The funniest comedy you've likely never seen, let alone heard of, comes to the Siskel Film Center this week for two screenings. "Hallelujah the Hills," from 1963, is so rare, you won't find it on DVD or any streaming site.
Even I couldn't finagle a look at the film ahead of time. "Unfortunately," Siskel programmer Marty Rubin informed me, "the archive refused to allow another screening (even if we paid) out of concern for the durability of the print."
Just two clips exist on YouTube, including a Thanksgiving dinner scene that devolves into an absurdist battle royale between the leads (Peter H. Beard and Martin Greenbaum) who play friends competing for the same woman. When they're not stuffing their faces, one guy sticks a pair of pliers on the other guy's nose and starts twisting, before moving on to other hi-jinks, such as karate chopping a banana in his rival's pocket. Someone gets smashed in the kisser with a pie — by his own hand. Well, why not?
In a 2006 video interview, the film's director Adolfas Mekas (a joyful, rascally sort who looks like a cross between Clark Gable and Harvey Korman) is asked about that scene: "Are you mocking Thanksgiving? Are you mocking eating? Are you mocking the way Americans eat?"
"No," comes the answer. "I was mocking those two schnooks!"
Born in Lithuania in 1925 and later sent to a German labor camp during World War II, Mekas emigrated to the U.S. in 1949 along with older brother Jonas. By the following year he had already acquired his first Bolex camera. (Adolfas died in 2011 at 85. Jonas, now 91, is widely considered the elder statesman of independent film, or as the Guardian once put it, as "the man who inspired Andy Warhol to make films.")
Together the brothers founded Film Culture magazine (which stopped publishing about 20 years ago) and were part of a group of New American Cinema filmmakers who are the focus of an ongoing series at the Siskel hosted by film scholar Bruce Jenkins.
"Sometimes it was called 'off-Hollywood,' the same way you'd talk about off-Broadway," Jenkins said. (He will talk more about the film after it screens Tuesday.) "Sometimes it was called the 'New York School,' because these films were made in, and about, and were by, New York-based artists."
These films, though mostly unknown, laid the groundwork for the kinds of commercially successful projects that would come just a few years later.
"'Easy Rider' stands on the shoulders of all these films that we've forgotten," per Jenkins, who described the late '50s and early '60s as the original indie movement.
Much of "Hallelujah the Hills" plays like an affectionate riff on earlier forms of cinema, with its use of iris effects and intertitles from silent films. The comedy is physical and comes straight out of the Marx Brothers tradition. And while it has no specific Chicago connection, the film feels like something that might have come out of Second City in its early years.
"In the end, knowingly or not, other people have channeled this type of filmmaking," said Jenkins. "It's going to seem incredibly familiar, even if you've never seen the film before."
Jenkins calls this generation of filmmakers "sort of like the Beats. They all wanted to make feature films, and they all wanted their films shown in theaters. But they did not want to work in Hollywood.
"They saw Hollywood as essentially being about money, and they saw their filmmaking as being about personal expression. So they wanted to prove, by making their films, that you could abolish what they called the budget myth — that you could only make feature films in a corporate structure, using the studio system, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They wanted to disprove that."
"Hallelujah the Hills" was made for somewhere between $65,000 and $75,000. It was financed, Mekas says in that 2006 interview, by his inner circle: "My dentist, my lawyer and two good friends."
The final result is a farce set in rural Vermont. "It's kind of allegory of Jonas and Adolfas," according to Jenkins. "It's that slapstick comedy that comes from guys hanging out and competing. Like the bickering brothers they were in real life, transposed from Lithuania to New England and given this distinctly American twist."
The movie begins with the news that the object of their affection has married someone else. "So they get drunk and then the proceed to have memories — basically flashbacks — of all the years of coming up to visit her."
It doesn't hurt that Mekas cast both roles with good-looking young guys, especially Beard. Take a moment to Google the man; he has a face that looks like it could appear in a Ralph Lauren ad. "He was famously married to Cheryl Tiegs and is a highly regarded photographer," said Jenkins, "and he's among the handsomest men of his generation. And there's a great moment where he's seen running naked across the snow, so yeah, Adolphus Mekas realized these were very handsome men."
Later in his career, Mekas would teach film at Bard College, from the early 1970s through 2004. He appeared in numerous student films and upon his death clips were assembled and posted on YouTube, revealing a man with a deep sense of humor and apparently game for anything.
"But he never found the traction to make money as a film director," said Jenkins. "He supported himself for many years as a film editor working for ABC's 'Wide World of Sports.'"