In the abstract, There Is No 13 sounds like the ultimate lost classic of the New Hollywood era. Made on a limited budget but reflecting both artistic ingenuity and thematic ambition, the picture uses a surrealistic approach to explore the inner life of a soldier traumatized by experiences in Vietnam. The title refers to the soldier’s twelve sex partners, so the phrase “there is no thirteen” indicates his ambivalent feelings toward the future. Will he ever know love again? Has war ruined him for civilian life? Did Vietnam drive him insane? Yet, as happens with disappointing frequency when sifting through film history, one discovers upon watching There Is No 13 a massive gulf between the potential of the picture and the picture itself. Writer-director William Sachs, who spent most of his subsequent career making schlocky exploitation films (e.g., 1980’s abysmal sci-fi flick Galaxina), lacks the cinematic skill and intellectual dexterity to render the novelistic picture There Is No 13 so desperately wants to be, a combination of Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Instead of making a Grand Statement™ about war, Sachs offers an intermittently distracting compendium of hazily considered vignettes, without anywhere near a sufficient volume of connective tissue. Some moments are funny, some moments are sad, and some moments are weird, but the whole thing feels aimless and episodic. Worse, Sachs indulges in certain tropes that simply don’t work, such as a half-hearted motif featuring close-ups of mouths chewing food. One gets the impression Sachs wanted to skewer American consumerism as long as he was probing beneath the country’s sociocultural skin, but if so, he overreached.
The figure at the center of the story is George Thomas (Mark Damon), ostensibly a new patient at a military hospital. He hallucinates an alternate (or remembered) reality in which he’s actually a filmmaker applying for work with a production company. In this thread, he considers a job offer to write a sexploitation-flick script, enjoys a tryst with an eccentric rich girl (Margaret Markov), and completes a tryout assignment for a hospital seeking instructional films. (The less said about his magnum opus, How to Fingerprint a Foot, the better.) Bracketing and interrupting this more-or-less linear narrative are weird interludes. A vaudeville-type comedy/music routine in a hospital hallway. A demonstration of the Moog synthesizer system in a barren field. Shots of people wandering through New York City as George’s snotty voiceover dismisses them as “pea-brains” driving “turds” (his nickname for cars).
There’s a student-film quality to all of this, which makes sense given that There Is No 13 was Sachs’ first directorial effort after having served as a sort of cinematic repairman on previous films, including the acclaimed Joe (1970) and the not-so-acclaimed South of Hell Mountain (1971). Clearly, Sachs had a lot to say—and just as clearly, his desire to express himself exceeded his ability to do so.
There Is No 13: FUNKY