The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera (1996 USA 55 mins)
Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: BFI, Independent Film Channel Prod: Paula Jalfon, Colin MacCabe, Tim Robbins Dir, Scr: Adam Simon Phot: Caroline Champetier Ed: Bill Diver
Cast: Samuel Fuller, Tim Robbins, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino
As a young man in 1930s New York City, the great American director Samuel Fuller worked in the newspaper business. Listening to Fuller describe this occupation in Adam Simon’s documentary about Fuller’s life and films, The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera, makes it seem the most exciting and pulsating occupation on the planet. In keeping with this, Fuller’s underrated picture Park Row (1952) is filled with a million specific details about the business, as told by someone who not only lived it but loved it like an acolyte who never lost his sense of innocent wonder. Only His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) presents as romanticized a view of the profession. In fairness, Park Row is the only Fuller film to make its actual subject the newspaper business, but all of his films have the inky verve of gritty tabloid journalism.
Fuller’s life-view seems equally crystallized by his experiences as an infantryman in WW II, witnessing his fellow man at his most savage and base. If Fuller’s great war films – The Steel Helmet (1951), Merrill’s Marauders (1962), The Big Red One (1980) – are among the best, most realistic, and, oddly, most moral ever made, all of his movies were, in his own words, “battlefields”: dirty, messy, and filled with the complications and moral grayness inherent in warfare.
I mention these two biographical details because in many respects they are all you need to know about Samuel Fuller the man. And because Fuller’s films were so unapologetically idiosyncratic in the way only truly personal cinema can be, to know Fuller the man is to know Fuller the filmmaker. The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera is keenly aware of this, which is perhaps why the words “typewriter” and “rifle” come before “movie camera” in the title. If the movie camera was the means through which Fuller expressed the passions (the newspaper business) and obsessions (WW II) which informed his life, what this exemplary documentary makes clear is that Fuller’s passion was never cinema for its own sake. Instead, he brought his passions and obsessions to his cinema.
In this respect, Fuller is characteristic of many of the directors of Hollywood’s golden era, among whom Fuller was surely the most wilfully perverse and single-mindedly idiosyncratic to work in anything resembling mainstream pictures. He had the advantage that Peter Bogdanovich recently discussed in his 1997 book of interviews with great Hollywood directors, Who the Devil Made It: he didn’t spend his life wanting to be a moviemaker. Bogdanovich’s plaintive speculation applies especially to Fuller’s art:
Every picture director – except ones from the most recent couple of generations – started out wanting to be something else. Allan Dwan was a football star, trained and then employed as an electrical engineer. Leo McCarey was a lawyer. Marshall Neilan was a car salesman. Victor Fleming was an auto mechanic. Alfred Hitchcock was schooled as an engineer, specializing in mechanical drawing. Howard Hawks built racing cars and airplanes. Fritz Lang planned to be an architect. John Ford thought he would be a sailor, or maybe a painter. I can’t help wondering if one of the things that’s gone wrong with the movies these days is that so many of us making them grew up wanting to make them – thereby specializing too soon. (1)
Though this documentary features interviews with Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino (all insightful, all reverential), it’s Fuller himself who hits this point home most profoundly, and adamantly. He speaks of the savagery of combat experienced first-hand and the glossy, sugar-coated treatment most Hollywood movies accord it. Near the end, he reveals to Tim Robbins – who serves as narrator, interviewer, and all around tour guide through Fuller Land – that the one thing he’d still like to do in his life is run a newspaper. The film is full of comparably invaluable moments and revelations.
As an historical document this movie is invaluable, offering a great filmmaker in the twilight of his life (Fuller died in 1997) an opportunity to reflect on his life and films. In the 1970s, Richard Schickel achieved something comparable with his masterful series of interviews with great Hollywood directors of the golden era (originally broadcast on PBS), such as King Vidor, George Cukor and Raoul Walsh, giving them – whose works had received such attention in the post-auteurist landscape – a voice. Like those films, Simon is wise enough to know who we’ve come to see and hear and he mainly stays out of the way. Because of this, Simon’s film comes to resemble a Fuller film in a karmic sense: it’s confrontational as Fuller directly addresses the camera, interspersed with more contemplative moments, and never less than true.
Unlike the recent One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (Chris Marker, 2000), The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera doesn’t attempt serious criticism of Fuller’s films. Instead, it covers just enough to serve as an introductory guide for a Fuller novice, who are, sadly, too many in number. Samuel Fuller never achieved the synthesis of popular familiarity and critical acclaim that Hawks or Hitchcock did towards the end of their careers. (It isn’t surprising to learn that financing for The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera was difficult to obtain, with final completion funds provided by the American cable networks Bravo and the Independent Film Channel.) If there’s any justice in the world, this song to a true Hollywood maverick will go some way in remedying that situation.