Monday, December 1, 2008

The Alternative Cinema Alphabet Meme:
A is for About Me: A Musical
(Robert Frank; 1971)

As a shifty way of generating content here (you may well ask what other ways I have resorted to, and I would be forced to say none other), I thought I should tackle, uninvited, the ongoing, viral Alphabet Meme that's been bouncing around the blogosphere recently . . . BUT . . . I elected to give it a slight and admittedly self-serving twist.

For the purposes of this edition, I chose my passel of favorites from among American films made outside our cinema's industrial sector, Hollowood. In other words, the films I selected have to have been made in the United States, by filmmakers residing (if not in every case born) here, but they could not have been either financed, produced or distributed by any well-established film production entity (the whole range of them, from MGM and Warner Brothers, to Monogram, PRC and American-International). To make the task all the more nightmarish for myself . . . and, once again, to pump-up the word count here . . . I decided to drag things out inordinately and make it an ongoing project; which means I'll be writing (cue coffee-spewing) a teeny-tiny bit about each film, one at a time, over the course of twenty-six entries (for you usenet denizens, that's one entry for each letter). And if I want to get cute I could follow up at the end with some nonsense about Brakhage's 23rd Psalm . . . but don't hold your breath waiting for it, because at the rate my brain cooks up half-respectable sentences, I'll more than likely be at this for over a year before I ever get to the letter L (and that's my idea of optimism).

With that, let us begin.

*****

Like many of Robert Frank's films, About Me: A Musical drifted from its initial concept to an inevitable destination: "My project was to make a film about music in America", he announces at the start. "Fuck the music. I just decided to make the film about myself."

One's heart may sink upon that declaration, particularly if one has previously beheld the king-size narcissus pool whose shallowest end such intentions always seem to land in once they fall to the earth, regardless of the filmmaker (additionally, the participation of veteran exhibitionists like Hugh Romney, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg in this film positively spells doom from the outset). I mean, so much of America's alternative film movements, and there have been many over the long decades (just take your pick), found themselves shepherded by artists directing their gaze inward with such immense, usually unwarranted fascination, that you can very often read their chroniclers/critics preoccupation with formal properties as the half-embarassed rescue mission it sometimes is . . . virtually imploring readers to keep their eyes on the light and figure show; and, pleeease, pay no attention to that self-involved structuralist baring his or her utterly lackluster soul behind the curtain.

But over the course of its thirty minutes, About Me proves an altogether pleasant disappointment to viewers whose expectations may have been schooled in the ways of Su Friedrich (or even Ross McElwee), as it leaps nimbly between staged scenes of an actress portraying Frank (casting reflection on his life and work and what it all means), to musical performances ranging from Indian ragas to a band of nouveau-bohos working their fringy way through Bacharach and David's Baby it's You; to prosaic cinema verite snippets and the film's conclusion of what might be the most charming man-on-the-street interview ever filmed. And if you're one of those people who thinks the musical, as a form, represents the direct antithesis of personal expression in cinema . . . a propostion instantly reduced to dust the moment Busby Berkeley walked upon a soundstage. . . you could not find a more graceful refutation if you picked up a camera, went out on the street yourself and looked high and low for it.

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