Here we have a representative example of what was once regarded "the new American film," which began in the 1940s with the works of Maya Deren & continued at least through the 1960s Among these many surrealist & avant garde artists, Leon Prochnik stands out with creative wit with his light fantasy The Existentialist (1963). Fellow New American avant gardist Ed Emshwiller was the cameraman.
A fellow (Richmond Shepard) in an icecream suit is seen marching to a jaunty soundtrack (by Mitch Leigh) down a city street. We soon see a street vendor hurring backward down the street with his cart, & now must either wonder if, or realize that, the film is running backward & it is actually the marching man in the ice cream suit who is going backward.
It is a whimsical image to start off with, to a whimsical tune, immediately denying the inevitability of a single direction for time & motion.
As our hero marches on, we see the morning milkman delivering milk backwards, cars & bicyclists going backward, people crossing the street backward in great numbers, while our hero continues against the flow.
But this new reality isn't quite as simple as it seems, as we see the man in the ice cream suit running after a bus, waving for it to stop, as it procedes backward down the street; or he leads a blind man across the street electing to walk backward like the masses.
Despite our awareness that the film is running backward, our hero's stride is so natural that it defies our own visual senses. And at the point when he joins the crowd to walk as they walk in reverse, that's when his stride becomes unnatural, & he even has to look over his shoulder as though to keep from bumping into things, as if he of all people in the world cannot walk in this normal backward manner n=o matter how intensely he strives.
The physical comedy is at times worthy of Keaton, as when he finds himself for once in his life not the only person walking forward. First one, then three children have lined up behind him, mocking him by walking forward at his heels.
He begins to skip & his followers skip. He circles a tree, & so do they. He smiles, happy to have his acolytes, though eventually they embrace one another & watch him continue on.
A marching band tramps by, backward, as our hero marches to his own tune, now very happy, nodding to people on his left & right. It's an absolutely delightful film that doesnt' require the viewer to look for a "statement" about New American Cinema's pursuit of non-comformity. For it is at heart a light, sweet fantasy requiring no deeper meaning, though deeper meaning can be & has been imposed upon it.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl