Times Film Critic

For those who savor being the first to discover the next wave of young writers, actors and directors, the new crop of films from the advanced film classes at USC, UCLA, CalArts and Loyola usually make pretty good browsing.

In the last few years, however, USC’s vaunted dramatic films seemed to have settled into a comfortable, golden rut. Although their impeccable technique makes them gilt-edged calling cards to the film industry, too often their scripts have slipped into the banal and cliched. This weakness in recent years only makes Saturday night’s screening of USC’s 1985 Advanced Film Projects class all the more exciting. (Open to the public, it will be at Bovard Auditorium at 7 p.m.)

This selection of 11 films--which range in subject matter from the crippling effects of child abuse to a dialogue between young and old, to the philosophy behind your haircut--not only contains some lovely surprises, it’s one for the USC history books. In response to student demand, in the fall of 1985 the cinema school added a documentary production course. Two of the strongest films of the program, “The Cut” and “Knocking on Armageddon’s Door,” come from this new documentary class; a third fine documentary, “Between April and May,” was co-produced by USC and the Netherlands as part of the International Year of Youth film project. (Prize-winning documentaries have come out of USC recently, but from the broadcasting division of the School of Journalism.)

There are strong dramatic films on Saturday’s program as well, in addition to two animated and two experimental works. All in all, it’s an invigorating night’s fare that can’t help but make one optimistic about the range of talents displayed.


--Michael Rymer, who wrote and directed “The Cut,” has a blissfully devious and seditious sensibility. While our attention is initially drawn to three Sassoon haircutting students, talking earnestly about “the joy of being able to create,” while making almost every volunteer client look worse than the next, Rymer finds one nifty young student iconoclast, Carola, the only one there who seems to understand either haircutting or her own generation.

Although she is most assuredly the heroine of the 25-minute film (and the sole person you’d let anywhere near you with scissors),it doesn’t make her stay at chez Sassoon any less tormented. Carola, wherever you are, keep the faith! Michael Rymer loves you and so do we. Also to be seen in action, the jaw-dropping Atilla the Haircutter.

--You can almost feel John Magnus and Torv Carlsen, the deft makers of “Knocking on Armageddon’s Door,” become transfixed by their subjects: the center and the furthest right extremes of the survivalist movement. By the 27-minute film’s end, the calm man who has built a shelter in Malibu that can hold, feed and amuse 16 people for a year seems downright rational--even when with one lightning-quick movement, he catches and eats a fly, buzzing disruptively before his eyes. That’s because his competition is either messianic survivalist leader Kurt Saxon, or the paramilitary types, on convention with their Nordic knives, in a Las Vegas parking lot (“That’s right, slash downward on the lung”), or busy riddling a car with live machine-gun bullets (“I want you to visualize that you’ve got the film crews of NBC, ABC, CBS and all the rest of those left-wingers . . . " their leader barks over the gunfire. “There won’t be any news on the air tonight!”)

Natty in all black, set off by his white double-knit turtleneck, and safe in Harrison, Ark., Saxon thinks that “the collapse of civilization will be a most stimulating event . . . a very fun thing.” That’s because, among other things, it will allow us to “cull out the world’s undesirable elements.” Marked by a deadpan quickness in editing and an interviewing technique that allows its subjects exactly enough rope, “Armeggedon’s Door” is funny, chilling and haunting, by turns.


--Best of the dramatic films is the charming romantic comedy of faith, “The Man Who Loved Fat Dancing,” a 20-minute story of a young man with enough religious fervor to move mountains, and then some. (Faith, in this day and age, is a refreshing subject--and it’s been cropping up in several student films over the last 18 months.) I don’t know how old its innovative writer-director David N. Weiss is, but he is uncommonly mature in his work with actors, and his screenplay is fresh and just goofy enough to be charming. (In addition to the pun, the title seems to have a faint “Franny and Zooey” meaning that we must love the omnipresent fat lady in our midst.) Particularly outstanding are Steven Tash as the lovable zealot and Jennifer Taylor as his bright young innocent.

--In addition to admiring her technique you can’t help but admire Karen Cromer’s choice of subjects in the 14-minute film “Between April and May"--16-year-old April Grundfor and 90-year-old May Goldman, who look at their own and each other’s lives with rare clarity and articulation. Goldman, the activist daughter of immigrant parents, raised with strong family ties, and Grundfor, still marked by the breakup of her family when she was 7, photographed on her own on the streets at night, defiantly independent but clearly damaged. (You only wish Croner had let them have their conversation at a table over a nice convivial pot of tea, rather than on two, straight-backed chairs no matter how spare and cinematic the effect.)

--Writer-director Sara Lou O’Connor has handled “The End of Innocence,” a drama about the effects of child abuse on the child involved, with exceptional care. When a suddenly orphaned little girl is taken in by her aunt-and uncle-by-marriage, a young rural couple with a son of their own, the girl’s intractability and odd mood shifts affect the whole family. It’s hard to tell a story with this emotional complexity well in 20 minutes, but O’Connor has managed beautifully. Her feeling of place and of the solidity of the adoptive family is particularly strong.

--In addition to two two-minute animation films, Roy Seeger’s “He,” which is the very personification of rage, and Douglas Williams’ “Land of Far,” which is the very personification of what afflicts Saturday-morning television animation today, there are also two experimental films. Douglas Murray’s “Last Gasp” may be meant to trace a young man’s trek from the city’s foul stench to the unspoiled purity of the wild, but seems to be more of a love affair between a boy and his white Mustang.

It is entirely possible to appreciate the technique of “My Head Is Hands and Feet,” a screen full of split-color images of a surfer, manipulated in dozens of kaleidoscopic ways while a droning voice reads from a text about subjectivity, without having a clue to its meaning. After all, its maker, Everett Lewis, calls it “a visual exploration of the mystique surrounding an essentially California life style whose fundamental characteristic seems to defy definition.” Believe him.

--This leaves two narrative films. Paul Clatworthy’s 16-minute “Allinaday,” which is billed as a comedy chase thriller, and proves that this director is more than ready to make mindless television episodes right now. Don’t, please, consider this a recommendation to see the film. “The Man in the Red Suit,” directed by Eve Ruggiero, in which a 21-year-old retarded boy’s belief in Santa Claus teaches his younger brother that magic exists, is a 20-minute-long case in which the actors are very good and what they are required to do is very, very bad. Could we please have a moratorium on stories about the faith and prescience of the retarded as a dramatic effect and especially in USC dramatic films?

These cavils aside, the class of ’85 has every reason to be proud of itself for this is a diverse and sometimes remarkable group of films.