Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

Required Viewing for Fans of The Independent (2000): Corman’s World (2011)

In our Swampchat discussion of December’s Movie of the Month, the 2000 Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, we praised the film for feeling remarkably ahead of its time in terms of the modern comedy landscape. Long stretches of the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern HBO anti-hero comedy or post-The Office docucomedy, which is true even if both genres are pulling influence from the same souce as The Independent – Christopher Guest mockumentaries. That’s not the only way in which The Independent was ahead of its time, though. Most mockumentaries & spoof comedies wait until the material they’re mocking is actually released. The ever-prescient The Independent, on the other hand, was released more than a decade before the documentary it most resembles – 2011’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

Roger Corman not only appears in brief “interviews” for The Independent, but Jerry Stiller’s schlockmeister protagonist Morty Fineman mostly serves as a Roger Corman archetype (with maybe a little David Friedman or Russ Meyer sleaze thrown in for good measure). Fineman’s 427 B-movies oeuvre may seem comically oversized & impossible for a filmmaker to achieve, but the timeless Roger Corman (who began making film in the 50s & continues to work to this day) has a whopping 409 production credits (and 56 directoral credits) according to IMDb. For every infamous Roger Corman trashterpiece (Rock & Roll High Schol, A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000, Piranha, etc.) there’s dozens of titles lurking in the archives that no one remembers at all, a sentiment reflected in the way that a dozen or so Fineman features are represented throughout The Independent, but hundreds are listed in his filmography that runs in tandem with the end credits.

There’s so much Corman in Fineman that the connection is undeniable, especially if you consider the way that unlikely former Corman collaborators pop up in both The Independent & Corman’s World – particularly Ron Howard & Peter Bogdanovich. There’s also  the two directors’ love for Ingmar Bergman – reflected in Fineman’s herpes-themed The Simplex Complex & in the odd, real-life detail that Corman used to provide distribution for the Swedish auteur’s films at American drive-ins because he thought people needed to see them. The truest connection of all, though, is in the clips of the two directors’ films – Fineman’s fake & Corman’s real. Corman talks at length about the value of text vs. subtext in sneaking in political messages in trashy B-movies features, but watching clips of his work in Corman’s World suggests that the director might be more in line with Fineman’s confession that he was mostly interested in the “tits, ass, and bombs” than he was putting on.

Corman’s World is an invaluable documentary, one that should be required viewing for all movie lovers whether or not they’ve indulged in The Independent‘s delights. Corman himself is just so full of insight from decades of hands-on experience. I particularly enjoyed his rigid, formulaic approach to genre films, like the way he describes that creature features need their monsters to kill someone fairly gruesome easily in the film, then kill at regular, less-shocking intervals until the blood-all-over-the-screen finale. It’s also a delight to see such twisted imagery & violent, sex-depraved themes originate from such a calm, professorial source, a dichotomy he describes as the outer image vs. the unconscious mind. This detail is missing in Fineman’s character, who is just as explosive in his art as he is in his personalty. There’s also a Russ Meyer-esque sleaziness in Fineman that’s entirely absent in the oddly-refined Corman.

What’s most interesting, though, is the ways in which Corman’s career phases serve as a blueprint for the history of cult cinema. Corman started by making creature features & teen rebellion dramas in the 1950s. He then moved on to the much classier “Poe cycle” of his career, a string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that married art house aesthetic with B-movie camp (including February’s Movie of the Month, The Masque of the Red Death). This lead him to indulging in arty hippie movies & giving a shot to young Hollywood voices that positioned him as the paterfamilias of the golden era of New Hollywood. Once his collaborators outgrew him & left him behind (names like Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Fonda), Corman survived on a second wave of trashy exploitation cinema until big budget films he heavily influenced (like Star Wars & Jaws) effectively disassembled the drive-in movie market & drove him to home video cheapness & SyFy Channel mockbusters. The story of Roger Corman’s career is the story of modern cinema at large, something that could also be said about the fictional Morty Fineman.

A lot of Corman’s more artistic impulses are missing in the eternal businessman Fineman, but there really is something to say about Corman & his ilk’s ability to make interesting, profitable pictures on shoestring budgets. Fineman doesn’t have fictional credits that match up with Corman’s racial segregation protest film The Intruder or the soaring artistry of the Poe Cycle, but the two directors do hare an eye for finance. As (frequently Corman collaborator) Jack Nicholson puts it in Corman’s World, “A filmmaker who doesn’t understand money is like an artist who doesn’t understand paint.” The Independent is all about Morty Fineman securing funding for yet another B-picture & even though themselves don’t look especially promising, it really is awe-inspiring to see Corman still at work, stealing shots & cutting expenses for SyFy Channel originals (which are essentially Roger Corman knockoffs), Fineman & Corman are survivors, unlikely successes navigating inhospitable waters for decades on end.

Thankfully, Corman’s success story at the conclusion of Corman’s World is much more impressive than Fineman’s at the end of The Independent. Fineman secures funding for his next picture, surviving to see another day & attending a small-town film festival held in his honor. Corman, on the other hand, receives a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a much-deserved distinction for a director who could film movies as memorable as Little Shop of Horrors in a weekend or provide an environment in which Peter Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit is something called The Gill Women of Venus (aka Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women). I’m glad to see Corman receive the recognition he deserves from The Academy, but it’s almost an even greater achievement that he earned a loosely-based mockumentary homage  in (the albeit little-loved, little remembered) The Independent. The Independent & Corman’s World are inescapably linked in my mind as celebrations of one of cinemas most criminally under-celebrated heroes. Even though one is fictional & the other is a documentary, they’re both indispensable in their reverence for a wonderful artist.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography.

-Brandon Ledet

Morty Fineman’s Filmography as Listed at the End of The Independent (2000)

Our selection for December’s Movie of the Month is The Independent, a straight-to-DVD mockumentary in which Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman/Russ Meyer/Ed Wood/David Friedman schlock director archetype with a grand vision & limited means. Way ahead of its time considering the modern comedy landscape, The Independent features great Christopher Guest-style character work in its talented cast of deeply flawed anti-heroes, but our favorite part of the film is its short-form B-movie spoofs handpicked from Fineman’s fictional filmography. There are dozens of titles from Finemans’ collection represented in the film in the form of brief clips & mock-up posters, but the only representation of his work as a whole can be found in the “complete filmography” that runs in tandem with the end credits, kind of like James O. Incandenza’s “complete filmography” footnote at the back of Infinite Jest.

Fandom for The Independent is scarce at best, so it’s difficult to find too much information on the film. I though it was a shame, for instance, that there’s no trace of Morty Fineman’s “complete filmography” listed online, since it is a pretty great collection of ridiculous one-liners. A lot of our conversation about the film centered on which of Fineman’s films we’d like to see realized, but since the complete list is only available in the end credits, I’m sure we missed a bunch of great gags worth exploring. So, here’s a complete transcription of Morty Finemans’ 427 feature filmography as it appears in The Independent. I don’t mean to make myself out to be a hero, but I feel I’m doing the world a great service here, just as I expect Fineman felt he was doing the world a service when he warned the troops about the dangers of herpes in The Simplex Complex or when he exposed the evils of marijuana in Panic Grass.

MORTY FINEMAN: A COMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY

1964
The Simplex Complex (Non-Theatrical)

1967
Corn: The Ear of Plenty (Non-Theatrical)

1969
Groovy Hippie Slumber Party
Free Love for Sale
Psychedelic Elevator
Brothers Divided
Mondo World
The Young Hip-Ocrits
The Mod, Mod Miniskirt

1970
The Student Coeds
The President Wore a Bikini
The Peacenik Orgy
Bummer, Ma’am
Teenage Flag Burners
Suburban Peepers
Pig Busters
Hillbilly Slip-Around
Panic Grass
33 1/3rd Sexual Revolutions

1971
L.S.D.-Day
The Naughty Swingers
Meter Reader Lolita
One-Eyed Wink
Sock It To the Man
Hot Pants Hoedown
The Evil Membrane
Luv Canal
His ‘n’ Hers ‘n’ His
Papa Woody!
The Eco-Angels

1972
Teenie Weenie Bikini Beach
Squished
Draft Dodger
Lawn Honkie
Crazy Dragonbreath: The Forgettin’ Tibetan
Shindig Motel
Strong, Hard and Black
The Free Riders (Chico and Chaco)
The Well-Marbled Goddess
Itty Bitty Fragidity
Sympathetic Vibrations
Diaper Service
The Peace Zombies

1973
The Moistening
Kung Funk: The Funky Fu
World War III
Diorhythm Method
P.U.!
Day Glo Decolletage
Legalize It
Der Ubergoober
Brothers Under the Covers
The Pollenators
Blood Haze
Neat But Not Clean
Amazon Hot Box
Giant Rabbit, Run!
Destination ‘Shroom
Bald Justice

1974
(Plain Ole) Pud
Draft Dodger II: Makin’ Canadian Bacon
Hollywood Squares: The Movie
Kung Funk II: The Spooky Fu
Coven of Witchiness
American Flesh
Our Gas Line Affair
Kidnap Those Kooks
Chicks With Hicks
I am Curious . . . You are Yellow
The Harlem Globetrotters Meet the Black Panthers
Giant Crab, Run!
Roachclip Motel
Venus De Mofo
Romeo-a-Go-Go
Buddy Cops: Bookworm and Garter Snake
The True Life Historical Search (For Genuine Real Stuff in the Bible)
Carnival of Mutants
Giant Rabid Dog, Run!

1975
Kent State Nurses
What Planet is This? (Oh My God It’s Earth!)
The Wrath of the Sabine Women
Truckstop Nurses
White House Crooks
C.B.B.C. (Citizen’s Band Before Christ)
Pull My Finger
Brick Sh*thouse
Puberty County Line
Strong, Hard and Native American
What’s Your Sign, M’Lady?
Kohutek, Run!
Swig and Guzzle
Smooth Move, Ex-Wife
Buddy Cops II: Hammerhead and Nailbiter
Life Spasm
Psycho Vet
BT off a Zombie
Infection
Something Big’s on Fire ’75
Bigfoot, All American
Gas, Grass or Ass
Pigeonholers
Assassin in a See-Thru Blouse

1976
The Foxy Chocolate Robot
Return to Moonshine High
The Greatest Bicentennial American Patriot
Da Brothers Bump
Cage Full of Waitresses
Draft Dodger III: The Me Decade
Contact High School
Hot Mamarama
Three Times Fast
Unknown Epidemic, Run!
Metaphors Are Like Dreams
Used Tissue of Lies
Wind and Rain and Wet T-Shirts
Dirt Claude
Ten on a Couch
Buddy Cops III: Strawman and Firebrand
Fat, Dumb and Fuzzy
Sand in my Teddy
Sex Doctor to the Stars
Third Leg’s a Charm
A Stranger Wears My Pants
Nuclear Nun
Wise and Foolish Vixens

1977
Psycho Vet II: The Reenlistment
Cattle Mutilation
Prescription for Justice
Tarzan of the Mall
Neurotica
Mythomania
Steel Hog Hunger Rumbles
Dirt Road Blacktop
Similes Are Dreams
Six-Chambered Heart, Four-Chambered Gun
Go Tell it on the Mountain, Just Get the Hell Out of My House!
Normal Horny Norman
Ebony, Fawn & Jade
Buddy Cops IV: Short Fuse and Longhair
FLK [Funny Lookin’ Kid]
The Family Jeweler
Driving Under My Influence (In Hypnovision)
Saturday Night Fever Blister
Hot Buttered Fingers
Talkin’ Dirty to the Dead
Abra-Cadaver
A Very Malcolm X-Mas

1978
Nanny Hooter’s Hootenanny
Recycled White Trash
World War III II
The Twin Ledgers of Justice
Aerobicaphobia
Gin Blossom Special
“Bang!” (There, I Said It)
Pong: The Movie
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Shuda, Wuda, Cuda
Fudge Factor
Strong, Hard and Chicano
That Rascally Mutt
Dying Kids
Cousin Bloodshot Buckshot
A Stiletto Affair
Buddy Cops V: Hayseed and Toughnut
Plumber’s Little Helper
Esperanto Girls
Baby Booty, Booty Baby
Where to, Brute?
Punks Vs. Jocks
We’re F.*.C.K.E.D.!

1979
Adolescent Sexopolis
Your Stepfather’s Mustache
Lover is a Five Letter Word
Hot Justice in Less than Thirty Minutes (Pizza Franchises as Heroes)
Disco Incantations
Uncle Tomboy
Dying Kids II: The Plague
Summer Bods (For Women)
Summer Bods (For Men)
Barnyard of Hate
Marry Me Heels
Buddy Cops VI: Milquetoast and Honey
Love Hears Everything
Fireball
Pigtails
Pants Full of Ambition
Keeping Secretions
Jungle Freaks
S-E-X! That Spells Sex!

1980
Hoary Old Truths and Truthful Old Whores
The Earth Movers
The Devil Needs a Drink
Asylum of Angels
Victoria’s Principles and Secrets
One Million Years A.D.
The Justice League of Superfreaks
The Love Bombardier
Dying Kids III: Schoolbus Full of Donor Hearts
The Bodacious Oasis
Buddy Cops VII: Flatfoot and Higheel
Did You Feel That?
Starring the Braless Cloggers
Andy Opia: Lazy Private Eye
Pencils Down!
Chunk of Change
Monster Truck Monster
He Bites!

1981
I See London, I See France
Casting Out Nines
Nazis of the Third Reich
Hooked on Classics: The Movie
A Tempting Fate
Solid Gold Dancer Murders
Alfpha and Omega and Pinky
The Ominous Attic
A Filthy Masquerade
Rock ‘n Roll Golem
Festering Destiny
The Despot Removers
Calamari
The Arouser
(Steam Rises At) The Hump Swamp
Throb
Trolling Stone Sober
Whale of a Cop
Nocturnal Suspicions

1982
Sick Gloria’s Transit
Sammy Davis Junior High
Don’t Pick at It
The Pagan Gladiators
Hello, Me!
Undercover Monk
The French Method
The Tender Gender Bender’s Agenda
Priapism Diary
Undulations
The Dirty-Minded Dozen
Death Toll: Turnpike of Destruction
Laughing Til I Hurt You
Joan of Arkansas
Large Angry Antennae
Wallets and Groins
U.F.O. Babes
Aromarama
The Mummy Blushes

1983
Psycho Vet III: Assignment Grenada
I Say!
Right to Live, Left to Die
The Pulverizer
Feelin’ Your First One
Madam Madman
Strong, Hard and Vietnamese
Muff
Two Humans
The Telltale Sheet
King Kong Christmas
Serrations
Foresaking No Others
Learn to Paint with Morty Fineman
Acupuncture Academy
Madam, I’m Adam
Pitbulls vs. Piranhas (Animated)
Which Way to the Money?
The Savage Rebel Savages
Heil, Titler!

1984
Christ for the Defense
Lottery of Doom
Shaft Canary
II Madam, I’m Adam II
Man in the Iron Lung, The
Stop it, You
Cannibalistic Missiles
The Rupture
Hip-Hopocratic Oaths
AKA Dickweed
Jazzercide
Two Humans II: The Humid Humus
A Lick and a Promise
Fistula
A Single Shard of Mercy
Philosophy of Desire
Acupuncture Academy II: Pointy, Pointy, Pointy
E. Teen
The Grounded Stewardesses
Sweet Sinews of Grief
You Killed My Partner, Now I Want Revenge
Cheerleader Camp Massacre

1985
Grounded Stewardesses II: Snowed in at Lake Tahoe
Lower Education
Camisole Man
Three Ho’ Punchout
Street Value of Seduction
The Long Tongue of Memory
Abrupt Reclosure
Ablation!
Blackout (Released in Europe as “Noir”)
Big Burning Boat
The Terrorarium
In the Eyes of the Apes
Arrows and Quivers
Get Down, Moses
The Mini-Computer Wore a Mini-Skirt

1986
Thong Monster
Akimbo Drumbeat
Teachers vs. Students
That’s General Psycho Vet to You!
Attack and Decay
Death’s Black Beemer
Aboriginal Sin
The Vile Turn-On
Dear God, No!
Perpetration
The Phantasy Cult
Thicker Than Blood
This Constipated Earth
Tactile Concentration
Heather, Tethered
Nude Cop
Grounded Stewardesses III: Mechanical Failure in Rio
Ten Million Ways to Die
Dreams, Wet and Arid
Celebrate for the Hell of It

1987
K-9 Bone Patrol
The Grammar of Longhair
1-900-TABOOOO
Twelve Angry Men and a Baby
Eden for Hedonists
Requiem for a Babysitter
Lascivious Neighborhood
Strong, Hard and Hmong
Geographical Bachelors
Grounded Stewardesses IV: Extended Layover in Miami
Large, Natural Laughs
To Hell in a Basket
Star Light and Coffee Black
Safeword Abductions
Trauma, Bwnt Trauma
The French (They are a Funny Race)
Planet Perverted

1988
The Heart is a Strong Muscle
Drive-By Drive-In
Elephant Walk
Searching for L’Ptetomaine
Love is the Right to Leave
I Do; Adieu
RoboHomo
Gladhand
Splattered Palate of Urges
The Moon’s White Torso
A Tube of Forgiveness
Rogue Mime, The Taoist Tatooist
Grounded Stewardess Christmas, A
Man With Two Things, The

1989
Telegasm
Dracula Lambada
B.F. DeeDee
I Smell London, I Smell France
Executrix
Temblor!
Insignificant Others
Sans-a-Belt Slackers
The Electrocutioner
Unnecessary Roughage
Perchance to Nightmare
Dead Cat Bounce
Thai Food Mary

1990
Supermodel Carnival
The Decapitators
Psycho Vet IV: Panama
That’s President Draft Dodger to You!
The Temptation game
Asphalt by Candelight
The Violet Catastrophie
Squall!
Compassion Fagigues
Herm-Aphrodite: God and Goddess of Love
Oh, Flagrant Fragrance! Oh, Pungent Ungent!
Tantric or Treat
The Uncensored History of Revealing Swimwear

1991
You’re Only Worth One Bullet
The Ignoble Calculations of Mme. F. and Her Pimp
Grounded Stewardess Reunion, A
Pomegranite: An Extended Metaphor
Desert Psycho Vet
Hollywood’s Private Personalized Plates
Aromatherapy Execution
My People are Naked
Song of the Pitiful
Vicissitudes of Wickedness
Fluff Pulp Babe
Supermodel Carnival II: Runway Runaways
Secrets the Mouth Won’t Tell

1992
Meal of Generation X
Def 2 Da Noiz
Draft Dodger Meets Psycho Vet
D.O.A. Hole
Obsessionary Income
Thrill Collector
Requesting Network Attention
First Lady Chatterly
Rap Riot
Supermodel Carnival III: Adam and Evil
The Whole of America

1993
Amateur Faces of Death
A Man and a Woman and a Deck of Cards
Psycho Vet Meets Hercules
Consortium and Loss
Duk ‘n’ Run
Two-Hand Solitare
Hot Squat
Uncle Sampire
Who Got the Soul Clap?

1994
Deep Bruise
Prickly Heat
The Sad Forehead in My Mirror
Large Bore Killers
Highest and Best Use

1995
Dessicant Sky
The Spanking Machine

1996
Learn to Paint with Morty Fineman
Learn to Cook with Morty Fineman
Learn to Make Love with Morty Fineman

1997
Arriverderci, Morty
Virtual Wife

1998
The Desert of Small Dreams
Tatoo II: Pierced by an Angel

2000
Ms. Kevorkian

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Movie of the Month: The Independent (2000)

EPSON MFP image

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Erin watch The Independent (2000).

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.

That’s where I connected most with The Independent, with its portrayal of humanity.  The hyperbole used in the storytelling lets the actors tell a deeply human story about the the struggle to balance the compulsion to create and live according to one’s own heart against the very real impact that every human has on those around him or her.
As fluffy and ridiculous as The Independent is, there are moments of genuine pathos and discomfort.  Those moments, in a way, make the movie. They use of comic relief and exaggeration to tell real truths about the human condition is one of our best introspective tools as a species.

Lagniappe

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

The Independent (2000)

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In our attempts to crack open the mysteries behind our current Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s basic cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee mentioned that it was the only film she could recall that featured all four members of the Stiller clan. Thanks to a helpful recommendation from a reader (thanks Tom!) we now have another entry to add to that list. Jerry Stiller, his wife Ann Meara, and their children Ben & Amy also all appear in the 2000 indie comedy (appropriately-titled) The Independent. To discuss The Independent solely in terms of its relationship to Highway to Hell, however, would be doing the film a huge disservice. It’s so much better than that. I went into the film expecting a few decent one-off gags from the always-dependable Jerry, but I left completely in love.

In The Independent, Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an endless stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Stiller is on the same violently explosive vibe he 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”. Although Corman himself appears in the film (along with former cronies Peter Bogdanovich & Ron Howard) to offer the film a touch of credibility, Stiller’s protagonist is less of an homage to that single filmmaker, but more of a ZAZ-type spoof of the entirety of schlock directors from Russ Meyer to The Golan-Globus folks to anyone who’s ever made a blacksploitation film (and even Fred Williamson appears in the film to afford credibility on that end). 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-soul-sister-robot blacksploitation flick called Foxy Chocolate Robot, etc. I counted at least fifteen of these schlock spoofs represented in brief clips & there are endless dozens of more ideas listed in a “complete filmography” that rolls in tandem with the end credits. Each idea plays just as well as you’d expect from a film that boasts a cast with its roots both the cult sketch comedy legends The Ben Stiller Show & Mr. Show (Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo, Brian Posehn, etc.). I don’t think there was a two minute stretch of the film when I wasn’t at least chuckling & a large part of that success was due to how well disperser these schlock spoofs are. They’re evenly spaced from beginning to end with only 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 serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews on The Indepenent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improve-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 likely that the other Stiller clan affair, Highway to Hell, will remain in obscurity for the foreseeable future, but I like to imagine that The Independent still has a chance to achieve a cult classic status. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the shlock 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. Out of respect for the comedian & respect for schlock as a medium, I plan on making this film a frequent recommendation to help keep its name alive. So, if you also have respect for either or just love a well-executed comedy sketch (or a dozen), I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. It’s damn funny.

-Brandon Ledet

Highway to Hell (1991): A Stiller Family Affair

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I know that we lightly touched on the fact that both Ben and Jerry Stiller made appearances in our discussion of July’s Movie of the Month, Highway to Hell, but I recently found out that two other members of the Stiller family were in the film: Ann Meara (Jerry’s wife/Ben’s mother) and Amy Stiller (Jerry’s daughter/Ben’s sister). The family members have appeared in multiple films with one another (Heavy Weights, Zoolander, etc.), but I can’t think of any other film that has four Stillers in it at the same time. What exactly happened here? Did Jerry beg the casting crew to allow his wife and kids to tag along? Was Jerry even the first member casted? Highway to Hell has a special connection to the bizarre Stiller family, and I’m determined to find out why.

Ben Stiller was given not one, but two small roles in Highway to Hell: a demented fry cook at Hell’s only diner (Pluto’s) and Attila the Hun. I have to say, this really shows off his versatility as an actor. Prior to this film, he had a pretty short acting resumé with a couple of minor television/film appearances, so I think it’s safe to say that Ben wasn’t the first of the Stiller’s to join the Highway to Hell cast. The same goes for Amy. She only appeared in a couple of movies prior to her forgettable performance as Cleopatra in Highway to Hell.

Now, Ma and Pa Stiller are a completely different story. Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara both had lengthy careers as comedians at this point, and after all, Highway to Hell was a horror/comedy. In the film, Jerry is a cop that sits in Pluto’s waiting for a cup of coffee he will never get, and Ann is the diner’s waitress that will never fill up his cup. It was like one of their classic skits on the The Ed Sullivan Show, except it was terrible and not really funny.

My official conclusion is that Jerry and Ann’s career as variety show comedians and sitcom stars was dwindling down. They needed money and their kids needed acting experience, and lucky for them, Highway to Hell needed cheap actors. It was probably like some sort of buy one et one free deal. Sadly, the film was a flop and no fame or fortune was attained by the Stiller clan.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s 1991 action comedy Highway to Hell, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at De Jong’s other (more successful) 1991 cult classic Drop Dead Fred.

-Britnee Lombas