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Lost “Masterwork” Found: Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966)

Friday, April 15th, 2016

A lost “beat” classic has been found and restored, featuring an epic soundtrack by Ornette Coleman.

As Peter Monaghan writes in Moving Image Archive News, “thanks to an overdue search of the filmmaker’s garage, a rarity from the experimental film ferment of the 1960s was just screened for the first time in almost 50 years, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. With that, Who’s Crazy?, in a restoration by Anthology’s John Klacsmann and distribution by Grand Motel Films, has reemerged as an emblem of its age.

In 1965, Thomas White, then a 33-year-old American living a bohemian life in Montparnasse, made the 73-minute feature in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, with a set of collaborators-of-the-moment. Those included members of New York’s Living Theater, playing a bus load of residents of an asylum for the insane, and a soundtrack by the jazz icon Ornette Coleman, who even recorded a cut for the film with singer Marianne Faithfull, then in her late teens and already embarked on a life course whose mayhem the inmates might have recognized.

The rediscovery of the film has made a splash, not only because, as Richard Brody put it in The New Yorker, in article entitled “A Lost Masterwork is Found,” the film “bursts the bonds of movie logic to unleash the primal ecstasy of the cinema,” but also because of its place in the history of truly independent filmmaking of that time.

It has, for instance, links to Shirley Clarke’s recently revived 1962 portrayal The Connection, which was made from a play mounted by Living Theater co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck . . . Who’s Crazy had been missing for decades, listed as lost by the Library of Congress.” And when the Library of Congress says that a film is lost, that’s usually the case. But here, we got lucky. Hopefully, as Brody notes in his essay, linked above, a DVD will soon be forthcoming.

Readers of this blog know that I hold a special place in my heart for such deeply personal works, made in an era before money was ruling factor in nearly all forms of social interaction, and what Brody referred to as “the primal ecstasy of the cinema” dominated filmmaking, which was then cheap, and within the range of nearly everyone- just pick up a camera and shoot.

At the same time, the standard rules of “three act narrative,” or any form of narrative for that matter, clearly went out the window, and what was valued above all was spontaneity, authenticity, and capturing the moment, rather than CGI ridden spectacles in which every movement is defined by green screen technology. Not everything has to be planned out in advance; in fact, sometimes nothing needs to be planned at all. Sometimes, if you get an enormously talented group of people together and give them free reign, the results can be remarkable.

Writing in The New York Times, Jim Hoberman agrees, noting that “an anarchic rave with a wacky new-wave flavor, “Who’s Crazy?” opens on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The passengers are psychiatric patients who, eluding their keepers, take refuge in a deserted building, haphazardly creating a new society complete with rituals that include a trial and a wedding.

Mr. White, reached by phone this month at his home in Connecticut, said 10 hours of film were shot over 10 or 12 days. The scenario was based on the actors’ improvisation. ‘Nobody told them what to do,’ he said.

Left to their own devices, the performers engage in breathing exercises, dress up in funny hats, play instruments, mill around, stage group hugs, make a mess, cook food, play with candles, stare into one another’s eyes, break into primal screams and declaim poetry in beatnik rants that might have been recorded at an open mike at Cafe Wha? The polyrhythmic cascade of honks and squawks produced by Mr. Coleman, abetted by his sidemen — the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett — imbue these activities with tremendous energy.”

Watch the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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