All porn actors long to be legitimate, even if they really don’t care about the Tinseltown acknowledgement. Whether it’s to be taken seriously as a sex artist, or to simply branch out and be part of some silly Skinemax B-movie malarkey, they know that society looks down on them for their carnal career choice. As a bunch of puritanical prudes, so uptight our mainsprings are freakishly frozen, community standards demand censure. So even without a starring role in one of those cable-TV Bikini movies, your average XXX star just wants to be taken seriously – or left alone. For Tommy Pistol, one time alt-genre stalwart, a life in service of smut was less than profitable. So his mainstream alter ego, Aramis Sartorio, decided to “kill him off.” The result is the riotous The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol, a film that becomes even more meaningful when you realize its autobiographical/real life subtext.
Tommy Pistol (Sartorio) is at his wits end. Unable to land a less than lucrative gig as a day playing extra, his wife (Karen Sartorio) has laid down an ultimatum: give up the pipe dream of being an actor and get a real job, or lose his family. Twelve months later and our hapless hero is alone in his grungy apartment, pleasing himself to porn and microwaving yet another suspect convenience store hot dog. As his mind drifts in and out of sleep, we see a subconscious projection of Tommy’s potential problematic career path. First, he’s a hapless newbie working for an insane snuff film producer (Caleb Emerson). Then, he becomes an angry mainstream production assistant/assassin, his sights set on a megalomaniacal Arnold Schwarzenegger. Finally, Tommy is a seedy XXX filmmaker, stuck with a star (Daisy Sparks) sporting a nasty supernatural staph infection…and he still has two important scenes left to shoot.
At first, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol appears to be nothing more than a novel horror comedy created by someone with one foot in the indie scene and another smack dab in the middle of X-rated raunch. With a little research (and a lot of eye-rolling from already clued in viewers), it turns out that Sartorio and Pistol are one in the same, a surreal journey from improv to Burning Angel mainstay (with titles like The XXXorcist and Evil Head) mirroring many of the moments experienced by ‘their’ onscreen doppelganger. Said adventures form the foundation of this hilarious, sometimes hideous production, a very clever combination of the camcorder DIY spirit that drives both post-modern moviemaking and present day pornography. There is real talent involved here, people with a passion for what they do, be it with goofiness, gore or a little bump and grinding.
Then, we you realize who is in the cast, when you see that Pistol/Sartorio is actually alluding to his own issues in the business, everything goes doubly bonkers. Gruesome Death suddenly shifts from an all out gross out comedy with terror overtones into a massive mea culpa, guilt coupled with a series of depictions inferred in every act of violence and vileness. Sartorio seems to regret some of the decisions he made, the naiveté that drove him to “do anything” for fame, a realization of how potentially soul crushing it could (and apparently did) become. The scenes with his family – his actual family, by the way – resonate with that kind of contrition. The last lines in the film echo this plaintive state. Similarly, some of the over the top material reflects a similar “extremeness” in artistic and pragmatic choices. Granted, Pistol never drained a woman’s blood via pump in order to create his own splatter slip and slide (a true lewd laugh out loud moment), but the notes on degradation and humiliation are there.
More interesting are the various anarchic allegories set up within the vignettes. During the first part, friend and fellow oddball auteur Caleb Emerson (Die You Zombie Bastards, Frankie in Blunderland) does one of the best sleazoid producer parts ever, practically foaming at the mouth over the many underhanded horrors he’s involved in. The hysterical performance – both figuratively and literally – underlies the reality of most moviemaking. It’s almost criminal what people will do for even a slight suggestion of fame, and those behind the scenes know (and exploit) it. Similarly, the Arnold aspect – complete with political shun/shout-out – illustrates the other extreme: fame as a force for nothing but pure dictatorial abuse. The first assistant (played in meta fashion by Mrs. Sartorio) is so put upon and spun around that she doesn’t even realize that she’s being scammed. When Tommy takes over, the desire to usurp the former superstar turns into a take on Leatherface and other Ed Gein acolytes.
Finally, the whole porn set situation (taken from a previous film by Pistol) is indeed disgusting, but it also argues for the previous ‘do anything’ mentality that sweeps through the current Hollywood crowd. Going back to the reflective for a moment, Pistol/Sartorio is clearly arguing for the loss of his own humanity. Throughout The Gruesome Death, he portrays himself as a clueless killer, a cruel manipulator and murderer, as well as a flesh peddler devoid of even the basics of personal dignity. The view becomes even more harsh when you look at the bookend material – here is a man who lost it all in pursuit of a dream that never fully materialized…and now he imagines it’s too late, too much of him is gone. Sure, the symbolism is shocking in its scatological bent, but it’s also true. In many ways, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is A Serbian Film with a serious sense of humor.
All nasty naughtiness aside, this is a triumph of imagination and invention, a truly original work that argues for that age old adage of art imitating life, and in this case, a big visa versa. Sartorio may be embarrassed of Pistol and the public persona ‘he’ created. He may also be less than proud of the work he forged in his name. But the truth is that suffering usually begets success. The road to this triumph just hurts a whole helluva lot more than the route taken by others. Even if he never makes another straight film the rest of his life, Aramis Sartorio has unleashed a crackpot classic on the unsuspecting, brave film fan. While it may not appeal to all tastes, The Gruesome Death of Tommy Pistol is a terrific triumph of outsider will.