[14 November 2006]
Now that Project Greenlight has been placed in permanent turnaround, we can observe that train wreck of good intentions and bad execution objectively. It was simply wrong from the start. Making a worthwhile and marketable film while at the same time producing a hit reality series are not exactly compatible goals. The film requires combining the right material with the right talent in order to have any chance at succeeding.
The reality show, however, is driven by a series of well-timed disasters and the voyeuristic display of psychological torture. Theoretically, the best show would feature less-than-competent people attempting to achieve impossible goals. They must then be given increasingly complex tasks outside their reach to insure some kind of eventual breakdown. This is “good” television. Put a clock on it and it’s what television execs love to call “appointment” television. Clearly the needs of producing a slow burn human disaster do not provide the right foundation for good filmmaking.
Greenlight’s first season was simply dead on arrival. The second season did nothing more than to solidify producer Chris Moore as the default hero of the show. The veteran producer who has to bust heads each week to show these dumb kids how Hollywood makes pictures. The sheer incompetence and paranoid fear exhibited by the directors of Greenlights 1 and 2 made you dislike them instantly even though it was clear they were being cut into fools by the edge of the editor’s blade.
By the third season, they finally got it right. Drop the whole “coming of age” dramedy scripts that almost never work to begin with and roll up the sleeves to an old fashioned genre picture. This was how two-thirds of the great filmmakers working today began anyway, toiling long hours under the tutelage of Roger Corman making monster movies, biker pics, and nude nurses-in-Philippine- jail epics. This time, they got a script that was 100 proof drive-in moonshine: Feast a monster movie set in a desert bar written by two fanboys named Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Fueled by marathon viewings of The Evil Dead trilogy and every Big-boxed/banned-in-47 country VHS horror flick available, the pair turned in a blood-soaked script that twisted the clichés by assuming the audience had already seen all of these movies as well. That they keep more or less from falling into the trap of complete snarkiness is to their credit. Their worst idea is to introduce each character with not only a complete biographical dossier onscreen but also with each character’s supposed life expectancy. This is wit over wisdom and the clearest sign of freshman screenwriting.
However, it’s clear that these freshman know the genre well.
Feast uses the classic low budget horror formula of locking a disparate group of characters up in a single location, trapped by the zombies / aliens / demons outside who are all trying to get inside. This time we’re at the only bar for what seems to be miles and miles of desert and are quickly introduced to a cast of crazy characters including Jay without Silent Bob, “Emmanuelle” with her clothes on, Henry Rollins hiding his tattoos and Clu Gulager with an earring. These are all characters taken from stock. In fact, they are all given names which are indicative of their functions as ciphers: “Hero”, “Heroine”, “Tuffy”, “Honey Pie”, “Beer Guy”, etc. Seemingly within seconds of the opening credits, all are quickly fighting for their lives against a horde of sexually driven flesh eating creatures. A third of them are eaten minutes after they are introduced. That’s the basic set up. Here’s the spike: the direction of John Gulager.
During the series, Gulager came off as a true eccentric, an ill-communicative amateur filmmaker used to doing things his own way like a weekend carpenter in his basement workshop. He also came off as the first filmmaker on the program to exhibit a clue as to how to make a movie. A director with a real zeal in finding out how far the envelope could be pushed before being reminded he was nothing more than a contest winner. Gulager seemed intent on making Feast an actual John Gulager movie. That he was able to cast his wife Diane Goldener and his veteran actor father Clu in the movie is testament to this boundary stretching. At age 47, Gulager was easily the oldest director to have been chosen for Project Greenlight. He seemed more than aware of the ticking clock, of time passing him by like it does to many hopefuls in Hollywood. Being the son of jobbing actors, it’s clear Gulager could see the way the Hollywood machine was all about “Feast"ing. Like vampires suckling the most available neck, the “suits” would give nothing without taking. Eternal life for eternal death as an artist reduced to the fringe.
If Feast was his only shot, he would take careful aim. The final product bares this last ditch enthusiasm. A kamikaze attack on the genre mixing Super 8mm, video and every gory trick in the book to go the distance and delight the jaded fan. Gulager ignored the rules and spent his weekends shooting extra shots for inserts and cutaways to give his low budget horror more cinematic bang for the Dimension films buck. It shows. The movie is nothing if not enthusiastically violent and carnivorous. People are chewed up and spit out while Honey Pie (Jenny Wade) gets a Peter North-sized geyser of ejaculatory blood all over her. It’s an exclamatory moment within a movie filled with exclamation. This is both good and bad as the energy required to achieve this makes for a fun movie.
It also makes it seem as though it’s trying too hard to become an instant cult classic. Cult films are not made, they are born. From the mouth of one fan to another, unearthing something lost and secret, hidden among the mundane. Feast is too knowing and in its own way, too high profile to be born as cult cinema. But it’s a reasonable facsimile and as such deserves a look from the genre connoisseur.
The DVD extras include several brief behind the scenes documentaries, five deleted scenes, and a group commentary track that is appropriately done in a frat house style with the quiet Gulager speaking up from time-to-time to voice pride in something odd he snuck by the studio. The lack of any material from the TV series is disappointing but obviously intentional. We’ll be seeing that DVD set in the near future.
If nothing else, Feast should provide John Gulager with a solid sample reel to help him land another directing gig and prove that Damon and Affleck’s faith in Project Greenlight was not completely wasted. His future will demonstrate just how important this project of faith was to movie history. Think about how different the movies would be today if Sid Sheinberg didn’t have faith in the young Steven Spielberg. While Gulager is certainly far from young, he clearly has much promise. It’s up to fate whether his talent will meet opportunity with the right material. There’s simply no contest for that.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/feast-20051/