The old entertainment adage goes that you haven’t really made it until you’ve made it on the big stage. This seems to increase twofold for filmmakers – unless your work plays at esteemed and recognizable festivals or you’ve got some hot studio deal, you may as well not exist. But with the means of production now so readily available and self-distribution methods easier than ever, whole waves of distinctive filmmakers are starting to make their mark on the cinematic landscape. And with mass produced movies getting further corporatized and market-tested to bland perfection, the hunger for unique stories told in fresh environments should only increase.
Toronto’s own Laser Blast Film Society has made regional cinema their specialty for years, particularly through the annual What The Film Festival. With this year’s edition of the festival postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, programmers Peter Kuplowsky and Justin Decloux have moved online for the month of April, in association with the Spectacle Theater in New York City, with screening series showcasing the work of two filmmakers who by now can be called movie moguls in their own right.
Mickey Reece is certainly the most prolific filmmaker that you’ve never heard of. Since 2008, the Oklahoma City based writer-director-producer has been averaging around three features a year, all stylishly made and starring an expansive troupe of radiant local performers. The fact that this so-called “Soderbergh of the Sticks” has done so without any kind of large investors or wide exposure is even more impressive considering how visually assured and thematically highbrow each of his movies really is.
The Laser Blast series cherry-picks four films out of Reece’s filmography, beginning with 2013’s Tarsus, an authentically gritty look into Midwestern drug culture, mainly through the eyes of a downtrodden young addict named Patricia Peters (played by a fantastic Rebecca Cox). After serving a five-year prison sentence, Patricia just wants to get her life on track but try as she might to stay on the straight and narrow, it doesn’t take long for the temptations of her old life to suck her back down. Expanding the world to include the perspectives of her vaguely off-putting sponsor, her former dealers, and a number of other local-area addicts, Tarsus is by turns gripping, upsetting and absurdly humourous. And with experimental detours and an in-your-face shooting style, it really should be considered a hallmark in drug cinema.
2014’s T-Rex finds Reece’s style becoming more austere, shooting in black-and-white for an interconnected mosaic of American lives becoming destabilized after the suicide of a local car salesman and family man. The way Reece’s vignettes flow organically from character to character resembles Richard Linklater’s Slacker, with a literate script that haunts and surprises at every turn. This monochrome shooting style would continue for 2017’s Mickey Reece’s Alien, which is no doubt the strangest Elvis biopic you’ll ever see. Charting the early days of his marriage to Priscilla Presley while he gets ready to mount his famous comeback special, Alien’s offbeat vibe almost feels like it was made from beyond the grave by the King himself, with the story eventually pivoting towards a bizarrely literal evocation of its title.
Reece has finally begun to court a little more widespread attention in recent years, with 2018’s Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart premiering at Fantastic Fest (before playing last year’s What The Film Fest). Sliding effortlessly into horror territory, Reece’s tale of a newlywed couple who purchase a creaky historic hotel flirts with the ’70s style of directors like Roman Polanski or Nic Roeg. It is perhaps his most legitimately scary film yet, filled with unnerving dream sequences and a suffocating air of impending doom, while still containing his usual thematic preoccupations and bizarre sense of humour. With his most recent film also playing Fantastic Fest, it seems like Reece is finally on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Not that that would phase him at all.
Matt Farley, on the other hand, would probably appreciate the breakthrough. Or at least his onscreen persona in 2013’s autobiographical Local Legends would have you believe, as he bemoans the fact that every single one of his films has been rejected from the festivals he’s sent them to. And it’s easy to sympathize when you take a look at his total body of work. The Massachusetts based filmmaker and musician is a machine, producing over 20,000 songs (available on Spotify!) and a dozen or so features, all under his label Motern Media. But even if Hollywood doesn’t come knocking, Farley can feel comfortable in knowing he rules the New England entertainment landscape.
Like Reece, Farley (along with his co-writer and director Charles Roxburgh) utilizes his natural surroundings and a stock company of actors for strange tales of small-town Americana. His is a less formal and generally more amiable approach, however, unafraid to have fun with genre tropes while he’s at it. Farley also stars in all of his films (bearing a strange resemblance to Edward Norton that I can’t shake), always playing the hapless hero with a self-deprecating wink.
Much of his work is indebted to schlock horror, including two of the program selections – 2007’s Freaky Farley and 2012’s Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! The first, starring Farley as a character named Farley Wilder (a good twist), cribs from Silent Night Deadly Night 2 to tell the flashback story of how he graduated from simple peeping tom to ruthless killer. But just when you think you’re settled in for a slasher flick throwback, the film also throws in a group of troglodytes out in the woods that Farley has to defeat alongside a mysterious ninja and the resident witch. Riverbeast, on the other hand, is a movie which could be the closest thing to a calling card film for him. With a slightly higher budget, a fun killer monster suit, and various musical sequences, Farley pulls out all the stops in this story of master tutor Neil Stuart (Farley again), who returns to his hometown after being ridiculed in the past for trying to warn fellow citizens of a dangerous beast lurking around the woods. Beyond the expected creature-feature elements though, Farley sneakily crafts an endearing portrait of a community, often straying away from the main plotline to follow side characters through their day-to-day personal lives and romantic pursuits. He even returns to the peeping tom theme for a side-story about a female student blackballed by her university after outing her pervy-voyeur professor, a thread that feels more relevant now than ever.
The Laser Blast programme also includes a rare early film, 1999’s The Paperboy, which Farley and Roxburgh made in their free time while attending Providence College. Playing the titular character, an essayist-for-hire entrepreneur who guarantees an A grade, Farley gets to don a disguise consisting of a baggy windbreaker, a red cape and a pair of underwear over his head to clandestinely sell papers to lazy college kids. But this plot takes a twist too, eventually turning into a hilariously urgent quest to get the school coffee shop to keep their doors open 24 hours a day.
Local Legends is where he really lays it all bare, though. Shooting in black-and-white while taking obvious cues from Woody Allen, Farley takes us on a whimsical tour through his day-to-day life, from trying to get his old band together to organizing the collection of stats for his one-on-one basketball games to expounding on the pleasures of taking walks. He also humourously laments the hardships of being a working artist, exposing his song writing and moviemaking processes to simultaneously lean into and push back against ideas of fame and marketability. For fans of outsider cinema and films about the artistic process, Local Legends is a revelation
Mickey Reece and Matt Farley may not be world famous (yet) but their legends are nonetheless well-documented.
Both programmes stream various evenings this April on Twitch through New York City’s Spectacle Theater. Matt Farley’s Local Legends is also now available as a deluxe limited Blu-ray set through Gold Ninja Video.