Thursday, March 9, 2017

Improvisation upon improvisation, as Thomas White's lost/famous WHO'S CRAZY gets a digital restoration and a theatrical release

I'd never heard of it (prior to the press release from Kino Lorber arriving in my email box), and I suspect you will not have, either. But if senior readers would like a dead-on time trip back to the 1960s and the experimental film scene of that era (or you younger ones who might be curious about the kind of "art" that went on back then), WHO'S CRAZY? is the film to see. Directed by Thomas White (with some help from his then-partner Allan Zion), this was the first and last movie Mr. White ever made. And though the IMDB credits White and Zion with both direction and writing, while the story idea may have been theirs, the dialog would have come via the film's actors -- all members of that famous improvisational theatrical troupe The Living Theatre.

An anarchical theatrical group dedicated to busting loose from the strapped-down mores and attitudes of the 1950s, The Living Theatre's actors happened to be taking a kind of "enforced vacation" in Europe -- their directors/founders were currently in prison in the U.S. for tax problems with the IRS -- when their path crossed with that of Mr. White.

The actors were staying in a farmhouse in Belgium, which soon became the film's setting. The plot, such as it is, involves a bus carrying some inmates from a local insane asylum that breaks down, allowing the inmates to escape and take shelter in the farmhouse, where they cavort and frolic for nearly all of the film's 73 minutes.

The movie's title gives away just about all of the meaning involved, with the question being: Who are the crazies here: those inmates or their guards/authorities called in to round them up? This fits right into the "hippie" philosophy of the day -- to which TrustMovies himself thoroughly subscribed at the time. (The movie was made in 1965 and had its first public screening at the following year's Cannes Film Festival and again in 1967 at a festival in Bordeaux -- after which it promptly disappeared.)

If -- visually and plotwise -- Who's Crazy? proves an amalgam of the "experimental" tics and tropes of the day (which, it must be said, begin to wear thin pretty quickly), there is one singular thing that makes the film important, maybe even great: its also improvised musical score.  This arrived via Ornette Coleman and his musicians David Izenzon and Charles Moffett -- who evidently watched a cut of the film, improvising their score on the spot, adding immensely to both the visual and audial enjoyment of the movie. That score is terrific: jazzy, bouncy, funny, surprising and above all, fluid and utterly free. It's an amazement.

Initially Who's Crazy? has no audible dialog. (This goes on for maybe the first 25 minutes). When words are finally heard (along with French subtitles, as the movie was only screened in France!) these seem as desultorily experimental as all else. The inmates run around a lot, prepare a meal, turn the place into what looks rather like a "beatnik" club of the era past, seem to be forming some kind of "commune" and then engage in a mock trial.

There's a very nice snow scene in the Belgian landscape, and White offers up a few stop-motion visual effects. Then we get romance, complete with hot candle wax, maybe a little Satanism (or is this just bad make-up?), a tad's worth of philosophy (peace and love, doncha know?), and a wedding.

The film makes fun of so many of our cultural mores and standards -- or perhaps is simply intent on getting us to view these in a different light -- and then those nasty nut-house guards return, along with reinforcements, to round up the inmates. At this point that musical score, together with the accompanying visuals, may put you in mind of the Keystone Cops.

As I say, if this is mostly a bizarre time-trip into our "experimental" movie history, it's also one that buffs may not want to miss. And then there's that amazing score. Distributed by Kino Lorber, Who's Crazy? opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a week-long run this Friday, March 10. It opens in Los Angeles for a  two-day, two-performance run at The CineFamily on April 1, and then hits Seattle at the Grand Illusion Cinema for a week on April 21 - 17.  To check for any further playdates, click here and then scroll down.

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