MIKE MALLOY – THOUGHTS ON TOUGH GUYS, WORKING AS AN INDIE FILMMAKER, AND HIS DOCUMENTARY ON THE EUROCRIME FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES

14 Sep

 


Mike Malloy is an Atlanta-based screenwriter, actor, and director. While in college he wrote and published a book on Lee Van Cleef. He’s a true aficionado of 1970s tough-guy cinema, Spaghetti Westerns, the little-known films directed by David Carradine, and much more. His documentary, EUROCRIME!, has been included in numerous film festivals and was recently written about in Maxim magazine.

This interview was originally published in PulpMetal magazine, an online zine that I write for now and again.

 

(Photo below: Mike Malloy in tough-guy mode.)

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MDJ : Mike, you’re involved in the production of both docs and feature films, all with, I think, somewhat of a retro quality — as in your look back at Eurocrime films of the 1970s (EUROCRIME!) and the neo-Spaghetti western you helped make (THE SCARLET WORM). What factors go into your choices of the material for films you are making?

MM : I guess the more direct link to Spaghetti Westerns would be the official DJANGO sequel I co-wrote. In the case of THE SCARLET WORM, we wanted to make a film in the style of the American Revisionist Westerns of the early ’70s, like Fonda’s THE HIRED HAND or Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Perhaps the insane microbudget kept that from shining through to some viewers. Or maybe the fact that four SCARLET actors had been Spaghetti Western veterans became a distraction to our intended tone.

But basically my interests are tough-guy subjects, usually of the middle-aged variety, as guys of that age naturally have more life experience. The retro quality is almost just a side effect; the 1970s happen to have been a golden age for credible movie tough guys.
MDJ : I too like tough-guy action films. Speaking very generally, about the time that there was a revival of the tough guy in film, there was also a revival of classic American hard-boiled detective fiction — the work of Hammett, Chandler, and, a little later, Jim Thompson. Some attribute that to a sort of collective desire for strong heroic male figures who would battle corruption in society at all levels, from government (where Watergate and the war in Vietnam had created a sense of distrust of government) to organized crime to crazy serial killers, etc etc. What do you think caused the rise in appeal of the tough-guy hero in the sixties and seventies?

MM : There have always been action and tough-guy films and novels; it’s just a matter of which ones endure to become a classic period for such. I think the larger shift toward realism in American popular cinema in the late ’60s / early ’70s helped that period’s tough-guy movies, because non-glamorous fellas like Warren Oates, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson could headline movies instead of pretty boys. Also, the timing with World War II meant you had some battle-hardened vets starring in movies. Marvin and Bronson both were. Lee Van Cleef too.
MDJ : On the other hand, revisionist Westerns questioned the idea of a hero and questioned the glorification of the “conquest” of the American West. It seemed to raise questions about the morality of some of the actions that the tough guy takes. Thoughts on this aspect of the film genres that appeal to you?

MM : That trend started in a more subtle way in the 1950s with the “adult Westerns” (the term they used then; nothing to do with smut). Films like HIGH NOON and THE TIN STAR were provocative, complex movies that didn’t just present white-hat / black-hat visions. But yeah, the morality was even more subjective by the time we got to the revisionist Westerns of the late ’60s.

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(Above: Mike Malloy in a film he helped produce, THE SCARLET WORM.)
It’s interesting you should ask this, because I think a big ill of the current cinema is envelope pushing for the sake of envelope pushing. In tough-guy cinema, The Antihero is being pushed farther and farther, in a cheap tactic to seem fresh and on the vanguard. So I wrote a screenplay, LETTER OF THE LAW, that attempts to re-set things with a character that is purely heroic (and yet not a goody two-shoes). I came up with a novel, concept-driven action plot to accomplish this. It’s been optioned now, and I’m excited.

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MDJ : How did you get the film optioned? Did an agent send it out for you or was it sent to a producer you knew or a friend of yours knows? Related to this, what is the spec script market like for feature films? I had the impression it had dried up and money from small indie features in terms of sales was small — you yourself said this to me — hard to make any money on the smaller, indie film! So who is buying? Or have Red Box, Netflix, VOD taken off now?

MM : This script was optioned because of some existing relationships. And yes, the spec-script market is very tough, because everyone fancies him/herself a writer, so most filmmakers and producers aren’t soliciting scripts; they have one of their own!

But all that’s almost irrespective of your other question. Yes, the middle class of film has almost evaporated, dichotimizing to either exploding-robot movies being made for $80M+ or microbudget $40k indies. Everything in-between is, sadly, dicey. Fortunately, one of the producers of LETTER OF THE LAW teaches film business, and we’ve identified a release model and a budget that will actually work for this project and for investors.

MDJ : At one time tentpoles were what lifted a whole tent. Now it’s a kind of movie. I remember a 2013 CNN interview in which Peter Bogdanovich bemoaned the success of TITANIC, as it led to $150M and $200M budgets.
Maybe TITANIC was a turning point where blockbuster budgets got soooo disproportionate and everything became soooo VFX reliant, but the blockbuster mentality really began in the latter half of the ’70s, of course, with JAWS, STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, etc. And we’ve been stuck in that blockbuster mode ever since, excepting the brief hiccup of the ’90s indie boom. People say the film business is cyclical. Well, we’re damned overdue for this cycle of noisy exploding-robot movies to end.

MDJ : So, the real question is, does anyone making microbudget films make a living or even prosper? What percentage do you think? You know a lot of those people — and you are one yourself!

MM : It’s probably a 1/1000 shot whether you’ll see a little scratch. Most microbudget filmmakers basically give their projects away for no Minimum Guarantee (MG), or advance. And if you sign a royalty-only deal for your film … well, you know what they say: If you want to know what to expect on a royalty deal, spend a day in a communal prison shower.
We all need to make fewer, better films, peoples! One film every three years instead of three every one. And let’s not give them away. We’re junking up the pop-culture landscape with too much disposable product.

MDJ : What advice do you have for aspiring micro-budget filmmakers?

MM : Don’t make a film out of opportunity. Make a film only if you have an idea burning inside you, compelling itself to be produced.
Recently, on the set of SAMURAI COP 2, I overheard a conversation between two filmmakers. One said, “Don’t make your passion project first. You’ve got to make a sell-out project first, and then you can make your passion project.” I bit my tongue, but I wanted to say, “If people only made their passion projects, then there’d be no problem. The market wouldn’t be overly crowded, and there would be less difficulty selling a film. And the films in the marketplace would be a helluva lot more interesting and personal.” So let’s skip the sell-out projects altogether, peoples!

MDJ : What about cable? Anything happening there or has that vanished as a market?

MM : Well, microbudget stuff, if that’s what you’re asking about, is much more likely to end up on VOD / streaming these days.

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But cable telly is in a new golden age, with all of the “prestige soaps” like DEADWOOD and MAD MEN and RAY DONOVAN that followed in the wake of THE SOPRANOS. And occasionally a show like THE WIRE will transcend the soapy nature of these shows and become something truly important. So cable telly is where a lot of great work is being done today.

MDJ : Please talk about your involvement with the magazine CULT MOVIES. And how might that have shaped your current work?

MM : I was on the editorial staff of the quarterly mag CULT MOVIES when I lived in Los Angeles, ’01-’04. And even though my primary interests were gritty tough-guy cinema, I copyedited all sorts of articles, about all sorts of cult films. I may have been writing about ACROSS 110th STREET, but I was copyediting someone else’s piece on SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED. And through the mag, I had dinner with such varied personages as Ray Bradbury, Forry Ackerman and Bob Chinn. So working there certainly broadened my knowledge base past my scope of interest.

 

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On Todgers and Zombies in Tinseltown

23 Feb

HERE are 2 short pieces that I originally wrote for Paul D. Brazill’s blog but which I like and feel that readers of Fleshapoidfilms will enjoy!

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(Photo above: Jim Thompson)

HOLLYWOOD ZOMBIFIED THE WORLD

In Hollywood the line between the living and the dead is permeable and many screenwriters exist in a zombified state, souls long gone, boney fingers tapping on keyboards as if guided by some unseen force, cranking out screenplays about zombies, something they know well.

Guys like John Fante, Jim Thompson, and Horace McCoy are good examples of cool novelists turned into Hollywood zombies. Booze, bad times, and producers stole their souls. Finally, a sense of artistic waste washed over them like listless waves carrying spent condoms sloshing ashore on the sands beneath the Santa Monica pier, dazzling lights spinning in the dark above.

Everyone’s favorite Hollywood zombie-writer is a fictional character in a film, a poor sap who ended up face down in a swimming pool. It’s not often that films are narrated by dead men, but in Sunset Boulevard, a zombified screenwriter tells the tale of how his last drops of precious bodily fluid had been drained by the flashy fangs of a zombie-vampire Hollywood actress demanding yet another rewrite. The next stop was a coffin shared with a dead pet monkey.

Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard,which some argue is a horror film, not a film noir, and he also directed Double Indemnity, a true classic noir. Not one but two great writers contributed to the final product on that film, though one of them felt the other’s prose had a bad odor. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler, a brilliant but somewhat fussy man, wrote in a 1942 letter to the wife of his publisher, Alfred K. Knopf:“….Hammett is all right. Igive him everything…. But James Cain – faugh!Everything he touches smells like a billygoat…. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.”

Hard, clean, cold, and ventilated is not what zombies like. They prefer stuffy, stinky, hot basements and box canyons where they can corner you. L.A. inspires tales of seediness and collapse because it’s a smelly, brutal, unventilated place where the air is only cold and clean way out over the ocean—offshore.

Writers tend to be thoughtful, quiet, reserved sorts, but L.A. is great for loud hustlers. You gotta be tough, fast, and vicious; and willing to suck ideas from the brains of writers and claim them for your own. It’s a city of mirrors, and illusions, and lies, where the best bullshitter wins if he doesn’t lose himself the way Chaplin does in the film The Circus when he runs into a funhouse room full of mirrors. (Welles used the same imagery in the super-sleazy noir, The Lady from Shanghai.) To make it, many have to be willing to hustle and steal like Sammy Glick does, lead character in What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg.

Oh, and don’t try to laugh Hollywood away once it’s zombified you. It’s the city where Jim Belushi died of an overdose in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont while in the midst of writing a screenplay for a film he was calling Noble Rot; where Richard Pryor caught on fire while freebasing; where Fatty Arbuckle worked as a director under another name after his career was ruined by a false accusation of murder; where Chaplin went through a miserable divorce from his teen bride Lita in which her lawyers did all they could to destroy his character.

The Los Angeles resident Aldous Huxley predicted a brave new world in which a wonder drug called Soma will make everyone zombie-like but mellow. Turns out that blockbuster film spectacles are Soma for the masses. Everyone is put to sleep by the razzle-dazzle of a thousand CGI deaths that sooth the savage souls of the zombies in the audience, all chuckling at decapitations, auto crashes, and exploding blood packs.

Literature is all about the importance of the individual soul, something zombies lack. Yet even great writers like Burroughs and Borges and Baudrillard say that in the labyrinth of the garden of forking paths of the book of sand of simulations of reality there is no reality, no soul, no individual– only the map, the simulation, the replica, the replicant. L.A. is where many thousands of people are engaged in creating seductive and entertaining simulations about zombies and replicants shuffling around, hungry for brains and souls. It’s a metaphor for real life in the modern world. It’s also a metaphor or working in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

The odd thing is, the more sleazy and horrific the whole thing is, the better the films about the place are. Here are some wonderful dark visions ofL.A.: Chinatown by Roman Polanski, Collateral by Michael Mann, Day of the Locust by John Schlesinger, The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers, Ed Wood by Tim Burton, Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes, Pulp Fiction by Tarantino, Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson, Short Cuts by Robert Altman, and Bladerunner by Ridley Scott.

Los Angeles is bulldozed at night so a new movie set can replace it by dawn. You can run from your fate as a zombie but you can’t hide from the fake reality that L.A. has created for you that has replaced your own life by infiltrating your dreams, taking over your imagination. Don’t fight it, surrender. You’ll feel so much better once you’ve lost your soul and begun shuffling toward the cineplex or your computer keyboard, thinking only of zombies and longing for brains.

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STRING THEORY AND SUPERSTARS

In his memoir called Life, Keith Richards let it be known that Mick Jagger has a tiny todger, a little piece of string.

This revelation runs contrary to the image of Jagger as a sex symbol. Jagger has had many exceptionally gorgeous sexual partners and has a thriving social life. With the Rolling Stones he is the star performer. Mick has also given some fine performances in films. On the other hand, Keith Richards tends to be in the shadows, Dragula strumming alone, his fingers a blur of activity when he performs a solo.

All evaluation of todger size by friends and colleagues is questionable for three reasons. First, todger viewing is a subjective experience. What we see is colored by how we feel, our mood, our intent when viewing. Second, there is the problem of the unreliable narrator because men viewing other men’s todgers may provide false reports out of a wish to be perceived as bigger and better. Third, real measurements must be taken when the todger is in full erection because the resting state of todgers is highly variable. Most todgers, no matter how small they look in repose or perhaps even shriveled by cold water, achieve the size of about five and one half inches to six and one half inches when erect.

Why all the excitement about todger size and the interest in reporting size? It may be because there is a general belief in human society that the bigger the todger, the more manly the man. Big todger, big dog. Alpha dog. Dominant. Powerful. A leader of men — thanks to his horse cock. His donkey dick. King Dong.

Bogart was said to have had a huge one. He was also considered a tough guy, an independent, a man who made all of his own decisions. However, an astute observer of Hollywood oppression, Louise Brooks, said otherwise as to his independence. She knew Bogart and Hollywood well, saw his situation more objectively, and wrote in an essay included in the book Lulu in Hollywood (1974): “Being myself a born loner, who was temporarily deflected from the hermit’s path by a career in the theater and films, I can state categorically that in Bogart’s time there was no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of the film star. He had self-determination only in this: he might or he might not sign a film contract. If he signed the contract, he became subject to those who paid his salary and released his films. If he did not sign the contract, he was no film star.”

So much for the idea that a big dong means one is an alpha dog.

There were few truly independent stars in Hollywood in the first sixty years of Tinseltown. Orson Welles tried to be, having been given a contract in his early twenties from RKO for three films that he would write, direct, star in, and for which he would have final cut. He was given this deal based on his astonishing achievements as a director and actor in theater and radio. An appearance on the cover of Time magazine helped too. Sadly, after Citizen Kane, it slipped away or was signed away.

There was, however, one man who had everything Welles did and more — Charlie Chaplin. A perfectionist, he controlled all aspects of production and thus had final cut, starred in his films, directed them, and was even the distributor. However, according to Welles and only Welles, the Little Tramp had a little willy.

This is where the subjective element comes in, and quantum physics. Both Heisenberg‘s famous Uncertainty Principle and String Theory indicate that when we observe subatomic particles, the viewer in some sense shapes the thing being viewed. The more we measure position, the less we know about momentum. A vibrating string or particle might be both matter and energy and exist in two places at one time. It might be longer or shorter or dart away unexpectedly, perhaps to another dimension. Just the fact of being observed changes the thing observed. The psyche of the viewer takes a role in the behavior of the things and energies in the universe.

Thus it’s notable that while Chaplin‘s willy was otherwise reputed to be a big one, Welles claimed that it was wee. This was reported in the 1985 authorized biography of Orson Welles by Barbara Leaming: “Once, when the two of them had gone to take a shower after they had been to the steamroom together, Orson witnessed what he called a ‘terrible embarrassment.‘ He inadvertently cast a glance in the direction of Chaplin’s genitalia, which reminded him of nothing so much as ‘a little peanut.’ (This eye-witness testimony of Orson’s is completely contrary to standard Hollywood legend that portrays Chaplin as unusually well endowed.)”

For Welles, Chaplin had a small peanut for a penis yet everyone else thought he had a big one. How do we account for this? String theory? The Uncertainty Principle? Quantum physics might help.

And thus we are back to Keith’s version Mick’s todger. In the Wallace Stevens poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar‘ a fellow complains that because another fellow has a blue guitar he does not play things as they are. The guitarist replies: “Things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar.” When you play guitar and strum vibrating strings, you change things to suit your fancy.

Perhaps it’s best to not think too much about the subject for too long and instead spend time watching relaxing films like Free Willy.

 

The Comb Over in the Film High Anxiety

9 Feb

When I notice things in films that interest me, I want to write about them and make videos about them. For example, I noticed some recurring motifs in Tarantino’s films having to do with sexual violence directed at African-American males and  made a video about it, and wrote a short blog entry about it for this blog, and provided a link to that video . Now I’m  mainly writing to alert people to my humorous, tongue-in-cheek video about the comb over in cinema.

I noticed that in the film High Anxiety by Mel Brooks most of the male characters had either a comb over or some kind of odd hair styling, perhaps indicative of a toupee. So…. I made a video about all this. I hope you like it and find it funny.

Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGHRdbw4ilc

 

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Tarantino, Sex, Violence, & Race

11 Jan

Tarantino isn’t just making super-violent films because they sell tickets and DVDs and are streamed in exchange for money. He likes to explore violence in an almost fetishistic way, and, at times, a sexual way. It seems to be something he has a psychological need to return to over and over.

Clint Eastwood has said that narrative films are about drama and drama is based on conflict and and that violence is the most extreme form of conflict. Eastwood has said, “Drama usually has some form of intense conflict.” The actor Cornel Wilde said that “You can’t get away from violence in drama. If you do not have conflict, you do not have drama.”

Conflict, as it escalates, moves from the verbal to the physical. It moves from nasty and aggressive use of language to nasty and aggressive use of physical force. Humans and animals begin with a vocalization – a growl or profanity – and move to threatening poses and postures and lunges without contact. Then it moves into direct bodily attacks. In human conflicts, sometimes it doesn’t involve a bodily attack, just an attack on someone’s property, as in keying a car.

Given how much violence there is in the world and how great a potential there is for large-scale and highly destructive violence, people are very concerned about it and have been studying it, seeking to understand it and find ways to reduce it. There are questions about whether violence in film stimulates people to be more violent in real life.

Also, there is a concern that if people in powerful and influential media roles repeatedly condemn others in highly negative terns, it might make someone become violent. On January 8, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other people were shot at a meeting in a supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Arizona, in the Tucson metropolitan area. Six people died, including federal District Court Chief Judge John Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, one of Rep. Giffords’ staffers; and a nine-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. The perpetrator was a man later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Jared Lee Loughner. There was concern at the time that he absorbed the kind of imagery and rhetoric found on Palin’s site and it influenced his actions. Giffords herself had been concerned about it. In March 2010, Giffords drew attention to the use of crosshairs on a national midterm election map on Palin’s campaign webpage. The crosshairs indicated targeted congressional seats, including Giffords’s, in Arizona’s 8th district. After the map was posted, Gifford’s office was vandalized. At the time Giffords said, “We’re in Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”

Eastwood said, “… yes, I am concerned about violence in film. In ’92, when I did “Unforgiven”, which is a film that had a very anti-violence and anti-gun play, anti-romanticizing of gun play theme, I remember that Gene Hackman was concerned about it, and we both discussed the issue of too much violence in films. It’s escalated ninety times since “Dirty Harry” and those films were made.”

In the films of Tarantino, you see some really nasty violence. What seemed particularly unpleasant, and something worth considering, was the sexually-themed violence in a couple of his films. It’s specifically male-on-male and white-on-African-American sexual violence. I explored this is my 10-minute video that can be found on YouTube. Here is a link:

 

There’s more that can be said, more to explore and analyze and understand about this subject. What’s particularly interesting in the case of PULP FICTION and DJANGO UNCHAINED is the way in which some of the scenes in those films dramatize feelings, conflicts, and fantasies that Tarantino feels compelled to explore on film.

 

 

 

Clint Eastwood’s Persona, Phallic Imagery, and the Questioning of Male Authority in the Film Joe Kidd, a Revisionist Western

22 Apr
Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Eastwood drives a phallic train off the rails and into a saloon

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Robert Duvall holds a big gun

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town's saloon

Phallic locomotive driven by Eastwood crashes into the interior of the town’s saloon

Big guns in a manly world

Big guns in a manly world

Wienie-top rock?

Wienie-top rock?

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

Relaxing with a gun which is ready to go

While filming Joe Kidd (1972) at the Tucson Studios and at other locations, Clint Eastwood, who plays his classic tough-guy Wild-West character (in this case named Joe Kidd), was, in real life, having panic attacks. A panic attack is characterized by a sense of overwhelming fear with no apparent cause. Its onset is sudden and one may feel an accelerated heart rate, a sense of dread for no reason, and perhaps a fear of death.

That Eastwood was having anxiety/panic attacks is ironic because his film persona is that of a guy who remains calm even in life-threatening situations. But of course he is only playing a role and his character is a fantasy, an ideal. Action films turn him into someone who behaves the way we wish we could in real life — never afraid, always calm and able to maintain some measure of control, even if only over one’s own emotions. His film persona was almost always Mr. Cool, but Clint Eastwood, while making this film, was gripped with fear over something he couldn’t quite identify. Perhaps he knew at some deep level that the film deconstructed and questioned a patriarchal authority that he secretly longed to affirm, whether through his conservative political views or in his personal relationships with women.

Early in the film we learn that his character is as confident with women as he is when confronted by wild-eyed psycho killer gunmen, mean Mexicans, and bullying cops. The big-shot landowner, played by Robert Duvalll, has a mistress, a blonde who has a resemblance to Eastwood’s longtime lady pal Sandra Locke. While waiting for a meeting with Duvall in which Duvall’s character is going to ask Joe Kidd to help hunt down a rebel Mexican, Eastwood sidles up to the blonde in her room next to Duvall’s and plants a kiss on her lips after he has questioned her as to whether she’s Duvall’s wife or acting in some other role. After establishing that she’s basically Duvall’s character’s sexual companion, and presumably her services are available to the highest bidder or the most confident and groovy male (even if he has just gotten out of jail on a drunk charge and threatening to pee on the courthouse) he goes in for a tender kiss. She asks how long he was in jail. He says, “Two days.” She asks what he’d act like if it had been two months. He says, “We wouldn’t even be talking.”

So ole Joe Kidd is quite a stud, a powerhouse of libidinal energy, who, when horny enough, cuts the fancy preliminaries in favor of fervent action. You never saw a character played by John Wayne move in on another man’s gal and start making out with her. He’d engage in some slightly awkward courting and maybe take the lady on a buggy ride to a hillside for a picnic. He was civilized — except in male-male combat. Then he could become somewhat of a savage, but that was okay since he was killing “bad” guys. Eastwood/Kidd skips all the formalities, pulls the blonde’s stocking out of her suitcase to reveal that she’s into dressing in sexy ways, and then proceeds to move in for a kiss.

The film is one of many 1960s revisionist westerns in which no one is really very good, even the fringe types like Eastwood who are cynical about the ways of the white man and his hierarchies of power which often turn out to be corrupt. It was being recognized throughout our culture at that time that the whole process of stealing the West from the Native Americans was a dirty, morally untenable process (unless one believes that might makes right and bullying and genocide and dirty tricks are a good thing). It was also being recognized that even the “good” types like farmers who underwent great hardship to homestead in remote areas, would be swindled and cheated and possibly killed by other white men who had money and power and, say, wanted to build a railroad right where a homesteader had a farm.

In Joe Kidd we are we supposed to feel good about the “people” rising up. In this case the “people” are relatively disenfranchised Mexicans in places like New Mexico who are fighting to get back the land that the King of Spain had granted them, but which the rapacious Americans took from them by various devious means. Sure, the Mexicans were badly treated, but seen from a 1960s revisionist perspective, they aren’t really any better than the white guys. They were just another group of Europeans who stole lands from the Native Americans, only they were Spanish. And they tended to intermarry with the indigenous people rather than just kill them all.

Whether marrying or mating with Native Americans or moving in on blonde mistresses, clearly the Wild-West male was a horny and very manly type of guy, high in testosterone. The wimps stayed behind in Europe arguing philosophy, fashion, politics, and critiquing the quality of croissants in a cafe while rugged males went off to strange lands to build empires, colonize, cultivate, and create a new Eden.

And, in this new Eden, the macho male happily bit the apple without having an anxiety attack. Perhaps unconsciously, the director, John Sturges, loaded up the film with sexual imagery to show just how manly the Western man was. The film contains lots of phallic images. If he was still alive and could be asked about this element of this film, he might well deny or dismiss it. I don’t know his work well, but I imagine that he wasn’t driven by psychological theories as much as by a need to get the film made fast and make it entertaining, with plenty of sex and violence. Or just violence if sex was ruled out by the Hayes code.

Sturges made many B-movies and some great A-movies like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai). What’s unique about this film, and seems particularly evident to me, is the conscious or unconscious phallic symbolism in the film. It’s almost a caricature, but I don’t think he meant it that way. Or did he?

After Eastwood leaves the blonde floozie and rides off into a rugged landscape on his horse, we see repeated images of phallic rocks that are foregrounded. Later, when the bad guys take over a small town, we repeatedly see dramatic shots of phallic guns held high by gunmen silhouetted against the sky.

And, when we reach the “climax” of the film, it’s all about a huge phallus (a train) ramming into and through a place traditionally known as one of carnal pleasure and carnivalesque fun. We see Eastwood attempting to bring the rebel Mexican to jail in the small town where all the action started, but the bad guys are waiting for him, ready to kill him and the rebel. To reach a safe haven from which to shoot it out with the bad guys who are in sniper positions on the roofs of buildings, Eastwood drives a locomotive and a few attached railroad cars right off the rails and crashes it into the town’s bar with a thrust of phallic energy.

The shootout leads to some bad guys being shot and some surrendering and the big shot bad guy played by Duvall being shot by Eastwood. At this point apparently he figures there will be no justice, no restoration of a fair social order. At the very end, out on the street, he says to the Mexican rebel, “Good luck” and the rebel walks away. Good luck with what? His peasant rebellion? Or is he supposed to be walking to the jail to turn himself to away trial? Not likely. If he is turning himself in to the sheriff, why does the sheriff appear beside Eastwood and ask what he can do just after the rebel has walked away? Eastwood’s response is to punch the sheriff and warn him that next time it will be worse. Since he’s the guy running the jail, shouldn’t he be going to take the rebel to jail?

For the final, ride-into-the-sunset shot with a male and female united (which implies the re-establishing social stability and order), Eastwood does not go back to the hotel to the blonde floozie/mistress/prostitute female who is presumably still in her fancy room waiting in a sexy outfit for bad-guy head honcho Duvall to return or Eastwood to return as he promised he would as soon as Duvall was out of the picture (on a “hunting” trip). Instead, now Eastwood/Kidd has become enamored of a more suitable mate for an independent thinker like himself — a sexy rebel Mexican woman named Helen Sanchez who has been in on a lot of the action in the film and is both feminine and can cook but also is masculinized in that she can handle a gun and knife in combat. The two of them ride off together past the giant powerful phallus of the locomotive which is sticking out of the side of the bar as several men stand and look at it and scratch their heads and wonder at this amazing spectacle of male energy and power caused by Joe Kidd’s final violent thrust for social order and justice.

This film was made during a time of revising the old ideas about the American West and the entire Western genre. Maybe at this stage in his career, Sturges was spoofing machismo and the Western to some extent, overplaying the phallic imagery on purpose. It would’ve been in keeping with the spirit of the times. And it did provide a visually dramatic ending for the film. It’s a lot more fun than, say, having Kidd have an anxiety attack just as he’s riding into town, but that too would fit in with the spirit of the revisionist western.

With LOVE, Wessel Dives Deep into Movie and Art Magic: A Portrait of the Artist Beth Moore-Love

14 Feb

Larry Wessel’s feature-length documentary called LOVE takes viewers into a fascinating and strange realm of the unreal (or, perhaps, the hyper-real) — the realm of Beth Moore-Love’s art. Both Moore-Love and Wessel know that there’s something spooky and nasty about American history and culture and they have reflected that in their respective mediums. While America’s founder’s Enlightment-based idealism offered a vision of a new and wonderful kind of nation, there’s a dark side to it all, starting with stealing the country from the locals with brutal swindles and military campaigns. For pure creepiness one can consider the Salem witch trials, the cannibalism at Donner Pass, the madness and mayhem reported in the book called Wisconsin Death Trip (one source of inspiration for Moore-Love’s art), and, well, there’s the grandfather of all nutty grave-robbing serial killers and the man who provided a lead character for many films including Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs — that crazy kooky cannibal, fashion freak, and Wisconsin native, Ed Gein. Far more destructive than the above horrors is the fact that the U.S. never hesitates to use military force, even for nothing more than to ensure cheap banana prices at the expense of the local farmers, as in the repeated invasions of Honduras. (Note: the U.S. military attacked Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, 1925 to “protect U.S. interests.”)

One could say that Moore-Love’s art is, in part, an expression of the idea, “Nothing risked, nothing Geined.” Moore-Love takes risks in her art and pushes it deep into creepyland Americana with ease and painterly sophistication. Thanks to her ability to combine innocence (she often depicts female children, drawing on Victorian-era pop-culture images) and gore, she has Geined a following in the U.S. and Europe. Born in 1964 in Des Moines, Iowa, she was strongly influenced by time spent in San Francisco in the 1980s where she met Boyd Rice, Anton Levey, and others; plus she helped run the Force-Nordstrom gallery on Market St. there and showed work by Mark Mothersbaugh and Karen Finley, and more. A meeting with Joel Peter-Witkin was important to her artistic development as well.

Wessel’s film tells the story of her artistic life largely from her point of view in a series of intimate conversations at the kitchen table in her house in Albuquerque. We also see her firing an automatic weapon outdoors (perhaps an homage to William Burroughs), and going for drives in the mysterious, awesome, sometimes spooky landscape of New Mexico.

She offers much engaging and in-depth commentary on each major painting she has created. The film moves chronologically through her career, beginning with her first paintings which were done while she was studying with Albuquerque artist and lifelong artistic mentor and friend, Dale Caudill, aka Bo, who also has a prominent role in the film. He’s a charming hippie rogue of an art teacher and friend and offers much entertaining commentary along with her fascinating descriptions of what went into each painting.

The film is expertly filmed, appreciative, and has enough of its own surreal touches to create the right mood for learning about Love’s work. Periodically the viewer is teased with lingering shots of New Mexico semi-wastelands combined with David Lynchian sounds and music create a slightly menacing, surreal mood. I liked that aspect of the documentary. It became at times like Moore’s paintings.

There are also interviews with artists in Berlin, where Moore-Love lived for a time and participated in an infamous group show that briefly became the talk of the town via front-page tabloid newspaper articles (which boosted sales of the newspapers). The sensationalistic articles accused the artists of making and showing obscene art because some of it depicted nude children as part of works of art, something that, if you believe the reports in the mass media, is one of the great horrors of the 20th century along with WWII, Nazi death camps, and Hiroshima. My take on the late-20th and 21st-century hysteria about the exploitation of children is that it’s a metaphor for widespread exploitation of all people. Pretty much everyone knows on some level (conscious or unconscious) that they are exploited by a heartless system (governmental and economic/corporate), however they are relatively powerless to do anything about it — just as children are relatively powerless. Thus in the media and the culture, children stand in for a widespread exploitation — they are a metaphor for adults who feel basically good and innocent but know they’re exploited. Not that most people know this on a conscious level. But artists know this too. Wounded waifs have been a staple motif of the lowbrow/ pop surrealist art movement that I surveyed in my books WEIRDO DELUXE (2005) and WEIRDO NOIR (2010). San Francisco artist Margaret Keane may have kicked it all off with her big-eyed girl paintings which I feel reflect a kind of wounded innocence following WWII. Certainly Mark Ryden (whose paintings sell for upwards of one million dollars each, but that’s another story) is working in that tradition, as is Moore-Love.

The destruction of human dreams and innocence is a major theme in Moore-Love’s art. Wessel subtly suggests that the Vietnam war and her father’s absence while serving in the military there were an influence on Moore-Love’s sense that there’s an underlying violence and nastiness to American life. Curiously, one of the most striking works of photojournalism to emerge from that war is the photo by Nick Ut of the “napalm girl,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc. She was fleeing the heat of a napalm bombing in a village she lived in. Moore-Love may not have been directly influenced by the image of the terrorized Kim Phuc, but the spirit of that photo and the horror of it suffuse her art.

The bizarre evils and incongruities of our hierarchal, top-down managed society are the kind of things that fine artists like Moore-Love address. As Moore-Love describes the influences on her work, Wessel provides images of paintings and works she refers to. Wessel has put many hours into putting together a documentary that flows along with seeming effortlessness, but which involved a huge amount of research and work.

This documentary may not be for the squeamish, but it’s well worth watching for an in-depth portrait of a significant American artist who has been addressing big issues in her complex, amazing paintings for decades.

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Russ Meyer’s Breast Early Years and a Few Sad Ones at the End

20 Nov

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Russ Meyer, born in 1922, started making short films as a teenager. Later he took a lot of pin-up photos for Playboy and other magazines, working with hundreds of nudie models and even movie stars in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He photographed Liz Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, June Wilkinson, and Anita Ekberg, who had the biggest boobs of all. Later he made hyperactive, violent, very sexually provocative films independently, financing them himself. His films are now regarded as cult classics.

Meyer got into the nudie biz because of a suggestion by an old army pal named Don Ornitz, son of a blacklisted Hollywood novelist and screenwriter, Samuel Ornitz, one of the Hollywood Ten of the McCarthy-era commie witch hunts. Ornitz was doing work for girlie mags and knew that Meyer loved to look at and photograph nude or semi-nude women, so he suggested that Meyer do some work for pin-up calendars and the skin mags. At the time, Meyer was working in Oakland, California doing industrial films for the SP railroad, working as a part-time projectionist at the fifteen-hundred-seat El Rey Burlesque Theater in Oakland, taking movie stills, and other such gigs.

Meyer quickly became one of Playboy magazine’s top photographers. Founded in 1953, Playboy became a hit because it was stylish and sophisticated. It featured photos of glamorized versions of the girl next door, wholesome and sweet, and totally nude. When Meyer did a photo shoot, he would imagine the layout of the photo spread in the magazine, including the type. He would make sketches to storyboard the photo shoot and was good at telling a story with props — the rumpled bed, the gauzy romantic candles, wine glasses and so on. Hot stuff for its time, the 1950s and early 1960s.

Meyer got into making feature films when he invented a new genre of American film, the “nudie cutie.” It began with a friend’s desire to make a nudist film and cash in on the nudist-film fad. His friend Peter DeCenzie owned the high-class striptease club in Oakland where Meyer had worked as a projectionist now and then. The place featured comedians, an orchestra, and of course gorgeous dancers. The two men made a short film about burlesque star Tempest Storm called French Peep Show in 1950. Shot on 16mm it was blown up to 35mm to be shown on the big screen.

In 1958 DeCenzie called Meyer and asked him to help make another film, a nudist film. At that time horny guys who wanted to see nudity in print or in a film could find it in books that featured nude models for artists or in films that were intended to document the nudist lifestyle or in ethnographic films made in places where humans had yet to wear a lot of clothing. Those were legit outlets, legal films. The strict Hayes code had made nudity in Hollywood films taboo from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Legit nudist films had been made beginning in the 1930s and were intended, in part, to promote the nudist lifestyle and values. Quite a few mid-20th-century European avant-garde intellectuals, cutting-edge artists, and social revolutionaries felt that human civilization had gone down a blind alley with the development of hierarchies of power that allow the exploitation of people, animals, and plants, and the whole ecosystem of the planet. They also felt that human sexuality had been repressed, and that was not good for people. They advocated a return to a more natural state of human society, one which included nudism. Nudist films were made to promote this goal, or, sometimes, just to show nude people romping around and give horny dudes a chance to see some female nudity.

Note that in the 1960s, the hippies felt the same way about nudism. They tried to go back to the land and set up communes that would feature organic farming and ecologically sustainable land use. Nudism was sometimes part of this back-to-the-land movement too. (For a time long ago I lived in a co-op/ semi-commune called Nottingham Coop in Madison, Wisconsin where men and women shared a big bathroom and showered together — the idea was to not feel shameful about the human body.) So, although nudism is sometimes viewed as a kind of joke and nudist camps as places where people who shouldn’t be nude are, it has its roots in ideas that have a lot of validity.

Nineteen-thirties nudist films were not hugely popular but later, in post-WWII America, when censorship was loosening up following the war, the nudist film took off. The 1954 film Garden of Eden was one of the first. Edgar Ulmer, director of the noir classic Detour (there is an article that I wrote on Ulmer’s Detour here, on fleshapoid films), made Naked Venus in 1958. The fantastic Doris Wishman made quite a few nudist films in the early 1960s, including Nude on the Moon, a wonderful, campy sci-fi nudist film.

When Meyer’s friend who ran the El Rey decided to make a nudist film in 1958, he was hoping to cash in on the sudden revival of nudist films. Meyers thought they featured too many paunchy people, not the super-erotic females he wanted to photograph. However, Meyer had just finished shooting a spread for Playboy in which women of the future would be wearing see-through clothing and Meyers thought that the same idea could be adapted to a humorous film featuring nudism. It would be about a man who is totally inhibited and repressed, but who loves to imagine women nude, in some sense seeing through their clothing in everyday situations.

This idea was refined and became the first nudie-cutie, The Immoral Mr. Teas. Teas is a nerd who, after dental surgery, has X-ray vision. It was a smash hit and grossed three million bucks on a 24,000-dollar investment. (Perhaps in today’s dollars it would be 240,000-dollar investment that returned 30 million dollars.) Meyer put in twelve grand and so did DeCenzi. The idea was to shoot the film in four days on Eastman Kodak color 16mm film, which would be blown up to 35mm.

“We need four, maybe five well-stacked nude chicks,” said Meyer as to the essential part of the cast. DeCenzi’s regular burlesque strippers balked as did Meyer’s cheesecake models. Meyer turned to an old girlie photographer pal, Earl Leaf. The goateed photographer would tell starlets and models who were reluctant to disrobe for the camera, “nothing risqué, nothing gained.” Leaf talked Ann Peters into being a waitress in the film. Other actresses were soon on board. The film was shot at a remote lake in the Malibu hills, a Westwood ice cream parlor, El Namez beach, and in Meyer’s home. Some of the scenarios involving the nude women become somewhat surrealistic.

On opening night the theater was raided by the police and the film was on ice for eight months. However, after a theater booked it in Seattle and it was a hit there, it became a blockbuster all around the US. This launched a whole new genre — the sex comedy or nudie cutie. Many such films were made in the late 1950s and 1960s.

By the mid-1960s audiences became restless watching just silly nudism films and sexually risqué comedies and a new genre emerged called the roughie or roughie nudie. In those films elements of violent conflict and sometimes sadism were added to the nudie action. Nudie-cutie / nudist-film directors like Doris Wishman felt compelled to keep up with the trend with films like Bad Girls Go to Hell. Meyer himself got in on the quirky but highly profitable roughie genre as well. Some of his most famous films feature psycho cops (SuperVixens) and psycho females (Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!!) who really do nasty and violent things to members of the opposite sex in a semi-sexual or overtly sexual contexts.

Now when people think of Meyer’s films, they think of grind house and drive-in movies about powerful, semi-Amazonian women with enormous breasts. In Wikipedia the film historian Jimmy McDonough is cited as having asserted that Russ Meyer’s use of powerful, overwhelming female characters puts him in his own unique genre of film. What would the genre be called? Psycho Amazonian Women with Huge Boobies? Was Meyer a feminist of sorts? The women in his films are powerful and they are quite open about wanting sexual fulfillment. His female protagonists sometimes end up defeating the men, another quirk of his films that was possible because he was making independent films rather than conventional Hollywood films.

Humor, some of it very dark, was always part of the Meyers style of filmmaking. He repeatedly told the screenwriter and film critic Roger Ebert (who collaborated with Meyer on Meyer’s one mainstream Hollywood film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970) that his irreverence was the key to his artistic success. This combination of humor and extremes of sex and violence plus a critique/lampooning of uptight moral values and stereotypes influenced many filmmakers, including John Waters. While on the surface there might not seem to be that much connection, it’s clear that the aggressive, Amazonian characters in films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble owe quite a debt to the characters in films by Meyer.

Below: Publicity still for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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Waters has written about Meyer in magazines and books. In the July-August, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Waters published an article called a Trash Tour of Los Angeles. Meyer’s green-and-orange home at 3121 Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills above the Hollywood Resevoir, was featured. Waters called the home a museum because it was packed with framed posters and memorabilia related to Meyer’s career in film.

Meyer financed his films himself and held on to the rights. In his final years he worked out of his house in Hollywood and sold his films directly from the house, often answering the phone to take orders. One fan and acquaintance of Meyer’s who prefers to remain anonymous told me, “If you called the number on the back of his self distributed videotapes in the 80s and early 90s, he actually answered the phone, and he was hilarious.”

Below — the house on Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills as it looked when Meyer lived there.

(Photo by David Frasier)

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The big projects of his final years were a book all about his films and life and a 12-hour compilation film to be called The Breast of Russ Meyer. The book began as a one-volume book and ended up being three volumes. He worked on it for fifteen years with help from the writer David Frasier. Once a year, Meyer would fly Frasier out to Hollywood. The two worked daily for a week at Meyer’s home in Hollywood, starting at 5:30 am. At six pm they would head to Musso-Frank restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard for beers for Frasier and near-frozen gin for Meyer. Steaks and chops from the grill were part of the evening because for Meyer “cutting meat” was part of male friendship.

Frasier wrote that “By mid-1999 it was apparent to those in the company that RM was unable to complete the project” due to a loss of mental clarity because of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meyer ended up in the care of a woman who may have been domineering and exploitative toward him. Oddly, however, he might’ve sought that to some extent. Kitten Natividad, a star in some of his films and longtime sexual companion, said that he was always engaged in tempestuous personal relationships with women.

The person who commented on Meyer’s final years to me, and who prefers to remain anonymous, said that, “Until the end of his life he had a lot fun until some very bad people had him declared unfit and kept him from the people who really cared about him. His condition wasn’t as bad as reported, sadly, until the very end. When I couldn’t take the job as his assistant back in 94/5, he hired a woman who basically stole his life from him.

“She got power of attorney, got him totally doped up on prescription meds and wouldn’t let anyone see him, because she knew that her gig would be over. There were a few times when we got him away from her and from the house and he wasn’t aware of how bad his situation was, but he was completely lucid and his memory was sharp.

“Unfortunately, many of the people who were aware of what was happening are dead or dying now too, such as Kitten Natividad, Tura Sultana, and Col. Rob from Mondo Video. If you ever talk to Eric Caidin he can tell you all about it.”

The biography called Russ, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film by Jimmy McDonough describes the final years.

Frasier writes that they were filled with equal measure of Shakespearean poignancy and perfidy.

The source I cited above (unnamed) stated that she sold a lot of his memorabilia and rights to his films. However, Wikipedia says that his estate, including the rights to his films, was willed to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in honor of his late mother.

Meyer died on September 18, 2004, of complications of pneumonia. He was 82 years old. His grave is in Stockton, California. The gravestone states that he was “King of the Nudies” and “I Was Glad to Do It”.

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DON’T FORGET TO PICK UP SOME COOL BOOKS BY MATT DUKES JORDAN!!

BUKOWSKI’S LA —- a cool illustrated guide to Bukowski’s places in LA — His life story told through where he lived !!!  never before seen photos by Sam Cherry — poems, and much more !!!

POE, JEKYLL, AND HYDE — A NEW book in which POE appears in the story of Jekyll and Hyde !!! Plus the entire original book by Stevenson… Plus an awesome essay on mashups, Poe, and more !!!

WEIRDO DELUXE — the classic first survey of the entire lowbrow / pop surrealist art movement

WEIRDO NOIR — very cool goth lowbrow / pop surrealist art 24 artists, interviews, and a cool timeline and intro — awesome color printing of the many pieces of art