Publish or Perish

The third annual World Drive-In Movie Festival and Jamboree put on by Joe Bob Briggs, Darcy the Mail Girl and the cast and crew of “The Last Drive-In” corrected an error of the previous year by putting the Drive-In Movie Awards on Friday instead of Sunday. (Last year, it was me and about six other die-hards sitting at the drive-in watching the last short at 3:30AM.) And since the awards are really the point—looking forward to the new generation of filmmakers, rather than backward—it just makes sense to have people watching the new stuff first, while everyone is still fresh.

Last year, I made the following observation, that is even truer this year: The films themselves are of varying quality (and I mean that both in the good/bad sense and the style/sensibility sense) but they are all generally at a technical level where, had you paid to see them in a theater, you wouldn’t feel like you’d been ripped off by a cheap, fly-by-night, no-account production company (even though they are ALL basically just that, right?). In other words, the barriers to entry are no longer technical or technological. It’s down to skill and marketing and taste now. (OK, the last short was made on a budget of $100—filmed on cell-phone in a condo or something—and this shows, but it uses its limitations very creatively.)

Of the three features that were winners, one was Mutilator 2. This was especially for the fans of Mutilator, which has an interesting backstory and is kind of fun in a lot of ways (who thinks of combining a “spring break” movie and a “slasher”, after all?) but I don’t have any particular nostalgia for the original so this wasn’t for me. Another was Cannibal Comedian which was more interesting, a cross between Motel Hell and The Dark Backward.

But I want to focus on the first film of the night, which was Publish or Perish, which was not only a good movie, it was polished and professional and not only as good as most of what I’ve seen this year in theaters, but better.

Focus…on the issue at hand.

John Gardner, in “The Art of Fiction”, says you can’t really make great art out of campus life. Gardner (himself an academic) maintained that academia was too petty, too driven by minor grievances and social climbing to ever be the subject of much worthwhile literature. My counter-argument in the past might have been Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (in its various forms), but now I can also point to Publish and Perish, written and directed by David Liban (himself a professor at University of Colorado, Denver). Both Leiber and Liban’s works leverage the same concept: Yes, academia is petty and driven by minor grievances, so what happens when we take that to the extreme?

Publish or Perish opens with our protagonist, Jim, accepting his professorial position from the dean of a university, Dick (played by the immediately recognizable James Shanklin, who was in all those things you saw), and it becomes quickly clear the two don’t like each other. Dick is into shooting and racquetball and Jim—in retrospect, we don’t know anything about Jim’s interests, except for one thing: He wants tenure.

The catch is, it takes seven years on the job to even be considered for tenure.

The movie kicks into gear seven years after this initial interview, on the day that Jim is supposed to turn in his dossier for consideration. An accident forces him to choose between doing the right thing and losing tenure or getting his dossier in on time (and we learn later, he’s already asked for and received an extension), and he naturally goes for tenure. This initial bad decision leads to increasingly bad decisions afterwards, which act as a revelatory journey of Jim’s character.

Which is almost gleefully petty.

Who knew tenure as an English professor would require the use of a shovel?

One plot point revolves around a student he denies an extension to (oh, the irony) who later accuses him of sexual impropriety. Well, Jim’s not that bad a guy, because he didn’t cheat on his wife with this student—but, on the other hand, his current wife was his grad student before he divorced his first wife. So she’s not entirely convinced of his innocence. And Jim, almost more than he hates the dean, hates his daughter’s boyfriend (played by Liban’s son, I think), for making “pornography” with her.

This pornography, we learn, consists of a brief topless shot in a very arty concept film. Uncomfortable, perhaps, to view as a father, but far from prurient. This doesn’t stop Jim from using it in his quest for revenge, and for ultimately destroying the boyfriend. In other words, he’s really never deliberately violent, but the evil he’ll do in the shadows or through inaction is boundless.

This makes for a very fun, dark comedy. A non-gory horror where the shock value lays in seeing what a ordinary, seemingly respectable people will do to maintain themselves in their chosen lifestyle.

There is no universe in which this is a desirable POV.

And if that were all this was, it would be an achievement that most indie filmmakers (horror or otherwise) miss: Putting together a cogent story that follows logically from point-to-point, builds steadily and resolves itself in a glorious, splashy climax is harder than it seems. Heck, I shouldn’t limit this to indie filmmakers even. It seems like the last big-budget movies I’ve seen were “series of events that get louder,” with no real thought given to character motivations or emotional build up.

But more than that, in terms of technical craft, this is a superior film. The cinematography (by Trevr Merchant) is actually used to tell the story! It sounds like I’m being facetious, but it seems like nobody uses the camera these days except as a way to get from scene-to-scene. A lot of indie filmmakers will just set the camera down and have people talk (the Kevin Smith school), and a lot of low-budget guys have very specific maneuvers they use. You know, the drone shot, the slow pull in or pull out, the track-to-final-destination—I’m sure they all have names but I’m just seeing them and calling them out because they don’t tell the story, they just keep the camera from being still.

I’m always trying to break a film down in to how it’s doing what it’s doing, which gets harder as the movie gets better and draws me in, but I realized about 2/3rds of the way through that I’d seen the camera set down rather statically, shot statically from multiple angles, an occasional dutch angle, a great tracking shot, etc., and all combined with some occasionally excellent blocking. (Nobody does blocking these days because it usually requires the camera to be still for a moment to be effective.) It was almost as if—I know this sounds crazy—the filmmakers got together and said, “What use of the camera would best convey the emotion and action of the story here?”

TFW when you trust your husband but you remember how you hooked up with him.

The music mostly slipped by me, which is a sign of terrific integration, because (as a musician) I’m almost always focusing on it. So when it insinuates itself while I’m actively listening for the techniques, it must be very well integrated. (Lance Warlock, son of stuntman Dick Warlock, and brother mini-horror-icon Billy Warlock, did the music.)

The editing was by Justin Lewis, who I’m not familiar with. Acting in indie movies can be rough, because it requires skilled actors and a skilled editor, and very often indie guys don’t realize how important editing is. (Roger Corman knows, but that was a matter for Saturday night.) A good editor can both save (some) acting flubs, or make the greatest actor in the world look like a chump. Here we had seasoned stage and screen actors mixed with some newcomers, and Lewis’ sure hand cutting the flick, and the result is a film without a poorly delivered line.

More than that, these characters are largely unlikable, by design, and the cast does a lot of heavy lifting making the 100 minutes you spend with them feel worthwhile.

The whole team seemed to be a mix of skilled pros and promising newcomers, and the overall effect is as polished as you could want. Definitely going to be in my top five of the year.

The official website is here and you can rent it on Prime for $5.

Welcome to the world…of EDUCATION!

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