Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Time of the Heathen (1962)

Okay, this is not an overlooked film, it's forgotten to the point of being almost non-existent. I saw the movie on 35 mm film in the screening of the Finnish Film Archive, and I bet my money it's one of the very few remaining prints of the film in all the world, since there are no signs of the film having been shown anywhere in decades. Yet it's a very interesting and occasionally a very good movie.

Time of the Heathen (Ruoho nousee jälleen in Finnish, meaning "Grass Will Rise Again") is the sole film directed by Peter Kass. The film had its premiere in 1962. Kass wasn't a nobody: he was already a director in Broadway, and later on he became known as a trainer of actors. But his film is a total obscurity. To this day, I would know nothing about the film unless it were for the Finnish film critic Tapani Maskula who has mentioned the film to me from time to time. He said he was the only critic in Finland in the mid-sixties who wrote a review of the film.

The film was shown for some 40 people on Monday night here in Turku, where I live, and the film proved to be very exciting and intriguing. It's a very short film, some 75 minutes long, shot probably on 16 mm and widened to 35 mm for distribution. It's black and white, same sort of high-contrast and stark material that Night of the Living Dead and other indie films of the sixties were shot on. (Didn't Romero also shoot on 16 mm?) Time of the Heathen was probably a university project, since the music, composed by Lejaren Hiller, was performed by the Illinois University students' orchestra. Most of the actors are amateur and they don't have any other films to their credit, except for John Heffernan who's in the lead, and Ethel Ayler who has a small but significant role as a African-American servant. Then again she didn't perform in cinema again for ten years (then she was seen in Come Back Charleston Blue).

Heffernan plays a lone man called Gaunt, who's walking somewhere on the countryside, looking and acting strange and citing the Bible, when the sheriff stops him (hence the title, from the Book of Hezekiel). Gaunt comes across an African-American boy, and together they witness a rape attempt by a young white man that leads to the death of the servant. The racist and violent father of the rapist is going to accuse Gaunt of killing the woman, but Gaunt and the young boy flee to the woods.

The story is very simple, but there are enough twists to keep this interesting for the first 30 or 40 minutes. Then the story takes a turn and becomes even more simpler, reducing the story to a minimalist level, and then comes a flashback scene that's almost a complete experimental movie inside the film! It's in colour and at times very striking. It reveals Gaunt's traumatic past during the World War II (won't give it away, though) and broadens the film's thematic scope to greater levels. This is no mere man-on-the-run story.

The experimental scene was done by Ed Emshwiller, who also produced, shot and edited the movie. Emshwiller or Emsh is better known as a science fiction illustrator, but he also did lots of experimental shorts and other films (and a friend of mine recognized artist George Dumpson in a small role - Emshwiller has made a documentary on Sampson's art!). The experimental colour scene comes accompanied by computer-generated (or electronic, it as yet unclear*) music composed and performed by Lejaren Hiller, who's probably best known for his collaboration with John Cage. This is quite an early film to use electronic music. The scene works very well inside the film, because it's made clearly for Time of the Heathen and not as a separate piece of art that's just attached to the film.

Hope this is enough to convince you Time of the Heathen is an interesting film. It has neo-noir touches here and there, and as my friend pointed out, it's actually one long chase scene, so there's also action if you're into that sort of thing. There are some clumsy scenes from time to time, and I thought the script had some inconsistencies, but I'm willing to forget them. Amateur actors perform quite well, which is no miracle, given that Kass was a director on Broadway. The harsh country milieu (the film was probably shot in Illinois, though I'm not sure - it was said in the ending credits, but I forgot already) adds very refreshing scenery to the film, and this almost feels like a precursor to movies like Winter's Bone. Tapani Maskula who hadn't seen the film over 50 years was there in the screening, and he said after the film that it could be shot even today. The themes are still there: war, racism, hatred.

The problem is only that you can't see this film. It has never been released on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. It was shown on Finnish TV in 1968, but I don't know of any other screenings. If you know a film or video print exists, keep noise about it. Demand it be shown and eventually digitized. Ask John Heffernan (who's still alive and active) to be guest at your film festival. (Sadly, Peter Kass and Emsh are dead. The film was mentioned in Kass's obituaries, but it was clear not one of the writers had seen it.) Here's hoping this blog post starts the Time of the Heathen renaissance!

* There's indeed unclarity as to what kind of music was used in the film. I think the opening credits say Hiller did "computer-generated music" (or sounds) for this, but when another friend of mine got interested in this and wrote the University of Illinois about it, he received this answer:

"Hiller, like many early Electronic Music composers, was rather practical. He used sounds in compositions that were originally written for inclusion in other pieces. He composed a tape loop of percussive concrete sounds for the film, "Time of the Heathen." These sounds were never used in the film, though Hiller did include them as an optional third cue in the suite from "Time of the Heathen." (...) First, I believe the music created for the film "Time of the Heathen" was created by Hiller in 1961 within the Experimental Music Studio at Stiven House, and was realized with electronic sounds (from analog waveform generators) and possibly some musique concrète sources (of which Hiller was fond of using), not computer generated."