Fascinating curio: Billed as a "dramatized documentary," "The Savage Eye" (1959) screens YBCA Wed/18 courtesy SF Cinematheque.

Re-Viewing 'The Savage Eye'

Dennis Harvey February 18, 2009

Outside the exploitation and purely experimental realms, way before the term "indie" existed, independent American feature cinema subsisted on fragile margins, without any established realm to be appreciated in commercially or even artistically. They might be acclaimed at the few film festivals around, but most went no further. While some were eventually rescued from obscurity by TV showings or video release, certain remarkable movies went unseen for decades, notably such recent rediscoveries as Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 The Exiles and Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep.

Like many U.S. indies before the early ’80s "indie" vogue commenced, those two opposed Hollywood formula by blurring the line between drama and documentary. You couldn’t find a more striking example of that approach than The Savage Eye, which SF Cinematheque shows in a restored print Wednesday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Screening Room.

Billed as "a dramatized documentary," The Savage Eye was completed in 1959. It had been worked on for several years by moonlighting industry professionals Ben Maddow (scenarist of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle), Sidney Meyers (primarily an editor) and Joseph Strick (the only co-director here who’d have a significant directing career). They used a changeable, minimal crew of available friends including future Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and editor Verna Fields (American Graffiti, Jaws). It was a labor of love—if also (like The Exiles and Killer of Sheep) a graphic portrayal of the vast Los Angeles detached from Hollywood’s success-bubble glamour and comfort.

The bars, shops, cheap hotels and even strip clubs captured were real. (With its almost entirely naked strippers, this movie got away with nudity truly shocking at the time, presumably because it was "art" rather than mere entertainment.) But moving through them is doe-eyed Broadway and occasional film/TV actress (Norma Rae, Nashville) Barbara Baxley as "Judith X."

X for "Ex-McGuire. I’m divorced," she tells an omniscient narrator (Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’ mate in All About Eve and, briefly, real life). She’s a childless divorcee new in town, searching for purpose in her alimony-floated but now rootless life. He’s "Your angel, your conscience, your dreamer, your ghost." The fact that it’s a male voice—endlessly reminding her own defensive one how empty and alone she is—defines everything datedly wrong about The Savage Eye.

Which is not to say there isn’t a lot that’s right about this fascinating curio. But its good intentions do often come off condescending in a vividly pre-feminist way.

On the plus side, the film casts a sympathetic eye on the plight of a newly single, past-30 woman in an era when divorce was still somewhat scandalous and the very term "divorcee" often considered interchangeable with "loose woman." (You might recall the first season of ’50s flashback Mad Men: When a divorced mother moves into the neighborhood, she’s immediately regarded with suspicion by the wives and hit on by at least one faithless husband.)

On the minus side, it ridicules Judith’s presumed shallowness in viewing looking pretty and attracting men as inseparable from fulfillment, without suggesting any intellectual or career alternative. (There is, however, a poignant moment where she luxuriates in getting a perm simply for the stolen intimacy of being touched.)

Our pseudo-poetical Voice of God Merrill also imagines the vapid inner thoughts of unlovely department-store shoppers. The editing of striking documentary footage (plus Leonard Rosemann’s very correctly disapproving jazz score) suggests being old, fat, ugly, drunk, or even pampering a pet is somehow proof of soullessness, of being chumped by the American Dream. Oh you ’50s brohos: So quick to judge everybody else as "phonies." (An interesting commentary on that phenomenon is the current movie and brilliant original novel Revolutionary Road, whose "We’re better than that" married protagonists trapped in suburbia discover that, really, they’re not.)

Yet The Savage Eye—which title presumably refers to the documentary camera’s unflinching gaze—also dazzles with its glimpses of a Los Angeles that is no more. (The squalor looks different these days.) It’s the purely nonfiction elements here that remain priceless, where others (none the game Baxley’s fault) feel contrived and pompous.

There aren’t a lot of laughs here, although this may be the only movie whose eventual images of redemption include poetic beachside tetherball. Whether its final addition of existential complexity is hooey or not I leave to you, though it surely does muddy the waters.

Unavailable for preview but preceding Eye is Strick’s prior short (co-directed with Irving Lerner) Muscle Beach, a 1948 capture of the famous Venice, CA bodybuilder workout/hangout. It is likewise offered in a newly restored print.

If you’re wondering why the name "Joseph Strick" rings a faint bell: He stood at the forefront of myriad landmark ’60s film ratings/censorship cases. The Balcony (1963) adapted Jean Genet’s blasphemous, gender-bending play; Ulysses (1967) Joyce’s "unfilmable" novel, complete with Molly Bloom’s truly climactic monologue; Tropic of Cancer (1970), print Bacchus Henry Miller.

These are all literary sources one might argue were never meant, or suited, for literal-minded cinematic transfer. But Strick was an intelligent adaptor; his problematic movies are still better than their reputation allows. He’s done almost nothing since another Joyce adaptation, 1977’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. One suspects by now he’s learned more about women—Molly Bloom alone would be corrective enough—than The Savage Eye evinced.