(Here is the main part of my brother's analysis of the cinematic work of Coleman Francis. On this blog, it can be considered part 2, as I will post the first part next, so it is above this.) -J.P.
The Tautology of Coleman Francis
Experience and the resultant regret are the essence of Coleman Francis. The force behind a trilogy of stark and despair filled movies The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba are transit points and expressions of a rare art form, conservative-based existential nihilism. First among these movies is The Beast of Yucca Flats. Made accessible by the modern treatment by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 the movie is most often overlooked by the discerning public and set aside by those who view the movie as more a parody of movie making than a work of cinematic art; art it most certainly is.
Originally shot in 1959 the movie embraces the anxiety of that time. Another film released that year was Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach. Both films come face to face with the consequences of the terror and power of nuclear weapons, much on the mind of most people living at that time. Francis sets his movies in a place and time seldom treated beyond the occasional need to expose various insects and mammals to nuclear radiation in order to produce a plotline required for a “monster movie.” Movies only suitable for drive-in movies (in first release) and late night television viewing for a generation of Americans addicted to the endless re-runs that later became the substantive context for Coleman Francis’s movies as they are now evaluated and viewed.
“Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” – Harry Lime, The Third Man
Director of The Third Man (1949), Orson Wells, offered us a simple and valuable yardstick to gauge Coleman Francis when he said “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” By that simple rule The Beast of Yucca Flats is a good movie inasmuch as the movie dares you to watch it and sit with Coleman Francis as poet immersed in despair.
“Boys from the city. Not yet caught by the whirlwind of
Progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.”
It is far too easy to dismiss Francis’s narrative as ill conceived or merely brutish in his application. When viewed in summation, the despair and hopelessness that Francis expresses is stunning and difficult to find elsewhere in the rest of cinema or any of the other arts now held as valued and precious in our collective sight. Few other directors have gone to, and witnessed for the public a more stark and grim reality than Francis. One example that comes to mind is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
Corporal Paris: See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we'll be dead and it'll be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I'll be nothing, and it'll be alive. [Ferol smashes the roach]
Private Ferol: Now you got the edge on him. – Paths of Glory
Francis stands at the edge of the nuclear abyss and as Nietzsche grimly pointed out “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That is the point from which Francis moves forward with this movie. It is an entrance point difficult for many viewers to walk through without the standard preamble offered by cinema of that period. Francis plunges straight into the problem for he has gazed long enough into the abyss and has been rendered psychologically bludgeoned and devoid of solace. The Beast of Yucca Flats is a work of despair, anxiety, alienation and one man’s view of that place in the darker part of the human soul where pain and sorrow no longer register anything but bitter resignation to which Francis’s own narrative answers back with a bitter indifference.
Francis’s bitterness is a common thread throughout his trilogy. He has examined the situation that Martin Buber termed das Zwischenmenschliche (“the sphere between”) and while Buber insists that no man lives from pure essence and none from pure appearance Francis has moved far in the direction of essence, the essence of bitterness found in the preamble to nuclear war.
“Touch a button. Things happen. A scientist becomes a beast.”
From the moment the main character Joseph Jaworsky (Tor Johnson) enters the story the setting is one of betrayal. Francis pulls no punches with his introduction. The Soviet scientist enters the scene with a briefcase full of secrets (plans for the future attempt to land man upon the moon) and encounters agents of the KGB waiting to kill him and recover the briefcase. Implicit in the situation is the obvious betrayal of Jaworsky by some breech in America’s security, a serious and often touched upon subject at the heart of the Cold War. Here, Francis is voicing not only the anxiety of the McCarthy era, but the dark and closely held fear boiling over inside the CIA contemporaneous with the movie itself. In a similar way Francis anticipates the subsequent race for the Moon at a time when the Soviets had only achieved the first crash landing of a space vehicle on the Moon. The first craft to reach the surface of the Moon was Luna 2 (launched in September 1959). This deed appears to have had an affect upon Francis as he returns to the problems implied by a successful Soviet space effort.
“Flag on the moon. How did it get there?”
Francis is actually pondering out loud the widely held view of those times and poises the question that is directed internally, how did we get here? What process of history or lapse in due diligence led to the apparent domination of the space race and the resultant technical supremacy that was require by either side in the Cold War to prevail?
Whatever else can be said about Coleman Francis and his movies they are both a reflexive reaction to those times and a desire to appeal to the drive-in movie market that was the logical venue for similar movies. The ubiquitous appearance of automobiles in what Francis envisioned as an “action shot” are there because they were cheap to do. In a similar way when Francis needed “something more” he would defer to his trademark use of private airplanes or even helicopters as a means to infuse gunplay into the plodding pace his movies rarely slip out of. One can see clearly why the use of high powered sniper rifles enabled by some sort of aircraft often elbowed their way into a Coleman Francis movie; it was all he had to work with. You can make a case that Francis was merely a pale reflection of Broderick Crowford's portrayal of the common man in Highway Patrol, but I think it goes much deeper than that. For Francis the human condition and the certainty of the divine have been lost in the time of machines, the car, plane and the H-bomb.
Insanity in individuals is rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Francis is that rare individual for whom insanity is the canvas upon which the visions and illusions of his cinema are cast in the starkest and most turgid of ways. The reliance on extended scenes using automobiles may seem simplistic and pointless padding but they were common to the style of that era and I would argue they continue to be used in the so-called “art films” of the present day. Laugh at Francis if you must, but he was doing things in his films that continue to be done outside current crop of Hollywood films and still get nodding approval in a European setting.
For all of the movies often cited limitations I think it is an amazing first movie for Francis as writer/producer/director. He reached back in time, largely by-passing the Italian neo-realist and plants himself firmly into the Depression era despair of French poetic realism, poetic in the treatment and expression of the nuclear beast. That is the clear message Francis was sending, not necessarily an overwrought grasp of Cold War fear and certainly not the self-indulgent paranoiac as some try, and fail to cast him now. Francis clearly wanted the center of this movie to be the resultant beast all of humanity had or could become in the midst of nuclear annihilation. That places The Beast of Yucca Flats in an important and sparsely populated category of modern American cinema. Intended or not Francis honestly looked at the despair and denied the viewer the obligatory sweetener to reassure the audience of those times, a significant and useful departure from the standard formula of that time.
Francis followed his own tortured path from Quartz, Oklahoma back and forth across the Dustbowl as a child returning to Oklahoma City long enough to enlist in the U.S. Army months prior to Pearl Harbor and finally making his own stand in Southern California. His acting career had many turns away from definable progress and he had to often settle with small parts in various forgotten movies. The Beast of Yucca Flats was his first chance to strike out and express something that I think was personally important to him and he achieved something that has remained with us when many of his contemporaries have been forgotten. To simply make light of the movie and giggle at the style of that era misses the point of the movie entirely and consigns Coleman Francis to a disparaged place in cinema he does not really deserve. In the end the only solace offered to Francis was death at his own hands and for the viewer today the illusion of freedom from his trilogy of dark visions.
--- Tatomatic aka T.P.