"I think October definitely knew what they were getting into," said Ethan Coen on the phone from New York in March. "If you read the script, you'd see that the movie is a faithful rendering of it. It's an odd script and it made an odd movie." So why not release it? "The reasons are pretty naked and pretty economic and pretty easy to understand," Coen said. "If you're a distributor confronted with an odd movie, which this inarguably is, you can take a gamble on really long odds and release it commercially, or take the sure thing [a cable sale] and then release it commercially afterwards. What [the decision] reflects more than anything else is the fact that it has gotten incredibly expensive to release a movie. The cost of release has escalated even beyond the cost of making movies--which has escalated beyond the cost of most other things."
So too there are a lot more movies than there were at the start of 1997, when Fargo's pair of Oscars helped give rise to the current indie glut. "The problem," according to October's co-founder Jeff Lipsky (who now runs the Samuel Goldwyn Company in New York), "is that there were approximately 1,000 independent American movies finished in '98--which is three a day. Now, with the recent success of some films shot on digital video, that number is likely to increase by 50 to 100 percent. And the reality is, even in New York City, only 150 independent films get into release each year. You do the math."
Okay--I will. In Minneapolis only eight October films premiered in 1998--all of them at Landmark's Uptown Theatre and Lagoon Cinema, which collectively debuted a whopping 87 movies that year. (Miramax Films and Sony Pictures Classics controlled the lion's share of local Landmark attractions in '98, delivering 13 and 14 titles respectively.) "You try to play what most people are going to want to see," says Cary Jones, vice president of marketing at Landmark, the nation's largest chain within what the industry has termed the "specialized film" market. "It's difficult to accommodate every film that's out there, and it's hard to anticipate what'll work, because a lot of times the films just don't perform. I don't know the particular circumstances of Naked Man--I'm not sure that we even had the opportunity to play it. But I would think, since we have a good relationship with USA [formerly October], that if they were looking for a venue they would be able to find one in Minneapolis, because of the local connection."
Although representatives of USA declined to comment on The Naked Man, it may be fair to assume that with only a limited number of slots available to October in the more desirable theaters owned by chains such as Landmark, the company simply chose not to push an "odd" movie that both Coen and Anderson believe had rated poorly at test screenings. "I know they did test-screen it," Coen said in March, "because they invariably do. And I'm sure it was uninformative, and did terribly. Our movies always test-screen terribly, because people aren't prepared for what they're going to see, and they just scratch their heads and go, 'What the hell was that?' I'm just speculating here, but I'd guess that [October] test-screened it hoping against hope that in spite of their expectations some strange thing might happen. But with this sort of movie, when you do 'mall intercepts' and bring in people at random to see the movie, which is what they usually do, nobody's going to know what to make of it."
And what does this critic make of it? Well, let me start by saying that The Naked Man is no lost masterpiece--which is a shame, because it would make another convincing case for how a formerly alternative purveyor of culture lost its nerve in the wake of new corporate ownership, failing to appreciate the boldly uncommercial work right under its nose. But alas, for all its surface surreality and Lynchian affectations (including a dwarf, an Elvis impersonator, a small-town store, and a severed hand), The Naked Man is merely emblematic: of the indie feeding frenzy that allowed the movie to be made in 1997; and of the industrywide wake-up call that has kept it on the shelf for the past two years and counting.
True, Anderson's indelibly twisted opening scene of the chiropractor at work (modeled after a five-minute short that first piqued Ethan Coen's interest in the early Nineties) does constitute a unique and disturbing vision. And a few audaciously gratuitous images of a fat-slob lieutenant who peppers his cold pizza with stale coffee grounds have remained in my memory for months. But while the sum total of this farce is certainly no more meager than the combined virtues of the last several teensploitations that Miramax muscled onto the big screen, it's also scarcely more compelling or coherent than any number of unreleased or straight-to-video films made recently by varied iconoclasts such as Abel Ferrara (The Blackout, New Rose Hotel), Frederick Wiseman (Public Housing), Larry Cohen (As Good as Dead), Mark Rappaport (The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender), and the Hughes Brothers (American Pimp)--not to mention the Naked Man-like Crimewave, a justly obscure screwball comedy co-written by the Coens and directed by their pal Sam Raimi in 1985.