Giuseppe Makes a Movie, Adam Rifkin’s eye-opening portrait of trailer-park underground filmmaking, reveals its moral character about halfway through, when Tiffany Naylor—one of many unknown eccentrics employed for on-screen purposes by DV-tape moviemaking wizard Giuseppe Andrews—confides of her musical ambitions to the camera. “I wanna be able to touch peoples’ lives with it,” she says before launching into an a cappella rendition of one of her songs in front of her fellow cast members. Her singing is occasionally off-key and warbly, but Rifkin hangs on this impromptu performance until it becomes an endearing display of vulnerability, even letting the song become a non-diegetic score to the subsequent scene. For a less sensitive filmmaker, this soul-bearing moment might have led to mockery; imagine a premature, dismissive hard cut, if not elision of the scene altogether. But Rifkin’s concentrated inclusion of it here suggests the fundamental compassion with which he approaches all of his subjects—even characters as goofily named as Vietnam Ron and Spit.
Once a principal character in Detroit Rock City, the closest thing to a claim to fame in Rifkin’s eclectic body of work, Giuseppe is now a willfully impoverished outsider artist slumming it in the trailer-park communes and strip-mall voids outside major cities. Giuseppe Makes a Movie documents the production of 2007’s Garbanzo Gas, made when its director was still the lone staple of the Ventura, California independent scene; reportedly, he’s since migrated the enterprise to Austin. After watching Giuseppe Makes a Movie, it’s easy to lament the relocation, as the film so convincingly portrays the sense of community fostered by Giuseppe’s crazed passion. When in Ventura, Giuseppe repeatedly cast a band of America’s rejected souls—junkies, homeless people, war veterans, ex-cons—as the nonsense-spouting yahoos in his vulgar motel-room farces, which recall Trash Humpers without the mounting air of dread. As depicted by Rifkin’s camera, a roaming consumer-grade handicam transparently and welcomingly integrated into Giuseppe’s life, the nano-budget filmmaker is prone to such hires less out of a social worker’s sense of duty than a boundless sympathy for the outsider.
Giuseppe isn’t an insurgent cursing the wasteful ways of consumerist America; whatever his political convictions (the few reviews of Garbanzo Gas scattered across the web point to his heavily obfuscated, but nonetheless unmistakable, vegetarianism), he’s awfully good at concealing them beneath a disposition of energetic positivity. He excites at the very notion of spending only $1,000 on a feature, relishes the challenge of wrapping a movie in 48 hours, and giddily cites European auteurs like Pasolini, Fassbinder, and Buñuel without a trace of irony or envy. Rifkin’s content to let him digress at length about his artistic philosophies (essentially, process over product) and dietary persuasions (sardines and tea—all day, every day). The approach is simply curiosity rewarded by attention: An initial glimpse of Vietnam Ron, a bearded, beady-eyed, skeletal figure who looks on the surface like he’ll kill someone, might provoke hasty assumptions, but Rifkin’s democratically sustained attention treats all subjects as worthy of a spotlight. Consequently, Vietnam Ron winds up being one of the film’s most touching figures.
The gracefully stupid verbiage that floods Giuseppe’s movies leans almost uniformly toward juvenile sexual penetration jokes (standouts include “ill shoot a schlong oyster into your shit stall” and “I’m gonna wong my woop-di-doo in your nipple chunks”), which might suggest a predatory dynamic being dealt with indirectly through his work. But Giuseppe Makes a Movie wisely leaves auteur analysis to the viewer, instead focusing on the concrete benefits of Giuseppe’s practice. The result is an amusing portrait of wayward weirdoes bound together through creative collaboration.