Bonus elephant goodness!

Just when we thought we were done with it…

So the review of my submission I was waiting for, suspecting that the unfortunate party had been defeated? It’s ready. And I’m the one who’s gonna post it, because doesn’t that just seem appropriate? Without further ado, I give you Adam Nayman, the author of the recently-published It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, trying to make sense of the head-scratching whatzit called Hellroller!

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One of Us: Hellroller

It’s been a summer of abjection for me. I was quite unexpectedly hired to teach a course on the history of cult cinema at the University of Toronto, and so I’ve been spending most of my time reading about movies that have been deemed transgressive in one way or another, and then trying to get a classroom of seen-it-all undergraduates to do thought experiments in which the taboos of other times and places suddenly regain their power here in 2014. Sometimes, the films fail the students; the elegant horror of Eyes Without a Face failed to set the lecture hall on fire. Other times, the students seem unable to connect with movies containing true greatness, like Rebel Without a Cause, which more than a few kids called mannered and ridiculous.

The one film that seems to have inspired the most visceral and yet heady responses, however, is Tod Browning’s Freaks — a true relic of the classic-exploitation era that retains a lot of its power to unsettle eighty years later. The source of Freaks’ potency, for both the critical commentators collected in our syllabus and the students (as explicated in their response papers and in-class comments) is its strange ambivalence towards its titular characters – an ambivalence that plays out both in the film’s plot and its visual storytelling. Ostensibly a tale of justified revenge carried out by a group of freak-show performers on their troupe’s conniving “normal” stars, Freaks casts its sympathies with the cabal of midgets, pinheads and otherwise visibly unusual performers in its cast – at least until the nightmarish closing scenes, where their odd qualities are emphasized to the point of monstrousness.

My students’ troubled reaction to Freaks had to do with the oldest stuff in the book – viewer identification and the ethical ramifications of a film’ story and moral. Browning’s decision to cast actual freak-show performers rather than actors in make-up seemed equally legible as a bold gesture of authenticity and the sleaziest carnival-barker tactic imaginable; similarly. Freaks’ reputation as a revenge-of-the-repressed melodrama could be tweaked by only a few degrees to yield a far less charitable reading. The banquet scene, with its refrain of “one of us! One of us!” directed at the nefarious blonde beauty Cleopatra, is pure carnivalesque comedy-horror – an assault on “normality” that forces the viewer into the position of the tormented and tormentor at the same time. Who are we with here, and why?

I mention Freaks and its subtext of solidarity as a way into Gary J. Levinson’s Hellroller not because the latter warrants any kind of sustained comparison with a classic movie – I don’t know what movies it could be usefully compared to, but I wouldn’t want to see them in any case. This shot on VHS non-film is about a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound sociopath (the unbearable Ron Litman) who longs to transform the rest of Los Angeles’ population into “bums” – to reduce them to his level. This is accomplished with the help of the so-called “king of the bums” (David Sterry) a grotesquely lazy figure whose cruelty and callousness gives the film most of its tonal cues.

On the one hand, it’s hard to be offended by Hellroller; its production values are so skimpy and its acting so pathetic that any conscious affect is impossible. At the same time, it’s impossible not to be offended by a movie that inventories so much hideous stuff, including – but not limited to – rape, murder (including by hot iron), and an endless stream of invective aimed at disabled people (chiefly the protagonist). The literal and figurative cheapness of the movie is such that it’s entirely worthless, except that its abject awfulness seems somehow in sync with its protagonist’s worldview: it’s as bitter, confused and hateful as he is. Put another way, Hellroller accomplishes something that few movies do, which is a total unity of form and content – albeit located at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from what most viewers would consider admirable. Yet in paracinematic studies of affect and excess, movies like Hellroller – or the collected works of Larry Buchanan and Doris Wishman before it – are redeemed as objects demanding contemplation; the sheer mystery of how and why a movie like this got made (and by who, and where) becomes tantalizing and urgent.

For me, the curiosity is entirely hypothetical; I don’t want to know anything more about Hellroller than I already do (ok that’s not true, I want to know how Mary Woronov got roped into an unrecognizable cameo in the first scene). It’s a truly repugnant and ridiculous sub-cultural artifact, and it’ll take somebody more core strength and a healthier back than me to try and elevate it (this isn’t just a “low” movie; it’s positively subterranean). And yet I’m glad that I was forced to watch it as a part of this blogathon because it’s about as good a definition of “abject” as you’re ever going to find outside of the dictionary.

Punch like an elephant gun.

(Written for the White Elephant Blogathon.)



My entry, for the second year in a row, is late. I suck, I know. The person who got my submission also appears to be running behind for the second year in a row. I think I need to stop sending out films that kill people.

Anyway, while I wait to hear if the person who got mine was able to finish it (my money’s on no), here’s….



The Glove is a late-’70s action film about Black Power. By that, I don’t mean that it’s a blaxploitation film, as that genre was pretty much dead by 1979 - even The Guy From Harlem, a relic from when the genre was past running on fumes, came out in 1977. I also don’t mean that it’s about its black characters; while hulking Rosey Grier gets to wield the title implement and whoop the holy hell out of some corrupt prison guards, the movie is mostly about John Saxon’s hangdog bounty hunter and the various ways his life is constantly going to shit.

What I mean is that The Glove is about Black Power inasmuch as it’s about all social inequity and the various ways the downtrodden are kept with the foot of The Man on their neck. Grier’s character, a formerly peaceful jazz musician, acts as a stand-in for black vengeance not for the sake of it but for the eye-for-an-eye redressing of previous wrongs; the metal-plate-adorned glove he uses to break bones, punch holes in walls and tear apart cars is, we’re told, a new kind of riot glove developed for the police force and wielded against Grier during a six-month stay in prison by the aforementioned corrupt guards. Grier, then, is merely attempting to give as good as he got, to right wrongs laid upon him due to his identity as a Righteous Black Man using the tools of the system as they were used against him. (I identify him as as a Righteous Black Man type because his prison sentence was due to a similar act of eye-for-an-eye revenge where he slashed the face of a pimp who had done as much to his sister, the intimation being that The Man did and planned to do nothing.)

Conversely, Saxon, a washed-up ballplayer with money problems and an ex-wife using his beloved daughter as collateral against unpaid alimony, is being similarly kept on the bottom rung of society by his money problems and his inability to wriggle out from under the thumb of those who hire out his services. This is made explicit in a scene where Saxon is talked into gambling away his fee for a recent job in a crooked card game run by the real-estate mogul who hired him in the first place, using bad “inside information” given to him by the mogul’s wife. The system, like the game, is rigged and tilted in the favor of those who already have the money, and those who don’t scramble for crumbs to keep themselves fed. Where Grier’s using the tools of the system against it, Saxon is working as a tool of the system that holds him down. At film’s end, when Saxon finally catches up to Grier in pursuit of a $20,000 bounty he imagines will handle all his problems, Grier offers the glove to Saxon so Saxon can fight him man to man without using his gun. It’s a complicated symbolic gesture - by doing so, Grier acknowledges that Saxon is both a part of the system, a cog in the machine that produces and reinforces class inequity, and a fellow member of the downtrodden. The passing of the glove shows that Grier understands that Saxon may be a white man, may be a white man trying to take him back to prison, but he and Saxon are at bottom equals, and their subsequent fight ends with them on even ground - Saxon humbler and no richer but wiser and safer, Grier hurting but happy and free. But, since this is the ’70s, you can’t beat the house.

There’s a certain tendency in much of modern criticism that would point all this out and insist that it’s enough - the fact that the film has something of social import to say makes it significant and worthwhile. This is especially prevalent in modern genre criticism, where the main thrust seems a desire for both the work and the writer to be taken seriously, to be freed from the ghetto of genre. I do not excuse myself from having done this, before you ask, but I do try to do better whenever possible. So if a film, like, say, The Glove, has something it wants to get off its chest and does so without being insistent or hectoring or polemical, then I say bravo. If it does all this and still can’t manage to be a watchable film, I still have to say so. So it goes for The Glove, a film that manages to successfully weave its social critique into the tapestry of its narrative but can’t for the life of it make that narrative worth a tin shit in a rusted bucket. Indeed, the problem at a narrative level seems to be the focus on Saxon rather than Grier - Grier’s righteous fury is far more narratively compelling than Saxon’s constant assessing of his life’s failures.

Furthermore, because the film is about Saxon, and if Saxon and Grier meet right away that makes the film as envisioned only about twenty minutes long, the script has to keep coming up with other obstacles and headaches for Saxon, things that don’t mean anything in terms of the protagonist/antagonist relationship but eat up screen time until we get to feature length. So we see Saxon on the job, pounding the pavement in L.A. and collaring small-time bail jumpers. We watch him beat the brains from two homosexuals, one of whom is a wanted and prolific checkhanger, having a hot tub party. We see him pursuing a violent butcher and getting into a fight wherein he and his opponent are swinging scrap meat bones at one another. We see him reasoning with an old woman (played by Joan Blondell!) who has stolen money from her employer, the real-estate mogul. We see him flirting with the woman who works at the switchboard service he uses to field his phone calls. We see him begging one of his go-to employers (Keenan Wynn!) for better work so he can pay off his bills. We see him in his apartment, moping. And so on and so on. The first glove attack comes right after the opening credits; the second comes an hour in. That’s a lot of dead air and throat-clearing.

Beyond that, The Glove is poorly made by ostensible professionals who nonetheless seem to have forgotten everything they know about making films. Most of this, I imagine, has to be set on the shoulders of Ross Hagen, a longtime character actor making his directorial debut. (By chance, I also saw one of Hagen’s later ventures, the Frankensteinan patchwork horror-comedy Reel Horror, last week; suffice to say, I don’t think the man was made for behind-the-camera work.) While Saxon isn’t bad on screen, he leans pretty heavily on his natural charisma at the expense of genuine emoting, and his voiceover is bland and uninteresting; meanwhile, Hagen can do nothing with some of the less talented members of the cast, most notably the mush-mouthed Grier and the wooden child actress playing Saxon’s daughter. The action scenes are inadequately covered and badly cut together (during the fight with the butcher, there’s about a thirty-second period where we’re left to stare at Saxon’s ass as he lays on the ground because I presume nobody thought to get the scene from another angle), and the inelegant editing pops up in places you wouldn’t really expect it to pop up besides, like an early two-shot covering a conversation between Saxon and his daughter that gives the impression of the two characters being across the county from each other rather than in different, adjoining rooms.

So, yeah. The Glove has a message, but that doesn’t make it worth watching. The killer theme song, is absolutely worth a watch, so it’s not a total waste:

vhshitfest
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Please spread this flier around the internet as much as you can (whether you are in any of these areas or whether you might know someone in these areas). Reblog this, post it on your Facebook, blogs, websites, etc. If you are going to one of these screenings please let us know and let others know, too! This is going to be the best and thanks to everyone for all the support so far! We will see you on the road!

adjustyourtracking:

Please spread this flier around the internet as much as you can (whether you are in any of these areas or whether you might know someone in these areas). Reblog this, post it on your Facebook, blogs, websites, etc. If you are going to one of these screenings please let us know and let others know, too! This is going to be the best and thanks to everyone for all the support so far! We will see you on the road!

Lighting up the Great White (Elephant) Way.

(Written for the White Elephant Blogathon.)

I can only be honest: I don’t have high hopes for this review. I’ve been walking around with exhausted baby-brain while logging my usual sixty hours a week at work and I’ve been drinking because of course I have I’m still me after all. Basically, I’m in dire need of a Saturday night.

I don’t mean a literal Saturday night, necessarily (though that’s not a bad thing). I mean the sense of freedom that comes with the idea of a “Saturday night” — the small window of opportunity where responsibilities go by the wayside in favor of relaxation and fraternization, the space between obligations where the only goal is to clear one’s head so as to make the coming week that much easier to take. I need a mental equivalent to the grand party depicted in Melvin Van Peebles’ Don’t Play Us Cheap.

It’s odd, having seen the elder Van Peebles’ influential blast of lone-wolf nihilism Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, to catch this followup and slowly realize that it’s the polar opposite - an energetic, upbeat celebration of community and small pleasures. An adaptation of his Tony Award-nominated musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap depicts a lively party on one of these Saturday nights. Two demons come to break up the party and thus secure Hell on Earth (or something like that… I’ll admit, I was a bit unclear there), but like any good Saturday night party, the reverie is steadfast in its refusal to be put off. While the party is literally set on a Saturday night, the important thing is that “Saturday night” is understood not just as a time but as a state of mind and being - the characters define this night as important because (as explained in an early song with a pointed sonic parallel to slave spirituals) the work week grinds them down, exhausts them, drains them of their soul strength. The Saturday night party is their chance to let their hair down and nourish their souls, and goddamn if any trifling demon is gonna stop that shit from happening.

While Van Peebles jazzes up the mise-en-scene with jumpy editing and multiple exposures during many of the big numbers, Don’t Play Us Cheap keeps the proscenium-tinged feel of a filmed play, and that kind of works to the film’s advantage in pushing across that universality. The obvious stagecraft creates an anti-realism - getting back to the metaphorical import, it allows the scenario to transcend its depiction of one Saturday night and let it stand in for every Saturday Night. It’s an inclusive idea, reflected in the energy and warmth of the comfortable back-and-forth between the party guests and their willingness to include even the shadiest of strangers in their reveries. In this circle where the only true sin seems to be believing oneself above it all, acknowledgement and commiseration with your neighbor’s joys and miseries is key; when one of the demons, benighted by love, decides to stay in human form and abandon his wicked ways, his decision makes sense in that who wouldn’t want to belong to a community this accepting?

While they may not always deal with literal demons, the songs bring out definite hardships that are being overcome and pushed aside here, even if only temporarily - I especially like the woman who sings about an unknown tormentor cutting up the clothes in the closet of her dreams, but dammit, she’s got a needle and a thread, and she’s gonna sew that stuff back together. She’s gonna survive, carry on, maybe even thrive. As will they all. As will I. That’s what it is to be human.

So, to the person who tossed this into the pot: Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This sweet, likeable film was more or less what I needed right about now.

And if you see a devil, smash him. Keep that party rolling.

I (still) got my fifty dollars worth.

There’s currently a Camp and Cult Blogathon going on over at She Blogged by Night. I have a piece that should be ready within the next day or so for it, but while I polish that, I figured I’d dig this one up out of the archives and throw it out as a stopgap. It’s thematically appropriate and… well, I always kind of liked it and had fun putting it together, so any chance to dredge it up and get more eyes on it is a chance I’ll take. Behold:

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Having previously seen and thoroughly loathed Dale Berry’s 1967 incoherent sex flick Hot Thrills and Warm Chills, I was not at all looking forward to tackling his other 1967 feature Hip, Hot and 21. Recently, I sucked it up and did just that, and now I’m thinking I might need to take another look at the previous film. Hip, Hot and 21 is a weirdly fascinating regional-cinema document, a sleazy oddity made by a guy with a buck-fifty in his pocket and several screws loose in his head. The tale of a young farm girl who goes to the big city and gets involved in a dope-pushing ring doles out its share of skanky thrills (nudity abounds, and there’s a savage whipping scene that wouldn’t look out of place in an Olga film), but it’s set apart by a bleary, discombobulated tone that suggests Berry knows what it’s like to actually be on junk. Of Hot Thrills, I wrote “The fatal weakness, then, is that the sex in this film is unforgivably dull,” yet given this film as a reference point, that might very well be an artistic choice — Berry’s characters here are defined solely by the pleasure they get in hurting others, not in pleasing themselves.

This theme gets strengthened by the occasional doses of genuine artistry at work here. Whether accidental or otherwise, it’s there all the same. An early sequence, whose construction as a frustration for the girl-watchers in the crowd makes sense in retrospect:

The virginal Diane has been married off by her hayseed family to strapping, square-jawed straight arrow Rick. He takes her to the city and rents a hotel room. They begin to get it on but are interrupted by Marla, a junkie madam who becomes important later in the story. (Even farther along, she disappears without warning or comment, but that’s another story.) Once shooed away, things begin, as they say, to happen.

The lovers re-begin to consummate their marriage, at which point…

…Berry pans down their bodies, down the room until he finds a painting he finds interesting at the other side of the bed. The frame gets refocused downward so as to avoid the dipping boom mic.

The camera then pans down further until it’s focused on the feet of the now-rutting lovers. This shot gets held for an uncomfortably long time, as though Berry is too ashamed of what is really going on here that he can’t bear to watch it.

A cut snaps us back to the head of the bed.

Berry can only take so much of this, though, and the camera drifts off to the side. An ornate lamp nudges its way into frame.

As the sex act reaches its height, this lamp becomes more dominant. By the climax, Berry has his camera trained solely on the shade and the shadows playing upon it — a deflowering refracted.

A spasm of flesh, a sudden lurch of the image, and the fuck is done. Diane bolts from the bed in an obviously unsatisfied huff.

"Ding dong, all done!" Bitterness, hard-won, as a prelude to far more bitterness to come. This shit is gold.

What I’ve been doing.

Netflix Video Clerk columns!

- This one, on Leaves of Grass, Killers Three and The Grapes of Death.

- This one, on Merantau, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and the amazing Revolt.

- This one, on Bad Company, Into the Abyss and The Boss.

- This one, on The Comedy of Terrors, Vampire Circus and Nude for Satan.

- This one, on Shadowboxer, My Joy and The Lovers on the Bridge.

- This one, on Zone Troopers, Altered and One-Eyed Monster.

- This one, on Centurion, Revenge of the Ninja and Dragonslayer.

- This most recent one, on Heavy Metal in Baghdad, The Baby and When Eight Bells Toll.

Also, if you’re curious about past columns, they’re all collated here.

Also also: New Bad Idea Podcast! This one’s about white people trying to pass themselves off as ninjas. It’s very rambling and shouty and drunk. We think you’ll like it.

unclecrizzle

unclecrizzle:

April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d revisit some old poetry I did in my younger days. The following is an actual poem I wrote back in 1999, which I would later recite at spoken-word poetry nights all over Houston. (If you don’t believe me, holla at most of the Houston folk who follow…

Play you like a violin.

(Part of today’s White Elephant Blogathon hosted by Paul Clark.)

Famed German actor/full-tilt psycho Klaus Kinski only directed one film in his lifetime. Ostensibly a biopic about violinist Niccolo Paganini, Kinski Paganini is really more a frenzied act of grotesque creation, a wild and senseless cascade of fevered, sexual images that bludgeon the viewer into thinking A) something profound here is being said and B) all these images relate to each other and add up to something. The validity of both claims is questionable.

So of course I dug it.

The main influence here is clearly Ken Russell in the ’70s. Imagine one of Ken Russell’s freewheeling composer biographies (say, The Music Lovers) as a rowing team. Now imagine that the boat capsized and the right half of the team was thrown overboard, unrecoverable… yet the left half carries on, rowing that boat. Kinski Paganini is akin to watching that rowing team try to soldier on: a lot of energy is being expended to go around and around in circles for some indiscernable purpose, and while the act itself seems strange and pointless, it’s also weirdly mesmerizing.

Clearly Kinski feels a kinship with Paganini. In telling the violinist’s story, he’s also telling his own (fitting, then, that this was his last film). And apparently, Klaus’s story involves him getting ass. Lots and lots of ass. Women tend to find his Paganini irresitible; in this universe, the omnipresent sound of his violin causes every woman, from scullery maid to proper lady, to wet themselves is unquenchable sexual desire. And if by some bizarre chance a lady isn’t charmed into sex frenzy by Paganini’s music or his animal charisma (which wafts off him like fog rolling off San Francisco Bay)… well, it doesn’t really matter because Paganini’s probably going to rape her anyway. He’s a misunderstood genuis artist with a God complex and a permanent hard-on.

With that last sentence, am I talking about Paganini or Kinski? And in the context of the film, does it matter?

Paganini lurches and stumbles through one setpiece after another, with little attention paid to coherence - here’s Paganini playing, here’s Paganini fucking, here’s Paganini with his son (played, of course, by Kinski’s young son), here’s Paganini defying the artistic establishment, here’s more fucking, here’s some horses fucking. But much as Paganini seems to inspire mesmeric attention from all he encounters, and much as Kinski’s career was defined by his ferociously magnetic personality, Paganini rivets the attention through sheer brass-balls lunatic energy. You simply can’t not look away, and whether this is coherent or true to the life of Paganini or just an ego-trip for Kinksi or whatever become besides the point. All those years of working alongside Werner Herzog seem to have taught Kinski something - that often times the notion of “ecstatic truth” is more important than anything else. Would that more biopics looked like this crazed concoction.

I could go on, but there’s only so much that rational analysis can do in a case like this. At some point, you’re going to have to meet the crazy head on. So I give you my hand-written unexpurgated notes on Paganini, written on the fly while watching the film. Hopefully, these can give an idea of what the act of watching Kinski Paganini is like.

Double dose.

First: The second edition of my new column of Netflix Instant oddities went up yesterday. In it, I talk about Emperor of the North, Tuesday, After Christmas and Hercules in New York. Take a quick read.

Second: Don’t know why I keep forgetting to mention it, but if you were unaware, I’ve been doing a podcast with freelance critic extraordinaire Simon Abrams. We’ve been plugging away at this for more than a year now, believe it or not. Our twelfth podcast, concentrating on the film of Adam Sandler and Friends, was posted this past Monday. If you’re looking to download it, you might wanna check Feedburner. Enjoy.