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Sam Fuller’s Legacy Lets Viewers Decide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sam Fuller: “Third-rate American filmmaker,” as film historian David Shipman maintains? Or “authentic American primitive,” as film critic Andrew Sarris contends?

Decide for yourself at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, where Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964) play on a double bill Friday through April 16. (2905 E. Coast Highway) $4.50-$7. (714) 673-6260.

Without question, Fuller ranks high among the “kings of the Bs,” a title bestowed by many film buffs and scholars on Fuller and such schlockmeisters as Roger Corman, Russ Meyer and Nicholas Ray.

Just about everyone from critic J. Hoberman to director Martin Scorsese has had something to say about Fuller, who made about 20 pictures between 1949 and 1979. Yet it is primarily Manny Farber--the always prescient, contrarian critic who championed Fuller in the early 1950s--to whom we owe the first major appreciation of his low-budget work.

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“The low budget appears to economize the mind of a director, forcing him into a nice balance between language and what is seen,” Farber wrote nearly half a century ago. “Given more money and reputation actors, Sam Fuller’s episodic, spastically slow and fast film would probably dissolve into mouthy arrogance.”

On bigger budgets, Fuller, who died in October at 85, would have created hidebound, self-justifying characters, “burying in words the skepticism and energy” found in his best pictures, Farber argued.

Yet even when not at his best--as in later pictures such as “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss--Fuller invented “combustive characters in close face-to-face confrontations where they seem bewitched with each other,” Farber wrote. Moreover, “Fuller is one of the first to try for poetic purity through a merging of unlimited sadism, done candidly and close up, with stretches of pastoral nostalgia in which there are flickers of myth.”

“Shock Corridor” (about a crack reporter who feigns madness to investigate a murder) and “The Naked Kiss” (about a reformed hooker who tries for a fresh start in a small town) exhibit the sort of “sociological justification” that film critic-historian Charles Flynn claims for B movies in general.

Flynn writes that “shlock/kitsch/hack movies,” as he terms them in his and Todd McCarthy’s anthology (“Kings of the Bs,” Dutton, 1975), offer a vivid “panorama of American life . . . more compelling and more accurate than that of their Oscar-winning counterparts.”

The three most reliable signs of a s/k/h movie are "(a) budget (low), (b) intention (mercenary), and (c) generic/formulaic structure,” Flynn notes. “We might find that such movies as ‘The Third Man,’ ‘High Noon’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ are kitsch, but they are neither schlock nor were they made by hacks.”

Fuller said in a cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” that his films--the best known are “I Shot Jesse James” (1949), “Pickup on South Street” (1953) and “Underworld U.S.A” (1961)--provided “love, hate, action, violence, death: in one word, emotion.”

There’s no question about action, violence and death. You’ll have to decide whether the emotion he purveys is real.

Also at the Port, the “Charlie Chaplin: Between Laughter and Tears” series wraps up today with “The Gold Rush” (1925), 5:45 and 9:55 p.m., and “Limelight” (1952), 7:15 p.m. $4.50-$7. (714) 673-6260.

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Also screening in Orange County:

The UC Irvine Film Society presents Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “The City of Lost Children” (1995) on Friday, 7 and 9 p.m., at the UCI Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium (Pereira and West Peltason Road) on the UC Irvine campus. $2.50-$4.50. (714) 824-5588.

This surreal movie centers on an evil scientist, Krank, who steals dreams from children because his own inability to dream ages him prematurely. The picture, which has a cult following, talks about cloning, brain versus soul, the power of dreams and “the goodness of the heart.”

Also at UCI, “Mexican Cinema of the ‘90s” begins Saturday, 7 p.m., at the Film & Video Center (Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100) with “Recipes to Stay Together” (1997), a comedy by Rafael Montero that was a box-office hit in Mexico, and “The Music Tree” (1994), a short by Sabina Berman. $4-$6. (714) 824-7418. The series, to run every Saturday through June 13, will celebrate a rebirth of Mexican filmmaking.

“Not since the 1970s has the Mexican film industry seen such a resurgence of quality films,” series curators David R. Maciel and Jacobo Sefami say. “A new generation of directors [has introduced] new themes, a novel artistic discourse and innovative approaches to filmmaking.”

Garson Kanin and Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning, World War II documentary, “The True Glory” (1945), will be screened Tuesday, 10 a.m. at Mackey Auditorium in the Ruby Gerontology Center (Gymnasium Way) at Cal State Fullerton. Free. (714) 278-2446. “The True Glory,” presented by CSUF’s Continuing Learning Experience, covers Operation Overlord, the final phase of the war in Europe with the invasion of Normandy.

Animator Jan Svankmajer’s “Death of Stalinism” (1988), a humorous look at the myth and downfall of Stalinism in the former Czechoslovakia, will be shown Wednesday, 7 p.m., with “Closely Watched Trains” (1966), Jiri Menzel’s comedy about a bumbling young railroad switchman who tries to stop German munition trains during World War II, at the Argyros Forum, Room 208, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St. Orange. The films are part of the continuing Chapman Film Classics series. Free. (714) 744-7018.

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In L.A. and beyond:

The American Cinematheque’s “The Outsider: A Tribute to Jerzy Skolimowski” continues Friday at Raleigh Studios at 7:15 p.m. with “The Shout” (1978), a stunning 1978 film from a highly venturesome stylist long obsessed with the psychological struggle for dominance within relationships. This retrospective is a key Cinematheque event, reminding us anew of the Polish director’s unique power as a filmmaker and making available rare early films.

A mysterious, forceful stranger descends upon the isolated North Devon home of a quiet, polite married couple (Susanna York, John Hurt). Working from a Robert Graves story, Skolimowski and his co-writer Michael Austin introduce an element of the supernatural in their development of the eternal triangle.

“The Shout” opens with some perplexing, dislocating images and proceeds to a game of cricket getting underway on the grounds of an insane asylum. As Alan Bates prepares to keep score, he begins telling his character’s story to a hapless young man (Tim Curry) assisting him.

In flashback we see Bates, a wanderer, receiving the hospitality of York and Hurt, an avant-garde composer. There’s an instantaneous, powerful attraction between York and Bates, who speaks of his weird experiences in the Australian outback where he claims he learned the aborigine’s gift for shouting a person to death. Armed with earplugs, Hurt takes Bates to some nearby sand dunes for a demonstration, which serves ingeniously to unleash the element of the supernatural in the battle of wits soon underway between the two men.

“The Shout” unfolds with terrific tension and economy as it communicates through sound and image rather than through conventional exposition.

Bates is a thunderingly eloquent madman, York a poised if bored lady-turned-uninhibited-wanton and Hurt one of Skolimowski’s typical ineffectual heroes, in this instance a glib, superficial type who proves unexpectedly resourceful. Robert Stephens is the rather grand chief medical officer at the mental institution. “The Shout” screens again on Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

Screening Friday at 9:30 p.m. is the challenging and exceedingly complex “Walk-Over” (1965), which plays like a continuation of Skolimowski’s ambitious debut film, “Identification Marks: None,” which screened last weekend. “Walk-Over” has a similar, though more formal, elliptical style, and unfolds in 35 highly visual, often breathtaking takes. It’s as unsettling as the first film and is again an oblique commentary on life in a grim Communist state in which a boxer (Skolimowski, himself an amateur boxer), a onetime engineering student expelled from his university a decade ago, arrives by train in an unnamed city.

He resumes a desultory relationship with a take-charge woman (Elzbieta Czyzewska), an upwardly mobile engineering bureaucrat. She’s an ex-Stalinist who places statistics before safety. He enters a factory boxing tournament that has ironic, equivocal consequences. Skolimowski casts himself as a man who feels he’s a failure, who senses time is running out for him and whose spirit is profoundly at odds with his rigid, stifling society.

Following “Walk-Over” is “Le Depart” (1967), which celebrates poignantly that time in a young man’s life when he discovers that girls are more important than cars. And no young man ever loved cars more than Skolimowski’s ingratiating, impoverished hero (perfectly played by Jean-Pierre Leaud).

The scrapes he gets into because of his determination provide the Polish director, who’s unabashedly on the side of youth, with the opportunity to comment on the adult world Leaud is about to enter. With scarcely an exception, the adults are self-centered, dishonest and ready to sexually exploit Leaud and his girlfriend (Catherine Duport).

Skolimowski, however, is able to see humor in these encounters, and that his resilient hero can do the same is the source of this comedy’s charm. Skolimowski has a wry sense of humor and a highly developed feel for the ridiculous combined with a great compassion and concern for the individual.

His style is appropriately skittish and stunningly set off by some wonderful camera work that dramatically captures the classic beauty of Brussels, a marvelously dissonant score and, above all, by Leaud himself.

Since Leaud made his debut in Truffaut’s “400 Blows” he has been one of the most expressive young actors on the screen. “Le Depart” is full of funny offbeat bits, the best of which is his wordless alarm at a pass made at him by a rich matron.

When Polish censors refused to permit the release of “Hands Up!” (1967), which screens Saturday at 7:15 p.m., Skolimowski, who had returned to Poland after “Le Depart,” saw no alternative to leaving the country. In 1981 he suddenly was notified that the film would be released at last. He created a free-floating, surreal documentary introduction, with montages of devastated Beirut, where he was acting in Volker Schlondorff’s “Circle of Deceit” (1981) and with shots of him making “Moonlighting” in London and participating in “Long Live Solidarity.” He then segues to “Hands Up!,” in which he plays one of four men who depart a party and wind up aboard a freight car, which--with the help of drugs and champagne--takes them on a hallucinogenic journey into an imagined past, where freight trains transported so many to death camps.

This kind of film invites endless interpretations of what it symbolizes of Poland present, past and future. (213) 466-FILM. Skolimowski will appear after all programs.

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Among the films screening this weekend in LACMA’s “Fassbinder and His Friends” series is the late German Wunderkind’s superb 1974 “Fox and His Friends” (Saturday at 7:30 p.m.), a classic tale of a naive proletarian destroyed by a bourgeois snob. What gives this West German film its mordancy is that it takes place in a gay milieu so well-observed as to be universal.

In being about people, relationships and values rather than about homosexuality, “Fox and His Friends” emerges as one of the screen’s best serious portrayals of gays.

As a carnival barker (Karl Scheydt) begins his spiel, he’s nabbed for tax evasion. His husky, homely lover Fox (Fassbinder), who works in the sideshow, unself-consciously kisses his lover farewell as the authorities take him away.

Broke and unskilled, Fox hits upon the idea of entering a state lottery and convinces himself he will win--and does, garnering a 500,000-mark prize. In the meantime he’s picked up in a public bathroom by a suave, middle-aged antiques dealer (Karl-Heinz Bohm) through whom he meets Eugen (Peter Chatel), a handsome young man.

To Fox, Eugen represents everything he is not; Fox’s primary, perhaps sole attraction for Eugen is his new riches. Poor Fox, he hasn’t a chance, really.

The leading of this lamb to the slaughter unfolds as a ferociously witty tragicomedy that gradually becomes less funny and more pathetic, told with deep compassion and high style. The gay world Fassbinder so acutely delineates becomes a microcosm for society.

Yet Fassbinder’s satirical thrust serves only to underline his ability to see his people in the round: His gays are no better and no worse than his straights. As sweet-natured as he is, Fox is an oaf who at times would try the patience of a saint, let alone an exploiter like Eugen. For all the bitchery that abounds there are those, both straight and gay, capable of kindness.

“Fox and His Friends” is finally a bleak film, an indictment not of gays but of contemporary life as it is lived virtually everywhere in the so-called civilized world. As more often than not in a Fassbinder film, stunning imagery and succinct performances by his repertory of players abound. “Fox and His Friends” will be followed by Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” (1963), a kind of “Fox and His Friends” in reverse. With Dirk Bogarde and James Fox. (213) 857-6010.


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