Rambling Conversations: 1 - Filmmaker & Professor Spencer Parsons / by Samuel B. Prime

Spencer Parsons is a filmmaker and Northwestern University professor based in Evanston, IL. Even though I went to Northwestern as an undergrad, Spencer and I never shared a classroom. Odd as it may seem, we became fast friends in the last months of my time at Northwestern when we collaborated on a production course and screening series focused on The Roger Corman Film School. I pitched a film series to the university's Block Cinema (my first!) highlighting big name directors who got their start working on low-budget features for Corman - modern-day luminaries and household names such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Penelope Spheeris. Spencer developed a production course on the Corman aesthetic and approach, inspired in part by the man's (in)famous boast that he could “make a film about the fall of the Roman Empire with two extras and a sagebrush." Ever since, we've shared many late night, wandering conversations via text, Facebook, and/or e-mail. What follows is a heavily abridged (read: stitched together), cinema-focused example of our past conversations and the first in a series of what will be authentically entitled "Rambling Conversations." These are the type of conversations - ones initially without direction or agenda - that remind me why and how much I love cinema. Typically, whoever I am in conversation with feels the same way. Planning more soon. 

Samuel: So, I found some ZARDOZ graffiti here in Austin.

Spencer: Oh, nice! I can't get enough of the image of a floating stone head spitting kalashnikovs from its mouth. I genuinely love ZARDOZ - and I genuinely love EXORCIST 2. For me, those are Boorman's true masterpieces. 

Samuel: Haven't seen EXORCIST 2, to be honest, and, though I like ZARDOZ, it still comes off to me as a crazed and flawed perfectionist vision rather than a masterpiece, but I think I get what you mean regarding its appeal.

Spencer: Definitely see EXORCIST 2. Scorsese's a fan and Foundas calls it a "high masterpiece." It is insane and will make you giggle, but that doesn't mean it isn't truly great.

Samuel: Will definitely see it - and, by the by, Foundas is one of the good ones.

Spencer: There's this stuff in it about a hypnosis machine that is just... beyond description. 

Samuel: Hearing that makes me think of the sentient slime tube in PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

Spencer: I love me some PRINCE OF DARKNESS. It's not good, but it's kind of great. I want to remake it.

Samuel: I think PRINCE OF DARKNESS is unquestionably great. It gives me chills. The mirror scene!

Spencer: Shit, yeah! I also love the video transmission from the future. 

Samuel: I almost pooped as she disappears into the dark, dark nothing of the mirror's abyss. 

Spencer: And a great score, as per usual for 80s Carpenter. I've always loved how he got Ennio Morricone to do a score for THE THING, even though it just sounds like Carpenter did it himself.

Samuel: Carpenter's scores always amaze me. I feel like I have a tendency to take them for granted when not actively watching one of them or watching 'em for the first time, but then if I revisit it later, everything changes.

Spencer: They are all made up of parts that are so cheap and cheesy, but they're so good. And then when you hear the 80s synth scores ripping him off in bad 80s horror, you realize how truly genius they are precisely because they are so simple and yet impossible to imitate.

Samuel: Did you ever see that Durch Die Nacht Mit episode featuring Carpenter and Franka Potente?

Spencer: No. What's that?

Samuel: It's a Franco-German reality TV show where one celebrity tours the other around a cityscape, usually their hometown or current residence. Carpenter and Potente's is particular awkward, yet eminently watchable. Here's a clip of them awkwardly shopping for toilet seats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y5me8md5Io.

Spencer: Wow. Yeah. Thanks for passing this along to me. 

Samuel: No problem. DdNM's Harmony Korine / Gaspar Noe episode is also worth checking out.


Spencer: You ever seen THE CUT-UPS?

Samuel: I've read some of the cut-up novels.

Spencer: Burroughs and Gysin. You've gotta see it. They took all this footage and sound they recorded and went purely mathematical with the cutting.

Samuel: Is this a feature or a short?

Spencer: Short. Almost 20 minutes. Here's a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq_hztHJCM4.

Samuel: Wow. Watching it gives me a kind of floating sensation.

Spencer: It's a pretty wacky thing to do to your brain. I need to show it in class again.

Samuel: Somewhat relatedly, have you ever heard of Richard Myers' film, AKRAN?

Spencer: I haven't. 

Samuel: Oh, man! Get ready. It's a 110-minute experimental film and without question one of the most beautiful, elegant, emotionally resonant films I've seen. Here's a taste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO141O8cVpo. 

Spencer: Whoa. Gotta see the rest. Looks like it'd make a fine double feature with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Samuel: What's more is that it is actually a very humorous film.

Spencer: Looks like it could be. 

Samuel: Although the largely academic audience I saw it with were stale and pretty self-serious. My friend and I were the only ones laughing at the key scenes (importantly: WITH the movie and not AT the movie). 

Spencer: I wasn't joking about that double bill.

Samuel: There are deliberate jokes built in to the editing. Structural jokes!

Spencer: Sweet. 

Samuel: And, for the record, I believed you re: that double bill.


Spencer: So, I saw INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Loved it, though expected to hate it.

Samuel: It all felt very... artificial... to me. Knowing in that curious, bad way, y'know?

Spencer: Well, then the Coen Brothers are not for you, my friend.

Samuel: I've enjoyed previous films by the dastardly duo: BLOOD SIMPLE, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, TRUE GRIT (to a certain extent), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (with some slight reservations). 

Spencer: For me, it's THE BIG LEBOWSKI, A SERIOUS MAN, FARGO, RAISING ARIZONA. The rest run from dazzling clockwork cynicism to icky self-parody. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was hugely controlled, but Oscar Isaac and the songs ran against its grain in a way that was sad. It made those wide shots of John Goodman tottering across parking lots into a thing of fragile beauty. 

Samuel: I found INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS only incidentally charming and, again, more or less telegraphed by what I think you're referring to as the very controlled nature of the film. To me, it felt like nothing was left to chance - every moment deliberate choreographed. That's not my idea of cinema. 

Spencer: Agreed. 

Samuel: Unless it's a damn musical - which is what INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was grappling with.

Spencer: Hahaha.

Samuel: I legitimately liked the music. I kind of just wanted it to be an Oscar Isaac concert film. 

Spencer: For me, Isaac's performance was a bull in the Coen Brothers' china shop. 

Samuel: Oh, really? I've never felt the urge to explore the range of their filmography.

Spencer: Everyone else delivers stock Coen gargoyle performances - to the detriment of the story. However, I think it kind of fits the jaundiced worldview of the character.

Samuel: On my end, I came in wanting to see Isaac in a meatier role. I liked him in DRIVE, although his part was small, and was especially fond of his performance in Madonna's W.E., which was fucking great anyhow despite what the critics have said. 

Spencer: I do have to catch up with W.E.

Samuel: Oh, man! W.E. is my jam. There's one scene... that's just... so good. A prim and proper royal party is turned on its ass when everyone unknowingly drops benzedrine and trips balls to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant." I wrote about it for a friend's site: http://bit.ly/1ejFzGn.

Spencer: It may be wrong, but if we allowed ourselves the freedom of imagination about the possibilities of the medium, good movies would be so much better.

Spencer Parsons is a filmmaker and professor known for Saturday Morning Mystery (2012), I'll Come Running (2008), Once and Future Asshole (2005), and A Common Confusion (1999). He is currently at work on a horror portmanteau film alongside Kris Swanberg, Jack Perez, Danny Rhodes, and Huck Botko: I Scream You Scream.