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by Bill Gibron

1 Apr 2009

It’s safe to say that, with six months back in business and a wealth of wonderful titles hitting the market, Troma, once considered down and out for the commercial count, is truly back. With the hullabaloo and struggle to get Poultrygeist before the people now over and done, the company that made the Toxic Avenger a household word can not fully concentrate on giving the fanbase what they want - more oddball independent and homemade movie mania. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen surreal Sasquatch sex epics, badass b-movie future shock, vampire bedlam, and the return of some classic redneck zombies. This time around, Troma is treating us to four fascinating titles. While there’s no need to discuss the multi-disc ultimate Tox Box set, the recent release of The Best of TromaDance Volume 5, Crazy Animal, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi, deserve some individual attention.

Every year, Lloyd Kaufman and crew pack up their Manhattan (now New Jersey) digs, travel cross country, and take up residence in Park City, Utah to participate in the famed film festival held there. No, not the Sundance or the Slamdance outings, but the only truly free (no entry fees, no attendance fees) short film celebration in all of cinema - Tromadance. Spitting directly in the face of the mangled mainstream moviemaking ideal, this outsider event has celebrated such outright auteurs as Giuseppe Andrews, Ludovic Spenard, and Andy Bauman. For their fifth DVD volume, the independent giant digs deep into their vaults, coming out with all kinds of usual and eccentric fare. While not quite up to the standards of past collections, the films here focus on the future of truly independent art. They make grand statements out of personal drive, limited funds, and a plethora of paltry cheese sandwiches. 

First up is the fabulous, freaky The Mislead Romance of Cannibal Girl and Incest Boy. Tim Burton, this isn’t. Director Richard Taylor does a terrific job with some incredibly seedy material, making his grainy 8mm movie look like a snuff film without the slaughter. This is followed by the one joke novelty Chicken Ass. No matter how hard he tries, writer/director Joe Weaver just can’t make this shocking news exposé spoof work. The same can be said for Patrick Rea’s far more successful Bad Apples. While the laughs come from a single, predicable payoff, the monochrome manner in which the filmmaker gets there works wonderfully. Next up is one of the best films of the set. Bum Runners uses the homeless (obvious actors) as a means of making fun of action movies - and it’s terrific. Writers/directors Kurt Christiansen and Steve Herold do an amazing job with this oddball material, and fans of infamous ‘70s TV should be on the look out for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a minor role.

Mindslime is one of the more ambitious of the mini-movies. Director Henry Weintraub tries to mix alien invasion, horror, gore, comedy, man/woman relationships, and random goofiness into his manic mayhem stew - and for the most part, it works. So does the video for Pizza Time Theater, a raucous retro treat featuring Maniac Mansion, the first Nintendo-punk band in the world.  Travis Campbell takes things into suburban ennui and individual alienation with his stunning, subtle Amnesia Party. Like a post-modern amalgamation of The Graduate and Parents, it’s the perfect antidote to all the 9/11 inspired jingoism. Rob Baniewicz’s Cold Feet takes the notion of marital fear a tad too seriously, while Jacob Hair’s The Courtesy Nudge is extreme Office Space like insanity. Wrapping things up is the pedophile themed home movie madness of Unicorn, the perplexing college creep-out P.S., I am Spaceface, and a terrific take on a particularly bloody Valentine’s Day. 


 
The full length feature Crazy Animal, on the other hand, pretends to be a summer sex comedy. It’s far from it. When she was in high school, prom queen Jen was date raped by her BMOC boyfriend Jeff. Now an equally hedonistic frat boy, the ‘anything goes’ a-hole is also responsible for the sexual assault (and eventual suicide) of Ricky’s Goth gal pal Veronica. Plotting her revenge, Jen gets a couple of sexy Slavic models, contacts her creepy ex, and suggests he come down to the family beach house for a little spring break excitement. Dragging along his dim bulb brothers Henry and Chris, the trio plans to party hearty. When they are kidnapped by Ricky and forced to listen to his god-awful hair metal retreads, it seems like Jen’s plot has gone astray. Little do they know that it’s all an elaborate scheme to get Jeff to confess. There will be no drunken debauchery - just pain and humiliation. 

Crazy Animal wants to wear it’s tell all title on its sexploitation sleeve. It wants to deal with desire, morality, sex, skin, revenge, death, and cult comedy craziness in one big fat rock and roll riot. It even digs deep into the camp kitsch cookbook by featuring porn legend Ron Jeremy and Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as polar opposite fathers delivering sage/slaughter advice to their oh-so impressionable offspring. So why doesn’t it work? Why does something that should sizzle with a kind of meat beat manifesto end up sinking like a sour guitar solo at a battle of the high school bands? The answer is quite simple - the script…that is, if there really is one. John Birmingham may be a lot of things - competent actor, decent director, acquired taste musician, shameless self promoter - but he can’t scribble his way out of a basic screenwriting class. The dialogue is dismal, the overall level of narrative competence swaying between dismal and brain dead. Only Brink Stevens manages to bring life to these lame words during her all too brief cameo.



Indeed, Birmingham has some decent actor delivering his verbal atrocities. Though his scenes are brief, Jeremy makes a genial father figure. Kaufman is also more controlled here, his anti-authority rants playing perfectly to the character he’s creating. All the leads are likeable, even if a few overstay their wanton welcome, and the two Russian/Eastern European babes are indeed hot. Yet all of this is not enough to overcome what appears to be a movie made in the editing room. Conversations go nowhere, narrative threads are left dangling without ever coming back and completing them. The songs (mostly written by Birmingham) lack the necessary satiric fire to be true comedy classics, and the resolution doesn’t “feel” right. Instead, we get the sneaking suspicion that it was thought up on the fly, formulated out of a desire to dig oneself out of a major storyline hole. While it earns points for trying, Crazy Animal has more cinematic demerits than credits. In some ways, it’s more of an incomplete attempt than an outright failure.



All of which makes The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi all the more fascinating. Psychological savant Dr. Anna Fugazi is having a hard time with her burgeoning practice. Seems her patients, including a raging pedophile, an agoraphobic psychic, a true nutty professor, and a demented kleptomaniac are trying her mental mantle. Even worse, her home life with musician boyfriend Maynard is a wild ride of sex, parties, and disturbing dreams. You see, Anna is having nightmares involving bondage, discipline, blood, and vague metaphoric memories. While trying to keep it together, she feels like she’s literally falling apart. One day, a detective named Rowland comes to visit. She claims that one of Anna’s clients has killed his wife and left town. The cop wonders is she has any clues as to where the man might be going. Anna has a name - Grenwich - that’s all. Of course, she may have more knowledge than she even knows.

The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi is indeed a triumph for first time filmmaker October Kingsley. Wearing her exotic erotica on her Suicide Girls inspired façade, she’s a creative and confident artist. Sure, the last act “twist” is about as unsatisfying as they come and we don’t always understand or follow the sexual symbolism involved. Still, for a movie that includes anal rape with a broom handle, child molesters dreaming of laughing children, and a post-plastic surgery, pre-apocalyptic disaster Faye Dunaway, Kingsley keeps things from going completely bat dance. She’s also an intriguing onscreen presence, her slight accents and petite stature giving way to moments of madness and murderous desire. Still, not everything about this oddball experience works. Kingsley is anything if not self-indulgent, and the actors appear lifted from the struggling local Los Angeles scene. Yet the minute Dunaway walks on the set, everything changes. Everyone’s community college level performances suddenly start attending graduate school.



There’s also no denying the look of this film. Kingsley loves to experiment with style and form, taking elements from the fetish scene and mixing them with standard cinematics. The moments of physicality are graphic without being profane and there’s an orgy sequence that shows how effective and arousing suggestion and careful editing can be. Still, there’s that uneven ending to contend with, a finale that falls short of the ambitions Kingsley shows elsewhere. Some will probably be able to predict the outcome the minute Fugazzi falls into her first “trance”. Others will witness the reveal and still wonder just what in the Hell is going on. There’s definitely a desire to play with reality and the dream state here, and Kingsley’s history as a psychology and philosophy major do come into play. If you’re willing to accept 5/6ths of a great film, you’ll truly enjoy The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. Even with its unsuccessful climax, this is a film and filmmaker worth watching. And that’s the main reason why Troma’s continued commercial output is so important. Without them, where would truly independent art be?

by Jer Fairall

1 Apr 2009

The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences handed out their annual awards on Sunday night. The Junos—essentially Canada’s equivalent to the Grammys—have been awarding achievements in Canadian music since 1970, often with a noticeably prejudiced eye towards record sales and international success.  The awards have been no stranger to controversy in its nearly 40 year history, most notably when country singer Stompin’ Tom Conners returned his six Junos in protest over the Academy’s tendency towards awarding Canadian artists who lived and worked outside of the country.

by Diepiriye Kuku

1 Apr 2009

“Si tu savais auquel point j’ai de l’affection pour toi dou-dou, tu n’aurais pas me faite ca. Hmmm, je veux savoir.”

Translation: “If you knew how much affection I had for you, boo, you would not have done me like that. Hmm, I wanna know.”

Ok, forgive me if I missed any specifics in the few translations I offer here, but the points remain clear. I first heard Black So Man in Bankass, a small town six hours by bush-taxi from the regional capital, Mopti, a half-day by bus journey from Bamako, Mali’s capital. Bankass was closer to the border of Black So Man’s native Burkina Faso.

Mali and Burkinabe share many things culturally: a porous border in that region (despite the infamous Gendarmerie), and both colonial language and dialects of Mande, i.e. French as well as Bambara and Jula, comprising the regional lingua franca in spite of imperial political boundaries demarcating artificial nation-states. Compared to Sénégal and Côte d’Ivoire, the two nations were ‘relatively’ saved from the squander of colonialism- apparently the French didn’t find many resources in the land-locked, dry, arid, climates to extrapolate- other than the folks! Even one of Burkina Faso’s largest city’s Bobojulaso (literally “the home of the Bobo and Jula peoples’ father) reflects the breadth of cultural kinship amongst Mande speaking peoples right from Guinea on the coast, through to Burkinabe deep in the Sahel.

by Evan Sawdey

1 Apr 2009

Will someone please stop Patrick Daughters, please?

This man has done nothing but wonders since he appeared on the scene back in 2004.  A friend of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this former film student was brought in to helm the clip for the second single off of the group’s 2003 debut Fever to Tell.  The song was “Maps” and the resulting video was as quietly devestating as you would expect for such a fragile number: Karen O, standing on stage during a rehearsal, baring her soul.  A simple concept that was executed grandly. 

Yet Daughters is very much a “concept” director: he knows that visual medium should be used to excite and entertain, which is perhaps why his overstuffed clip for Feist’s “Mushaboom” appears to have ideas for at least a dozen different videos wrapped up into it.  Never once are his videos boring: his style is akin to that of a young Spike Jonze, wherein a clever concept can carry an entire video instead of just being nothing more than a simple sight gag.  When not putting Beck in front of giant studio sets or putting Feist (again) in a field of fireworks, he’s orchestrating ... war ballets?

His clip for the Department of Eagles’ “No One Does it Like You” is both simple an haunting, as dancers take the form of soldiers and ghosts, lightly swaying and sashaying as death surrounds them.  The cutesy-aspect of this clip is cut short during its final moments, when the dancer-soldiers are shot with real guns, with real (fake) blood pouring out of them, both sides uniting in heaven.  The sharp violence immediately counterbalances the simplistic costumes (the ghost is a white sheet, for pete’s sake!), and—yes—the very well-choreographed dancing.  Yet the best part?  The visual element actually enhances the song’s emotional content.

So, let’s raise our drinks again to Patrick Daughters: the man to soon usurp Michel Gondry’s throne.

Department of Eagles - No One Does It Like You

by Rob Horning

31 Mar 2009

Several months ago Tom Slee offered these “Theses on Netflix” (he modestly thinks that sort of title for a blog post is bombastic, but nothing could make me want to read something more—maybe if he called it a “manifesto”). By serving as automated filters, these systems make reviewers and critics somewhat superfluous. “While bad reviewers and publishers would not be missed,” Slee points out, “good reviewers and publishers are not only filters; they are also an active part of cultural creation.” That is true, but the critical debate often takes place far away from the marketplace and the popular audience for most cultural products. And online there are more critical voices to be heard then ever, albeit at varying levels of professionalism. If anything, we are encouraged to produce opinions, to help make automated recommenders work better, have more data to feed on.

The surfeit of opinions, though, and more important, the surfeit of culture, makes filters more necessary as the demands on our attention become overwhelming. If we are intent on consuming more of what is available, we have less time to participate in such staid, slow-moving endeavors as having a critical debate about one work. There’s too much pressure to move on to the next thing and broadcast an opinion about that. So our opinions will be pronouncements, and debate will perhaps become even more of an elitist activity, for those paid to conduct it in academia.

But the key point Slee makes in his theses, amid the recognition that these recommendation systems will become more and more central to cultural consumption, is that they are not neutral. They have the capacity to leverage small differences in initial popularity into huge disparities among works that may not be all that different when regarded objectively (assuming for the moment that an objective standard like that can be approximated). And more sinister, recommendation systems can become the disguise for payola-type schemes that make certain lucrative titles more visible. As Slee puts it:

Ownership matters. Given the variety of approaches, outcomes, and absence of clear “best” alternatives, and given the ability of recommender systems to shape the experiences of their users, there is ample room for ulterior motives to become embodied in the system. The incentives for the recommender and the recommendee may be different. The incentives for Netflix in a regime where they deliver physical DVDs (of which they have limited stock) may be to promote the back catalogue. When they deliver movies digitally (as they are about to) there may be no such constraint and they may be more tempted to promote existing blockbusters.

Slee followed up on this idea a few months later in this post, also with a great title: “Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche.” He draws on paper by Daniel M. Fleder and Kartik Hosanagar to argue that online recommendations do not lead us to diversify our cultural experiences. The ideology of the “long tail”—as Slee puts it, that “our cultural experiences, liberated from the parochial tastes and limited awareness of those who happen to live close to us, are broadened by exposure to the wisdom of crowds, and the result is variety, diversity, and democratization”—turns out to be something of a hoax. Even though their is a wider field of culture available online, recommendation services work to block most of it out, not open our eyes to it. The parochial tastes once nurtured in isolation were what gave us our distinct niches, our peculiar tastes—that’s why local music scenes were distinctive 50 years ago, but are entirely homogenous now that music is conceived and sold for national audiences. Our taste is more readily massified by exposure to the algorithms that average out the tastes of as many participants as possible. Along the same lines, Slee’s simulations suggest that we experience more diversity offline, whereas online we are subjected to “monopoly populism.”

A “niche”, remember, is a protected and hidden recess or cranny, not just another row in a big database. Ecological niches need protection from the surrounding harsh environment if they are to thrive. Simply putting lots of music into a single online iTunes store is no recipe for a broad, niche-friendly culture.

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