On the release of what was to be the late Monte Hellman’s final feature film in 2011, critic Steve Erickson noted “Monte Hellman is the ultimate outlaw filmmaker.”
A decade earlier, filmmaker-critic Kent Jones wrote that “anything written in America about Monte Hellman … cinema’s most under-appreciated great director … must be a defense.”
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Decades before Jones’ astute assessment, film critic David Thomson had noted, “No system could digest the willful arbitrariness of Monte Hellman’s best films,” which is probably as clear an explanation of why Hellman made only one Hollywood Studio film in a directing career that stretched from 1959 to 2011 and included stints as Jack Nicholson’s filmmaking partner and Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut enabler-producer.
That assessment of Hellman’s importance, that notion that a defensive posture is the inevitable position of the Hellman fan and the idea that Hellman’s Hollywood Failure was his greatest success, all hold up quite well as we say farewell to Monte Hellman, aka King of the Road Movie, who died April 19.
While still in his 30s, Hellman, Nicholson and future Oscar-winning producer Fred Roos journeyed to the Philippines to make two low-budget actioners that were instrumental to Hellman’s growth as a filmmaker.
Next, Hellman and Nicholson journeyed to Utah where they made two strikingly original Westerns, “The Shooting” and “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1966) for indie producing legend Roger Corman. Made for a total of only $150,000, the reward for their creativity and ingenuity was Corman’s dismay at their artiness and a complete absence of virtually any place in the theatrical landscape.
That one studio film on Hellman’s resume, “Two Lane Blacktop” (1971) might have turned on a lot of European critics, but it turned off Lew Wasserman, the studio chief of Universal, where the film was produced.
Bad enemy for an outlaw to make.
For the next 40 years, Hellman toiled in the wilderness of uber independent filmmaking, scratching out a living making a small number of his little existential parables from the scraps of late spaghetti westerns, horror films, a kinky pirate tale and an exploitation actioner born from the misbegotten marketing notion that the millions of people around the world who bet on illegal cockfights were just dying to see a big-screen depiction of their favorite bloody pastime.
It was 50 years ago this summer that I first met Hellman, who was grappling with the fact that his road movie, “Blacktop,” was not going to be the next “Easy Rider” as Universal Pictures had hoped.
If you were to see a double bill of the two films today, you’d probably be startled by the way Hellman seemed to take every opportunity at hand to replace one recent mega-hit’s emotional peaks with his own land and brand of laconic European art film existential valleys. When we met, I was on my way to an ill-fated attempt at film studies at California Institute of the Arts and Hellman was beginning his lonely road to … somewhere.
We didn’t see a lot of each other until I got the chance to work as a driver and all-around fix-it boy on “Cockfighter” in 1974, which might have been filmed in the real chicken fighting barns and farms of Georgia but was in fact Hollywood’s version of Gulag Exile for an unrepentant auteur. That it was shot by Oscar-winning DP Nestor Almendros makes the tale only stranger and more emblematic of Hellman’s high-minded creative ideals in the service of low-rent helming chores.
By 1978, I was busy starting my own sound recording business, so I missed the chance to travel to Almeria, Spain, the famed spaghetti western locale where Hellman made “China 9, Liberty 37,” a beautiful film that received even less theatrical exposure than “Cockfighter.” Shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, “China” is mythic and deeply romantic and my vote for Hellman’s most underrated work.
It took Hellman another 10 years without a directing assignment to pick up that kinky pirate pic gig, “Iguana” (1988), which I helped write and was spared the tortuous shoot that Hellman endured in the Canary Islands with a Euro producer best known for keeping actors’ profits hidden from the tax authorities. At this point in life, Hellman was struggling financially, about to turn 60, battling a penurious amateur producer who would cut a day of shooting from the schedule to save $100 on batteries.
In 1991, when Hellman found the money for Quentin Tarantino to make his directorial debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin told me, “ ‘Iguana’ should have made Monte Hellman a household name.” Hmmmm. I love the film but watch it and you tell me if QT’s ebullience was charming in its youthful naivete.
On the back of “Iguana’s” failure to secure distribution, Hellman garnered a job making a straight to video horror film, “Silent Night, Deadly Night 3” (1989), as disreputable a directing berth as one can imagine, funded strictly for folks who couldn’t get enough variations of murderous Santa Claus tales. On this Hellman escapade, I wrote all the jokes, including this one:
“What do you call it when you get déjà vu twice?”
You might not be laughing, but that joke did get me into Cahiers du Cinema, whose critic noticed that Hellman and his merry henchmen were trying to have their Claus and detached, self-reflective irony too. The film should be noted for the beginning of a beautiful creative friendship between Hellman and the brilliant Catalan DP, Josep M. Civit, who said of Hellman this week, “Monte Hellman was a director who was incapable of shooting anything that was not the truth. He was, as a filmmaker, incapable of lying.”
Nice attribute for an artist, not so nice for a guy trying to work the mean streets of Hollywood.
Flash forward almost 20 years and Hellman, now in his mid 70s, had two more bullets in the chamber. The horror omnibus film “Trapped Ashes” (2006) gave Hellman a chance to revisit his Cormanesque roots when he was one of the Poe boys, working behind the scenes on chillers including the Jack Nicholson-starrer “The Terror.”
Hellman’s segment, “Stanley’s Girlfriend,” riffed on an inside Hollywood tale involving Stanley Kubrick and a particularly fatal attraction that led him to flee Hollywood and hide in England from some very real personal demons.
“Stanley’s” fate was not to be Hellman’s typical total obscurity, but an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival as an Official Selection. I believe it was seeing Monte at the top of Palais steps getting what he really deserved, applause and acclaim, that emboldened my thinking that my “outlaw” pal might have one more heist in him.
So Monte’s daughter, Melissa, and I found the money in 2009 to make the last Monte Hellman film, “Road to Nowhere” (2010), based on a screenplay I had just written.
If you go back to idea that “anything written in America about Monte Hellman must be a defense,” let me add that anything written for Monte Hellman must be a defense. So, two of the main characters in the film within a film within a film and so on, were originally named Monte Hellman and Steven Gaydos.
We used a crime thriller about a filmmaker under the spell of a mysterious femme fatale to sketch out all of Monte’s quirkiest, most personal and absolutely essential feelings and thoughts about life, love, cinema, dogs, margaritas, illusions, crime yarns and of course The Void.
Paul Simon might have written “Hello darkness, my old friend,” but Monte Hellman was on a first-name basis with darkness. Every single film he made turned out to co-star, as he once noted in an interview, “beauty and terror.” Some critics noted that “Nowhere” made Bergman look like Mr. Rogers and French philosopher/cultural historian Jacques Rancière compared the film to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” only bleaker.
“The relationship between reality, fiction and fiction in fiction becomes entirely undecidable at the cost of making the film an unidentifiable object for the Hollywood industry or — which amounts to the same thing — the manifesto of a director excluded from a system based on a balanced relationship between the prestige of appearance and the story that dispels them.”
Monte turned 80 on our first day of shooting in North Carolina. In 2011, Monte had his first-ever major international festival feature film competition premiere at Venice. By the end of the fest, Hellman was proudly cradling a Golden Lion for artistic achievement, his first ever major festival honor.
Cut to today: Monte Hellman and Lew Wasserman are both in the same place, which Hellman assumed would be the Void.
But I’m here in defense of the notion that his final resting place is on a cloud next to his good friend, Mr. Jordan, way up in Movie Heaven.
“The Shooting,” “Ride in the Whirlwind,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Cockfighter,” “China 9, Liberty 37,” “Iguana” and “Road to Nowhere” constitute more than half of his directorial filmography. In my opinion, they’re all the Outlaw Monte Hellman’s best crimes and all worth your precious time.
Hollywood never stopped him from creating and the people who tried are gone, while cinema-loving people from Paris to Portugal, Budapest to Brazil are still watching Monte’s strange little films. I know, because I keep “Monte Hellman” on Google Alerts so I get pinged when a film club kid in Lisbon is raving about his discovery of Mrs. Himmelbaum’s son.
And here’s the deal for me. From the first time we met, this was clear:
Monte Hellman never wanted to become them.
He never became them.
And he never became bitter about what that cost him because he knew, if you want to be a film artist, you’d better be ready for Lew Wasserman to dump your film on the bottom half of drive-in double bills.
He wanted to show that filmmakers such as Victor Erice, Ermanno Olmi, Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Tsai Ming-liang et al could have an American friend.
He wanted to prove that American film artists including John Huston and George Stevens need not be bright filmmaking lights in our rear-view mirrors.
He wanted you to be as excited by Carne’s “Port of Shadows” as he was, 60 years after the first time he saw it.
The glass is, I’m here to argue in Monte Hellman’s defense, half-full, with Hellman’s favorite, Patron tequila, fresh lime juice and Cointreau.
Here’s to Monte Hellman, the man who lost his fight with Hollywood and beat the devil at his own game.
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