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by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009

It’s all the nudists’ fault. When sun worshipers challenged the illegality of baring it all back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the resulting court decisions gave exploitation purveyors, and smut peddlers in general, an opportunity to use (and in some cases, abuse) the naked female form. You see, those in love with nature argued that the medical benefits and curative properties of nudism blunted any consideration of carnal knowledge. As a result, considering it illegal was actually denying practitioners their individual right to health. The family-oriented elements within the lifestyle proved successful within the Puritan US legal system. Still, it took entrepreneurs like Kroger Babb and David F. Friedman to hold down the prosecutorial fort, while businessmen like Harry Novak and Bob Cresse tried to keep the motion picture pulchritude flowing.

And helping them was genre maverick R. L. “Lee” Frost. Born in Arizona and raised in both California and Hawaii, the future exploitation expert got his start in television. After a string of successful commercials, he went on to make the nudie spoofs Surftide 77 and the infamous House on Bare Mountain. It was during the later where he first worked with a man who would change his career forever. Bob Cresse was an equally energetic idealist, bouncing around within the medium to make as much money - and monkey business - as possible. Together, the duo would create sleazoid classics such as Hollywood’s World of Flesh, Hot Spur, and the notorious Love Camp 7. One of their earliest collaborations was Love is a Four Letter Word. Retitled The Love Girls during its roadshow run, it stands as an excellent illustration of how the men perfectly complemented each other.

The basic premise of the film focuses on the then novel fetish of voyeurism. It was standard operating procedure for producers to review medical publications, scouring the burgeoning science of psychology to come up with unusual twists on the old naked lady routine. Sun worshipping and nudism had provided an ample commercial proving ground, while the Mondo movies of Europe would soon take over the framework. In the meantime, Cresse and Frost concocted a live action men’s magazine out of the story of Jerry, his lady love Shelia, his uncontrollable urges, and the various women more than happy to indulge his desire to peep.

Over the course of 61 meandering minutes, our hero spends inordinately large quantities of time giving gals the big eye. He sits back and studies their bra wearing routines, their daily showers, their after school frolicking, and the general desire to be nubile, nude, and natural. Without much of a narrative to hang onto, we watch as Jerry tries to conquer his abnormal cravings. All throughout the film, we follow the character through a series of psychological lectures and doctor visits, each one cementing his status as a first rate perv. It’s only at the end, when Jerry discovers his icy gal pal’s secret, do things go from nutty to numbing. With suicide implied and a weird last minute suggestion of redemption, the Love Girls loses little of its decades old potency.

Unlike your standard grindhouse chauvinist, Jerry is constantly chastised for his urges. It’s this seedy subtext which accents The Love Girls’ taboo busting conceits. This is a film that proposes to show us what goes on behind the walls of your typical college town, and what we see initially seems innocent enough - gals undressing, babes taking bare-ass excursions from one room to another. Frost’s camerawork is excellent, amplifying the surveillance-like sliminess of Jerry’s actions. One memorable sequence in particular has our hopped up hero hanging out during a sorority ritual. While the ladies look a little too old for rush week, their lewd lingerie party is worth the price of admission alone.

And it’s important to remember why these movies were made in the first place. Cresse and Frost knew that the burgeoning sexual revolution was peaking the interest of suppressed males everywhere. They also recognized the undeniable dollar value in such forbidden pleasures. So in order to satisfy both concepts, while hoping to keep the censors at bay, they introduced a small amount of ethics into their narratives.

Of course, Cresse had to satisfy his own fetishes a bit. He was notorious for putting his own peculiar passions up on the screen for everyone to see. During the opening credits (imaginatively scrawled across some vertical blinds) we get basic bondage action. On a trip down to Tijuana, Jerry and his pals experience a lewd lesbian floorshow. During the aforementioned all girl initiation, there is spanking and some implied torture. But it’s not just the honeys that experience humiliation. Jerry is always the laughing stock of someone in roundabout knowledge of his needs. He’s never celebrated for being a voyeur. Instead, the story moralizes his quirk into something akin to criminality. Obviously, Cresse and Frost were hoping such a message would mean less time spent defending their film in court.

In retrospect, one of the most memorable things about The Love Girls is how it demonizes men for their uncontrollable, crotch-driven lusts. Most exploitation is unapologetic in how degrading and piglike its leads can be. Women are seen as body-pleasing properties traded like salacious stock on a sin-strew exchange. But in the case of Jerry, we have someone so strung out on femininity and his raging need to peep that he can barely exist. While the audience gets the vicarious thrill of witnessing his “torment”, the character is all but doomed.

It’s an interesting angle in a film that follows many of the genre’s more recognizable attributes. Sure, the voice over opening narration sounds like a poet gone potty, and the ending makes little or no sense, but thanks to the provocative input of Bob Cresse and Lee Frost, what could have been your standard issue softcore becomes something distinctly disturbed and consistently crude. Under either name, The Love Girls/Love is a Four Letter Word succeeds in showing why R. L. Lee Frost remains one of the genre’s giants.

by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009

2008 was an interesting year for fans of the comedy classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only did Mike Nelson and his creative collective - Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - keep their take on the type - Rifftrax - alive and thriving, but original series creator Joel Hodgson jumped back into the in-theater commentary biz with his latest enterprise, Cinematic Titanic. Bringing along former cast mates Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, he set up a vague, very familiar premise utilizing silhouetted figures making fun of really bad films. Unlike his previous cable TV hit, there were no robots or outer space set-ups to be found.

Over the last 12 months, this new enterprise has self-released five hilarious installments - The Oozing Skull, The Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, and a revamp of the MST masterwork Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. They’ve also toured around the country offering a “live” version of their experiments. Now 2009 starts off right where the group began. Its latest offering, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, is yet another rotten attempt at entertainment exposed and upended by our loveable band of comics. The narrative centers around the current Count Frankenstein (a thoroughly embarrassed Rossano Brazzi), his staff of bumbling bit players (including Wild Wild West‘s Michael Dunn as the requisite dwarf) and a countryside inhabited by not one, but two ancient cavemen (Loren Ewing, and the oddly named “Boris Lugosi”). 

When the Count’s fetching daughter Maria and her best buddy Valda show up at the castle, they are just in time to indulge in the madman’s latest act of playing God. When the villagers discovered the primitive people, they did what every rational backwater burg would do - they bludgeoned one of them to death with a rock. Using his lightning collection device, the Count has transplanted a girl’s brain into his ‘Goliath’s’ head, and has brought ‘it’ back to life. When Valda learns of the evil experiments she immediately throws herself at the aging scientist. In the meantime, the servants play hide the superstition behind each others back, our little person is banished to a nearby cave, and remaining Neanderthal Ook gets his revenge on all who sought to make his species extinct.

As an example of mid ‘70s ersatz exploitation, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is rather anemic. While there is some minor nudity (Maria and Valda swim topless in one scene) and a tiny bit of grue thanks to implied brain surgery, this is clearly a last gasp attempt at getting wayward teens to take a trip to the local drive-in. The sensationalized title, along with the promise of something even more promiscuous (the trailer apparently emphasized the bare bodkins on display) must have been pretty potent back in the day. Even with its lackluster thrills and total lack of chills, there are still those who think kindly on this poorly dubbed import from Italy. The presence of Dick Randall (Pieces) behind the scenes as producer and director probably helps.

Yet this is clearly a hunk of hackneyed horse apple, a laborious attempt at creating macabre out of a moldy, middling molehill. Period authenticity goes immediately out the window when the villagers are shown. Some are dressed like extras from any number of Hammer horror efforts. Others apparently walked onset in jeans and t-shirts. There are lapses in logic, incomplete subplots, a total lack of suspense, and a weird sort of halting homoeroticism between Dunn’s dwarf and Lugosi’s incomprehensible Ook - which means, of course, it’s the perfect fodder for Hodgson and his co-workers in wit. Like the best episodes of MST (and now CT), we are treated to laugh out loud moments of sublime cinematic slamming.

Before things get going, we are warned about a new piece of technology about to be employed. Alternatively known as the “Boob” or “Breast Blimp”, this zeppelin shaped shadow is used whenever our lead actresses decide to get randy and drop blou. Immediately upon being utilized, several male members of the cast dismiss its necessity outright. While it only appears twice, it is a refreshing and funny device. Elsewhere, the by now familiar ‘frame stop’ skit sequence is attempted, this time giving Trace an opportunity to complain about the treatment of the Frankenstein name in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to think he’s picking on Frank Conniff, and a big misunderstanding begins.

All throughout the running time of this spastic spooky vision, the collective tears into the film, finding fault with just about everything. They especially hate the rather short loin clothes worn by Ook, the completely ineffectual work of the village police, the very creepy May/December dalliance between the Count and Valda, and anything to do with Dunn, Lugosi, and Ewing’s Goliath. Oddly enough, a couple of four letter words litter some of the later comments. While nothing as pronounced as the F-bomb, it’s unusual for a self-marketed series to censor one type of material - female nudity - and yet allow the cast to use a more blue style of satire. As with many installments in the Cinematic Titanic series, there is definitely a more adult tone toward the funny business. But apparently, the mammary is verboten.

Still, as a starter for the year to come, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks proves that 2008 was no fluke. As Nelson, Murphy and Corbett continue to make fun of every current blockbuster that hits the Cineplex (Rifftrax are audio only, remember), Hodgson and the rest of the ex-Mystery Science staff keep plugging away at a true performance paradigm. Sure, both efforts are exceptional, providing the kind of well-placed ridicule that gives film purists palpitations. But even the most die hard lover of cinema can’t truly defend this erratic Euro-trash. Pondering, plodding, and preposterous, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is truly terrible. But when placed in the talented hands of the geniuses at Cinematic Titanic, it turns into a cracking comedy gem.

by Nikki Tranter

18 Jan 2009

Oh, it’s going to be a wonderful week. This 19 January marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most influential figures in modern fiction. Here at Re:Print, we will be marking the occasion with a full week of Poe-related goodness. Today, we will run through a few of the biggest and best Poe events around the place. Tomorrow and throughout the rest of the week, we’ll be scouring the Internet for the best Poe celebrations, and bringing you some exclusive interviews with some major Poe fans in the literary world including Laura Lippman, Charles Todd, and Hallie Ephron. We will also present a short guide to building your contemporary Poe library—not a difficult task as, it would appear, Poe’s hold over readers and writers has yet to wane. Featured throughout our tribute, will be original photography by Stacy Lenore Reed, a photographer, writer, and Poe fan in Richmond, Virginia.

Poe Museum, by Stacy Lenore Reed

Poe Museum, by Stacy Lenore Reed

The best place to go for news and information about Poe celebrations for the entire year is the phenomenal A Year of Events in Poe’s Virginia. The site offers both a blog and a calendar keeping visitors well up to date with news of key going on in and around the Richmond area, where Poe spent a significant amount of creative time. Happening in Richmond just this week are candlelight walks, a 24-hour Poe brithday bash, a portrait exhibit, and a musical tribute. And as the year goes on, you can visit Poe-realted symposiums, talks, lectures, more exhibits, and even a cemetery tour. Clearly, for the Poe fan, Richmond is the place to be this bicentennial year.

Baltimore has its own Poe party going on tonight with screening at the Westminster Hall of the 1961 film, The Pit and the Pendulum and a performance of “The Black Cat”. The free event starts at 7pm.

Read all about Poe influence on some top writers and entertainers at the Edgar Allan Poe 200 Project. Michael Connelly is among the interviewees, as is Alan Parsons and movie producr Gale Anne Hurd. Upcoming interviews are scheduled with actress Evangeline Lilly and others.

Baltimore’s Westminster Hall will play host, too, to a Poe tribute by John Astin of The Addams Family, who will spend a dark hour reading from Poe’s most recognized works, as well as discussing the writer’s life and times. That’s going to be huge. It takes place 31 January.

“Poe in his Times” with scholar David Reynolds at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.

If you go here, you can listen to a podcast of “The Great Poe Debate”, featuring Philadelphia’s Poe scholar Ed Pettit, Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and Paul Lewis, Professor at Boston College, who seek to once and for all end the argument of which state can lay claim to Poe and his genius. The fascinating discussion was recorded on 13 January.

And the celebrations don’t end there. Right up until the end of the year, you’ll find something Poe-related to do up and down the East Coast of America. In between, check back here tomorrow for our exclusive interview with Hallie Ephron about just how Poe has influenced her best-selling works.

by Rob Horning

17 Jan 2009

This may be a pointless either/or question since it can be trumped with the response of “both and” (which is a useful trick, by the way, kind of like switching causes and effects to derive theoretical “insight”). But it interested me anyway as a sort of thought experiment. Which is preferable: (1) discussing a professionally produced song or a film or whatever with a friend or (2) sharing with one another songs or films or mashups or whatever that you’ve made yourselves. I think I prefer the former but often preach the latter. Sharing stuff you’ve made too often closes off the possibility of critical discussion or interpretational analysis, devolving instead into what my high-school friends used to call ballwashing. “Oh that’s so cool! It’s so great that you’re doing that…” Often artistic professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work, to have an opinion regarding what it was about, to devote the resources to analyzing it, or even to allow themselves to enter into it vicariously. Often with homemade productions, I feel myself holding back, because I have this dread that I won’t be able to share the (frequently critical) insights that I would thereby derive. Often, I have the suspicion that the desired and appropriate response is “That’s great that you are doing that. Yay, you!” (Maybe I’m just a jerk.)

This question occurred to me because I was in Michael’s, the chain craft store, earlier today, and it struck me as a great big repository of sadness. I’m sure scrapbooking and collecting rubber stamps brings great joy to many people, but all I could imagine was failure of creativity inherent in purchasing a decorate-your-own-mug kit or any of those kits where the manufacturers try to package the creativity inside, an effort to assuage purchasers of the fear that they won’t be able to rise to the occasion and think of their own mug slogans. “We’ve thought of the project for you, all you have to do is follow directions.” These kits are basically the home-consumer version of deskilling. Rather than sell the raw materials of soapmaking, Michael’s sells you a soapmaking kit which pre-empts your learning how to make soap for real. The same is true for dumbed-down computer applications: Most of the people who have GarageBand on their iMacs will never record a song, let alone become musicians (though it presence does allow for some pleasing flights of fantasy about what you could do.) All that tends to happen when an artistic process is simplified to make it accessible to casual, semi-invested would-be creators is the production of substandard products that no one can possibly take seriously. No one who was serious about making something would stock up at Michael’s for supplies, right? The chain stands as testimony to the collective crippling of our imagination.

Generally, information has never been easier to come by, yet it’s never been harder to turn information into knowledge. Instead the volume of information is an incentive to dabble in things rather than delve into them in pursuit of some sort of mastery, no matter how slight. Is it better to know how to make really good pesto from scratch but nothing else, or to have ready access to many different kinds of passable microwavable meals but know how to make nothing well. (Or is that a particularly nefarious both-and situation?)

I feel a little guilty in bashing Michael’s, because my intent isn’t to dump on the people who shop there, reject them in favor of some superior set or artistic professionals. But some sort of process of professionalization seems necessary to bringing about a meaningful exchange between maker and user—a social relation must be brought into being in which the exchange itself matters more than the personal relation. Of course, in capitalist society, professionalization is a matter of getting paid. Making money is the mark of professionalism—transforming a production into a commodity for sale and finding success in vending it. Get to that point and you show that you’re not just dabbling; you are trying to make customers of others and live up to their expectations. That discipline elevates the product beyond hobby and craft—you’re not just dilettanting around.

But professionalism needn’t automatically be defined by money—by selling out to the Man. It could instead be seen as a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, a matter of wanting to give a social life to some idea or thing that will can then circulate independently from us. Amateur culture often fails to achieve that separation, doesn’t rise to level where it can be seriously criticized because it seems that its primary purpose is to secure recognition for the maker. A noncapitalist understanding of professionalization might resemble flow, losing oneself in a process, wherein the end product is secondary to the creative experience itself but not a matter of total indifference. Instead it could have a ready path to manifesting its social usefulness, to finding an appreciative audience without having to be explicitly marketed—and having its meaning permanently altered by that discourse.

Utopian internet folk probably have this in mind, that the internet becomes a low-barrier-of-entry distribution channel that permits our work to become socially useful without having to be channeled through capitalist means of production first. Unfortunately, capitalist media companies and various internet startups (often under the guise of enhancing the read-write web and so on) have by this time managed to embed themselves online between most home producers and would-be consumers, and in much in the same way as Michael’s kits, the use of these intermediaries’ services tend to taint our productions automatically with amateurism. Thanks to the corporate-owned easy-to-use services, the space that had been opened on the internet for a different kind of professionalism is now being flooded with look-at-me productions. If we are all narcissists, we’ll all remain amateurs, which offers an interesting, albeit functionalist, way to look at the modern efflorescence of narcissism—it seems as though there is an incentive to try to make us that way, insecure in who we are and preoccupied with gaining recognition. But sadly, a MySpace page will never make us web designers any more than a paint-by-numbers kit will make us artists.

by Michael Edler

16 Jan 2009

Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?

Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.

Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.

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