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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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Monday, Jul 16, 2007


Hey! How’s it going? Long time, no see. Everything okay? Good. Glad to hear it. Sorry we’ve been away for the last couple of weeks, but when the digital domain can’t be bothered to provide the home video enthusiast anything other than recycled rejects and mindless merchandising, there’s no reason to help in their senseless shill. Indeed, had SE&L decided to struggle on with regular updates of any and all DVD releases, we’d be championing crappy independent horror, oddball double feature combinations, and more than one bottom of the barrel Z-list title. So we sat back and waited – waited for a Tuesday when things weren’t unbridled bilge. And so, here we are again. Granted, there’s still some god awful gunk here (just say no to more mutant mayhem – Wes Craven), but for the most part, 17 July provides a few forgotten gems, including our choice for product du jour:


Ace in the Hole: The Criterion Collection


Billy Wilder often said that he never cared about genre or style. He just made movies of the kind he himself would like to see. This 1951 attack on the Fourth Estate, starring Kirk Douglas as a reporter who turns the story of a man trapped in a mine collapse into the original ‘media circus’, is a perfect example of this creative mantra. Mixing elements of comedy, drama, noir and the thriller, we soon realize that nothing much has changed in the press over the last fifty years. Publicity breeds corruption, the possibility of the spotlight (and the profits that can be generated from same) taking priority over morals, precedence, and life itself. The film alone would warrant an easy DVD decision, but thanks to those practicing preservationists over at Criterion, we get a much better window into what Wilder was aiming for (via a clever commentary and a series of interviews), as well as why the film remains as effective now as it was a half century ago. Apparently, art is timeless. The proof is right here for all to see.

Other Titles of Interest


Factory Girl


The story of Andy Warhol’s Factory – a literal bohemian oasis amid ‘60s Manhattan’s cosmopolitan cool – is, apparently, an elusive entertainment ideal. Several semi-successful films have been made about the various infamous personalities linked to the effete artist, this take on the tragic Edie Sedgwich being one of them.  Surrounded by controversy both during and after production, the results are uneven but intriguing, even if just from a fictional historical perspective.

The Hills Have Eyes 2


Wes Craven needs to have his horror credentials revoked – and we mean NOW! As he continues to whore out his legacy for the almighty dollar (he’s currently directing a remake of his own Shocker), he’s forgotten how to be relevant in the realm of fear. Responsible for the script of this terrible re-quel, the former fright king believes that mutant rapists and bungling army dullards equal stellar scare stuff. In truth, it’s one of the worst movies of 2007.

Okie Noodling


It’s a unique practice, and some say, a culturally significant tradition. In the lakes and rivers of Oklahoma, a distinctive brand of backwoods sportsman practices the time honored art of “noodling” – catching giant catfish with their bare hands. While many do it for food, others merely enjoy the danger and thrill of the kill. A long time cult favorite, DVD will hopefully open up this documentary - and its bizarre practices - to a larger mainstream audience.

Raymond Bernard – Eclipse Series 4


In what seems to be a neverending line of important French filmmakers, this more or less forgotten auteur remains incredibly significant. Helping to formulate the country’s cinema as it emerged from silents into the sound age, this Criterion Collection subdivision release offers two of his most significant works – an anti war epic (Wooden Crosses) and the adaptation of a literary classic (Les Miserables). Unfairly overlooked by scholars, here’s hoping the set jumpstarts his renaissance.

Yo Yo Girl Cop


She’s a kid. She’s a cop. And she uses a common playground toy as her weapon of choice. A revamp of a classic Japanese franchise from the ‘80s, this update boasts a more serious subtext (our heroine must stop student terrorists bent on bringing Japan to the point of anarchy) and amazing action sequences.  And where else but in a film like this would you find a credit for a ‘Yo Yo Director’?


And Now for Something Completely Different
The Happy Hooker Trilogy


For those too young to remember it, the release of Xavier Hollander’s autobiography The Happy Hooker: My Own Story in 1971 was a sensationalized scandal. As a madam and former call girl, the Dutch East Indies born beauty lifted the veil on sex for sale, and argued that pleasure for pay could be safe, erotic and positive. Naturally, the post-free love era wasn’t ready to be pushed that far, and the backlash made her an instant pariah – and highly sought after personality. Soon, her tell-all tome was being made into a film (Lynn Redgrave essayed the role of ecstatic whore), but the tone was tweaked away from significance and more toward kitsch. By the time the two sequels came along – The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (with Joey Heatherton in the lead) and The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood (with Martine Beswick) – the series was nothing but pure camp. Finally available on DVD, these tame artifacts of a bygone era remind us that the subject of human horniness has come a long way in the last three decades – for better and for worse.

 


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Sunday, Jul 15, 2007


Back in the ‘80s, when the War on Drugs was defiantly attempting to rid the US of recreational pharmaceuticals by means both laughable (rock star PSAs???) and outrageous (excessive sentencing guidelines for offenders), First Lady Nancy Reagan came up with the lamest of Prohibition era propositions. Administrations before had preached tolerance (Carter) and rehabilitation (Ford), but the new conservative movement believed that brainwashing, followed by incessant rote repetition, was all the nation’s youth needed to stay on the straight and non-narcotic narrow. Of course, the ‘Just Say No” slogan was a monumental failure, about as successful at stopping teen ‘experimentation’ as abstinence policies effect on pre-marital monkeyshines. While it remains a nice sentiment, the psychological and physiological lure of senses numbing solutions – and the resulting addiction – are just too strong.


Don’t think so? Just ask Tinsel Town. Hopelessly dependant on less and less successful cinematic stances like tre-quels, prequels, and comic book/CGI franchises, the constantly jonesing studios are always looking for new and noxious ways of increasing its strung out bottom line. Since box office returns (always up) and critical responses (consistently down) don’t seem to matter, it’s time for a Greed era intervention. Yet this revisit of the ‘Just Say No’ shout out won’t focus on the already dying trends of J-Horror, gorno, or the gross out comedy. It won’t attack the proclivity toward letting Robin Williams make (and therefore, ruin) every project he wants, or the flummoxing decision to abandon two dimensional animation for more computerized monstrosities. No, this version of the no mas mantra is meant to ward the obviously obsessed suits off their new drug of choice – hiring horribly inappropriate musical icons as potential serious actors.


Case in point – Ms. Beyoncé Knowles. Disney has just announced that it wants to go ahead with a big screen version of its Great White Way success (?) Aida. Written by Elton John and Sir Tim Rice (the team behind the ungodly popular Lion King) the recent surge in the movie musicals has spurred the House of Mouse to bring this former classical opera to mainstream audiences everywhere – and yep, they want Ms. Knowles to star in it. Granted, she’s never helmed an entire project by herself – she has always played second fiddle to other above the marquee names – but the individuals who manage Mickey’s monetary kingdom would like to see the chanteuse vamping it up, ancient Egypt style, before the end of 2008.


Now it has to be said that, as a singer/songwriter/symbol, Jay-Z’s main squeeze is mighty fine indeed. Either solo or as part of her girl power ensemble Destiny’s Child, she’s been ‘crazy’, ‘bootylicious’, and a real ‘survivor’.  Her combination of glamorous good looks, expert media manipulation, and high profile profitability has made her a formidable music biz commodity. Among the many nameless and lookalike ladies of new millennial soul, Beyoncé is the best. She is culturally compliant, easily embraced by black, white, rich, poor, and capable of generating interest beyond her tween/adolescent demographic. So naturally, the hacks over in Hollywood figured she could become a bankable actress, following in a long line of African American singers turned stars like Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and…Mariah Carrey???


Granted, those aren’t the mightiest footsteps to fill. Ross does have an Oscar nomination (for Lady Sings the Blues) and Houston has the commercial success (The Bodyguard made big money), but if you match Ms. Knowles against the canon of these formidable divas, she’d only be a single baby step away from Mariah’s unbelievable blunder (the horrendous Glitter). You see, try as she might, Beyoncé is not an actress. She may indeed be some manner of superstar – a debatable reclassification that has more to do with draw and onscreen presence than pure performance chops – but she’s unqualified at carrying a motion picture by herself, or in conjunction with far more accomplished co-stars. In some ways, she’s like a talent vacuum. Individuals who appear alongside her appear to suddenly suffer from the same lack of effectiveness as their multi-platinum participant.


A good starting point for proving this position remains the first project the wannabe thespian ever attempted – a bizarre revamp of the opus Carmen costarring Mekhi Phifer and Mos Def. Relabeled a “Hip Hopera” to draw in the MTV crowd (it was a production of the one time music video channel), this melodramatic mish mosh of rap and rewritten baroque motifs offers a lightweight and lumbering Ms. Knowles. She’s a vixen as void, a seductress as all snarl and very little substance. Since she’s a product of the post-modern music industry, a business model that values looks and appearance over talent and artistry, she can be excused for all her preening and posing. In fact, when she does that in a five minute TRL clip or interview spot, the demographic goes doughy. But in a movie, where there is more to creating a character than shaking your hips and striking a defiant stance, Beyoncé is inert.


Someone, however, thought differently, since it wasn’t long before our half-baked honey was ruining the reputation of blaxpolitation actresses everywhere with her ludicrously awful turn as Foxxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers tre-quel, Goldmember. Now, the notion that, somehow, Ms. Knowles could match legitimate ghetto goddesses like Tamara Dobson, Teresa Graves, and the biggest, baddest mother of them all, Pam Grier, is laughable. But there she was, horrible afro covering up a lack of gumption and gravitas, trying desperately to be cool and kick ass. Unfortunately, there’s an inherent elegance and overall banal quality that keeps her from being ballsy and bodacious. Instead, Beyoncé frequently comes across as a society matron trying to ‘get down’ with the essential elements of her heritage – and it’s highly embarrassing.


It looked like her equally ineffectual turn in the universally hated Fighting Temptations (she played Lily, a blank as a fart love interest for a slumming Cuba Gooding, Jr.) would finally put a hold on any future acting options for the pop star. Most critics noted that, when she sings, there seems to be some validity to her celluloid status. But ask her to recite dialogue, or express an emotion beyond fashion plate facility and she literally disappears into the entertainment ephemera. Still, for nearly three years, no one considered Ms. Knowles for a leading part. Then, as part of the miserable and misguided Pink Panther remake, she was again forced into the role of romantic lead. Perhaps because she was situated against a decidedly asexual Steve Martin, her lack of onscreen sizzle didn’t matter.


Whatever the case, her performance (or lack thereof) paved the way for what should have been her true breakout success. After all, a woman walking in Diana Ross’ self-righteous shoes would be perfectly typecast as Deena Jones, haughty pop princess of the dynamite ‘70s showstopper Dreamgirls. While many theater fans knew that Effie was the flashier part, the character of Deena has the more substantive narrative impact. The first sign that things weren’t going to play out properly came when rumors started swirling that Beyoncé wanted a powerhouse solo piece on par with the memorable “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going)”. Even though she was no Jennifer Holiday (who owns the song as part of her Tony winning turn), ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson was supposedly so good, it was making the quintessential Queen of Pop jealous.


The next rift came when the movie was released. Buzz built quickly and convincingly, but somewhere along the line, Ms. Knowles was left out of the hype. Ms. Hudson and their male co-starts were pushed for awards (eventually Jennifer and Eddie Murphy would reap trophies) but the leading lady was – surprise, surprise - left out of the critical discussion. Even when Oscar time arrived, and the Best Song category revealed three Dreamgirls tracks in the running, Beyoncé’s lack of convincing passion proved fatal to the material’s overall chances (the film was shut out by Melissa Etheridge’s A Inconvenient Truth track). Not since Madonna mangled Stephen Sondheim did a singer subvert a talent’s chances of victory. At least Mr. Norbit had a reason for losing out on Academy gold.


Now Disney is betting that, somewhere amongst all the journalistic musings and critical pans, that outside of her rock solid turns on the concert stage, Ms. Knowles has what it takes to play the Ethiopian Princess who finds herself a slave in ancient Egypt. The John/Rice show shifts some of the story to the modern era, and many of the classic convolutions that come with opera have been smoothed out for story stifled contemporary audiences. Yet the role of Aida is the lead, something Beyoncé has never had to take on before, and she will be required to port the entire production on those nicely rounded shoulders of hers. It’s not impossible, and this could be the project that finally helps her find the movie muse, but history indicates a definite disaster in the making.


And here’s the worst part of all of this – Beyoncé was never meant to be an actress. She’s been forced into it by a media machine that wants as much cross promotion and multifaceted marketing opportunities as possible. Making matters worse, she is taking away roles from far more talented (and much less noteworthy, unfortunately) women of color. In an arena where roles for minorities are metered out like rations on a lifeboat, to have one uniquely talentless performer monopolizing the discussion is harmful to any real advances. Those who scoff at such suggestions are merely fans, incapable of seeing beyond Beyoncé’s music video iconography. Place her against Angela Bassett or Jada Pinkett Smith and there’s really no comparison. Still, the weak minded over at Uncle Walt’s world are gambling that more audience members buy Ms. Knowles publicity than her paltry silver screen talents.


This is why Disney should just say NO! Since Aida has no real name value beyond the cultured and considered (the musical closed in 2004 after a 1,852 performance run) it will be interesting to see how they sell it. Obviously, the former child of destiny will be a big part of the push, and when the rest of the casting is announced, another bombardment of big names will hit the headlines. But if the House of Mouse learned anything from its pro-PC production of Cinderella (featuring Ms. Knowles Jr. in the form of all but forgotten R&B brat Brandy), it should be that musicians can mess up even the most well intentioned productions. While they may be able to sell a song, they can’t be guaranteed to provide a performance. This ongoing addiction is not doing anyone any good. 


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Saturday, Jul 14, 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: The powerful partnership of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman dissolves, resulting in two groundbreaking grindhouse classics.


The Defilers/ Scum of the Earth



“All you kids…MAKE ME SICK!”


Carl and Jameison are two bored brats who can’t seem to settle into their growing adult responsibilities. While the later would like to get on with his life, the former is fierce in his aggressive anti-social stance. So when the standard kicks – alcohol, cheap dates, hot rodding - just can’t provide the necessary post-adolescent relief, the boys concoct a sure-fire plan of amoral action. They decide to use an abandoned warehouse as their own private sex club. Then, they will kidnap less than willing wenches to be their own personal porn sluts. They will rape and beat them, whip and degrade them, all in the name of aimless, alienated thrills. When they happen upon the demure Jane Collins, a beautiful blond who is eros incarnate, the debauched dudes spin into overdrive. But as the games become more and more violent, Jameison has second thoughts. He doesn’t want to be one of The Defilers anymore, but Carl will stop at nothing – including death – to get his repugnant rocks off.


Meanwhile, little Kim Sherwood is desperate to get into modeling. She hears there are lots of opportunities over at Mr. Harmon’s studio, but when she arrives, she is stunned to find a ‘dirty pictures’ operation. Yep, our photographer is a closet smut peddler, working for the nefarious Mr. Lang, a local mobster. He needs the sexy snapshots to keep his juvenile delinquent picture pushers in available product. At first, Kim acquiesces, believing that she will be protected from any sin or exploitation. Besides, Harmon appears nice enough. But as she gets in deeper, our heroine soon learns that no one is looking out for her best interests, and when she wants to quit, Mr. Lang harangues her into further ruination. Besides, if she doesn’t give in, the hood’s goon squad will step in and show her whose boss. It’s a foul fate worse than death for this inexperienced babe in the woods. When she started, she was just a dumb kid. Now, she’s part of the Scum of the Earth.


If exploitation had a pair of founding fathers, individuals almost exclusively responsible for the fate of the entire film genre, it would be David F. Friedman and his partner in perversion, the amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together, they traipsed through all manner of original grindhouse fodder. They worked within the nudist colony romp and offered up their own take on its offshoot, the nudie cutie. They more or less invented the gonzo gore film with their bold Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red), and formed the foundation for the combination of the carnal and the craven known as the ‘roughie’. Their affiliation ended over an issue fairly typical in the skin and sin business (read; $$$) and by the time the rest of the cinematic artform were catching up with their efforts, the two were off making movies separately.


Friedman had the most immediate success, his 1965’s The Defilers acting as the kind of wanton wake-up call the industry definitely needed. Lewis would go on to explore the outer reaches of the splatter film, eventually turning his back on all things celluloid for a stint as a successful marketing consultant. Still, his 1963 Scum of the Earth stands as a benchmark for the merging of the sexual and the sick. Without this look at sleazy stag photography, other filmmakers (like Friedman find Lee Frost) wouldn’t have envisioned a meshing of the arousing with the atrocious.



The Defilers remains the definitive statement on such subgenres, with the wicked works of mid-‘60s Doris Wishman a very close second. Like a prototypical profiler for future serial killers, this incredibly twisted take on the bored adolescent ideal takes seediness to a whole new level. As our lead lothario, the unbelievably abusive Bryon Mabe actually makes you uncomfortable, what with his mealy-mouthed manhandling and tendency toward misogynistic rants. This is one incredibly cracked dirtbag, a human hormone strung out on his own sense of inconsequential power. Obviously, Friedman felt that the soft and sensual side of sex had been amply explored inside the exploitation arena, and thought that men now wanted to see a more domination-oriented angle.


Always fond of whippings and hostility, he personally wrote the repugnant script, amplifying everything taboo and tawdry for the growing depraved demographic. There are scenes in this otherwise average drama that are awfully distressing, especially for today’s placated PC audiences. Scandinavian sex bomb Mia Jannson is a far too convincing victim – so demoralized and traumatized that you half believe she’s really being beaten. It’s no wonder then that the rumor mill has her leaving a possible film career shortly after appearing here. Far nastier than it is naughty, The Defilers defines the limits producers would go to reach the raincoat crowd. It also signaled the beginning of the end for the entire drive-in dynamic of filmmaking. 



Every finale has to have a starting point, and in retrospect, Scum of the Earth is as good as any. Lewis, never one to ride trends, was already growing tired of the gore fest when he was approached for this project. In his typical hired gun happenstance, the director promised a picture based on a distributor’s demand, and along with pal Friedman, fleshed out a tale centering on the controversial concept of naked photography. With the Supreme Court still a decade away from declaring that nudity was not in and of itself obscene, anyone taking on such a tabloid style exposé of said subject was asking for trouble. That’s why the various photo shoots of topless talent are so incredibly tame by today’s standards. But insinuation could be as crude as necessary, and Scum of the Earth gives great allusion.


There are hints of horror behind the backdrop, suggestions of prostitution, promiscuousness and pain. Even the characters get into the act, with the most famous example being actor Laurence Aberwood’s famous “dirty, dirty!” speech. Forming the basis for Something Weird Video’s standard product title montage, our deranged doughy guy with a mouth full of metal crowns spits out a venomous tirade at a helpless young lass, his assertion that reality is “a fire sale, and (she’s) damaged goods” becoming a readily quotable classic. But within the context of the film, it fits perfectly. Lewis and Friedman were suggesting that anyone who’d disrobe for dollars was obviously suffering from some misguided perception of propriety.


It was a radical stance for exploitation, one destined to destroy the cinematic category from the inside out. For the longest time, flesh filmmakers fought to give their movies a modicum of legitimacy, in hopes it would keep the censors and self-ascribed moralists at bay. But as the variations on vice grew more and more hackneyed, new naughtiness had to be explored. Soon, pseudo-sex movies were merging with every genre conceivable, yet audiences were less than impressed. But when violence was added to the mix, receipts went through the roof. What that says about the average exploitation fan is something for scholars and psychiatrists to debate. But the bottom line doesn’t lie, and all throughout the rest of the ‘60s, the ‘roughie’ became the new pulchritude paradigm. Eventually, the whole concept would mutate into the ‘ghoulie’, and then the ‘grossie’, but by then hardcore was already knocking at the door. While it’s true that Friedman and Lewis didn’t start the whole vice and violence movement, they definitely helped cemented its significance. The Defilers and Scum of the Earth are proof of their endearing importance.


In today’s world of ‘anything for a dollar’ dirtiness, it seems like girls AND guys will willingly degrade themselves for a buck. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fanbase for it – post-modern smut peddlers simply assume that there is. But back in exploitation’s heyday, producers actually catered to the nauseating needs of their very vocal clientele. One need look no further than the roughie, and its premiere examples of The Defilers/Scum of the Earth to support such sentiments.


 


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Friday, Jul 13, 2007


Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.


Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.


All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.


Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.


This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.


Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.


By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.


And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.


 


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