Good Touch, Bad Touch

Wrestling with Hollywood: Cinematographer Jeff Barklage (left) on the set of The Naked Man

In the fall of 1997, a 38-year-old storyboard-artist-turned-director from Dayton, Ohio, stood with a film crew in the cavernous Minneapolis Armory, making the debut feature that he had been dreaming about for a decade. The movie concerned a pair of subjects--pro-wrestling and Minnesota--that would meet in the American ring in about a year, but already the filmmaker had enough good buzz in his corner. Buoyed by the success of made-in-Minnesota movies such as Fargo and Grumpy Old Men, and by recent legislation that gave a five percent rebate on in-state spending to out-of-town producers, the five-million-dollar film had been financed by the legendary independent producer Ben Barenholtz (Eraserhead), who at the start of shooting sold the movie to the well-regarded distributor October Films (Secrets & Lies). As cinematic tag teams go, the October/Barenholtz combo seemed invincible to the first-time filmmaker. Little did he know that in 12 months his wrestling movie would be face-down on the mat, crying uncle.

This is the story of a weird movie about a chiropractor-by-day/wrestler-by-night, and its infinitely long journey to the big screen. It's also the story of a fledgling filmmaker whose close ties to one of the Coen Brothers helped immeasurably in getting his debut feature made, but had little effect on getting it released in theaters. Moreover, it's the story of a formerly independent film company that changed hands twice in a year's time, and of an industry that became so bloated that even a film co-written and -produced by Oscar winner Ethan Coen couldn't reach a paying audience in his hometown, where it was shot.

Would the picture ever get released--anywhere in the world? If this story were being made into a movie, it would probably have a happy ending in which the film finally makes its way to a national art-house chain, against all odds. Alas, in the real world, there is only the film itself--which, according to its co-writer and director, J. Todd Anderson, is the allegorical tale of "good intentions gone bad, and the person with the good intentions hasn't been told that they're going bad. Nobody has bothered to inform him."

Anderson is referring to the clueless protagonist of his movie The Naked Man, but he might as well be describing himself. A full year-and-a-half after shooting wrapped on his surreal black comedy about a holistic bonebreaker-turned-superhero (Michael Rapaport), Anderson, who has been the Coen Brothers' storyboard artist since Raising Arizona, didn't know if his debut feature would ever see the light of day. "It's just such a mystery to me when it's going to happen, whether it's going to happen," he said on the phone from Dayton in March, sounding crestfallen yet still protective of his faint hope that October might grant his film a limited release after all. "I can tell you that I worked six years of my life on this film. I spent a lot of my own money up-front, and then Ethan got involved and we finished the shoot on time and on budget--all the really boring things that you don't want to hear. Making a movie that doesn't get released certainly won't get you another movie, that's for sure. I don't even have a tape of the movie that I can show to people. They sent me one, but the sound is bad on it, and I'm not going to show that to people."

Clearly, a lot had changed since the start of production in September 1997, when The Hollywood Reporter announced The Naked Man as October Films' third high-profile acquisition in a week, following the company's pricey purchases of Robert Duvall's The Apostle and the British boxing drama Twentyfourseven. ("October is getting Naked," read the Reporter's cheeky headline.) This Coen co-written tale of a professional neck-snapper who preaches "spinal integrity" while wrestling in an anatomically illustrated body stocking would surely have struck October as an attention-getter--which in 1997 was an end in itself. (Perpetuating the optimism in these pages, set visitor Peter Scholtes described the film as "a darkly comic murder thriller in the Fargo tradition.") Indeed, six months after the indie-film boom seemed to explode Hollywood's hegemony on an atypical Oscar night, upwardly mobile distributors such as October were anxious to compete for prestige with Miramax by flaunting their latest purchases. And having just been bought itself by Universal Studios, October likely felt the need to prove its worth in recruiting indies while taking full advantage of the new owner's deep pockets.

But that was before October commenced a yearlong period of box-office flops (anyone remember Kicked in the Head? Kiss or Kill? Still Breathing?)--a miserable drought by the end of which the company was still holding The Naked Man and a half-dozen other titles tentatively scheduled for release at the end of '98. (Meanwhile, the Coens issued the commercially underwhelming The Big Lebowski, which couldn't have done much to augment their clout.) After The Naked Man failed to show up in the fall (a release at Landmark's Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis was announced and then dropped), Variety described October's postponement of the film as a "fly in the ointment," suggesting that the Coens were unhappy about the company's stated interest in premiering it on cable or videotape. In January of '99, a paper in Anderson's home state of Ohio reported that the black comedy had "apparently proved too odd for October Films," and that the film had been sold to the Encore channel--this just weeks before word came that October itself would be sold again, to Home Shopping Network magnate Barry Diller (who created the überindie USA Films by lumping October together with Gramercy Pictures and Propaganda Films).  

"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.

No doubt Ethan Coen would beg to differ. "I thought J. Todd did a great job," he told me in March, "and, on its own terms, [The Naked Man] is a very funny movie. But that's all it has to offer, which, sadly, isn't enough. Greatness is not how you sell movies anymore: It's with a lot of money, and by virtue of the names of the people in it."

True enough, and yet the influential indie advocate John Pierson seems right to wonder why October would have funded the film on the strength of Coen's name but not released it for the same reason--and why Coen didn't raise more of a fuss on behalf of his friend's "great" work. "I mean, he's not Oliver Stone--he's not gonna start writing editorials in the New York Times," Pierson says. "But he does have clout in this end of the business, and it would clearly be an image problem for October or USA Films to have Ethan Coen being unhappy in public. October did finance the movie, and they have an incentive to do anything they can to recoup their money. Probably someone just made a hard business decision that they're more apt to make their money back by not even spending what it would cost to release the film theatrically in one or two cities, like Paramount did with It's Pat. Maybe [a limited release] puts more egg on their face than to just say, 'Okay--straight to video!'"

Speaking of video, J. Todd Anderson, after six years of hard work and who knows how many missed opportunities, is finally due for a tape with decent sound: The Naked Man has just been announced as a new release through USA Home Entertainment, available September 28 at most Blockbuster locations.

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