Judge Daryl Loomis thought someone made a mockumentary of his life, but then he saw they were his dad's home movies.
"In the spring of 1991, Producer/Genius Holton P. Jeffers commenced shooting on his magnum opus 'Guns on the Clackamas.' I was privileged to be invited to chronicle this momentous event. And what you are about to see is my audio-visual journal of the making of this historic film."—Nigel Nado
I grew up on Bill Plympton's Plymptoons. His work was inspired; subversive, artistically interesting, and just plain nuts. While his animations were very popular, his rare piece of live-action has never really been seen. Plympton is genuinely funny, however, and a very smart writer. It may not have the same immediate appeal as his animation, but Guns on the Clackamas, his second live-action feature, is an insane riot, rivaling This is Spinal Tap in mockumentary hilarity and besting that classic in absurdity.
Facts of the Case
Filmmaker Nigel Nado (Keith Scales, Homecoming) is making a documentary about elusive Hollywood producer Holton P. Jeffers during the shooting of his new Western, Guns on the Clackamas. The film is troubled from the start but, when the cast and crew start dying off, Nado chronicles how they manage to complete the film in spite of a cast of corpses.
The opening title card describing the documentary subject as a Producer/Genius cracked me up immediately. What comes after, however, had me in stitches. Nado, walking through the Clackamas woods saying, "The very landscape trembles with the genius of Holton P. Jeffers. The leaves on the trees pulsate with creativity. And the grass and the ground throbs in the knowledge that here in the quiet corner of the universe, a white-hot cataclysm of artistic expression is being generated in the mind of the genius that is Holton P. Jeffers." Nado, a sycophantic caricature of somebody like James Lipton (Inside the Actors Studio) is charming and ridiculous at once, and we immediately understand who we're dealing with. Shockingly, however, Nado might be far more normal than the people he will soon introduce us to. These include a lead actress with a stutter…but only while the camera rolls; a romantic lead with history's worst case of mouth rot; a producer with the world's second larges collection of "Big Eye" art; and a German financier who constantly shake a bratwurst at us. Everybody in Plympton's world is a nut, all lovable and hilarious.
The unabashed pretension of everybody involved in the Western is immediately clear when Plympton shows up the previous work of the producer. "Frog Cowboys" features toads in wigs with voiced-over dialog. Using the same audio, he then made "Vampire Cowboys," and, yes, then "Hula Cowboys." These films are more ridiculous than they sound and to hear Nado describe them as the progression of a great artist just layers on the absurdity.
For the first part of the film, Plympton gets by on letting us laugh at his characters' quirks, but as the plot gets going, we can start to see how clever and multi-layered Guns on the Clackamas is. It takes a highly skilled singer to purposefully sing badly; they have to think about what they're doing constantly. Similarly, the Western is so unbelievably terrible that it smacks of meticulous planning. The Weekend at Bernie's-style parts with the dead actors still in scene is a good immediate gag. The whole of it, however, with actors walking behind matte paintings, shooting day-for-night and forgetting the filter, and masking the actor's stand-ins a la Jean Harlow after her death during the filming of Saratoga all show how much forethought went into these scenes.
The actors sell it the idea perfectly, as well. No matter the role, the performers have the perfect touch of self-seriousness and that's then only way a film like this can work. If I don't believe that the actors in Spinal Tap, this film's largest influence, really feel like they're making great music, the film is sunk. In that classic and in Guns on the Clackamas, this is the great success of both. I was sold within the first few minutes and wanted more at the end.
The DVD from Microcinema fits perfectly with the film. The full frame image is grainy and dirty, but this makes sense with the documentary style. The scenes of the Western look a little better, though they are intended to be incompetent, so still look pretty bad. The stereo sound is quite good, with clear dialog all the way through and a great soundtrack by Hank Bones. The extras are slim, but what has been included is excellent. The audio commentary is one of the more interesting I've heard in a while. Plympton is an intelligent guy and an engaging speaker, so he works very well talking about his influences, inspirations, and all the family friends and local actors who performed in the film. Most interesting is a story he tells about the spontaneous nature of the filming. During an interview with the Western's cinematographer in front of a city courtyard, a fight breaks out between a bum and some guy over a bouquet of flowers. It comes out of the blue and no mention is made of it. They didn't try to reshoot, however, because you can't write that kind of commentary. Finishing us off, we have a local television interview with the director, as well as some festival footage and a series of punch lines to a duck joke that goes unfinished in the film.
Guns on the Clackamas may be a terrible Western and a lame documentary, but it's a fantastic comedy. At times clever, ridiculous, intelligent, and juvenile, it's just my kind of thing. Plus, it's filmed in Oregon and I love seeing the old stomping grounds. If you want to see a great mockumentary but have seen Spinal Tap a million times already, Guns on the Clackamas is for you.
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