Phil Chambliss, Arkansas Auteur

Dennis Harvey November 15, 2007

The terms “folk” and “outsider” art have been applied to work in a lot of media, from painting to handicrafts to music. But they’re seldom heard when the focus turns to film. When you think about it, most film and video falls into a few well-defined categories. There’s commercial work, which encompasses everything from big-screen movies to TV entertainment, music videos, documentaries, anything aimed (even if it fails to reach them) at a general audience. There’s the experimental and avant-garde.

(Student filmmaking usually falls into either of these first two categories, at least by aping them; even the artiest arthouse directors fall somewhere between.) There’s industrial and educational cinema, intended to be specifically functional rather than entertaining or artistic. Then there are home movies, seldom of much interest to anyone save the folks who make them and their extended circle. Just where would cinematic folk art exist?

Even the smallest, crudest exploitation movie or video has some kind of commercial intent, usually imitating the conventions of more mainstream product. (This includes porn, unless it’s the home-movie kind-which increasingly you can find in the local rental joint’s Adult section shelves, too.)

Merely inept, amateur stabs at popular idioms don’t really qualify as “outsider art” — there needs to a unique, unschooled personal vision that’s simply immune (and/or oblivious) to standard notions about audience expectation, “professionalism,” and so forth. True cinematic folk art must be around somewhere, but…where?

Meet Phil Chambliss, “the Arkansas auteur,” a 54-year-old, recently retired gravel pit nightwatchman native to Camden (pop. 13,000 or so). Since 1975, when he bought an 8mm camera to record a deer hunting expedition, he’s been making movies — well, these days they’re videos — whose peculiarity has gradually, almost accidentally attracted a cult following well beyond the local friends he makes them with and for. They’ve even attracted an institutional following: In 2004 a showcase at the Nashville Film Festival (programmed by Brian Gordon, late of the SF International) provided Chambliss with his first official “public” screening.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
hosted its initial Chambliss program a couple years ago. Now it’s hosting a two-night, single-program run of three different works as a fitting climax to its “Red-State Cinema: Rural Auteurs” series. What’s more, Mr. Chambliss will be on hand himself — a particularly rare occasion because, we are told, he “doesn’t travel.”

This personal appearance is really a score-bonus-plus, because one among the many questions you might have after seeing your first Phil Chambliss film is: What in hell kinda personality would make this? Where do these ideas come from? Am I supposed to be laughing?

Yes you are. The glib temptation at first glance (one that unfortunately some audiences have given into) is to play “laugh at the hick,” tittering unkindly at the movies’ stiff and/or broad, thickly accented amateur performances, bizarre pacing rhythms and even more bizarre “plots.” But for anyone with an at least half-open mind, it becomes clear quickly that Chambliss and all his compadres are very much in on the joke. And even though the joke is often so insular and off-kilter you’re not sure just what it is, it’s still funny — intentionally so. How to describe the oeuvre of Mr. Phil Chambliss? Well, they’re sort of absurdist trailer-park melodramas, twisted morality plays, gags chasing a punchline he alone might suss out. They’re backwoods Beckett-except with more flavorful dialogue, and no sense that the author struck various postures of abject despair while writing them.

On the current YBCA program, 2002’s “Mr. Visit Show” takes place at a “day-care center for birds.” Its crusty proprietor, interviewed by a nagging TV reporter, and stands accused of drugging his charges with sleeping pills. He opines that all poultry is “like these wimmen…they’s always another one out there in the field a-gobblin’.” He also professes past friendship with Bill Clinton, inscrutably noting “If you cut off his head there’d hardly be no meat left.” (Chambliss himself reportedly once was in a jug band with Bill. Does everyone in Arkansas know each other, or is it just that Bill Clinton knew everybody there?) Finally pushed beyond tolerance, the birdman engages his interrogator in the lamest “martial arts” battle possible, crowing “I got my Black Belt at Walmart!” These 15 minutes alone are enough to make a grown man cry — with confusion, hilarity or both, take yer pick. Made a full two decades earlier, “Shadows of the Hatchet-Man” demonstrates a remarkable consistency of vision (save that it’s in 8mm B&W to “Mr. Visit’s” color video). This slightly longer effort is ostensibly a serial-killer thriller, complete with shrilly-melodramatic library music used a la George Kuchar. But it’s again full of non-sequiturs, folksy eccentrics and quotably idiosyncratic dialogue. An axe-bearing murderer has just claimed his fourth female victim in Calhoun County; local yokel Rusty, embroiled in a cheating love triangle, sees this as the golden opportunity to off his wife by playing copycat-killer. The strangely unconcerned Sheriff sits at his desk, shirtless, pipe in mouth, playing with his shotgun; his deputy makes obscene phone calls and runs around stealing panties off clotheslines. There’s a hatchet-murderer-versus-hatchet-murderer climax followed by a final shot of a running dog that I can’t possibly explain, but which had me howling with laughter.

Most of Chambliss’ films are on the short side — at 58 minutes, the memorable