by Sydney Rappis, contributing writer
Surrealism came out of World War One as an effort to tap into the unconscious mind. In much of the work there is a focus on the contradictions between two things, and what can be explored within that contradiction. Thomas White’s 1966 film, “Who’s Crazy?,” is very much in the same vein of the original surrealist pieces, while adding elements of the countercultural movement that was happening of his time. Counterculture, contradiction, confusion and jazz could certainly be a tagline for this experimental, idiosyncratic, film.
“Who’s Crazy?” originally debuted at Cannes in 1966 and, according to jazz-on-film scholars and the Library of Congress, was since thought to be lost. In 2015, a 35mm print was discovered in White’s garage after having sat there for decades. The print has since been repaired by John Klacsmann, an archivist at Anthology Film Archives, where they are currently holding special screenings of the unearthed film. The soundtrack features Ornette Coleman: an American jazz saxophonists who was one of the innovators of the free jazz movement. Coleman, and the other members of his trio David Izenzon and Charles Moffett, recorded the score in one go while the film was projected for them.
The combination of the frenzied soundtrack and the startlingly honest, and at times bizarre, performances creates a piece of work that perfectly embodies the counterculturalist movement of the 1960s.
The film starts with a group of, what seem to be, asylum patients as they are transported on a bus. When the vehicle breaks down, the inmates seize the opportunity to escape their confinements and take full advantage of the new found freedom. They find an abandoned farm house and begin to dance, eat an impressive amount of eggs, and conduct an impromptu marriage. The first line of dialogue isn’t mumbled until around 30 minutes into the film, taking almost all the power away from the words. The soundtrack and the distinct visual images convey the emotion of the scenes without any need for explanation so well that when two male inmates meet behind the house to smoke a cigarette and discuss who will be the defendant in their farce court, an element of the film is shifted.
The group has no trouble interacting with each other, and explore many elements of their sanity as well as their relationships between each other. The story doesn’t follow any natural progression or storyline, but at the same time it seems like the scenes couldn’t happen in any other order. What happens on screen and the emotion conveyed seem at odds and it is within this contradiction that the real heart of the film seems to be. Counterculture, the rejection of bureaucracy and rigid structure, is certainly on the surface of this film, but this film asks more about sanity than it does autocracy.
The real question is, who is the crazy one in the film? While it seems like the “insane” patients would be the most simple answer to this question, the film employs the most common surrealist technique by avoiding the question completely. The crazy ones could be the police officers portrayed like incompetent buffoons unable to keep a group of inmates under control. Perhaps it is the director, Thomas White, who lost track of his invaluable film on his garage shelf between a can of old paint and transmission fluid. Just as easily is could be the viewer, attempting to untangle the meaning behind the unconscious and instinctual.
“Who’s Crazy” is screening at the Anthology Film Archives through Sunday, April 3.