Mr. Purtill, my drama teacher at C.K. McClatchy High School, used to quote what I’ve come to think of as the Purtill Principle of High School Dramatics. “As a rule,” he would say, “high-school plays are bad. And high-school plays about high-school plays are atrocious.”
I suspect that the Purtill Principle can be extended to apply, at least in part, to a movie like Stephen Kessler’s mockumentary The Independent. Low-budget, independent movies may not be bad as a rule (I’d say there’s room for honest debate), but in setting out to make a low-budget, independent movie about a low-budget, independent moviemaker, Kessler was certainly playing with fire. For general moviegoers, The Independent’s single joke may wear a little thin. For film buffs, however, Kessler’s movie is just too much fun to wear out its welcome.
Comedian Jerry Stiller (George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld and Ben Stiller’s father in real life) plays Morty Fineman, director of some 427 quickie films in a career spanning 30-very-odd-years, most of them with titles like Brothers Divided (about Siamese twins on opposite sides of the Vietnam War), Eco-Angels (biker chicks take vigilante justice on polluters), Ms. Kevorkian (a babe in a gold lame miniskirt brandishes an AK-47 to defend the right to death with dignity), and Christ for the Defense (Jesus takes the teeth out of personal-injury lawsuits by curing the plaintiffs on the stand.) The character is obviously inspired by schlockmeisters Roger Corman (who appears in interview footage extolling Morty Fineman) and Russ Meyer (who doesn’t). Other veteran directors and actors who give hilariously deadpan testimony to their esteem for Fineman include Ron Howard (who expresses particular respect for Fineman’s classic Bald Justice), Peter Bogdanovich, Nick Cassavetes, Karen Black, Fred Williamson and the late Ted Demme.
Jerry Stiller has been around a long time; he and his wife Anne Meara (who shows up here as Morty Fineman’s ex-wife) appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s. He’s such a veteran, in fact, that it comes as a surprise to realize that this is the first chance he’s had to carry a whole movie on his own. He makes Morty Fineman a pugnacious little dynamo, no more self-deluded than he has to be to keep going. When we first meet Fineman, he’s on the set of Ms. Kevorkian, shooting a scene one moment and—literally and accidentally—shooting an actor the next. At the actor’s funeral he is reunited with his estranged daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo). Affectionately but reluctantly, she goes to work lining up financing for the rest of Ms. Kevorkian. It’s a sad sign of the current doldrums in Fineman’s career that the only firm offer he gets is from a bank that wants to buy his entire film library—at $8 a pound—and the only festival interested in showing his films is a village in Nevada that wants to promote the local whorehouse.
It’s hard to tell what kind of filmmaker Stephen Kessler is from this one film; it could be that the pitch-perfect awkwardness of the “actors” in those scenes from Morty Fineman’s movies may be the best Kessler himself can do. But I don’t think so; I think he means for it to go just that way; the clumsiness of the actors and the incompetence of Fineman’s direction are deliberate, not accidental. The Independent has the same kind of gonzo, scattershot comic spirit as Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen’s first movie—also a mockumentary about a sad sack who goes about his chosen profession with more enthusiasm than talent. All in all, it’s a good omen for Kessler’s future career.
It’s worth mentioning that Jerry Lewis was originally cast as Morty Fineman; when that fell through, Stiller stepped in because his son Ben is a good friend of Kessler’s (Ben also appears in a scene from Fineman’s Whale of a Cop, a sort of Free Willy/Serpico knockoff). It was probably good for the film that Lewis dropped out; it’s hard to imagine him being as likeable in the part as Jerry Stiller is.