by Phil Freeman
Ornette Coleman should have had a whole parallel career in film scoring. Only two movies got to benefit from his compositional and improvisational brilliance, and both are markedly improved by the acerbic cry of his horn. The difference is that the more prominent of the two, David Cronenberg‘s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs‘ Naked Lunch, was a great movie that Coleman’s score made even better. The other one, Thomas White‘s 1966 avant-garde footnote Who’s Crazy? (get it from Amazon), has little to offer besides its music, which Coleman, bassist David Izenzon, and drummer Charles Moffett improvised while the film was screened for them. (Coleman also composed a score for Conrad Rooks‘ movie Chappaqua, but it wasn’t used in the final film—it was later released as the double album Chappaqua Suite.)
The plot of Who’s Crazy? is minimal; a bus full of mental patients, played by members of New York’s Living Theatre, escape from their bus when it breaks down. After some sub-slapstick cavorting, they evade their guards—who really don’t seem all that upset about it—and run off, soon finding their way to an abandoned farmhouse (which apparently isn’t totally abandoned, as there’s a dog, and later on a small boy shows up and just starts wandering through scenes without anyone paying him any mind).
Once they get inside the house, the “crazies” mill around for a little while, but quickly start to act less like the dazed/cataleptic mental patients they were when riding on the bus, and more like what they are: members of the Living Theatre conducting improv exercises. The first things to go are the baggy unisex jumpsuits they had all been wearing; they raid an upstairs bedroom and quickly emerge dressed in a wide variety of mid ’60s artist-type clothes, the women in flowing dresses and the men in collared shirts, jackets, khakis, etc. By the time the movie ends, many of them—men and women alike—are wearing hippie robes, headdresses, earrings, and face paint. Oh, the face paint.
Most of the action is silent, or at least dialogue-free. The actors stumble around, waving their arms, gurning or grinning vacantly and occasionally engaging in crude pantomime of normal human activities (cooking eggs, sitting around a table for some sort of meeting). One of them makes a migraine-inducingly “Sixties” speech about love; two others are “married” by a third; another finds a chemistry set and pours different flammable powders into a nearby stove, as the aforementioned small child wanders by. One man, dressed in formalwear, sits silently, staring into space for most of the movie. It seems like some of them might be trying to parody square society, but they’re so lackadaisical about everything—several cast members spend the bulk of the movie sitting down—that it’s hard to discern any message at all. It’s enough to make you wonder if George Romero saw this movie; the way the Living Theatre performers bumble around could easily have influenced the end of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, when the zombies invade the house wherein the protagonists have been holed up.
At the end, a group of soldiers are sent to capture the “crazies” (the soldiers are played by the same actors, male and female, who’ve been playing “crazies”; whether this is meant to be metaphorical, or if there was just nobody else available, it’s hard to know). They stumble around like Keystone Kops before gaining access to the house, whereupon all the “crazies” run away except for one. He leads the soldiers on a chase, as the rest of the “crazies” run through the wintry Belgian countryside, waving their arms like small children pretending to be airplanes.
Who’s Crazy? is a laughably bad movie. If you didn’t know it was an original artifact of the era, it would come off like a particularly vicious SCTV parody of 1960s avant-garde hippie filmmaking. One of the best jokes is inadvertent: The only surviving print, used for this Blu-Ray release, had French subtitles, which add a note of found hilarity when they appear beneath a particularly ponderous bit of wannabe-existential dialogue.
That said, the Blu-Ray is worth having for two reasons. The score by the Ornette Coleman Trio is evocative and occasionally thrilling. The melody they work up as the “crazies” are cavorting in the woods at the end is fantastic, as is the music heard during the soldiers’ antics. And there’s a half-hour documentary about the recording of that score added to the disc as a bonus track, so you get interviews with Coleman, Izenzon, and Moffett, as well as footage of them working in the studio, with Thomas White present to screen the film for them and offer brief notes. So it’s really something Ornette Coleman fans need to own more than anyone else—and the company putting it out, Kino Lorber, recognizes that, since the entire booklet is an Adam Shatz essay about Ornette.