Monday, September 29, 2014

Me and Sam and Whoever: Brainquake and the Origins of My Life as a Samuel Fuller Obsessive


Reading Samuel Fuller's recently published Brainquake, a novel any self-respecting Fullerista will want to read, made me think for some reason about the origins of my obsession- mild by some standards- for his films, from I Shot Jesse James to his adaptation of Goodis' Street of No Return, his fiction, from 144 Piccadilly to Brainquake, and his incredible autobiography A Third Face.

I'm pretty sure I first became aware of the culture importance, not to mention poetry, of Fuller's films sometime in 1968 while attending San Francisco State. At the time State's film department had a well-deserved reputation, with a number of screenings of different genres each week. Yet no one at State at that time would have dared screen a Samuel Fuller film. He just wasn't in fashion, probably considered too low-brow and in-your-face, neither European, avant-garde nor Alfred Hitchcock. A friend of a friend- I never actually knew his name- pointedly mentioned to me that Fuller's 1957 film Run of the Arrow was playing at a theatre on Market Street. At the time I didn't know a whole lot about  Fuller other than what I'd read in  Film Culture- those Naked Kiss stills!- and Andrew Sarris, who liked to maintain that Fuller was an authentic American auteur. Though, as a child, I'd been obsessed by Fuller's first film, I Shot Jesse James, watching it whenever it was shown on TV. Anyway, I went to see Run of the Arrow, and was entranced by it, fascinated by the camera work and narrative drive, though, at the same time, troubled by the complex motivations of Rod Steiger's O'Meara, a rebel veteran who, having refused to surrender at Appomatox, joins the Sioux. But I knew I had to see more films by this director.

Parenthetically, that same person who'd recommended Run of the Arrow, alerted me a little later to Coogan's Bluff playing on Market Street, then Fistful of Dollars. Soon I was a frequent visitor to those theatres which were either flea-pits or palaces, but usually a combination of the two.  This at a time when no self-respecting film addict would venture beyond  the Surf Theatre, the Presidio or Berkeley rep houses. It wasn't long before I became obsessed with not only Fuller, but Nick Ray and an assortment of film noir directors. So this mysterious person whose name I never knew was responsible in some way for my interest not only in Fuller but film noir. Interestingly, when the SF State student strike was in full swing, he sidled up to me to ask if I knew where he could buy a piece.  Very noir, but why was he asking me?  Did I look like some kind of arms dealer or gun runner?  I wonder now if he might have been, given the era and the ferment, some kind of police informer.  If so, it would have somehow been perversely appropriate.

Later I would seek out Samuel Fuller films wherever I could find them- a double-bill of Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss in London in the early 1970s, White Dog (never shown in the US) in Paris, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse in Berkeley,  and most of the others on British TV at one time or another.  Then, in the mid-1970s,  I bought a secondhand copy of Phil Hardy's Studio Vista book, which, at the time, was probably the only book available on Fuller.  I could now track down his TV work as well as movies. I clearly remember my excitement at seeing a daytime re-run of Fuller's episode of The Virginian, which, despite its obvious compromises, seemed at the time almost as dark as I Shot Jesse James.

Around that time I started coming across his novels, beginning, thanks to Nick Kimberly at Compendium Books in Camden Town, with 144 Piccadilly, followed by The Big Red One. Soon I was collecting the novels, including a pristine armed services edition of The Dark Page. Actually, when you think about it, there aren't many novel-writing film directors. Or at least I can't think of many. There's Sayles, Pasolini, Cimino, Mamet, Elia Kazan, Mailer, Peter Handke, and no doubt some others. But no one makes films and writes novels quite like Sam Fuller. In fact, his films and books are pretty much interchangeable, and, of course, a number of his films would be adapted from novels he'd written.    

Which brings us back to Brainquake. This is a novel written during the 1980s in Paris where  Fuller had exiled himself in the wake of the White Dog debacle. It wasn't unusual for Fuller to spend his non-directing time writing fiction. But the result this time was one of his best. Though Brainquake found a publisher in Japan as well as France, it would go without an English language publisher until the present edition by Hard Case Crime. Too bad Fuller didn't live long enough to turn it into a film. Yet so rapid and sensational are the first few pages of the novel that I was left as exhausted as I was perplexed. Then in the fourth chapter I came across the following and was totally hooked:

She didn't believe in redemption when it came to taking a human life. To her that was breaking the law of life, not the law written somewhere on a piece of paper. She didn't believe in the why of murder, in any medical or psychological explanations for it. The hell with why. What, where, when, who. You kill, you're caught, the door slams behind you. You can spend the rest of your life in a cage, or you can do the decent thing and kill yourself. That was fine. She never begrudged a killer a second killing, as long as the second victim was herself...

We're back to Fuller the humanitarian iconoclast. Having opened with the literary equivalent of a newspaper headline, Fuller digs down into the characters themselves. Though at first they seem to have jumped from the pages of a comic book, they quickly turn into complex individuals. Everyone- whether mobster, cop, veteran, femme fatale, or hit-men- has their own agenda, code of conduct, rationalisations and peculiarities. So there's a hit-man with well-defined principles, as well as a mentally damaged bagman who's also a poet, barely verbal and lacking any knowledge of the world. Here everyone is a victim, deranged by their crimes or their circumstances. As under-rated  a novelist  as he was once under-rated as a director, Fuller's novels might be plot-driven, but he could write character-driven scenes of considerable beauty, with all the contradictions of everyday life, as in this description of the police photographer doing his job, while dreaming of what might be:

The tunnel between Al's lower teeth at closest focus was cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down the corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.

He returned to the mundane official coverage of Al sprawled on the floor littered with red roses and pieces of broken vase. It was boring but the picture editor had a hard-on for that stuff. Picture editors had no taste. They had no imagination, nor artistry. Rarely would of them understand the many things a corpse reflected other than a body on the floor, in a tub, in the street. They were antiquated. Like Norman Rockwell today.

To catch the impact of sudden death, it took art. Only an artist could make that impact memorable, breathe life into death. Take this body. It was so goddam corny the photographer wanted to gag. Not the slightest spark of anything original to it. He could write the whole story of it himself, in the words of one syllable. The man, the girl. The want. She's shy. He takes. She shoots. He's dead. She runs. One day he would have his book, and it would haunt everyone who saw it, because all kinds of violent death caught a different picture of beauty, of nature that homicide create. This here?  Was why newspapers were used for lining litterboxes.

Beautifully put though, in the context of the novel, one hundred percent wrong.  However, in Fuller's fiction and films everyone has their own way of perceiving the world.

Brainquake, like all his other books and films, represents Fuller the tabloid reporter, muckraker, observer, and absurdist. This is a novel that's full of surprises and moves like a low flying aircraft from New York to France. It's as though Fuller had finally shaken loose the shackles of those dark pages of reportage and, juggling various characters and points of view, emerged into the world of modernist noir fiction.  


And for those interested, here's a trailer for A Fuller Life, directed by Samuel Fuller's daughter, Samantha:

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