James O’Meara’s Passing the BuckSpencer J. Quinn
James J. O’Meara
Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians
Melbourne: Manticore Press, 2021
Imagine going thirty, forty, fifty, or even sixty years of your life without comprehending the dizzying implications of how some movies, typically — and often charitably — understood to be cringingly awful, actually serve as thaumaturgic runes which reveal glimpses of the painful, beautiful Truth behind this swiftly degenerating stage of Kali Yuga. Yeah, I can’t do it, either. It’s too horrifying. Thankfully, however, James O’Meara has emerged from a Turner Movie Classics binge-watching marathon and provides us with a collection of essays on this very topic, and so heroically lifts this behemothic burden from our shoulders and hurls it like a cosmic shotput into the gaping maw of Evil.
In his essay collection Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians, no movie is too obtuse, no performance too wooden, and absolutely no tidbit of modern cultural ephemera could possibly be too utterly worthless to escape this man’s surgical scrutiny. O’Meara finds Sisyphean meaning where most mortals find half a bag of crushed jalapeño-flavored Cheetos at the bottom of a rusty old dumpster. And this is a James O’Meara joint, after all, so expect the footnotes to encompass a resplendent array of detail which equals the text in contrapuntal hilariations while most likely surpassing it in word count and (for all I know) cubic centimeters. It seems the footnotes alone would warrant their own separate review. Alas, I am not worthy.
As for the movies, however, O’Meara informs us that not just any old one belongs in his pantheon of pain:
You want to avoid anything where some smart-ass director or screenwriter tries to inject his phony, usually Leftist, notions of “uplift” — you know, that whole Barton Fink feeling.
Usually, you want a “B” picture, where the director had neither the time, nor the money, nor the talent or interest, to impose any kind of “vision.” You don’t want some Holly-wood schmuck’s outdated and stupid “vision,” you want a window onto a better time, probably just what the “message” guy wanted to screw up, and in many ways has succeeded in doing so.
Okay, so you see where he’s going with this.
His first at-bat deals with 1948’s almost-entirely forgotten Sitting Pretty, starring Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara, and Clifton Webb. O’Meara doesn’t so much judge the movie on its merits as he uses it as a time capsule through which we can admire a freer and more creative era for the long-suffering Aryan man. Webb’s character, the typical Aryan (or, “white guy,” as O’Meara reminds us), is excellent at everything he does and is otherwise impeccable — except for the fact that people keep accusing him of the four-D’s (Dastardly Deeds he Din’ Do). Sound familiar? In the story, we have a pre-sitcom Mr. Belvedere who moves in with a typical American family as a live-in babysitter for their three not-so-rambunctious children. Creepy, right? No. Not at all. This was a different era in which a white man doesn’t already have two strikes against him right off the bat. Mr. Belvedere even does yoga, which is, like, thirty years ahead of the times and one reason why Clifton Webb may well be a waspy-incarnation of Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita. For O’Meara, Webb’s sheer class as Mr. Belvedere is a thing to behold. And so is Humphrey Bogart, about whom O’Meara shares a few stories as well.
In Passing the Buck, O’Meara offers up one of the most inspired Z-grade film essays of all time: “Coffee? I Like Coffee!: The Metaphysical Cinema of Coleman Francis.” And you thought Ed Wood was bad. O’Meara makes pains to distinguish himself from the “so bad it’s good” irony cult of movie criticism. He professes real affection for bad movies of the past and treats us to a long quote from Schopenhauer to tell us why. (Go ahead and argue with him if you want.)
The reader may have intuited by now that the truly bad director creates a kind of Zen-like absence of intent (or failure of intent) that, like the well-swept soul, forms the perfect home for a host of perhaps unwelcome ideas.
So it’s in the inadvertent stuff where we find all the gems — but with the jaundiced yet loving eye of Mystery Science Theater, through which O’Meara channels some of his best insights and non-sequiturs.
Moreover, since the film makers “had contempt for the material” and were “working on auto-pilot,” they were not able to prevent, or even notice, traditionalist metaphysics and symbols taking shape within their production. While the camera itself may be “inarticulate” as Ms. McCarthy insists, all it takes is a viewer in the right frame of mind to decode the message, as I do in my reviews.
I would argue, then, that the same holds true for the “bad” film maker, and the “bad” film audience; in the right combination, magic happens.
Enter Coleman Francis, the man of “negative cinematic imagination.” He made three movies in the 1960s, and despite the wild divergences in plot, they all end in the same way: with some asshole in an airplane (or helicopter) opening fire on the movie’s cast. Quite a feat when you realize exactly how different these movies really are:
And sure, there’s only three films, but still, consider the diversity of theme: a defecting Russian scientist is hit by an A-bomb and becomes a prehistoric monster; love and jealousy in the cut-throat world of sport parachuting; and two hoboes and an escaped con join the anti-Castro forces at the Bay of Pigs and ride a freight train all the way to Hell — and they all get resolved the same way! Genius!
O’Meara then makes a fascinating claim: Francis’ films are so boring, they put the viewer in a trance — which then makes the viewer more susceptible to the traditionalist messages embedded within these second-rate would-be masterpieces. We have the consistency of theme, which can be described as life in an unsettling post-apocalypse world. Hiroshima looms large over The Beast of Yucca Flats¸ the one with the Russian scientist turning into a monster. The skydivers in Skydivers are veterans of the Cold War stalemate that was the Korean War. And Red Zone Cuba speaks for itself by combining the Bay of Pigs disaster with Hell. O’Meara also notes the similarity of landscape in all three movies (“some blasted piece of godforsaken desert”) and the similarity of character — men who drift without clear direction or purpose. Unsurprisingly, Hunter S. Thompson and Orson Welles get shout-outs in this chapter, as does the series Mad Men, which can’t seem to exit the author’s mind while discussing the 1960s.
As with Clifton Webb’s Mr. Belvedere, Coleman Francis exhibits technical competence, but not so much in his chosen field of movie directing, but in that of flying airplanes. His movies exude everything aerial, which acts as a sort of comfort zone for the displaced director. O’Meara’s analysis is more on Coleman Francis than his movies, and he uses his movies as a window to (I know he’ll hate me for saying this) psychoanalyze the director. He concludes that Coleman Francis was a mystery as a human being. He disappeared, just like his movies, and then died under strange circumstances — an artist whose vision was unfit for his art.
In “St. Steven of Le Mans: The Man Who Just Didn’t Care,” O’Meara waxes fascinatingly on the halo of masculinity surrounding Steve McQueen. He does this through two McQueen films rather than one: Le Mans from 1971 and Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, a documentary from 2015. Like much of his best work, this isn’t a film review — it’s an essay that interprets cultural and intellectual evolution of the past seventy-five years by using a particular film as both the starting point and the reference line. Actually, no one does this better than James O’Meara, and no essay in this collection embodies the gritty, Aryan soul better than this one.
Here is the mantra McQueen recited to himself while on set:
I decide what is right and what is wrong, and I don’t have to explain it to anybody. I like women, but I’m a little afraid of them. If you make a commitment to a woman they can hurt you. I won’t pick a fight with you, but if you pick a fight with me or back me into a corner I will fucking kill you.
Yeah, so this tough guy pretty much bankrolled this movie, started shooting without a script, insisted on playing a loser against type, refused to write in a sappy romantic subplot, alienated his director John Sturges and screenwriter Alan Trustman, and eventually went so far over-budget he had to give up his controlling share of the film to various financiers in order to get it done. The film nearly killed him twice. It also bankrupted him and wrecked his career. And here is where O’Meara offers us the soul of Passing the Buck:
I’ve frequently suggested that with Grade Z filmmakers like Edward D. Wood, Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merle Gould, the utter lack of conventional “talent” results in a kind of negative capability that allows, in Zen fashion, interesting things to “just happen.” Freed from Hollywood expectations (Sturges: there must be a romance; Trustman: he must be a hero), the films not only evade liberal agendas (Ed Wood, for example, was a pro-family, anti-smut Republican under his angora sweater) but are free to become remarkably accurate time capsules of the period (true cinéma vérité) as well as be open to the arising of archetypal and Traditionalist motifs.
The lack of a script isn’t B-movie incompetence, block-buster no-brainer, or art house superciliousness. It allows Le Mans to be a hypnotic meditation on racing and is appropriate to McQueen’s no-talk character. The ending avoids both contrived Hollywood schmaltz (Even Rocky had to come back and win in Rocky II) and hip nihilistic romanticism (unlike Easy Rider, say).
O’Meara himself goes against type by dedicating a chapter to Orson Welles’ masterpiece A Touch of Evil (channeled, of course, through the series Breaking Bad.) Of course! He summons the ghost of Julius Evola for his evaluation of a 1973 movie called Psychomania. He also crowns something called Manos: The Hands of Fate as the worst movie of all time (“the bottom of the bottomless barrel”). And it’s not like his argument neglects to knock off contenders. Where else can you read a paragraph such as this?
Douche chills, however, will keep you awake. Just as its craggy non-actors have “broken the face barrier,” The Starfighters is easily the most boring, sleep-inducing movie ever made.
There was a movie called The Starfighters? I guess there was.
Passing the Buck hangs together as a book by not hanging together. How could it, given its bewildering panoply of cultural references? In a way, it reminds me of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the collection of classic essays and reviews by the late proto-rock critic Lester Bangs. Where Bangs dumpster dives into the world of bizarre music, O’Meara trawls the Z-movie swamp with his beeping sci-fi metal detector searching for gold. And all the knowledge and insight that went into these essays cause them in many cases to surpass their subjects as cultural capital — at least within dissident circles.
Furthermore, O’Meara is funny. And he knows it. You can practically bibliomance your way through Passing the Buck and come up with a cornucopia of sharp pointy zingers — especially in the footnotes. One of my favorites appears in the A Touch of Evil chapter in which O’Meara discusses the decision to cast the very white Charlton Heston as a Mexican police officer.
And there simply weren’t any Hispanic actors in Hollywood who could act alongside Orson Welles — Caesar Romero, you think?
Yeah, imagining a pasty-white mustachioed Joker in his purple and green clown suit trading barbs with Charles Foster Kane on the campaign trail is what did it for me.
But what does it for James O’Meara are the movies, and the schlockier the better. Because when you lack talent and money, what do you have? You have freedom. And this freedom is what any artist needs in order to create something profound, whether on purpose or not. O’Meara has made it his job to grind out the hours watching forgotten movies in search of the latter. In Passing the Buck, he finds it.
In the Sitting Pretty chapter, he pretty much sums it up:
If I seem to be overburdening this little screwball comedy, this jeu d’esprit, with too heavy a load of “significance,” we would do well to recall that the motion picture, especially the popular movie, is the modern descendent or analogue of ancient public rituals and esoteric rites; thus, as Camille Paglia says of poetry, “the sacred remains latent within.”
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“but with the jaundiced yet loving eye of Mystery Science Theater…”
Bless you, Spencer Quinn. Good times with MST in the past, many good times. And if Richard Houck is reading this comment section, I want him to know that I made many runs to the local 7-11 for snacks prior to watching the MST. Good times! (I wouldn’t dream of stepping foot into a 7-11 now. I value my life.)
After brushing up on a little James J. O’Meara, I am now looking forward to watching “The Thing From Another World!” for the 51st time and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for the 11th time. I will allow my mind to be open “to the traditionalist messages embedded within these second-rate would-be masterpieces.”
Thank you, Desert Flower. That was very nice of you to say and much appreciated. Yes, MST2K has some classic bits, which I enjoyed very much in my yoot.
For kids who don’t know Lester Bangs:
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