Henry Fool (1997); Hal Hartley, director.

In the 1990s we had not one but two great, deadpan independent filmmakers with the same first and last initials. The work of Jim Jarmusch still makes a splash, but if you are a young ‘un you probably don’t know much about Hal Hartley.

Henry Fool is an absurdist tale that – at least in my interpretation – shows how charisma and talking a good game still falls short in the face of genuine talent. Thomas Jay Ryan drinks Bud in a can and spins yarns for a quiet garbage man played by James Urbaniak. The relationship inspires Urbaniak to become the country’s most celebrated and financially successful poet (?) thus causing a rift in their friendship. (From Russ: it might be worth noting here that there is even a ‘ten years later’ sequel to Henry Fool, called Fay Grim, which is a weird play on espionage films.)

In A Lonely Place (1950); Nicholas Ray, director.

1950 was the year of Hollywood movies about how horrible Hollywood was. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was the most grandiose and gothic, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ All About Eve was the most catty (hell, most of it is set on Broadway) but Nick Ray’s In A Lonely Place is probably the most dark.

Humphrey Bogart plays a washed-up screenwriter framed for the murder of a Hollywood hat check girl. Or. . .maybe he really did it? Whereas the other two films somewhat revel in the movie industry’s sleaze, Ray’s picture and Bogart’s performance give it an edge of desperation.

Sideways (2004); Alexander Payne, director.

Sideways is one of the greatest movies about male friendship. Paul Giamatti’s performance as a would-be novelist frustrated in love and work presents his taste for wine as one of the few things in his life that is going right. This movie so revels in its oenophilia that no one bothers to stop and say, hey, this guy really has a problem.

Okay, okay, okay I know what you are thinking. Sideways, more than any other film I’ve ever picked, is hardly so obscure to count as  “probably never been seen.” Since that’s the case, maybe we should all watch the Japanese remake.

Day of the Locust (1975); Josh Schlesenger, director.

Huh. When I went to look up the date on this one I was reminded that the lead character is, in fact, a set designer and not a writer. I’m keeping it in, however, because it is based on a Nathaniel West novella, a poster child for the doomed writer.

This oddball flick is a more of a snapshot of the depravity and cruelty in the Hollywood system, and also features Donald Sutherland playing a creepy pervert named Homer Simpson. The clip above is the end of the film, technically a spoiler, but it works well as a standalone piece, too.

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