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by Bill Gibron

26 May 2009

Harlan Ellison makes me feel guilty for being a writer - or at the very least, for calling myself one. He’s the true scribe, the real deal, the madman Muhammad Ali of letters. Whether it’s sci-fi, or speculative fiction, or imaginative literature (his preference tends to change over time), Ellison is the standard bearer for the genre and the hateful curve breaker, the smartest kid in the class and the smart-assiest man on the planet. He has every right to be arrogant, pissy, and proud. He’s won numerous awards, crafted classic pieces of prose and commentary, lived the life that dozens of lesser men would kill for, and still finds the time to complain almost constantly about the world around him - and with good reason. In a society slowly fading into a cloud of self-inflicted illiteracy, he’s the last intellectually angry man. In essence, he’s reason in a universe racked with conformity, insipidness, and ennui.

So why does he inspire such shame in yours truly? Certainly, it has little to do with his prodigious output or cantankerous cultural perspective. It has nothing to do with the tall tales and legends legitimized as part of his already amazing history. There is no connection to his recent lack of product, since it’s crystal clear the man works when he wants and feels like it. In fact, there is nothing in the stunning, spellbinding documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, that fuels said feelings of inadequacy. No, it’s like standing in the presence of the Pope and recognizing that you will never be as pious, or well-placed, as this idolized man of the cloth. And when you consider this raging Atheist’s religion is words, the lack of faith is infinitely frustrating.

On screen, Ellison is a mesmerist. Director Erik Nelson, best known for his historical TV documentaries and producing Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, does a very smart thing here. In true talking head style, he keeps the camera centered squarely on the author. Even better, in between the ample anecdotes, he has him read from his amazing works. Whether its real life reminiscences of his time spent as a child in Ohio, or allegorical brilliance ala “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, UK author Neil Gaiman says it best when he calls everything Ellison does part of an elaborate “performance art” - with the creation known as ‘Harlan Ellison’ at the very center. There are times when you wonder whether one man can be this confrontational, this candid…this creative. And then there are moments when you wonder why other artists don’t follow his lead.

Nelson moves us through the basics of the Ellison mythology - the brutalized and bullied youth, the teen wanderlust that saw him migrate between school and odd jobs around North America, the college professor who dismissed his talent outright, the move to New York and into legitimate publishing. And all the while, we sit and stare in awe. This is just one man yet his life has contained so much adventure within his carefully measured time on this planet that it’s astounding - and Dreams with Sharp Teeth barely scratches the surface. Of course, there’s much more - some of it discussed (the Star Trek issue, The Oscar debacle), much of it missing. Indeed, the numerous love affairs and personal falling outs he’s had over the decades are swept under the rug and left to biographers and bellyachers to tackle and tame. Yet Nelson does touch on his tenuous legal battles, one of which (against AOL) nearly bankrupted him.

Like any great propagandist, Ellison wants to make sure we get his side of the story - and his side alone. One imagines a ban on naysayers being part of his contractual obligation to participate. Of course, he would probably argue that few if any stepped up to the challenge. Granted, he has outlived many of his staunchest critics, but there are some who will still take him to task. Having them present would have provided a buffer to a few of the more egregious backslappings. Ellison is painted in a troubling light more than once (a standoff with a college kid at M.I.T. combines the best of his curse-laden ranting and post-paternal instincts), but he’s never put in the same critical light as others he lambasts. Sure, Gaiman can give a cursory quip meant to knock him down a notch, or childhood friends can undercut his outcast claims, but Ellison is his own best defense. Instead of using truth, however, he removes slander by merely amplifying the war of words.

This is why the question of his posthumous legacy gets continual play here. Some see Ellison - rightfully so, it must be said - as being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, someone who took genre fiction and “fixed” it, forever yanking it away from the obsessive and giving it to the learned and the literate. His short stories sing with undeniable imagination, and the more formal aspects of his craft transcend teaching to become something akin to magic. But there are those who infer that Ellison could be so much more - more famous, more accepted, more mainstream - if he just didn’t spout off so often. The man himself concedes to some of this critique, arguing that his own personal demands and desire to have things “his way” burns more bridges than it builds. Still, he’s not about to change his well-earned cynic’s spots to suit an ever dimming media demographic.

So the reason I feel guilty about being a writer is all but manifest in Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I will never have this man’s integrity - be it well earned or abjectly coerced. I will never have his talent - his is a muse so rare it rates its own level of attention and wonder. I will never see his type of career arc - he was born at the right time, his rambunctious vitriol a perfect antidote to ‘50s conformity, ‘60s radicalism, ‘70s pop psychology, and ‘80s corporate greed. And when I pass from this planetary realm, I will never be remembered as reverently or justifiably as he. Perhaps I don’t deserve any of it. So I call myself a writer and, for what it’s worth, recommend this remarkable and absorbing cinematic statement. As documentaries go, it’s a brilliant distillation of a figure of almost impossible scope. Here’s hoping it opens Ellison up to a whole new audience - and here’s knowing that they won’t be ready for him.

by Bill Gibron

24 May 2009

Sometimes, you have to wonder what people expect. When they see a title like Dance Flick, and read the name “Wayans” all over the credits, are they really anticipating some kind of comedy classic? Hasn’t history proven out that certain prospects will never payoff they way you want - or more realistically, that said desires will walk right up to said probabilities and shake their uninspired hand outright? If you want greatness, seek out the great. If you don’t care, then don’t despair when something like Coons!: Night of the Bandits of the Night plays out exactly like you think it will. Schlock doesn’t get any more silly then this - and no, the title is not meant as some kind of comic hate crime. We are dealing with killer raccoons here - intelligent diseased vermin with a mind for mayhem…and murder….and ringworm. Leave it to an Ohio film student and his “we think we’re funny” friends to take the man vs. nature film to foolish, amateurish (and quite fun) extremes.

In the small town of Independence, Summer means one thing - drunken college kids and camping - usually in that order. For the newly appointed Park Ranger Danger, this means keeping his eye on the tourists while making the dictatorial Mayor as happy as possible. When a pair of young lovers dies deep in the woods, the initial reaction is panic. When competing “experts” show up to shed light on the attack, the consensus is clear - the duo were killed by an angry, infected raccoon. Naturally, Ranger Danger is not happy about the verdict, especially with a campground overrun by liquored up teenagers. One by one, the youngsters are murdered, more than one rabid ‘coon responsible for the deaths. When an aging hippy and his Arab buddy decided to bomb the animal’s den, it’s up to the virgin Ty Smallwood to save the day - or something like that.

There’s a running joke in Coons! , one that has self-aware irony written all over it. Whenever a character comes into contact with something salacious or scatological, they stop and say “that’s sophomoric and tasteless.” And indeed, at first glance, this giant goofball of a film certainly looks like a combination of juvenilia and calculated crudity. It reeks of the kind of humor that plays best after a couple of dozen beers, a beefy bean burrito fart or two, and a few snorts of airplane glue. But beyond the frat boy ebullience is a spoof rich in character and rife with legitimate laughs. Are there dick jokes and an obsession with homosexuality that’s almost phobic? Sure. Can these first time filmmaking missteps be overlooked in favor of a whacky work of weirdness that turns classic ‘70s titles like Grizzly and Day of the Animals into strokes of genius? You bet.

You see, one of the best things about Coons! is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It knows this material can’t work as legitimate horror, perhaps because of all the ratty taxidermy mistakes standing in for actual monsters. Let’s face it - when you have a molting member of the raccoon family flashing its fake teeth at an actor in some equally false facial hair, nothing you do can can create a sense of dread Instead, what writer/director Travis Irvine manages is a hackneyed homage which can stand on its own as a rightful parody - and he really does succeed. This is especially true when we get the “experts” - local know-it-all doctor, smarty pants government out of towner, psycho religious preacher, and a dull as dishwater hunter - each one drawn in the most cartoonish (and clever) of terms. Their presence takes a film that would have been a well intentioned lark and actually argues for the talent of the man behind (and the men in front of) the lens.

There is a lot of fun here, as well as a lot of incredibly bad BS. After all, musical numbers in the middle of a slapstick farce can either be terrific, or trying. Here, they’re a combination of both. Similarly, once we get the raccoon take-over and the plot to blow up the den, the movie starts to meander. Even at a swift 85 minutes, things tend to trail off as characters talk incessantly and pad out the running time. There is also a significant lack of chick in this major league cinematic sausage factory. There are just too many guys here and not enough gals eager to take of their tops and expose their critical calling cards. It’s not a personal need, mind you. Movies like this need blood and gore (there is some of that), but more importantly, they need bare breasts. Without them, they fail one of the basic b-movie mandates.

Still, it easy to fall in ‘like’ with Irvine’s insane love letter to all things rural and inbred. There’s an inherent sense of adventure here, a joy in creation that’s lacking in a lot of direct to DVD product. And the cast are completely in tune with the needs of the narrative, staying in character just long enough to get their points across before going off on unrehearsed (and frequently hilarious) tangents. Did we need the post-9/11 terrorism stuff? No. How about the obvious bow to African American sensitivity in the form of an overweight black man shocked by the locals use of the title word? Not really. Does the hippy character come in like a satiric salve, trying to infuse the film with an environmental message it never sets up in the first place? Sure. Does the entire thing drip of weekends spent hitting the bong and then storyboarding shots? Hell yes - and in some ways, that’s Coons!: Night of the Bandits of the Night’s major saving grace. Taken too sincerely, this material would melt under the scrutiny of a far more critical eye. Lightened up, it’s a likable little lampoon.

by Bill Gibron

23 May 2009

Familial dysfunction is the very foundation of independent filmmaking. Without it, wannabe auteurs would have to rely on actual imagination and invention to create their wily no budget wonders. By channeling their own Mom, Pop, and various sibling issues, they can easily crank out the crap and never once have to deal with the actual demands of the artform. But the motion picture needs more than whiny crying whelps wondering why their parents never pampered them to succeed. It mandates more than morose takes on the entire brother/sister rivalry routine to present itself properly. Just ask someone who understands this all too well. On first glance, Dad’s Chicken looks the labored offspring of John Waters and David Lynch. But in the more than capable hands of trailer park troubadour Giuseppe Andrews, it becomes a fascinating free verse free-for-all.

Black Jesus just can’t take it any more. He hates his dying wife and his transsexual son - but not for the reasons you think. She won’t let him obsessively cut coupons, and he/she fetishizes guns to the point of distraction. His other daughter is a dope fiend, and his recently deceased father was an out and out pervert. And don’t even bring up autistic child prodigy Hobie. Desperate to play the violin, the partially blind boy spends his days roaming around the city, instrument in hand and toilet paper tube up to his bad eye. When the youthful talent meets European Ernie, it seems like everything will be all right. He coaches the child, and even suggests someone who might be able to teach him a thing or two. In the meantime, Mom and the sexually confused Shamu build a bomb. With Black Jesus out of the house, they intend to avenge the cultural attacks on religion once and for all.

With its oblique view of the American Dream and a demented approach that takes a standard straightforward storyline and scatters it like crematory ashes to the wind, Giuseppe Andrews’ Dad’s Chicken is social satire as insane stream of consciousness. As a statement, it manages to touch on several solid topics - the role of parents in a child’s life, gun control, autism, sexual perversion and predators, fanaticism, disease, aging, death and religion - without ever overstating its obvious points. This is a complex puzzle box of a film, a movie where scenes and situations happen almost at random. It’s only later, when bits of dialogue fall into place and information is revealed that we understand the relationships involved, the problems at hand, and the potential resolutions in place. During the last ten minutes, we are so wound up in fleshing out the enigma that we barely realize that Andrews has turned the whole thing into a thriller.

This is where the Lynch connection becomes vital. Like the celluloid carnival barker who tuned INLAND EMPIRE and Muholland Dr. into ersatz Hitchcock with his knack for suspense, Andrews uses the unanswered questions as a means of making the audience jumpy. It may all seem demented and disconnected, but when European Ernie provides Hobie with a helping hand, we can’t help but feel that something sinister is afoot. A lot of Dad’s Chicken is like that, from the constant references to violence to the last act fervor of our mother and son/trannie fundamentalists. Desperate times call for desperate actions and Andrews is not afraid to add in desperate individuals as well. There isn’t a single settled member of this miserable family. Each one has their own idiosyncrasies and issues, creating a complicated world of deception, disrespect, and the direst of situational straits.

But beyond the basics, Dad’s Chicken is a coldly calculated statement about present life in these jingoistic United States. Created before Barack Obama changed the political landscape with his populist pull of “Change” and “Hope”, this is George Bush’s ‘Amurika’ gone gangrenous. Under the guidance of God, old ladies build bombs, ready to spread their faith via obvious terrorist threats. In this close-minded world, anyone with gender issues must hide the truth, less they be picked on by the public at large. Even hopelessly untalented Hobie is constantly supported by a social structure that no longer tells people they are less than everyone else. Instead, Dad’s Chicken takes oddities and celebrates them as mediocrity. Indeed, it’s one of the few Andrews films that argues that everything in the U.S. of A. is lameness masquerading as eccentricity.

In one of the rare instance where he applies actual directorial flare, we can see what Giuseppe Andrews would be like with unlimited aesthetic freedom. Someone like Christopher Nolan (creator of the masterful Memento) has nothing on this filmmaker’s psychedelic storytelling. The random jumping around can be disconcerting at first, especially when we don’t have time to get to know all the characters. But then things start falling into place and the true passion of this motion picture Picasso comes through. The one clear concept behind Andrews’ approach is that he stays true to the material. He makes the movie calibrate to the people and the circumstances he is working with. When the style needs to be simple, it is. When it needs to copy the crazy, unhinged nature of the individuals involved in the often surreal stories, he simply shoots from the hip and tells logic to take a flying leap.

Like the artist he most clearly resembles, Giuseppe Andrews takes Jean-Luc Godard’s desire to make “everything” cinema and realizes it over and over again. Dad’s Chicken, for all its cogent contemporary edge, is literally linked to the notion of putting a universe of elements in front of the lens and letting the audience make up the movie as they go along. Success derives not from shot selection of a clear sense of narrative drive. Instead, the cerebral wonder of invoking your own meaning of seemingly silly precepts turns celluloid into literature, prose into poetry, meaninglessness into myth, and finally, the miscreant into the masterful. In a world where film was not marginalized as mainstream product marketed by studio suits into perfectly calculated and focus grouped niches, Giuseppe Andrews would be his own New Wave. Instead, he is a cult survivor reinvigorating the true spirit of independent art. Dad’s Chicken explains his lasting importance all too well.

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2009

The romantic effort - literary, cinematic, or otherwise - typically gets a raw deal, and with good reason. The story of boy meeting girl, boy wooing girl, girl accepting boy, boy and girl having fun (and perhaps something more), boy and girl breaking it off and then attempting some kind of reconciliation has been the bread and butter for filmmakers, songwriters, and novelists alike. No matter the twists and turns in the paradigm, the formula stays pretty much the same - and that’s part of the problem. Decades of derivative, similarly styled offerings have taken all the heart out of the genre. Even with the occasional narrative twist, the same old stuff happens to a very familiar group of people. Not in Giuseppe Andrews world, of course. The provocateur of the impoverished has taken the moldy old format and shown all wannabe auteurs how to bring the heart - and the humanity - back to the typical couples skate. In Our Garden is the amazing result.

Daisy is devastated. Her boyfriend recently committed suicide in their “garden” - a loving reference to the beach volleyball court where they first met. Unable to find happiness, she’s lost in a world of borderline insanity. One day, police officer Rick stops by her trailer. He is the one who found her dead lover, and hopes he can make a connection with the grieving gal. Sure enough, they become an item, which irks toupee-wearing Bill to no end. He’s the father of the man who killed himself, and he wants Daisy as well. As the suitors maneuver for her affections, our heroine is confused. She has strong feelings for both of them. Then Rick drops a personal bombshell which violates her ever-present trust issues. As Bill moves in, our former cop turns to the bottle, and then crack cocaine. All he wants is a chance to get back into Daisy’s good graces. But unless something happens to Bill, that seems unlikely.

Leave it to the man who singlehandedly rewrote the rulebook on homemade cinema as art to take one of the most tired, derivative narrative archetypes in all of prose and punk it past the point of recognition. Long rumored to be an unflappable masterpiece, In Our Garden is all that - and much, much more. It’s an elegy to love lost, a sonnet to the simple pleasures of finding someone to share your life with. It’s not afraid of the physical and clearly in touch with the spiritual. With a limited cast that includes the sensational Gayle Wells, the brilliant Bill Nowlin, and the always engaging Walt Dongo, Andrews narrows his scope, the result being something overflowing with universal truths and wholly unique insights. Though his actors frequently do little more than read off intricate litanies to scatology and sin, the words paint painful pictures we usually don’t see in such Moon/June sputum.

For Andrews, the entire process of film is about realism - and not just because he uses the actual residents of a trailer park as his creative company. No, what fuels this fascinating artist is his direct connection to what makes people truly what they are. When Daisy explains what the word “crabs” means to her, we initially balk at the disgusting sexual sleaze. But as the monologue continues, we forget the freak show sentiments and start to see the accurate feelings beneath. Andrews is truly a genius of the written word, his scripts like beat poetry set to the tune of scandalous toilet humor frat rap. He’s dirty, but outwardly so, never avoiding a random call out of body parts and positions to keep his audience engaged and entertained. Then, just as we think he can’t get any more revolting, he twists the material to expose the real human emotions underneath.

It helps that In Our Garden offers three of his best double wide DeNiros. Dongo is always reliable, his hound dog haplessness covered nicely by a desire to be direct and honest. Similarly, Nowlin (even in an obviously inebriated state) spits out his anger in tiny little balls of bristling bile. As the man who helped Andrews become the living legend he is, his presence today is sorely missed. But it’s Ms. Wells who steps up and becomes this film’s levelheaded foundation. Having to carry most of the dialogue herself (especially when her co-stars are too tanked up to talk) and also hampered with carrying the conventional parts of the narrative, she delivers a turn so devastating in its poignancy that it’s hard to believe she is merely mimicking Andrews oddball screenplay. There is real genuineness in her elf-eared effigy, something that many Hollywood romances clearly lack.

By following a recognizable story structure (there is none of the William Burroughs inspired cut and paste editing from previous outings here) and letting the characters develop organically, Andrews turns the maudlin and mushy into something quite meaningful. Even a last act rape-reenactment - a bizarre attempt by Bill to win Daisy’s affections - has a symbolic statement to make. In essence, In Our Garden is about the lasting memories of love lost, love found, and love never meant to be. Daisy is clearly longing for some companionship, but it’s unclear if either Rick or Bill can provide it. They both seem so selfish, so insular in their affections that it’s hard to balance their profane poetics with the truth. It’s only after the inevitable break-up, where Rick descends into a horrific drug-fueled Hell (including a surreal stretch with a couple of friendly dealers) that we can see who truly carried the torch.

By including moments of sexual openness, including full frontal nudity and frank reproductive discussions, In Our Garden becomes a complete deconstruction of the foibles present in interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t shy away from the dealing with all aspects of affairs - the joy and the sorrow, the tenderness and the jealousy. By taking a well honed formula and tweaking its tired tenets, he creates yet another amazing statement in his considered creative canon. For someone so prolific to be so diverse in his talent targets speaks volumes for his continued relevance within the medium. Movies about love are a dime a dozen. In Our Garden takes those sentimentalized coins and actually buys something brave and unique. It’s a great, great film.

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2009

Sex in the cinema is always so clean. Even when it’s given a patina of perversion, it’s still played mostly for mild mainstream enjoyment. No film wants to show the truth about interpersonal pyrotechnics, especially in a wholly realistic and authentic manner. Even XXX pornography cleans up the copulation with actors and actresses who fuel the fantasy of, not the facts about, f*cking. But not Giuseppe Andrews. As the king of uber-contemporary cinema, the man who has made the trailer park the last bastion for true motion picture art, screwing around needs to be dirty, disquieting, uncomfortable, and most of all, hilarious. As part of his Bathrobe Homeschool Box Set, The Date Movie delivers on such soiled, sullied dispositions. It proves that physical contact between human beings is not always pretty. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright disgusting.

Two wannabe ‘gansta’ white boys share a trailer - and a case of squirrel-influenced stomach flu. An old man channels the spirit of a horse known as Mr. Ted and writes a hate-filled tome in the steed’s name. Two meth dealers discover a rat in their lab and one adopts it as his very own pet. A young man must face the fact that his mother is a whore and his father is her pimp. A middle aged man must face the fact that his mother is dying of emphysema and losing her marbles. And what do they all have in common, aside from an addictive need to drink the latest alcohol-laced specialty beverage, Pussy Juice? Why, it’s the unending craving for sex and/or sexual fulfillment - and sometimes, not in the way “normal” people view such biological and physiological desires.

Here it is - the Giuseppe Andrews we’ve all grown to love, the Giuseppe Andrews with a pixie like spring in his cinematic step and a thesaurus of lickety lewd crude talk. This ADD inspired journey into the heart of human darkness, a Eisenstein edited romp across shit, piss, and any other bodily fluid you can think of has little or no narrative logic. As he does with his frequently feverish dream, Andrews sets up a group of compelling creeps and lets us watch as they interact, interject, and interfere with each others battered lives. Every once in a while, the implied action will stop so that someone can go off on a several page rant, complete with risqué commandments and horndog demands. Andrews is best known for these dirty word dialectics, juvenile jousts at reproductive served up as satiric stand-up riffs. That they always work is a testament to his talent both behind the camera and in front of the typewriter.

The main theme here is one of longing and desire. Indeed, what The Date Movie seems to be saying about people is that when they aren’t having sex (and there is little actual aardvarking presented here), they’re thinking about it. They’re obsessed with it, allowing its pleasures and pains to influence their entire life. If you look closely, you can see it in the hip hop hokum of the wannabes, trading barbs with ventriloquist dummies as substitutes for actual conversation. You can definitely see it in the meth heads, a lifetime of cooking and snorting drugs leading them to channel their needs elsewhere. And as usual, a very brave (and very naked) Tyree takes us through the daily ritual of a lonely lunatic who doesn’t mind pleasuring himself to anything (and EVERYTHING) he has around the house.

But Andrews also goes for the throat, showing how sex can ruin relationships and compromise trust. One of the first scenes shows a wannabe arguing with a one night stand over their child producing consummation. Later, a son argues frantically with his father over his mother’s profession. In a classic bit of toilet humor burlesque, Walt Dongo plays a husband who can’t get his wife in the sack. Of course, his nonstop flatulence doesn’t help matters much. And then there are moments of sheer heartbreak, as when Tyree picks up a photo of himself from World War II (an actual image, by the way) and the camera stares endlessly at the young face, fresh and ready to take on the world. The Date Movie is indeed centered on sex, but there are also keen insights into aging, mental wellness, and death to be discovered.

Of course, there are also controversial elements that might make the uninitiated cringe. Andrews loves to provoke, and nothing will get the dander up of pro-PC complainers quicker than his use of the N-word. While never aimed at a minority, there are plenty of times in Date Movie when the epithet is spoken - in jest, in anger, for random reactionary shock value. Similarly, full frontal nudity is present and accounted for, and Tyree is the beneficiary of Andrews imposing lens. Watching a naked octogenarian slap his inert “member” with a sticky toy will not be everyone’s cup of cinematic tea, and even for a seasoned Andrews aficionado, the fetish can be much. But this is moviemaking as reality, authentic glimpses of life along the fringes. If you can’t stand the vile visual heat, then perhaps you should get out of this auteur’s soul kitchen ASAP.

This doesn’t infer, however, that everything in Date Movie is magic. Sometimes, Andrews indulges his muse to the point where it pukes up on everything he is trying to accomplish, and as with many of his more surreal outings, a certain scatological wavelength must be maintained less you find yourself feeling filthy - and completely lost - afterward. But if you peer in between the sleazy seams, if you read between the ludicrous lines of halting human misery, you will discover a film of breathtaking insight and wit. As a roadmap to where he would eventually take his incredible talent, The Date Movie is a Hellsapoppin’ journey along life’s many perverted pathways and over its many diseased potholes. Take it for what it’s worth, and you probably will be offended. Look closer and you might just see the sickening truth staring right back at you. Sex is not all rose petals and orgasms. It’s a horrific human endeavor, and only Giuseppe Andrews has the courage to call it out and complain.

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