Reading Jimmy McDonough’s biography of the exploitation filmmaker Andy Milligan (1929-1991) is an appalling experience. With few exceptions, the individuals who occupy its pages lack the ability to command the readers’ sympathy. So abominable is their behavior that reading about them frequently makes one feel like eyeballing at a car wreck. At the same time, mind-numbing as the experience can be, I have to recommend The Ghastly One as one of the most heart-breaking exercises in empathy and affection on the part of a writer for his subject that I can recall. Few individuals receive the biographer they deserve, yet Andy Milligan has found in Jimmy McDonough a biographer who has invested himself whole-heartedly in making sense of a violent and abusive life. McDonough knew Milligan as a friend, not simply a subject, and cared for him as he died from AIDS. If he could not prevent his death, what he tells us about Milligan in The Ghastly One alleviates his long-standing reputation as nothing more than one of the most inept and unappealing directors of exploitation film.
Sado-masochist, racist, and misogynist: these attributes about Andy Milligan do not compel one to want to know more about his life, let alone explore the complex of circumstances that led him to assert “I go out of my way to be nasty to see what people are made of.” His twenty-nine movies, produced between 1965 and 1988, are absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel. Made for bare-bones budgets that ranged from $8,000 to $30,000, they sorely test the sensibilities of even the most dedicated trash film fanatic. As McDonough states,
The Ghastly One. the Sex-gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan
“Andy slapped his movies together with nary a thought for pacing, with dialogue that sounds like it was recorded through a tin can, and stories that suffer from holes you drive a truck through. ... When Andy’s movies are bad, there’s nothing -nothing
- worse. If one looks at them with expectations of a ‘real’ movie - or the kind of velvet painting-bad thrills associated with many exploitation movies - one will be frustrated. But scratch the dirty surface of Milligan’s pictures and a very personal kind of poison seeps out of every frame.”
Pigeon-holed with titles like The Degenerates,The Filthy Five, and Bloodthirsty Butchers, the universe they depict is described by McDonough as one of incessant hatred and turmoil. Oppression is omnipresent. The family unit in particular is a cesspool of vindictive manipulation on all levels, and maternal figures are, without exception, harridans of the highest order. Dialogue is not delivered; it is spewed, even spit at other characters. Few of these individuals survive to the end of the stories. Even those figures for which Milligan expresses some minimal empathy - the physically impaired or the psychically damaged - perish as well. Despite being a sympathetic viewer, McDonough insinuates that you might want to take a shower or perform whatever ritual seemed appropriate to alleviate the pall after watching one of Milligan’s films.
For all the ramshackle nature of his material, Andy Milligan possessed creditable artistic sensibilities and played a influential role in the work performed at the Café Cino, one of the most significant off-off Broadway performance spaces in the 1960s. Run by impresario Joe Cino, it became the preeminent outlet for innovative theatre in New York City. The careers of playwrights Lanford Wilson and John Guare among others took shape there. Unimpeded experimentation was welcomed, both on- and off-stage. Joe Cino said of his establishment, “No matter what problems you have, in this room you’re always protected.” That permission for license had both its benefits and deficits. It led to years of performances that broke new ground in writing, direction and production. It also encouraged a proclivity on the part of many Café regulars to indulge in self-destructive excess. All manner of drugs and sexual behavior of the most debasing kind took root, particularly after Cino became addicted to amphetamines and acid. His descent into addiction and his attraction to unsavory companions ended with his suicide in 1967.
Andy Milligan initiated his directorial career at Café Cino and inaugurated practices that would continue throughout his career. He was consistently drawn to plays with an intense emotional subject, particularly those that portrayed interpersonal relationships as predatory and abusive in the extreme. Jean Genet was one of his favorites, and his staging of The Maids and Deathwatch delivered Genet’s dialogue at a fevered pace. Milligan heightened any physical violence, even the threat of it, beyond simple dramatic convention. He induced his actors not simply to mimic, but to enact the behavior for real. People got beaten, bruised and traumatized in the process. He drove his female cast members, in particular, to the brink of emotional collapse. Milligan seemed to relish those moments when their characters flew off the handle. Some people were riveted by the results. Others fled the room. Café Cino operated on a shoestring budget and necessitated that those who worked there make due with the most minimal of materials. Milligan rose to the challenge and, throughout the rest of his career, remained committed to the threadbare almost as a matter of principle. No one who collaborated with him could conceive of his operating even under the most moderate of circumstances.
When Milligan moved on from the stage to the screen, he began by filming a landmark piece of gay cinema, Vapors, in 1965. It depicted the abject circumstances of a denizen of the bathhouses and gained some attention for its use of male nudity and no-holds-barred depiction of gay men. Opportunities to do other venturesome work proved out of the question, and Milligan turned to the bargain basement world of the exploitation film in order to continue to make pictures. McDonough provides detailed information about the producers and theater owners in New York City who dominated this domain, an unsavory bunch who thought of the bottom line alone and therefore gravitated to individuals like Milligan who would work for next to nothing. Paradoxically, however, for all his hatred of these individuals, Milligan thrived in the squalor of the fleapit and grindhouse movie theaters. Appealing to the audience’s lowest common desires fueled his nihilistic sensibilities. Also, having such paltry resources required that he fill virtually all the functions of filmmaking on his own. He was writer, director, cameraman, sound recorder, and editor - a fact that allowed Milligan to dominate the set and answer to no one but himself. For someone with sadistic impulses like Milligan, the ability to rule a domain like a movie set must have been particularly satisfying.
As was the case with his work at Café Cino, Milligan’s films were violent and tawdry. The cast members were typically verbally abused, not directed. Even more, their very lives were put in danger on a regular basis. Milligan loved fire effects, and he would marshal them with few safeguards against catastrophe. Early in his career, Milligan had been a puppeteer, and he treated people as if they were denizens of his own Punch-and-Judy show. His characters twitch and jerk before us, screeching their lines at one another only to be murdered or beaten. Oddly as well, for the opportunities working in the exploitation field permitted him, Milligan seemed to find sex, of whatever variety, distasteful and despised any hard-core action. As McDonough writes, one of his producers called Milligan’s movies ” ‘sexless sex pictures.’ Unlike most sexploitationers, Andy never lingered on the hanky-panky. The fully clothed interactions were far seedier. Passion was reserved for scenes of violence.”
When hard-core cinema replaced the exploitation market in the 1970s and soon thereafter Hollywood took to making trash movies on big budgets, the individuals who bankrolled Milligan and others abandoned the scene for more lucrative enterprises. He was left with few options, and after trying to run a theatrical space in New York City for some seven years, Milligan fled to California. Unfortunately, the opportunities to continue making films were sparse and most of the work he completed was so deficient it never saw the light of day, not even on video.
While Milligan’s professional career eroded, his personal health took a fatal turn for the worse, for he succumbed to AIDS and died in 1991. McDonough had come to be his friend by this time and even worked on one of his last films. He nursed the declining director through the worst of his final days. At this point, Milligan had no money whatsoever and depended on the support of those few people he had not antagonized altogether. When he died, buried in a pauper’s grave, few of his movies were left to survive him. A number had been destroyed by the producers, convinced they lacked any commercial value. Ten years ago, the name of Andy Milligan, even to trash movie aficionados, was tantamount to drek of the lowest grade.
McDonough’s commitment not only to making a case for the work Milligan created but also making sense of the man himself is an exercise of the imagination that few of us would be willing to pursue. The detail and clarity about the various worlds the director inhabited demanded a great deal of painstaking research, but what commands one’s attention even more is the unwavering honesty and open-mindedness with which The Ghastly One is written. It is terribly easy to imagine Andy Milligan being the object of the most condescending and cheap kind of irony, playing him up as a cut-rate auteur who imagined himself Orson Welles when he was not even Ed Wood. Obviously, Rudolph Grey’s 1992 work on that director, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood Jr., bears an uncanny resemblance to McDonough’s biography, although Wood’s alcoholic descent into poverty seems almost a walk in the park compared to Milligan’s path to eternity. That is particularly the case when McDonough locates Milligan’s surviving family after his friend’s death. Milligan had abandoned them years before and always referred to his mother in particular as the blight of his life.
What Mcdonough discovers is that the physical and psychological abuse depicted in Milligan’s films was a routine occurrence in his home. To call the family dysfunctional seems almost an abuse of English. McDonough’s investigations reveal that Milligan’s father, mother and stepbrother committed acts of incest, molestation and pedophilia against members of the immediate family as well as others. The revelation of these events does not so much explain Milligan’s films as provide the emotional baggage that spilled over into their narratives. We frequently observe that an artist is able to make sense of his or her existence through their work and, with luck, achieve some measure of catharsis. On the other hand, we never said that the work they produced would have to be attractive or pleasant or even, in some relative sense, good. Andy Milligan achieved a kind of vindication by his films, even if observing that process makes some people feel unnerved in the worst manner.
The torment that Milligan depicted on screen was familiar territory to him on a daily basis. Watching it, even reading about it, may not make one comfortable or do little more than appease the most morbid kind of curiosity. One might well ask, what point does a book like The Ghastly One serve? Does it teach us that those artists who are physically or psychically damaged are compelled to inflict their pain upon audiences? Or that our fascination with the material created by such individuals is a sign of some fundamental voyeurism on our parts?
I think the impulse to watch the films Milligan created is a reflection of a more praiseworthy impulse: the desire to comprehend the human condition, even at its most debased and depraved. At the present time, when the tendency to demonize individuals like those who strike out against society’s norms is at a heightened state, we must keep our capacity for comprehending the unacceptable as acute as possible. To do otherwise is to create an untenable division between that which we can understand and that which we refuse to contemplate. To argue in this manner does not take away the fact that The Ghastly One illuminates a territory that many of us might never otherwise explore. Jimmy McDonough at one point describes Andy Milligan as “one of those creatures who ride the midnight train, come from the land of the screaming skulls.” Even though we may not wish to take a journey on that vehicle or experience the territory from which it came, the ride is one I will not soon forget.
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