by Tony Nigro
A great cinematic resource is Chinatown. If you can see beyond the junky tourist shops and cheap bang snaps, you’ll find it. Sure, it’s not too surprising that with a little know-how you can track down a fresh Hong Kong DVD of 2046. But recently I struck gold: a not-so-fresh VHS bootleg of Menard’s Robber Baron (also presumably from Hong Kong, as the fuzzy Chinese and English subtitles lead me to believe). Who’d have thought? I was only looking for a cheap version of Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver. But it doesn’t end there.
The hapless and hopeless film geeks can easily spot one another, maybe even smell one another. At the store in question, one guy noticed my auspicious find and struck up a Menard conversation. This evolved to an exchange of email addresses, which led some diverting email exchanges about the director. This lasted about a week before the guy dropped the real bomb: late in his life, Menard wrote film criticism. And this guy had copies. And would I like to read it. Would I?!
It still doesn’t end there. From the best I can tell, this stuff is authentic. Menard’s loopy insights and passionate defense of the celluloid image and cinema in general abound in his writing. However, these are not the most interesting parts; we could gather that from his films or recently discovered journals. No, the most interesting thing about the film criticism of Peter Menard is that he only wrote about the films of Peter Menard. His own work! And in true Menard style, the director/film critic takes the writing as an opportunity to explain and wryly praise himself, but in the most self-effacing way you could expect — the third person.
In their day, his reviews and articles were only published, if at all professionally, in the most esoteric of places. Underground film society newsletters and mimeographed leaflets appear to be the extent of it. As with the distribution of Menard’s films, no one seems to be claiming rights to or desiring money from this stuff. So I will test the waters further by posting a clip here and awaiting cease-and-desist orders. Read it as ego, as humor or as something entirely different. No matter your choice, Menard’s rare and dizzying writing on film offers innumerable insights into the enigmatic filmmaker and his work. (Note in particular the self-conscious comparisons he makes of himself to his idols — Renoir — and possible acolytes — Cassavetes — comparisons that Menard enthusiasts have themselves made for years.)
What follows is Menard’s piece on his film Robber Baron, presumably written for the program of a midnight movie series (in New York City?) and dated November, 1976, 21 years after the film’s release:
|Black. The lulling sounds of the beach: quiet waves, an occasional seagull. Black. Nothing. Or so it seems until the black moves. Detail revealed ever so gradually. Light plays and jumps. The frame awakens to scattered grains of sand that are for a moment indistinguishable from that of the celluloid. A full minute passes. The immediacy smells. The camera pulls back enough to reveal familiar details: an extreme close-up of hair. The hair’s head moves, and we go blurry black. Still pulling back slowly. Focus returns, and the hair appears a greasy bird’s nest caked with sand to one side. Just below the mess, in lower right corner of the frame, an eye blinks open. Mesmerizing. Simple. Sublimely disorientating [sic]. This lasts all of a minute and a half.
Then, cut to a full-face close-up of our anti-hero, Tyrone Ventura, previously seen in Hell to the Chief as a ruthless but mediocre businessman who butts heads with the President of the United States. Ventura rolls over awake on the beach. He yawns. Cut to black. Music and title cards. Peter Menard once again has us where he wants us. Only we don’t know where that is just yet.
At his best, Menard’s style resembles a composite of other great directors who existed both before and after him. A humanist drama along the lines of Jean Renoir would bear abstract camera stylings and experiments with vision seen in early Stan Brakhage and then add the bleak impressions of 1960s Ingmar Bergman to taste. All this while demonstrating irreverence to traditional narrative that evokes the current directorial work of the actor John Cassavetes. Is Menard influenced by the greats, particularly Renoir? Yes, we know this because he mentions Renoir ad nauseam in interviews. Is Menard influential? Perhaps, though not as much as he could be. Is Menard visionary? No doubt.
Robber Baron’s premise seems purely Capra: Ventura awakes in a seaside Purgatory to relive his corrupt, storied life from a third person perspective. Every bell and whistle and kitchen sink is there, except the Ghost of Christmas Past, yet for the most part the picture is an Eisenhower-era political thriller about the methods by which a ruthless but mediocre businessman buys the presidency. Though at times overwrought, the movie’s Bergman beach and It’s a Wonderful Life gimmick are merely bookends, completely superfluous yet loaning the no-budget movie a grand artistic scope. Menard has licensed himself to freely mock the democratic process.
Yet he is not a political director. Robber Baron does feature a great deal of political satire, but satire in general is an element creeping through every Menard picture. An ironist before his time, satire is one of key elements of the Menard style, and above all Menard is a director of style. Granted, it is style on a shoestring, but no more could be expected from a silhouette in the shadow of Hollywood.
One strained topic in particular remains. Is Robber Baron a sequel to Hell to the Chief? When asked, Menard keeps his lips tight on that one. Without jumping to conclusions, then, one can safely assume that Ventura is a character with the same name, played by the same actor and put in very similar circumstances. A progression is apparent between the pictures, but movement is also apparent in the 24 separate stills per second that we call movies. In fact, nothing really moves but the projector. The human brain fills in the blanks, assuming a connection between the pictures that is not actually there.
Likewise, Robber Baron gives us no real connection to Hell to the Chief, but all this could easily be an oversight on the part of Menard.