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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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?
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 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:
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.
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
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.
After humans split the atom, praised their prowess, and started dropping nukes on each other, the effects of radiation merged with a brand new set of Cold War fears to reinvigorate the horror genre. While man vs. a monstrous nature had always been a well used cinematic subject, a new mutant scheme was introduced into the dynamic. It was fear of the unknown merged with mutually assured destruction. The results typically centered on oversized varmints destroying villagers or undermining metropolises. As the years progressed, the serious became schlocky, and by the ‘70s, ecology ruled the movie macabre. Films like Day of the Animals and Food of the Gods maintained the malformed mammal ideal, but they were often couched in a cautionary browbeating about abusing mother Earth. Since then, the premise has passed into joke, and then legend.
When he was a youth, Henry Oldfield experienced a pair of unexpected tragedies. His father died chasing an errant ewe off a seaside cliff, and his horrid brother Angus slaughtered his pet sheep. Fast forward 15 years and our hero is still a mess. He can barely interact with the livestock laden countryside without phoning his on-call therapist. Upon returning to the family farm, he discovers Angus has been experimenting with genetic engineering. The older sibling hopes to create a super-sheep that will lead them to untold riches. Unfortunately, three things are working against this business model. First, a pair of PETA-lite animal activists named Grant and Experience break into the compound and steal a sample of the sinister science. Second, Dr. April Rush’s research ethics are questionable at best. And finally, a fudged up sheep fetus is accidentally released into the population. Soon, the rams are ravenous, feasting on flesh and killing everyone and everything in sight. But the dead don’t stay that way for long. Seems such differing DNA likes to recombine with anything available – included rotting human remains.
Upon an initial viewing, audiences may start to suspect that Black Sheep will take forever to get to the body piercing. As character is established and circumstances are explained, the languid set up will seem like much ado about mutton. We keep waiting for the moment when these emblems of sleeplessness start bringing on the dirt naps. But there is a method to King’s mildness, a rational for taking it nice and easy. Even in a shortened cinematic running time, gore can grow repetitive very quickly. Unless you have a Troma level of gag invention, or simply feel the need to pour on more and more excremental excess, a 10th beheading will lack the punch of the first. So King decides to moderate his mania and make a real movie instead, using behind the scenes drama, icky experimentation, and long standing sibling rivalries to deliver us from the slice and dice doldrums. He even goes so far as to toss in a little romance, and some pro-critter political pronouncements as well.
During this down time, fans can enjoy some of the movie’s more subtle elements. It’s impossible to discuss Black Sheep without referencing New Zealand’s amazing landscape. It’s a literal dream come true, a patch of pure heaven accented with an incredible mountainous majesty and stunning country vistas. Like a travelogue for tourists who enjoy a smattering of splatter, King creates a real sense of place. Equally effective are the performances. Some of the players are new to Kiwi cinema (Nathan Meister as Henry, Danielle Mason as Experience) while others (Peter Feeny, Tammy Davis) are slightly more seasoned pros. Since the script is loaded with satiric swipes – mostly at the expense of genre standards – the acting really elevates such farce. Even better, we come to know and care for these individuals, wanting vengeance to be metered out to anyone – or anything – that does them wrong.
But once the wildlife goes goofy, Black Sheep piles on the putrescence and wallows in boatloads of blood. During a spectacular sequence where an outdoor presentation, loaded with international VIPS, is overrun by a stampede of killer creatures, faces are bitten off, limbs severed, necks garroted, and torsos torn asunder. Played for both giggles and gruesomeness, it’s a standout moment in a movie filled with them. Another amazing make-up tour de force comes when farm manager Tucker starts turning into a were-sheep. During the course of the conversion, something happens to stop the progress. We then get an outstanding physical rewind, highly reminiscent of Rob Bottin’s influence work in Joe Dante’s Innerspace. Indeed, much of the magic in this guts and glory goof is inspired directly by the man who helmed The Howling, and offered equally nasty prosthetics for John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Fincher’s sickening Se7en.
As part of the plentiful added content provided in this excellent digital package, King gets a chance to explain himself via a funny and very friendly full length audio commentary. Joined by actor Meister, both are ready to riff on everything that went wrong (and right) about this wooly magnum opus. It’s a nice, slightly nutty, narrative romp. The selection of deleted scenes (with additional director discussion) shows how clever King really was, and the blooper reel provides mandatory muffs. While an Early Morning Sunrise Scene (“shot specifically for DVD”, or so the cover art says) is rather dopey, the 30 minute Making-Of documentary is a delight. It gives us insight into the production process, including all the make-up and F/X work. It’s an outstanding explanation of how a small movie like this achieves a larger than life, big screen blockbuster look.
Movies like this aren’t flawless. Things do get corny once in a while, what with the need for mandatory variety meat quips, agricultural puns, and the occasional slip into man/mutton bestiality. And the ending does feel like an attempt at irony gone slightly pear-shaped. But for the most part, Black Sheep is stellar. It doesn’t redefine or deconstruct the genre so much as embrace it with an adolescent’s passionate appreciation, taking everything that made the grade-Z category into a post-modern prize. It bodes extremely well for King’s cinematic future that this first film feels so accomplished. Though it’s clearly limited in budget, it never once feels amateurish or addled. Instead, this movie reestablishes a horror fans love of all things furry, ferocious, and foul. Gut munching farm animals may seem like a stretch, but if Bert I. Gordon can make mealworms evil, why can’t a native knock on his nation. When the results are as endearing as this, there’s no reason to complain.
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