Inspiration by Accretion
Posted on: 06/05/2008
It's flattering to be asked to write about the inspiration for Yakkety Yak (1974). It's also a bit embarrassing. The film is a trifle, produced on a $4000-and-change budget, shot in a week, directed by someone who wasn't sure what he was doing, and starring a pudgy guy who'd never acted before (or since). Over thirty years have passed since I made it, and more than twenty since I last saw it. But flattery trumps embarrassment, so here goes.
The film originated not in inspiration but with a practical challenge. In 1970, I was in Montreal writing a script for the National Film Board of Canada. Through his sister, whom I'd known in graduate school, some fellow from San Diego phoned me to ask if I could write him a script for a special situation. He had been offered the use of a small theater-in-the-round for about a week or two, and he had secured a small budget. Could I write a movie script that could be filmed entirely in that theater, in a week, and on a very small budget? I wrote a script for a film that more or less dramatized that challenge: a bunch of wannabe filmmakers, trying to come up with an idea, decide to merge the making of a film identical with the film itself. Their conceit was that by making the process of creation identical with the creation itself, they would create a new, more authentic cinema.
And a more authentic politics. For their film, they would blow something up. They didn't know what yet, except that it would be something associated with the Establishment, probably a large corporation. Maybe Honeywell, the Halliburton of that era.
I don't have a copy of the original script (then called Or--why, I have no recollection), but I'm fairly certain that the character of Maurice and the basic thrust of the plot were inspired by the fact that revolutionary movements, in art and politics, so often arise in what seems like idealism but soon degenerate into violence, chaos, and crap because of a paranoid egomania that lies behind not the urge to revolution but the urge to lead it. I loved Fyodor Dostoevski's The Possessed (1871) and Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise1 (1967), both of which deal with this phenomenon. But I'd also seen it for myself, on much smaller scales, in environmental activism, the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, and even in ostensibly apolitical organizations and small groups. As Orwell once remarked, inside every reformer there lurks the soul of a tyrant.
Either the fellow who asked for the script didn't like it or his funding fell through, and he abandoned the project. Around 1972, my second year in Australia, the new Australian Film and Television School was being set up, and Jerzy Toeplitz, the ex-head of the famous Polish film school, was slated to become the Australian school's founding director. Somehow his appointment got held up in either bureaucratic entanglements or political wrangling. La Trobe University offered him a job to get him into Australia, where he could bide his time until the politics and red tape were sorted out. I had nothing to do with this coup, but suddenly La Trobe was the darling of the film community and arts foundations, and almost any film-related proposal coming out of La Trobe got funding. I think Cinema Papers got major funding at this time. I got a grant to put on a seminar in Australian film, which brought directors and producers to screen and speak at La Trobe. Gil Brealy, Bert Deling, and Peter Weir are three that I can remember. I dusted off the script I had written for the San Diego guy, enhanced it a bit, and sent it off. If I got the funding, I would film it in an underused basement studio that had been built at La Trobe.
The funding came through, and I was panicked. How was I going to pull this off? Fortunately for me, a few key students at La Trobe--namely Rod Bishop, Peter Beilby, Gordon Glenn, Keith Robertson, and Roz Robertson--had more confidence in the project than I did, even though I was ten years older than they and, officially, their professor. They all worked for very little money, if any at all. I think I paid them each $50 a day, but that may be my memory playing tricks on me to forestall a pang of guilt.
I interviewed a couple of actors for the part of Maurice, but they didn't have a feel for the sense of absurdity that I was after. One of them was puzzled that I described the film as a comedy. Finally--again, emboldened by the team I had assembled--I decided to play Maurice myself. Somehow I found the talented Peter Carmody to play Zig, one of Maurice's cohorts, and I induced the cinéaste John Flaus, who was then a faculty member at La Trobe, to play Steve (and, when unmasked, himself). Peggy Cole, a lovely, courageous and unaffected young woman, a student-I think she had graduated, therefore enabling me to avoid a potential morals case--agreed to play Carolyn, a role requiring her to spend most of her considerable screen time naked. Three faculty members from the School of Education agreed to play the victims of Maurice's forced suicides. Two of the suicides were based on real ones: Socrates, who drank hemlock, and Yukio Mushima, the Japanese novelist and nationalist who disembowelled himself (or tried to; to finish the job, he had to be beheaded by an accomplice). The third suicide was Kirilov, a character in The Possessed.
I don't remember if those suicides were in the original script or not. I do know that much of what wound up in Yakkety Yak was from ideas that came to me after we got the money and even during the shooting. Had I been possessed of greater depth of vision, I might have been able to keep the focus more on the central idea, and the film probably would have been better for it. But after the initial inspiration for the film, numerous other little inspirations gathered around the project by accretion, and not all of them were on point.
Since writing the original script, I had gotten interested in Norman Mailer for a brief period. When I read his book Maidstone2, an account of a film he had made of the same name, I sensed in him a streak of Maurice's paranoid egomania. He wrote, for example, of "psychic barbs" that he was convinced his crew kept aiming his way. And the film he was describing--I had not seen it yet--seemed in some ways similar to Maurice's project in its pretensions. Mailer seemed to think he was creating a much more authentic cinema than anything else being done those days. So I worked into the film, and Maurice's character, an element of Mailer.
My position at La Trobe had given me my first exposure to academic pomposity from the perspective of a faculty member, one who himself could be pompous or at least abrasive at times. Therefore I added into the story an academic element. Several lines or moments in the film were inspired by real incidents at La Trobe. Few of them worked. For instance, when Carolyn says to her adored (but only platonically) Maurice that "nothing can grow in the shade of a giant oak tree," that was based on a smarmy bit of ass-licking that had been witnessed at a social gathering involving the Dean of the School of Education. Zig, disgusted by now with Maurice, retorts that nothing can grow in the shade of a giant turd, either. I don't recall anyone ever laughing at that exchange.
The one example from real incidents around La Trobe that does work, or at least I think it does, is when, well after Maurice has murdered at least three people, an angry Zig yells at Maurice, "They're going to re-open your tenure case!" At the time, I had just won an appeal against the Dean's recommendation that I be denied tenure. I used the line because I thought the juxtaposition between Maurice's bloody aspirations and the fact that he was a mere academic, and one of 'iffy' merit at that--the contrast between his actions and their consequences, between his pretensions and reality--was funny. He was Richard III (or wanted to be) with tenure. To the extent that the film works, this may be its key moment.
The "purely by chance" encounter between Maurice's gang and Jerzy Toeplitz is a scene that doesn't work as well as I'd hoped but which I don't regret. It has historical value, in that it shows Toeplitz as a self-possessed man and quite game. Not many people in his position would have agreed to do the scene. He did not know the script for this scene (nor did the other actors). And of course, John Flaus's role here adds historical value. He too was a good sport. But the humor in the scene depends too much on knowing who those two people are. It's an in-joke that stays inside.
The 2,000-lb weight that Maurice occasionally refers to and which at the end drops upon him is from Dostoevski, where it is a metaphor for the existential angst that one of his characters--Kirilov, I think--lives with. At the time, I thought it would be more effective to see it only at the end, when it falls on Maurice, than to see it ahead of time. In retrospect, I probably should have had the camera tilt up to it each time it was mentioned. But I have to commend Keith Robertson and Roz Robertson, who constructed it such that it could look heavy, fall fast, and yet not kill me.
Of the extended scenes, I think the long tracking shot in the tunnel works the best. The socio-political insight in La Chinoise (and other films of his) was not the only thing in Godard that I admired. I was smitten by his cinematic method. However, he was being imitated by hundreds of young filmmakers who could mimic his style but lacked his substance. Thus the parody inherent in this scene was meant to be two-fold: affectionate re Godard, but poking a little fun at those film revolutionaries who, like Maurice, confuse bravura with courage, style with substance. I admit, though, that one reason I like the scene is simply that we pulled it off, despite bumping into pipes and so forth--in other words, I like it in part for its bravura.
I'll wrap up this reminiscence with brief accounts of three other attempts at humor, two of which worked, one of which didn't. The one that doesn't work occurs in the self-criticism session: Maurice's delusion that he is experiencing a mammoth erection when Carolyn slips her forearm and closed fist under his belt and up out through his fly. I don't know if anyone has ever laughed at that. But I am not the only one who has tried it. While editing Yakkety Yak, I attended a production by a touring company--from England, I believe--of A Midsummer Night's Dream. To my horror, in the scene where Bottom is confused about who he is, and is being carried about on somebody's shoulder (as I remember it), a forearm with a clenched fist emerges upward from between his legs, and he, like Maurice, thinks he is having a giant erection and is very impressed with himself. I was chastened that an idea that I thought so clever had more or less simultaneously occurred to someone else. And I was certain that people would think I stole the idea from that production. However, I imagine that the total number of people who have seen both that stage production and Yakkety Yak is negligible or maybe even nil.
I do not know what the inspiration was for the moment in the birthday-party scene when Maurice and Carmody try to carry on a conversation while their line of sight is blocked by Carolyn's swaying breasts as she is cutting the cake. The scene offends some people as being exploitative of women. Perhaps it is. But I like the scene because it is not only primarily visual, it reflects on Maurice's character and his relationship to Carolyn: lustful in the abstract, cold in reality.
The fingerprints that appear on the frame whenever Carolyn is featured nude is an idea that came to me after the editing was over and I was leaving Australia or perhaps already had left. The idea was that the film's horny editor (Maurice?) had kept looking at those scenes over and over. Gordon Glenn cut the A-and-B rolls and applied the fingerprints directly onto the negative.
An interesting discovery for me in writing this account is that what I remember most fondly about the film is not the film itself but the wonderful people who helped me make it. The boundless energy of the young crew made long shooting sessions lasting late into the night possible and fun. The generosity of the actors-all but one of them La Trobe colleagues-was remarkable to me, especially the main ones but also the three who played the suicides. I've worked on a lot of films since then, and with some superb crews, and have had lots of good filmmaking experiences, but this one, with this group, was the tops.
1 The full title is La Chinoise ou Plutôt à la chinoise.
2 Maidstone was released in 1970. Mailer subsequently published a book of the film, Maidstone: A Mystery, A Signet Book, New York, 1971.
Reproduced with kind permission from Dave Jones and Raffaele Caputo. Extract taken from the forthcoming publication, Take 4: Australian Filmmakers Talk! edited by Raffaele Caputo and Geoff Burton.comments powered by Disqus