[29 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“My greatest joys making the films were when scenes I created gave one of the actors a heightened experience that took them away from their pain, loneliness, and fears for a moment..for me that’s why they’re important.”
- Giuseppe Andrews
Months ago, it didn’t seem possible. Outsider auteur Giuseppe Andrews, the Godard of the Trailer Park, had announced that he was giving up on making movies to concentrate on his other love - music. At first, the statement made little sense since he had always balanced the two before. For every film or two, he would then deliver a CD filled with his unusual (and almost always amazing) song stylings. Now, with the release of Love Birds: Chapter 1, the unthinkable has indeed become reality. Thanks to a spiritual awakening that now sees the famous actor shunning the celluloid spotlight in order to celebrate his newfound sense of peace, his website has reprinted a prepared avowal explaining his decision. In addition, he has three new short films in the ready, the exclamation point on a career that’s seen him literally rewrite the long lexicon of established cinema.
All are indeed enlightening. The first of the three, 5th Wheel, represents a indie TV pilot that was almost picked up. It features regulars Vietnam Ron, Walt Patterson, Ed, Miles Dougal, and that elderly epiphany, Tyree. Gwank also stars the aforementioned genius geriatric in a thirty minute experiment revolving around his time with the crack-addicted workers at an assisted living facility (really). It’s scarier than anything Andrews has done before. Finally, Cross Breeze purports to be an intimate look at the artist’s struggle with his muse. A “mockumentary” of sorts, we see Andrews writing and recording tracks for a new album, seeking advice and inspiration from longtime gal pal Marybeth and right-hand session axeman Ed. Don’t look for these tunes on his latest release, however. With his new direction, Andrews is apparently cleaning out his creative cupboards, and some of the inventory is intended for the cosmos, not consumers.
Looking at each of these entries individually, you get a better idea of the recent transformation, a better understanding of why Andrews finds a renewed purpose. Love Birds: Chapter 1 is inspired, passionate, focused, and loaded with obvious messages. He’s no longer lilting along with borderline burlesques on body parts and scatalogy. As with his recent epic The Fast, Andrews wants to atone, to pay a kind of penance for his past. By stripping himself of these last few video vestiges, he hopes to move further along the path, beginning with an obvious (if elusive) shot at sitcom stardom:
On his 62nd birthday, confirmed lazybones Herbopolus grabs his nest egg and buys himself a new trailer, a fine 5th Wheel. Now all he has to do is sit back and wait for the Social Security checks to start rolling in. In the meantime, his insane brother Bananas Foster escapes from the Catalina Mental Institution and, looking for a place to hole up, gets Herbopolus to let him stay in his swanky new digs. So does their dad, a sex change octogenarian who’s lesbian lover has kicked him out of the house. When the government fails to come through, they resort to collecting and recycling aluminum cans to make ends meet.
Oddly enough, it’s rather easy to see how something like 5th Wheel could work. Perhaps not on broadcast or basic cable (a specimen like Vietnam Ron just isn’t Comedy Central mainstream material). Instead, if someone like Showtime or IFC had picked up the proposed half hour sidesplitter, one could readily envision how the weekly need for cash could lead to all kinds of madcap hijinx. Andrews establishes instantly identifiable characters - the lifelong loafer, the crazy relative, the equally bonkers father, and a couple of supporting players - Ed as Tidbits (a man with a potential running gag about his ability to find small nuggets of trivial information) and Walt Patterson as ex-outlaw Jimmy Juarez.
There are lots of laughs here, as well as a couple of compelling subtexts. Ron’s Herbopolus doesn’t understand how Social Security works, and his attempts to make sense of the situation are very telling. Similarly, Tyree’s struggles with becoming a woman offer some wonderful comments on the generic complaints of ladies. His screwed up logic over how his newfound gender aids in the boudoir remind us of the best of Andrews’ past productions. Too bad this didn’t develop beyond the pilot stage. Andrews proves he has a good concept and possible cult classic on his hands.
Gregory is having problems with his mom and dad. He’s getting older and more senile by the day. She is sleeping with live-in handyman Richard. Even worse, all have failed dreams and aspirations. Father wanted to be a poet. Mother had visions of being a singer. And Richard tried a career as a rapper under the name ‘Pee o’ Box’. When a secret from the past threatens their domestic bliss, the police must be called in to quell the storm.
Gwank is absolutely frightening. It is also mesmerizing in only the way a massive car wreck can be. Myth states that Andrews was planning an entire film about this unusual lover’s triangle when star (and actual facility employee) Richard threw a hissy and physically threatened the director with death. Cutting and running before he lost his life, Andrews decided to throw together the unreleased footage and form this part creepshow, part kitchen sink dramedy. Tyree, as usual, is a marvel to behold, reciting Andrews oddball dialogue with discernible ease. The rest - the rest has to be seen to be believed.
As for his co-stars (Miss Kitty and the aforementioned Richard), they are beyond hope. Clearly suffering from the ongoing aftereffects of too much coke smoke, they are incoherent, incomprehensible, and indelible. You can’t take your eyes off them, even when they look like they’re about to explode with dope fueled rage or simply fade into internal oblivion. Kitty also fancies herself a songstress, and occasionally breaks out in the kind of music you imagine coming from the mind of a deranged diva on Demerol. This turns Gwank into the kind of surreal slice of real life that Andrews specializes in - part wacked out musical, part painful pastiche of fringe dwelling.
Giuseppe is working on some new tracks. He seeks advice from Ed as well as live-in girlfriend Marybeth. While troubled by a case of writer’s block and some questionable technical decisions, he presses onward, hoping that such songs as “Turd Cramp” will help him become a successful musician.
For anyone whose heard Giuseppe Andrews’ music, sensational cuts like “Monster”, “Laroo”, and “Dirty Water”, or watched any of his videos on YouTube, this ersatz behind the scenes will be a revelation. The opening bit, with him banging on the acoustic guitar while lamenting over only “One Cup of Coffee” for the day is dynamite, a prime example of his talent and way around six wire wound strings. Later on, we watch as he lays down a fat bass groove and some deft keyboard noodlings. Each time, we’re entranced by what we see. For someone who is clearly capable both behind of and in front of the lens, his musical prowess is awe-inspiring.
The rest of Cross Breeze deals with that most deadly of inspirational enemies - procrastination. Andrews wanders his trailer, tries his hand at laundry line tightrope, dumpster dives for a portable fan, and spends time meditating. After each bout of activity avoidance, we see him doing something productive (even if it ends up being writing song lyrics in the shower). It’s telling, since someone as gifted as Andrews is often viewed as capable of greatness with little or no effort, and of course, that’s not even remotely close to the truth.
As his recent reaffirmation of his retirement from film indicates, sometimes, a performer feels hemmed in by the medium they choose to work in. In the case of these ‘final’ three films, we see scraps becoming emblematic of a fascinating, fresh start. While he may return to the artform he conquered one day, for now Giuseppe Andrews has been transformed. His new music is sensational. His film work, as always, will be and remains steadfastly brilliant.