The techniques and styles of American independent filmmaking owe much to the work of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, which gets a one-day retrospective at Metrograph on April 8, the centenary of Engel’s birth (he died in 2005). In 1952, Engel and Orkin, who worked as photographers, co-directed, with their friend Ray Ashley, the vastly influential independent film “Little Fugitive”; they married during the course of its production. Despite its acclaim (the filmmakers received an Oscar nomination for the story, and the film was later cited by François Truffaut as an inspiration for the French New Wave), the couple had trouble finding money for their second film, “Lovers and Lollipops.” Engel also struggled to finance the 1958 feature “Weddings and Babies,” which he made without Orkin’s participation (she had returned to still photography), and which dramatizes the difficulties faced by a couple planning to marry and make independent films. It’s a seminal entry in the now-familiar genre of an aspiring filmmaker’s first-person story.
For “Weddings and Babies,” Engel did his own cinematography using a handheld camera, made to his specifications, that was outfitted to record synchronous sound—a major innovation that he deployed to substantial dramatic ends and that also plays an onscreen role in the story. The title refers to the storefront studio of a commercial photographer named Al (John Myhers), who runs it with his girlfriend, Bea (Viveca Lindfors). They’ve been together for three years, and Bea, who’s about to turn thirty, is impatient to get married. But the thirty-four-year-old Al, who dreams of making films, sinks his bankroll—on which he and Bea could have started a household—into a new movie camera that, he says, will both help his business and launch his career in filmmaking.
Engel’s technical and dramatic imagination rises to a frenzied pitch in a wrenching discussion between Bea and Al, in which she voices her frustrations with him and with her own life, and he responds with petulant and juvenile indignation. Lacerating domestic battles such as this one, filmed with the kind of confrontational intimacy that Engel’s equipment enabled, would soon be a defining trait of independent filmmaking. Moreover, a pair of tragicomic scenes centered on the fragility of Al’s equipment set a template for generations of self-dramatizing filmmakers. ♦