Indiana Double Feature: Book Reading in Bloomington and the Forgotten Regional Films of Ivan Rogers

Indiana and cinema: not two words deeply conjoined in the American cultural consciousness, unless you count Breaking Away and Hoosiers. I can’t hate on the former, though I would join Ron Briley in seeing Hoosiers as a Reaganite white wet dream in which the all-white “Milan miracle” team of 1954 become the “equivalent of the great white hopes” in an historically inaccurate narrative of vanquishing the urban black danger the same year as Brown v. Board. As big hit movies of 1986 go, I guess it’s less pernicious than Top Gun, but still, there’s gotta be more than this to Indiana film history—even if Wikipedia offers one depressingly bland assessment.

I’m in Bloomington right now, to dig around at the Kinsey Institute for a few days and give a book reading tonight at the wonderful Boxcar Books, a radical bookstore fighting the good fight. I’m really excited to be doing it, though I probably should have sent them a less dorky photo:

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I’m a sucker for regional films–still working my way through Brian Albright’s delightful Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-By-State Guide with Interviews because I keep stopping to track down obscurities–so I thought it would be fun to investigate locally shot films, but IMDB’s list for Bloomington as a location is pretty dire. White guys on bikes is the peak, it seems.

On the other hand, I’ll be in Indianapolis for the weekend, and here, I struck, if not cinematic gold, then at least modestly interesting regional cinema. By sheer dumb luck, digging through the surreal, cavernous backroom to a more adult-oriented Northeast Philly emporium, stacked floor-to-ceiling with old dusty VHS tapes, my helpful partner handed this over to me with a “looks like something you might be interested in”:

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Well, only kinda; it had the look of formulaic straight-to-video 80s action fodder (spoiler: because it is). But I bought it anyway, since it set me back something like 75 cents. And upon looking it up later, discovered it was shot in Indianapolis. A-ha!

Ballbuster is inert as all hell, but does have some wonderfully evocative location shooting—captured here, as always, by digital camera against a TV set, so it’s not quite this blurry in person:

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We can date the filming of the flick: that brief, sad moment when video shops hung posters for Cocktail in the window.

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The plot isn’t worth recounting: murder, mafia, revenge, etc. As Roosevelt “Ballbuster” Prophet, Ivan Rogers makes a deeply uncharismatic lead. But it turns out Rogers was a one-man Indianapolis film industry during the video boom years—star, but also elsewhere writer, producer, and director. I had my work cut out for me.

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He apparently entered the biz through his work on a 1985 video, Karate and Self-Defense; there’s a pretty remarkable, if rambling bio here that I won’t try to summarize, except to say Fred Williamson (himself another do-it-all-yourself one-man film factory) encouraged him to go into moviemaking, and voila, we have his 1986 debut, Crazed Cop (originally No Way Out, then One Way Out after the Costner film team sued, apparently). 

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The plot is even more bare-bones than the later Ballbuster (1989), but the scenery just as effective:

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This last one in particular I find a tremendous, evocative image.

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Unlike Ballbuster, which achieves fleeting mediocrity, Crazed Cop plays like a series of disjointed sequences detached from narrative continuity. Things happen. Not many things, though. We are in the realm of unmediated DIY cinema here, and it shows. The location shots are great, capturing the specificities of Indianapolis grit the way, say, Jim Van Bebber did for Dayton around the same time in Deadbeat at Dawn. While that film delivered schlock splendor, however, Crazed Cop induces more of a numbed helplessness.

Which then takes us to Two Wrongs Make a Right (1987), on which, again, I have little to say except that it may possess the single greatest cover art of the entire VHS era:

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Truly, the greatest pulp novel never written. The film itself is a slight upgrade from Crazed Cop, moving ever closer to MOR straight-to-video action.

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Autumnal Indiana: I am here right now, and can vouch that these shots capture the feeling.

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After this, I lose track of Rogers—Karate Commando: Jungle Wolf 3 just wasn’t hailing me, and besides was shot in the Philippines, while Caged Women II—his actual directorial debut, from 1996, cost too much on Amazon for my lazy blogging ass to bother with. Truth be told, I might have been hitting Ivan Rogers exhaustion at this point.

I did score a cheap copy of his 2001 film Forgive Me Father, retitled On Fire for its dollar-store thin-case incarnation, with a bunch of swearing conspicuously edited out. It was reassuring to see how little had changed for Rogers, who took two years to shoot the film and played the lead, a priest-assassin whose signature move is to chop a finger off his targets. On Fire runs a mind-melting 2+ hours, despite damn near literally nothing happening in the first half hour, which could be cut entirely without any narrative detriment whatsoever. We get minute-long scenes of Rogers listening to the radio. Every establishing shot is held twice as long as it should be.  It’s excruciating, but in a satisfying way. “I will kill you, I will kill your dog, I will kill your children,” Rogers says at one point to a mafia wife, who more or less shrugs at him. You love this stuff, or you don’t.

The Indy scenes remain neat—hey, I was just at this airport two days ago!

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Ivan Rogers passed away from cancer in 2010, and seems largely unremembered—aside from amusing commentaries on Ballbuster and Crazed Cop by Outlaw Vern, there is minimal internet commentary anywhere about his work. He turned to charity work after his film career, and YouTube has a 2009 video of him unveiling a memorial for Sylvia Likens, the tragically famous torture victim. Googling around also reveals he was slated to direct a horror film called Mental Scars in 2008, but it was ultimately made without him. His 1980s films remain stranded on VHS, and likely to stay there.

I don’t know more than that about Ivan Rogers. Nothing in his film work signifies great talent or artistic vision, but I’m impressed nonetheless by his craftsmanship, and he belongs to a greater tradition—from Oscar Michaux to Fred Williamson and beyond—of African American cinematic entrepreneurialism that deserves more study and attention. So I tip my hat to Ivan Rogers—my new favorite Indiana regional filmmaker.

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POSTSCRIPT, 7/7/14:

Yale just released accessible digital copies of 29 short silent films (mostly home movies of buildings and people) from the 1920s, shot by amateur filmmaker and Baptist minister Solomon Sir Jones. Most are set in Oklahoma, but some traverse the globe from Memphis to Palestine, and there’s a pronounced emphasis on Indianapolis in a few. Check out in particular (untitled) films 3 and 4:

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So, a really valuable contribution from Yale–almost enough to earn them forgiveness for allowing David Brooks to “teach” there–and a nice broader genealogy of Indianapolis African American film to situate Ivan Rogers in (whoa, I actually included a distant shot of the Walker Theater in my own fairly pointless visual tribute to Ivan Rogers!)

 

 

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