JAMES SCHAMUS – OUTSIDER IN

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Kris

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Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
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In a year when none of the Oscar contenders have knocked our socks off, it’s bracing to look back at the halcyon days of independent film. 

This reverie has been inspired in part by the return to Sundance of one of the leading figures of that bygone era, the prodigious James Schamus. 

It’s inspiring to us that after laboring in the trenches of cinema as an academic, a screenwriter, a producer and a studio head – often all at the same time – Schamus has come back wearing a yet another hat – director. 

Schamus was typically gracious and philosophical as he left Focus – essentially, the world turns, the pendulum swings.  But its gotta be at least a tiny bit gratifying to imagine that his ouster was the best thing that could have happened to him.  It’s certainly is to us.    

So this week, we take on the daunting task (so many to pick from) of selecting 5 films that were somehow representative of James Schamus’ career as an indie mogul.   

 

 Indignation
INDIGNATION (2016)

Many people, including Schamus himself, have tried to describe his output.  Phrases like “weird and wonderful” and “off-beat” come up a lot.

But the bullseye that he increasing for was “arty middlebrow” – films that with enough arthouse sensibility that they don’t seem cookie cutter, but “well-crafted” enough to to have some kind of shot at making money.

With Indignation it sounds like he hit his target.  Schamus adapted the screenplay from a 2008 Philip Roth novel.  1950’s.  A young Jewish man escapes New Jersey by going off to college in fictional Winesburg, Ohio.  The result is very Roth: he encounters bigotry, suburbanism, and a complicated erotic relationship with a beautiful shiksa.

It seems to have resonated at Sundance, and sold for 2.5 million.  Besides a smart pedigree, intelligent writing and layered sensibilities, it also boasts a crackerjack, arthouse-worthy 18-minute central set piece that takes place between the young protagonist (played by Logan Lerman) and a semitophobic dean, played by Chicago actor/playwright Tracy Letts.

 

 

 

Poison-1991

POISON (1991)

It’s amazing to remember there was once a world in which a film like Todd Haynes Poison could be funded and distributed as a theatrical film.  The weird and wonderful label certainly works here.  It’s also noteworthy for two other threads that run through Schamus’ films.

First, he’s always loved raw, audacious talent, and has the knack of spotting it when he sees it.  Poison has three intercut stories, each shot in its own distinct style.  Whatever you think of the movie, and it’s not an easy one, it’s a tour de force for a young director like Haynes was, especially when you consider his budget.

The second thread are the overtly gay themes.  Throughout his indie years Schamus was a big believer in the viability of New Queer Cinema.  On some level it may have been a pragmatic choice – a passionate niche that wasn’t being served.   But in interview after interview Schamus claims outsider status for himself and had an innate sympathy for the sharp outsider looking in.  He was way ahead of the societal curve in supporting films that portray weirdos and outsiders in their full 360 degrees of humanity.

Poison is based on three Genet stories.  The three intercut stories are titled Hero, Horror and Homo. The first is about a young suburban boy who shoots his father then stands on the sill and literally flies out the window.  The second is about a scientist creates a chemical distillation of the human sex drive that turns him into a hideous, sore-ridden monster – an impossible to ignore AIDS allegory.  The third, closest to Genet, is about a homosexual affair between prisoners.

The film made a big splash.  It won the Sundance Grand Jury award, and was condemned by Rev Donald Wildmon.  It’s fast-moving but far from easy.  But 25 years later is a good time to see it, with lots of queer cinema and all of Haynes subsequent work under our belts.

Praise where praise is due: Schamus was executive producer on Poison, but the producer was Christine Vachon who met Haynes in college at Brown.  She would go on to produce every one of his films, and a large and still growing body of other pioneering films, many queer-themed.

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The Ice Storm

THE ICE STORM (1996)

Match made in heaven:  Ang Lee & Schamus, who wrote and produced most Ang Lee films.

Lee is an outsider too – his parents fled mainland China for Taiwan; he came to The States to study, first at University of Illinois and then NYU’s Tisch School.  Schamus worked on scripts for all three of Lee’s early Chinese/American culture clash films, the success of which took him to Hollywood.  Then came the warm-hearted period piece Sense and Sensibility.  Followed by something quite different…

For us, The Ice Storm is one of the most iconic films from Schamus’ Good Machine.  Souls lost 1970s suburbia thrash around like wounded whales, desparately distracting themselves with sex and drugs from the void of meaning in their chilly lives.

These inward-turning, emotionally suppressed characters were a departure from the warmer-hearted films previously made by Lee/Schamus (Sense and Sensibility and the three Chinese-American films) – one that took them down a road that would eventually lead to Brokeback Mountain.

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Happiness

HAPPINESS (1998)

 Mordant comedian Todd Solondz tackles some of the same themes as Ice Storm, but with a razor edged blade of kitsch and comedy.  Happiness is far and away the most cringe-worthy comedy of all time, and a godsend – for those of us who think rape, suicide, pedophilia, murder, and creepy phone calls are the stuff of a good chuckle.

In this followup to Inside the Dollhouse, Solondz peels back the exoskeleton of a “normal” family to show the with a soft, pulpy body within.

When October Films got the heebie jeebies and dropped the film, Schamus and Good Machine picked it up; but the material was so challenging that they had to release it unrated.

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lost in translation 2

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2004)

Maybe the ultimate outsider film, made by the ultimate insider – Sophia Coppola.  Lost In Translation was a marker of a new era – glossy, sheathed in a halo of marquee-worthy marketable names.

But confirmed in its indie cred because it’s blob of mercury, shiny and attractive but impossible to pin down.  Clearly not mainstream — a romance without consummation.  A comedy, maybe?  A chance meeting in an eternal night that leads to kind of nothing.

These people, who seem to be ultimate insiders are actually outsiders, wandering in a strange land: and they can’t even search for the answer, because they haven’t found the question yet.

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Dallas Buyer's Club
DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013)

It kind of comes full circle.  A fallen matinee idol plays a homophobic outsider who is driven by his disease to embrace both his own humanity and that of the people he thought he hated.

And in so doing, he battles the entire massive, mustered bureaucratic might of the US government.  And wins, before he ultimately loses.

Directed by an outsider, Quebecoise director Jean-Marc Vallée, the film was Schamus’ last big contender from the Focus era.  It was released after he already left Focus, but he graciously brought his considerable cred to bear on marketing it.

And the new management graciously stood aside and let him have what must have seemed like his last moment of glory.

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CREEPY DOLLS

Elma Cremin

Co-Founder at Followthethread
A long-time fixture of New York’s glittering social scene, Miami’s jai lai courts, and the interstate highway system’s “big rigs,” Elma Cremin has spent her life absorbing all things pop culture.Movies, cult tv shows, documentaries, art, fashion—you cut her and she’ll bleed out in the colors of an Andy Warhol Brillo Pad box. Finally, after years of working inside the system with such networks as Sundance, Trio, Fuse TV and Ovation, she went “ghost protocol” and co-founded FollowTheThread in order to work outside the petty restraints of the industry and share her remarkable knowledge.

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At The Thread we have a love/fear relationship with dolls.  

The fear of dolls does have a proper name, pediophobia, classified under the broader fear of humanoid figures (automatonophobia) and related to pupaphobia, a fear of puppets. We may go in for all three!

This week we’ve decided to indulge our morbid fascination and assembled a list of creepy cinematic dolls that have provided therapists with a waiting list of new patients and given even the better-adjusted among us reason to avoid those beady little eyes.

theboyTHE BOY (2016)

William Brent Bell directs this new film which follows a young American woman named Greta (Lauren Cohan) who takes a job as a nanny for an 8-year-old boy in a remote English village.

Much to her surprise, she discovers the child is actually a life-size doll treated as human by her employers to help them cope with the death of their son two decades earlier. When Greta violates the strict list of rules, a series of disturbing and inexplicable events bring her worst fears to life, leading her to believe that the doll is alive.

iTunes

IMG_6285.dngTHE CONJURING (2013)

James Wan (The Saw I-VII) directed this breakout horror film starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor. Set in a town called Harrisville, the film tells the “true story” of world-renowned paranormal investigators who were called in to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their secluded farmhouse (is there any other kind?).

The real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren claimed that Annabelle the Raggedy Ann Doll, whose original owners frequently found her in places they hadn’t left her, was being used by a demonic spirit in its quest to possess a human soul. The doll now lives in a specially-made demon-proof case marked “Warning: Positively Do Not Open” at Warren’s Occult Museum in Connecticut.  Go visit if you dare!

iTunes    Netflix     Amazon

Childs-PlayCHILDS PLAY (1988)

Director Tom Holland brought us the nightmarish “Chucky”. The film follows a single mother who gives her son a treasured doll for his birthday, only to discover that it is possessed with the soul of a serial killer, “The Lakeshore Strangler”.

Chucky is one of horror’s best known icons. The franchise that followed created a cult following for its main character and spawned 5 sequels.

Chucky’s antics may sometimes cross over into the realm of dark humor, but for horror fans Chucky holds a place of honor as the scariest doll of all time.

iTunes    Netflix     Amazon

magicMAGIC (1978) 

Richard Attenborough directs this film with a stellar cast that includes a young Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret, Burgess Meredith and Ed Lauter. William Goldman penned the script.

In the film, Hopkins portrays a psychologically unstable ventriloquist (imagine that!) who acts out as his darkest impulses through a creepy dummy he dubs “Fats.”

In the 80’s, pre-Chucky, Fats was pretty unchallenged in the department of effectively creepy dolls. We can’t imagine that Fats is happy having to share the horror spotlight with all the new contenders. But Fats lives on in our hearts and will always make the cut in doll horror best-of lists.

Amazon

trilogyTRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)

Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) directed this made-for-TV trilogy starring a whacked-out Karen Black in four different roles playing tormented women. The famed creepy Zuni doll was from the 3rd segment, Amelia.

The doll, bought as a gift for Black’s boyfriend, is a miniature killer powered by the spirit of a murderous Zuni warrior that can only be restrained by a gold chain wrapped around it. It’s not long before the gold chain falls off and the pointy-toothed little manikin is pursuing Amelia around her apartment, screaming like the Tasmanian Devil.

Black finally manages to destroy the doll, only to have events take an unexpected turn in the unforgettable twist ending.

Netflix     Amazon

dolls18DOLLS (1987)

Genre meister Stuart Gordon directed this cult classic shot in Italy, about a family trapped in a house with homicidal dolls.  Charles Band (Puppetmaster) produced.

As the title suggests, this horror film features not just one, but dozens of insanely creepy dolls — so many to chose from! A group of travelers are forced to take shelter at the home of a seemingly kindly old couple (what are the chances?). Unfortunately, the elderly darlings turn out to be a pair of witches whose extensive collection of murderous dolls come alive at night.

In what might be the ultimate nightmare for those of us with creepy doll-o-phobia, some of the characters in the film are actually transformed into dolls themselves.

Netflix     Amazon