For those who savor being the first to discover the next wave of young writers, actors and directors, the new crop of films from the advanced film classes at USC, UCLA, CalArts and Loyola usually make pretty good browsing.
In the last few years, however, USC's vaunted dramatic films seemed to have settled into a comfortable, golden rut. Although their impeccable technique makes them gilt-edged calling cards to the film industry, too often their scripts have slipped into the banal and cliched. This weakness in recent years only makes Saturday night's screening of USC's 1985 Advanced Film Projects class all the more exciting. (Open to the public, it will be at Bovard Auditorium at 7 p.m.)
This selection of 11 films--which range in subject matter from the crippling effects of child abuse to a dialogue between young and old, to the philosophy behind your haircut--not only contains some lovely surprises, it's one for the USC history books. In response to student demand, in the fall of 1985 the cinema school added a documentary production course. Two of the strongest films of the program, "The Cut" and "Knocking on Armageddon's Door," come from this new documentary class; a third fine documentary, "Between April and May," was co-produced by USC and the Netherlands as part of the International Year of Youth film project. (Prize-winning documentaries have come out of USC recently, but from the broadcasting division of the School of Journalism.)
There are strong dramatic films on Saturday's program as well, in addition to two animated and two experimental works. All in all, it's an invigorating night's fare that can't help but make one optimistic about the range of talents displayed.
--Michael Rymer, who wrote and directed "The Cut," has a blissfully devious and seditious sensibility. While our attention is initially drawn to three Sassoon haircutting students, talking earnestly about "the joy of being able to create," while making almost every volunteer client look worse than the next, Rymer finds one nifty young student iconoclast, Carola, the only one there who seems to understand either haircutting or her own generation.
Although she is most assuredly the heroine of the 25-minute film (and the sole person you'd let anywhere near you with scissors),it doesn't make her stay at chez Sassoon any less tormented. Carola, wherever you are, keep the faith! Michael Rymer loves you and so do we. Also to be seen in action, the jaw-dropping Atilla the Haircutter.
--You can almost feel John Magnus and Torv Carlsen, the deft makers of "Knocking on Armageddon's Door," become transfixed by their subjects: the center and the furthest right extremes of the survivalist movement. By the 27-minute film's end, the calm man who has built a shelter in Malibu that can hold, feed and amuse 16 people for a year seems downright rational--even when with one lightning-quick movement, he catches and eats a fly, buzzing disruptively before his eyes. That's because his competition is either messianic survivalist leader Kurt Saxon, or the paramilitary types, on convention with their Nordic knives, in a Las Vegas parking lot ("That's right, slash downward on the lung"), or busy riddling a car with live machine-gun bullets ("I want you to visualize that you've got the film crews of NBC, ABC, CBS and all the rest of those left-wingers . . . " their leader barks over the gunfire. "There won't be any news on the air tonight!")
Natty in all black, set off by his white double-knit turtleneck, and safe in Harrison, Ark., Saxon thinks that "the collapse of civilization will be a most stimulating event . . . a very fun thing." That's because, among other things, it will allow us to "cull out the world's undesirable elements." Marked by a deadpan quickness in editing and an interviewing technique that allows its subjects exactly enough rope, "Armeggedon's Door" is funny, chilling and haunting, by turns.
--Best of the dramatic films is the charming romantic comedy of faith, "The Man Who Loved Fat Dancing," a 20-minute story of a young man with enough religious fervor to move mountains, and then some. (Faith, in this day and age, is a refreshing subject--and it's been cropping up in several student films over the last 18 months.) I don't know how old its innovative writer-director David N. Weiss is, but he is uncommonly mature in his work with actors, and his screenplay is fresh and just goofy enough to be charming. (In addition to the pun, the title seems to have a faint "Franny and Zooey" meaning that we must love the omnipresent fat lady in our midst.) Particularly outstanding are Steven Tash as the lovable zealot and Jennifer Taylor as his bright young innocent.