Eric Schaeffer: The Most Underrated Writer-Director-Actor Ever

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If you’ve never heard of Eric Schaeffer, today is your lucky day, because I am about to introduce you to quite possibly your new favorite filmmaker. I say ‘possibly’ because he’s definitely not for everyone. Either you’ll dig his vibe or you won’t—more specifically, either his art will rip your fucking heart out of your chest and hug it, or you’ll be all ‘he’s weird’ and go watch something else. And I say ‘new favorite’ because if you enjoy the first thing of his you see, you will definitely quickly seek out and devour all of his things, and force close friends and lovers of yours to go through the same process so that you can watch them have the same reaction you did, as a way of sort of pinching yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming, and ‘not the only one’. And they will be grateful for you showing them the light. And you will be grateful for me showing you the light. And you’re welcome.

It’s quite a shame that he isn’t more well-known. Which is actually kind of a useless thing to say, because I could say the same about countless great people and things—filmmaker Chantal Akerman, the movie Excessive Force, artist Paolo Serpieri, the restaurant Kajitsu, author Richard Brautigan, actress Emily Perkins, the elixir of life Ume Plum Vinegar—the list goes on. I could literally rattle ‘em off all day, like some bizarre artistic version of a filibuster, but bottom line, there’s no shortage of great under-the-radar art in this world. (Hell, I’ve even made some. Shredder and Rehearsals are both phenomenal films that very few people have seen. But I digress/profess.) My point is that, on an objective level, there’s no real reason for me to single out the fact that he isn’t very well-known, or be upset about the fact that this is the case. And yet, I can’t help feel that way—the reason being that great art just plain has that effect on you sometimes.

When you absorb a truly great piece of art, one that stabs you to your core, it unleashes your inner revolutionary. You want to shout a scream from the rooftops that instantly conveys the totality of said great art into the ears of everyone around. You want to take over the world in the name of the art piece, and you are baffled and incensed by those out there who just don’t ‘get it’. Is this a healthy mindset? In most cases, probably not. (I don’t get my panties in a bunch over the fact that very few people think The Brothers Solomon is as hilarious a movie as I do.) But I think that, in the case of certain art, and artists, you really do need to get on your soap box and drop science upon the world. Eric Schaeffer is that pet cause for me. And this is my manifesto.

Alright So Who Is This Guy Already Jeez

Since 1993, Eric Schaeffer has written and directed eight films, three TV shows (well, three that you can see—he made a few short-lived ones in the 90’s that you can’t get a hold of and I’ve never seen) and written an autobiography. He’s acted in all but one of his films and shows (the film Never Again, which I plugged in my Valentine’s Day post). He’s also acted in a bunch of other things, but for the sake of brevity, I’m gonna focus primarily on the stuff he’s had total creative control over—his ‘oeuvre-up-until-now’, so to speak. So basically, twelve things to cover in total.

But before I take you through these things individually, in the order I suggest you consume them, I need to give you a sense of him as a person. This, ordinarily, would be superfluous, since when it comes to most filmmakers, that sort of stuff just doesn’t really matter. Nobody cares what Spielberg is like—they just care that he delivers. In fact, the general rule of thumb when one approaches any art is that one must separate the ‘art’ from the ‘artist’. For instance, I wouldn’t give two shits if Vincent Gallo were an asshole or a sweetie pie (for the record, he’s the latter) because Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny are brilliant no matter what. However, in the case of Eric Schaeffer, he’s so intertwined with his art that you absolutely cannot discuss one without the other—in fact, one could say he’s as much a performance artist as he is a writer-director-actor. Which is pretty unprecedented.

The lazy thing most people do when faced with a writer-director-actor is to make a Woody Allen comparison. And yes, there are similarities between Eric and Woody—distinct speech pattern, NYC backdrop, repeated themes, prolificacy, etcetera. But honestly, there isn’t anyone quite like Eric in all of cinema. The closest comparison I can make, I actually have to jump entirely out of that world for: basically, what Charles Bukowski is to poetry/novels, Eric Schaeffer is to film.

Bukowski was a master of self-created myth, constantly blending fact and fiction. Much like Andy Kaufman, you never entirely knew what was ‘real’, but whereas Andy’s goal was to deceive and lie in order to play around with the taboo of lying, such is not the case with Bukowski and Eric. In their case, the goal is hyperreality. What I mean by ‘hyperreality’ is that when one reads a poem of Bukowski’s, it is extremely affecting as a result of the fact that you know his actual life and what goes on in his art were so intertwined, to the point where you can’t really tell the two apart. There’s no clear delineation—it’s all swirled around into marble cake. For example: Bukowski features himself in his art, and said art is based partly on his life, and partly made up, but Bukowski the artist and Bukowski the art behave the same, plus, fiction from his art is just as plausible as the things that have happened to him in his actual life. (I hope that made sense.)

Such is the case with Eric Schaeffer’s work. Whereas Woody Allen plays a Woody Allen persona in his work (the actual Woody Allen is quite dissimilar from the character he portrays, sorry to be the one to have to break that to you if you didn’t know) Eric Schaeffer literally plays Eric Schaeffer. Which means, when you watch an Eric Schaeffer movie, you’re literally watching Eric Schaeffer, the person, in a movie, almost as though he was zapped inside the screen like in that movie Stay Tuned. This hyperreality elevates even his minor works to soaring heights of damn near transcendental effectiveness. It all feels like a truly vicarious experience. You believe what you are seeing—which is any artist’s best wish for their audience.

Okay But What Is He Like

In one word, Eric Schaeffer is ridiculous. And he definitely knows it. Which makes him a person you can laugh with, and at, at the same time. His ridiculousness comes from the from the fact that he’s unabashedly honest, and 100% himself. What you see is what you get—and that is an extremely three-dimensional person who burns quite brighter than most, and wears his every facet on his sleeve (including polar-opposite facets). He’s basically Mr. Dichotomy—everything you could say about him, you could also say the opposite. He’s masculine and feminine. Dominant and submissive. Serious and silly. Stubborn and accepting. Intellectual and ditzy. Loyal and dismissive. The list goes on.

But doesn’t everyone contain all those qualities, and more, inside them? Absolutely. However, with most people, you only see the tip of the iceberg, and maybe get a few glimpses below the surface once in a blue moon. Eric is the whole iceberg, front and center. And he ever-vacillates between qualities—he can be everything I listed, and more, over the course of a movie, or hell, even a scene. If you’ve ever been annoyed by protagonists not being three-dimensional enough, wait until you get a load of the damn near four-dimensionality of Eric Schaeffer.

Aight But Like What Are His Movies Like Or Whatever

They all tend to center around love, or lovin’ and losin’. Usually involving sexual taboos at some point, which are a huge fascination of his. And all of them blend comedy and tragedy. Some lean more towards the former, others the latter. And he always tells very human stories. Stuff you can relate to, even if you never went through a particular thing he went through, or one of his characters went through, simply because it just rings as ‘real’.

As far as how they look, everything always looks very natural. His shots are never overly lit. He’s a director that clearly wants his scenes to always look like they look to the naked eye. In fact, he’s kind of Eric Rohmer-esque in that sense. Also, he does exceptional low light stuff, as you can see by some of the stills below. I love a director who isn’t afraid of low light, and he’s certainly one of the best in that regard.

Okay Cool Where Do I Sign Up

The following is, in my opinion, the correct and proper order for the twelve-course meal that is his work. And at each course, I’ll let you know, without spoilers, what you need to know in order to best enjoy what you are about to taste. Thank you for choosing Smug Film as your dining destination, and I wish you a wonderful supper.

By the way, you don’t have to watch these all in a row. In fact, that’d be psychotic. Just watch ‘em here or there, always picking up where you left off.

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Fall (1997) | 93 min.

This is his masterpiece. So if you don’t like this movie, don’t bother with his other stuff. And I don’t mean that in the sense that if you don’t like this one you definitely won’t like his other stuff. For all I know, you very well might. I just mean it in the sense of fuck you and get out of here.

I’ve watched Fall with just about every girlfriend I’ve ever had. I honestly cannot take a woman seriously, romantically, if she doesn’t enjoy it. It’s not like I use it as a litmus test or anything, though. That’d just be rude. (Buffalo ’66, I use for that.) If I’m watching Fall with a girl, we’re already pretty settled into the relationship, and if we’re already pretty settled into the relationship, that means I deem her an emotionally mature person. And if I deem her an emotionally mature person, she will like Fall. Plain and simple. Never fails.

This is one of the greatest love stories in all of cinema, for reasons I cannot even get into, because you should really just watch the damn thing without knowing much of anything about it. All I will say is that the film is essentially a ‘love letter in film form’, if that make sense. A love letter to a very real person, I might add. Also, you should keep a tissue box handy.

If you’re a dude, don’t watch this one with other dudes. Watch it alone. Or, watch it with a girl you’re okay with feeling something emotional around. Like I said before, a girl you are already in a firm thing with.

If you’re a girl, watch it alone, or with close girl friends, or with a dude you’re legit into. And I’m serious—you better really love the guy you’re watching this movie with, because otherwise, you’ll probably break up with him not long after, in pursuit of actual love.

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If Lucy Fell (1996) | 92 min.

This is a much lighter movie than Fall. A good palate-cleanser after that emotional roller coaster. A romantic comedy that rides that wonderful line between ‘by the books’ and ‘does its own thing’. And it has a great cast to boot: Sarah Jessica Parker (not a fan, but I like her in this) Ben Stiller (doing somewhat of a proto-Zoolander) Elle Macpherson (surprisingly holds her own) and Scarlett Johansson (a kid, but displays pretty good chops).

This is a good movie to watch with your lady. She’ll dig it and you’ll dig it and you’ll score points. You’ll propose it and she’ll be all “ooh, I like Sarah Jessica Parker! I’ve never seen this! Let’s watch it!” and you’ll be all cool with watching it because it’s actually good. In fact, I debated adding it to my Valentine’s Day recommendations post, but instead opted for Never Again, since that one just felt more Valentine’s Day-ish to me. Basically because the romance in If Lucy Fell, although definitely romantic, is a little unusual for Valentine’s Day. You’ll see. I’m right.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just tell you to watch this before Fall, being that it’s lightyears lighter in tone, and as such conceivably could’ve been a nice, gentle introduction into Eric’s world, and plus it came out before Fall. So what gives, me? Well, remember that thing I said about Fall being a love letter? And remember the profession of the female protagonist in Fall? Put two and two together. I’ll sit quietly over here as your eyes widen and your head explodes. (Your head will only explode if you’ve seen both movies. Non-head-exploded readers, please continue reading. Head-exploded readers, R.I.P. We hardly knew ye.)

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Wirey Spindell (2000) | 101 min.

Eric’s most blatantly autobiographical work to date. Tonally, a good mix of light and dark. Kinda halfway between If Lucy Fell and Fall, but definitely not a romantic comedy, although it does have some romantic elements. Kinda hard to classify. I guess I’d call it ‘Wild Strawberries for American males who don’t feel like falling asleep’.

All his work contains autobiographical elements, for sure, but this one, to again make a Bukowski comparison, is his ‘Ham on Rye’. It chronicles his childhood, teenage, and college years. Basically he plays a guy who is about to get married, and is still feeling a bit arrested development-y, so he reflects on his life up to this point, hoping to find some clarity and solace.

This is probably my second favorite of his films, after Fall. When I first saw it, it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t exactly know why. I guess I was just in a weird mood. But every time I’ve watched it since, I’ve liked it even more. So if you’re not really feeling this one, who knows, maybe it’ll grow on you.

As far as who to watch this one with—anybody, really. Except, if you’re a dude, fellow dudes. I really don’t think dudes should watch any Eric Schaeffer movies with other dudes, now that I think about it. I don’t really know why. I guess because there’s something deeply sensitive about all of them, and I’m afraid that if you watch it with a dude, you’ll be all afraid of fully letting the movie sink in and feeling a damn thing. I dunno. I mean, obviously I’m talking about straight men watching stuff together. Gay guys, go for it. In fact, now that I think about it, gay guys have it pretty good in the movie-watching department. They can watch fucking anything together. One of the perks, I guess.

Girls, I must warn you, I’m not sure if you’ll like this one too much. You might like it as a nice window into the male psyche, and you might like it if you’re already a Schaeffer-holic or whatever fun name you’ve now decided to call yourself, but I dunno. There are some very dark, brooding moments that only guys may be able to empathize with. Who knows, though. Could go either way. Just a heads up.

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Never Again (2001) | 98 min.

Here’s one that’s more for everybody, and a lot lighter. I already wrote about it for my Valentine’s Day post, but basically, it’s a story about two 50-somethings falling in love. Which you don’t really see much in movies. And also it gets to the heart of what makes relationships work or not work, and the self-sabotage that goes on in romance, which is a very universal theme. I like this one a lot. Definitely one of his very best.

Eric isn’t in this one, by the way. Jeffrey Tambor plays the ‘Eric Schaeffer role’, and acts opposite the late great Jill Clayburgh, who is delightful. There are some wonderful supporting roles too: Bill Duke, Peter Dinklage, Michael McKean. Only bad thing I can say about this one is that the music is kind of annoying in a few parts. But just ignore it.

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Mind the Gap (2004) | 134 min.

This one is a bit darker, and definitely more on the sad side. Although, I guess, ultimately uplifting. It’s an emotional tale about a bunch of intersecting lives, and has more major female roles than any of the other films you’ve seen of his so far. With this one, Eric definitely shows he can write female protagonists just as well as he can write for himself.

It’s kind of a weird movie, though. It doesn’t fully ‘work’ per se. Kinda uneven. Almost feels like several movies stuffed into one. And I get that that’s kinda ‘the point’ in that it’s intersecting stories or whatever, but it just doesn’t feel like it all gracefully gels. However, it’s an interesting experiment. And although there are some scenes that just feel poorly conceived or even completely unnecessary, there are others that are absolutely brilliant and perfect. And most of the performances are quite good. So it’s definitely worth watching.

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My Life’s in Turnaround (1993) | 84 min.

Eric’s first film. Cheaply and shoddily made, but not without its charms. Probably my least favorite of all his work, but there are definitely good parts. Basically, it’s a movie about two buddies who want to make a cheap movie. Kind of a hackneyed premise nowadays, but back when these guys did it, it wasn’t. Although it’s uneven, and the acting is quite poor here and there, it’ll serve as a nice palate cleanser after Mind the Gap. Plus, there are some genuinely fun cameos.

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After Fall, Winter (2011) | 132 min.

Eric’s goal is to do a new movie in the ‘Fall’ series every 15 years, spanning ‘seasons’ in his protagonist’s lifetime. And as one might expect, since this is ‘Winter’, it’s absolutely his darkest film. And although it’s not as great as Fall, it’s a hell of a masterpiece for what it is, and certainly one of the best sequels ever. Plus, it has way more balls than most films in existence.

Make sure you’re definitely in the mood for this one before you watch it, because if you thought Fall was brutal, this one is way more so. It’s also probably his most honed movie as far as the dynamic between him and his female lead goes. Lizzie Brochere is absolutely incredible, and keeps up with him 100%. She’s a tremendous actress, and their chemistry is huge, and I hope she becomes a ginormous movie star.

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Starved (2005) | 30 min. each, 7 episodes

Not Eric’s first foray into TV, but his first foray that you can actually track down and watch. This came out right when It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia came out. It aired right after it. And at the end of the season, FX picked up Sunny and not this. Which I guess was a good idea for the network financially, since Sunny is such a huge show now, but I never really cared for Sunny personally, whereas I absolutely adored this show.

This is a comedy-drama about a group of food addicts. Eric, in his own life, has had issues with food, and this is kind of the first of his work to really head-on address it.  And he does so very realistically. I think everybody has had some issues with food in their lifetime, and one can definitely relate to the characters even if one isn’t technically an ‘addict’ per se.

It’s refreshing to see a show about a group of friends all trying to overcome a personal problem. I hate when shows just show people wallowing in their own dysfunction. Everyone on this show knows they have a problem, and is trying to change. Which is beautiful.

You couldn’t find this anywhere for a while, but I think they’re on YouTube now. I don’t wanna link to them, because they’ll probably come down and go back up on some other channel, and I’d have to constantly keep editing the link in this post. But anyway, go check ‘em out.

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I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single (2007) | 336 pages

His autobiography. A light read that, like Wirey Spindell, jumps around a bit in his life. Probably the most bold and honest autobiography I’ve ever read—although, honestly, I don’t read too many of them. At points you will love him, and at points you will be annoyed by him, which, in my opinion, is how all autobiographies should be. Otherwise there’s no real lessons for the reader. Who wants to read something where the author sanitized their life? Nobody.

This book gets a lot of hate online, as a result of some catty Gawker hit-pieces that came out about him around the time it came out. People calling him a misogynist or whatever. Typical vapid internet hate stuff. Plain and simple, if you like his movies, you’ll dig the book.

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I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single (2008-2010) | 30 min. each, 33 episodes

A reality show, based off his book, in which he tries to find a wife. Ran on Showtime for three seasons, with zero promotion. Most people probably never knew it was on the damn network. Which is a shame, because it’s a really fun show, and a good glimpse into Eric Schaeffer as he actually is (exactly the same).

There are some elements peppered here and there that are clearly fake/staged, but for the most part, this show is very real. It’s great watching Eric go on dates with all sorts of real women, and watching how things go south or go well or whatever.

The show gets extremely good when, for the second season, Eric brings in his buddy Mark Ebner, famed investigative journalist and best-selling author, to help him pick girls, and travel with him across the country finding new ones. Their bickering and ribbing is priceless.

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They’re Out of the Business (2011) | 89 min.

The sequel to My Life’s in Turnaround. Kind of a slapdash, throwaway movie, but definitely much better if you’ve watched the third season of I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single, in which you see some of the making of it, which makes some parts of it a lot more interesting. It’s nice as a companion piece, but like My Life’s in Turnaround, it’s not really about anything per se, or a movie that particularly ‘needs’ to exist. But it has some fun parts, and overall charm.

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Gravity (2010) | 30 min. each, 10 episodes

A very good show that he collaborated with writer Jill Franklyn on. Please ignore the opening scene of the first episode, which sucks. Just keep watching. I promise that by the end of the first episode, you’ll want to keep watching it.

Basically, it’s kind of similar to Starved in that it focuses on a group—this time, suicide survivors. Not all the characters are particularly interesting, but the show is deliciously dark and unpredictable, and takes some very unexpected turns. There’s an ending to one of the episodes in particular that is honestly one of the best cliffhangers I’ve ever seen. Right up there with some of Lost’s best episode endings. Which is impressive, for such an uneven show.

It’s a shame it got canned after the first season. But I could say the same about tons of my favorite shows ever (John From Cincinnati, Luck, Freaks and Geeks, et al.) so whatever. TV networks are notoriously shitty when it comes to knowing when they have something with potential on their hands.

And So Now The List is Over

That’s it. That’s all she (he) wrote. For now. The man is very prolific, and I’m sure he’s got some new stuff cookin’. In particular, he just began a YouTube channel for a project called Eric Schaeffer: Life Coach, and I don’t know exactly what it is yet, if it’s a real thing, or if it’s a scripted thing (at the time I’m posting it, all that’s up on the page is a vague promo) but I’ll definitely watch it. He’s a really fun artist to follow, and also, quite friendly and gracious to his fans. I’ve met him a few times and he’s been nothing but genuine and sweet. So, go procure his stuff! And thanks for reading this 4,000+ word mammoth post. And let me know what you end up thinking of his work in the comments. Fall in particular tends to be a very ‘DUDE. OMG.’ movie, and I look forward to seeing y’all have that reaction.

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16 Responses to Eric Schaeffer: The Most Underrated Writer-Director-Actor Ever

  1. mike ewin says:

    You pegged me. Spot on. I just stumbled onto Eric Schaeffer last night and watched Gravity non stop. Today, After Fall, Winter. Then, Never Again. Thanks for the list. I had already put two more at the top of the list for Netflix when I read your blog. Thrilled to find him. Thanks.

  2. Martie says:

    I just got done watching “After Fall, Winter”. And was like “wow” what was that? I’m so glad I read your blog because it stated almost exactly what I was feeling. Like, hmmm, that was really bizarre yet I really kind of like that actor. I didn’t realize till the credits that he was the writer/director as well. Can’t wait to watch all the others. Thanks for the list! My first reaction was “I have to show this movie to someone”, but will they think I’m weird for liking it. Yeah, I don’t know, I really like his style. But I hate Bukowski! (sorry). My husband loves him. Must be a man thing. Let’s see if my husband likes Eric. Thanks again!

  3. Michelle says:

    I was watching after fall, winter. I was hooked instantly on Eric Schaeffer. I started looking up all the movies , shows he made. I am hooked.

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  6. chrissy says:

    Omg. I watched after fall winter. And I love this guy. His acting drug you right into the movie almost like you were watching a documentary. I jumped on Google and had to look him up. Saw a bunch of crap about his personal life which may or may not be true but never less has nothing to do with his wonderful acting and directing. I think he is a freakin sexy, brutally honest guy who might want his ego caressed a little but I find his vulnerability an attraction. I am a fan :-)

  7. Greg Reed says:

    Great synopsis of his work, thanks! I just bumped in to Life Coach on Hulu and watched all 7 episodes back to back and want more! They started out a little uneven and wonky (the shoestring budget showed) but near the end they got a better camera and put a little music in and I saw how all in his work could be. Very glad I didn’t bail after the wonky start but the writing was so engaging I couldn’t stop.

    • Cody Clarke says:

      Yeah that’s probably the weakest of his work, largely due to the shoestring-ness, as you pointed out. If you enjoyed it, you’ll definitely love the rest!

  8. Alex says:

    I just saw Boy Meets Girl this past weekend, my first foray into Eric Schaeffer’s work. I have to say, I fell in love with his style of story telling. It was called a Rom Com, but it was sincere, poignant, and never condescending. It was funny as shit when it needed to be, and warm and heart-felt when it had to be.

    I love how Eric set up scenarios where the viewer surely knew where he was going with it, then turns it around on it’s head and goes somewhere completely different, playing with our own stereotypes and misconceptions. I mean, the premise alone is about a transgender woman living in rural Kentucky – that set-up alone plays with stereotypes – but that and several other scenarios do not go as one might expect. Instead, Eric handles them in a very respectable manner. I’m a fan, and will be checking out his other works. Thanks for this cheat-sheet of his work.

  9. Lisa says:

    Just re-watched Fall after several years to see if it’s still one of my favorite films. It is. His writing is phenomenal and perfectly highlighted as a character in the film because he keeps that identity secret from her i.e., “fax fairy.” The blending and mixing of traditional male and female roles has both men and women identifying alternately with the male and female lead. It also has some of hottest sex scenes on film. Absolutely love Eric Shaeffer and his work.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Hello, I initially watched Fall immediately after moving to Raleigh, NC in early 1998. This film moved me beyond words as is spoke sensitively to my soul. I bought a copy of this movie and watched it until the vhs tape wore out and snapped. There is something about this movie that I connect with to the deepest level. I also express my experiences poetically, and in the deepest, most vulnerable heart-on-your sleeve manner. I am a completely normal well adjusted person who would like to speak to this great artist for a few moments to experience his reaction to a fan viewing his piece of art. Does anyone know how to contact him? Sincerely, Jennifer

  11. Jennifer says:

    my email is jhigh4nc.rr.com

  12. draves says:

    you’re a fool to have watched all this crap, and you’re even stupider to be a self-proclaimed ‘Schaeffer-holic’ or whatever the fuck. Only a fool would be so devoted to the work of such a talentless hack.

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