A few blogs ago, I wrote a piece about Jean Vigo, whose life’s work has just come out on DVD. I wish I could say the same for experimental filmmaker Ron Rice, whose 16mm $1,000 feature film The Flower Thief (shot in 1959; released in 1960) is one of the signature works of the New American Cinema, and a film that I haven’t seen for much too long. It’s 75 minutes of pure, raw, sensual beauty.
There’s a newly restored print of the film at Anthology Film Archives, but a movie this poetic, free-spirited, inspirational, improvisational and “brilliant on a budget” needs a DVD release, so it can be seen by a wider audience.
Ron Rice was one of the original wild men of the New York underground film scene; working with the brilliantly gifted Taylor Mead, Rice improvised the entirety of The Flower Thief on location in San Francisco, shooting the film on 50 ft. cartridges of outdated, surplus World War II aerial gunnery film donated by none other than Sam Katzman, the most notoriously cost-conscious producer in Hollywood, at the absolute last minute.
Rice was known for his brash, insistent personality; he once wrote a letter to producer Joseph E. Levine demanding that he finance a film for him. Levine demurred, but Katzman came through; one of the most unlikely and fortuitous alliances in all of motion picture history.
The finished film is raw, anarchic, and utterly assured, all at once. Rice uses very inch of film available to him, and Mead’s Chaplinesque everyman is the perfect artistic collaborator for such an enterprise; the film gets its title from a hastily staged sequence in which Mead “steals” a flower from a street vendor, and then, imagining that the police are after him, makes good his “escape” in a child’s Radio Flyer truck down a San Francisco street in blissful slow motion.
As Rice said of The Flower Thief, in the program notes for the film’s premiere, “in the old Hollywood days movie studios would keep a man on the set who, when all other sources of ideas failed (writers, directors) was called upon to ‘cook up’ something for filming. He was called The Wild Man. The Flower Thief has been put together in memory of all dead wild men who died unnoticed in the field of stunt.”
I had the good fortune to meet and work briefly with Mead in the 1960s at Warhol’s Factory when it was located at 33 Union Square West, and really, all you had to do was turn the camera on, and Mead would do the rest, improvising hilarious and touching sequences with whatever props came easily to hand.
The Flower Thief actually had a commercial theatrical release in New York City at the Charles Theater, and became a substantial hit, easily earning back its negative cost — the $1,000 was for developing the film, creating a sound track from old records and bits of poetry, shooting an optical sound track for the release print, and then striking a print — that’s all.
Writing in The New York Times when the film was first released, critic Eugene Archer recognized The Flower Thief for the masterpiece it was and is, stating that “Rice, by deliberately flouting established movie making traditions, reveals himself primarily as a professional rebel rather than the leader of a new movement. But in the highly specialized area of experimental films, he has produced a major work.”
Editing was done on a primitive Moviscope viewer, and the entire film was shot silent. None of this detracted from the film at all; it’s a magical, transcendent, gorgeous testament to the freedom of the human spirit, and to Mead and Rice’s shared conviction that you can do brilliant work with absolutely minimal resources — all it takes is genius.
Rice went on to make several other films — including Chumlum (1964), The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963), and Senseless (1962), but died in 1964 in Mexico at the age of 29 – the same age as Jean Vigo. It’s a tragedy; a real loss.
It’s also sad that you can’t easily see The Flower Thief, but at least prints still exist; when in Manhattan, check out Anthology Film Archives and see if it’s playing. It’s a one of a kind film; a trip back in time to a more innocent and forgiving era, when individuality was prized, money didn’t matter as much, and the world wasn’t caught up in the false frenzy of a neverending 24 hour news cycle. In short, it’s a window into a world that once existed, and to which we can never return.