by Rob DiCristino
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (Dir. Alexandre. O Phillipe)
There’s nothing like a good tale well told. The best storytellers can make even the dullest topics more interesting, sure, but Alexander O. Phillipe’s Leap of Faith features the rare subject worthy of extended pontification by a noted raconteur like William Friedkin: The making of his 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist. Interrupted only by the occasional film clips for nearly two hours, Friedkin waxes philosophical on topics such as art, cinema, religion, creativity, and the human condition. It’s not exactly a “making-of” story, in the strictest sense (though Friedkin does speak at length about The Exorcist’s casting, cinematography, themes, and soundtrack). Rather, it’s a look into how his humanity governs his filmmaking. Friedkin comes across as a deeply spiritual and introspective person, his ambivalence toward The Exorcist’s religious overtones notwithstanding. He’s also detail-oriented in the way the true auteurs always seem to be, able to recall specific lines of dialogue and lighting cues from his forty-five year-old film at a moment’s notice. As a result, Leap of Faith is a gold mine of insight for filmmakers and philosophers alike.
Though not quite on the groundbreaking level of Lost Soul, Jodorowsky’s Dune, or Burden of Dreams, Leap of Faith deserves a spot among the notable “filmmakers on filmmaking” documentaries to emerge in the last few years. Director Alexandre O. Phillipe (78/52, The People vs. George Lucas) has the good sense to get out of his subject’s way for most of the running time, resisting the urge to crowd the film with an unnecessary B story or other talking heads whose insight would pale in comparison to Friedkin’s. More than anything else, Leap of Faith is notable in that it celebrates the production of a masterpiece that wasn’t fraught with constant drama and creative insecurity. I’ve always championed the power of “art through adversity,” the belief that since some of our greatest films — Back to the Future, Star Wars, Jaws, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, etc. — were disastrous productions, there must be some necessary correlation between that crucible and a project’s overall quality. It was true for those films, and it’ll be true for more, but maybe the guiding hand of a mad genius like William Friedkin is just as essential.
Survival Skills (Dir. Quinn Armstrong)
“People are just a nightmare,” insists a veteran cop (Ericka Kreutz) to her rookie partner. “A cradle-to-the-grave nightmare.” Framed as a comedic parody of 1980s police instructional videos (with VHS tracking problems and 1:33 aspect ratio to match), Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills seems to agree. Its gruff, imposing narrator (Stacy Keach, this week’s running theme) begins by introducing us to Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell). Jim’s a regular ol’ guy. Thirty years old. Two-bedroom in the suburbs. Doting girlfriend (Tyra Colar). It’s his first day on the local police force! Jim’s excited to Serve and Protect. He’s demonstrated bravery, honesty, and intuition, and now he’s ready to put those skills to work in his community. Our narrator guides Jim through a number of challenges: Speeding drivers. Stolen bikes. Stabbings. Domestic disputes. Some of these are tricky, huh, Jim? (Jim nods cheerily). Human behavior just doesn’t always seem to adhere to departmental guidelines, and the more our new recruit uses his academy training in the field, the more he finds that there are no perfect solutions to many of life’s problems.
But Survival Skills’ real miracle is that it actually uses its ‘80s aesthetics for thematic good. Many VHS-sploitation indies rely on period costumes or retro frame rates to trigger an audience’s nostalgia (which prevents them from questioning whether or not they’re actually needed), but director Quinn Armstrong uses the outdated technology to specifically emphasize Jim’s outdated education. Jim is a WASPy Reaganite with a Stepford wife who barely registers as human, while the citizens he serves are world-weary, dejected, and modern. The film milks this contrast for humor at every turn, at times clearly reveling in its sharp satirical bite. We’re never making fun of Jim, exactly, but we’re conscious of the danger inherent in his naivety. There’s even a meta-narrative arc, with Keach’s starchy narrator occasionally losing control over the video whenever his Model Officers are faced with real-world policing issues. Though Survival Skills has moments of pitch-black comedy, it’s also a disarming call for empathy, an indictment of uniforms, badges, and other organizational signifiers that strip us of our humanity and cause us to alienate those with whom we seek to connect.