I’ve noticed a recent trend of “shaming” people who hold their cell phone vertically while filming video. It’s a shame that just when technology finally encourages something aesthetically interesting, in this case a vertically oriented aspect ratio, it is immediately touted as faux pas by popular voice. It's a new visual possibility folks, not blue eye shadow.
New technologies have regularly prompted aesthetic advances in the arts but, all too often, conservative cultural tendencies snuff out these interesting developments before they can occur. This is especially true for feature-length movies because of their high cost of production and accompanying dependence upon commercial viability.
Easy access to home video cameras and editing software promised the possibility of innovative styles “trickling up” from amateur YouTube auteurs to commercial cinema. It is rare, however, for deliberate experimentation to be found among the majority of homespun cinematographers. Most aspire to nothing more than emulations of their big screen inspirations. This has always been the case, but I would argue that the current availability of film technology, its ease of use, as well as ready internet access to “film theory” guides, has ironically encouraged uniformity – a paralysis of film style – rather than change. After all, some of the most interesting aesthetic developments arise from ignorance and error, not from passable competence.
Those aspiring filmmakers who wish to shock our static film culture into new life would be better served by drawing inspiration from movies widely considered sub par, even awful, rather than worshipfully emulating the masters of the form. Considering that today even children can make “professional” quality movies, it is easier to find examples of generative ineptitude – those golden nuggets of stylistic aberration that audaciously defy the cinema rulebooks - in older, independently produced, amateur films. The films of Don Dohler would be an excellent place to start.
Often referred to as the other campy director in Baltimore (John Waters being the better known,) Don Dohler has nevertheless developed a considerable cult following among fans of low-budget science fiction and horror. Starting with 1977’s The Alien Factor, Don Dohler independently created a total of eleven science fiction and horror films. He often used family members and friends for actors and, in the case of his first six films, took on the responsibility of writing, direction, and production on his own.
Dohler never sought to imbue his films with deep meaning or artistic integrity. He was very humble about his intentions and sought only to entertain. Nonetheless, like other “auteur” filmmakers, each of his films are recognizably his own. His early work, including the 1985 straight-to-video opus The Galaxy Invader, share a distinct, often cleverly humorous approach to editing, sound design, and cinematography that, as in John Waters’ movies, transform the otherwise tone-deaf acting of eccentric Baltimore natives into something special…both special and hilarious.
Though just as funny as John Waters’, Dohler’s movies are closer, stylistically, to the underground, experimental films of George and Mike Kuchar (who both had a direct influence upon John Waters) in that they rely heavily on clunky, obtrusive editing for their humorous effect.
The Galaxy Invader provides many examples of this bizarre, completely non-intuitive editing put into good service of a very dry camp aesthetic. One of my favorites occurs early in the movie. We are introduced to a young couple at their kitchen table with a close-up of a man sipping his morning coffee and reading a newspaper. The shot is held just a little too long before cutting to a close-up of his coffee drinking wife…also held just a little too long for comfort. Cut back to the husband, still reading, but this time the shot is held way too briefly before cutting to an identical, unnaturally short shot of the quietly reading wife. Finally, as if climaxing, Dohler cuts to a medium shot that establishes the pair as sitting together. It’s hard to convey with a description, but the overall effect is pure giggle inducement.
Many of Dohler’s films have flat lighting design and superficially “ugly” locations that nevertheless project a specific, dour ambiance. The Alien Factor, for example, is filmed in late autumn or early winter with a cool or neutral color palette and starkly framed images reminiscent of early Cronenberg crossed with Herschell Gordon Lewis. The Galaxy Invader, perhaps because it is filmed in summer, is less evocative in individual images and locations, but there are a few worthy of framing on the wall. Look for the gorgeous grey-gloom corridor between a house and garage as big brother J.J. Montague (played by George Stover, also a John Waters regular) unsuccessfully attempts to safely stow away an alien device. Actually, every depiction of this particular garage is beautiful in The Galaxy Invader. In another scene several men emerge from the darkness of this same garage and, though simply realized, it is a sequence worthy of Quentin Tarantino homage. Don Dohler must have found this dusty old garage a particularly inspiring location.
While, by the standards of Dohler’s filmography, The Galaxy Invader lacks particularly impressive imagery, it makes up for it with one of the most effective examples of his other forte: surreal disassociation. There are times when a Dohler movie becomes so subtly “off” that one does not notice how or why the movie has suddenly changed moods and become…odd.
In The Galaxy Invader there is an extended sequence in which several yokels stand around their cars (and the aforementioned garage) debating whether they want to hunt down the titular creature. The conversation is mundane and pointless…unnecessarily expository. Even the most attentive viewer of the film may find their attentions wandering.
As the camera cuts from one talking person to another, however, one notices a difference in sound quality. A cluster of men sound as if they are speaking through a tin can telephone. Another group is lucid but also too close to the microphone. Behind the both of them, perhaps to distract from their difference, the chatter of night insects become louder and LOUDER, almost drowning out the dialogue. Tying all of these strange aural juxtapositions together is a Casio keyboard sound effect of wind that rises-and-falls-rises-and-falls on a hypnotically regular basis. Suddenly the L.S.D. kicks in.
While it is impossible to say how much of this is purposeful and how much is the result of errors or inadequacy on the part of the filmmaker, one cannot deny that the overall effect of this and other similar scenes are unusual and interesting. It is an effect, moreover, achieved by techniques normally avoided by filmmakers following the “rules” and seeking a polished “professionalism.”
By the time Don Dohler was making feature length films such as The Galaxy Invader he was no longer, strictly speaking, an amateur filmmaker. He had been shooting on 16mm since he was very young and had been a member of amateur film clubs for many years. He sometimes worked on commercial shoots for local businesses and was familiar with the cameras, film and editing technology of the time. Outside of making movies, he created and published Cinemagic, an influential magazine dedicated to the technical aspects of filmmaking. According to www.dondohler.com, the official website dedicated to his work, “The mechanics of filmmaking especially fascinated him, and he became particularly animated when discussing hardware and software, editing and sound design, location scouting and set construction.”
One might be nonplussed squaring these facts with the movies Don Dohler created. One must remember, however, that they were made on a miniscule budget. Before the internet, information needed to correct sudden technical problems, even for someone familiar with the equipment of filmmaking, may have been hard to access. Dohler was also limited by the skill of his actors and their individual schedules. Rather than ignoring these restraints and attempting a “normal” movie that failed miserably in its emulation of Hollywood models, Don Dohler used his considerable skills to make Don Dohler movies that are, at the very least, successfully idiosyncratic.
Or, perhaps, Don Dohler just wasn’t a very good filmmaker, but in a very stylish way. Style is, after all, the art of exploiting one’s shortcomings and transforming them into assets. Fashion, on the other hand, is the art of concealing one’s shortcomings behind styles other people created. While fashion can be fun, say, in the form of the most recent superhero blockbuster, it is always style that wins out. To learn about style, real style, we need to watch films like The Galaxy Invader.
Don Dohler died from cancer in 2006, but his influence will (hopefully) live on in the film fashions of the future.
Yockel, Michael. “Don Dohler: An Appreciation.” http://www.dondohler.com/dondohlerbio1.html