I against I

CULT FILM Nothing exerts quite the same simultaneous attraction-repulsion magnetism like a really world-class vanity project. You know, the kind in which the writer-director-star-editor-caterer-fluffer — usually playing a thinly disguised version of moi in a world that does not at all fully appreciate them — reveals more of their off-screen inner workings than one ever wanted to know.

Typically these things occur just once in a talent’s life, then are never allowed to happen again, like Babs’ 1996 The Mirror Has Two Faces or Los Angeles weirdo Tommy Wiseau’s so-bad-it’s-surreal cult microhit The Room (2003). Some inexplicably get to make several, like Vincent Gallo, Ed Burns, or such determined wrong-medium meddlers as Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer. It’s possible to strangle whole movies with manifest-destiny egotism even when one merely stars in them. It’s even possible to overexpose oneself without actually appearing onscreen: what are The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) but coded maps of Mel Gibson’s soul?

For full effect, however, the more personal credits, the better. In 1969 Brit multitalent Anthony Newley conceived, cowrote, produced, directed, starred, and pretty much jacked off for the world to see in something called Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? This "erotic" autobiographical musical phantasmagoria cast Newley’s actual then-wife (none other than Joan Collins) and children as his endlessly cheated-on wife and neglected children — not to mention Milton Berle as Satan.

Though it was a major-studio release made for the then not-inconsiderable sum of $1 million, Merkin has since become more rumor than reality, with bootleg TV dupes sought by a few while most simply forgot it existed. Could it really have been that bizarre? Yup. That bad? Well, anything this out-there pretty much transcends ordinary quality measures. An extremely rare chance to taste its unique flavors — indeed, the only revival screening I’ve ever heard of — occurs June 4 at the Roxie when the Film on Film Foundation pairs it with another legendary cliff-jumper, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971).

Newley conquered the West End and Broadway with shows mixing Chaplinesque whimsical bathos and big-ballad bombast. They gave some critics hives — but not audiences. Covered by every mid-1960s crooner, his songs (like "What Kind of Fool Am I?") topped charts. A ubiquitous variety-show guest, he looked set to become a movie star too. Result: carte blanche for Merkin, the type of freedom that ought to have set off alarm bells from Hollywood to Hampstead.

The film tells the tender tale of an angst-ridden famous writer-singer-actor who, like Newley, was born a "bastard" (at a time when that really mattered), a former child star now on his second marriage — to Collins’ piquantly named Polyester Poontang — while incessantly screwing the likes of Filigree Fondle and Trampolina Whambang. Liberally partaking of Fellini’s 8 1/2 model, this "sum total of my life to date" (as the auteur then stated) operates on many levels, from flashbacks of Merkin’s professional rise to fantasy sequences to onscreen ersatz producers and critics critiquing the movie-in-progress. There’s a zodiac dance, a bestiality number, a mime alter ego, and an acid trip (not to be confused with the black mass) — plus the queasy running theme of Newley-Merkin’s jones for Lolita-esque girls, as personified by Playboy playmate Connie Kreski’s defiled innocent, Mercy. She’s his true love — or as close as it gets for a character who finally admits, "Not only do I have no respect for women, I may well hate them."

In her memoirs, Collins notes, "I had a sick, horrible feeling when I first read the script. Tony seemed to have spelled out the end of our marriage." (Indeed, that event promptly occurred.) The commingled massive egotism and masochism in this "totally revealing picture of his life" (her words) had a similar effect on most real-life critics, a typical notice saying Newley "so overextends and overexposes himself that the movie comes to look like an act of professional suicide … [it] is as self-indulgent as a burp."

Roger Ebert, however, thought it "strange, wonderful, original, and not quite successful," applauding its sheer nerve if nothing else. Indeed, Merkin remains such an oddity and perfect warts-and-all memorial to Newley (who died in 1999, his long, post-Merkin career slide actually highlighted by 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids Movie) that, like most spectacular follies, it commands a certain awed respect.


June 4, 9:15 p.m., $7

with The Last Movie, 7 p.m.

Roxie Film Center

3117 16th St., SF