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Monday, Apr 2, 2007
by Edward Wasserman - McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Sometimes a newsroom conflict of interest is as unmistakable as a pimple on prom night.


Consider a financial writer praising a company whose stock she owns or a real-estate reporter hyping a neighborhood where he has land. There, the journalists’ private interest in telling certain things certain ways can’t help but clash with a professional duty to serve the public with clean hands.


But you often hear talk about conflicts of interest when the activities involved don’t clearly influence the journalism, and which may be nettlesome largely because employers abhor criticism. Why shouldn’t a sports reporter donate to a mayoral candidate? Even if it’s condemned as a “perceived” conflict of interest, is it really a threat to honest sports coverage—or an image problem for the newspaper?


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Sunday, Apr 1, 2007


In a little less than five days, maverick directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez will unleash their long awaited double feature phenomenon in the making, Grindhouse, onto an unsuspecting motion picture marketplace. Starring Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and a cadre of filmmaking friends (fake trailers for the presentation have been crafted by the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth), the diabolical duo are hoping to open the eyes of tenderfoot film fans everywhere. It is their goal to bring the good old days of onscreen exploitation back to the masses.For his part, Rodriguez is serving up the splatter spoils, offering a zealous zombie stomp entitled Planet Terror. Tarantino, on the other hand, is exploring the seedier side of things with his psycho stuntman on the prowl, Death Proof. Together, they guarantee the classic concepts celebrated by drive-in film critics Joe Bob Briggs – beasts, boobs, and blood.


But is it really exploitation – or better yet, do these two inexplicable genre efforts guided by a pair of exceptionally talented men really warrant the true ‘grindhouse’ label? Signs are sketchy at best. It remains a fact that, scattered throughout the legacy of the taboo-busting genre, there are movies that explore similar themes. Harry Novak’s The Child, for example, was a great example of the living dead dynamic, and crazed killers stalking and splattering unwitting innocents (Booby Traps, A Scream in the Streets), were an industry mainstay. Even when you move beyond the outer fringes of the genre and into the more obscure examples of filmed filth, there are enough examples of the horror/crime/drug/sex standard to fulfill the retro raincoat crowd title. But the question remains, what about these new films in particular. Are they fact or fad, real attempts at recreation or, as one suspects, a gimmick used to serve an already attention-grabbing release?


It is obvious that no filmmaking duo – or dozen directors, for that matter – could sum up the exploitation genre in a single set of films. There are far too many subjects and subsets, aspects and approaches involved to allow for such an easy dissection. But the main issue with any supposed grindhouse offering is the purpose behind the production. Money was the motivating factor for these carnival barker like showmen. The main distributors and producers of the old school product even had a self-effacing nickname for themselves – The Forty Thieves. Running around the country playing drive-ins and gritty downtown theaters, they purposefully positioned their product like inventory in a warehouse. In his exceptional book, A Youth in Babylon, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation World David F. Friedman argued for what is, in essence, a post-modern Hollywood film production ideal to the creating and commercializing of controversial cinema.


Whenever they began a project, the smart schlock filmmaker always took the temperature of the times. He (or in rare cases, she) sampled the pop culture landscape, looked to see what was making headlines (violence, sex crimes, drugs, etc.) and then made sure their movie stayed true to said subject’s more sensational elements. But beyond the narrative, producers recognized that through a clear demographical decision, they could almost predict where certain types of movie would be best received. Rowdy sex farces usually did well in the South, while far more mean-spirited or sadistic fare drew better in big cities. Finally, they would work up a mock budget, and determine a maximum amount of advertising and distribution monies to be spent. If all the salesmanship stars were aligned, they would then figure out the potential profit (these movies were NEVER made without a clear indication of the possible success) and maintain a strict adherence to this limited fiscal plan.


As a result, most exploitation films were not hits, but solid returns on precisely planned out investments. The artistic nature of a release was never considered, nor was the inevitable entertainment value to an audience ever gauged. In essence, the men making grindhouse fare were playing a masterful game of bait and switch. They would lure in curious crowds with their tantalizing, taboo subject matter, and then once the coinage was carefully concealed, roll out their less than exceptional effort. For anyone familiar with the long lineage of this kind of moviemaking, the vast majority of the interchangeable offerings are quite forgettable. Aside from their time capsule qualities, and ample depictions of nudity, they tend to be boring, unexceptional, crass and without merit.


So where exactly do Planet Terror and Death Proof reside? Well, for one thing, it’s clear that the entire premise for this double feature extravaganza comes from the drive-in dynamic which in turn, represents a late in life adjustment made by the exploitation gang. When theaters could no longer guarantee audiences, and mainstream movies started limiting available screens, the passion pit was instantly targeted. Not only was this done because of the guaranteed audience (remember, couples weren’t necessarily coming for the movies) but also out of a firm financial desperation.


After the initial craze in the ‘50s, drive-ins started losing their luster. By tapping into the need to compete with the major chains and growing Cineplex movement, the independent owners of these exterior entertainment venues would purposely look for something weird or unusual to enhance their visibility. And it usually worked. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the godfather of gore, once described his trepidation when his slice and dice epic, Blood Feast, was premiering at a rural outdoor theater from off the beaten prosperity path. Unsure of the location, his fears were quelled when he saw a mile long line of cars all waiting to pay for admission. So the bravura or bawdy b-movie found a second life playing to teenage audiences looking for a little psycho-sexual privacy as well as a place to pet. 


Certainly, there aren’t specific requirements mandated to make a movie meet the grindhouse distinction, but its fairly obvious that Tarantino and Rodriguez are using the moniker to make their standard scare fests appears far more scandalous than they are. One is fairly sure that these will not be the envelope pushing perversion of something like Let Me Die a Woman (Doris Wishman’s surreal sex change drama) or Lewis’ harrowing horror comedy precursor, The Gore Gore Girls. In fact, when faced with gaining a dreaded MPAA rating, the only required snips came at the expense of Eli Roth’s slasher spoof trailer, Thanksgiving. Like William Castle before, or some of the more famous members of the Forty Thieves (Dan Sonny, for one), our mainstream directors are going retro for a reason.


Sure, it could be for a love of the genre – and it can be very addictive once you recognize how important the industry was to shaping the modern movie going experience. They could also have a far more obsessive fascination with the cinematic category, resulting in an understanding that’s more in touch with the basic tenets and expectations of the exploitation ideal than the casual fan may have. And indeed, they’ve never said their movies were all inclusive, reveling in any and all aspects of the miscreant movie model. But when you call your offering “Grindhouse”, and spend countless weeks pimping your product as same, you better be able to support your shilling – and right now, all this film has going for it is a great deal of geek goodwill.


Early buzz has been positive, if not necessarily loaded with the flagrant fanboy pontifications that one comes to expect (especially when its QT and RR at the helm). And with 300 stealing some of the movie’s pre-Summer publicity, including its rating as a must-see cinematic happening, we could be looking at a case of bad timing accompanied by limited appeal. Finally, we are dealing with a clear critical bias here – horror oriented movies made with a kind of craven creativity that jaded journalists no longer respond to. So in the end, Grindhouse will live and die thanks to its artistic more than its artificial elements. But one things for sure – it really isn’t a throwback to the days when ballyhoo controlled the box office. There’s nary a shout out to the pioneering picture makers of the past, and many of the more important facets that formed the genre are all but absent. Until it officially opens, it will remain a crafty concept expertly rendered by a couple of extremely sharp anti-Establishment icons. It’s a shrewd marketing ideal that even an old roadhouse huckster would envy.


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Sunday, Apr 1, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Andy Partridge —"I Lovely Cosmonaut"
From Monstrance on Ape House
Over a year ago, XTC founder/guitarist Andy Partridge, original XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews and drummer Martyn Barker (longtime bandmate of Barry’s in Shriekback) began to discuss convening as a trio to make improvisational music under the name “Monstrance”. These three finally got together to record live for three days amassing nearly eight hours of material which was subsequently sorted and mixed by Future Sound Of London guitarist Stuart Rowe and engineer Merv Carswell yielding Monstrance’s self-titled debut, a two disc set of overdub/edit-free music.


The Rosebuds —"Get Up Get Out"
From Night of the Furies on Merge
Night of the Furies is the third full-length from The Rosebuds, and will have fans heading for the dance floor with “Get Up Get Out” and “Hold on to This Coat.” Stylistically, however, Night of the Furies follows a logical progression from their earlier work, The Rosebuds Make Out (2003) and Birds Make Good Neighbors (2005). The danceable beats meld with catchy melodies built on themes both dark and seductive. Thematically, the songs are presented as individual and random parts of a larger story. The mood is ominous yet enticing; dangerous yet enchanting. Lyrics explore revolution and struggle, actions and consequences, but also love and redemption. One could easily just bounce along on the infectious pop hooks. Dig a little deeper, however, and a larger story and unified themes begin to unfold.


CocoRosie —"Rainbowarriors"
From The Adventures of Ghosthorse & Stillborn on Touch and Go
This album is a departure from the obscured blur of stained glass rêve to a more self-exploitive memoir. Parts are dreamy and parts are savage, but, as with an opera where death represents a secret heaven, the whole record feels like a black diamond in the snow. From her humble beginnings in the South of France, the saga sailed the Seven Seas all the way to that icy crack in the Earth’s crust just outside of Reykjavik. Upon her return to her Parisian homeland, she shared a mystical rendezvous with beautiful sailors Pierre et Gilles, the album cover being the consequence of that affair.


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Sunday, Apr 1, 2007

Frontline’s recent special, News War, offered a few unintentionally poignant moments. One was seeing veteran reporter Lowell Bergman, in Part III, stumbling around in search of answers to the question, what happened to journalism? (This from the man behind The Insider?)


The answers Bergman found were pretty old hat for many of us: YouTube, Jon Stewart, bloggers and the like. Even Bergman’s finding that young people get their news from The Daily Show is played out at this point. In this regard, News War not only documented but also demonstrated the pitfalls of old-school journalism.


The end of the program featured a fairly downbeat discussion on the death of newspapers, using the Los Angeles Times as a case study. The interview with the publishing exec from the Tribune Company (the Times owners) smugly defending cutback after cutback angered even Internet enthusiasts like me. Newspapers alone cover schools, taxes, local governments, community conflicts, etc. They need to survive or, in a more likely scenario, bring their best practices to the Internet.


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Saturday, Mar 31, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: drugs - and marijuana, specifically, get placed under the sin and skin microscope.

By its very definition, the exploitation film finds its foundational subject matter in the areas that society despises. These movies explore the taboo, the scandalous, the unmentionable and the forbidden. From sleazy and abhorrent sexuality to tales of brutality and sadism, the raincoat crowd and lovers of grindhouse goodies wanted material that made the squares feel uncomfortable. They also demanded that smut be used to spice up the proceedings, be they rough and tumble or ribald and risqué. Yet one area that always drew the most controversy and harshest criticism was that of drugs. Since many fringe features tended to glamorize its gratuity, parents and public officials feared that any motion picture approach to addictive narcotics would turn impressionable youth into rock solid speed-ballers.


Granted, drugs had been a staple of the genre for as far back as the roadshow experience. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, with mass communication rather limited, exploitation entrepreneurs understood they could make a fast buck or two by scaring gullible yokels with poorly made message movies. Utilizing harrowing titles like Marihuana: Assassin of Youth and Cocaine Fiends, these premeditated pitch efforts, complete with intermission instruction from a renowned scholar on the subject, were nothing more than the set up for the sale of ‘educational manuals’. In fact, these poorly constructed tomes, usually made up of material from medical journals and college textbooks, provided little valuable information. But they helped line the pockets of the promoters, and gave off an aura of authenticity that a standard theatrical play date would definitely lack. 


But time caught up with the roadshow crowd, as audiences grew more sophisticated and skeptical. So the grindhouse gang simply decided to use drugs as one of many clothesline narrative devices – basically, an idea upon which several erotic and/or violent scenes could be crafted. A perfect example is Mantis in Lace, sometimes known as Lila. Producer Harry Novak wanted to make a movie featuring starlet Susan Stewart. Unsure of the proper angle, he came up with a concept that would have our heroine flip out whenever she took acid. Her aggressive ardor would then turn deadly, as she went from canoodling to carving up her possible paramours. Aside from the occasional Mondo style documentary, or attempted serious dope drama, most movies involving recreational pharmaceuticals relied on this peculiar perverted pretext.


As part of their ongoing release schedule with Image Entertainment, Something Weird Video digs up two very unlikely companion pieces for its April DVD double feature. Offering up excellent transfers and a collection of added content (in this case, educational shorts and preview trailers) both the arcane Acid Eaters and the well meaning Weed illustrate perfectly how the grindhouse used opiates to help mellow out the more miscreant of the masses. Each one offers up its own delights and disappointments, but as examples of latter era exploitation, they’re priceless. Let’s begin with the bizarre:


The Acid Eaters (1968)

From 9 to 5, the members of the White Pyramid motorcycle club work average, everyday jobs. But once quitting time arrives, these fun loving loons like to hop on their mini-bikes and make for the mountains. There, they smoke pot, skinny dip, and screw. Their main goal however is the elusive ivory tower with its promise of LSD delights. Once found, our free spirited sex fiends drop tabs, drop trou and get groovin’ via a group grope. Though it all seems rather tame, there are indications that such corporeal playtimes can lead to some manner of implied evil. But for The Acid Eaters, working hard means making one’s relaxation as randy as possible.


Like simultaneously smoking and slipping on banana peels, Byron Mabe’s psychedelic sleaze out The Acid Eaters purports to expose the lighter side of LSD – you know, the baffling, more bosomy part. Featuring an almost never dressed (and decidedly blonde) Pat Barrington and the muscleman’s answer to a monkey, Buck Kartalian, this prurient pilgrims’ progress through the wonderful world of wanton behavior is one of those ‘see it to believe it’ productions. While it’s obviously trying to illustrate the counterculture in unquestionably craven terms (these over the hill hepcats even make body painting seem skuzzy) while concurrently exploring the inner world of dope, what we wind up with is the exploitation equivalent of some swinger’s sad home movies. Mabe, whose time behind the camera included such odd duck delights as A Scent of Honey, A Swallow of Brine and Space-Thing, has a very limited motion picture vocabulary. In essence, he’s a catch as catch can kind of filmmaker, setting up his actors in various sequences of sin, and then moving the lens around as much as possible to capture all the action. Then he goes into the editing booth and hacks his handiwork to death, rearranging the narrative until it’s almost as nonsensical as his artistic aesthetic. And since producer/co-conspirator David F. Friedman basically agreed to such a cobbled together conceit, we are dealing with a movie with a singular surreal purpose.


Many times throughout the non-linear storyline, you’re not sure whether you should laugh or lick toads. The drug taking material is tepid at best – everyone smokes a little grass and then takes large bites out of obvious Styrofoam LSD tabs – and the sex scenes offer the basic groan and grapple we expect from the genre. Barrington gets a couple of corrupt solo scenes, including a baffling jungle boogie in front of a black bongo player, as well as an unsettling dream sequence where she succumbs to her eye patch wearing “daddy’s ” advances. Ew! As for Kartalian, he jumps around like a chimp with chiggers, gets his own beefcake moment when he takes a much needed shower, and finally dons red longjohns to play the Prince of Darkness. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements in The Acid Eaters, aside from the curious comical blackouts where a couple who’ve just met go for a literal roll in the hay, is the 50 foot tall white LSD pyramid set smack dab in the middle of the California countryside. Sure, all Mabe and his cast can do with the prop is use it like a part of Plato’s Retreat: The West Coast Version, but it still makes for a visually arresting prop. As a matter of fact, it elevates one’s overall appreciation for this haphazard head-trip. If you want to see silicon skin sacks swaying in the Pacific breezes, there’s plenty of pulchritude on hand. If you’re more interested in the chemical component of this whacked out weirdness, your lysergic acid diethylamide search will just have to continue.


Weed (1972)

Hoping to provide a fair and balanced look at the use of marijuana among American youth, as well as the laws that threatened to make many of them criminals, director Alex De Renzy travels from the jungles of Mexico to the streets of war-torn Cambodia to explore the cultivation and criminalization of drugs. Speaking with government officials, anonymous dealers, sympathetic lawyers and angry scholars, De Renzy wants to make it very clear that, as an agent of addiction, pot is no worse than alcohol. He then goes on to dispute the way in which politicians, for the sake of a campaign promise or continued power, push an agenda that is detrimental to both people and society’s position. While he’s not sure if dope should be legal, he definitely believes the official view of it should be more moderate and rational.


Representing the other approach to dealing with drugs, in this case, an expose-style exploration of the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s generational gap, Weed hopes to be an even handed and informative look at marijuana, its facts, and fallacies. Offered by Alex De Renzy, a flesh peddler playing documentarian (by day, he maintained a healthy career in hardcore pornography) and using the Nixon Administration’s foundational studies to begin the real war on drugs, what we experience here is a travelogue teased with various pro/con conceits. On the negative side, we get government officials arguing that pot produces an unruly, addicted and mentally unbalanced member of society. They fuss over the illegal smuggling, exploitation of third world countries, and the increased crime that comes with smoking dope. Then we get the counterculture perspective, a look at how weed and various doorway drugs are viewed as rights, privileges, and part of the new, hip and free scene. De Renzy does a good job of never letting one side win the fight. While we rarely see the substance used (there is a single sequence where a group of Canadian heads enjoy a kind of slapstick smoke, the action sped up to create a clear comic ideal) we do witness warehouses full of the illegal substance, and the creative ways transporters use to fool law enforcement. Perhaps the best scenes stem from a give and take exchange – indirectly – between members of the legal/criminal prosecution portion of control, and the social workers and scholars who simply want to help the kids. The latter view harsh laws as a deterrent to education, and their arguments are very compelling.


In fact, the odd thing about Weed is that, with its non-sensationalized approach to the subject of marijuana, it’s occasionally hard to find the true grindhouse angle. Some may suggest that De Renzy was merely doing the public a subversive service. By putting out a documentary that neither demonized nor defended pot, he created a calm dialogue where before there was none. As a result, the subject became quasi-scandalous, since it refused to tow the emphasized governmental positions. And we are talking about late stage hippy-dom here, a time when drugs were just starting to turn from fun to felonious. By bucking convention, and undermining the Establishment, De Renzy was indeed pushing an envelope of acceptability. On the other hand, this is nothing more than insightful interviews strung together with some intriguing exotic locale work. It’s a treat to see Tibet in all its pre-horror glory, and the sequence where soldiers in Vietnam discuss the ready availability of “#1 Cigarettes” (as the marijuana joint was nicknamed) illustrates the various cultural elements attached to dope. Heck, we even hear a Missouri wildlife warden defend the hemp plant as the perfect habitat and winter cover for quail and pheasant. While the final scene seems like a slap in the face of a close-minded and politically oriented position toward pot, Weed has a lot of interesting things to say.


Together, The Acid Eaters/ Weed prove that, when it came to putting gullible behinds in roadshow or arthouse seats, outsider film producers understood the value of a potent propagandized subject – and no issue was more volatile in the ‘50s – ‘70s than drugs. While the styles may be wildly divergent, and the entertainment consequences equally contradictory, these movies make the clear point that, when it came to exploring any and all forbidden fruit facets of society, no one did a better, more brazen job than the exploitation filmmaker. 


 


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