[15 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
His importance to cinema cannot be undersold. While many may label him a smut peddler or a flesh merchant, the truth is much more direct. Calling himself “The Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film”, David F. Friedman (who died at 87 of heart failure on 14 February, 2011) produced many of the landmark titles that gave the deviant genre its artform import. From nudist camp romps to repugnant splatter rampages, from softcore spoofs to darker explorations of fiendish fetishes, the smooth Southern gentleman dabbled in every facet of the format, often coming away as both trendsetter and standard bearer. With filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, Friedman unleashed the heralded Blood Trilogy, a collection of gore epics (Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red) that would rewrite the rules of horror once and for all.
Instead, of trying to turn his remarkable and varied life into a 1200 word obituary, we here at SE&L have decided to do what we think we do best - education. This will be an interactive appreciation, a primer of sorts with suggested readings, viewings, and creative contemplations. Friedman was much more than a mere film figure, and to paint him as such suspends a great deal of what he meant outside the medium. He was an advocate, a champion, a charmer, and a salesman. He was a clown, a commander, and perhaps most importantly, a game changer. Instead of trying to maneuver through his remarkable life with a couple of paragraphs and some clever turns of phrase, it’s best that you settle in and discover what those of us who worship the man already know: modern movies would be nothing without Dave Friedman. You can have your directorial visionaries and auteur theories. Here was someone who actually made a sweeping, everlasting difference- whether you know it or not.
Starting with this five areas, your education in all things Friedman begins with his superb autobiography:
A Youth in Babylon
Anyone who wants to know how a former carnival barker with a love of hustling went from a regional representative for a major studio to the Godfather of the post-modern movie need look no further than this absolutely fascinating tome. It’s an intriguing must-read, a slightly revisionist look at how a chance meeting with famed exploitation pioneer Kroeger Babb led to a life on the fringes of filmmaking. As he lays out the basic business model, as he discusses his time in the military and the establishment of “The Forty Thieves” (indie distributors who divided up the country and roadshowed their latest scandal-filled titles), along with the rise and eventual decline of the genre, Friedman makes it very clear that if it wasn’t for the envelope pushing efforts of his fellow flesh peddlers, we wouldn’t have the cinema we have today - for good and for bad. The case he makes is more or less irrefutable.
Mau Mau Sex Sex
Focusing on Friedman and lifelong business partner and pal, Dan Sonney, this engaging documentary walks us through the initial phases of exploitation. Using tags such as “scientific” and “educational”, forbidden subjects such as nudity, live child birth, and sexually transmitted diseases were given an avenue for mainstream discussion and onscreen release, while news reel footage of natives and other foreign customs allowed viewers the chance at some “accidental prurience.” Throughout, Friedman and Sonney come across as sincere yet savvy, arguing over how the wording of press releases and posters makes or breaks a screening. Both also laugh at the mindset that would endure actual baby being born to catch a glimpse of full frontal female nudity. An engaging glimpse into both men’s personal and professional lives.
Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies
While it wants to tie all outsider filmmaking into a single buzzword reality, Schlock does make a strong case for exploitation equaling the foundation of the post-modern movie. True, when dealing with Roger Corman and his low budget drive-in specials, the connect is specious at best. But then Friedman and the gang show up to argue over Constitutional rights (it was the exploitation producers who spent the most time in courtrooms challenging obscenity rulings) and the eventual merger with the mainstream. One can easily see how something like Attack of the Giant Leeches can be left out of the mix. But Friedman specials like Blood Feast and The Defilers? No way!
Something Weird Video
Here is the real treasure trove, the mother lode for any true lover of genuine genre trash. Using the commentary track option on well over a dozen films, Friedman - with occasional help from co-conspirator Herschell Gordon Lewis - sits down with SWV founder Mike Vraney to basically walk us through the entire history of exploitation. He tackles everything from the sensationalized stupidity of the ‘30s (Reefer Madness) to the roadshow classic Mom and Dad. He delves deep into the formation of the sun worshipper/nudie cutie category, and discusses why gore replaced sex as the next logical sales step. He’s also harsh on hardcore, obsessed with Stacey Walker (star of the favorite film of his career, A Scent of Honey, a Swallow of Brine) and eager to share as many hilarious and heartfelt anecdotes and war stories as possible. With Something Weird recently renewing their contract with Image, these often hard to find DVDs should now be much easier to track down. If you are any kind of fan of the man and his movies, you definitely will.
In his soul, Friedman was a carny. He loved the Midway and the come-on to the crowd. He worshipped at the altar of rides, rest areas, and raunch. From his motion picture honorarium She Freak to his decision to make his permanent home in Anniston, Alabama (a traveling show Mecca), he made sure that the smell of sawdust and hot Summer nights remained part of who he was. You can easily see his love in the way he produced and promoted films. He learned a lot from Babb, who basically believed it was the idea and the inference, not the actual movie itself, that put butts in seats. Friedman often used such a huckster approach, hyping upcoming productions in such a way that they were basically presold before the first curtain rose. Still operating attractions well into his ‘70s, he stayed forever a part of the traveling spectacle. It was just the medium that would change.