Cover Story: Pseudoquasiesque

Split Focus

He's been called the Master of the Action Allegory. The "limited-theatrical-release"-filmmaker's filmmaker. The intellectual's Hal Needham (as well as the moron's Akira Kurosawa).

Who is it that's inspired this array of sobriquets? Jacques Auph, a little known but highly independent auteur. The nicknames derive from his style of filmmaking, which film scholars have classified as "introspective commercialism" — that is, a fusion of the expressive, high-brow art film and the testosteronic global blockbuster. Auph, whose oeuvre currently stands at 12 feature films, is not only the form's originator, he is also its sole practitioner.

Auph comes by his artistic bi-polarity naturally. His parents are French New Wave director Marc Auph and actress Yvette Monsfelt, the blonde, buxom star of Double Date with the Devil, Attack of the Sizable Ants, Podiatry School Confidential and dozens of other Hollywood B-movies from the '50s and '60s. "Perhaps, subconsciously, I'm trying to please them both," he said in a recent interview, "but on a conscious level, I'm glad they're both dead."

For those unfamiliar with Auph's work, you'll be able to see a portion of his filmography starting this Friday, when The Museum of Contemporary and Doubtful Art begins a retrospective. (Noticeably absent from the program are two films many consider Auph's best: Scenes from an Intergalactic Mating Ritual and Claire's Knee Is Missing!) Each week a new film will be presented; currently the schedule is as follows:

The Seventh Cereal Grain (1978): Plotnik (John Cassavetes) is a desperate man, dying of colon cancer. His last hope is an experimental treatment that would have a micro-miniaturized vessel and crew (including Jon Voight and Adrienne Barbeau) carrying a high fiber remedy — the "Seventh Cereal Grain" of the title — injected directly into his large intestine. Lots of special effects inside the body as the crew fights its way to the "drop zone" (the duodenum), battling "huge" bacteria, parasites and other organisms along the way. The "outside" story of Plotnik's struggle with the Hegelian concept of death, however, makes this film just as emotionally moving as it is bowel moving. Thought to be the first film to depict someone playing Parcheesi with the allegorical figure of Dietary Fiber as represented by the Quaker Oats Quaker.

Marzipan Badge (1981): Candy is often associated with children and innocence, but here Auph uses sweets as a symbolic counterpoint to the bitterness that's accumulated within a failed relationship. Marta (Faye Dunaway) is a confectioner whose marriage to Olm (Max von Sydow), the Stockholm Police Commissioner, is crumbling. Life worsens when the press breaks a police corruption story and Olm, though innocent, is made the scapegoat. Now, out of office and forbidden to carry or purchase a weapon, Olm must somehow figure a way to restore his reputation. But gunless he's no match for his heavily armed adversaries. Enter Marta. Working smoothly side-by-side, the couple creates licorice-whip garrotes, peanut-brittle daggers, candy-cane numchucks, gummy bludgeons, a whole arsenal of "sweet destruction," which Olm uses to savage his foes and reclaim his good name. Auph's final shot — Marta and Olm, back in the candy kitchen, literally bound together by sticky, spilled nougat, yet struggling to break free — is a masterpiece of ambiguity.

The Lamborghini Thief (1984): Leo, an impoverished, out-of-work laborer (Dennis Hopper), steals an Italian sports car to drive to the store and get a loaf of day-old bread for his young son, Sal (Ricky Schroeder). On the way to the market, however, he shifts into fourth gear and — mirabile dictu — discovers the car is a time machine and winds up driving a week into the future. Once there, though, he is devastated to discover that, because he never got to the market, he did not get the bread and, as a result, he and his son have starved to death. Raging against cruel fate, Leo returns to his own time and goes on a killing spree, knowing that if he's caught, he won't serve much time in prison because he's already seen that he's going to be dead in a week anyway. A powerful statement on the politics of poverty, the nature of time and the extraordinary father/son bond that only blood vengeance can forge.

8.5 Seconds (1988): An action film about action filmmaking. For the climax of his latest motion picture, director Speed Labateau (played by Auph himself) is attempting to create the most exciting, explosive, fast-paced, thrill-packed, dangerous and heart-stopping 8.5-second film sequence in cinematic history. We're with Labateau the entire way as he madly dashes from digital effects lab to green screen to robotic modeling facility at an Industrial Light & Magic-like compound locked in a frantic race against the clock, only to come in 36 days late and $43 million over budget.

Ty Cobb: The Wrath of God (1991): Brooding, profound biopic of the mean-spirited, obnoxious Hall of Famer (played with silent intensity by Joe Pesci). This picture has been both hailed and reviled for its highly symbolic final sequence in which Cobb decapitates Casey Stengel and finds the skull full of peanuts and Crackerjack. Entire film is told from the baseball bat's point of view (voice of Michael J. Fox).

Paleozoic Sanctuary (1997): On a remote, South Sea island, scientists (Anthony Hopkins, Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter) regenerate extinct species of prehistoric flora. Soon, however, the plants threaten to overgrow and entangle the various buildings and their inhabitants. Fortunately, even the most fecund vegetation only grows a couple of inches a day, and the scientists have brought plenty of pruners, so disaster is averted. The film is less about man's meddlesome ways and special effects than a thoughtful, even-handed rumination on compost. ©

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