By Tony Williams.
“The hatemongers and reactionaries are the most loathsome thorns in the eye of a great Democracy. Every generation has its own and they must be fought and defeated” (William Friedkin reading from A Third Face  by Samuel Fuller).
A Fuller Life is a daughter’s cinematic tribute to her late father, one that could easily have become a centenary birthday gift had the director lived to that age. Although physically no longer with us, Samuel Fuller is still spiritually present – at least for those who wish to see, listen, and learn from his life and work as the opening quote reveals. During this week, debate has occurred on the Facebook site of his widow concerning a dubious journalistic commentary that describes Fuller as someone who is now “forgotten” and died in “obscurity.” Such is not the case as the cinematic structure of this film denotes as well as quotations from Fuller’s autobiography read by many friends, associates, and people who were undoubtedly influenced by him.
It is a modest production in the best sense of the word. Introduced by producer-director Samantha Fuller the film is set in her father’s well-known office or “Shack” as he called it. Stacked with many books, screenplays, and other artifacts, it is the director’s own personal private space and library, something very akin to the creative environment Herman Melville once described in White Jacket (1850):
It would be advisable for any man, who from an unlucky choice of a profession…to endeavor to counteract that misfortune by filling his private chamber with amiable, pleasurable sights and sounds…But perhaps the best of all is a shelf of merrily bound books. Containing comedies, farces, songs and humorous novels. You need never open them; only have the titles in plain sight. (67)
This particular choice of location for the participants reading from Fuller’s autobiography is neither accidental nor due to any type of limited budget leading to the “talking heads” phenomenon characteristic of most mundane documentaries. Unlike Melville, Fuller did not suffer from an “unlucky choice of a profession” since he remained creative and respected towards the end. Featuring many books, unproduced screenplays, photographs, and other items depicting the dynamic but unseen presence of its occupant, this library contains not just books and screenplays whose titles are “in plain sight” surrounding every reader but ones that were certainly opened time and time again.
Samantha Fuller has thus chosen the most appropriate setting to depict those readings from her father’s life making her tribute more than just a documentary but actually a unique composition similar to and different from the type of cinema associated with Fuller that blurred all established boundaries of sound and vision and resulting in a new type of artistry that French critics were the first to recognize. A Fuller Life is such a conception in being a multi-dimensional production, a visual docu-biography involving readers addressing the camera with not only scenes and stills from Fuller’s own films but images from his own personal archives, photographic and cinematic such as the extracts from 16mm footage her shot during his wartime service.
Participants such as James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, James Toback, Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Joe Dante, Tim Roth, Wim Wenders, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry, Constance Towers, and William Friedkin read extracts from Fuller’s autobiography that cover the early years towards the end. Since many such as Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, and Constance Towers worked with Fuller on many of his major achievements their choice is understandable, especially Three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from The Big Red One (1980) now missing their Sergeant (Lee Marvin) from this distinctive roll call as is the case of their revered Director. Samantha Fuller chooses to shoot these three in black and white, an aesthetic choice motivated by the fact that both her father’s 16mm wartime independent footage as well as the majority of war movies shot during WW2 and after were in black and white. Joe Dante worked as an editor on White Dog (1982) while actor-director Bill Duke appeared in Fuller’s re-edited 1989 version of David Goodis’s Street of No Return. In the Extras section he mentions the director’s own advice on how to achieve a particular type of personal cinema far beyond the mundane techniques he learned at an AFI School for Directors: “I think I’ve learned more than I could have at any film school.”
Duke’s words reveal his understanding of what self-education is really about as well as questioning the need for any film schools, let alone the malignant influence of many film studies departments today that are either hostile to or trivialize the humanitarian potentials of life itself especially as universities are no longer the creative centers of civilization as F. R. Leavis once envisaged (see here Steven Cranfield, F.R. Leavis: The Creative University. New York: Springer, 2016, 45-53).
Jennifer Beals undoubtedly earned Fuller’s respect for enduring harsh location conditions during the filming of one of his later films made for French television, The Madonna and the Dragon (1990). Like Constance Towers of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), she speaks with fondness and respect of Samuel Fuller who must have touched many who saw a genuine talent within his gruff exterior. A bust of Beethoven familiar to us from many Fuller films appears in the heavily populated shelf of books and screenplays behind her. It is thus appropriate that she speaks of Sam’s love of music that helped him cope with P.T.S.D. illustrated by scenes from The Naked Kiss and Verboten! (1958) where Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony fills the soundtrack on both occasions. Like William Friedkin, Buck Henry and James Toback were undoubtedly associates of Fuller at different times in his career but what of Tim Roth? He narrates the D-Day landings in the film, his sequence ending with a pan to American G.I. dog tags and his presence here appears mysterious since he probably never knew Fuller. However, in a letter to me Samantha Fuller clarified the reason for his inclusion since Roth’s own father also participated in D-Day. Another reason is possible. Samantha Fuller may wish to correct the unfortunate American exceptionalism generated by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), not only showing that other nationalities were involved but also awarding the son of a British D-Day veteran the dog tag equivalent to the Big Red One First Division Infantry insignia worn by those in Fuller’s 1980 wartime Bildungsroman.
Anyone reading Fuller’s autobiography and viewing his films knows the author’s passionate belief in the possibilities represented by the American ideal while at the same time recognizing its dark side that continues today. Hence the final caption to Run of the Arrow (1957) – “The End of this Story can only be written by you” and the ambivalent final credit at the end of The Steel Helmet (1950). Quoting from A Third Face, A Fuller Life mentions the casting of African-Americans such as James Edwards in The Steel Helmet and Hari Rhodes, in Shock Corridor, the Japanese cop (James Shigeta) who gets the American girl at the end of The Crimson Kimono (1960).
The door closes on The Shack at the end of the film evoking another line from Melville, this time from “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”: “In mild meditation pace the cloisters, take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library.” The final shot of the film before the reprise of participants evoking Welles’s cinematic theatrical roll call at the end of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) leaves the Shack to show the world of Laurel Canyon awaiting us outside to reflect on what we have viewed. Since A Fuller Life notes the cultural self-educated side of a director in terms of references to Dryden in his wartime journal and Balzac elsewhere such a recollection is only natural. Samantha Fuller’s tribute has allowed us to linger in the Shack, listen to the affirmative readings from his autobiography by friends and associates illustrated by many images from his private home movie collections never seen before.
This DVD contains extras not available in the original Kickstarter version sent to those of us who funded the project. As well as a touching appearance by Christa Fuller, it contains several reminiscences by participants in the film who all reinforce in one way or another Christa’s line in the Shack, “It’s like he’s with us.” Friedkin’s extra repeats the words of that evocative Last Testament delivered towards the end of the film:
You’re still with us, Sam. There’s no keeping you down. Not the naysayers no matter who they may be. You have helped a lot of young people allowing them to give voice to their dreams, Sam, with what you have written here and there’ll be many many more here, I’m sure.
Significantly, many of the images on the extra 16mm wartime footage titled “Organized Insanity” show young survivors of that wartime conflict exhibiting resilience, smiling at the camera, and displaying hope for the future. However, the final shot is of a Swastika defiantly placed at the top of a pole aggressively asserting its place in the landscape. Whether intentional or not, Samantha Fuller’s choice for this final image reveals that she is fully aware of her father’s final credit closing Run of the Arrow. We still have to write the end of this hideous story but we have an important legacy to use in this continuing fight.
Tony Williams is Professor/Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor at Film International.