By Ray Young
News of filmmaker Joe Marzano's death reminded me that I'd intended to call him. To reconnect after ten years. My loss. He was a character of varying moods, faces and ideas, the rogues gallery of Mr. Arkadin rolled into one. Joe would've welcomed the analogy, for Arkadin was one of his favorites, part of his ongoing love affair with the image of Orson Welles. Like so many independent filmmakers rotting away in obscurity, living hand-to-mouth, Joe shared the great man's weariness of "the system." If only they recognized his genius . . .
I interviewed him in the early '80s, initially as part of a mosaic on the "underground" (Marie Menken, Robert Frank, etc.), a project which never lifted. But I found myself down in Joe's basement on Friday nights for a couple of years. It was a dark and clammy shrine to The Movies that, for Joe, began around the time of King Kong
and ended with the arrival of Elvis Presley.
The room was set up as a miniature theatre with a five-foot projection tv. My ever-perspiring host, who bore a slight resemblance to Charles Mingus, first showed his own films. Joe made a lot of films.
My favorites were from the late-'50s: When They Sleep
(1957); an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Erostratus
(1961); You Or I
(1962); and Barbara
(1963). They came from a young, passionate 16mm artist adapting narrative to budgetary and vocational limitations. Joe considered When They Sleep
"my first film that was a serious, finished effort. If I'd had more writing power, I could have emphasized the guilt in it. I was trying to come from a dream state, and nothing beats movies for that." Set in the mind of a man entering priesthood, When They Sleep
shows the influence of Buñuel while predicting Polanski.
"My films played, for the most part, at the Aspects Gallery and the Charles Theatre in Greenwich Village," Joe recalled. "Admission was free if you brought a can of film to show you were a filmmaker. Unfortunately, everyone in the Village thought they were filmmakers, and the Charles went broke in about a year!"
Joe adhered to standard narrative storytelling — in a market known for abstract works along the lines of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon
or Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising
. "A lot of people complained about the lighting in my films, that it was too professional. Or that some of my films actually had stories. But I didn't need the experimental audience or its critics."
He helped establish the New York Film Workshop, and edited its publication, Scenario
: "I wanted it to be folksy, and push myself in it, since Jonas Mekas was pushing all the other guys in his Village Voice
was supposed to be a springboard for myself and other neglected filmmakers."
Joe then commenced work on Man Outside
(1965). Two years in the making, two hours in the viewing. For its release, Joe's presskit described the film as "concerned with three young men caught in the vortex of this 20th century country of the blind. True fence straddlers, but men outside the world at large, they seem to belong nowhere in that they reject the life of both square and beat as anti-life. Yet each exists in his own way as an eternal cry in the night for betterment and each senses the profound loss of something he has never had (but perhaps glimpsed once, far away in early youth), a magic golden-time and all the beauty and loving in the world
Bhob Stewart and Joe filming Man Outside
In 1965, filmmaker Lloyd Williams remarked that Marzano's "style is magnificent and truly human. His work is stirring, moving,magnetizing, and god-awful real-to-life." Man Outside
got Joe on NBC-tv, with Judith Crist running a clip and noting, "Though produced with the same limitations, this is definitely not
what we've come to know as an 'underground movie'."
At which point we go back to Mr. Arkadin
, for, like Welles, Joe tinkered endlessly with his work — cutting, redubbing, rewriting, restructuring, redubbing the redubs. Some versions of Man Outside
ran two hours, some 90-minutes, and there was even an express version that clocked in at under an hour. "I thought that picture was going to put me up there
," Joe said, "that I'd be directing bigger movies shortly after."
Well, almost. He worked as an actor in a softcore mammadrama, Cool It, Baby
(1967) — that's him watching the stag film before the opening credits. "Since most of the sex was suggested back then, these movies had
to have a story. So, in a sense, it was like doing a real B-film. The thing I liked about Cool It, Baby
was that it had the feel
, even when we were making it, of the old Monogram pictures."
The same producers soon had Joe writing, directing, and playing in Venus in Furs
(1967), inspired by Leopold Masoch's novel. (It bears no relation to the Jess Franco film of the same title and year.) "I figured if I could do two or three of these movies . . . At the time I'd just heard of Francis Coppola, and that he'd made it in the exploitation field. Back then, you could!" Shot in a large house where doughy libertines engage in migrane-inducing abstractions of foreplay, Venus in Furs
sports Joe's dinner-table diatribe on hedonism, a truly uncomfortable moment patterned after Welles's dissing Marx-as-a-Jew in The Stranger
It premiered at Manhattan's Tivoli Theatre, with Mondo Bizarro
, and at Brooklyn's Cinart, with Kiss Me Nicely
. After years of 8mm and 16mm prints rattling away on battered equipment in student workshops, Joe saw Venus in Furs
"in a modern theatre with a mixed audience, not just the guys in the raincoats. I was amazed! It was in a real theatre, and it was working! I didn't hear the projector noise, the picture was good and sharp, the sound very clear."
Erotic shenanigans in Cool it, Baby
And, as a director, that was as close to the big time as Joe ever got. Acquaintances from the '60s — Bogdanovich, DePalma, Paul Morrissey — hired themselves out to the Roger Cormans of the industry, but Joe stayed home. He found a place for his rich baritone on New York radio (best remembered at WNCN), while films became more of a hobby — "back to 16mm, then 8mm, and eventually video because the money became impossible." He talked me into doing Encounter
(1985), where I shared the screen with a mystery woman (played by Barbara Balmer), who winds up gutting my character with a kitchen knife. It was shot on video in three days at a cost of about $15. Joe didn't even offer to buy us lunch.
Nights in his basement were filled with film and talk almost to sunrise. There were moments of elegance and sleaze. An evening's program could consist of an Ingmar Bergman followed by a Buñuel, with Destroy All Monsters
as a chaser. Other friends and filmmakers wandered in, including the late Shirley Stoler, star of The Honeymoon Killers
. It was an intimate party that continued for years, held by a man who empathized with Hugo Haas, adored Welles, and who hung on to ideals from the late 1940's. What a film Renoir could have made from it all.
Flickhead, Shirley Stoler, and Joe in 1986.