Film Review: ‘A Fuller Life’

Samantha Fuller pays tribute to her great filmmaker father in this deeply felt if somewhat reductive documentary.

With:
James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, Constance Towers, Joe Dante, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, James Toback, Wim Wenders, Robert Carradine, Buck Henry, Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, Tim Roth, Perry Lang.

Sam Fuller’s daughter Samantha made a wise decision to utilize passages from her father’s autobiography as the soundtrack for her documentary “A Fuller Life.” Read aloud and with great feeling by actors and directors who admired and worked with him, these visceral, punchy sentences vividly conjure up an extraordinarily vital, fiercely engaged gestalt. But if the pic effectively evokes Fuller the man, it fails to do equal justice to Fuller the filmmaker, and its clip selections sometimes feel truncated and over-literal in their application. A loving tribute for those well versed in the Fuller canon, the doc may prove less revelatory than entertaining for neophytes.

There is something endearing about the sight of Samantha with her father’s rifle awkwardly slung over her shoulder as she pays affectionate homage to him in the film’s prologue; this hokiness feels infinitely preferable to the smudged resentments present in so many “daddy dearest” docus. Certainly, the recitation of Fuller’s pithy prose prevents the parade of guest stars from simply mouthing panegyrics (though a coda does include a light sprinkling of effusive encomiums).

Archival glimpses of New York in the 1920s; photos of Fuller first as a young copyboy, and then as a cocky fledgling crime reporter; and clips from his feisty turn-of-the-century newspaper yarn “Park Row” accompany passages read by James Franco (whose excuse for inclusion seems to be his sheer ubiquitousness) and Jennifer Beals. The latter starred as a photojournalist in Fuller’s last film, the rarely seen 1990 French TV movie “The Madonna and the Dragon,” a few shots of which are interpolated here.

The tone shifts radically in a section given enormous empathy by actor-director Bill Duke (star of Fuller’s penultimate film, 1989’s “Street of No Return”), as Fuller describes his experiences wandering across the U.S. at the height of the Depression and his first shocking encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. The chapter, titled “Freelance,” is punctuated by clips from Fuller’s lunatic-asylum vision of America in “Shock Corridor” — namely, the extraordinary scene where Hari Rhodes, driven mad by his treatment as the first black student in an all-white Southern university, “invents” the KKK, his face contorted with hatred as he whips his fellow inmates into a frenzy, leading a race riot against a hapless black janitor who happens by. All-too-brief snippets from other Fuller films attest to his groundbreaking inclusion of blacks and Asians in important, even leading roles.

But the lion’s share of this orated autobiography concerns Fuller’s WWII adventures, the majority of the docu’s actors hailing from his long-dreamt-of magnum opus, 1980’s “The Big Red One.” Samantha supplements clips with a wealth of hitherto-unseen 16mm footage shot by Fuller as an infantryman/photographer assigned to map out the harrowing tableaux through which he passed, including stark shots of the Falkenau concentration camp that Fuller’s unit liberated, images from which indelibly haunt his later features.

But this strictly biographical approach inevitably reduces Fuller’s most explosive imagery and innovatively jagged editing to mere anecdotal illustration. Only the relatively lengthy excerpts from the race riot in “Shock Corridor” and the “wham-bam ouch-ma’am” opening of “Naked Kiss” — where a furious, fiery Constance Towers wields a flailing pocketbook, reducing her pimp to a quivering pulp — give full reign to the force and intensity of Fuller’s unique filmmaking gifts. Fittingly, Samantha entrusts Towers herself with reading Fuller’s description of how to grab an audience by the balls from the get-go.

Film Review: 'A Fuller Life'

Reviewed at Museum of Modern Art, New York, Aug. 10, 2014. (In 2013 Venice Film Festival.) Running time: 80 MIN.

Production: A Chrisam Films production. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Gillian Wallace Horvat, Samantha Fuller. Executive producer, Christa Lang-Fuller.

Crew: Directed by Samantha Fuller. Written by Samantha Fuller, based on Samuel Fuller’s autobiography “A Third Face.” Camera (color/B&W, HD), Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Rachel Wyn Dunn; editor, Tyler Purcell; music, Paul-Alexander Fuller; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Gary Coppola; sound editor, Benjamin Rauscher.

With: James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, Constance Towers, Joe Dante, William Friedkin, Monte Hellman, James Toback, Wim Wenders, Robert Carradine, Buck Henry, Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, Tim Roth, Perry Lang.

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