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Documentary honors legendary NMSU filmmaker

By MIKE COOK

Las Cruces Bulletin

Long before it was a profitable or fashionable industry in New Mexico, Orville “Buddy” Wanzer was making films in Las Cruces and teaching others how to make them.

Wanzer directed the first feature film created and produced in Las Cruces, “The Devil’s Mistress,” which had a national screening at the Rio Grande Theatre in 1965 and helped establish Wanzer as an artist and filmmaker. He started the first fully functional film department at New Mexico State University in 1967 and continued to run it until his retirement in 1983. Wanzer died in 2019.

Wanzer “defined the college experience of filmmaking (at NMSU) and how they went forward,” said NMSU instructor Julia Smith is making a documentary about Wanzer titled “The Birth of the Acid Western,” which chronicles Wanzer’s relevance to southern New Mexico film culture and his desire to transform the western into what he described as a “modern western, without the cavalry and without the Indians,” Smith said.

Rather than defining good and evil, the 72-minute film “explores issues of eroticism, power and fear of death in a Western setting,” she said. It

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Orville “Buddy” Wanzer with the Bolex camera he used to shoot “The Devil’s Mistress” in the Organ Mountains in the late 1960s.

PHOTO COURTESY JULIA SMITH

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was “deeply influenced by European cinema” that didn’t become popular in American filmmaking until the 1970s with the work of Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola and other Hollywood filmmakers, she said.

Smith’s documentary, “The Birth of the Acid Western,” explores this variant of the revisionist subgenre of the classic Western without heroes and enemies.

Wanzer was also instrumental in growing an independent film scene in southern New Mexico through various foreign film series, special screenings and student mentoring, Smith said. He started the Las Cruces Film society, bringing European films to local audiences that were otherwise only available in large cities. Wanzer’s film study course in the NMSU English Department was one of the first classes of its kind in the United States, said Smith, rivaled only by places like UCLA.

“He was really ahead of his time,” she said.

Smith filmed interviews with Wanzer during his last days living at Good Samaritan Village, where he died last February. Wanzer talked

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“The Devil’s Mistress” premiere with the cast at the Rio Grande Theatre in 1965.

PHOTO COURTESY JULIA SMITH

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about his life as a filmmaker, the decline of Hollywood cinema and how Las Cruces could have become “the Hollywood of the Southwest” in the 1960s despite the Hollywood distributors who bought the rights to the film from which he never saw a profit, she said.

Wanzer filmed much of “The Devil’s Mistress” in the Organ Mountains off Baylor Canyon Road and cast local actors, including Forest Westmoreland and Teddy Gregory. Wanzer’s wife, Joan Stapleton, played the mistress and a local farmer was the devil. Gregory was also the film’s cinematographer and horse wrangler. With a cast of six, “everyone filled multiple roles to make the film happen,” she said. Wanzer shot the film over the course of several years, using an old Bolex, World War IIera camera. The film was sold to a Hollywood distributor, who changed its name from Wanzer’s original title “La Bruha” to “The Devil’s Mistress.” The premiere at Rio Grande Theatre included spotlights, a red carpet and actors arriving in limousines, Smith said, along with newspaper headlines about Hollywood coming to Las Cruces. The film was screened at thousands of theatres nationwide and became a cult classic in New York City, Smith said.

Wanzer didn’t make any money from the film, but his impact on cinema and local filmmakers would continue. “He let students make films,” Smith said. “’Let’s take a camera and see what you can do,’” he would tell his students, she said, “really transforming their lives” and launching careers in media and filmmaking.

Wanzer was “brilliant and fascinating,” Smith said. His “critical, incisive mind was like an encyclopedia,” with knowledge of not only filmmaking, but also macrophotography, opera, ballet and classical music. He wrote novels and a film study book and was an accomplished stained-glass artist.

Wanzer was “not afraid to create art that wouldn’t appeal to everyone,” Smith said. He exposed his students and community “to art that’s against the grain,” she said. As an artist and a teacher, he championed “not just escapism or mindless art, not just a degree and a job, but a love of learning and of knowledge.”

Wanzer felt that artists should expand the artistic vision of the Southwest, Smith said. he believed Las Cruces was “a beautiful place, a place where movies can be made.”

NMSU instructor and filmmaker Julia Smith interviewed Orville “Buddy” Wanzer at Good Samaritan Village, where he died in February 2019.

PHOTOS COURTESY JULIA SMITH

On the set of “The Devil’s Mistress” are, left to right, actors Forest Westmoreland and Teddy Gregory and director Orville “Buddy” Wanzer.

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