Know anybody in L.A. who could use a 1988 Nissan Sentra? Filmmaker Matthew Harrison needs to unload his this week, when he returns to New York City after a year in Lotus Land. New York native Harrison moved to the West Coast shortly after his remarkably accomplished low-budget feature Rhythm Thief landed the prestigious Jury Prize for directing at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Suddenly, Harrison, whose total budget for Rhythm Thief amounted to less than what a typical major-studio production spends in one day, found himself receiving phone calls from movie executives who wouldn't have allowed him to wash their cars prior to the festival.
"I figured I gotta move out here, give myself a year, figure out how [Hollywood] works," explains Harrison by phone from the L.A. residence he is preparing to vacate. "I was always upset by the crap that seems to flow from here. If I'm angry at something, it's usually 'cause I don't understand it. It's been like a one-year internship at McDonald's. And believe me that's what the business is like. They manufacture movies like cheeseburgers. They follow very specific formulas. Each genre has its little chute. If you can't make double-cheeseburgers the way they want you to, go away. They don't want to hear 'But I make the Matthew Harrison burger. It's special!' Because they can only sell maybe two or three hundred Matthew Harrison burgers versus two or three million globally of double-cheese."
Although Harrison hasn't sold billions and billions of burgers, his name may be familiar to close readers of this column. Three years ago his sardonic 30-minute film Two Boneheads crowned an exhibition (mounted by Florida International University) of award-winning student films from around the U.S. Harrison's twisted and wildly imaginative first feature, the world's premiere (and to date perhaps its only) "bowling noir" movie Spare Me, induced laughing fits in audience members with a taste for dry satire when it highlighted the inaugural South Beach Film Festival in 1994. Rhythm Thief opens this year's South Beach fest.
Despite garnering critical acclaim and picking up a fistful of awards along the festival circuit, Harrison's gritty, slightly absurdist urban drama -- a sort of spiky cross between Waiting for Godot and Mean Streets -- did little to endear him to Tinseltown executives who hadn't actually seen the film at Sundance but had heard a positive buzz on the movie's maker. The Jury Prize opened doors, but they slammed shut quickly after the studio honchos screened the film. Harrison's kinetic street vision was too original. Too difficult to pigeonhole. They couldn't envision prospective moviegoers flocking to the local cineplex to witness Harrison's vivid black-and-white tale of a principled pavement purveyor of bootleg music cassettes who runs afoul of one of the bands he has illicitly recorded. How do you market something like that? In a blink the transplanted New Yorker and Sundance darling found himself alone and jobless in the cinema capital of the universe.
"My first six months out here were horrible," Harrison laments. "Away from my woman, my friends. No support network. No work. These guys would take one look at my film and it would scare the hell out of them. I was the brooding artist. You'd think that in a town built around movies they would encourage creativity and diversity" A Harrison laughs ruefully A "but it's not that way at all. They discourage the indie scene here. This is a corporate town. They don't celebrate ideas. It's a harsh world. They worry about selling popcorn and sodas first, and work everything backward from there. I start with an idea and work forward from that."
So like Rhythm Thief's hardscrabble protagonist, Harrison remained true to his personal code while scratching and hustling to get by. Then, as if his life story were following one of those formulaic plots Harrison despises, just as his career and personal life appeared to hit rock bottom Harrison got his second big break (the Jury Prize at Sundance being the first): While filming Casino on location in Las Vegas, director Martin Scorsese viewed a tape of Rhythm Thief and loved it. Loved it so much he called the fledgling filmmaker and signed him up to a three-million-dollar deal to write and direct a New York City love story entitled Kicked in the Head. (Kevin Corrigan, who has a supporting role in Rhythm Thief, cowrote the Kicked script and will play the lead.)
"That's without a doubt the best thing that's come out of Rhythm Thief," Harrison reckons. "Marty saved my ass. I was so depressed six months ago. Marty taught me not to try to be something I'm not. I'm not a programmer. If I go to see popular movies, it fucks with my head. I feel like a failure because I'm not doing what my peers are. I'm cutting across the current. Talking with Marty made me feel a lot better about myself in that respect. This is such a product-driven industry. It may be cheesy, but I try to get at deeper truths. I want my movies to chart uncharted territory in people's minds. People whose work really excites me -- Fellini, Cassavetes, Scorsese -- try to explore areas of people's behavior that are hard to explain. Like a lot of people had trouble dealing with Casino because it wasn't this straightforward crime movie; it tried to get into the heads of its characters. That film will still be interesting ten, twenty, fifty years down the road."
The Scorsese-Harrison match seems like a natural. Their obvious New York connection aside, Rhythm Thief bristles with the kind of raw energy and visual inventiveness that earmarked the young Scorsese's films. Simon, the rhythm thief of the title, could easily have appeared in Taxi Driver or After Hours. And the motley assortment of hustlers, street urchins, thugs, and waifs who populate Harrison's celluloid world would feel right at home in Scorsese's domain as well.
Scorsese's protege pauses to collect his thoughts. "So Marty helped me realize you shouldn't try to be something you ain't," he continues. "If you were Enzo Ferrari, building your beautiful Ferraris in the Italian Alps, it wouldn't make sense to go to Detroit. Marty's always saying to me [Harrison renders a dead-on imitation of Scorsese's unmistakable 78-rpm delivery], 'Matthew, what are you doing there? That place is no good. I went out there for three months and ended up staying thirteen years. I almost lost my mind. You gotta have buddies. I was depressed and Harvey Keitel came out to cheer me up and he ended up getting depressed.' But I think I needed to come out here and see for myself. I don't regret it. I learned an incredible amount. Now I know when to smile and when to say, 'Fuck you guys.'"
And with that Harrison concludes the interview. He has a lot of packing to do.
Rhythm Thief opens the South Beach Film Festival, but the Matthew Harrison entry is by no means the only reason to attend this year's event. In its third year, the juried South Beach shindig makes a quantum leap in overall quality. While I have screened only half a dozen of the thirty short films and three of the nine features that will be playing the festival, this year's lineup looks extremely promising. There's even an Academy Award nominee (forgive me for momentarily setting aside my moratorium on mentioning that dubious honor) -- the documentary Fiddlefest, which boasts a local tie-in; it was produced by Susan Kaplan, sister of Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan. While neither Last Call -- which aspires to be a Santa Cruz-set, Nineties hybrid of Animal House and Diner A nor The Woman in the Moon -- a strikingly photographed "tragic comedy about women and healing," to crib writer-director Ariadne Kimberly's description, that takes place at a yoga ranch in the Arizona desert amid banging gongs and chanting gurus -- is in the same class as Rhythm Thief, both have their moments.
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All of the shorts I viewed, however, were wonderful. Four of them were adult-theme cartoons: Cult hero Bill Plympton's wickedly warped How to Make Love to a Woman juxtaposes soothing voice-over tidbits such as "This instructional guide will help to ease you along the slippery and challenging path to true romance" with bizarre cartoon images of male-bashing goose bumps, maiming nipples, lethal hair, and man-eating eye sockets. The English dentist antihero of the wry, cutting Bob's Birthday picks the worst possible moment to rail against midlife malaise. Fluffy, the amazingly expressive computer-generated animated puppy of the title, eats his way out of a common doggy predicament. And The Ballad of Archie Foley pays loving tribute to a fictional veteran sound effects man.
James Morrison's Parking begins as a routine confrontation between two men in a parking garage after one inconsiderately blocks the other's exit; the vitriolic diatribe that ensues evolves from a passionate rant against one man's thoughtlessness into a tongue lashing for all those arrogant bastards who run red lights, talk during movies, don't hold the elevator, and remove other people's clothes from the dryer two seconds after it's stopped spinning. And Carrie Blank's Trouble focuses on a science fiction-obsessed young girl named Addie who shoplifts in order to support her heavy reading habit. Meanwhile Addie's mother Goldie frets that her little bookworm will "turn into Aunt Robin with the Ph.D. and the Russian novels and those cats." She reminds Addie that "brains and a husband are not mutually exclusive." Tovah Feldshuh's broadly kvetching Goldie and Cole Plakias's sly, daydreaming Addie make a beguiling mother-daughter odd couple.
Who knows, with a little luck, maybe in a few years one or more of these filmmakers will get the call to the big leagues and follow Matthew Harrison's path from relative obscurity to million-dollar budgets and hanging with Marty.
The South Beach Film Festival opens tonight, Thursday, April 18, and runs through next Thursday, April 25, at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Admission is $10 for opening night and $5 for all other screenings. For a complete listing of dates, times, and movies, call 448-9133.