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Wednesday, Apr 4, 2007

As part of SE&L’s tribute to the late Bob Clark, we republish this career overview piece from December 2006.



If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Steven Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy.


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Tuesday, Apr 3, 2007


At a recent shareholders meeting, current President and CEO of the Walt Disney Compnay, Bob Iger, dared suggest what many film fans have long considered impossible. Though no specific plans were announced, the House of Mouse big wig seemed to indicate that after a long stay in unacceptable entertainment exile, 1946’s live action fantasy feature Song of the South MAY finally see a DVD release. Amid much hemming and a great deal of hawing, Iger stated that “the question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” But the product path is not cleared just yet. “Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted”, he continued, “or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”


For those unfamiliar with the pro-PC stink surrounding the film (even though it’s been shown as part of the standard Disney re-release theatrical schedule in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), the main complaint stems from something that stains most pre-‘60s cinema – obvious awkward racial stereotyping. At the center of the narrative is kindly literary figure Uncle Remus, a happy go lucky slave seemingly oblivious to life as part of his Master’s post-War plantation. He regales the coy white children of the house with his mischievous tales of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. Using their patented pen and ink skills, Uncle Walt’s animators created a kind of seamless branching between the character of Remus (played by James Baskett) and the cartoon trickster tales he spun. With the entire feel good enterprise wrapped up in an Oscar winning tune (the immortal “Zip-Pa-Dee-Do-Dah!”) Song of the South appears innocent enough.


But once you look below the surface and examine all aspects of the South story, you begin to see why the film remains missing in action. To begin with, the Remus books, written by post-Reconstruction journalist Joel Chandler Harris, have not held up over time. Using a horribly inappropriate dialect slang to realize his narration, and portraying slavery as almost idyllic, Harris’ tomes suffer from good intentions couched in basic bad judgment trappings. No one is suggesting that the actual plotlines he presented are racist – indeed, like all good fables, they offer up life lessons that little ones can relate to and appreciate. Yet it’s the exterior aspects of the Remus issue that taint and trump the inner motives. While many can forgive some of the more misguided ideas, there is an overriding feeling of frivolity that just doesn’t mix with American’s historically harmful treatment of minorities.


The film doesn’t lessen the impact. In fact, many argue that by visualizing the patronizing ‘pie in the sky’ ideal of Remus’ reality, what could be almost forgiven on the printed page becomes undeniable in Technicolor reality. Critics championed Baskett’s portrayal, claiming he brought humanity and dignity to a role that required very little of same. And since Disney was creating this during Hollywood’s shameful treatment towards people of color, many appreciated the fact that Remus wasn’t copying the “Stepin Fetchit” style of slow, lumbering black man. Still, nothing can remove the humilation associated with having a subservient African American character kowtowing to the whims of some spoiled little white children (there’s even a token slave child just to maintain some kind of corrupt cinematic balance).


It’s clear then where the problems lie. In the 60 years since Walt Disney envisioned bringing Harris’ heartwarming tales to the silver screen, race has become a solid social undercurrent in the United States. Where once it was an unspoken scourge, a misguided communal corruption that found no problem in separating individuals (and the services to same) based on the color of their skin, it’s now a given facet of any interpersonal interaction. For as many strides that have been made to equalize the scales, to take ethnicity out of the equation and keep bias against individuals based solely on their own actions/attitudes, we still live in highly prejudicial times. No matter the positives achieved during the ‘60s, or the setbacks suffered in the ‘80s, one cannot deny that race remains a weeping wound on the American dream.


So any film that wants to champion a perplexing pitch of revisionist history should definitely be discussed before returning to the cultural marketplace of ideas. But there seems to be a higher benchmark towards potential family fare than entertainment geared more toward adults. For the longest time, film fans and cinematic scholars feared that 1936’s Green Pastures would never see an official home video release. Based on a novel by Roark Bradford (another 19th Century Southerner) with the troubling title Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun’, and adapted for stage by another white man, Mark Connelly, this all black cast retelling of the Old Testament was long considered unreleaseable. For starters, the Good Book narrative featured the broadest ethnic archetypes around, with various characters called “shiftless”, “trifling” and “wicked”. God is seen as serene and subjugated, while his angels speak in jargon-based buffoonery that saps them of all pride.


But perhaps the worst part of the production is the over reliance on so-called modern euphemisms – in essence, obvious intolerant depictions of African American traditions and customs as a short cut to three dimensional characterization. In heaven, every day is a fish fry, and watermelon is plentiful. On earth, juke joints become the primary focal points and Biblical figures like Noah and Moses are taunted by jive spewing no-accounts with loose dice, switchblades and ever present bottles of liquor by their side. For all of Remus’ mindless ‘Massa’ merriment, Green Pastures is nothing short of a primer on prejudice. So how did Warner Brothers finally manage a recent DVD release with all this potential controversy in play? Why, they let the film speak for itself, and offered up clear scholarly support for the narratives many positives and negatives via an in-depth audio commentary


Disney’s movie doesn’t have such luxuries. You see, at its core, Green Pastures is a film about faith. It wants to depict matters of the soul in ways that will emphasize and support the way religion and belief uplifts and binds us. No matter how stupefyingly stereotypical they may seem, the depictions of the Archangel Gabriel and ‘Da Lawd’ himself are housed in an undeniable coating of spiritual joy. They are so open and genuine with their conviction, so single minded and celebratory in the devotion, that one cannot help but feel their strength. Such a hefty foundation helps overcome many of the movie’s more troubling elements, and allows stateliness and solemnity to trump intolerance again and again.


Song of the South seems incapable of this kind of subtext. Instead, it flounders amid a full blown fantasy illustration of Antebellum benefice. It’s hard to imagine times being this good for any black man before or after the Civil War, but Remus is shown as carefree and oblivious to any sort of suffering. True, this could form the basis of an argument that, just like Green Pastures, Song of the South exists in a world wholly its own, made up and modified to look like reality – well, the majority’s version of the real world. But unlike Gone with the Wind, which stretches its Hollywood classicism to legitimate breaking points, or Birth of a Nation, which is significantly sunk by its mean-spirited minstrel show ideals (not to mention the pro Klu Klux Klan conceits), Song of the South wants to be forgiven for its flagrant disregard for the facts. In fact, it asks that innocence be substituted for all the clear contextual problems.


The most compelling argument for maintaining the reissue boycott however centers on the status of video – and now DVD – in the lives of children. When Disney discovered that parents would pay through the teeth to provide their wee ones with a non-stop supply of surrogate babysitter fodder, they marched out every title in their canon, purchased a few more to continue the commercialization, and even went so far as to draft new direct to market merchandise. While the bottom line was served and served well, the repercussions of such a decision were never questioned. Neither was the impact all this unattended viewing was having on pre-adolescent brains. It is clear that, without a host of supplementary support, Song of the South could cause impressionable minds to become confused about race. Since parents rarely take the lead in educating their kids, Uncle Walt’s view of slavery would have to suffice.


That being said, Song of the South will indeed be released on DVD one day – if not now, definitely within the foreseeable future. There is too much money at stake, and if the House of Mouse can find the proper presentation, and select the right explanatory bonus features, the initial uproar will be masked by the sound of ringing cash registers. There will always be people who automatically feel disrespected and/or demeaned by the kind of craven characterization offered in this film, and they have an absolute right to complain. For almost a full century, Tinsel Town treated minorities like laughing stocks in a crass Caucasian view of acceptability. But other studios have found a way to avoid the stigma while standing by their less than likeable output. Disney’s dilemma is a little deeper though. No matter how many apologetic bells and whistles they surround it with, Song of the South still carries a disturbing disrespect that’s hard to hide.


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Monday, Apr 2, 2007


Having spent the last eight months dishing out advice about the weekly plethora of DVD releases hitting the marketplace, SE&L has begun to sense some manner of merchandising pattern. It’s a ploy more problematic than the dreaded double dip and more irritating than the basic bare bones title. No, this new B&M blueprint could be labeled “2T2W” – translation: Testing the Want Waters. It seems like, more and more, major entertainment distributors are waiting (sometimes for several years) to measure the amount of interest the fans still have in a certain specific title. Then they will hold off releasing said movie/TV show until desire trumps design. Then, they can package up anything they want and guarantee some manner of sales explosion. This is clearly the case with our prime pick this week. Ardent admirers of this show have waiting so long for this series completing box set follow-up that they were ready to accept almost anything. And that’s exactly what they get the week of 3 April:


Twin Peaks: The Complete Second Season


All right, all right – it’s a TV show, so discussing it would be in direct contradiction to SE&L‘s FILM only mandates. But it’s also the by-product of cinematic genius David Lynch’s auteur imagination, so sue us. Many fans felt that this series jumped the proverbial killer fish when Laura Palmer’s murderer was finally revealed, and there are debates all over the ‘Net about the effectiveness of the finale (about as open ended as you can get, frankly). Between the cockeyed character conversions (Nadine now thinks she’s in high school???) and the Black Lodge/White Lodge mumbo jumbo, what started out as the most accomplished one hour TV drama in the history of the medium slowly de-evolved into a kind of surreal stunt series. Not even the influx of famous directors (including a much maligned pass by actress Diane Keaton) could quell the complaints. Still, as one of the many ‘holy grail’ releases that devotees have long hoped for, this is a must own DVD collection – flaws and all.

Other Titles of Interest


All That Jazz – Music Edition


Bob Fosse’s autobiographical deconstruction of the movie musical holds up today as one of the ‘70s last masterpieces, a movie of startling depth and personal exposure. Still, with a previous DVD release already on shelves, this double dip seems like a considered cash grab. With only a few song oriented extras differentiating the two packages, fans should really think twice before indulging in such a misguided marketing ploy.

Charlotte’s Web


Why it took so long to bring this beloved children’s classic back to the big screen – especially after the Oscar nominated success of the similarly themed Babe – is anyone’s guess. While many still prefer the animated version from the ‘70s – featuring a fabulous turn by the late Paul Lynne as Templeton the Rat – this is indeed a wonderfully inventive offering filled with wholesome family fun

Death of the President


Talk about your over hyped non-events. When this mock documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush was announced for inclusion at the Toronto Film Festival, tongues began wagging feverishly on both sides of the political fence. Words like “dangerous” and “treasonous” were tossed about. Then the movie was shown. Terms like “derivative” and “unexceptional” became the norm. Thanks to DVD, you can now decide for yourself.

Silent Partner


No one knew what to expect from this supposedly standard heist flick when it first hit theaters back in 1978. But thanks to magnificent work from Elliot Gould and Christopher Plummer, and some sequences of shocking, over the top violence (including one memorable moment involving a fishtank), this intriguing Canadian effort definitely deserves a wider audience. With its arrival on the digital format, here’s hoping it finds a warm home theater welcome.

S*P*Y*S


Trying to trade on the chemistry displayed between the actors in Robert Altman’s masterful M*A*S*H*, Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland are re-teamed to play secret agents trapped in some standard espionage events. Without the caustic political undercurrent present in the pair’s previous work together, many dismissed this off the mark merriment. But as flat out farcical comedies go, it’s a decent diversion.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Black X-Mas: Unrated Version


Forget about the fact that all commercial critics seem to hate horror. Ignore the reality that Bob Clark’s original is a far more startling experiment in fear. Take this remake for what it is and give Glen Morgan credit for bringing a decidedly personal purview to the motion picture macabre. Then simply sit back and enjoy this sensational old fashioned slasher film. In one of those ‘how quickly they forget’ situations, what would have been celebrated two decades before is now lambasted as dull and dumb.  But Morgan actually makes this update into something far more interesting – a look at familial discord taken to disturbing, disgusting extremes. By giving enigmatic killer Billy a backstory, including a particularly dysfunctional home life, we learn what would cause someone to be so vile…and so villainous. If you ignore the dimensionless nature of the victims and settle in for a good bloodletting, Black X-Mas will not disappoint.

 


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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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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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