Philip Concannon looks for the real Sam Fuller in a new documentary about the director.
Before he had ever stepped behind a camera, Samuel Fuller had led a life that was worthy of being documented. A newspaper boy at the age of six, Fuller followed his passion for print to become a copyboy on Park Row when he was barely a teenager, and he was working the crime beat just a few short years later. For Fuller, death was a daily occurrence as he reported on murders and executions in New York, but that was nothing compared to what he saw on the front lines of the Second World War, earning a Silver Star for his actions on Omaha Beach, surviving a bullet in the chest, and taking part in the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp. These experiences haunted him for the rest of his life, leaving him with nightmares that he couldn’t shake and images that he felt compelled to revisit on the big screen.
“If you retained any sanity, you never thought about time the same way again,” Fuller wrote as he reflected on his wartime experience in his memoir, “You were grateful for every moment of existence you were granted, and you didn’t want to waste another split second on bullshit.” Fuller certainly stayed true to his credo, directing 13 features in his first decade as a filmmaker – including some of his masterpieces – and writing constantly, even in the lean years when he was struggling to get his uncompromising vision onto the screen.
It should come as no surprise then that Fuller’s 2002 memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking stands as one of the great director autobiographies. “The only thing about kicking the bucket that worried me was how it would put a crimp in my ability to tell any more stories. Hell, not being able to spin any more yarns would have really killed me!” Fuller writes when contemplating his own death, and he certainly has more than enough tales to fill the book’s 550 pages. Sam Fuller wrote with the same directness that he spoke, and one of the joys of reading his pugnacious and exuberant book is the way Fuller’s inimitable voice comes through on every page; you can almost hear him delivering each anecdote with his familiar snarl, a cigar clenched in the side of his mouth.
A Fuller Life is a new documentary about this iconoclastic character, directed by his daughter Samantha. We can see the family resemblance when she appears on screen, introducing the film in Fuller’s old office, which is cluttered with old posters, books, scripts and memorabilia, and is where this tribute to him will take place. A Fuller Life consists of readings from A Third Face, with actors who worked with Sam Fuller, directors who knew him, and some who just count themselves as fans, all getting an opportunity to read a chapter from his eventful life. These readings are augmented by photographs, clips from Fuller’s movies and personal footage from Fuller’s archive. The question is, how on earth can an 80-minute documentary satisfactorily cover such a wide-ranging and incident-packed life, when Fuller himself required a lengthy book to tell his story? It’s a question A Fuller Life never answers, although the film certainly does have its charms.
Things get off to the worst possible start when James Franco appears, for no apparent reason other than the fact that he is James Franco and therefore his presence is to be expected. His reading of an early chapter from Fuller’s book is monotone, halting and gives the impression of a man who turned up when he had five minutes to spare and glanced at the text once before giving the filmmakers a single take to work with. Thankfully, things can only improve from there, and they rapidly do improve, with the best readers bringing a passion and intensity that suits the material. Mark Hamill, William Friedkin and Bill Duke in particular act the hell out of their readings, Robert Carradine wields a cigar with gusto, and Wim Wenders’ oddball performance is entertaining in its own way, if not entirely a natural fit for this milieu. All of this is slickly produced (over-produced, in fact, with Alexander Fuller’s musical score being a constant and ultimately grating presence), affectionate and entertaining, but how much does it tell us about this man’s life and work?
A Fuller Life largely focuses its attention its subject’s wartime experiences, with the whole middle third of the movie being given to this part of the Sam Fuller story, and this may be because the film’s biggest coup is the 16mm footage shot by Fuller while at war, including images captured in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Falkenau. This material, accompanied by Fuller’s vivid recollection of his wartime experiences, does indeed carry a raw power, but with so much time devoted to just four of the director’s 85 years, the assessment of the rest of his story is inevitably shallow. We learn that Fuller liked to write and shoot fast, keeping budgets low and maintaining his independence, and we hear about the difficulties he faced later in his career has he tried to get his deeply personal The Big Red One and the controversial White Dog to the screen. But what we don’t get here is a sense of what a Sam Fuller film is – how it looks, how it sounds, how it feels. “Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them!” Fuller writes in his book, “Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent!” That declaration alone tells you more about his work than A Fuller Life can hope to do.
A Fuller Life is arriving in cinemas shortly after Ron Mann’s Altman, with which it shares a number of similarities. Both documentaries are family affairs (Kathryn Reed Altman being heavily involved in Mann’s film), both rely on a gimmicky structure, and both are pleasant, sometimes touching experiences without ever feeling substantial enough to do justice to complex men whose individual films often deserved a feature-length documentary in themselves. The title of Fuller’s A Third Face comes from his belief that each of us have three faces, the one we’re born with, the public face we develop, and a third face: “No one ever gets to see that one. It’ll never show up in any mirror nor be visible to the eyes of parents, lovers, or friends. It’s the face no one knows but you. It’s the real you.” A Fuller Life never comes close to revealing this face, but for anyone seeking to find the real Sam Fuller, his autobiography and his rich, singular body of work will certainly be more illuminating than this lightweight tribute.