[28 July 2014]
The art of stumbling upon unknown art is dying out. Algorithms predict what we might like based on things we buy, read, listen to, or watch, and social networks tell us what our friends, their friends, and their friends like. Sometimes, in some places, though, can still find a weird store without signage somewhere in an industrial part of town that has an incredible record selection. Some people are lucky enough to still have brick and mortar video stores where they can go and browse and choose a movie based on its horrendous cover or the thickness of the layer of dust on the box.
Still, it’s good to not have to leave the house. That leaves more time for watching movies. Going through endless online recommendations and reviews can be tedious, but the discerning cinephile need not worry. Heavy Metal Movies is here.
As music, heavy metal is a genre only its practitioners could love. Not practitioners as in musicians, at least not exclusively, but people who live the life. This may not necessarily entail worshipping certain elder gods or drinking blood from the skulls of infants, or even drinking beer and wearing infinite combinations of leather and denim. There are few casual metal fans, because there’s nothing casual about the music. Like it’s brainier cousin, prog, heavy metal doesn’t allow for a drop in. It’s a journey, dark and mystic, to somewhere only the bravest should travel.
What defines a heavy metal movie is a little more elusive, but one need not be familiar with the music to enjoy this book. Author Mike “McBeardo” McPadden’s approach to his subject is based more on attitude than on some hard and fast definition. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), for example, is indisputably a metal film because its subjects are actual metal heads and metal bands. Star Wars (1988), on the other hand, is a beyond-popular sci-fi blockbuster with robots, aliens, and a killer space station, but it only takes McPadden a few short sentences to connect this sci-fi favorite to heavy metal. His analysis, which ultimately boils down to, “It’s Star Wars”, assigns a different subgenre of metal to the major characters of the film, creating a handy guide for the novice who’s more familiar with the Force than Funerus.
Those who insist on a definition might find it in McPadden’s description of the New York City’s fabled 42nd Street grindhouses: “...the best and worst… from the chum buckets of cinematic sleaze, horror, hookers, splatter, kung fu, slasher, zombie, cannibal, rape-revenge, women-in-prison, sci-fi, cheerleader, teen sex, and nut-crushing action nuggets to float up from the bottom-most gutters of the international motion picture trade.” Throw in a few rock docs like Cliff ‘Em All and The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years and there you go.
The introduction to the book alone is electrifying in its enthusiasm. In it, McPadden recounts viewing King Kong in the same theater his grandmother saw the film in 1933, an experience which began a life long obsession with collecting and compiling the same kinds of cinema experiences one finds in the highest registers of an ingenue’s scream or in the crazed eyes of a giant ape. It’s about more than just a certain kind of movie. It’s also about the act of going to the movies itself. McPadden details what types of movies were shown and where during his self-directed education in film. It’s romantic but never trite, a look at a time when magic was to be found out in the world rather than always at our fingertips.
In the entry for the film 1984, McPadden writes, ”Heavy metal is music’s loudest cry against oppression.” Not it’s most articulate, intelligent, heartfelt, impassioned, agonized, or respected. It is LOUD. The translation of this attitude to cinema yields volume of all types throughout the book, from blood and violence and outright blasphemy to Marshall stacks turned to 11. This observation is a succinct summation of why metal has endured for decades both as a cultural force and an object of fear and scorn.
There’s an odd, though extremely brief, instance when McPadden takes to a soapbox to decry the idea of social commentary in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). He argues that claims of anything beyond the full-on splatterfest viewers see on the screen is only so much intellectual smoke and mirrors. He’s right in the sense that “lofty academics” and “media gatekeeper types” can easily ruin a good time by dragging “hegemony” and “exegesis” out of the dorm basement. “These overthinkers worked their tragic magic on punk,” he writes, “and the result was U2.”
Still it’s not like a viewer has to dig too deep to see Dawn of the Dead’s commentary on contemporary mall culture. McPadden argues that Romero and company simply wanted to show a group of survivors facing an all-out zombie assault, and a shopping mall was a logical choice because it offered a lot of things necessary for survival. That’s fair enough, but what drove Romero’s mind there? Artists of all stripes can conjure great metaphors because that’s how the mind works.
Besides, what’s more metal than flipping the bird at all the sheep at the mall? What’s more metal than seeing them as brainless freaks with nothing but fancy sneakers and handbags where their hearts and minds should be? What’s more metal than showing the savagery that exists just below the surface of your average mall walker? This passage is a only a sliver of what doesn’t quite work in what’s an otherwise funny and thoroughly enjoyable read, but it stands out simply because of the shadow cast by Dawn of the Dead’s legacy.
Heavy Metal Movies follows in a long line of handy guides to weirdo cinema, such as The Psychotronic Video Guide and Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. Many of these guides don’t lend themselves to sitting down and reading straight through because there’s no narrative, no rising and falling action. Each is filled with casual encounters which might give rise to an evenings entertainment.
Here, however, despite the alpha-numeric organization of McPadden’s book, a story emerges. There’s a hunger in his writing, and reading each entry is like following a trail of breadcrumbs, all of it leading toward something weirder, wilder, and more fun than what came before. If metal is music’s loudest voice against oppression, then surely McPadden is the loudest for obsession.