Sunday, April 01, 2007

Before there was 'Grindhouse,' there was 'The Independent'

If you’re not familiar with the ‘60s and ‘70s exploitation flicks that inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to make Grindhouse, you might want to take a peek at Stephen Kessler’s The Independent to prepare yourself for the three-hours-plus epic opening Friday at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. And if you are a connoisseur of schlock cinema – that is, if you’re a guilty-pleasure-seeker who fondly recalls the low-budget, high-concept quickies of New World Pictures, American-International and other now-defunct manufacturers of full-tilt, down-and-dirty B-movies – well then you, too, likely will enjoy Kessler’s overlooked and under-rated pastiche.

As I wrote back in 2001: “A genially slapdash mix of sketch-comedy riffs, faux-documentary interviews and traditional sitcom-style narrative, The Independent surveys the life and career of Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), a notoriously prolific multi-hyphenate whose credits include Groovy Hippie Slumber Party, LSD-Day and Teenie Weenie Bikini Beach.

“Friends, admirers and former co-workers characterize the maverick moviemaker as an influential artist who somehow transcended tight budgets, marginal talent and an unfortunate tendency to put moves on his leading ladies…

“Not surprisingly, the funniest scenes in The Independent are the snippets and coming-attraction trailers used to illustrate the highlights of Morty's less-than-illustrious career: Brothers Divided (conjoined twins – one a pacifist, one a gung-ho warrior – are drafted for Vietnam duty), Christ for the Defense (a courtroom drama with a truly miraculous defense attorney), The Foxy Chocolate Robot (blaxploitation sci-fi with Fred Williamson and a mechanical co-star) and The Eco-Angels. The latter segment, a hilariously precise parody of 1968's The Miniskirt Mob, is a small gem of persuasive verisimilitude: The actors look, dress and sound just like regulars in mid-'60s B-movies, and the faded color appears to have degenerated for three or four decades.

“Working from a hit-and-miss script he co-wrote with producer Mike Wilkins, director Stephen Kessler strives for a similar kind of plausible fakery during the ‘interviews’ with Karen Black and other real-life notables. Maintaining a reasonably straight face, Peter Bogdanovich claims Morty ‘would try something, and two years later, somebody would copy it and win an Oscar.’ Ron Howard, Roger Corman and Nick Cassavetes also weigh in with testimonials.

“To link the inspired bits and pieces, Kessler and Wilkins spin a mildly amusing story about Morty's umpteenth comeback effort. Still doing what he does best (or, more precisely, worst) in the fifth decade of his filmmaking career, Morty is unable to complete his latest opus -- Ms. Kevorkian, the saga of a gun-wielding sexpot who supports assisted suicide -- because he is, once again, flat broke. Worse, his creditors want to claim his 427-film library, and sell off the individual titles – yes, even The Eco-Angels and Christ for the Defense -- for $8 a pound.

“Morty needs a miracle. What he gets is Paloma (Janeane Garofalo), his long-estranged daughter, who reluctantly takes command of her father's failing production company. Meanwhile, Ivan (Max Perlich), Morty's faithful assistant and tireless gofer, tries to elevate his mentor's profile by talking a film festival – any festival, anywhere – into honoring Morty with a retrospective tribute.

“Trouble is, few festivals are sufficiently desperate to even consider sponsoring such an event. The only encouraging response comes from a brand-new festival in a small Nevada town where, since the closing of a nearby military base, the only local industry of note is legal prostitution. Which, naturally, makes it the perfect spot for a tribute to Morty Fineman.

The Independent doubtless would have worked better with a few more ersatz coming-attraction trailers and much less filler between the really funny bits. Even so, Stiller gives a robustly comical performance as the most enthusiastically self-deluded Hollywood fringe-dweller since Ed Wood. No obstacle, not even his own ineptitude, gets Morty down. Told that he's bankrupt, he cheerfully responds: ‘Then our creditors are screwed!’

“Garofalo shines as a dry-witted, common-sensible realist who can't help wanting to help her father, if only to repay him for producing Cheerleader Camp Massacre after she failed to make the grade as a high-school pom-pom girl. And Perlich brings a hangdog sweetness to scenes in which he dutifully recites words of wisdom he has received from Morty. On the subject of loyalty: ‘Milk the cow until it's dry. Then make hamburger and wallets.’”

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