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Monday, December 19, 2011

Bryce Wilson's donation to the Carry On Campaign was one of the very first I received; it is with some acute embarrassment that I announce it to be the final request I have fulfilled. But you see, Bryce made a particularly daunting and rich request, and the simple fact is that in order to write an essay on trailblazing independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, I had to become an expert on the life and work of Charles B. Pierce, and that proved to be unusually difficult given the number of his films which aren't readily available on DVD. But at long last, I have done my due diligence and I am ready to give the world my brief account of the life of Arkansas's most beloved filmmaking son.

Pierce's career started where so many other directors have begun: as a set decorator. Indeed, it is far more accurate, by the numbers, to call him a set decorator who dabbled in directing than a director who began as a set decorator, but that would be denying the very real impact Pierce had on a very small subset of indie filmmaking in the early and mid-1970s.

When he came up as a filmmaker, the grind houses and drive-ins of the United States fostered a type of cinema that no longer exists in any meaningful way: the regional filmmakers. Prominent especially in the Southeast, these were craftsmen who were able to make good careers out of only ever filming little movies with local talent that were never really meant to be seen outside of the area where they were made; a notch above primitivism and a notch below even the Poverty Row studios - later on, when Pierce hitched his wagon to notoriously stingy American International Pictures, it counted as as step up for his career.

Very few regional filmmakers ever gained real prominence: Herschell Gordon Lewis is probably the best example of someone who did prior to 1972, but the horrific sideshow quality of his work is hardly what we typically think of when we refer to a "prominent" filmmaker. Surely, then, when Pierce and screenwriter Earle E. Smith teamed up to make The Legend of Boggy Creek, they didn't expect much of it, other than a lark for fellow Arkansans to enjoy (a line of narration early on name-drops a stretch of road with the clear assumption that the viewer knows exactly what highway is under discussion). And here Pierce's directorial career might have died, except that Boggy Creek did rather better than its makers didn't expect; it became the most successful regional film in American history, in fact, ending up as one of the ten highest-grossing films of 1972. Not until 1999's The Blair Witch Project, and not again since then, would such a tiny film do so ungodly well; both films, curiously, are hybrids of documentary and horror, though Boggy Creek does not apparently believe itself a work of fiction, unless it is the most straitlaced thing ever.

Truth be told, it's not completely strange that Boggy Creek did so well - even after four decades, it is a stunningly weird and arresting movie, albeit an almost completely unsuccessful one. What it is, in effect, is a feature-length collage of reenactments: it's based on stories reported of the Fouke Monster, a Bigfoot-style creature believed to live in the swamps around Fouke, AK, with some of the individuals reporting the story playing themselves, or at least this is what the film claims; it is best, I think, to be reasonably cautious about accepting such statements. And what it really is, is the first in a great many films Pierce would make about life in the backwoods corners of Arkansas, a state he clearly loves with the passion only a native son could muster up.

As a laid-back (so laid back...) meander around the people who live in and near the swamp, Boggy Creek is a fascinating movie, an ethnography made from the inside that evinces an almost total lack of filmmaking sophistication; it is as close to outsider art as any movie I have ever seen. As a horror picture, it's a complete boondoggle, with the same lack of well-honed filmmaking that makes it so curiously effective as a social document making it uniquely unable to generate any real horror or tension. And any time horror or tension threaten to crop up, they are quickly beaten down with one of the film's several, hypnotically bad folk songs.

Still, its huge success turned Pierce into a big deal, as far as tiny regional indies go; for his pains, the director was eventually canonised as the spiritual father of independent cinema. A hyperbolic statement, and it's surely the case that Pierce's success was great for many filmmakers around the country looking to make The Next Big Thing on a shoestring in their backyard. As for Pierce himself, his next project, while far more conventional than Boggy Creek, would far outdo it in ambition. Titled Bootleggers, it is nothing less than the Gone with the Wind of 1920s Arkansas, complete with a scene in which a kindly old man - played by Slim Pickens, no less! - tells his young grandson about how the soil is their family's life and livelihood. His grandson being played by none other than Chuck Pierce, Jr., in the first of many performances for his dad.

The increased conventionality of this 1974 effort paid dividends for Pierce and Earle E. Smith, in that the film "works" far more than Boggy Creek ever even daydreamed about; it is, frankly, rather damn impressive that was still a cheap little indie could manage such ambition and detail. No Oscar-winning level of period detail, or anything like that, but the film looks the part, and that is itself a fair achievement.

Where Bootleggers falls down, really, is in the form of its two lead actors, Paul Koslo and Dennis Fimple, as the heirs to Pickens's bootlegging operation; Koslo, the lead, is sort of bland and unmemorable, but Fimple, the comic relief, is howlingly unpleasant to spend time with, and Pierce is absolutely delighted with the character and the performance. The characters are just damn impossible to like, and while the story is rather well-handled, it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for the film under the circumstances.

At this point, in 1975, I like to imagine that Pierce was drunk on power, for his ambition took a huge leap into outright strangeness now. Boggy Creek and Bootleggers were basically working in the same general mode: generic trappings aside, both of them were stories of life in Arkansas, paying earnest tribute to that state's people. This would be a theme that Pierce returned to throughout his career, but for now, he had another pet them to explore: the experience of Native Americans, as played by distinctly, and distractingly non-Native actors.

In the case of Winterhawk, the titular Blackfoot chief is played by an Italian-American, Michael Dante. The main character, meanwhile, is played by Leif Erickson in one of his very last roles, and given how banal Erickson tended to be during his career peak, it's safe to assume that late Erickson is a grotesquerie not to be discussed in polite company.

That's only one of many problems with the film, which was a difficult and unpleasant shoot, by Pierce's own admission (ironically, given the title, weather problems plagued the Montana locations). It tells a confused and wandering story of settlers vs. Indians that wants, very badly, to present a balanced counternarrative about how badly the indigenous peoples of the western half of North America were treated by white pioneers; and yet Pierce and Smith are too wrapped up in the generic trappings of Westerns to actually break away from white protagonists.

The film's one point of interest is in its photography; after the clunky but earnest aesthetic of his first movies, Pierce, aided by cinematographer Jim Roberson, turned out to have a fantastic eye for landscapes. The locations prove to be more of a driving force in the movie than any of the characters, in the end, which is just as well: despite some game Western character actors showing up for a late paycheck, none of the people onscreen make much sense, nor are they particularly interesting.

Pierce stayed in the West for 1976's The Winds of Autumn, giving his son his first major role as a young boy driven to take revenge on the bad men who've wronged him. It's a simple story, but after Winterhawk, having an easy thing to grapple worth worked well for Pierce, and it was perhaps the best of his films up to that point, though I will confess a partiality to Bootleggers that outstrips its actual quality.

Once again, the landscape is as important as any given character, and with the film adopting a more deliberately fable-like tone, the mythic grandeur of the Western mountains matches the script far more organically than it did before. Truth be told, though, the film isn't terribly interesting beyond the mere fact that it is a coherent, rock-steady piece of storytelling that finds Pierce making a decent family-style Western - a genre he plainly loves - without getting caught up in theme as he did elsewhere. It's also significant for being the first of many collaborations between Pierce and iconic character actor Jack Elam, who frequently classed up Pierce's films a bit more than they maybe deserved, and got in return meatier scripts than he'd find elsewhere.

Later that same year, in addition to receiving his most prominent credit for decorating The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pierce returned to Arkansas for another fact-based horror movie with historic reenactments making up the bulk of its plot: The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a dramatisation of a series of unsolved killings that terrified Texarkana, AK in 1946. The film is frequently lumped in the proto-slashers, which is decently fair; it is certainly the most bloody-minded of Pierce's film, though neither a body-count picture nor gory to the point of exploitation. It also puts up a good bid as the best film of Pierce's career, and would almost certainly hold that title without a fight, except for one thing: Pierce's own performance (not his first, though his first of any real size) as a forcibly wacky patrolman who sucks all the atmosphere out of the movie every time he does anything. I admire that the director willingly cast himself as a goofy fuckup; I object in strong terms to his insertion of that goofy fuckup into his serial killer docudrama.

Setting that aside - and it takes a huge effort to do that - The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an effectively creepy study of how a small community unravels in the face of an unknown and unidentifiable threat, and once again Pierce's interests seem as much to be about capturing the essence of a community as it is about making a genre film. In fact, the film is very much a re-do of Boggy Creek, this time with an urban setting (relatively urban, anyway), and the terrifically grounding presence of Ben Johnson, yet another great Western character actor, as the police captain trying to stop the killings. Through him, the film enjoys more seriousness of purpose than any of Pierce's films to that point, and while Elam, for example, is fun to watch, Johnson is a good actor - a key distinction that makes a huge difference to the finished product.

The film starts to drift apart as it moves towards the conclusion, a side effect probably of the story having no real conclusion in life. But it still works, within the limitations of the smaller budget and limited ambition that Pierce embraces here with relish after expanding a bit with his Westerns.

This would be the last time that Earle E. Smith would write a screenplay for Pierce, and the director's career never quite recovered; while his visual style would ebb and flow but generally improve, his stories started to bottom out. Things weren't so bad yet with Grayeagle, a 1977 return to the awkward joining of a message film about how much white people fucked over Native Americans with narrative tropes that depend on having bad Injuns as antagonists; it is, at any rate, a good damn deal better than Winterhawk, and even has a real Native American, Iron Eyes Cody, to keep the cast from getting too lily white.

What it also has, unfortunately, is a convoluted story by Brad White and Mike Sajbel, turned into a script by Pierce himself; it involves good Indians and bad half-breeds and Grayeagle himself (Alex Cord, not so much a Native American), who kidnaps a girl but it turns out he's actually a hero; it all makes sense, but it feels like it shouldn't take quite so much work to make it do so.

The good news, anyway, is that it's gorgeous: the best-looking of the director's films to that point by far, and close to the best-looking he ever made. It's a bit of a pity that Pierce didn't make silent films: the locations and sets look so evocative that they tell a story of frontier hardship all on their own, and with Elam, Cody, and Johnson all bouncing off each other, it's easy to imagine better, more interesting situations than, for example, the incredibly protracted comic bit involving Elam's dog. Regardless of its failings as a story, though, Grayeagle finds the director becoming completely at ease with the Western genre, staging one tremendously effective sequence in the Native village near the end that is as good as anything in that idiom anywhere in the 1970s.

Grayeagle tossed an executive producer credit to no less a figure than Samuel Arkoff; the payoff came in 1978, when Pierce's self-penned The Norseman was distributed by American International Pictures. This should have been the grandest moment in Pierce's career, the proof that his unlikely success with Boggy Creek was no accident, that his toiling was all for something special; certainly, the resources AIP was able to pitch his way made The Norseman the sharpest-looking film he ever made, so it's a pity that it's so howlingly awful, a completely deranged adventure movie about the Vikings in the New World, with the embarrassing spectacle of Jack Elam as a mysterious seer credited as "Death Dream", and a wildly miscast Lee Majors as the son of a lost chieftain, searching for his father in the northerly wastes.

The first problem of many is those same northerly wastes: the film was shot in Florida and looks it, every inch of the way. The costumes, too, are a mismatch of styles, eras, and even civilisations that the most idle history buff would notice in a heartbeat. But let's not let a little thing like historical inaccuracy get in the way, not when there's such a wealthy of terrible movie spectacle to cling to: Majors's total inability to get around the heightened dialogue, or the desperate way that Pierce seems to think that he can turn a Viking movie into a Western if he just squints his eyes and muscles through it. The best one can say is that the story is clear and straightforward, something not true of Grayeagle, but the whole thing is such clusterfuck of half-baked ideas and shockingly flimsy execution - we're right back to "outsider art", perhaps because Pierce was spooked by having such a high budget - that simply being able to follow along is no particular reward.

With 1979's AIP-produced The Evictors, Pierce returned to the South, and to horror, for the last good film of his directorial career. It's a simple, direct bit of rural menace: Michael Parks and Jessica Harper play a couple who buy a farmhouse in Louisiana in the '40s, only to find that the house has a very dark secret indeed, and somebody - several somebodies, perhaps - wants them gone, soon.

The Evictors has a quality shared by no other Charles B. Pierce film: it is scary. Or at least, it's creepy, and that covers a lot of the same ground. The genius of it is that, structurally, it's one of the countless hicksploitation films of the 1970s, in which a pleasant cosmopolitan couple is terrorised by murderous yokels and rednecks; but it was made by a man whose best films were all devoted to giving depth and humanity to the rednecks that most "sophisticated" filmmakers were so eager to vilify. The result is an out sanding blend of terrifying villains with enough realism that they feel like people - truly threatening, dangerous people.

After a run of self-conscious "message" pictures, and the muddled Norseman, The Evictors certainly feels slight, even tawdry. But it just goes to show that it's better to be good at being tawdry than bad at being noble; the results are far more watchable, at any rate.

A long gap followed: Pierce moved to California and met up with Clint Eastwood, the director The Outlaw Josey Wales, and ended up supplying the story to Sudden Impact, the fourth of the "Dirty" Harry Callahan films. That film came out in 1983; the same year, Pierce returned to directing with Sacred Ground, another demonstration of Pierce's weird inability to understand Native Americans even though he really, really wanted to help them. In this case, a white homesteader with a Native wife is forced out of the white community and Indian community alike; they settle on what they don't realise is an especially holy mountain, and the local tribe kills the woman and steals her newborn baby.

It takes a special kind of madness to jump from "let's celebrate the Native American love of the land and consecration of sacred places" to "the best way to do this is depict Native Americans slaughtering a woman and kidnapping an infant", but Charles B. Pierce and his Westerns were more than up to the task. It is, honestly, more boring than anything else, though I guess boring is better than actively offensive.

What it also is, is phenomenally gorgeous: shot by Pierce himself, it's gorgeous as a whole stack of postcards. I cannot, in faith, say that it makes such good use of the landscape as Grayeagle; but it almost doesn't need to do anything else but sit there and be glorious to look at. The American West is as pictorially exquisite as any place on Earth, and if Pierce knew how to do one thing right, it was capture that beauty in the most shameless way possible.

"Shameless" doesn't even begin to describe Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues, Pierce's attempt to make an "official" sequel to The Legend of Boggy Creek in the wake of a glut of contraband stories of swamp Bigfoots given the Boggy Creek title. We can all surely agree that this is, itself, a noble impulse; but the results are a complete botch, bad enough that it was the only one of Pierce's films to end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and thus may well be his most widely-seen film among the younger generation).

The biggest single problem with the movie is that Pierce decided, for no really good reason, to replicate the structure of the original film, that is, re-enactments of encounters with the Fouke Monster in a documentary context, but to cram it into a broken-down frame narrative in which Pierce himself played a college professor taking his students (among them Chuck Pierce Jr, whose acting skills as a young adult are nowhere near as good as his acting skills as a child) on a back-country trip to find the beast. The narrative frame makes it pretty much impossible for the film to tap into the same weird feeling of being at once trustworthy and completely made up that was just about the only thing that made the first Boggy Creek worthwhile at all; and it's not even vaguely effective as a cultural document of life in Arkansas, nor does such seem to have been the intent.

Whatever breaks the film or doesn't, Boggy Creek II is the most damn boring thing in Pierce's career, undone by a tedious lack of plot where it looks like there ought to be a plot, and no character other than the colorful backwoodsman played by Pierce regular Jimmy Clem (it was his eighth and final performance for the director; his eighth and final performance overall). There's nothing particularly inept about it, but there's certainly nothing worthwhile, either.

Things picked up, marginally, for Pierce's last film for a great many years, Hawken's Breed in 1987. This is, however, the only context in which Hawken's Breed can be accused of picking things up; it is in all other ways a slapdash, inchoate vehicle for Peter Fonda of all people, as a grizzled Tennessee frontiersman who keeps crossing paths with a Shawnee woman, and getting in trouble with local thugs - the motivations for anybody to do anything are kind of foggy, except that it's mostly clear that the bad guys hate Indians and the good guys don't.

It's a clumsy film with characters that don't work (Jack Elam plays a villain who keeps feeling like a curmudgeonly pseudo-hero, though this is partially because it's hard to hate Elam in his old age; while Fonda's Hawken, the hero, is a grim-faced killbot with no redeeming personality to speak of at all), and a story the grinds and halts, halts and grinds. And it lacks the one saving grace of equally dreary scripts like Winterhawk had: it looks kind of crappy, and exceedingly cheap, filled with far too many amateur-hour continuity fuckups and ill-chosen camera angles. Quick was Pierce's rise; quick, apparently was his fall, that in so few movies he had gone so far afield from anything resembling the genuinely solid filmmaking of his middle period.

It would be eleven years before made another film, Chasing the Wind, but even with all my efforts I have been unable to track it down; there is a later film, Renfroe's White Christmas, that I can't prove even existed. So Hawken's Breed, which in its little way ties together the two main threads of Pierce's career (feeble, mishandled Westerns about Native Americans; tales of the American South, insofar as Tennessee is as "southern" as Arkansas), makes a convenient place to back out and consider the man in full.

Even at his best - The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Grayeagle, The Evictors - you'd be hard pressed to call Charles B. Pierce a "good" filmmaker. There's just too much sloppiness in too many of his films. And yet, outside of The Norseman, all of them have something worth looking at. Partially, it's because Pierce was so enthusiastic even in his ineptitude, and it gives all of his movies an energy that is appealing, if not completely compelling. It's also very much the case that his attitude and perspective are tremendously rare and thus valuable: he took characters and places that, in even the most well-intentioned Hollywood production, would be treated as backwards hicks - a century of Hollywood movies bears this out, that they simply had no idea what to do with rural Southerners - and gives them dignity as characters. If there was nothing else to Pierce's work beyond this trait, that would still be enough to build a reputation on - the cinematic poet of backwoods Arkansas might sound like a little thing, but I am sure it was not at all little to the people involved, and nobody else was going to do it.

That, more than anything, is what comes through in Pierce's movies: his affection for the little communities that he depicts, communities that would barely merit a passing mention in "bigger" films. This above all was his legacy to the American indie movie scene: a conviction that small stories and forgotten people are worthy of cinematic enshrinement as much as any gorgeous movie star. However uneven the results, that affection and generosity matters.

In Memoriam
Charles B. Pierce
16 June, 1938 - 5 March, 2010


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