The Cold Case: Remembering Screamplay, From the Father of 'Scanimation' (Ask Your Kids)
Exhausted the classic canon? Fed up with the current cinema of remakes, reboots and reimaginings? This week The Cold Case exhumes the best surrealist noir you've never heard of.
If a "Hollywood insider satire whodunit slasher" was announced today, you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes in expectation of a Friedberg-Seltzer atrocity with a title like Hacky Movie. But if, reading on, you saw the words "shot as a B&W German Expressionist noir on one set in Boston", your contempt might be replaced by something approaching incredulity. Even harder to believe is that such a film already exists and that it's virtually unknown.
Directed by and starring artist Rufus Butler Seder, 1984's Screamplay is about screenwriting naïf Edgar Allen, who gets off the bus in Hollywood with a portable typewriter and all the usual dreams. Almost immediately, our zero-hero falls into a murder plot, seeks refuge as a janitor in the rundown Welcome Apartments and hammers out a slasher screenplay whose murderous modus operandi is soon being copied by a killer.
Made for just $45,000 - the budget blew out by $20,000 in hospital bills after underground film legend George Kuchar broke his ankle during a take - Screamplay is a marvel of ingenuity, comprised as it is of mattes, double exposures, back projections and forced perspectives to create the illusion of a seedy and surreal L.A. Think of it as an analogue-era Sin City. The seams just add to the charming sense you're watching something that escaped the silent era and bred with a Poverty Row programmer of the 1940s (trailer NSFW):
Screamplay's sensibility, though, is very much of the early 1980s, as droll and idiosyncratic as Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise or Alex Cox's Repo Man. Seder's movie premiered at New York's Independent Feature Project the same year the Coens debuted Blood Simple. New Line Cinema were initially interested but the director held out for them to blow his movie up from 16- to 35-millimeter. Then, after a savage review following the Boston Film Festival, New Line lost interest. The only place Seder could find distribution was schlock outfit Troma. "I never really felt that my movie belonged in their pantheon," Seder told me from his studio in Boston. "They were the bottom of the barrel choice."
The motivation for making Screamplay in the first place came when Seder, who'd studied at the American Film Institute and won international acclaim with his inventive short films, was unable to get his movie about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla off the ground. After 10 years and 14 drafts, the project was sunk by an underhanded producer. Returning to Boston, Seder dug out Screamplay, which he'd cowritten with Ed Greenberg in the late 1970s and which echoed such Hollywood experiences and was fleshed out with characters he'd known at the real Welcome Apartments.
Clearly still proud of the visual effects -- "even the swimming pool was a piece of Plexiglas stretched out between matte paintings on foam rubber so it looked like it was undulating" -- Seder surprisingly disparaged the rest of the "kinda boring" Screamplay. "When it gets to the point where the actors are acting, just sitting talking in a room, the scene pretty much goes dead," he said, leading me into the unusual situation of telling a director his work is much better than he thinks.
That's because despite rough-and-ready performances, the characters - from nympho former B-movie actress Nina to heavy-metal ganja prophet Lot - are funny and lived in. With his wild hair and dark, darting eyes, Seder channels any number of iconic silent-film madmen. And you can practically smell George Kuchar's rage-a-holic apartment manager Martin. "The first day, in character, he delivered a line and then spat directly onto the set," said Seder. "In that way he set the tone for his character."
Seder was hugely disappointed that his movie plummeted directly into obscurity. "I'd be a liar to say otherwise," he said. "But I'm very happy for the way things turned out for me. I got spun in a completely different direction."
That direction was shunning the dream of "making it" in Hollywood and returning to what really fascinated him in the first place -- "the plasticity of the moving image" -- which he explored in glass tile murals and optical patents and inventions. Most recently, Seder translated his art into kids' "Scanimation Picture Books" Swing and Gallop. The latter, whose cover references Eadweard Muybridge's seminal moving image of a horse in motion, has sold two million copies in 16 countries. Not a bad outcome at all. "I guess I have Screamplay indirectly to thank for all this," mused Seder. "In an odd sort of way. In an ironic way."