin Peaks' Everett McGill) avenges himself on lifelong tormentors by escaping his 19th-century whaling ship and ruthlessly ruling his own "kingdom" of enslaved castaways on an uncharted isle. Its Canary Islands shoot apparently an off-screen form of torment, Iguana was (natch) barely released and remains undervalued, but it's as uncompromising, bitterly humorous and assured as anything Hellman's done.
Whether Road to Nowhere qualifies as summary statement or aberration has already divided viewers since its Venice premiere last fall. Written by Iguana's Steven Gaydos, it's a hall of mirrors in which a hotshot filmmaker (Tygh Runyan) making a movie about a woman's apparent real-life murder casts an alluring non-actress (Shannyn Sossamon) whom an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) and reporter (Dominique Swain) come to suspect might be playing herself — having faked her own death and adopted a new identity.
The mix of noir, reality-illusion puzzle, industry in-jokes, film history name-dropping (as well as archival clips), uneven performances, sometimes stilted dialogue, brief startling violence, and handsome compositions (shot without permits on a hand-held digital camera) can be taken as two hours of delicious gamesmanship or exasperating self-indulgence. But no one can argue that by now Hellman hasn't earned his right to be difficult.
MONTE HELLMAN: ROAD TO NOWHERE AND REPERTORY
July 22–28, $5–$10.25
3117 16th St., SF
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St., San Rafael