7:53 pm Oct. 5, 20121
Damon Packard's Reflections of Evil is one of the great American independent films, a surreal survey of the pop culture landscape as it devoured itself across the 1970's, '80s and 90's. Time has deepened its legend as a D.I.Y. masterpiece. Though the "present day" of this film's wildly veering timeline is 1991, Reflections was shot in the early 2000's and now plays like a nutty requiem for the 9/11 decade as well.
The film pounds away at two notes, paranoia and rabid hostility, the way Stanley Kubrick's The Shining adaptation riffed on terror and grief. The psychotronic trappings only intensify a sense of realistic, street-level despair shrouding its parade of bus riders, parolees, retirees and fast-food addicts.
My first exposure to Packard's work was his 1988 short Dawn of an Evil Milennium (made when he was in his early 20s). Dawn is the epic those of us who grew up shooting Super 8 in the 1980's thought we were making. It’s like a Sam Raimi comic horror edited by the Kuchar Brothers, with the high-octane vehicular mayhem of Lethal Weapon. It's easy to imagine undisciplined genre directors like Robert Rodriguez and Neveldine/Taylor worshipping at its altar. When I first stumbled across it as part of an eclectic compilation of horror films online a few years ago, I wondered who the devil made it.
Sometime later, a commenter under one of Red Letter Media's lacerating "Star Wars" video essays mentioned that a guy named Damon Packard had made an even better George Lucas parody, the vicious, hilarious Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary. The mockumentary was my surreal gateway drug into Packard film addiction.
Packard's latest film, FOXFUR, screens at this year's New York Film Festival. His second to make it on the narrow NYFF slate (after SPACEDISCO ONE in 2007), FOXFUR continues in the hallucinatory tradition of Packard’s "Evil" films, this time exploring UFO conspiracy theory, New Age mysticism and alternate realities.
And as with Reflections of Evil, specifically, FOXFUR critiques, in a convulsive fit, 30 years of stagnancy in American culture.
Even when just setting up the plot, Packard reveals the grouchy subtext.
Here he is, from a Facebook exchange I had with him over the course of about two months: "In the film, '82 was the year the world actually ended, and the skewed timeline we're in now is what's known as a 'dead zone,' a time that does not exist, where things do not progress and move in circles in a dark path of despair. For all the unfortunate souls caught in this dead zone, they will remain."
In the film, Foxfur, a struggling freelance video editor (who could be a stand-in for Packard himself but is played by a series of pretty young women) becomes obsessed with two famous conspiracy-theorist authors who are making an appearance at the local New Age bookstore. The entire film is about Foxfur bumming a ride to the bookstore from her curmudgeonly friend, then falling through some kind of tear in the fabric of space and time. Along the way, the torpor of shoppers who can't look up from their iPhones, dead-eyed store clerks whose entire vocabulary is "We don't have it," and a greedy, heartless landlady knocks her off the edge of sanity. Somewhere in there, medieval archers, psychotic bus drivers and the crew of TV's "M*A*S*H" tumble into this psychic plane.
"Though the bulk of humankind aren't necessarily aware of it, many sense something is wrong, things just don't feel right,” Packard wrote, talking, ostensibly, about the film. “There is no magic left in the world, no spark of imagination no surprises that delight. Nothing to really look forward to. Naturally this would affect movies, music and all forms of art."
At 45, Packard laments the fact that his cult legend status hasn’t yet led to bigger budgets, consigning him to paying for production costs out of pocket and fundraising three and four-figure pittances on sites like indiegogo.
“Well, Foxfur began a few years ago with a full script and a producer involved," he wrote. "He backed out after going broke so I was left to either make the film for $100 or make nothing. Making nothing would have been the far more sensible route, but I went ahead and cobbled together a (first act) no-budget version in small bits and pieces over the last year or two. And this is the film I have now. Another no-budget waste of time and energy that does not deliver the goods.”
When I mentioned that he’s now part of a wave of young D.I.Y. filmmakers on YouTube and Vimeo, he isn’t too thrilled.
“Yeah, I don't know. It's always a wrestle for me on whether it's worthwhile doing something or nothing. I suppose it's a little more worthwhile doing something, but one is so limited on a no-budget scale, it's hard to justify it. It's a harsh thing to say, but I can't help but feel (now that everyone is making low budget films) the predominant bulk of what's being produced is a completely worthless, pointless waste of time and energy. People need to create, they need to do it for themselves, they need to discover for themselves, even if it means spinning in circles and endless carbon copies of what we've seen before and sticking to endless play-it-safe formulas….
“At least when we were in an earlier age of filmmaking and there were far less people 'spinning their wheels,' there was much less waste. I don't particularly mind the waste or have anything against it but everything has become niche audience oriented, there is no "good" or "bad" and the whole scene is no longer exciting like it was in it's groundbreaking phase many years ago. It's a mass digital multi-media platform world now.”
Packard’s pessimism is colossal, but his style in expressing it is pretty joyous. The extreme gore and violence in his films (some of it via shots spliced in from various schlock horrors) is often hilarious in effect. One grisly murder scene in FOXFUR intercuts between the killing and the victim’s shrilly yapping, fidgeting Chihuahuas. Not since Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond has a horrific dog-related scene been so giddily absurd.
And his comic vengeance upon the “mass digital multi-media platform world” is mighty. In Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary, a premiere screening of Star Wars: Episode I for an ecstatic mob of fans clutching plastic lightsabers instead shows Ken Russell’s adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love. The masses roar with delight as Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle nude on the giant screen.
Packard is one of YouTube’s most brilliant mashup artists, but he longs for a budget that can support his original visions without the aid of commandeered footage. Foxfur is a micro-budget step in that direction. Shot in HD on DSLR cameras, it looks gorgeous, with cut-rate computer graphic effects in an age where, thanks to cheap processing power, cut-rate looks pretty damn good. In an interview with IFC, Packard called himself a “failed Spielberg” who “never had a successful career and instead ended up on YouTube.”
While that sounds perfectly cool to me, it’s easy to understand that a director whose imagination and resourcefulness dwarf an entire class of contemporary mainstream genre directors would hope for something more.
Until a Ho’wood executive bumps his head and wakes up with a notion of bringing Packard’s subversive genius to the multiplex, you’ll have to catch it at venues like this year’s NYFF Ampitheater, where it’s screening for free from Friday to Sunday.