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Monday, Oct 8, 2007


They’re noted for their insanity onscreen – blood and body parts flying across the frame with reckless abandon, while gyno-Americans explore each others’ naughty, naked nether regions. As toilet humor cascades across the speakers and monsters make mayhem among a cast of literal unknowns, subtext and closeted intelligence fill in the often glaring gaps. It’s like anarchy whittled down into art, the language of film spoken outloud by idiot savants and translated by terrorists. Let’s face it – it wouldn’t be a Troma movie without some spatter, some slaughter, and some satire. It’s been the independent film company’s modus operandi since a mild mannered mop boy named Melvin transformed into the Toxic Avenger.


So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s an equal amount of chaos going on behind the scenes. What might shock you is how eager Troma is to share these motion picture meltdowns with its loyal fanbase – and the rest of the world. Long before DVD became known for its context including benefice, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his various apprentice associates where using their productions as a proving ground. It wasn’t a matter of survival of the fittest. In many ways, they were reverse Darwinists – survival of the sickest. Indeed, it takes someone with a strong creative constitution and nerves frayed to the point of numbness to make it through one of these Bataan Death March experiences.


Want proof? Well, then look no further than the four documentaries created by the company to support the films Terror Firmer (Farts of Darkness), Citizen Toxie (Apocalypse Soon), Tales from the Crapper (When Reshoots Go Wrong), and their annual trek to France’s famed film festival (All The Love You Cannes). Differing in both tone and dimension from your standard digital EPKs, we are tossed directly into the maelstrom that is Troma movie making, from Kaufman’s occasional demagoguery to the blatant incompetence of his cast and crew. Collected all together on the definitive DVD box set, Make Your Own Damn Movie, we witness how logistics, personalities, and blatant incompetence conspire to undermine the best laid plans of indie horror mavens.



Farts of Darkness sets up the standard Troma paradox – big budget outsider idealism helmed by untested cast and crew. With Kaufman as ringleader, we get a surreal circus of party hearty goof offs, well intentioned egotists, and legitimate technical talent. In the beginning, the goal is always the same. As a matter of fact, we learn the Troma creed as part of this delicious documentary. Like the Ten Commandments for the tattooed and pierced, the mandates revolve around making a good movie, hurting no one, and being fair to everyone involved. Naturally, such tenets are almost instantly ignored as participants learn of the lack of craft services, the ungodly hours, and the occasional need to defecate in a plastic bag.


Terror Firmer, a fictionalized take-off based on the book version of Make Your Own Damn Movie (by Kaufman, Trent Haaga, and Adam Jahnke) revolved around a film crew making an epic in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, a psycho killer is stalking the set. Believe it or not, this is the least of the film’s potential problems. After all, it’s being directed by a blind man (Kaufman essays the role of sightless auteur Larry Benjamin), and a seedy love triangle between production assistant Jennifer and her diametrically opposed paramours threatens to undermine everything. Naturally, when the murderer makes his presence known, everyone bands together to defend their territory and finish the film. Extreme arterial spray and flatulence ensues.


The madness of independent moviemaking in all its cinema vérité glory is the best way to describe Farts. It’s a backstage melodrama overloaded with logistical nightmares, inconsistent planning, and body wasting work. While it’s commendable that Kaufman wants to collaborate with so many untested young people, it’s clear that, in many cases, responsibility is not a skill earned in film school. Many of these overzealous wannabes are only involved to get high, grab ass, and add a Troma title to their otherwise weak resume. Even the people who’ve been with Kaufman over the long haul tend to let him down once the pressure is on. Unlike the standard Hollywood Making-of which offers up nothing but bragging and “aren’t we great” accolades, Farts of Darkness shows the warts and all reality of trying to make a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for every basement dwelling geek who argues that they could create something more substantial than Kaufman and clan. Such a statement can only come from a lack of perspective – and actual participation.



Things only get worse in Apocalypse Soon. After 11 years without another installment, Kaufman decided to relaunch the Toxic Avenger franchise with a new effort – Citizen Toxie. Rumor had it that the film was also a financial necessity – the company was facing tough economic issues, and hoped that going back to the iconic classic character would right the solvency ship. The storyline was like an amalgamation of everything Troma stood for. Our lovable nuclear mutant must defend a school for special kids from the notorious Diaper Mafia. After an explosion creates a dimensional tear in the fabric of the cosmos, our hero finds himself flung into the parallel universe of Amortville. In the meantime, his evil twin from another realm – the Noxious Offender takes over Tromaville. It’s up to Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD to gather together a team of superheroes to save the day, as well as everyone’s favorite irradiated champion.


Clearly a case of ambition overriding ability, Citizen Toxie would end up being a noble failure, at least commercially and critically. For fans, the film stands as a wonderful overview of the entire Troma mythology – especially when the loony league of justice including Mad Cow Boy, Dolphin Man, Mastor Bator, and The Vibrator all show up. Yet from the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, we can see that personalities and other individual issues constantly unite to undo Kaufman’s goals. First and foremost, the actor hired to play Toxie goes from ‘lucky to have a job’ to problematic prima donna in the span of a couple of hours. Worse, the crew is incapable of taking matters seriously. Abusing Troma’s “learn by example” ideal of education, we come to understand a lot about young cinema wannabes. Most are slovenly slackers who get pissy for no valid reason. Many feel that, at a certain point, hard work is no longer their forte. And a few will mutiny over the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas (like the rumor of lead paint at a location).


Pulling it all together becomes a task of Herculean proportions, and the stress takes its toll on Kaufman. In these days when every famous face wants to be loved (or at least respected) and studios cringe at any kind of negative publicity, Troma wears these filmmaking fiascos on their sloppy, scattered sleeves. It’s almost as if, having survived such a taxing ordeal, and watching the results get little or no respect, Kaufman carts out his dirty laundry and shouts “See? See what we put ourselves through for you fans? Huh? HUH???” While not quite so demonstrative, the message remains crystal clear – art like this doesn’t come fully formed out of the ether, stitched together by cherubs and given a glossy patina by enchanted leprechauns. Instead, Kaufman is like a potter throwing film out of feces. And his hands are almost never clean.



Of course, he’s the first one everyone comes crawling to when things go painfully awry. Case in point – Tales from the Crapper. Taking advantage of the digital explosion, Troma hired a producer named India Allen to oversee the creation of two separate direct to DV-R films featuring manufactured sex kitten Julie Strain. Working in LA, Kaufman was unaware of any problems initially. The two movies – one about a shape-shifting, bloodthirsty alien man-eater and the other centering on vampire strippers – were completed, and sent to the company for approval. When Troma finally saw what they had (and what they had paid for) they went ballistic. Basic moviemaking concepts like characterization, storytelling, and continuity were thrown on the window. In their place was scene after scene of unsalvageable material, most of it shot in a manner that rendered everything almost unwatchable.


How Kaufman and company saved this artistic abortion forms the basis for When Reshoots Go Wrong, a lesser if still effective behind the scenes exposé. Looking tired and dejected, the director offers a first person tour of the carnage, presenting Troma’s side of the story and taking Ms. Allen to task at every opportunity. For those who’ve seen the finished DVD product, it’s not hard to envision what Kaufman is complaining about.  During the documentary, Lloyd frequently holds the camera on himself. He’s not the same chipper chappy we’re used to. Instead, he’s all too serious. He talks about how hard it was to work with the material and how unhappy he was with some of the post-production circumstances. We then get to see more interns acting atrociously. Experiencing the usually giddy Troma chief in grim businessman mode is amazing. Gone is the jovial jokester. In its place is a man struggling to stay sane.


Of course, many could argue that much of this is Kaufman’s own fault. If he didn’t run such a loosey goosey ship, if he didn’t rely on unproven volunteers to do what professionals take decades to perfect, if he simply sat down and connected with his crews instead of disappearing to locations around the globe to cameo in other people’s productions (under the guise of supporting independent art), he might not have so many mishaps. But even when he takes precaution and prepares diligently for his annual trip to Cannes (for the film expo element of the festival), a few inebriated bad apples will spoil the company’s already marginalized name. It’s something we witness firsthand in All The Love You Cannes.



Starting off like an instructional video, this full length feature finds Lloyd narrating, giving us a basic idea about how things work at the famed French institution. He highlights the way movies are packaged and sold, and the necessity of generating any and as much publicity as possible. Without hype, international buyers won’t stop by your booth (or in this case, your hotel room) and you leave without making significant syndication and foreign distribution deals. These are the lifeblood of little companies like Troma. It literally could mean the continued existence, or the end, of a struggling outsider organization. Of course, said pronouncements slowly backfire on the company as – thanks to their unruly interns – they get in Dutch with their hotel, with public relations people, and the local French citizenry.


Part ugly American dissertation, part lesson in doing a better job of picking your assistants and associates, this is the lesser of the four major Behind the Scenes features discussed, if only because the individuals mucking things up for Troma are so reprehensible. Watching drunken dullards take advantage of their boss to publicly embarrass themselves and said employer has never been so shocking. Maybe it’s the clueless posing of everyone involved – a little power taken to inhuman extremes. It could be the massive quantities of alcohol consumed. It might be the notion that kids who basically know nothing about the business end of cinema are destined to act like dorks. Whatever the case, All The Love You Cannes is educational on many levels. The pitch and shill of the international film trade is intriguing. How quickly your reputation can be ruined by dozens of directionless mooks is just irritating.


Apparently, that’s the point. What other company besides Troma would tear down the façade and let the viewing public see their shameful, disorganized reality? Though he’s typically outnumbered by the crudeness of his crew, Kaufman himself comes across as a surly, sometimes insensitive jerk who appears hindered by all that’s happening around him. Even worse, those looking for an excuse to diminish the company’s output as of late can look at the onset anarchy of Citizen Toxie or Tales from the Crapper and have their case proven, pointblank. But there is still something so rebellious, so anti-Hollywood-in-your-face about the way Troma does things that such a scattershot approach borders on the endearing. Mavericks are supposed to make a mess. They’re supposed to stumble and break stuff. They’re revolutionaries. By their very nature, they buck tradition.


And no one bucks up more than Lloyd Kaufman and his crews. Whether it’s the guerilla filmmaking follies of Terror Firmer, the actor inspired angst of Citizen Toxie, the overall ineptness of Tales from the Crapper, or the lack of suitable corporate etiquette while visiting Cannes, Troma has taken to playing the clown both in front of and behind the camera. For a glimpse at what such a Hellsapoppin’ plan might achieve, go out and buy a copy of the Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset – or better yet, collect copies of the four films mentioned here. Not only will the company be happy for the cash, but you’ll be rewarded with the truth about independent filmmaking. As usual, the facts are never pretty. 


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Monday, Oct 8, 2007

As part of the New Yorker festival, Fiona Apple was truly interrogated.  Usually I say that word as a euphemism for an interview but this time the term is appropriate.


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Monday, Oct 8, 2007
Flyer for A Little Poison

Flyer for A Little Poison


A Short List of Fake Marx Brothers
Clippo Marx, Crimo Marx, Flexxo Marx, Hobo Marx, Croucho Marx, Phobo Marx, Pepso Marx, Tokyo Marx, Combovo Marx, Stubbo Marx, Banjo Marx, Oboe Marx, Marky Marx, Rudy.
Names that didn’t make this list: Topp Marx, On Your Marx, Karl Marx, Mark Marx, Marx Bolan.

Posted by Robot Dan. to A Little Poison.


A Little Poison is a sweet, strange and compelling six-year-old online magazine with audio and film downloads. It has an absurd view of the world that I want to believe is utterly true: does, as a commenter to a post remarked, English Prime Minister Gordon Brown have a glass eye that fell into a bowl of Vietnamese soup and couldn’t be fished out with chopsticks so a spoon had to be summoned? And did Chairman Mao have a false hand that that was unscrewed and passed around a table as an honour for people to drink out of?


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Monday, Oct 8, 2007




There was a game we played in grad school. Well, actually the professors taught us a “concept” in the classroom that we students converted into a parlor game after. Kids being “clever”. We played the game any time it seemed that the gatekeepers were trying to put one over on us. You know, those usual suspects:


Big government.
Big business.
. . . Big effing deal.


The courses we learned it in were Intro to Journalism, Communication Studies, Semiology. Anything with pictures, basically; the game worked equally well in all of them. If the game had had a theme song, it might have been that Rod Stewart ditty:


I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats
‘cause it’s all been said before
Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off
You didn’t have to come here anyway
So remember, every picture tells a story don’t it


Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story

Sure, every picture tells a story, Rod. However, what we learned—what we knew, what we applied in the parlor, and the message we carried out in the world beyond—was that depending on where you sit, what angle you take, every picture can tell a different story. Or, at least, every picture has the potential for telling you a different story. Which is a good rule to remember, an important caveat to consider, something worth pondering, as one goes through life’s (peripatetic) paces.

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Sunday, Oct 7, 2007


Lloyd Kaufman is angry. Actually, that’s too weak a word. He is livid. After 35 plus years of making independent film (TRULY independent film) and building his company Troma Entertainment, into a leading outsider force, the 61-year-old maverick is beside himself. “We’re being economically blacklisted,” he huffs, describing his studio’s current position in pop culture. “Hollywood doesn’t want people to get a whiff of something subversive or creative.”


Initially, it sounds like the all too familiar ravings of a man known for pushing the fringes of his bravura business model, both artistically and financially. But when you get a chance to really listen to what Kaufman has to say, to hear his own professional horror stories, the proof becomes all too clear. “You know, it’s depressing that terrific films like Cannibal: The Musical (by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Citizen Toxie have never played on TV. IFC (the Independent Film Channel) has never played one of our films. The Sundance Channel has never played a Troma movie.”


Granted, his is a brand name that needs little fan fostering support. Since founding the Manhattan based production house in 1974 (with Michael Herz), Kaufman has managed to build an empire that extends worldwide. Initially focusing on the sex farce as a means of cinematic survival, it was the introduction of the Toxic Avenger in 1985 that brought Troma closest to mainstream recognition. Now, seven years after the turn of the millennium, and with hundreds of movies under its belt, the company faces its biggest challenge. Kaufman has created Poultrygeist, a gore soaked scatological celebration of all things fowl, fast food, and undead. Yet the movie (read review here) can’t get a wide release.


“The theaters won’t call me back,” he states, his voice flecked with a hint of resignation. “We don’t want midnight showings, competing alongside something that’s been out there for 10 years. We made this movie for communal viewing.” He adds, “It was shot in 35mm. I don’t care about the money. I just want the movie to be shown on a big screen, as was intended.” There have been sporadic screenings of the film since its completion last year, including favorable responses from this year’s Comic-Con and other genre conventions. But Kaufman is convinced there’s a bigger issue at hand.


His degree in Chinese Studies from Yale helps guide his considered perception: “The dualistic view of the universe—the yin and yang, good vs. evil—that’s what filmmakers are dealing with today. The entire movie business has been consolidated, the public now at the mercy of five of six major devil worshipping media conglomerates.” Such control, says Kaufman, has had a horrendous two part effect on motion picture art. First, it’s given people with “nothing to say” power over the medium. For them the seasoned pro has some very unkind words.


“The studios want to drive these values. They want to produce product by kids whose parents paid for their Ivy League education—(individuals) who’ve never read a book, or fought for their country—so as not to upset the applecart. But there’s nothing there.” Even worse, there’s been a similar chilling effect in the arena he’s played in since the mid-‘70s. “The so called independent movies that get released now are ones that make it through the gatekeepers—or the vassals of the gatekeepers. You’ve got Fox Searchlight determining what independent film is. That’s the bad part.”


So where’s the good? Where’s the light at the end of what seems like a dark and ever deepening artistic void? For Kaufman, it’s one word—technology. “For the first time in history,” he boasts, “the making of a film has been democratized. With the digital revolution, anyone can make a movie.” It’s clear that the advent of DVD, as well as the accompanying PC production dynamic (where editing and other post work can be completed for next to nothing) is viewed by the seasoned veteran as his craft’s salvation. “You no longer have to be invested in the industry. You don’t have to get the Harvard business degree. Spend time Xeroxing contracts at a talent agency. As long as you’ve got something to say, you can save up some money and make your own damn movie.”


A perfect example of this ideal is actor turned auteur Giuseppe Andrews. First spotted by Kaufman when he submitted a short film to the annual TromaDance Film Festival (an outsider showcase that directly competes in Park City with the far more famous Sundance), he’s grown into quite the digital revolutionary. “Ten years ago, (he) couldn’t have made a movie”, the filmmaker adds, “now, he can. And the results are incredible.” It’s the same with a lot of product that the company has distributed (Jenna Fischer’s brilliant mock doc Lollilove) and/or had a hand in creating (the much maligned Tales from the Crapper). It’s enough to give Kaufman cause for optimism. “The old fashioned business model may no longer apply”, he beams, “Somewhere, someone is making a film for next to nothing. Hopefully one of them will be the catalyst to unseat something like Transformers.”


Of course, the purveyors of popcorn still have their accomplices in all of this. “The media drinks the Kool-Aid when it comes big studio films”, Kaufman warns. “They want to go on the junkets, they want the star interviews.” Even worse are the self-proclaimed ‘independents’ who use the Internet as a means of overtly arrogant criticism. “These little bloggers—these little shits—people who like to think of themselves as underground filmmakers… they’re just jealous,” he chides. “They say Troma’s not good enough. They make fun of us. They are people who haven’t seen our films and so they talk about it in a vacuum.”



Such marginalization of the Troma name by both the online and print community really hurts Kaufman. “We should make movies like the Sci-Fi Channel airs? We’d last 35 years that way? I don’t think so.” Even worse, many fail to understand how beloved, respected, and influential the company is. “The (web community) doesn’t realize that Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Takashi Miike—there are directors all over who, if you speak to them, will tell you how much they love Troma.” Case in point—at this year’s Comic-Con Saw and Death Sentence director James Wan brought an entire camera crew along to shoot an hour long interview with Kaufman. Similarly, at a recent South Korean horror convention, Grudge director Takashi Shimizu fawned over the filmmaker. “And these f*ckers suggest (we’re) not good enough? What do we have to do? What do they want?”


It’s a question that even the content packed domain of DVD can’t resolve. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s classic catchphrase, Troma currently finds itself in a place of little or no respect. While he can blame the critics—and he does—Kaufman has a hard time understanding the lack of recognition. “Our (discs) have so much inventive material on them, including offerings from the Roan Collection. You think we’re doing that for our health? Think it’s easy going back and interviewing a 100 year old Vincent Sherman?” He goes on to site several cases where journalists dismiss or completely ignore the company’s efforts in this area—even among their peers. “We got Lou Lumenick’s, the New York Post’s critic, commentary on these DVDs and no one gives us credit for it.”


All of which makes the current situation with Poultrygeist all the more meaningful. “Troma’s not out to make a fast buck with this film,” Kaufman confesses. “We made if for $500,000 on film, vs. $50,000 on digital. We wrote songs, recorded them ahead of time (yes, the splatter sensation is a musical), found actors who could sing them, and shot with playback.” Yet according to the director, no one mentions such attention to old school detail. “Poultrygeist is a real film. It should be viewed as such.”


Fortunately, the situation going on behind the scenes inspired the director. “It’s the enthusiasm from fans—we recruit cast and crew directly from them. You’d think the media would be excited about that. Over 80 people from around the world—Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Canada—came together to help. All living in peace and harmony. All sleeping on an abandoned church floor. All eating cheese sandwiches three times a day. Just to be involved. Just to make art.” For someone touching the twilight of his career, it was all very moving. “It was better than getting an Oscar, I’ll tell you that.”


Yet Kaufman remains mystified by that lack of attention. “For two months, there was no escape. Nothing but hard work. And you’d think the media would be impressed. That they would think how cool this is that all these people would come all this way to make Poultrygeist.” Yet up until recently, the latest Troma effort couldn’t get a playdate in Manhattan. “The Tribeca Film Festival wouldn’t show us,” he notes. “Lou (Lumenick) even wrote a piece condemning them. We’ve been in town 35 years, and yet a New York festival won’t show our film?”


With all the travails surrounding this latest release, you’d think Kaufman’s final assessment would be all doom and gloom. Not so. “Troma has created a brand, and our fans remain very loyal. There’s no need to advertise. Toxie is our trademark.” He even sees some hope within the floundering fourth estate. “The real critics, the ones who actually write about film, they get it. They see the sophistication and the subtext. Stephen Holden (of the New York Times) once said that you have to be intelligent to get Troma—and it’s true.” Yet the biggest challenge remains Tinsel Town and its marketing mind control. “It’s all brainwashing,” Kaufman warns. He goes on to state that Asian peasants, with no real need for education, are constantly bombarded by crude government signs convincing them to go to school. And they do. Now, imagine something capable of “$50 million in blatant brainwashing”, says the savvy cinematic rebel. Food for thought, indeed.


Pointing to the ongoing scholarship of Troma by Le Cinema Francais and the British Film Institute, as well as the continued interest in his personal Master Class Lecture Series, Kaufman seems resigned to his company’s continued relevance. “Word of mouth and prestige,” he notes, “that draws our audience”. He welcomes the continued archival interest in the company, and hopes individuals lucky enough to experience Poultrygeist for themselves will hit the messageboards and “spread the bird… word”. Just don’t question the legitimacy of Troma’s legacy. “Toxie (the Toxic Avenger) is famous around the world. There might just be a germ of meaning there” he adds. “Besides, Peter Jackson says that I invented the slapstick gore film.” For Kaufman, that’s the best badge of honor.


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