Review: ‘The Loss of Nameless Things’

A dramatic real-life rise and fall is charted in "The Loss of Nameless Things," which chronicles the sad tale of Oakley Hall III, a young U.S. playwright and director whose fast-rising career was cut short by a brain-damaging 1978 fall. At times, first-time feature helmer Bill Rose's docu overplays the story's dark aspects, via a portentous tone reminiscent of cheesy docudrama re-enactments.

A dramatic real-life rise and fall is charted in “The Loss of Nameless Things,” which chronicles the sad tale of Oakley Hall III, a young U.S. playwright and director whose fast-rising career was cut short by a brain-damaging 1978 fall. At times, first-time feature helmer Bill Rose’s docu overplays the story’s dark aspects, via a portentous tone reminiscent of cheesy docudrama re-enactments; tale is engrossing enough without our being reminded constantly how similar it is to a Greek tragedy. Still, slickly made piece should be a fine fit (especially after some trimming) for arts broadcasters, and could attract scattered theatrical dates.

Privileged scion of an artistic family (his father is a noted author), Oakley (aka Tad) was a prodigy whose whirlwind creativity matched his good looks, charisma and Pied Piper hedonism. (Aptly, he played Dionysus in an experimental college film glimpsed here.) One collaborator recalls him as “the most magnetic person you ever met.”

After studying under John Cheever and marrying “his Zelda,” he founded Lexington Conservatory Theater at a dilapidated New York Catskills resort that he and cohorts converted to a multi-stage facility. Word soon got out that the young company was doing exciting work, and that Oakley himself would one day take the theatrical world by storm — not only for his demandingly physical, often shocking productions, but also for the plays (notably a “Frankenstein” adaptation) he churned out between umpteen other tasks.

He was more firebrand than administrator. The strain of growing artistic expectations (Joe Papp’s Public Theater was just one major-league entity closely following LCT’s progress) and running a business on a shoestring began to wear. He fought continually with wife Mary, who loathed their isolation in a theatrical commune (and was doubtless aware of the company’s highly incestuous friskiness). Both drank and drugged to excess.

Despondent after his latest play got tepid reviews, Oakley and a hanger-on got drunk, then stumbled across the old bridge by the theater. Oakley fell, surviving serious head injuries, but emerged paranoid and hallucinatory.

When we finally meet the present-day subject, over an hour in, he’s living with a poetess in Nevada City, Calif., sober, trying to start writing again. One gratifying recent development involves his verse play about explorer Meriweather Lewis, which had, 20 years earlier, been expected to make the playwright’s name.

This last section rambles on too long, and the telling of events leading up to that near-fatal fall is also protracted beyond service of narrative suspense. (It doesn’t help that some of Hall’s former fellow LCT confederates tend to tell their side of the story in theatrical language and gesture.) But the undeniable fascination of such live-fast, burnout-young life sagas holds attention even when pic dawdles.

Handsome photography of the gorgeous Catskills is most notable element in the polished package.

The Loss of Nameless Things

Docu

Production

A Nameless Films production. Produced, directed by Bill Rose.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Mickey Freeman, Jerry Slick, Bill Bishop; editor, Rick LeCompte; music, Barney Jones, Joan Jeanrenaud; sound designer, Jim McKee. Reviewed at San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, May 14, 2005. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Oakley Hall III, Bruce Bouchard, Patricia Charbonneau, Bob Currier, Sands Hall, Sigrid Heath, Deborah Hedwell, Michael Hume, Kate Kelly, Steve Nisbet, Timothy Orr, Steven Patterson, James Rice, Philip Charles Sneed, Frederick Snyder, Gary Alan Wright, Richard Zobel.
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