Bands of Outsiders


The democratization of production in the digital age will mean the end of scenes like the climax of Stephen Earnhart’s Mule Skinner Blues: Local crackpot receives hero’s welcome at the world premiere of his DIY horror film, which stars much of the crowd. (Chris Smith’s American Movie featured a virtually identical moment.) In the future, we’ll all be making movies, so it won’t be remarkable when the guy next door rents himself a red carpet and a limo.

Smith’s protagonist Mark Borchardt was compelling because of the depths of his determination and his sacrifice in the name of a vision. Earnhart’s auteurs are better adjusted, integrating their art into the daily routine of their (equally fucked-up) lives. After a crew of Yank filmmakers hired involuntarily retired shrimper Beanie Andrew as local color for a video shoot in his Florida town, he charmed them into helping him produce a short about a vengeful swamp gorilla, which he conceives on camera with other residents of his trailer park: Larry Parrot, an amateur Freudian-Christian pulp writer; Annbelle Lea Usher, a wardrobe genius who fled New York’s harsh winters and theater crowd; Steve Walker and Ricky Lix, a pair of chromatic metal balladeers; and Miss Jeanie Holliman, a country singer whose unearthly voice may be the result of a near-death experience (she attributes it to schnapps). Earnhart gives them all a chance to explain their relationships and addictions as well as their work, so by the time we learn that Andrew’s Turnabout Is Fair Play is every bit as awful as Borchardt’s Coven, we can enjoy it anyway.

Andrew and his pals negotiate story arcs and scout locations at the drop of a hat, at least until they run out of cigs. (They could use some help with continuity, though: Their soggy simian, whose Motivation is to get his arm back, isn’t missing one.) “I’ve been in the entertainment business for 60 years and never had a break,” says Andrew, by which he apparently means he’s always had an active imagination. “Having talent is only half the battle.”

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz proves Andrew’s point by gathering so much talent into one theater that the stage buckles and the subject drops out of sight. Given the opportunity to record the Band’s last concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Night 1976, Marty whipped out a 300-page shooting script and hired master cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Michael Chapman. He’s looking for rock heroes in the Olympian mode, but the Band were great because they made their ambitious synthesis seem effortless and familiar; at their swan song, they play their guest stars’ hits (warning: these include “Farther on up the Road” and “I Shall Be Released”). The camera focuses on bass player Rick Danko, with his Crudup-Cusack good looks, but it’s Robbie Robertson’s butch guitar and easy grace (and production credit) that best illuminate their art.