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Six-String Samurai

posted by Mel. on 5/14/01

For as much critical press that gets brought down on the filmscape of the nineties and its effect on the current parade of dismal formulas and rare gems, nobody can argue the decade's importance in the arena of widened horizons. It was the dawn before the cipher years in which the term indie filmaking became part of the English language and critical vocabulary, when the excessive cheese and fun of the eighties essentially grew up, donned a shirt suitable for the office, and got serious. Film zealots armed with their own scripts and imaginations followed in the footsteps of their fanboy forefathers like Lucas and Spielberg, translating the influences of their work out of the science fiction genre and bringing it closer to the human heart--screenplays rippling with classic themes, but given a new sort of teeth that had been dormant since the rebel concepts of the late sixties and early seventies. Directors/writers/geeks like Tarantino held the banners of the anti-Hollywood theories such as blaxploitation proud, creating an entire thriving market for the remastered versions of the chop-socky and fringe genre pictures that had inspired them. After a decade of putting its collective brain on cruise control, the American theater public was eager to chew on some alternative thinking.

Tinsel Town took notice, and in its own patent fashion, tried to jump onboard with its own high-octane and indie-flavored garbage action and drama fare. Projects like Six Days in the Valley and Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead connected the dots that the public seemed to enjoy, but still caromed harmlessly off the box office. And thankfully so. Unable to simply repackage a prouder idea, the studios instead began to import the indie mentality into their bigger package. The result was a mixed bag: hipper here, darker there, the twist ending coming back into mainstream vogue and the strength of a good story or character once again taking its rightful precedence.

This trend of culture implosion was counterbalanced perfectly by the other major advent of the nineties cinemascape: the dawn of computer-generated imagery. Initially a new toy for sci-fi producers to bolster their traditional foam rubber and stop motion effects with, CGI has since exploded into a staple of almost every major production to go before a lens. Sun's position off a notch? Simply reshape the lighting projection. Extra slip and fell during the big war scene? Edit the bastard out and cancel his paycheck. In an ultimate stroke of irony, the dream of a flat-busted fangeek and his hunger to tell a new kind of story has come full circle: a modern order of smoke and mirrors built on the shoulders of the billionaire nerds who established ILM and kept it a foot ahead of the game.

It actually isn't as bad as it reads. The current picture of these evolving trends is surprisingly upshot--digital cameras are redefining the way that nobody directors are able to finance a script, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an Oscar contender. The summer blockbuster clip is loaded with as much bloated and mind-numbing crap as it was fifteen years ago, and you can still catch a matinee of Memento without worrying if the projector's going to be repossessed halfway through the first reel. The nerds and film students are wielding more power than ever before, and the real backbone of the Internet--gritty and socially deprived geeks with imaginations like bottled lightning--is starting to gain momentum under glossy shoestring pet projects like Kevin Rubio's Troops. Flicks that play like the big boys, but came from a brain and a basement.

It's a very exciting "Fuck You" to entertain, all things considered.

Name actors starved for a challenging script have changed the face of the genuine indie-nobody flick over the last couple years, resulting in a lot of small movies with big balls. Despite the quasi-intellectual bullshit trickle you'll catch from a stoned actor without a single real credit at any NoHo production party, this hasn't fucked the indie system; there's still thousands of movies that you'll never see being crafted on a wing and a prayer as I sit here writing this. All over the world. On college campuses, in back yards, in the back seat of mom's minivan. No budget, nothing to lose, and maybe better for it.

One such film came out of nowhere to sucker-punch all of Hollywood in late '98, and remains one of the best and entertaining diamonds to be cut in the midst of the nineties and the mutations of the Industry. Thrown together on student permits, credit cards, an undiscovered superstar in the lead and a lot of booze, Six-String Samurai made the top ten list of critics from coast to coast and left movies with eight times its budget feeling like they'd been clocked in the jaw. And rightfully so. This is geek cinema and unpretentious guerilla storytelling at its finest.

The ballad of Samurai literally explodes from the opening crawl. As it turns out, the Russians got the final say in the Cold War tete'-a-tete' when the up and nuked America flat in 1957--with most of the country bombed back into the stone age, Las Vegas has emerged as the last bastion of chrome fenders, rock n' roll and apple pie. Rechristing itself as Lost Vegas, the job of monarch over the remnants of the land of the free goes to the only King cut out for the task: Elvis Presley. Sadly, there's trouble in paradise when we pick up the story some forty years later; Elvis has left the building for good, and there's no heir in sight. The call echoes across what's left of the land of the free, summoning every would-be monarch with a sword and a Stratocaster to take a crack at the empty throne.. including the grim reaper himself. But more on that in a moment.

Among the crop of nomadic hopefuls is our stalwart anti-hero, simply known as Buddy. From the moment Buddy makes his grand entrance--ripping out of a field of tall reeds with a six-string hollowbody slung over his shoulder and a katana ready to bleed a pack of primitive screwheads--we know we're in good hands for the long haul. Played to the note of perfection by relative unknown and wu shu martial arts stud Jeffrey Falcon (Who also designed the costumes, wrote the script, aided in the production and development of the flick's filmography), Buddy is the ass-kicking embodiment of every joystick jockey and net nerd's wetdream. Decked out in his tattered tuxedo and sporting a pair of glasses that make Coke bottles look dainty in comparison, Buddy's a perennial update of classic samurai cinema standards: short on dialogue, fast with the steel, and no time for lovin'.

Unfortunately, he also finds himself playing baby-sitter to fifty pounds of whiny baggage from the early going. The savages that he's just cleaved through have left an orphan in their wake--Davey. A latter-day incarnation of Mad Max's wild kid, Davey doesn't have much to say other than the occasional siren knell of protest at Buddy's actions. Our protagonist wants no part of the nanny chores at first, but we all know that a hero, even a bespectacled badass from the badlands, is only as good as the size of his heart. After several attempts to ditch the kid, a number of misfortunate adventures and a visit with the cannibalistic version of the Cleaver family, Buddy finally softens to the idea of playing father figure. Sorta. Or, as much as a guy who's killed over 200 men while picking out a wicked tune on his six-string is prone to do.

As any self-respecting film zealot can tell you, a hero worth worshipping is only as good as the evil he's pitted against. In this case, that said evil is Top Hat: none other than death himself, a grim apparition of heavy metal chaos who roams the desert with his pack of demonic roadies, picking off pretender after pretender. Hat's got ultimate designs on clinching the Vegas gig himself, where he'll be able to subjugate what's left of humanity and damn the world to everlasting darkness. Prone to stringing up the guitar picks of his fallen victims and lamenting the loss of his best bowling assassins, Hat is an inspired creation who fits into the twisted scheme of the flick perfectly.

Much of the credit for Six String's solid competence as a film falls on the shoulders of its creative team. Lensed on expired filmstock, jangled nerves, the skin of the crew's collective teeth and some late cash infusions, Samurai went from being a student thesis for director/producer/dreamer Lance Mungia to a legitimate festival favorite, taking home awards at Slamdance and the love of the jury and audience. It's an excellent, if not the ultimate, case study of what happens when the blood and tears of those involved lift the movie above its reality. Cobbled together by any other production unit--minus Falcon's boundless energy and cool, Mungia's surplus of balls and vision, Brian Tyler's incredible score and Kristian Bernier's stunning cinematography--Six-String would have rightfully deserved its comparisons to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead. As it is, Samurai is much more than a student romp fueled merely by enthusiasm.. it's an indie flick on joy juice, a script that wasn't satisfied with settling for the money-safe standards of talkie relationship dramas despite the means at the production's disposal.

With all that lovingly spewed, it has to be said that Six String isn't without its flaws. The script can't maintain the manic energy of the sights and sounds for the full hour and a half, and does sag noticeably around the midsection during a sequence where Buddy and the kid end up doing battle with an underground society of military bunker burnouts. It's a permissible slump when the bigger picture is considered, and the flick has no trouble redeeming itself with a fine ending that plays like a slideshow of great moments in nerd nirvana. When Buddy, mauled by the remnants of the proud Communist army and pincushioned with a dozen arrows, makes his final walk to meet Death while plucking a melancholy dirge on his hollowbody, fuckin' forget about it--if you've got a geek bone in your body, you'll be sitting on the edge of cloud nine. Mungia may eat a lot of comparisons to Raimi on the strength of some gonzo shots and oddball subject matter, but Lance has more competence behind the rig at this point in his young career than Sam did. And it shows.

Six-String Samurai isn't an easy film to track down, but it's well worth the bloodhunt and the fifteen-twenty bucks you'll smack in for a new tape or DVD copy. The soundtrack is also worth a mention on that breath: no movie in recent memory has used the score with such a sharpened edge in giving the story itself a lift. Those proudly addicted to the chaingun sounds of surf music would be well advised to try and special order the album. Thirty-one tracks of dialogue and music from Santa Monica Russian rockabilly outfit The Red Elvises, and not a turkey among 'em.

Six String's an essential piece of work for anyone who just plain ol' loves movies. Aficionados, those banging out a script in obscurity, anyone forcing their kid brother to star in grainy Super 8 flicks. It's a valentine to the unknown and the underdog alike. And when Hollywood puts Vin Diesel in another movie and tries to stuff it down your gullet, you can pop this bitch in the VCR and get a freebased reminder of just why you became a fan in the first place.

-m.

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