This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
First of all, let me disappoint everyone by clarifying that The Houseguest is not technically softcore pornography. It doesn’t even include nudity except for a man’s backside. But it is part of one of the anthologies put out by Playboy in the early 1990s called Inside Out, which are comprised of shorts that are predominantly of a a softcore nature. Alexander Payne, whose latest feature Nebraska is out in limited release today, directed three erotica shorts for the label. The earlier two were co-written by himself and regular collaborator Jim Taylor and one of them appears in the first video in the series while the other is lost or buried. The Houseguest, meanwhile, was scripted by Ken Rudman and appears on Inside Out III.
But let’s come back to the film at hand in a moment. Technically, Payne’s short start is a 1985 student film titled Carmen, which is a silent, 18-minute take on Bizet’s opera of the same name updated and set in a gas station. You can find the whole thing on a British DVD from Cinema 16 compiling American shorts, including films by Tim Burton, Todd Solondz, George Lucas and D.A. Pennebaker. And you can watch a very brief clip from this short, showing a mentally challenged cashier being seduced by the title character, after the jump.
Years later, Payne made his UCLA MFA thesis film, The Passion of Martin. The dark, 50-minute work is a loose adaptation of Ernesto Sabato’s novel El Tunel and is about a photographer who becomes obsessed with a woman who likes his work. Payne described it at the time as a “funny tragedy,” while an anonymous agent told the L.A. Times it was like “David Lynch meets Albert Brooks.” That article, by the way, was solely about him, in 1990, a 29-year-old who’d just graduated and was invited to show the final project at an industry showcase alongside eleven other calling-card shorts. Payne quickly got a deal to write a script for Universal, while The Passion of Martin went out to Sundance and other film festivals around the world the following year.
Universal didn’t like what they got from the filmmaker — an early incarnation of what would partly become About Schmidt a decade later titled The Coward — so his next gig was the initial Inside Out assignment with Taylor, which he got during a meeting at Sundance. I haven’t seen My Secret Moments, though from the images I’ve seen and the reviews I’ve read it’s kind of funny to know it took two guys to write it. The short stars Chana Jael Chiesa, who just masturbates while fantasizing that she’s being touched by numerous men who continue to enter the single-take shot. That one, yes, has full-frontal nudity. It’s also where Payne first worked with regular production designer Jane Ann Stewart (through The Descendants) and composer Rolfe Kent (through Sideways).
Payne and Taylor actually worked together on another short for Playboy that apparently aired once but never made it onto an anthology because the executives hated it. Called The Hands of God, Payne describes it as “anti-Playboy,” a film about an old Czech doctor masturbating while watching a film of a girl from his youth. I’ve seen mention of it elsewhere giving more details about the main character, a plastic surgeon, molding a client to look like that former love and then trying to have sex with her. Given that neither party is proud of it, I assume I’ll never know let alone see for sure what the short entails.
While I can’t find any mention of The Houseguest in interviews or elsewhere, unless there’s another Alexander Payne that was working with Playboy for that series he at least was allowed another cash grab through the adult cable channel. The execs just must have made him direct someone else’s idea. And he must have been fine with that for the money while he and Taylor worked on their feature debut (the very underrated Citizen Ruth). Fortunately, this time he also didn’t have to get too down and dirty given that like a number of shorts on Inside Out III it’s hardly Playboy material other than the fact that it climaxes with a sex scene. The plot of the 14-minute film involves a businesswoman who brings home a crazy homeless man (who at first looks like Zach Galifianakis) whom she believes to be her old fiancee. It’s kind of like Boudou Saved From Drowning/Down and Out in Beverly Hills except not as long or insightful about class.
While the first Inside Out is available on DVD and there’s a collector’s set of the whole series, but it seems to be out of print and not easy to find (if you’re a Wally Pfister completist thanks to his work with Christopher Nolan, you should know he shot much of the material for the whole series). Inside Out III is only available in the U.S. on VHS by itself as far as I can find. But for now you can watch it in full below. For the curious purposes of seeing Payne’s early work, just skip to the 1:00:55 mark.