[27 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He’s the most visionary filmmaker of his generation, a genius toiling away in relative obscurity while others of his ilk milk the Internet and festival circuit for every last fame whoring morsel. Yet when compared to their weak minded (and kneed) efforts, Damon Packard stands apart. Born in the ‘60s, reared in the ‘70s, and gifted with the amazing ability to channel post-modern moviemaking into a stream of savant-like subconsciousness, he is single handedly reinventing the idiom of film. Along with fellow free spirit Giuseppe Andrews, Packard is turning celluloid on its humdrum, hackneyed ass, while kicking conventionality and conformity to the neo-No Wave curve.
And he’s done it by cannibalizing the past. To say that this filmmaker is obsessed with cinema’s “second” Golden Age would be as great an understatement as suggesting he’s merely an underground artist. In fact, Packard is so plugged into the Me Decade, so intertwined with the efforts of Coppola, Lucas, and especially blockbuster savior Steven Spielberg that he’s a one-man West Coast renaissance reference map. Toss is a few California quirks, a healthy knowledge of ‘70s television (including the iconic ABC Movie of the Week), and a love of the laid back, Summer of Love hangover that was the world after Watergate, and you’ve got an entire multimedia encyclopedia locked up in one slightly psychotic 40 year old brain.
To listen to Packard talk, film officially ‘ended’ in 1977. Star Wars had substituted unnecessary spectacle for smarts and other favored auteurs were locked in aesthetic battles with themselves. Some would win (Apocalypse Now). Others would fumble and appear to flame out (1941). As the ‘80s ushered in the era of the high concept, elephantine budgets, and overemphasis on special effects, that lasting impact of the Vietnam era motion picture revolution was glossed over in favor of opening weekends, box office returns, and sordid celebrity scuttlebutt. A movie was no longer a work of uncompromised art. It was a cold and calculated commodity, a chance to turn a befuddled business model into a consistent combination of clever marketing and demographic manipulation.
But with his amazing body of work, films that defy description as easily as they embrace their inevitable portrayals as “experimental” and “avant-garde”, Packard has repackaged the ‘70s, turning them into the symbolic acid reflux flashback they really were. Part celebration, part condemnation, and all wholly original, the bold statements that make up his creative canon are easily the most synapse firing freak outs since Kubrick concocted some mirrored process shops to symbolize spaceflight in 2001. All that’s missing here is a giant monolith, an ex-pat’s predilection for perfection, and a few million dollars in financial support. That Packard’s no budget affairs can easily match those of grander repute speaks volumes for his viability as a titanic talent.
It all starts with samples - film clips and snippets - material gathered from a lifetime as watcher and cultural observer. Packard has everything: trailers from obscure British sword and sorcery epics; soundtrack albums from equally unremembered science fiction flops; TV ads from the network’s annual new season blitz; homemade footage crafted from early childhood efforts; newfangled digital technology; old school video wipes and dissolves; analog effects; gallons of blood; untold imagination; unfounded paranoia; and a deep seeded belief that film - not music or any other meaningful media - is the true soundtrack to our lives. In fact, it may just be the support system of our soul.
He accomplishes this amazing feat by melding material that otherwise wouldn’t be considered for combination or comparison. For example, the trailer narration and underscoring for the film Jaws will be superimposed over that popcorn phenom’s closest b-movie counterpart - the killer bear schlock fest, Grizzly. Then Packard will add self-produced scenes of slapstick and grue, just to remind everyone that the entire reality - original merged with copycat, new footage filtered in - is part of the way the nu-industry movies work. Film is, today, no longer a result of one person’s applied vision. Instead, it’s a volatile stew of suggestions, hubris, incompetence, originality, and reliance on the tried and true. When placed before the public, responses are measured and what works is retained. And what doesn’t? It’s tweaked and retweaked until someone decides it’s fiscally sound…or unsalvageable.
All of this is reflected in Packard’s approach. He will combine old horror films, memorable moments from TV terror, add in his own scripted material, mash it all up in a computer editing program, add in music from other forgotten movies, and ball it all up into a work of wounded intelligence. It’s shocking how effective it can be. Where once you had a simple sequence of girls running in slow motion, now you have a frighteningly faithful homage to those subtle, atmospheric ‘70s scarefests. In Packard’s world, every film is a drive-in classic, every shot a reference to some seminal movie moment from the past. Even better, he makes the material his own, turning his glorified geek tendencies into McLuhan-esque statements of cultural commentary.
Indeed, unlike his close artistic ally Andrews, Packard isn’t out to define what makes a film. He’s not using a camcorder and a bunch of trailer park residents as an echo on what makes basic cinema. Instead, this dedicated director (he once mailed out 23,000 free copies of his epic Reflections of Evil in hopes of getting some attention) believes in the foundations of the format. He’s out to present the previously scene and already recognizable in a new and fascinating light. It’s something akin to holding up a foggy funhouse mirror to the medium that’s given him so much joy, hoping that everyone else sees the insular insane ravings that made motion pictures his personal passion. And he does it all without a single whiff of insider support. While noted pal Sage Stallone (son of Sly) has been a longtime accomplice, Packard has typically functioned so far under the radar that his misguided masterpieces barely get a media mention.
Until now. As we do with any cinematic trailblazer that the rest of the out of touch fanbase fails to embrace, SE&L will present an overview of Packard’s wonderfully perplexing works in tomorrow’s update. Hopefully, such a variety will inspire you to contact the filmmaker and buy one (or hopefully, more) of his devastating directorial deconstructions. Along with their novelty, and desire to remain both nonsensical and knowing, they touch on so many facets of filmmaking (both past and present) that it’s impossible to argue with their insight. Call him a self-indulgence mental case or the single greatest independent artist of the ‘90s/‘00s, but one thing is for sure - Damon Packard is an unqualified moviemaking maverick. And each and everyone one of his fascinating films proves this over and over again.