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Second time as farce

Thanks to the hungry maw of cable TV, nearly every movie production is now accompanied by a documentary crew, assigned with getting enough footage for at least a half-hour making-of short. Such sub-productions are traditionally arranged by the producers of the main feature; and, not surprisingly, it is the usual fate of these films to be sheerly promotional in nature. Going into endless rotation on E! or some other cable outlet, they bear precisely the same relationship to real documentaries as press kits bear to reviews.

Full Tilt Boogie, Sarah Kelly's look at the making of director Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn, was (as is the pattern) commissioned by the backers of the original film, Miramax. But in most regards, Boogie doesn't fit into the standard pattern--which may be why Miramax is releasing it theatrically two and a half years after the convicts-on-the-lam-turned-vampire-movie came and went.

This is not to say that Kelly has fashioned a blisteringly candid look at the indie-film equivalent of Hollywood's dark side. (You only wish.) It becomes pretty clear along the way that she's one of the gang; indeed, the press notes refer to Tarantino as her mentor and credit him with choosing her for the job. It would have been surprising if her film went out of its way to make him look bad.

But with Full Tilt Boogie, Kelly is clearly shooting for a slightly higher--or at least broader--goal than most films of its ilk. She wants to convey to the audience a sense of life on the set--not just the set of From Dusk Till Dawn, but of contemporary indie productions in general. While the promotional aspects of making-of films require that 80 percent of the footage revolve around the stars, and the rest around key production personnel (directors, producers, special-effects designers), Full Tilt Boogie spends much of its time with grips, crafts services people, and the stars' personal assistants. It also documents--albeit in less than satisfactory detail--the producers' run-ins with IATSE, the Hollywood union that protested the $18-million film's use of a non-union crew.

Still, most of the stars get plenty of screen time. George Clooney, who comes across as a hip guy who just happens to have classic Hollywood-star looks and is enjoying the attendant perks immensely, comes across the best, with Juliette Lewis running a close second. Most of the old veterans display a matter-of-fact charm: Fred Williamson--interviewed, amusingly, in full vampire makeup--is the savviest, while Michael Parks is a bit more in the clouds. Harvey Keitel, the most famous of the character players, declines to cooperate with Kelly except for one brief interview; and, when you see that interview, you realize that he should have declined altogether.

Tarantino is a trickier issue. Suffice it to say that viewers who find his public persona obnoxious will find nothing here to change their minds, while those untroubled by his geeky boyishness may enjoy the hyperkinetic expostulations Kelly has preserved. In watching any documentary, one has to remember that the participants are inevitably playing to the camera, and that goes double when many of the participants are actors. When Tarantino throws a fake fit at his assistant, he's just mugging. And at least one sequence, a funny intro that's patterned on This Is Spinal Tap, is obviously staged.

Kelly is at her best when she's among the below-the-line crew. But even though her comfort with them opens a few candid doors, it also compromises what the movie could have been. In short, Kelly is too nice to get the best possible documentary: This is one of those cases when morality and aesthetics are at cross-purposes. Full Tilt Boogie would be more notable if there had been a nasty S.O.B. behind the camera--someone willing to insinuate his or her way in, get people to really open up, and then burn all bridges afterward.

Another sign of what may have Miramax's control or Kelly's politeness is that there is no mention of what became of From Dusk Till Dawn after shooting wrapped--not even a final explanatory crawl. The film's lackluster reception--both commercially and critically--would have provided an ironic grace note to the whole affair.

The closest Kelly comes to being daring--and it's not that close--is in her handling of the IATSE problems. In a Michael Moore-ish sequence, she goes after IATSE honcho Lyle Trachtenberg with a vengeance, making his refusal to speak on camera look slimy, while the film's spokespeople are perfectly forthcoming. Well, sure, they're talking to their documentarian, whose final product they (or at least their producing partners) own. Kelly manages to slip in two mild balancing viewpoints: MacPherson "Mack Daddy" Downs, a set dresser who has something of a historical perspective on the problems, and Variety columnist Dan Cox, who complains that the producers stonewalled him just as badly as Trachtenberg stonewalled Kelly.

Still, what's important to remember is how much fun Full Tilt Boogie is, most of the time. Those interested in movie production--and even some who aren't--are likely to find the experience more fun than most summer releases...and almost certainly more fun than From Dusk Till Dawn itself.

Full Tilt Boogie.
Directed by Sarah Kelly. Starring Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, and George Clooney. Opens Friday.

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Andy Klein

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