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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.