Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Jan 30, 2008


Kevin Smith can talk. Anyone who’s seen him in interviews or watching his Evening with… series knows this. The man is a motor mouth, a non-stop gob smacker who believes in the power of words and the consistent flow of same. And the best part about it is, he’s inherently interesting. He’s a natural storyteller, a man who can measure out the facts of a situation in a way that draws you in and keeps your attention, even if you could care less about what he’s actually talking about. It’s a skill that’s translated well to his work in film. While many may question his competency behind a camera, no one can deny the clever dialogue and pre-Tarantino/Cody conversations he’s been responsible for.


So it should come as no surprise that over the last year or so, Smith has teamed up with production pal Scott Mosier to present SModcast, one of ITunes most popular downloads. Deriving its name from the participants initials (Smith/Mosier Podcast) and using the format for a weekly free form discussion of whatever strikes their fancy, it’s typically one of the best hours one can spend alone with their favorite MP3 device.  With the one year anniversary of the project coming up (the first SModcast arrived online on 8 February, 2007), SE&L wants to celebrate and look back at some of the highlights from the 40 plus installments. In doing so, the reasons for Smith and Mosier’s success can be easily understood.


First and foremost, the guys don’t shy away from popular or pandering subject matter. Smut sites like PornTube/Red Tube should actually send these guys a finder’s fee for the amount of traffic they drive to the deviant side of the ‘net. It’s not for sexual gratification or gratuity, though. Sure, there are discussions about hardcore and its ‘self-satisfaction’ facets, but Smith is genuinely intrigued by the fetish side of filth, and will go into long dissections of incredibly nasty XXX material - and make it funny and insightful as well. Mosier is more like the moderator, guiding the subject (no matter how sordid) with questions and queries meant to keep the audience from thinking that sex is the center of these filmmakers’ lives. Yet he too can have his prurient side. 


Hot button political issues are also an occasional source of in-depth analysis. Back in December, Smith felt some major audience bite back when he addressed race - more specifically, the lack of epithets geared toward whites. During the back and forth, he used several derogatory terms (for informational purposes, only) to describe blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other ethnicities. The next week, he began the broadcast by commenting on the negative email and forum posts he got, recognizing that many failed to get the big picture point. This happens frequently during a SModcast. While he is talking to the general public, and his View Askew aware fanbase, Smith can be very insular. During a near two hour Christmas edition, Conan the Barbarian was deconstructed in such detail that John Milius must have found himself embarrassed over the detailed attention.


This is part of any podcast’s fatal flaw - that is, what the presenter finds intriguing or interesting may just bore the mainstream to death. But Smith seems acutely aware of that fact, and rarely lets the subject get so sidetracked. And he’s not afraid to take a stand. After reading about a particularly nasty case of pedophilia, our host was adamant that the criminal suffer a horrendous bodily penalty (something about the man’s testicles and a cleaver). Even when Mosier tried to step in and restrain his response, Smith was relentless. That’s a good word to describe SModcast. No matter the topic being bandied about, the show will try its damnedest to canvas all the angles.


Other themes include Smith’s ongoing battle of the bulge (the dude has a SERIOUS self esteem issue regarding his weight), Mosier’s love of Harry Potter and everything about the J.K. Rowling universe, post-marital sex, and the traffic in California (New Jersey-ite Smith relocated a while back). Every once in a while, the filmmaker and producer will actually talk shop. Currently in production on the Seth Rogen/Elizabeth Banks vehicle Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith will chat about casting and location shooting, while Mosier stresses the issues of making low budget films as compared to the rest of the movie mainstream. We also heard horror stories about past productions, as well as anecdotes about working in the business called show.


This usually leads to a lot of name dropping, and some wonderful yarns. Smith and Mosier still rib buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for their consistent failure to thank them during their Good Will Hunting awards run (the guys co-executive produced the Oscar winner). When it was announced that Jason Lee was going to make Underdog and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the company cast member (he’s appeared in almost every Smith project aside from the original Clerks) got some slightly less than good natured ribbing. Mosier occasional drops out to travel or take care of business. During these occasions, Smith calls on old buddies from his days in Jersey. Perhaps the best known is the Jay to his Silent Bob, the always evocative Jason Mewes. Their time together can be a treat.



Yet it’s Smith, and his wonderfully witty personality meshed with a true talent for working the vocabulary that makes SModcast into a must-subscribe stalwart of the fledgling medium. Whereas most Pod people fail to understand that rambling does not equal entertainment, or personal bias and perspective do not lead to universal acceptance, this is one of the few insiders whose ideas actually play perfectly to the general public at large. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Smith’s films, or find his constant referencing to his sex life with his wife to be much ado about bluffing, you can’t deny the presence and personality coming out of the headphones. It’s a rare gift, and a talent few can learn, let alone possess.


But Kevin Smith has it, and that’s why SModcast is so consistently intriguing. Where else would you hear a famous filmmaker discuss the problems of getting his ideas greenlit, where a friend will ruminate on the fact that his heroin addiction probably led to the loss of his teeth? Who else would make purposefully homophobic remarks about his best friend’s “man trips” to England and Europe? Where else can you hear grown men discuss what they would and would not glean through feces for, or life as the person in charge of casting porn films? Since the holidays, and the beginning of production on Zack and Miri, the regularity of the episodes has been thrown off. But here’s hoping that, once the movie hits the can, the dynamic duo will return to their weekly one-on-ones. Kevin Smith sure can yak, and SModcast is the perfect place to hear him do what he does best.   


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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008


Over the last three days, SE&L has had the opportunity to champion the current canon of Giuseppe Andrews. We’ve looked at the amazing Americano Trilogy, touched on the brilliance that is the pro-animal Garbanzo Gas, and found ourselves unexpectedly moved by the sensitive short Cat Piss. But this is just the tip of the talent iceberg when it comes to the new voice in American cinema. Andrews has actually been making films for years - inconsistent reports put his first efforts as far back as 1999. The date doesn’t matter really. What’s important is the output - dozens of deranged delights that continue to redefine the focus of film and the ability for anyone with talent and moxie to make it. Many consider these works his “mainstream” efforts, since they are readily available to the public via standard DVD distributors. 


Of course, there are some maddeningly MIA titles. The long dormant Bathroom Home School Box Set from long time supporter Troma has promised intriguing titles like In Our Garden, Dad’s Chicken, Air Conditioning, Monkey, and The Date Movie. Even more frustratingly, while this special section was being prepared, Andrews’ own website announced the addition of another new film, Orzo.  So it’s almost impossible to keep up with this man’s amazing productivity. Still, over the course of the last five years, the staff at SE&L has been lucky enough to see ten other Andrews’ opuses, films so ingenious and inspiring that they actually forecast the future of the artform. In this last day discussion of the man and his muse, we will provide a brief overview of each outstanding title. Together with the previous blog pieces, both the knowledgeable and the newbie should have a fine frame of reference to begin their own Andrews’ reevaluation. Let’s being with:


Trailer Town


Where the Andrews obsession started for many. This absolutely mesmerizing movie begins with a bang and continues down a cockeyed course of craziness until its fatalistic ending with its “I’m mad, drunk, depraved and dirty as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” philosophy. Forcing arcane authenticity to the point of inventive retardation and trading cinema vérité for skin flick straightforwardness, it’s a masterpiece. Buried somewhere in the piss-soaked liquor stained souls of these decomposing denizens lives the true spirit of America, not quite dead but pretty damn close to needing life support. Featuring the fantastic Bill Nolin, Andrews’ first true superstar.




Period Piece


Everything about Period Piece is a philosophical missive about misinterpreting libido for love, pain for personal connection, and desire for dreams. There is much more here than a gross out comedy about old people talking filthy, or snuggling with dead baby pigs. As its title suggests, Period Piece is a statement about the world, today. In our era of mass marketed sex, the influence of XXX material is like an infection. Some people are drowning in the disease, and these are the men that Andrews wants to champion. After all, their needs are as valid as anyone else’s, they’re just not as pretty…or profound…or proper.




Touch Me in the Morning


Touch Me in the Morning is like a series of sharp stabs in the solar plexus, a ennui-reducing wake-up call for anyone who thinks Miramax is the cutting edge of Indie art. Uproariously funny, occasionally cruel, and inventive to a fetid fault, this initial volley in the Andrews career vault is simply outstanding. There is no other moviemaker, past or present, doing what he is doing in the newly minted digital domain. There is no pretense in his work, no attempt to tweak the world into a weird, wacky package. It’s all about people, places, and the public perspective of each.




Dribble (Found on the Best of Tromadance DVD Volume 3)


If anything, this satisfying short film matches the previous masterpieces Andrews has crafted brave beat for beat. He offers more of a narrative here, taking his main character through the trials and tribulations of being a has-been sports hero. There are scenes so profound they literally boggle the mind. There are moments so perverted you feel dirty overhearing them. Andrews loves the language of filth, and he uses words and images in carefully crafted couplets of corruption, blending the brash with the brazen and the bawdy to practically revolutionize onscreen dialogue. One of the man’s best efforts, bar none.




Who Flung Po? (Found on the Trailer Town DVD)


This seems like the film John Waters was trying to make with Polyester. Groovy, grotesque and giggle inducing, this is a funnier, more fetid take on the trailer park people Giuseppe uses to populate his films. Some of the same old faces are present in this tale of pornography and parenthood and there are several classically comic sequences. More fully realized than Trailer Town (again proving that if said film had a viable narrative, the entire enterprise would have skyrocketed into the realm of near perfect prurient parable) Who Flung Poo? is a laugh riot filled with great repeatable lines, a taboo busting storyline and some wonderfully weird characters.




Wiggly (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Using the theme of difficult decisions, Wiggly is wonderfully weird. Vietnam Ron is the star here, playing Andrews’s dad, and as usual, he is amazing - a creepy combination of Charles Manson and scarred skeleton. He shouts his lines with a demented glee that is marvelously manic. The usual suspects also turn up throughout the film, and when we get to the fated finale, Andrews handles the meaningful moment perfectly. A great little diversion.




Ants (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Our friendly freaked out Ron is back again, essaying the role of a mentally unstable filmmaker melting down at the merest suggestion that something he’s done doesn’t fit his ant movie’s mandates. The standout scene, however, has Andrews randomly rollerblading while an original song about the sport plays in the background. It is both ethereal and engaging, as is this entire short.




The Laundry Room (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Perhaps the most “mundane” of Andrews’s films, this feels like two ideas crammed together. The mass-murdering marauder (our Wiggly and Ants star Ron once again) is faultlessly frightening, but there is a strange interlude where an ancillary character goes into a patented Andrews’s X-rated rap that feels out of place. While very entertaining, it’s not a true testament to this auteur’s abilities.




Jacuzzi Rooms (Found on the Period Piece DVD)


Nothing more than a simple set up – four of Andrews’ company getting smashed in a seedy hotel room – this improvised look at men out to party is strangely spellbinding. There are the typical taunts about penis size and sexual prowess, and with liquor involved, things soon turn violent. You can tell that Andrews stopped the drunken antics about halfway through and delivered typed pages filled with poems and elegies to keep the cast coherent. Such a scripted strategy really doesn’t help. If Period Piece is a representation and rejection of sex, then Jacuzzi Rooms is a debauched denunciation of booze.




Okie Dokie


A terrifying testament to the power of love, laced with farts and a fatalistic view of interpersonal relationships, Okie Dokie argues for the continued genius of this maverick moviemaker. Part personal ad come to life, part dialectic on the disconnect between men and women, it picks up where Piece left off, and ties together the various thematic ideals in the other offerings of his oeuvre, specifically Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town. Featuring the standard Andrews repertory company, Dokie uses interweaving stories of companionship created and relationships torn asunder to literally redefine the way in which we view romance, lust, depression, and death.

 


 


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Sunday, Jan 13, 2008


Has there ever been a case where such a seismic cinematic shift has occurred in such a surreal, almost otherworldly setting? Who could have imagined that the very fabric of film could be disassembled and stitched back together within the retired/repatriated citizenry of a trailer park? Is it at all conceivable that an actor, best noted for his work in genre films like Independence Day and Cabin Fever, would end up being the Neo-No-New Wave genius of his generation, the voice of the so-called bridesmaid, never the bride, digital revolution? The answer to these and a myriad of similar motion picture predicaments arrives in the form of musician/madman/monarch Giuseppe Andrews. Long an icon for those who appreciate his outsider oeuvre, the 28 year old auteur has amassed a creative catalog so important that it’s only a matter of time before he’s declared the most important filmmaker of the last decade.


For this novel real-realist, this Godard a go-go, the whole world is a soundstage. No subject is too scatological or scandalous, no actor to amateurish or aged. His is a universe where septuagenarian sex is as prevalent as vacationing cows, where silly songs about love and bananas become the perfect panacea for individual aches and pains. Initially supported by Troma (who continues to promise a bountiful box set of the man’s work), but now forging a aesthetic path all his own (via the website giuseppeandrews.net), Andrews is angling to prove that art can be found - and better yet, formed - out of the most unusual, mundane, and downright degrading elements of society. At the same time, he is restoring dignity to a marginalized group of people who’ve long since lost touch with the rest of the communal countenance. 


By now, the background is legendary. Drafting insanely intricate scripts filled with curse words and outrageously erotic innuendo, Andrews would seek out willing participants in his local trailer park (where he himself lived) and videotape them reading his words. Sans much action and very little conversational context, these specifically designed dialogues became treatises on disenfranchisement and depression. Highlighted initially by the amazing cantankerousness of Bill Nolan, these first films were part of something that should be subtitled “the last angry old man” movement. Blue, brave, and undeniably ballsy, Andrews’ cinematic statements avoided the stock elements we’ve come to expect from depictions of the public periphery. Instead, he simply made his characters back into what they originally were - real men and women.



Like the famed filmmakers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Andrews ignored the standards of regular motion pictures to find a new means of expression. He concocted elaborate scores filled with his own amazing music, tunes that took the inert dramatics they supplemented and turned them into a sublime symphony of the human spirit. He used nudity as an equalizing, offered racism and the reactionary as part of both the problem and the solution. In Andrews’ view, white could play black, old could act young, and the most down and out of his complex company could become pure poetic pop stars. Nolan was the first of these found icons. The remarkable Vietnam Ron, the always evocative Tyree, and new sensation Elaine Bongos soon followed. They never come across as pawns, however. While part of Andrews’ plan, he keeps them real, and recognizable, no matter the dreamlike scenarios involved.


That’s part of the joy in an Andrews’ film - and its part of the reason to champion his continued output. As he’s aged, as his work has gone from straightforward script reading to more character-based interaction, the writer/director has elevated his game. He’s moved beyond the walls of those junked double-wides and RVs to hotel rooms and sunny backyards. His heart remains locked in the marginalized and underappreciated, but he’s willing to experiment with his unfathomable formula, instead trying to connect his cast in ways both weird and world-weary. Some may see the senior citizen nakedness, the hints at old folk’s homosexuality, the implied misuse of personal problems and borderline dementia and start screaming for social services. But there is no exploitation in Andrews. Instead, there is only admiration - even reverence - for what these noble exiles stand for.



More importantly, he’s shaking up cinema. He’s taking the tired blockbuster high concept crap that gets hurled out of Hollywood faster than a fame whore on TMZ and removes its over-processed shell. Even better, he’s triumphantly outed the self-indulgent dung that purports to be independent film by showing the shoe-gazing novices what real free thinking cinema is all about. He is literally rewriting the rules, doing what predecessors like Godard, Truffaut, and Cabrol did, and yet he’s found a decidedly American bent to the debunking. By using the trailer park, the last bastion of post-colonial wanderlust, he’s merged the symbolic with the substandard, the non-redneck version of liberated living combined with the typical tawdriness one would find in the slicker suburbs.


He is a true social commentator, a man making the most of what celebrity and found artistry can contain. While continuing to maintain his status as a Tinsel Town talent (he was recently seen in the excellent experimental film from pal/supporter Adam Rifkin, Look), he maintains a staunch personal work ethic. Over the last year or so, he’s release several sensational homemade CDs (all are recommended, as Andrews is a very, very talented songwriter and musician) and he’s used newfound friends Miles Dougal, Wally Lavern, Sir George Bigfoot, and Ed to further flesh out his freakiness. Perhaps most importantly, gal pal/significant other Marybeth Spychalski provides a kind of simpatico muse to make the madness go down soft and easy. Her work in the Americano Trilogy alone makes her the Bardot to Andrews’ jaunty Jean -Luc.



Over the next three days, Short Ends and Leader will be celebrating the unique vision of this equally idiosyncratic artist by getting fans and the unfamiliar up to date with the latest Andrews offerings. We will dissect the Short Cuts like Americano, explain the ‘Meat is Murder’ slant of the sensational Garbanzo Gas, uncover the filmmakers most heartfelt examination of the trailer park ever (the 17 minute masterwork Cat Piss), and revisit as much of the man’s canon as possible, including a countdown of past opuses and a look at what is waiting in the wings. Along the way, we will ascertain hidden gems, joke about the filmmaker’s fashion sense, and wonder what lycanthropy, icantthankyouenough.com, and a wind up sex novelty have to do with this awkward American life.



Still, talking about the work of Giuseppe Andrews does not do this masterful moviemaker justice. Instead, his films need to be experienced and savored, studied like an archeological find from the past and positioned as the powerful new voice of a raw, futuristic, and subversive cinema. When established filmmakers like Coppola and Tarantino argued that technology would traverse a new creative manner, it is Andrews who they were obviously referring to. While others are trying to tame the digital realm, making it mimic the very establishment stance they should be avoiding, efforts like Trailer Town and Touch Me in the Morning are raging against the machine - and winning. When the wave has finally crested and broken, a lot of time wasting wannabes will be washed away. But Andrews will remain standing. It’s how any true innovator usually winds up.


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Monday, Jan 7, 2008



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 time out: It’s a Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, World



When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.


Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.


Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.


Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).


Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]


But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.


And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.


If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.


Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.


Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.


Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.


Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.


Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.


Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.


The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.


Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.


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Sunday, Dec 16, 2007


Only time will tell. It’s been very helpful to other struggling scary movies. When it was first released in 1974, most critics considered Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be the most disgusting, debased effort in the history of the shock genre. Today, a copy of the film sits in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. When Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead hit the Cineplex, a positive blurb from horror master Stephen King couldn’t keep the splatter fest from ending up on many writer’s year end “Worst” lists. Now, it’s seen as a powerful and effective chiller. So there’s hope for Rob Zombie yet. Upon its arrival in theaters this past August, many despised his intriguing remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher flick, Halloween. Here’s hoping that a few years from now, when the controversy has passed and new eyes have viewed this exceptional effort, the film and its maker will get the respect and reevaluation they so richly deserve.


It wasn’t an easy choice for the rock star turned filmmaker to make, initially. After two very difficult and very different self-styled films (the average House of 1000 Corpses and the amazing exploitation update The Devil’s Rejects), taking on the myth of Michael Myers was bound to get more than a few geeks’ goats. After all, in a post-Internet world where everyone’s an expert of cinema, tampering with the genius of Carpenter’s creation seemed ludicrous. No matter that the Michael Bay produced Chainsaw update ended up being something to celebrate, there was a metaphysical quality about this seemingly unnecessary revamp that had webheads ready to tussle. And when early script reviews foamed over too much backstory and not enough slice and dice, the worst fears of the fans were apparently about to be realized.


So where, exactly, was the subterfuge? Maybe it was the release date. After all, who offers a blood-filled terror title in the middle of summer? It could also be the continued marginalization of Zombie. While a few support his work behind the camera, there are others who hate the very notion that he’s even allowed to make movies. There’s the standard anticipation to reality ratio, a slippery sliding scale that measures viewer expectation against the usually crashing facts of a film. And then there’s an odd “X” factor, a kind of mob mentality that works like the juvenile piling on from the days of the old school yard. It seemed like, once the negativity began, critics came out of the woodwork to belittle and demean this film. Even those who never sully their synapses with a genre effort took time out of their otherwise busy screening schedule to rip the remake.


Yet all this antagonism fails to convey the aesthetic truth - Halloween 2007 is a great film. It’s the ballsy byproduct of a horror fan who ‘gets’ the concept of cinematic fear. While having to fill some mighty elephantine shoes, Zombie established his worth as a director of imaginative skill, and by bucking the trend toward defanging an original via a pointless remake, he proved that a new vision - especially a bold and bloody one - can countermand any artistic apprehensions. Still, the aura surrounding this breakthrough effort is confused and cold at best. It will take time to heal it’s damaged import. The rehabilitation of this movie can begin with the 18 December release of the essential two disc ‘unrated’ DVD. It argues for one man’s persistence in light of the numerous needs of a mainstream motion picture (and the studio supporting it).

If you don’t know the premise – and Zombie messes with it enough to warrant repetition – here’s how Michael Myers becomes a maniac. As a kid, young Michael is abused. His horrid stepdad undermines him emotionally, and his mother withholds love as part of her lousy lifestyle coping skills. He is also picked on at school, teased for his mom’s career choice (she’s an advertised stripper at a local dive), and the resulting bullying and bad home life have driven him to a very dark place. He kills his pets, and has frequent violent outbursts. One Halloween, he snaps, and the result is a half dozen corpses. Hospitalized under the care of Dr. Loomis, our jaundiced juvenile doesn’t comprehend the gravity of his actions. After another murderous attack, he turns silent for the next 15 years. On the eve of his prior atrocities, Michael escapes from the mental hospital. With one goal on his mind, and Loomis hot on his trail, he intends to make everyone pay for what they have done to him.


In his full length audio commentary, Zombie addresses all the issues that gave purists pause. He defends his use of backstory, explains the way actors gravitate toward their own interpretations of events, and rallies around the archetypes that make up standard scary movie mythos. It’s the DVD equivalent of a mea culpa combined with an “I told you so.” One thing is clear in this conversation - Zombie completely understands what he’s done. He too is an addict to the genre he works in, and wants to be as faithful to the demands of the horror film as anyone working in the category. Unfortunately, the wavelength he’s vibrating on clashes with the mindset of minions who believe fright got its bearings during the direct to video variables of the 1980s…and it’s a volatile cocktail that just doesn’t mix.


There’s also a second disc loaded with deleted scenes, an alternative ending, a three part look at how the movie was made, interviews with the cast and crew, and a featurette focusing on Zombie’s decision to use and the movie’s obsession with masks. One of the main sticking points for critics was the notion that Michael Myers, as a famed spree killer, has a background seemingly torn from an FBI primer on behavioral dysfunction. Yet in this piece, we discover a much deeper psychological stance. In many ways, the masks represent the link between the character as an angry child and what he will become as a psychotic stalker adult.


All this context argues for a movie much more complicated than initial reviews indicated. While comedy is always gauged on its ability to make audiences laugh, horror suffers from a similar kneejerk acumen - that being, if it doesn’t make you shiver, it’s somehow worthless. However, in a post-millennial world, where everyday existence bears out a palpable level of terror, it’s hard to create genuine dread. Reverence to a film type can be just as important as delivering the mandatory mannerisms. In the case of Halloween, we get a dimensional character study where emotions battle the eerie for total shocker dominance. That both elements exist, side by side, remains one of Zombie’s - and his film’s - greatest assets. 


With the focus on Michael as a young boy, and the obvious initial sequences that ask us to sympathize with his sickening psycho-in-training, Zombie is out to, of all things, humanize this assassin. Not to apologize for him, but merely explain. By turning him into a flesh and blood person, we’re better prepared for the senseless mayhem to follow. It’s hard to describe how effective the first act is. While he’s definitely doing nothing more than a hundred profilers and their explanations regarding the grotesque groundwork that predicts future slaughter, Zombie gets us to experience, and better yet, recognize, why these elements result in a desire for death.


At its core, this new version of Halloween focuses on those most primal of emotions – rage and fear. The characters here are not smart aleck a-holes scoffing as knives are brandished at their drunk and debauched faces. Instead, Zombie really emphasizes the inherent terror. Individuals plead and panic. They fight back in fits of blind horror and suffer in ways that are more realistic and repulsive than some showy stunt special effect. This is a very bloody and brutal film, but Zombie never goes for gratuity. Instead, it’s all a matter of elucidating and expressing how fright fuels a human’s instinctual desire to live. Conversely, Halloween is also heavy with anger. This is a mad movie, a narrative soaked in the infinite ire of a powerless persona seeking security – and some self-serving revenge – from a rotten, regressive existence. Michael is an abomination because he can only be satisfied by suffering.


At this point, it needs to be pointed out that the acting here is superb, with performances that really sell the entire sordid storyline. Oddly enough, Malcolm McDowell is one of the weaker links. He’s far from bad, but his Dr. Loomis is not given much to do except act as a catalyst for the last act police hunt. The addition of scenes in this “unrated director’s cut” adds more heft to his onscreen persona. On the other hand, the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, finally emerges from under her husband’s nepotistic shadow to give a wonderful turn as Michael’s messed up mom. There’s a tenderness and a tentativeness in how she interacts with her son that’s both horrifying and heartbreaking.


As the young killer, Daeg Faerch is fascinating. He does a great job of precariously balancing his underage demon between kid and killer concepts, and Scout Taylor-Compton is fine as Laurie “Scream Queen” Strode. Perhaps the biggest revelation among many is former Halloween heroine Danielle Harris. When she was younger, she played the original Michael’s niece, as part of the fourth and fifth installments of the franchise. Now, she is Annie Bracket, and her interaction with the new slayer is sensational. It’s a brave, bravura effort.


Still, upon reflection, it’s easy to see why people didn’t like this confrontational film, why one should feel sorry for Zombie. He was really lost in a no-win situation. On the one hand, anyone who believed Carpenter was something more than a joyful journeyman working out his Hitchcock fascinations with this 1978 low budget experiment obviously would detest the fact that his most famous early film received the crass commercial Tinsel Town treatment. They were destined to hate the results no matter how good or bad. On the other hand, there are the know-it-all members of fear nation whose endless hours in front of a VCR, absorbing every thriller from here to Helsinki, lend them the false credibility that only obsession can validate. Since they are superior in their informed (if insular) opinion, they have the implied right to ridicule this filmmaker and the man behind the mask.


In both cases, each group is missing the bigger picture. In the first film, John Carpenter was concentrating on the citizenry of Haddonfield. Michael was a monster – the real bogeyman – and for them, his reemergence was a question of survival. In Halloween circa 2007, Rob Zombie decided to focus on the fiend. As with most senseless crime, the victims are important, but not iconic. It’s the making of a murderer and the consequences of his descent into unfettered madness that certify its status as a classic. It also formed the foundation for one of the smartest, most shattering horror films ever. Unfortunately, few can see that now. It will take time for the truth to emerge - and when it does, Zombie’s efforts will finally be justified. Better late than never.


 


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