The Kid's Got Moxie!
Man of the Century
By Sarah Hepola, Fri., Dec. 3, 1999
You've probably never heard of Man of the Century. Of all the trailers you've sat through and the holiday movie ads you've seen, this offbeat black-and-white comedy is probably not among them. Director Adam Abraham has never made the cover of Newsweek, and star Gibson Frazier has not been invited to appear at the next MTV awards ceremony. It is quite possible that Man of the Century will slip quietly into the night after a short run at Arbor Theatre without your ever even noticing it. And that is a damn shame.
See, Man of the Century is an independent film. Not a so-called independent film starring Gwyneth Paltrow or Christina Ricci and touting a few million dollars in ad expenses -- it is a true-blue, independent film in the classic underdog sense. For its creators, Adam Abraham and Gibson Frazier, it is a four-year experiment in chutzpah, a wearying journey that, like most, wasn't supposed to take this long or end like this. In an ideal world, you would already know about Man of the Century. You would be eagerly waiting its release. In an ideal world, maybe Abraham might even have graced that fluffy magazine cover -- maybe not.
But Man of the Century is not a failure. First of all, it is a splendidly original and engaging film, which has been hailed as no less than "a pure thing of perfection" by Webhead Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News. But second of all, its rise from film-that-could to film-that-did is a Rocky-sized success story in a competitive, money-driven medium. Its very existence this Friday at the Arbor Theatre -- alongside Oscar contenders American Beauty and Being John Malkovich -- defies every statistic, every norm, every rule of first-time independent filmmaking. Man of the Century is not only a fabulous film, it is, in fact, a glorious success.
Let's back up.
Adam Abraham loves musicals. The sweeping romance, the comic flights of fancy, the crisp song-and-dance routines, all tied together with a little thing called style. And it was in the middle of directing one -- an independent musical short set in the 1920s called "Song of the Sea" -- that Abraham met UCLA theatre grad Gibson Frazier. A strapping young actor, with a strong cleft chin of legend, Frazier also happened to share the same interests: namely, a soft spot for classic films. It was 1995, and independent film was in vogue -- with a star-studded Utah festival hosted by Robert Redford and more than one cable channel devoted to the craft. And yet, as theatregoers observing the trend, Abraham and Frazier remained disgruntled. "We saw these independent films that seemed too personal and too specific," explains Abraham, on the phone from Manhattan. "On the other hand, studio films were made by 5,000 people and lacked any identity." As first-time feature filmmakers, Frazier and Abraham sought to combine the strengths of both -- mixing the single-minded vision of independent movies with the gloss of Hollywood cinema.
Using the Old Noodle
They wanted to pay homage to the greats of filmmaking past -- screwball comedies like the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera and Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby -- which seemed to effortlessly possess a charm and wit Abraham and Frazier found sorely lacking in the cinema of the Nineties. They wanted to remind people that even though blazing gunfights, asteroid explosions, and computer-generated animals may be very exciting, in trading special effects for effective storytelling, the cinema of today has lost something. And for that matter, haven't we all? Abraham insists he's not claiming any decade as superior. He knows that for many people, especially anyone who wasn't a white male, the Twenties and Thirties weren't all that golden. "Since that era, we've progressed," he explains. "But still, let's not forget what we've lost." Things like sincerity, politeness, style. Things like innocence, a smile for strangers. Things like -- moxie.
What they came up with was Johnny Twennies. As the hero of Man of the Century, Johnny is a swift-talking newspaper man out of time, adrift in the politically correct, sexually complicated Nineties, although he remains blissfully ignorant to the world's changes around him. Although his best gal, SoHo art dealer Samantha (Susan Egan), might get a tad frustrated with her man's Victorian dating ethic, there's no doubt her Johnny is a stand-up guy. He's got a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic. He wouldn't flinch at coming to blows with a few neighborhood toughs if it meant saving a dame. And heaven knows he'd never turn down an evening of hoofing for a six-pack of tallboys and a Seinfeld rerun.
Yeah, That's the Ticket
As played by Frazier, Johnny Twennies is an unforgettable hero, dashing from one scoop to the next with a deadpan earnestness. He is a character who channels, as Harry Knowles noted in his review, "equal parts James Cagney, Harold Lloyd, Fred Astaire, Dick Powell, and the Fleischer Superman's Clark Kent." And, director Abraham would like to respectfully add, a little bit of Bugs Bunny.
Modern takes on Thirties screwball comedies have had a tough time hitting their mark -- from Amy Heckerling's flop, Johnny Dangerously, to the Coen brothers' ill-met Hudsucker Proxy. Not so Man of the Century. With its delightful patter, jaunty musical numbers, and unexpected, wonderful genre riffs -- like a scene in which Johnny suddenly enters an ancient Egyptian tomb carrying a lantern and wearing a safari outfit -- the film is pure enchantment. Man of the Century is a valentine to film lovers, for those whose eyes grew wide watching Saturday afternoon monster marathons on TV, or for that matter, on the silver screen. Unabashedly pure and sweet and genuine, it is a film that makes you want to fall in love.
Considering that something like 99% of independent films -- well-crafted, popular independent films -- spend eternity stuffed in a dark tin coffin, Man of the Century's distribution is no chump change. How did it get this far? What's the secret to successful independent moviemaking? That's the million-dollar question of the moment, as wannabe indie filmmakers follow their improvising friends with Dad's camera trying to make the next Blair Witch Project. Rest assured this is not the secret.
In a Real Pickle
As Abraham explains, "What happens is that people write a script, they type "The End,' and they're so excited that they rush out with whatever money they can scrape together and they start shooting." The enthusiasm may be admirable, but it's not only foolhardy, it's also a huge financial gamble. Rather than hit the streets with nothing but big ideas in their back pockets, Abraham and Frazier took a deep breath and decided to give their project some good old-fashioned elbow grease.
They spent 1996 honing their script. So while the O.J. Simpson trial rambled on, Jenny Jones embroiled herself in scandal and litigation, and a rapper named Tupac was shot and killed, Abraham and Frazier immersed themselves in days past, watching old Hollywood films, rummaging through archives, and fine-tuning the story they were itching to tell. Nothing glamorous, unless your idea of glamorous is two guys in a room with nothing but ashtrays of stubbed-out cancer sticks. It was rewriting, and cutting, and rewriting. It was Frazier reading his lines over and over and Abraham reading all 34 other parts ("in all my infinite talent," the director adds sarcastically). It was time-consuming and it chiseled their patience, but it ended up saving their asses when they found themselves wrestling with the elements and every other obstacle in the "nitty gritty of Manhattan." With only 23 days and 40 locations, they didn't have time to rethink the script or cut scenes or fill up plot holes. "We had no reshoots, no retakes," Abraham recalls. "Whatever we got the first time, that was the movie."
In January of 1999, Abraham and Frazier debuted the film at their first festival, Slamdance (an alternative to Sundance). There, Man of the Century nabbed the coveted Audience Award, the only honor voted on not by a jury but the filmgoers themselves. That spring came Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, where Abraham and Frazier hosted three screenings, the second night for a rabidly enthusiastic audience which included Austin's biggest -- and most visible -- film lover, Harry Knowles, who went on to gushingly review the film on his own Web site (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com) and as a guest on Roger Ebert and the Movies. I e-mailed Harry to ask what he remembered about that night, and in valiant Harry fashion, he soon replied: "The utter shock that the movie was as flawlessly perfect in its charm and grace."
It's the Bee's Knees
He wasn't alone. Throughout the screening, audience members cheered, exploded into spontaneous applause, and laughter rippled through entire scenes. The applause following the film lasted through -- through -- the credits. "I've seen this movie many, many times," Abraham remembers, "but I'd have to say one of the top three screenings was that night in Austin, when the movie really seemed to come alive." Practically the entire audience stuck around for the Q&A afterward, and when the two fledgling filmmakers were asked about the possibility of the movie getting distribution, they answered noncommittally -- maybe they had it, maybe they didn't. It prompted Harry Knowles to leap to his laptop and start his review with this attention-grabber: "Man of the Century -- SXSW -- A Brilliant, Great Film! Distributors -- Get It Now!"
Fine Line Features did. And on October 29, theatres in New York and Los Angeles (two, to be exact) opened their doors to Man of the Century. The film has been out for a month and a half. Ebert loved it; The LA Times didn't. A host of online sites heralded the film's originality and smarts; but its highest profile review, in The New York Times, offered only qualified praise. For Abraham, it's an odd thing, watching the reviews trickle in for a film that was effectively finished a full two years prior. A wise man once noted that asking an artist what he thinks of a critic is something like asking a fire hydrant what it thinks of a dog. But Abraham, a former student of philosophy and English, insists he would rather take it on the chin in a negative review than hear the same thing over and over. "I'm a big believer in negative stimuli," he explains. "It's a kind of Nietzschean thing: Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." In fact, if it were up to him, critics would be more, well, critical and suck up less to the studios and the industry's golden calves. "What happens in Hollywood is that people get really soft. Everyone kisses their ass, and tells them they're the best, and no one says "no,' and then they want to make a movie like Hook. I mean, couldn't someone have just said, "Don't make a movie like Hook'? It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble."
But what bothers Abraham more than anything is neither the bad notes nor the good ones, but simply the same old song. "Sometimes there's a bizarre consistency to reviews," he complains. Not just his own reviews, either (although browsing through a handful will turn up many of the same sentiments). But overall, it seems to him as though reviewers are losing their distinctive voice, forgetting about staying true to their opinions, and are instead just mimicking the agreed-upon points again and again. "I guess you could say a movie is successful because [the critics] all think the same thing, but I think that's failure. If everyone thought the same exact thing about Hamlet, it wouldn't be a very interesting play."
Despite creating a film that stands as a testament to his craftsmanship and talent, Abraham isn't exactly sure if a future in independent film is in the cards. "Would I do it again? I don't know. I don't think I could."He describes the business of independent film as "precarious" and bemoans the squeezing out of real independent film at the hands of so-called independent companies like Miramax and USA and Fox Searchlight. And at the end of the day, it's just a tough racket.
"I think there's an impression that independent filmmaking is fun or a cool thing to do," says Abraham. "It's not fun. It's a pain in the ass. It takes a long time. It's hard. It's protracted. It's not necessarily happy. And that's what it should be. It's called work."
At this point, Abraham has to concede that Man of the Century is a "pre-video release." The film just hasn't had the right numbers; and in Hollywood, it is simply all about the numbers. There are several possible reasons for its failure to find a large audience -- from the modest amount spent on advertising to the fact that the film is offbeat and difficult to market. Maybe it just fell through the cracks. "We are having a great year of films," Harry Knowles explains. "It's just a rather small, perfect film -- and we've had some large, perfect films this year that steal quite a bit of thunder." And maybe for the independent filmmaker, it's just the nature of the beast -- the beast if it isn't, say, a crazed witch stalking the Maryland woods. So rather than jumping onto a project he's not crazy about, Abraham has been reading scripts from the studio ("They're all awful. It's good to know they're at least consistent.") and working with friends on a Broadway musical called Liberty Smith. Set in Abraham's hometown of Philadelphia during Colonial times, the story follows a man who unwittingly sets into motion the American Revolution.
If you think about it for too long, it's the kind of the thing that can get you really down -- the fact that after two years of beating the odds, and four years of hard work, a great film can't pierce through without the planets lining up or a Trump-sized chunk of change. The fact that it doesn't matter if the film is brilliant (it is) or if Harry Knowles or Harry Caray or Jim Carrey or Drew Carey set themselves on fire to get you to go see it (they didn't): It will never make the money, or gain the clout, that Double Jeopardy did.
But what kind of attitude is that? Our hero Johnny wouldn't stomach such a dour Nineties ending.
After all, who cares if it's the sleeper hit of the season? In the canon of films we see, and some of us see many, there are too few which take the opportunity to touch our souls, to make us laugh so hard our bellies ache or that stir something inside us we had forgotten about. "This is that movie that your grandparents are talking about when they shake their heads after watching a modern cynical film," Knowles explains. And indeed, it is a film that acheives something rare and beautiful, because it possesses qualities that are all too rare today: passion and smarts and fearlessness. It's inspirational and embraceable and -- dare I say it? No matter, Harry said it for me: "It's magic."
"It's much easier to knock down a building than to build one," Abraham says. "And what we tried to do was build a building." And remarkably, they did just that. For them, the triumph is not the raves or the attention or the film's lasting impact -- it is the product itself. "We saw it and said: That's the movie we wanted to make. And if you can go through all the processes and the people and the parking permits and all the things that can get in the way and still come out with a close facsimile of your original concept -- that's a rare event."
You might even say, magic.