Once upon a time, an American filmmaker in Belgium happened across a group of other Americans. The group were members of New York’s experimental Living Theatre, whose founders (Julian Beck and Judith Molina) were back in the States doing time for tax evasion. While waiting for their spiritual father and mother to arrive, the Theatre people herded into a deserted farmhouse along with the filmmaker — Thomas White — and created Who’s Crazy?, a barely feature-length attempt shown at a couple of festivals and then considered lost for decades. During that time it was known, if at all, among jazz scholars because of its soundtrack by Ornette Coleman. Finally, in 2015 a print of the film was found in White’s garage.
Like Coleman’s score — performed while Coleman and his collaborators watched the film — the action in Who’s Crazy? is largely improvised. We begin aboard a bus transporting a bunch of mental patients. The bus breaks down, an inmate escapes, and while two guards chase after him, the rest of the inmates break free and crowd into the farmhouse, where they enact various scenarios meant to illuminate or satirize societal tropes (trial, marriage, communal meals). Sometimes the inmates chant or emit barbaric yawps; other times they speak in solemn theater jive. Most often, the harried, lunging music, a boomerang spinning towards discovery, speaks for them.
Modern viewers might have fun imposing connections between this and earlier or later works. It definitely shares DNA with Marat/Sade, King of Hearts, The Idiots, and The Ninth Configuration, not to mention the Living Theatre’s own The Brig. One actor, bearded and saturnine, could be a brother to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; the cast in general shares that hipster aura. We’re always aware that we’re watching a performance — the movie doesn’t make us enter into the imaginative contract, where we agree to accept the shown events as “real.” White’s camera meanders or stares at a man numbly applying greasepaint, prefiguring Lance the acid-head surfer smearing camo grease on his face in Apocalypse Now.
What makes Who’s Crazy? more than a curiosity, a relic from the noble-lunatic era of Leary and Laing, is its spirit of play — the actors are reaching for truth, ecstasy, life in death. All very po-faced and pompous, but fun to take in small doses (here and there it reminded me of some of the elliptical little theatrical whimsies Edward Gorey used to put on in Cape Cod). Like a lot of contemporaneous avant garde cinema, the movie is a result of shooting for hours and then manhandling it into some sort of order in the editing room. There’s a loose narrative with some cross-cutting creating what we read as subplots. Ultimately it comments on its own medium — experimental narrative often staggers towards postmodernism. Maybe two or three characters take turns owning the film simply because they get more screen time; we might feel there are equally prominent characters littering the cutting-room floor. Even avant garde in 1965 has its limits: no women or black actors (there are a few seen here) assume the center.
I value this work more than I value, say, E. Elias Merhige’s grimly archetypal Begotten (1989) because it revels so cheerfully in its own nonsense, and the illogic consorts organically and gorgeously with those Coleman riffs. (The only other movie Coleman scored was David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and Who’s Crazy? at times feels like one of Cronenberg’s early, intimate shorts.) There’s something fascist-apocalyptic about the movie’s milieu, a cold foggy place where wild innocents are pursued by bears with badges, but within that context the Living Theatre people celebrate and exult. (Apparently Mom and Dad didn’t much care for the result: Julian Beck sniffed that the movie was false to the Theatre’s “energy vector.”) Owing as much to silent comedy as to hip new notions of confrontational drama, Who’s Crazy? pleases by its very inability to please in a conventional sense. It gives the people what they want, though — conflict, thrills, love, music, song — just not in the usual package. Known for its jazz, it’s pretty jazzy itself, and ends up being a more potent tribute to that musical form than a certain recent musical that won a few Oscars.