Emotion Pictures

Toward a Fuller Understanding of Sam

Film is like a battle- ground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word... emotion."

That's American movie director Samuel Fuller talking. Appropriately, this famous Fuller dictum is presented by the director himself onscreen during a cameo appearance very near the beginning of Fuller-devotee Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965). Godard, though, is hardly alone in his admiration for the gruff-speaking, cigar-chomping, straight-shooting maverick of the American "B" movie.

Through the years, Fuller's work has earned him fans in high places; he's gained almost cultish popularity amongst some critics and other directors who find his films enormously challenging, provocative, honest, and original. Yet the gut-punching impact of his movies has also left deep impressions on many moviegoers who, long since, have forgotten the name of the particular movie and its director but carry vivid memories of certain scenes and actions.

Now, some of Fuller's well-placed fans have joined their enthusiasms to create an hour-long documentary portrait of the man and his work. Co-produced by the Independent Film Channel and the British Film Insititute, the documentary is called The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera. It premiered on IFC earlier this week as the centerpiece of an eight-film Fuller retrospective. (Locally, IFC is not available through the region's primary cable supplier Austin CableVision, although it's possible that may change on the heels of the outfit's newly approved franchise agreement with the City of Austin.) The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera, however, also premieres on IFC's sister channel, Bravo (available on Austin CableVision channel 52) on Friday, June 28 at 7pm, and will be followed by a screening of Fuller's Steel Helmet.

Tim Robbins serves as the documentary's narrator and executive producer. Robbins begins by telling how he first met Fuller by happenstance in a French bar and became fascinated by the director's wonderful anecdotes and his inimitable storytelling style. (Curiously, no one ever seems to be able to repeat a Fuller story without slipping into the director's pugnacious verbal style that's punctuated by his signature cigar action.) Wondering why he was so unfamiliar with Fuller's work, Robbins did some homework and quickly became another rapturous fan. With director Adam Simon (whose main credit is the direction of Carnosaur for Roger Corman) Robbins headed to France, where Fuller's been living since the early Eighties, to interview him for this documentary. Robbins' fascination and ardor are contagious. And be it on the page, the screen, or in conversation, Fuller always tells one hell of a compelling yarn.

Also contributing their Fuller insights are film directors Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, and Quentin Tarantino -- all passionate and knowledgeable fans of Fuller's work. Scorsese discusses the moral aspects of Fuller's camerawork and dialogue and how the director always cuts to the core of emotional truths. As he describes various things, the documentary cuts to film clips and montages that illustrate Scorsese's points and leave no doubt that Fuller's mission has always been the search for truth and honesty. At one particularly revealing point Socrsese describes in detail how a scene from Fuller's great war movie Steel Helmet was his inspiration for the staging of one of the key fight scenes in Raging Bull.

Jarmusch, who worked with Fuller on Tigrero, a documentary that follows the two men as they visit sites in the Amazon jungle, provides insights of an often more intimate nature. He possesses a great sensitivity toward Fuller's work and his understanding frequently cuts right to the core of Fuller's originality. "Sam's films have always been about America; as a kind of lie, I think." At another point Jarmusch describes the essential Fuller as an "anti-totalitarian anarchist." Jarmusch also shares some sound advice he received from the master: "Sam once said to me, `When you start your script, if the first scene doesn't give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing away.'"

Tarantino, accompanied by Robbins, gleefully roams amongst the artifacts in Fuller's California garage. Props, posters, scripts, old photos, and leftover career whatnot are scattered about and the two men lurch excitedly from item to item like children on a treasure hunt. Their awe and delight can hardly be contained when they light on what looks like a box of old army attire. Gazing at the treasure held in their hands, they exclaim, "It's the steel helmet" while Tarantino simultaneously raps on its metal noggin. And as far as great screen openers go, Fuller's Steel Helmet certainly belongs in the pantheon, with its simple but mind-twisting opening shot that uses little more than the steel helmet to land the viewer in the middle of the battlefield -- instantly, viscerally, and defenselessly.

It's classic Fuller -- that ability to use spare techniques for maximum impact, that laying bare the truth of a situation in a way that forces a response, that equation of his between the movies and the battlefield. It's a pattern that's made quite clear in The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera.

Though it seems a bit unwieldy, the title The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera actually provides a handy x-ray of the spine of Fuller's career. At the age of 12, Fuller entered the newspaper business as a copyboy. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, Fuller worked as a reporter and an illustrator for virtually every newspaper in New York. These years are credited for crafting his talent for storytelling and learning how to do it quickly, succinctly, and engagingly. As he describes in the documentary, this is where Fuller learned that "to get to the truth of any story is almost impossible, unless you yourself are personally involved."

As World War II broke out, Fuller, then age 31, joined the army. He served in the infantry on various fronts and was twice wounded and the recipient of three medals. It was an elemental experience for him and a subject to which he returned frequently as a filmmaker. In fact, it was in Europe that Fuller shot his first film footage with a camera that his mother sent him. Typically, what he shot was simple and disturbing: the images of the victims, both living and dead, as they were liberated from the concentration camps.

In 1948, at the late age of 35, Fuller wrote and directed his first movie I Shot Jesse James. It set the pattern for the rest of his career: quick shooting schedules, low budgets, and the writing and directing of his own scripts. Eventually, he would produce as well. War movies, Westerns, crime stories... these were the usual settings for Fuller's stories. His heyday was the Fifties and early Sixties but then, as the Hollywood studio system began to crumble, work also dried up for the "B" movie directors. In addition to the ones already mentioned, some other great titles from these years include Pickup on South Street, China Gate, Forty Guns, The Crimson Kimono, Verboten!, Underworld USA, Shock Corridor, and Naked Kiss. In 1980, Fuller fulfilled his long-held dream of making a film about his infantry unit The Big Red One. He followed that in 1982 with White Dog about a dog that attacks black-skinned people. By this point, even animals have become emotional casualties in the Fuller universe, and shortly after the film's aborted release, Fuller took up residence in France.

What's presented here is but a bare factual outline of Sam Fuller's career. For flavoring, tune into The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera. Yet here, too, its hour-long length understandably leaves out so many stories and truncates some of the others, although it's great to hear them told in Fuller's own words.

This rich bounty of Fuller lore may be the reason that this article is hardly the first Chronicle story about the director (his face even appeared on our cover once), and I suspect it won't be the last. Plans are presently underway by the Austin Film Society for a spring retrospective of the complete works of Sam Fuller. With the support of a generous grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, the AFS additionally hopes to bring Fuller (whose health is presently delicate) and other panelists to town.

Until then, in addition to the TV broadcast of The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera, Austin this week can boast two rare opportunities to see Fuller films on the big screen. Fortuitously, this week's offering in the AFS Film Noir series just happens to be Pickup on South Street (1953), one of Fuller's best works which tells the story of a lowlife pickpocket whose illicit fingerwork gets him in deep trouble with a Communist spy ring. Its last screening is Saturday, June 29, 12 noon, at the Dobie Theatre.

Finally, the AFS has also scheduled a special screening of Fuller's first movie, I Shot Jesse James, a movie that, despite its title, is really about Bob Ford, the man who killed the James. It's a movie about cowardice and the consequences of living with oneself following such an act. In typical Fuller fashion, the "bad guy" is not Jesse James. Somehow, the screening seems appropriate in light of the current release of I Shot Andy Warhol, a movie which, similarly, is not really about the title figure but about the mind of the shooter. I will be on hand to introduce the movie at 7:15pm, Monday, July 1 at the Dobie Theatre.

Welcome to Fuller Fix Week. n

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