January 07, 2005

The Skydivers (1963, Coleman Francis) (v)

I'm going to pretend for a moment that Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn't exist, a) because I watched this without the guidance and support of Mike and the 'bots, and b) as a kind of acknowledgement of some of the criticisms hurled at the show, primarily by J. Ho and J. Ro, even though I think those criticisms are misguided.

Coleman Francis was kind of a right-wing Ed Wood: a passionate filmmaker with a vision and absolutely no talent to bring it forth. The Skydivers was his second of three completed features, in between the tentative steps of his first, The Beast of Yucca Flats and his defining statement, Night Train to Mundo Fine, a.k.a. Red Zone Cuba. The world of Coleman Francis is one of guns, airplanes, cruelty, a mistrust of government, and finally, guns, and it's probably just as well that he only made three films.

The Skydivers is slightly odd in the context of his work, in that it is the only one to feature sympathetic characters. (The men in Red Zone Cuba are thoroughly despicable, and there are no characters at all in Yucca Flats, only images of people.) The focus is on Beth (Kevin Casey) and Harry (Anthony Cardoza, Coleman's longtime producer), a couple that run a skydiving school and whose marriage is crumbling. However incompetent the staging and acting may be (and it's worse than you may imagine), there's a genuine attempt here at conveying real emotions and the distance that can come between two people. Refreshingly, Francis allows these characters to experience happiness amidst the inevitable deaths; there are plenty, plenty of shots of skydivers' faces, as they gaze on the land they are gently floating down to meet. The act of skydiving and the comraderie it fosters becomes a metaphor for the joy and acceptance that Francis sought in filmmaking.

Beth has a unique position in the Francis canon: she's the only positive female character he created. It's interesting to note that she's stripped of the usual stereotypical feminine traits of Francis Coleman women. Until the very end, she never wears anything but a baggy jumpsuit, her utterly strange hairstyle is not unlike the helmets of the skydivers, and she runs the skydiving school with quiet authority, like she was one of the guys. I also think he's non-judgmental about the affairs that Harry and Beth have; although both suffer consequences, it's clear to me that they suffer because (in all Francis pictures) there are evil people in the world, nothing more, nothing less.

But discussion of a Coleman Francis movie is incomplete without mentioning the typically garbled use of cinematic syntax. The editing is atrocious, so bad that it's literally educational -- you could learn how to edit by its negative example. While there are the expected shots with mismatched lighting and shots that make characters standing next to each other seem like they're miles apart, there is one shot that is absolutely jaw-dropping. Beth is piloting the plane, and she's on the runway, either having trouble taking off or landing (it's unclear which). The plane is moving and bouncing up and down in a wide shot. In another shot, Harry and sees her, and runs off-screen towards the plane. Then, in a medium shot, we see the body of the plane. It's still bouncing up and down (clearly from the machinations of off-screen grips). Our learned experience of film tells us, subconsciously, that the plane is still moving. But then Harry rushes into the shot -- plane still bouncing -- and pulls Beth out of the plane. In one short sequence, Francis seriously injures the Bazinian idea that there is anything "real" in the photographic image; it's all artifice, and it's (barely) held together by the viewer.

By the end, Francis' attempts at some kind of empathy are stillborn, and we get the usual manhunt-via-aircraft that ends all his films. This one is particularly noxious, since the manhunt, convened to catch a pair of murderers, is essentially a mob. No one attempts to contact the police; instead, the characters form a posse and extract frontier justice. Fittingly, the man with the rifle in the airplane is played by none other than Coleman Francis himself.

Where we saw it: dvd | We deign to rate it: 11 outta 100
Posted by kza at 11:45 PM | Comments (2)

Wow. I think that's the most thought anyone's ever applied to a Coleman Francis movie. Go you!

Posted by: Steve at January 9, 2005 07:39 AM

Thanks, man!

Posted by: kza at January 10, 2005 12:04 PM
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