Rambo Solo: Zachary Oberzan’s Flooding With Love for the Kid

01/06/2010 4:00 AM |

A transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay, How How to Remake Rambo for $95.51, viewable here.

My friend Zachary Oberzan played a small part in my first feature, Home, a romantic comedy shot in my apartment. Two years later, Zack told me he’d also made a movie shot in an apartment. Since I was still paying off my film, I worried about his finances. And when he told me that his movie, Flooding With Love for the Kid, was an unauthorized adaptation of First Blood, the original novel by David Morrell that introduced John Rambo, I worried about his sanity.

To my relief, the film didn’t just confirm Zack’s mental health. It revealed him as one of the most inventive and driven do-it-yourself filmmakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Produced for $95.51, Flooding with Love for the Kid is more than a great no-budget indie. It’s a reminder that you don’t need money to make compelling personal art. You just need skill, guts and heart—and an understanding landlord.

The Sylvester Stallone version of First Blood (1982) has one combat boot in the grubby 70s and the other in the triumphalist 80s. Stallone plays Rambo as a strong, silent loner who doesn’t go looking for trouble but finds it anyway. He’s a Vietnam vet turned jobless drifter, wandering into a small Pacific Northwest town to visit an old Army buddy. Mistaken for a hippie by redneck cops, Rambo is more sinned against than sinning—a decent man pushed until he snaps.

While both Rambo and his antagonist, Sherriff Will Teasle, have a bit more psychological depth than most action film opponents, First Blood is ultimately just a superior action film about a sleeping warrior whose lethal skills are roused by injustice. In the sequels, Rambo evolved into a ludicrous and highly politicized character—a right-wing Golem singlehandedly re-fighting and winning the Vietnam War (Rambo: First Blood, Part II), then carrying the fight to Afghanistan (Rambo III, 1988), then saddling up one last time to clean up Burma (Rambo, 2008) Throughout the series, Rambo is a homicidal teenager—a sullen wallflower who sulks around the edges of life until somebody betrays him, at which point he explodes in rage, unleashing the most spectacular pyrotechnics that Hollywood money can buy.

Zack’s Rambo is as complex as Stallone’s is simplistic, and his movie is more intimate in every sense. Self-mockingly billed as “220 square feet of action,” it takes place entirely in Zack’s efficiency apartment, with Zack adapting, directing and editing the movie and playing every part himself. On first glance, Flooding with Love seems part of a minor wave of films (including Rushmore and Be Kind Rewind) in which high-spirited amateurs re-enact pop culture touchstones. Rather than mock the characters for indulging in cinematic karaoke, these films cheer their unironic enthusiasm. And they show how artistic expression—whether original or derivative, polished or crude—illuminates the artist’s relationships, neuroses and desires.

Garth Jennings’ 2007 feature Son of Rambow is that kind of film, only aimed at kids—wa comedy about grade school misfits developing a deep friendship while shooting a homemade sequel to First Blood. When Zack learned of the latter film’s existence, shortly after he finished editing Flooding with Love, he was understandably freaked out—but he needn’t have worried. While both films are Rambo-centric, their aims are different. Son of Rambow is a lighthearted buddy movie, and the Rambo stuff is just the catalyst for childhood friendship. Zack’s movie is an outgrowth of Rambo Solo, a one-man off-off Broadway production by the Manhattan-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma; Zack had been developing the piece for years, and finally premiered it in spring, 2009. But where the play was an autobiographical, confessional, experimental work that examined Zack’s lifelong fascination with the Rambo character, Flooding with Love for the Kid is a straightforward adaptation of David Morrell’s novel, a psychological thriller that owes more to Deliverance than to G.I. Joe.

Zack sticks to Morrell’s portrait of Rambo. He’s a hyper-alert, sarcastic fellow who looks more like an underfed college protester than an iron-muscled bruiser. And although he’s scarred by war, he’s still a stupidly prideful man-child with an antiauthoritarian streak that overrules common sense. The film is likewise true to Morrell’s depiction of Rambo’s foe, Sherriff Teasle—a Korean War vet who feels emasculated by the breakup of his marriage. Rambo and Teasle have more in common than they think, including self-destructive macho pride and a secret wish to return to the battlefield—a place where the prospect of sudden death made them feel alive, and where they at least knew what was expected of them.

Like its literary source, Zack’s version of First Blood is less gung-ho adventure tale than a sorrowful drama. Flooding with Love for the Kid may be a glorified home movie, but it achieves goals that the Stallone franchise couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue. It shows complex and infuriating people fighting themselves more than each other—and losing. It’s a tragedy of ridiculous men.