Notable Festivals: Sundance (Audience Award)
Independent Spirit Award: Best First Screenplay
Of all the living American directors with a constant presence on the awards circuit, few have had as controversial and twisting a career as director David O. Russell. Over the course of a filmography spanning over two decades, his profile has risen to dizzying heights only to fall precipitously because of his tendency for self-destructive indulgence– and that’s just the first ten years. His reputation as a filmmaker of impeccably-crafted prestige pictures has really only solidified within the past six years, and even then– if the lackluster reception of 2015’s JOY is any indication– there’s signals that it’s already unraveling. With works like THE FIGHTER (2010) or AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), Russell has emerged as the heir apparent to Martin Scorsese’s rock-infused portraits of America, and despite a hit-or-miss back catalog, each new work is greeted with the buzz of anticipation by cinephiles around the world. To study Russell’s body of work is to chronicle the fast-paced career of a flawed, yet undeniably brilliant filmmaker who is still very much in the process of shaping his legacy.
A product of Russian Jewish and Italian American heritage, David O. Russell was born August 20th, 1958, in Manhattan. His parents worked in publishing at Simon & Schuster– father Bernard as a VP of Sales and mother Maria as a secretary (1)(2)– and his upbringing in an academic and cultured middle-class household full of books and novels would fundamentally inform the unique character of his later film work. The Russells eventually moved to Larchmont, NY, but the mild-mannered suburb could not stifle or contain young David’s mischievous nature (which earned him the honor of Class Rebel at Mamaroneck High School (6)). His love affair with cinema began in his early teens, when he discovered the work of Scorsese and Roman Polanski (7). It wasn’t long until he started making movies of his own, using a class assignment as an opportunity to shoot a short documentary on Super8mm about people in New York City (5). Despite his early love for filmmaking, Russell had decided to follow in the steps of his parents and pursue a career in writing, leading him to start his own high school newspaper in addition to the creation of several short stories (2).
His passion for writing coincided with an emerging fascination with political science, both of which he studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts (8). After receiving his AB degree in 1981, he adopted something of a nomadic lifestyle. Beyond the usual aimless twentysomething occupations of bartending and manual labor, he taught Sandinista literacy in Nicaguara (7) and served as a community organizer in Maine. All the while, he continued cultivating his interest in writing and cinema. His innate sense of political activism led him to shoot short documentaries about poor housing conditions in Lewiston, Maine (10) and Panamanian immigrants living in Boston (11). The latter project would net him his first official job in the film business, as a PA on the PBS series “Smithsonian World” (2). In the late 80’s, Russell branched out into fictional storytelling, a development that would finally generate some momentum for the restless young man as he neared his thirtieth birthday. In 1987, he wrote, produced and directed a short film about an obsessive bingo-playing mother called BINGO INFERNO: A PARODY ON AMERICAN OBSESSIONS (11), the quality of which earned him a screening slot at Sundance. He returned to Park City two years later with another short starring Bette Davis and William Hickey called HAIRWAY TO THE STARS (11). With the clout of the biggest film festival in America behind him, Russell was finally ready to make the jump into features.
Russell’s first feature– 1994’s SPANKING THE MONKEY— comes from audacious origins. He had initially written a film about a writer of fortune cookies, and managed to obtain grants from the New York State Council On The Arts and the National Endowment For The Arts to make it (12). Somewhere along the way, Russell had a change of heart, and decided to write a dark coming-of-age comedy about a young man’s incestuous relationship with his mother. Working with producer Dean Silvers, Russell used the grant money and donations from friends and family to cobble together the necessary $200k. He also got a valuable assist from Janet Grillo, an executive and producer over at New Line Cinema who he’d married in 1992. SPANKING THE MONKEY shot in Russell’s native upstate New York for twenty five days, and despite having to return the grant money for not delivering on the project he initially pitched, the film’s potentially off-putting subject matter was ultimately eclipsed by an innate warmth and humanity.
SPANKING THE MONKEY plays like a fucked-up, Oedipal version of THE GRADUATE (1967) set in suburban Connecticut. Jeremy Davies plays Ray Aibelli, a sexually-frustrated pre-med student who is forced to give up a promising internship in Washington DC to tend to his invalid mother while his father is away on a business trip. Alberta Watson gives a courageous performance as Ray’s mom, Susan, spending a great deal of the film posted up in her bed with a broken leg. It’s by no means a savory role– she’s required to be depressed and unhappy throughout, all while projecting a vulnerable sensuality that ensnares her own son. Watson is due major credit for her role in the movie’s success– she gives herself over entirely to Russell’s direction despite his inexperience, and in the process manages to capture the humanity her character requires in order for the story to work. Benjamin Hendrickson assumes the antagonist role as Ray’s father, Tom, loading his young son down with an overbearing set of rules and laws while he’s on the road hawking self-help videotapes and fooling around with hookers. The only bright spot in Ray’s life is Toni Peck, the sweet and sexually-naive girl next door played by Carla Gallo. Despite its sensationalist subject matter, SPANKING THE MONKEY asserts itself as a heartfelt coming-of-age story wherein a young man must claim his right to independence and autonomy in one of the most unthinkable and disgusting ways possible.
While his later works would distinguish themselves with stylized cinematography, Russell approaches the shooting of SPANKING THE MONKEY with an understated, naturalistic aesthetic. Cinematographer Michael Mayers captures the warm, heavy light of a humid East Coast summer onto the 1.85:1 35mm film frame. Locked-off, functional compositions appropriately convey the oppressive banality of suburbia, but as the story becomes more unhinged, Russell and Mayers turn to unbalanced handheld photography to compensate. David Carbonara provides a spare, unobtrusive score via quiet guitar plucks, while Russell adds a few sourced tracks from rock band Morphine in the first instance of his recurring use of rock music as a stylized storytelling device.
While it’s highly doubtful that Russell ever felt feelings like this towards his own mother, an intimate and personal energy courses through SPANKING THE MONKEY. His upbringing in an academic household is reflected via Ray’s obsession with internships and his studies, to which his mother also becomes a source of wisdom and advice. The importance of family is a core conceit of Russell’s artistic character, albeit reflected within SPANKING THE MONKEY in an oblique way that builds to Ray’s ultimate desertion of his family at film’s end. On its face, that may seem to refute Russell’s interest in the idea of family as a fundamental sculptor of character, but it’s also hard to argue that his warped relationship to his family isn’t the primary catalyst for his faking of his own death to create a new identity for himself.
For all the trouble Russell had in convincing investors to finance his “incest comedy”, he had no problem convincing audiences that SPANKING THE MONKEY was a boldly enjoyable work of indie cinema. The film was honored with an Audience Award following its debut at Sundance, and further went on to claim an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. Even the theatrical box office take proved surprising, grossing $1.3 million dollars against its paltry $200k budget. In following the tried-and-true template of fashioning his first feature as a personal story about the world he knew, Russell engineered an auspicious debut for himself that would kick start one of the most celebrated careers in contemporary American cinema.
SPANKING THE MONKEY is currently available on standard definition DVD via Image Entertainment.
Written by: David O. Russell
Produced by: Dean Silvers
Director of Photography: Michael Mayers
Production Designer: Susan Block
Editor: Pamela Martin
Music: David Carbonara
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- Via Wikipedia: Rich, B Ruby (November 1, 2004). “This film is part of me”. The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
- Via Wikipedia: David O. Russell speaks about first childhood film at AFI FEST presented by Audi”. YouTube. November 9, 2013. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
- Via Wikipedia: Rabin, Nathan (October 6, 2004). “David O. Russell & Jason Schwartzman”. A.V. Club. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
- Via Wikipedia: Smith, Chris (April 29, 1996). “The Hang-Up Artist”. 29, issue 17. New York. p. 40.
- Via Wikipedia: “David O Russell”. The New York Times.
- Via Wikipedia: Galloway, Stephen (February 5, 2014). “The Wild Imagination of David O. Russell: ‘I’m an ADD Guy'”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
- Via Wikipedia: Chen, David (February 20, 2011). “Interview: David O. Russell Talks Incest and Music in ‘The Fighter,’ Plus ‘Uncharted’ And Other Projects From The Past”. Slash Film. Retrieved October 30, 2014.
- Via Wikipedia: Jesse Fox Mayshark (2007). Post-Pop Cinema: The Search for Meaning in New American Film. Praeger. p. 93. ISBN 978-0275990800.
- Via Wikipedia: Feinberg, Scott (February 1, 2014). “Santa Barbara Film Fest: David O. Russell Steals the Show at Tribute”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved October 31, 2014.