Director/Producer: Amanda St. Saltry. Producers Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein.
Late in the 1960s, while mainstream American film was still deciding whether it wanted to catch up with the counterculture—whether to hit the road with Bonnie and Clyde or talk to the animals with Doctor Dolittle—three recent film school dropouts founded an organization dedicated to a unique cinematic agenda: the eradication of mediocre screenplays from the Hollywood ecosystem. They called their abstemious collective “Fallow, Incorporated”; its mission was to seek out “the worst conceivably producible scripts in Hollywood,” obtain the rights to those scripts, and refrain from producing them, forever. Over the course of the next decade, Fallow came to wield a surprising degree of industry influence, actively preventing the filming of hundreds of “god-awful” screenplays. At their peak, this now-forgotten juggernaut occupied a floor just above the Los Angeles offices of ICM, a few of whose exasperated agents—according to one silhouetted interviewee—would occasionally traipse upstairs and attempt to “beg, flatter, and threaten” their well-funded nemeses out of purchasing the rights to some coveted property, usually in vain.
Prior Restraint, Amanda St. Saltry’s layered, frequently digressive, always absorbing documentary chronicles the rise, fall, and startlingly enduring influence of this non-production company’s singular self-assignment: to improve a generation of filmmakers’ collective artistic output, not by making more good films, but by eliminating as many bad ones as possible. And for a time, at least, Fallow’s public-spirited creative infanticide would seem to have achieved its objective; many film historians credit the group with weeding out the worst the era had to offer, clearing the way for a golden age of highly personal, frequently soulful and literate scripts to reach the light throughout the ’70s.
But St. Saltry appears to be making a case that ultimately, Fallow helped spawn exactly what it sought to exterminate; on the evidence presented here, its most enduring impact may have been to strengthen the competitive advantage of mediocre writing. Indeed, in a sweeping mea culpa, Bill Antin, one of the two surviving founders, lays the blame for the blockbusterization of Hollywood not on George Lucas or the exigencies of a newly globalized film market, but on what he calls “the unholy collaboration between the Fallow collective and the law of unintended consequences.”
“I know it sounds impossibly naïve,” Antin confides, gazing out the window of his East Hollywood studio apartment, “but we honestly never perceived we were creating a whole new market for well-structured, deeply shitty scripts. Here we were, paying competitive rates for writers to learn how to craft movies both terrible and commercially viable. We were literally like a paid internship for future Michael Bay collaborators. I know how the CIA must have felt in Afghanistan, never getting it that they were training the mujahedeen to turn around and kill Americans.”
At the heart of Prior Restraint, then, lurk larger questions: Can the effects of good intentions be predicted? Are grand, activist reform schemes destined to fail in an industry driven by mass taste and massive capital? Are they destined to fail in general? (Not to mention: Where is the line between stewardship and censorship? Can creativity flourish by a strategy of suppression?)
Fans of St. Saltry’s previous work know she is undaunted by the arcane. Just As If It Were True chronicled the daily lives of an obscure sect of contemporary Frankfurt atheists who chant, pray, and ritualistically scar themselves despite their lack of spiritual faith, believing the practice—though not the substance—of religion to have therapeutic benefits. Marginalia traced the lasting intellectual impact of scribbled notes in scholarly texts, such as the branches of mathematics inspired by Fermat’s Last Theorem, or the volumes written in response to certain of Karl Jung’s visionary doodles, some of which recent analysis suggests may have resulted from a runny pen set down for too long.
As ever, St. Saltry can be almost exhaustingly clever. Prior Restraint is so full of ideas that it can seem at times to proceed more by tangent and metaphor than narrative logic. Some viewers might feel a bit intellectually whiplashed when the film veers into an animated history of the USDA’s subsidization of farmers for not farming. And St. Saltry’s imaginative fancy is not always matched by investigative rigor. Who was bankrolling an outfit that regularly outbid major studios in service of a project that by definition could not generate revenue? Speculation that some of those very studios may have been using front organizations to co-opt the aims of this idealistic young collective go mostly unaddressed.
As a whole, though, it works. And St. Saltry’s engrossing madness is by no means without method. Her coyly discursive narrative path, aside from being a lot of fun, serves to whet our appetite for the thing itself: the films that might have been. That the thing itself doesn’t exist is no deterrent for a filmmaker of St. Saltry’s mischief-making proclivities. A different kind of storyteller might have relied on talking heads in book-lined offices; St. Saltry, characteristically, dispenses with the bloodless conventions of the traditional historical documentary, abandons objectivity with an offhand shrug, and does the most obvious—and unexpected—thing possible: she shows us the movies, as they might have been made. Well, snippets of them, in any case, which according to the credits were essentially subcontracted to other filmmakers (in a few cases to the very names who were once approached to direct the original, aborted project). Fallow’s options on these projects were not perpetual, after all, so St. Saltry has stepped into the breach of contractual expiration.
And the verdict? How are they? Are they significantly worse than what Antin refers to as “the crap we’re accustomed to”? It is my professional duty to report, in all critical rigor, that It Depends. Perhaps, dear reader, that is a copout; in my defense, I’d point out that it also happens to be the point of the film.
For let it be said (and—alert!—potentially spoiled) that St. Saltry produces not one but two interpretations of each script she has excerpted. First, a round of overlit and overacted versions which easily satisfy our lust for derision; but then, before you quite understand what is taking place, Prior Restraint returns to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and offers up a very different take on each of the passages we’ve just watched and derided. With silences and subtlety, and a healthy dose of what film critics are reduced to describing as “texture” (whatever we might mean by such a term), St. Saltry’s heroic directorial A-Team find completely different meanings, and effects, the second time around.
A campy, bell-bottomed extra-planetary adventure/romance emerges, on closer inspection, as a quiet parable about the weird and lonely landscape of human relationships. A blunt and humorless cop drama is reinvented as a doomed workplace romance between two tough and stubborn, and incidentally gay, NYPD heroes. (In a marvelous bit of stunt-casting, Nicolas Cage is invited to pursue both tracks of his bifurcated career path in quick succession: first the spastic, off-key action-hero, followed by the soulful, endearingly goofy first-rate actor whose absence we have so often mourned—each persona performing the same scene. Face-off, indeed.) A kung-fu blaxploitation epic, complete with asynchronous dubbing, placed in the hands of Tarantino frenemy Roger Avary, becomes—well, a kung-fu blaxploitation epic with a hipper soundtrack (he retains the bad dubbing.) (Perhaps not every script can be saved.)
In a particularly sly move, St. Saltry enters one ringer in the field of contestants: a nearly unrecognizable scene from a well-known drama of the period—which here shall go unnamed—has been re-shot for maximum risibility. Of course, we don’t realize what we’re watching until the second time through, when the excerpted original is placed before us without further comment. No film’s greatness was inevitable, she seems to be telling us. (In retrospect, finding the farcical in the story of a Manhattanite cult conspiring to impregnate an actor’s wife with the spawn of Satan doesn’t seem like too tough a job. But perhaps I give too much away.)
It’s hard not to see all these bathetic juxtapositions as a latter-day bid for the auteur theory—it’s the director, and the director alone, who determines the quality of a film. If that’s a bit self-serving—a disparagement of the importance of screenwriters from someone working in a genre that doesn’t employ them—it’s hardly self-sparing. Borrowing from the playbook of Banksy’s brilliant, cagey Exit Through the Gift Shop, Prior Restraint switches filmmakers mid-stream; in fact, St. Saltry hands the reigns of her film to perhaps its greatest detractor: Brent Stillwater, the other surviving member of the Fallow collective (who apparently works today for the Nature Conservancy, another non-profit committed to high-minded ends through capitalistic means). In the press, Stillwater has been savagely critical of the film he helped create, but it would be difficult to go further than he does in the film itself, calling the whole project “an inherently destructive endeavor,” and “both masturbatory and murderous.”
“Murderous”? It might be a less outlandish claim than it sounds, at least metaphorically: it’s a film, after all, that directly undermines the explicit goal of its own subjects, by shooting the scripts they fought so passionately to bury. St. Saltry as interviewee cheerfully acknowledges as much, admitting with wide-eyed sincerity, “Oh, I’m very surprised I’m not being stopped.” (Is she winking at us when she says her next project will concern Sheriff Pat Garrett’s biography of Billy the Kid? Are there other examples of a biographer who personally ended the life of his subject? Perhaps she herself is one, she seems to be suggesting.)
Even those viewers un-intrigued by the insider film history will find much to enjoy here. The belated chance to glimpse a few moments of these dead-end road flicks, lukewarm potboilers, and still-birthed coming-of-agers, is such delicious, schadenfreudian fun, that Prior Restraint can at times be enjoyed as nearly mindless entertainment—even as on the whole, it’s a deeply thought-provoking film about the relationship of prevention to creation, the real locus of cinematic excellence, and, yes, the nature of responsibility of documentarians.
Leo Marks is a theater actor based in LA. He’s won an Obie and some LA Weekly Awards, and he helped start New York’s Elevator Repair Service Theater Company. He writes fiction, too.