My father and I made Super-8 films together when I was about ten. I was usually the star, playing such characters as the hunted protagonist of The Most Dangerous Game; in which I wore an American flag headband which I wrapped around the tip of an arrow before lighting it and setting my stalker ablaze, the stone-faced, quick-drawing 'Sherrif Wade,'--always one to investigate "extreme weirdness," and, most often, 'Lar E. Rivers--portrait-painter--whose fictional 'Estate' was always frought with weirdness.
The roles Terry assumed seem to me now strikingly in character: always secondary, tremendously supportive, and continually jumpstarting the whole business into uproarious mayhem. His roles included Deputy Clark--the inept yes-man to Sherrif Wade, a deranged prat-falling masked gunman, and most wonderfully: the peerless 'Mr.Weird.'
After a day's, or more likely, night's shooting, we developed the film at "Big Boy Melvin's Drug," as Terry liked to refer to the pharmacy in Great Barrington, and when it came back from the lab, we raced across the border into Connecticut to screen the rushes in my bedroom, which we had fitted with a build-it-yourself editing bench described inThe Mother Earth News. I vividly recall being lulled to sleep by his gentle winding of films through the viewer, the images flickering about my darkened room like some enchanted fire; he gazing into the soft movement with concentrated wonder, while I drifted off to sleep.
Our first film was a silent, cross-genre epic: Night of Terror, Day of Weird. It starts out like an eerie Hound of the Baskervilles, quickly seguing into Western-cum-psychotropic adventure, climaxing in full-on horror--all peppered with comic-relief and existential probings--courtesy of Mister Weird and his unpredictable larks. Terry, who rarely talked of his Native American ancestry, invariably revealed himself to be the Trickster; capable of inserting disquieting miracles at any stage of the narrative.
Creating the title-cards for the dialog was one of my jobs, and we used professional 3D plaster letters. I was introduced to Terry's uniquely stylistic syntax in the most visceral way; physically pressing each period, comma and ellipsis against our black title-board, then lighting the finished phrases for filming. We quickly ran out of the "I"s, as they were the only elements we could use for the underlining of certain words--'to give them emphasis'--as anyone familiar with Terry's writing will know was his want.
The first scene we shot for Night of Terror features me as a kind of night-owly E.A. Poe figure, plotting out an intricate hand-drawn map by the light of a candle-laiden human skull. My attention is drawn towards the window, as we cut to our first line of the film (in title-card):
Signalling some terrible offsceen howl (emanating, no doubt, from the Moors of Litchfield County) I respond with classic silent film bravado;
HARK! WHAT IN DEVIL?
The odyssey begins, as my search for the origin of this sound takes us through one of the great Berkshire snowstorms of the late-60s. I am accompanied by my faithful black dog, and together we sight the unmistakeable Mr. Weird, rooting around in a graveyard. Weird notices me, and after a series of double, triple and even quadruple-takes, draws his lugar and begins firing wildly. A shoot-out ensues, as does his hasty departure--complete with his attempt to fire at me from behind his back while running, and a distant, priceless pratfall. In classic 'John Jack Ford' Low Angle, I cooly take my aim and fire a warning shot above his head.
By the Adams' 8'x8' headstone, which lay at the center the graveyard on our property, and where this scene takes place, I find Weird's exotic rucksack in the snow--full of riches which pour over my scooping hands like liquid treasure. Inside a black box I find what must certainly be the largest diamond ever. It was in reality an octagonically-cut solid glass paperweight from Playboy, whose insignia I was vaguely familiar with, but which I made sure to conceal in the palm of my hand when in Close-Up. Finally came our first Special Effect: the Smoldering Elixer. Inside a green, sea-glass bottle, we soaked two cotton balls with rubbing alcohol and set them aflame, quickly starting the camera and closing the lid. As I open the magic flagon, a thick stream of sensuous smoke fills the December sunlit air, and I imbibe it eagerly.
After the graveyard scene, things are never quite the same. My journey home finds me unable, despite episodic plodding, to advance through the waist-high snowbanks. The single title:
introduces the Evergreen-lined snowy tableau of Bowser and I abandoning the hunt, and me beginning to swirl round and round; the huge flakes settling upon us, the heavy rifle at the end of my arm swinging me into a crazy, elliptical orbit. The two of us, shot in Slow-Motion, give ourselves over to a surrealistic dervish, the dog bounding in and out of the whiteness all around. I drop my rifle, and fall deeply into the snow.
Meanwhile, Back At The Studio...
Lar E. Rivers' grand, yet pitch-black studio was filmed in the attic of our Canaan house--resembling some improbable Germanic attelier. The Cathedral-shaped space is graced by some of the longest wood beams in the Berkshires, but the eccentric painter and his subject are seen cramped under the two small windows along the North wall--the only source of light in the room to paint by. We are an odd pair, sihlouetted in daylight--I painting Mr. Weird, who is seated, his back to camera.
From Weird's point of view, I am absorbed in my work--perhaps too much so. The actual canvas I pretend to paint is a wholly amateurish rendering in oil we had picked up at the dump, depicting a "dumbell businessman" in blue jacket and striped tie,
daubed on some kind of thick board. It was so crude and shadeless as to at first glance resemble American folk-art, yet it lacked any expressiveness whatsoever, boasting only primary colors, wan flesh-tones, and a toupee-like brown blob for a hairdo. This bit of treasure-trash--and the notion of 'making it hot' for Larry Rivers--was undoubtedly the seed from which Night of Terror, Day of Weird blossomed.
A wide shot reveals me applying the finishing touches to the canvas, Weird slouched in his chair, and the rather disturbing fact that his face is completely obscured by a coarse leather ski-mask. Equally disarming is the odd abruptness with which he moves his head from side to side at odd intervals, as if suddenly clearing insects from his ears.
I had pretended in my childhood to be Otis Redding, but never a painter. The actions come easily to me: Wetting the tip of my brush with my tongue, dipping it into the palatte, I scrutinize my subject, squinting with great intensity at him, occaisionally holding the brush at eye level and looking past it, comparing color to texture, light to form.
A series of Close Ups reveals the literally inscrutible Mr. Weird to be bored to dangerous distraction--tilting his head--holding it there for some time--snapping it suddenly from side to side. Finally he bursts out with:
"JUST WHAT IS YOUR GAME, ANYHOW?"
I regard him narrowly.
"RIVERS IS THE NAME,
PORTRAIT PAINTING IS MY GAME"
He lolls back in his chair, seeming to take it in, and muses,
"WELL THEN, MISTER LAR E. RIVERS,
IF INDEED THAT IS YOUR NAME..."
Quick Cut to me looking at him in annoyance
"LET'S HAVE A LOOK AT THIS SO-CALLED PORTRAIT!
"VERY WELL..." I answer, somewhat ruefully.
Weird marches over and sees the unimaginative sham of a painting instead a rendition of his enigmatic, chimeracle self. With hands on hips, he convulses his whole upper-body--like a bird pecking at a moving target. He stops suddenly, challenging me in pique:
"WHY, THAT'S NOT A PROPER LIKENESS!"
Taken aback, I regard the painting with new concern. During this respite, he studies me narrowly through the hole near his eye and says,
"SAY, WHAT KIND OF PAINTER ARE YOU, ANYHOW?"
I look at him, at the painting, then back at him again, and say with ultimate determination,
This sets Weird hopping, and prompts his retort:
With manic urgency, he reaches into his jacket and widthdraws a huge kitchen knife, which, after much wild gesticulation, he deftly plunges into the forehead of the cryptic oil.
For this cathartic climax we used Special Effect #3--causing blood to gush from the punctured painting's forehead. Using a turkey baster, we ejaculated fits of blood onto the painting--allowing it to run like a river across the suit jacket. Super-8 Kodachrome is still renown for its ability to render glistening reds, and we knew that the thick 'Red-Devil' enamel we used on our tractor would achieve ultimate film-blood effect.
Later on in the film, Springtime is upon us, and the hunt rages on. I am in my cowboy outfit, and at the time loved to strut-about like a hero from theRawhide Kid or Max Brand. I was already a pretty good shot, and in our story, to fill-in the idle time and 'hone my reflexes,' I engage in a bit of target-practice. Crossing a wooden bridge over a raging river, I scoop up some snow and pack it into a ball. Flinging it into the air, I quickdraw and fan the gun, blasting it into oblivion. We filmed the snowball bursting apart by blowing it up with a firecracker. Terry would light the snowball's fuse and throw it high against the sky, as I followed its trajectory through the lens.
Peering out from an 18th century kiln by the river, which is now fenced off as an historical ruin of the Iron-Forging days, Mr. Weird watches me, poised with his ornate brass blow-pipe and poison dart. He inhales deeply, drawing his aim upon me. I continue shooting snowballs out of the sky, oblivious to his madness. Cut to Weird as he chokes absurdly on the dart, spitting wildly and pawing at his mouth. He tries again, swallowing it completely this time. Intercut: POW! Another exploding snowball. Arrchhhhh! Another botched attempt on Western/Painter's life.
In the climax of his derangement, dad uses another priceless prop--an item around which his whole character was based: the hypodermic needle with realistic draw-effect. By tripping a button on the large plastic syringe, a layer of 'blood' fills the chamber according to the speed at which your thumb releases the spring-loaded plunger. In a sequence we shot in the livingroom, Terry removes his leather mask only to reveal another mask beneath it. He approaches the set-peice: an ornate wooden chest atop a rickety chess table. At the start of the take, he opens the chest, revealing a realistic snake quivering inside, coiled and ready to strike. Dad suddenly grabs the snake by the head, unhinging its jaws with forefinger and thumb. From his breast pocket comes the syringe, and Weird deftly extracts the venom from the roof of the snake's mouth. Then, in a move he had described beforehand, but which I still did not anticipate, he turns towards camera, and in a moment of purely deranged concentration, slowly injects himself in the temple with the venom. The scene ends with him trembling in a demented frenzy, syringe in one hand, the snake writhing lifelike from the other--his literal 'mask of anguish' careening towards the camera.
I was only ten years old, but for me, injecting your head with the venom of a snake, or painting the portrait of a man wearing a mask was a perfectly natural part of the imaginative world, and the imaginative world was by far the most interesting.
We constructed the massive end-credits together. By attatching the large ivory letters to a big black drum, and rotating it on our electric meat spit, we produced a true 'rolling credit' sequence. Prior to any filming, I constructed a hideous paper-mache head, with misshapen screws for teeth, which we used as our 'Studio Logo':
A GROSS WEIRD PRODUCTION
Night of Terror Day of Weird a film
I think the notion of 'auteur film' was still a European phenomenon--Andrew Sarris was not yet pronouncing its arrival--and I was perhaps at that moment the very first American 'director' (certainly the only pre-pubescent one) to command such exceptional billing.
This amazing slight of hand--letting you think you were the creator, while he did all the fine-tuning--all the invention--is a Southern trademark I would witness throughout his life and involvement with other people.
Terry was a consummate actor, and even for this silent film he developed his characters'voices before anything else--a technique he had in common with Peter Sellers--letting accent, syntax and modulation define gesture, mannerism--even motivation. He never stopped writing dialog until the day he died, and all of his dialog he wrote to be performed. One might assume that some of my descriptions of his acting could be characterized as 'haming'--but his characters, no matter how maniacal, deranged, or starry-eyed, were always credible, and radiated an endearing keenness of wit--however misguided. One can even pratfall with Terry's lines and retain the dignity of persuasive intelligence--witness George C. Scott in Strangelove, or Jane Fonda in Barbarella.
His unwavering insistence on maintaining dramaturgic 'credibility' is held dear among world-class directors for countermanding many an ebullient (and certainly 'unwriterly') temptation to 'blow the scene' with a cheap line or gimmick.
In our cinema, dad was always the agent of comfortable madness and invention, while I was the figure of reason and even- keeled responsibility. He gave me the beacon of far-flung imagination, while assuring me I was on this earth. I didn't pratfall--that was his domain--I was the straightman, and he: the seasoned jester.
He: a slo-motion flaming arrow peiricng his back, rushing wildly away from the camera--the ten year-old protagonist with improvised bow in hand, observing him keenly from behind the bush, from behind the lens.
He: luxurant bon-viveur dex-head: not seeing any money from Easy Rider or Candy--arms flailing, voice barking, "what manner of weirdness..." as the IRS swooped down and satire dies in the 70s.
I remember losing sight of Dad when he went to Chicago in 1968 to cover the National Democratic Convention with William Burroughs and Jean Genet for Esquire. My mother tried to sheild me from seeing the footage of the riots (this was pre-V-chip) but through her tears told me that he was somewhere amidst the flailing Chicago police batons and Mayor Daley's tear-gas.
In my teens, we made another 'portrait-painter' film with a sound camera; the sumptuous Super-8 Ectachrome soaking up the green grass and Fall-tree yellows. I wear a day-glow orange hunter's rainhat, and Terry, of course, a mask. We bought it at a magic shop in Boston--a half beautiful-man, half disfigured-man's face--long white hair the only thing linking the antithetical profiles. We are having what appears to be an amiable session; sitting on the twilit grass by the riverbank, me painting the normal side of his face--the only one I can see. After some dabs to the canvas, I say "Would you kindly turn this way..."
Suddenly the light fades, and in Close-Up he begins adjusting his hair with erratic waves of his hand, then menacingly turns his head so that the deformed side of his face slowly reveals itself to me.
"Not a pretty sight, is it--Mister portrait-painter! " He says diabolically, completing the turn of his head so that I and the camera receive the full impact of his hideousness.
"Why you..." I say, reaching for my arsenal, quickly blasting him with a loud-reporting tiny Swiss-made revolver about the size of a quarter.
Perhaps he showed me his 'disastrous side' in our inventions, so that when I caught a glimpse of them in real life, I wouldn't feel so shocked or disappointed. It worked. During my twenties, and to this day, he dances in and out of the popular landscape which informs the winds of change around me: nuclear nightmares, Sgt. Pepper's, Naked Lunch, New Journalism, Post-War Paris, Be-bop jazz, Yippies, Lenny Bruce, "syphhed-out Republicans," Independent Film, The Rolling Stones--he was always there as The affable Trickster, ready to assist the narrative jump off its track, and play that strange, beautiful song we were all feeling.
*"Rolling Over Our Nerve Endings"; a piece Terry did about the ficiton of William Burroughs; BookWeek; UK; 1964.(see Grand Street 'Dreams' issue)