Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #54 Director's Cut
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career sustaining feature where I give you, the big-hearted, devastatingly sexy, unmistakably heaven-bound Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy five dollars for each additional entry.
We haven’t had new pledges in a hot minute so I am running a limited time special: from now until Father’s Day, you can choose a movie for someone else, such as your father, or, alternately, Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine, for a mere fifty dollars. That’s crazy cheap! But you gotta act now because Father’s Day is fast approaching and you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to dedicate a movie to the memory of the late Hyman Rickover or even your own father, or the father of your children.
Today’s selection was actually a second choice. A kind-hearted patron requested Arthur Penn’s Penn & Teller Get Killed. Unfortunately I’d written that motion picture up for my First and Last column over at TCM Backlot, which explores prominent filmmakers’ debut and final films as a way of assessing their careers and bodies of work.
The great Arthur Penn’s career ended on a decidedly weird, minor note with the 1989 dark comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed and while I’m not at all averse to revisiting films I’ve written about in the past, sometimes repeatedly (I’ve written up Caddyshack and Charlie Wilson’s War more times than I can remember) but I’d written about Penn & Teller Get Killed fairly recently and I don’t think I have much more to say about it.
So I asked the patron if I could substitute Penn & Teller Get Killed for another Penn Jillette-written dark comedy I have been curious about since I learned of its existence: the wonderfully meta 2016 showbiz comedy Director’s Cut, which was directed and produced by Adam Rifkin, who we’ve had on as a guest on Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast and whose most recent film, the lovely and moving 2017 Burt Reynolds vehicle, The Last Movie Star, I am enormously fond of.
Director’s Cut is a crowd-funded movie about crowd-funding but that’s only the beginning of the film’s often dizzying, mostly delightful post-modern elements.
The sly, over-achieving low-budget independent film takes the form of a feature-length director’s commentary by Herbert Blount (Penn Jillette), a deranged cinephile, wannabe filmmaker and frequent crowd-funder who decides to make his own “Director’s Cut” of a hilariously cliched cop thriller after he becomes disillusioned with the film its real director (Rifkin, playing himself) is making and decides to “fix it” by kidnapping its lead actress and making himself the new male lead through some of the worst green screen and special effects ever committed to film.
You might imagine that having a character talk over an entire feature film in the self-satisfied purr of a director gushingly revisiting his work for the benefit of future generations, fans and historians would get very old very quickly. I certainly worried that Director’s Cut’s audacious gimmick couldn’t sustain an entire film. I was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise.
On a conceptual level, it helps immeasurably that the audio commentary of a madman whose involvement with Rifkin’s movie is first psychopathic, and then flat-out criminal doesn’t sound terribly different from the commentaries of filmmakers whose worst crimes involve taking themselves way too seriously.
The democratic appeal of crowd-funding is that it gives fans an opportunity to be active participants instead of passive consumers. In exchange for money, patrons get some small piece of a film or album or book or typo-riddled pop culture website, whether that’s a tee shirt or a digital download or an Executive Producer credit or getting to choose a movie that a down on his luck pop culture writer must see, and then write about.
Director’s Cut takes the promise of involvement to its demented and surreal extreme by centering on a movie-obsessed madman who doesn’t just want a tee-shirt or a hat or an honorary if ultimately meaningless producer credit: he wants to take over the movie in its entirety, to twist and distort it into his own image.
Herbert Blount wants to break into the movies in the worst possible way. He gets his wish when he buys his way onto the set of a crime drama about a perpetually vaping cop played by a wonderfully, game, self-deprecating Harry Hamlin, partner Hayes MacArthur and Hamlin’s crime-fighting love interest Missi Pyle.
The obsessed and unhinged movie fan only has eyes for Pyle. For him, this lurid genre movie about a serial killer who imitates the crimes of serial killers from throughout the ages exists solely to showcase the grace, beauty and ineffable dignity of his favorite actress.
Pyle is the perfect object of Herbert’s outsized and deluded obsession, a show-business lifer who has been around for a very long time. She’s recognizable and soothingly familiar without being terrible famous, as well as a gifted comic actress in addition to being a traditional beauty.
At first Herbert is content to merely stalk Pyle from the voyeuristic distance of a camera he uses to chronicle the grubby, low-stakes making of the film-within-a-film. But at a certain point, Herbert decides that Rifkin can’t fulfill his vision for what the movie should be, or do right by Pyle, who the disturbed movie buff simultaneously places high atop a lofty pedestal and thinks nothing of kidnapping and abusing.
Herbert decides to take over the film and create his own “Director’s Cut” by kidnapping Pyle and forcing her to “act” in this new, even shittier version opposite a new leading man he finds infinitely preferable to the lecherous L.A Law star formerly getting top billing: himself.
It’s Peeping Tom meets Bowfinger as Herbert uses computers and some of the least special, least convincing special effects this side of Plan 9 From Outer Space to cobble together his own Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie out of old, real footage from the Rifkin version, creepy, voyeuristic shots he stole while stalking Pyle, and amusingly terrible new footage of the clearly distraught and terrified leading lady haltingly reading her awful new dialogue opposite her even more stilted new leading man.
Jillette plays his usual arrogant know-it-all here, but he’s funnier, more convincing and more compelling playing a deranged lunatic willing to commit all manner of crimes, both legal and artistic, in order to realize a nonsensical, narcissistic vision than he was playing himself under Arthur Penn’s direction in Penn & Teller Get Killed.
The audio commentary gimmick, which works way better than it has any right to, affords Jillette, through Herbert, an opportunity to heckle the movie within a movie. There’s something wonderfully perverse about the movie’s sly, knowing critique of sloppy cinematic and cop movie conventions coming from a character violently divorced from reality.
Director’s Cut has a rich and under-utilized satirical target in audio commentaries, those inherently self-indulgent explorations of the most tedious aspects of the filmmaking process. Whether Herbert is identifying Gilbert Gottfried as the guy from Problem Child 2 or complaining that Rifkin doesn’t take full advantage of a dude from Total Recall (the good one, not the 2012 remake, Herbert notes) the film’s novel format proves wonderfully conducive to jabs at every aspect of the filmmaking process, from nonsensical flashbacks to the stilted delivery and woodenness of crowd-funding “actors” who bought their roles rather than earning them through talent.
I went into Director’s Cut thinking it might make a better short than a feature but I need to hand it to the filmmakers, and a cast that includes Tobin Bell, Lin Shaye, Nestor Carbonell and Penn’s magic partner Teller in a fun speaking role: they’re able to sustain a super-high concept conceit for eighty solid minutes.
Director’s Cut only begins to feel like a self-indulgent vanity project during end credits featuring a performance by Penn Jillette the musician and an endless list of the patrons who helped make the film happen. If you’re a crowd-funder (and for my sake as well as the film’s, I very much hope that you are) this will be of interest to you, especially if you derive a sick sexual thrill from seeing your name in the end credits of a winningly, ragingly post-modern exploration of independent filmmaking at its most unhinged.
I’m not a fan of Jillette’s politics or his atheism, but projects like this make it impossible to deny his talent and intelligence. He’s a hell of an interesting guy and in Director’s Cut he and Rifkin, with a whole lot of help from the masses, have made a hell of an interesting little sleeper that’s much better than it really has any right to be.
Be like a non-psychotic Herbert Blount and help keep the lights on here at the Happy Place by pledging over at https://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace