If you believe that Italians offered the best examples of neo-realism in cinema, think again. You haven't seen the mind-numbing dullness of true reality until you've witnessed the work of Coleman Francis.
He was a fat man in a doughy world. He was a filmmaker as flawed as the movies he managed to crap out of his camera. Though he envisioned himself a director of delicate sensibilities, the resulting triptych of tripe he created was as hamfisted and inert as a pot of pickled pigs feet. He's been defamed, slandered and ridiculed, reduced to a corpulent joke in an industry that defines success via box office receipts and actual talent. But this beefy, belchy radical could not be hemmed in by the standard Tinsel Town tendencies. He had to push the envelope of the art form, just as his waist strained the structural integrity of his pants.
Coleman Francis and the films he made from 1961 to 1965, The Beast of Yuccas Flats, The Skydivers, and Night Train to Mundo Fine, represent true filmic subversion. While many motion picture producers were drenched in the throngs of the staid Studio system, others were exploring the French New Wave and the Italian love of the plain and ordinary. For Francis, there was more here than just a seeking of truth in artistic authenticity. He was heck-bent on forging his own unique aesthetic approach and he did. Today we'd call his approach stasis 'storytelling'. But a better moniker would be 'neo neo-realism'. No one before or since captured the deathly dull boredom of real life better than Old King Coleman.
The original realism movement, founded in Italy before World War II, strove to bring as much naturalism and genuineness to the screen as a filmmaker could find. Even then, there was an artificiality and a sense of structure that drove the post-War prodigies legendary names like Viscontti, DiSica and Rosellini to reexamine and further deconstruct the drawn dramatics of reality. Up until this reinvention, the medium focused on the rich and the privileged and dealt with fantasy-like scenarios grounded in luxury and station. Thus neo-realism was born, a celluloid savior of the lower class and downtrodden. Championed for their stark, brutal look at life as it was lived (not envisioned), the movement was seen as the missing link between audience and auteur, a way for the common man to finally see himself up on the fanciful and often fake silver screen.
Yet there is an inherent fallacy in the Italian approach that Francis found and exploited to his own aesthetic benefit. Living in America, in a country swollen with materialistic mandates and capitalistic comforts, our man Fran knew that existence was really one big ball of monotony. Not every life was lucky enough to stumble upon political intrigue, social unrest, ethnic tension, and cultural corruption. Indeed, most people in the US lived lives of quiet and immobile sameness. There was no tension or terror, no brazen bombast or halting histrionics. The real world was a stifling, dull as dog dung place, and Francis was convinced that such a stark, static cinematic representation would claim the high ground of filmic honesty.
There is just no other way to explain the blatant non-action in his "war" film Night Train to Mundo Fine, the lack of daredevil, death defying in the extreme lifestyle inspired The Skydivers, or the ogre as rotund routine in Francis' one foray into speculative speciousness, The Beast of Yucca Flats. In each of these films, coffee is as an important a factor as characterization, and people are presented as plain, uninteresting, unattractive, dry, droning, poverty-stricken rubes. No other filmmaker found blatant truth in the tales he told. Even Warhol, who trained his camera on the Empire State Building for eight straight hours, didn't delve into the mundane with as much maddening precision as Francis.
True to his neo neo-realism revision, Francis didn't strive for intricate stories or narrative arc. He did not care if plotlines (when there were any) paid off or if threads of story made logistical or even literary sense. Francis's films were premise-based and populated with actors for whom the only "Method" they knew was of the 'rhythmic' kind. While The Beast of Yucca Flats would seem almost antithetical to his humdrum approach, Francis found a way to make that atomic age atrocity (a famed scientist is turned into a rampaging rotisserie chicken with rage issues by an errant A bomb) into a sloth-inducing existential example of numbing anti-terror.
With the title role essayed by wrestler turned man mountain mouth breather Tor Johnson, Beast boasts a decidedly mature first time filmmaker (Francis was 42) discovering the depth of his disengagement from the Hollywood norm. A movie with a pandering premise like Yucca (certainly similar to the Bert I. Gordon groaners The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast) needed something to separate itself from the typical drive-in fodder, and Francis found his distinction in dialogue so dopey that even Ed Wood ridiculed it as incoherent.
Lunatic lines like "Touch a button. Things happen. A scientist becomes a beast" and "Boys from the city . . . not yet caught by the whirlwind of Progress . . . feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs" sound like poetry written by protozoa. Usually delivered by Coleman himself in narration over otherwise silent scenes, these insane rantings remind us that, in reality, not everyone is articulate and well spoken. You truly can hear a member of the Great Unwashed lamenting "Flag on the moon. How did it get there?" as he or she taps another pony keg of Carling's Black Label.
Such metaphysical musings are also at the center of Francis's next film, the loveably lifeless The Skydivers. In this cinematic ode to freefalling and java we meet Harry and Beth. They run a ridiculously unsafe skydiving school and consume the Gross National Product in espresso roast, just to get through their terribly troubled marriage. Harry cheats with a local town tramp, while Beth runs around, nonplused, making sure their clients don't plummet to their death . . . often. Eventually the spurned skank decides to teach Harry a lesson and pours acid in his parachutes, proving that unlike Maxwell House, not everything about the couple's business sense is good to the last drop.
This immobile movie offers about as much death defying aerial dynamics as a mortuary pamphlet. Like his other surreal cinematic experiments, The Skydivers tries for a greater sum out of its slum-like parts. Here, Francis wants to awe and amaze as the camera leaps from planes and follows men and women of equal daring-do as they fake plummet back to Earth. Instead of relying on nonsequitor sentences as conversations, Francis finds a new, novel way of rendering the realism. He gets unattractive human oddities to play authentically ugly people. And it works!
The lazy, lantern jawed Anthony Cardoza plays a horny love slave, the kind of man who reeks of an inability to satisfy his chunky chock full of nuts wife. Better yet, the local floozy he shacks up with looks like she smells of unshaved armpits, onions, and gin soaked halitosis. And she's supposed to be sexy! Face twisted in an ersatz sense of the erotic, she becomes the putrid pin-up for the Francis method of filmmaking. Why try to recreate the repugnancy of the real world when you can use a dire documentary-like style to visualize true vileness.
It is a theorem that would drive Francis's final film, the miscreant masterpiece Night Train to Mundo Fine. Here, Francis directs and acts, playing a roly-poly convict with plans to achieve personal financial independence through murder and bad hygiene. He meets two spaced out Sterno bums slowly starving in the desert and before you can say "David Ferry", they've agreed to sign on for the Bay of Pigs invasion. They mobilize to defeat Castro, are captured and sent before a firing squad. They escape by asking a guard for some water and head back to America to search for tungsten. They kill some innocent people. Then they die.
Every element he explored in Yucca and Skydivers is present here the awkward lines delivered in equally non-dramatic style ("Griffin . . . ran all the way to Hell . . . with a penny and a broken cigarette.") while the cast is on the decidedly sideshow attraction level of looks. Francis believed that the "Hell" people reference when talking about 'war' is one of the mind-numbing, dreary variety. So little happens in this search and destroy saga that we wonder about the wisdom of making a combat film without any actual fisticuffs fake or otherwise.
And then it hits us like a bushel full of back fat: in the realm of neo neo-realism, nothing is interesting or exciting. Everything is the cinematic equivalent of lethargy. In other films, battles are brazen, bombastic exercises in excess, but that's the typical Tinsel Town way of looking at the armed forces. What about the guys who just get caught up on the outskirts of outrageous events. Shouldn't their deathly derivative story be fodder for filmmaking as well? After all, not every soldier can hit the beach on D-Day or save Private Ryan. Some, like those involved in Mundo Fine's foolish facets, can barely dress themselves.
So go ahead and praise those international auteurs who exposed the seedy, slimy underbelly of their beloved homelands. Champion those creative cinematographers that found beauty in the ordinary and grace in the routine. They can't hold a month old can of Spam to the life as lumbering mediocrity created by Coleman Francis. Instead of celebrating The Bicycle Thief or worshipping La Terra Trema we should point to The Skydivers, or Night Train to Mundo Fine as films that truly express the verisimilitude of the spiritless, colorless indifference that is reality. As much as we hate to admit it, Coleman Francis was in tune with the tedium of our life and times. He remains the true neo neo-realist.