Saturday, July 01, 2006

Declarations of Independence

Edge of Outside, airing on Turner Classic Movies July 5 and July 19Awhile back I wrote a post in which I discussed my favorite Jim Thompson novel, Pop. 1280, and mentioned how several of Thompson’s novels have been made into films, including Sam Peckinpah’s terrific 1972 adaptation of The Getaway. Sometime after I made that post I received an email from someone asking me if I'd be interested in previewing an upcoming documentary on Turner Classic Movies focusing on independent filmmakers (like Peckinpah), called Edge of Outside. They’d send me a “screener” -- an advance copy of the program -- that I could watch and then write about on the blog.

Like someone who’s led the betting throughout the hand only to be check-raised on the river, I took a moment to weigh my decision. This is (primarily, anyway) a poker blog . . . how might Edge of Outside relate to poker, I wondered? Andy Bellin, author of Poker Nation (a decent little page-turner full of anecdotes from the life of a twentysomething poker player), recently posted a complaint on his blog (The Poker Chronicles) about all of the requests he receives to post press releases. Most of this “poker spam” concerns advertising newly-created poker sites, though . . . apparently nothing as interesting as a documentary about independent film. What to do, what to do . . . ?

As a limit player who has learned you can't get very far always folding on the river, I decided to make the call. As it turned out, I made the right decision.

Edge of Outside is an hour-long compilation of interviews with actors, directors, cinematographers, and others associated with the making of independent films. A few directors -- Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino -- are given special attention as principal players, although the show also gives one a pretty good sense of how independent film fits into the overall history of cinema. The point is made that early giants of cinema like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were essentially “independent” insofar as they worked outside of the burgeoning studio system. Even directors like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock are argued to be representatives of the independent, no-compromising spirit. The viewer also learns how other movements such as Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave influenced American independent film. All in all an entertaining and informative hour that should prove interesting to just about any moviegoer.

What might a poker player get out of Edge of Outside? I can think of a couple of things.

For one, the show does a great job characterizing the independent filmmaker -- that is, using many examples, the show ultimately provides a kind of anthology of qualities that just about every true independent possesses. Interestingly, many of the adjectives and phrases used by interviewees to describe the best independent filmmakers are also often used to describe the best poker players. They all possess seemingly unlimited self-confidence. They have a lot of “hutzpah.” They always act according to the force of their own convictions. They are inventive, creative, driven. They are mavericks. Both are great at telling “stories” that audiences can relate to and/or find believable. Like a great poker player, the independent filmmaker absorbs lessons learned from others (from earlier generations and from contemporaries) and forges his or her own peculiar, successful style.

The other subject that comes up in Edge of Outside that might intrigue poker players is, of course, money. Coming up with enough scratch to make the film is a constant theme for these artists. Many treat money as utterly unimportant, insisting that they aren’t making their films to get rich, but to realize their own artistic visions. On the surface, this disdain for money might make the independent filmmaker seem utterly alien to poker players. There might be other things that attract us to poker, but just about all of us are also “in it for the money.” One often hears, however, how the top players are able to forget about the concrete reality of what the chips they’re pushing back and forth represent, instead concentrating wholly on the game and making correct decisions. You can’t be blood simple and recklessly discount the value of the chips altogether, advise the pros, but neither can you worry too much that a particular bet on a particular hand is equivalent to a house payment or new car or the gas bill or whatever. While we are all ostensibly trying to make money playing poker, I think we all can agree (even us short-stacked saps) that worrying about how much we’re putting into a given hand creates unneeded interference when trying to think clearly at the table.

I can certainly recommend Edge of Outside. The show premieres this Wednesday, July 5 (don't know if TCM intended a reference to Independence Day here or not, but it would make sense if they did) and will be rebroadcast on July 19. I also recommend several of the films being shown on Wednesdays throughout July on TCM as part of their “month-long tribute to filmmakers who have worked on the edges of Hollywood.” If you haven’t seen ’em, I can vouch for Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (with Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, both of whom are amazing here), Welles’s Othello, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Also catch Stanley Kubrick’s early triumph, Killer’s Kiss (airing the night of July 19), a genuinely suspenseful, noirish film that can certainly be described as “hard-boiled.”

Well, that was fun. Have to say I feel all right about the way I played that one. Nice hand, TCM.

Image: Edge of Outside (dir. Shannon Davis, 2006).

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