Todd Rohal directed The Guatemalan Handshake in 2006, The Catechism Cataclysm in 2011, and Nature Calls in 2012. His short film Rat Pack Rat recently won Sundance’s Special Jury Prize For Unique Vision in 2014.
I had already consumed healthy doses of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, True Stories, Airplane and Strange Brew by the time I first saw Raising Arizona. Regardless, it hit me as a whole other out-there, exciting and bazonkers type of cinema. Every face in that film is gold, every shot is exciting and, best of all, the collection of side characters perform with barely a facial movement and speak with this wonderfully deadpan and dry delivery: “Ree-peat O-fender,” “When there was no crawdad, we ate sand,” and “Don’t forget his phone call, Ed!”
As a kid, this was the first movie that made me think, Where did this come from? Who made this? And, most importantly: I didn’t know you were allowed to do things like this! But yet there was still something about the movie, its opening sequence especially, that felt a little too familiar. Despite all of this fresh air, something felt like… Wendy’s?
Around the same time that the Coens were writing Raising Arizona, one of the most visually distinctive American directors of his time was at his peak: Joe Sedelmaier. His “Where’s the Beef?” commercial was so big that it had T-shirts, magazine articles, a single and its own board game. If you aren’t old enough to remember the impact of “Where’s the Beef?” on the universe, just take YOLO, make it funny, multiply it being said by 10,000 times, and instead of Drake, it’s a raspy-voiced old lady named Clara Peller.
There was another board game (these were a big industry pre-Nintendo/Sega) called Commercial Crazies, where you’d put a tape into the VCR and test your memory on what you just watched. The game wasn’t all that exciting, but the VHS tape was a masterpiece. I remember the box declaring: “Featuring the commercials of Sëdëlmaier.” This is how I came to realize that all of these spots were brewing from one place and were being created by one man – a man with a name that I couldn’t pronounce. I threw out the game and kept the tape, which I quickly wore out from repeat viewings.
Screw Muppet Babies, THIS is what I wanted to watch on Saturday mornings. Commercials for Fed Ex, Alaska Airlines, Wendy’s and Canadian insurance companies – it didn’t matter what they were selling…it was the sad, droopy, incredible faces of old Midwestern men and women working in big, stark, empty rooms and speaking in dry, bored tones that were complete, raw, fresh, visionary comedy to me. It was old people in the throes of terrible relationships, people trapped in horrible corporate jobs or visions of a future communist-led planet – all scored with a single tuba farting out a sad polka. These were the nightmares of most Americans at the time – and they were selling us hamburgers and insurance…and it was artful entertainment! While Terry Gilliam was busy fighting with a movie studio about making Brazil, here was Joe Sedelmaier, cranking out an even funnier and bleaker vision of the near-future between episodes of Punky Brewster. All in 30-second increments on free television.
Joe Sedelmaier is the anti-Cassavettes. His work is not about the actor – it’s all about the non-actor. Despite his umlauts, Sedelmaier is from Chicago and found the found his amazing actors and actresses on the streets of that city. Real people with real faces. He’d do take after take after take after take and borderline torture these folks into getting the lines and motions the way he wanted them – totally dry, emotionless, bored and broken. Like a demented Normal Rockwell, he made commercials that possess a distinctively original Midwestern sense of humor – completely different from the Coen brothers, but equally as effective and built from similar DNA.
If Ridley Scott could make both successful commercials and successful feature films, surely Joe Sedelmaier did the same, right? Nope. Sedelmaier was hired to direct Rodney Dangerfield’s first film as a lead, Easy Money, but the whole thing fell apart. Sedelmaier stuck to his guns and backed out once the studio began to change its tune. I assume the studio thought something like: Here’s a guy who can direct old wrinkly faces and be funny – let’s use him! And then wondered why they weren’t getting Caddyshack 2. Sedelmaier has all my respect in the world for running away, but had the producers kept their traps shut, we may have seen the launch of a directorial career like Tim Burton’s, who started out by being paired up with the great Paul Reubens.
Sedelmaier never made a feature but he did screen a short film, Open Minds, at Sundance in 2003. Shot decades prior to its Park City screenings, it’s the closest peek we’ll get into a longer-format film of his, which hints to be something akin to (but far goofier and bonkers than) the films of Roy Andersson. Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor is like a beautifully deranged and disturbed Swedish exchange student lost inside of Sedelmaier’s world. Andersson’s commercials share many similarities to Sedelmaier’s spots and he casts his commercials and films in an almost identical fashion…so just where exactly IS the beef?
I don’t mean to accuse all of these filmmakers that I love of ripping off a man that sold us hamburgers and expensive shipping options – and, yeah sure, commercials and short films work totally differently than feature films, but I do feel like we all missed out on being able to live inside of Sedelmaier’s world for an extended period of time.
Maybe the glimpses in the work from those that he inspired directly or indirectly – the Coens, Roy Andersson, Jared Hess, David Byrne, Mike Judge, Tim & Eric – are enough to say that he left his inspired mark on the world of filmmaking. But dammit, I feel as if an important chapter of cinema history got deleted when Joe Sedelmaier, one of the most original American comedy directors of his time, never got a fair shot at making a movie.
Maybe it’s an evolving problem with the manner in which films must get made that forces voices like Sedelmaier’s to remain silent. Making a movie, large or small, fails completely when it’s done by committee. In the current age of the overly creative producer, directorial voices can get muddied, distorted and ruined when something in need of a strong POV gets messed with. I learned this first hand, the hard way, with my own work – and because of that I admire Joe Sedelmaier even more. Regardless, it’s such a shame to know that a man who could inspire me and plenty of others with 30-second blips on our televisions, was robbed of making what could have likely/potentially/surely been one of the most uniquely strange comedies of our time.