Films dug up from the past invariably carry an aura of gravitas, as if the act of rediscovery alone implies that they should be treated with the necessary solemnity. This logic quickly falls apart, however, when applied to a curio such as director Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy?, a bizarre, undisciplined romp through snowbound Belgian vistas and ’60s signifiers alike. While White’s jazz-fueled oddity is too undisciplined and beholden to its era to be taken entirely seriously, to say nothing of being revered as a masterpiece, it does at least provide an intriguing hint of where the cinema of said era might have ended up, a road not taken whether for better or for worse.
Following a lengthy title sequence showing a sunglasses-wearing woman in various kooky poses set to the first wails of Ornette Coleman’s specially composed score, the opening shots of a bus passing through the barren Belgian countryside are uncharacteristically quiet, the only discernible sound being Marianne Faithful’s as-yet restrained vocals. The bus is carrying some motley crew of uniformed inmates under guard, their furtive glances already hinting at what will soon happen. Sure enough, the bus breaks down, the score swells into a roar, and when one inmate seizes the chance to make a run for it, the others quickly follow. Once free, the inmates merrily dart back and forth through the snow with the camera in freewheeling pursuit, as an increasingly unhinged-sounding Faithful asks whether God is man or man is God, before the cavorting group sets off across the landscape.
Their meandering path soon takes them to a solitary farmhouse, whose seemingly endless string of dark interiors are more suggestive of an urban commune than a rural retreat. A chest containing suitably swinging attire is swiftly found and the prison uniforms are happily cast off, ushering in an unbroken series of playfully fragmented interludes unburdened by either sense or purpose. An incantation is performed, a mock trial conducted, and rudimentary drug production attempted; one man manically stokes the fire, another goes out to fetch water, and two other men and one woman start to embrace but stop short of starting a full-on love-in.
The dialogue that sporadically appears is equally untethered from meaning, no different in function from the group’s shrieks and cackles that are frequently echoed on the squalling, ever-present soundtrack. If anything does indeed provide an organizing logic to the proceedings, it’s the score, which nominally ties together the otherwise disparate scenes and provides the rhythmic impetus for the camera to cut between them.
The posters for the Living Theatre (whose actors form the cast here) and The Threepenny Opera that briefly come into view are an obvious nod to the film’s theatrical underpinnings, with the lack of conventional dramatic structure and adlibbed actions and utterances smacking of one extended improvisation exercise. But while both Brecht and the Living Theatre were able to marshal their experimentation into trenchant social commentary, no such synthesis occurs in White’s film, whose cozily vague anti-establishment message fails to develop the specificity or precision that might make it transcend its time. Devoid of the necessary sharpness, watching the inmates’ antics is thus akin to looking through a window onto an era where flouncing around in fashionable garb already seemed like an affront to the dominant order, where the big questions being posed apparently didn’t require an answer.
Although the fuzziness of Who’s Crazy?’s stance and message feels impossibly dated, many of its formal ideas remain remarkably out there, a repository of unorthodox approaches rendered all the more thought-provoking for how few of them have become part of conventional cinematic grammar. While White’s attempts at experimentation may not add up to a significant whole, you’d still be hard-pressed even today to find other films so willing to throw spatial continuity and cause and effect out of the window, to farm out the responsibility to narrative thrust to an externally composed soundtrack, or to allow the unrestrained motion of bodies to inform both camerawork and editing alike. Perhaps, then, that’s where the focus of unearthing cinematic relics should truly lie: in the knowledge that invention and innovation can be found just as easily in the past as in the present.