Byline: Robert Nott
A quintet of horse operas
When you think of Western movies, you may conjure up images of Gary Cooper facing down a trio of desperadoes on a deserted street. But how often do you associate the genre with a saloon act featuring a singing and dancing incubus?
The West sure has changed. Maybe it went thataway. Or maybe the new crop of filmmakers is infusing this firmly American cinematic genre with new blood.
Call it "The New West." That's what the Santa Fe Film Festival is titling a series of five short films that pay homage to the Western while pushing its boundaries past the usual limits.
Vanessa Vassar's Billy is a three-minute stream of consciousness monologue, delivered by Jill Scott Momaday, about Billy the Kid. Edgar B. Pablos' Agua Dulce mixes sex, spiritualism and racism in a tale of a vengeful posse's efforts to nail a Hispanic cowhand and their ultimate regret once they catch up with him. Adam Taylor's Ridin' Down (shot in Northern New Mexico) tells the tale of three not-so-bright cowboys who find themselves on the lam after a botched holdup.
Rounding out the quintet of horse operas is Anna Biller's must-see film A Visit From the Incubus, which mixes the Western genre with ingredients from horror films, musicals and comedies, and Albuquerque filmmaker Lance Maurer's The Legend of Aerreus Kane, an enjoyably eerie story of a legendary gunman taking on a mythical monster in the mountain town of Bane.
Maurer chose to make his film silent, which adds to the viewing pleasure. Imagine putting William S. Hart in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and you get the picture.
A self-taught film artist, Maurer made one previous film, the low-budget feature American Alien. The title of that was originally Space Cowboys, but he was ready to release it about the same time that Warner Brothers had a similarly titled Clint
Eastwood epic on the market, so he changed the name. He made Aerreus Kane in and around Northern New Mexico over a period of eight weeks in February and March of this year for about $8,000, using local talent.
"I have a reverence for silent films," Maurer explained. "I also love vampire films, although I don't want to become a B vampire film director. I also love Westerns -- my favorites are the spaghetti Westerns that Sergio Leone made. Those are a huge influence."
Maurer, who wrote and directed the picture, sets an effectively bizarre otherworldly tableau throughout the picture, and he succeeds at recapturing the jerky, grainy footage of the silent film era. Title cards fill in exposition when necessary, but you realize how unnecessary dialogue is in some cases.
He developed the short as part of a background story for a bigger feature film he plans using some of the same characters -- and after discovering that a fan of his American Alien movie was prepared to invest money in the production of a short.
Maurer wants to celebrate mythmaking and to do it in a way that stresses character and story over special effects and brainless bang-bang blowups.
"My ultimate goal is to tell mythic stories," he explained. "If you look at the basis of almost every religion and every story that's been told, you'll find that's what it all boils down to -- myth.
"I don't like noisy, exploding films -- though they can be entertaining. I think the true-quality storytelling approach is seriously lacking in
Hollywood today. If people are entertained by my story, I'll be happy."
A Visit From the Incubus should make you happy too, thanks to a delightful sense of humor and an off-the-wall, no-rules-apply approach.
It also has its disturbing moments, particularly in the early scenes wherein an incubus, a mythical creature who sexually devours women while they sleep, takes advantage of slumber-bound Lucy (played by director-writer Biller).
But Lucy gets her revenge -- in the style of the West, though she's more Mae West than Old West. The two have their final showdown -- a talent contest -- in a saloon full of rowdy, lusty cowboys. Since the incubus not only looks like that old character actor J. Carroll Naish but also sings and dances like J. Carroll Naish, he really doesn't stand much of a chance.
Shot on the sly on various soundstages in the Los Angeles area, A Visit From the Incubus plays like an early 1950s garish musical fantasy with supernatural elements sprinkled throughout. Biller, a theater and film artist, pays tribute to such cult Westerns as Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar with this short.
"I'm a big fan of Westerns," Biller said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I've studied the Westerns where women were the fighters and the shooters and just as good as the men. I'm fascinated by this because the Western is a male genre, and I'm trying to reclaim it a little bit."
Reclaiming it also meant reinventing it. She managed to pack four film genres into 26 minutes and continuously hold interest thanks to a strong narrative line that nonetheless leaves enough room to take playful detours.
Biller said she was using the incubus to draw attention to the sexual confusion surrounding women when they find themselves wanting to be desirable but also wanting to be in control of the passions that come with that attitude.
"The incubus takes her sexually and uses her for his own pleasure," she said. "But she fights him by taking her sexuality back and using it for her own pleasure in arousing a saloon full of cowboys. It's about things that are very female-oriented: the fear of being raped
contrasting with the excitement of being a woman who is sexy and desirable."
She laughingly noted that her decision to do the story in a Western setting stemmed from her own desire to do a big saloon musical number. Incubus is not exactly a one-person show, but Biller did write it, direct it, produce it, make the costumes, find the soundstages, build the sets, write the music (which is a howl) and perform in it. Fortunately her out-of-the-ballpark artistic talent pays off on all levels.
Biller said that when she's watched the film with an audience in a movie theater, they generally suffer from a "collective delirium." She won't be able to attend the Santa Fe Film Festival but hopes audiences connect on some level.
"I want people to laugh and enjoy it," she said. "But I also want them to get that weird feeling where they say, 'Something is happening in this film that's different from what you normally see.'"
To that end, A Visit From the Incubus fits the bill. It's probably unlike anything else you've ever seen, and you can't blame Biller for coloring outside the lines. After all, there aren't too many Gary Coopers around anymore.
The New West, five short films
11 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 5; also 2:15 p.m. Dec. 8
Plan B Video Hall, 1050 Old Pecos Trail
$8, packages available; 983-9899
1. Lucy (Anna Biller) single-handedly entertains a saloon full of loud and lusty cowhands in A Visit From the Incubus. The incubus doesn't stand a chance.
2. Mythical gunman Aerreus Kane (Lance Maurer) prepares to send a ghoul who has dug his way out of boot hill back to his grave in The Legend of Aerreus Kane.