Brandon: I first was alerted to the low-stakes indie comedy The Independent this past summer when Britnee posted an article about how our former Movie of the Month Highway to Hell happened to feature every member of the Stiller family: Jerry, Ben, Anne (Mearea), and Amy. An observant Swampflix reader, Tom Morton, was kind enough to point us in the direction of yet another film that featured every member of the Stiller clan, The Independent. I fell in love. I gushed heavily in my review of the film & added it to the growing list of our so-called Swampflix Cannon after just one viewing, despite it being a fairly simple, straightforward comedy. Something about the subject matter just clicked perfectly with my own pet cinema obsessions, especially in the B-movie spectrum. In the film Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an infinite stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Fineman is on the same violently explosive vibe Stiller brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”.
The great thing about this set-up is that Morty is not only a stand-in for Corman (who appears as himself within the film), but also fills the role of countless other legendary B-movie directors & producers: Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, David Friedman, etc. In other words, he is schlock personified. Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package. A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-sexy-robot blaxploitation called Foxy Chocolate Robot, and so on. These schlock spoofs are consistently funny & evenly spaced from beginning to end, supported only by the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a real-life serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”
At the time of its release, reviews of The Independent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current cultural climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improv-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the schlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy.
Boomer, do you think part of the reason audiences did not connect with The Independent when it was released 15 years ago was that there was too much focus on the one-off B-movie spoofs & not enough of a fully-fleshed narrative to support a full-length feature? Do you think that breaking up the spoofs into a weekly sketch comedy format would’ve benefited the story it was trying to tell or was the film satisfying enough as a self-contained, low-stakes tale of a struggling, past-his-prime director trying to keep his family & his business intact?
Boomer: When watching this movie, the thing that struck me most about it was, as you noted above, how ahead of its time it felt. Debuting a year before the original UK version of The Office, it was not the first mockumentary, but it was made during a time when the tropes and rhetorical shorthand methodologies of the genre were largely unknown by the general population. I’d wager that if The Independent were to have been made after the airings of Arrested Development and, to a much greater degree, the US version of The Office, then the film would have seen wider appeal. We live in a world full of sitcoms that use talking head confessionals as a quick and dirty way of telling jokes in a more succinct way, for better or worse, even when the show itself doesn’t lend itself to that (for instance, it works for The Office, and that show eventually incorporated the film crew as part of the action in its final season, but why exactly do the Dunphys and Pritchetts of Modern Family mug for–and talk directly to–the camera?). I think it’s safe to say that, should there be an interested producer looking for a project, a series adaptation of The Independent would not be out of place in today’s television landscape.
I’m hesitant to commit to watching this hypothetical series, however. So much of what makes The Independent work is that the film’s tone never becomes too sentimental or unfocused on Stiller’s objectively reprehensible but subjectively human protagonist, and I feel like a series, even a serialized, single season adaptation, would find itself going to the well of emotional pathos much more than the source material did. The quick shots we see of his films contribute to the sense of his character, and his films convey a great deal in their (relative) understatement, regardless of how outlandish the films themselves may be. I get the feeling that an adaptation would rapidly experience diminished returns as we saw more and more of his body of work, pushing beyond their initial humor into exponentially more outlandish film outings that would undermine the film’s taut use of this device. Der Ubergoober, Truckstop Nurses, and The Despot Removers are all film titles that are pure perfection in the abstract but wouldn’t work, or would disappoint, if we were presented with them on film (although I have to admit that I would love to see Hot Justice in Thirty Minutes or Less, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Golem sounds like a blast).
That the film is simply that, a film, works best for me personally. That we see Janeane Garofalo’s Paloma exact revenge on facsimiles of the cheerleaders who spurned her in less than thirty seconds of Cheerleader Camp Massacre, for instance, shows that the strength of The Independent lies in knowing what to expand and what to explore only briefly. Given contemporary television’s tendency to decompress storylines at the expense of consistency and viewer patience, as well as the general saturation of the mockumentary-as-comedy style, I feel like a series adaptation would be a letdown. As a concept, it was ahead of its time, and now that its time has come, it has no real place among its contemporary peers.
That having been said, there are quite a few of these films that I would love to see in full, especially with a little MST3k-esque riffing. What about you, Britnee? Are there any of Fineman’s movies that you would desperately like to see as real films? Any that you think are best left imagined rather than realized? And why?
Blombas: Without a doubt, I would love to see Whale of a Cop (1981) as a full-length film. From what the trailer implied, a cop, played by Ben Stiller, is the human form of a whale, and he has a close friendship with a 8-10 year old kid. Stiller makes all sorts of whale noises, and he even spits out water! In the trailer, the kid is having one of those shoo-the-dog goodbye moments. Stiller looks all dopey-eyed and confused while this kid is crying up a storm and yelling something along the lines of “go be with your own kind!” I was crying from laughing so hard during this scene. How did the spirit of a whale end up in the body of a cop? Why is this super young kid with a bowl cut his best friend? These are all questions that I am dying to have answered. Hopefully, they were both once whales, but the boy fully turned into a human while Stiller is only half human. The police department recruited him because his special whale senses were helpful with their criminal investigations.
Another film that sounds like a blast would be A Very Malcolm Xmas. It’s never discussed during the actual film, but the title is shown during the credits (along with the rest of Fineman’s filmography). As an admirer of Malcolm X, I would love to know how Fineman would blend his legacy with Christmas traditions. As a lover of bad films and just being a curious person in general, I can’t really think of any fake Fineman movies that I would not want to see as actual films.
Other than the many “fake” film trailers featured in the movie, something in the film that really stood out to me was the duo that is Jerry Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. The chemistry between the two was so unexpected but, by God, it was extraordinary. They both have such different styles of comedy, and I think that’s why they got so many laughs out of me.
Erin, did you feel the same about Garofalo and Stiller? Would you like to see the two act in similar roles again? Or was this more of a one time thing?
Erin: I have to say, seeing Janeane Garofalo as a fake-tanned daddy’s girl was a lot of fun, since I’m most familiar with her acidic side, a la Heather of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. And Jerry Stiller is perfect as Morty Fineman. After watching The Independent, it’s hard to imagine him as any other role (although, I suspect that Stiller’s acting talents often lie in adding quite a bit of himself to his roles). I liked seeing Garofalo and Stiller playing off each other, and the were really, truly believable as adults navigating a parent-child relationship. Oddly enough, though, I would have to say that while I would like to see more of Jerry Stiller in similar roles, I’m not sure that I’m sold on Garofalo in similar roles. I think that it might be because Garofalo was acting against type that her performance in this movie comes off so well, and I think that this kind of magic might lose its luster if repeated too often.
To change the subject a bit, I think that one of the things that made this movie so watchable was the pacing, the way that little glimpses of the Fineman world were revealed in a way that eased us into the madness of it all. I wouldn’t have accepted the immediate introduction of Fineman’s car-dwelling ex wife, even after the strangeness of the opening scene. However, by the time we meet her, we’re fully prepared for the next wacky turn of events. The Independent takes us by the hand and leads us happily down the lane, and by the time we think to ask where we’re going we’ve left the real world behind. It’s the skillful story telling that makes me think of The Independent as a filmmaker’s film, something made not necessarily to entertain the masses but turn the lens of film back on itself.
The Independent is like watching a home movie. I think, perhaps, that this home movie is meant for filmmakers, to see themselves and their passions through the fiction of a movie. It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers portray themselves here – confident, persistent, optimistic, and terrible to live with.
What do you think, Brandon? Is The Independent a self portrait, meant for filmmakers? Is is self-indulgent, or a surreal confessional asking for atonement?
Brandon: So far I’ve honestly only thought of this movie as a film for schlock junkies. Fans of the trash auteurs of yesteryear will find plenty to chew on in The Independent, especially in those short-form spoofs & Roger Corman interviews. I don’t think that descriptions excludes filmmakers from the intended audience, though. A lot of filmmakers, even the ones who make endless piles of garbage, are really at heart just big movie fans who can’t help but make the the things they love. For example, Morty Fineman didn’t make hundreds of movies on accident. He made it because them because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s in his blood. Also, because he liked “the tits, bombs, and ass,” as he confessed in the fabulous scene in his ex-wife’s house/car Erin just mentioned.
Something I always wonder about directors like Roger Corman & Morty Fineman is whether or not they ever have time to actually watch movies for fun. In the documentary Corman’s World (which is required viewing, by the way) Corman recalls an anecdote where he was running almost a dozen simultaneous film production. When his wife asked him if he could actually name them all from memory, he could only recite the titles of all but two & then said something to the effect of, “Well, whatever the rest are, I’m going to cancel them in the morning.” Folks like Fineman & Corman are constantly swamped with shooting schedules & issues of financial backing, but their work is obviously influenced by the cinematic world surrounding them, so they somehow have to be watching movies in their leisure time. For instance, Fineman’s lost herpes PSA film The Simplex Complex was a spoof of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Corman’s production of Joe Dante’s Pihranna was a thinly veiled response to Spiendberg’s Jaws (which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Corman’s own creature feature work). I have no idea how an over-productive schlock director could find the time to keep up with their contemporaries that way, given the near impossible weight of their workloads.
To bring it home to Erin’s question, if this film were made with any particular filmmaker in mind it’d be Roger Corman, but would he even have had time to watch it? Even his contributions as an extended cameo seemed to be brief & succinct, probably shot on a break between a dozen other projects. It’s interesting to think of a what a Fineman-esque schlockmeister would get out of The Independent, considering the film’s admiration of their work & acknowledgement of their sleaziness, but I’m not sure they’d ever have the time to engage with it in that way. Did Corman ever sit down to watch this movie even though he appears in it? I’m curious, but doubtful.
It seems that The Independent‘s best chance for a cult audience is in comedy nerds who enjoy a Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries & weirdo sketch comedy and in schlock junkies who genuinely love bad movies as an art form, even beyond the MST3k brand of sarcastic derision. My question is whether or not you’d have to exist in the overlap of that Venn diagram to enjoy the film for all it’s worth. It’s obviously difficult for me to discuss The Independent without droning on about folks like Roger Corman & Russ Meyer, so I’m wondering if someone without that sense of B-movie context would get the same kind of appreciation of the movie’s insular little world of shoddy filmmaking.
What do you think, Mark? Is familiarity with the world of folks like Roger Corman necessary for loving this film beyond a tossed off “That was pretty funny, I guess.”? Is being a fan of irreverent comedy enough to fully appreciate The Independent or do you also have to be a little bit of a B-movie nerd to get on its wavelength?
Boomer: It’s interesting to me that you mention Christopher Guest, especially since his movies were the first point of contact I thought of when viewing The Independent, not Roger Corman, despite Corman’s cameo in the film’s opening moments. There’s a fine line tread here between the kind of zealous schlock that characterizes Corman’s work and the nuanced character work that typifies Guest’s. To be honest, I think that an appreciation for the kind of work that Guest does may be more integral to the overall enjoyment of The Independent as a movie than an appreciation for Corman and his ilk. Guest’s films generally feature a mixture of understatedly human emotions acted out by larger-than-life characters in situations that are incredibly idiosyncratic, be it a high-stakes dog show or a folk music reunion concert. The characters that populate the faux-documentary, especially but not limited to Morty, his assistant, and Paloma, are very much Guest-type people.
Of course, the prevalence of Corman-esque style in Morty’s works themselves can’t be ignored, either. Morty is Corman as a Guest character, and it works very, very well. It’s not hard to imagine Corman creating a film like Bald Justice, and a line like “You’re gonna like Leavenworth; they’ve got a great barber,” could have flowed from his pen just as easily as it did from Stephen Kessler and Mike Wilkins’s. Overall, though, I think it would be easier to enjoy the movie if you knew Guest but not Corman, rather than Corman but not Guest, simply given the fact that the homages to Corman, while pitch perfect and hilarious, don’t carry the weight of the narrative in and of themselves.
I would love to see more films of this type. Maybe a satirical slasher film that centered around a Hitchcock type, or a desert island survival story wherein all the characters are the stars of a seventies sci-fi show reunited for a convention cruise that goes awry. Or, of course, more mockumentaries about eccentric artists who are secretly self-deluded hacks. What about you, Britnee? How would you adapt this format into a personal instant classic?
Britnee: I’ve always wished and hoped for someone to make a John Waters biopic that would depict his work with the Dreamlanders crew. Could you imagine such a treat? So when thinking about what sort of film I would like to see in the style of The Independent, I would love to see a film that follows the journey of a Waters-like director and his band of misfits. The crew would travel the country creating snuff films in small, all-American towns. They would have a cult following of all ages willing to “die for art.” If anyone with the connections and resources ever reads this, please, oh please, make this happen.
Come to think of it, there really aren’t enough films that focus on the careers of movie directors, and they have one of the most interesting jobs on the planet! When director roles are featured in films, they are usually portrayed in a negative way. Most of the time, they’re sleazy douchebags that promise cast members leading roles in exchange for sex. It was nice to see a director portrayed in a positive light in The Independent. Morty has so much passion for filmmaking, and he truly loved all 400+ of his terrible b-movies. What an inspiration!
Going back to the discussing the film’s unique style, I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if it were anything other than a mockumentary. Erin, if The Independent was not filmed as a mocumentary, but was still a comedy, do you think it would still be as likeable? Why or why not?
Erin: Interesting question, Britnee! I agree with you. The mocumentary style of The Independent is an important part of its charm. It allows for Morty’s character to be portrayed as humanly as possible.
Erin:I really, really want to see Whale of Cop brought to fruition. There’s no shame in that game.
Britnee: I’m so glad to know that there’s another film other than Highway to Hell that involves all members of the Stiller clan. I have to say, I really wish there was more Rita (Anne Meara)! Rita (Morty’s ex-wife that lives in a luxury car) was probably my favorite character in the film, but she was definitely not given enough screen time.
Boomer: Rita was definitely a character that I would have loved to see more of, especially with regards to her relationship with her eternally devoted doorman/chauffeur/lover. I also really loved the moment of footage we saw of Rat Fuck; it was such a great, minimal joke. In my notes from watching the film, I noted that Christ for the Defense reminded me, at least visually, of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which never came up organically in this discussion but which I think bears mentioning, if anyone feels like watching a movie that Morty may as well have directed.
Brandon: When started doing Movie of the Month Swampchats this past February I joked that the cold weather was making us a depressed bunch. The first few movies we discussed (The Masque of the Red Death, The Seventh Seal, Blood & Black Lace, etc) were a morbid procession of death & pestilence. I’m glad to say we pulled out of the funk in the past few months & started having some fun with a few comedies & even a kids’ movie, but it’s also remarkable how the year came full circle, beginning & ending with Roger Corman, who directed Masque & had a large influence on The Independent. There are few filmmakers out there who I love more or who could better represent this site’s love of where trash meets art. Let’s hope next year’s just as tidy & well-rounded. It’s been fun.
-The Swampflix Crew