Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The turkeys have escaped

If you found yourself chuckling at the above, I've got good news for you. 

There's this TV programme called Mystery Science Theater 3000, from which the above graphic was taken. In every episode they screen an entire movie, usually but not always American low-budget horror or sci-fi from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Meanwhile the cast, permanently silhouetted at the bottom of the screen as if in the front row of an auditorium, constantly crack wise to ensure you never get a chance to enjoy the film as its makers intended.
If, however, you knew exactly what the photo represented and found yourself grinding your teeth at the very memory of the thing, I've got bad news for you.
Much as we feared, the programme's influence has been permanent.

Though I was surprised to learn it has not been produced since 1999, MST3K (as it is popularly known) remains a touchstone for an entire generation, and the ultimate source of validation for people who think that the only possible means of engaging with low budget genre films is in snorting derision. It’s for people who think it’s hilarious whenever a set wobbles, or you can see the strings on the devil bat.
You can only imagine the trouble these poor souls must have with live theatre: “How was Hamlet, honey?” “Terrible! Hilarious! Some of the dialogue was good, but no way was that set a real castle!”

This sort of myopia is nothing new of course: what bothers me specifically that it is a regression.

Like most of my generation, I was first exposed to the likes of Ed Wood and Herschell Gordon Lewis by the Medved Brothers, whose hugely popular books – most famously The Golden Turkey Awards – first unveiled that whole lost continent of low budget, off the wall movies that the standard film encyclopaedias either ignored or skipped over in a sentence or two of derisive guesswork. That they did so even more derisively is much to be regretted, but they were pioneers, nonetheless.
My friend Mykal Banta – author of the peer-free blog Radiation Cinema! – shares my detestation for MST3K, and is equally ill-disposed towards the collected works of the Medveds. But the latter – though of no use to anyone now – can be at least partially excused for a number of reasons.
They were trailblazers, and however regrettable their superciliousness, they at least had nothing better or more substantial to compare themselves to. At times, their commentaries were genuinely witty (though most often they were not). And best of all, every so often they abandoned the attitudes of the schoolyard bully and went after films that could actually hit back. Their Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time finds room for brave parries at The Omen, Ivan the Terrible and Last Year at Marienbad, while The Hollywood Hall of Shame – focusing on the film world’s most expensive flops and by far their best book – includes among its uncharacteristically in-depth and seriously researched essays a forensic account of the Heaven’s Gate folly that is among the most enjoyable skewerings of cinematic pretension I have ever read.
But most of the time, I'll admit, Mykal's right. They were a disgrace.

But then, suddenly and wonderfully, everything changed. Instead of the binoculars with which we were expected to view these films, at safe and disdainful distance, we were suddenly handed a microscope by a wonderful and equally influential publication called Incredibly Strange Films, edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno.
I discovered it in my teens a few years after it was published and it instantly became my bible, one of that handful of movie books that changed the way I looked at cinema and without which I would truly be a different person today. I used to carry it to and from school every day, and read and re-read it every spare minute I had.

From the introduction:

Most of the films discussed test the limits of contemporary (middle-class) cultural acceptability, mainly because in varying ways they don't meet certain "standards" utilised in evaluating direction, acting, dialogue, sets, continuity, technical cinematography, etc. Many of the films are overtly "lower-class" or "low-brow" in content and art direction. However, a high percentage of these works disdained by the would-be dictators of public opinion are sources of pure enjoyment and delight, despite improbable plots, "bad" acting, or ragged film technique. At issue is the notion of "good taste," which functions as a filter to block out entire areas of experience judged - and damned - as unworthy of investigation.

Vale and Juno approached the same films as the Medveds from the exact opposite angle. By presenting them as the uncompromised products of unique creative imaginations they sought to assign them a more dignified place in screen history. It was a revelation, and it was exhilarating.
It was also embarrassing, because like all great critical writing it showed us things we should have been able to see for ourselves, yet somehow could not or did not. Those brilliant, damning quotation marks - "standards", "bad", "good taste" - exposed the inadequacy of mockery as a means of addressing whole worlds of cinema, simply because they have the audacity not to conform to the boring standards of consensus Hollywood, and the sheer silliness of critics whose paltry imaginations were affronted by low budgets and non-mainstream ideas and effects. In these pages, films like Plan Nine From Outer Space, hitherto regarded as good only for sniggers, re-emerged as the unique visions of some of the most cherishable eccentrics who ever picked up a movie camera.

So what makes films like Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Wizard of Gore or Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies worthwhile? First of all: unfettered creativity. Often the films are eccentric - even extreme - presentations by individuals freely expressing their imaginations, who throughout the filmmaking process improvise creative solutions to problems posed either by circumstance or budget - mostly the latter.

Bad movies are uninspired, dull, derivative, conveyor belt movies. These ones, by contrast, are wild and imaginative and unlike anything else - and it really doesn't matter much if the space ship is cardboard and the actors recite their dialogue in a manner that doesn't happen to match whatever the consensus is on naturalism this week.
These are films to be enjoyed, not guffawed at by people who probably think Star Wars is the greatest film of all time. (Perhaps the biggest indictment of MST3K is that it exposes these movies to kids who might otherwise have never encountered them,and then simultaneously and knowingly crushes any enthusiasm they might have discovered for them before it has a chance to bloom, rather in the way that generations of British schoolchildren have been turned off history by Terry Deary's idiotic books.)

Vale and Juno went further still, however. They exposed not only our gestures but also our motives. They pointed out that far more than revealing deficiencies in the object of our scorn, we were boasting of the limits of our imaginations, and also, obliviously, revealing distinctly unsavoury aspects of ourselves. Their genius was to make the Golden Turkey approach to these films seem not just wrong, not merely silly and pointless, but also positively shaming:

The concepts of "good taste" are intricately woven into society's control process and class structure. Aesthetics are not an objective body of laws suspended above us like Plato's supreme "Ideas"; they are rooted in the fundamental mechanics of how to control the population and maintain the status quo... The power to literally create desire, fashion, consumer trends, opinions and even one's very identity is expressed through film and video. This force - power through persuasion - reaches deep into the backbrain, rendering more brutal, physical control tactics obsolete.

Why do so few of us sense the irony in laughing at the fashions we wore in previous decades as if they are objectively absurd, while studiously keeping up with those of the present day (only to laugh at them just as heartily when their time comes)? Because cultural conformity's a powerful beast, that's why.
The forces that govern our reactions to the hairstyles and trousers of thirty years ago - the hairstyles we willingly sported and the trousers we happily wore - also condition our judgement of ‘bad’ acting, ‘bad’ special effects, ‘bad’ writing, or ‘inadequate’ technical standards.
Of course taste is subjective, but, just as surely, consensus is arbitrary.

Now, this is not to say that objective standards do not exist, or that there are not works of art that are greater and lesser than others; at least, that is not a position that I would ever endorse myself. Certainly Tolstoy and Bach and Fellini offer deeper, richer, more considered artistic experiences than Ed Wood, as Wood himself would be the last to deny. But it does not follow from that there is no place for Wood, or that he should be pilloried simply for being different, or for having the energy and invention to attempt to recreate his ideas without access to the resources and technology to which we are lazily accustomed. (It's the guilty, self-loathing lament of many a lofty critic: How dare he try?)

In any event, though we can happily argue about aesthetics until forever, there is one other much more important reason for hating the Medved/MST approach, and that is simply that it is irredeemably snobbish and ill-mannered. Clearly, these are not films that are going to appeal to everyone, and if you can't see their peculiar magic, that's not a problem for me. But mockery - an activity which by its very nature seeks not merely to insult but also to advertise one's own greater sophistication in contrast - is a disgusting attitude to take to works that have plainly had to struggle in order to exist, and especially to the individuals who did the struggling.
Whenever I think of Mystery Science Theater, I think of something Ed Wood said to Valda Hansen, quoted in Rudolph Grey's wonderful Nightmare of Ecstasy. Wood was a nut, but he was sincere, he was impassioned and he got off his arse and created. All he wanted was to entertain people with his ideas. When most of us would have given up a hundred times, he kept on trying. He never made it. He thought he would die completely unknown, and he probably thought there was no worse fate. In fact, he was proved wrong. He died well-known - and the laughing stock of the world. He didn't live to enjoy the sensitive reappraisal of his work ushered in by Incredibly Strange Films, but he got to see himself hailed as the worst director of all time by the Medveds.

Did he like that? What do you think?

Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me.

If there were nothing else, just those few sad, beautiful words, playing in my head on endless loop, would be enough to ensure I reserved my ire and disinterest solely for the corporate cogs turning out their soulless, narcotic multiplex fodder - never for the work of characters like Ray Dennis Steckler or Ted V. Mikels, producing instantly identifiable, genuinely unique and constantly surprising and unconventional cinema on nickels and dimes.
Without Vale and Juno, I would have known Steckler, for instance, only through the Medved prism: as the creator of two of the ‘worst film titles of all time’: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. Nothing in their writings would have inspired me to look deeper into the man’s work, and thus to the discovery that he is one of the greatest alternative artists of film history whose works – those two cited especially – have provided me with a decade or two of endless and intense stimulation. (And to glaze the turd: they’re actually great titles too. The worst film title of all time, I think you’ll find, is The Silence of the Lambs.)

I do know - and mean no personal offfence to - people who like Mystery Science Theater, but truly and unapologetically, I wish they didn't. I wish they didn't warm to its tone, to its cynicism, its meanness, its unreflective endorsement of arbitrary and limiting notions of cultural value.
The trouble is that they would (and probably will) read this and protest that their love of MST is in no way incompatible with a genuine respect for Ed Wood and his peers. Some of them might even tell me to get the bug out of my ass, stop applying exactly the kind of sweeping cultural judgements I affect to decry, and lighten up a bit.
But I've gone round and round these issues now for twenty-five years, and I can't see the logic of any position but my own. And if they tell me they can love Wood and Lewis and Steckler and 1950s horror, and MST at the same time, I can't really believe them.
I just can't believe them.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nobody wants to eat a film: The hermetic universe of Ted V. Mikels

Okay, before you do anything else, certainly before you read any more of this, pop over to here and, if you have a quid or two to spare, contribute to the budget of Ted V Mikels’s latest film.
This is the first time the legendary filmmaker has part-funded one of his films by public subscription, and the campaign's only got about a week left to run.

You don't need to want to see the film. Indeed, even with no interest in seeing it at all, you can still feel the weight of screen history pressing on this, and enjoy the thrill of having a chance to help influence it.
That ten pounds you were saving to go and see Pacific Rim? Wait for the DVD, and use it for something your grandchildren will want to hear about instead.

O tempora, o mores; Mikels makes his films on video these days. And not for the increasingly fickle and apathetic masses who paid his way through the sixties and seventies either. Now he's a fully paid up alternative cinema legend, and his constituency are primarily those who rediscovered his films in the 1980s and 90s, when that whole alternative canon of maverick auteurs was first erected (on the ruins of the earlier, derogatory 'Golden Turkey' boom). For me and many others it was a glorious time to be a young film fan, as names like Lewis and Steckler and Mikels, whom we had hitherto encountered only in the course of their being dismissed as jokes, were suddenly being treated with respect and hailed as heroes, and their extraordinary back catalogues were at last thrown open for all to see by sympathetic video distributors.
But among that pantheon, Ted V. Mikels is unique in that he’s not just a professional cult hero: he's still a full-time moviemaker, some sixty-plus years since he first picked up a camera in anger.

Of all of them, Mikels is by far the most insistent that the film-maker is servant to his public, and that there is something fundamentally awry with the concept of the director who aims to please himself first and foremost, and expects the audience to join him. To him, the point is to do as good and original job as you can, but strictly within the conceptual parameters dictated by the state of the marketplace at any given time. Few auteurs – and whatever you think of him, he’s unquestionably one of those – have been so insistent that their job is to tailor their own tastes to those of the majority:

You can put your blood, sweat, tears, soul, and all your friends’ and everybody’s money into a motion picture, but if the world doesn’t like it, you eat it. Literally, you take it out, you put salt on it - you might have to wet the film a little bit first so the salt will stick - and then you eat it, because there’s nothing else you can do with it. So, nobody wants to eat a film, so therefore you must always research your market before you make a picture. Don’t make a picture that pleases you, make a picture that you think is going to please the world.

And yet still, unquestionably, the personality comes through, as any fan of the man can tell you, and not least because there are often few things as bizarre as Ted V. Mikels's idea of what is going to please the world. Hence that odd paradox noted by earlier observers: though no two Mikels films are alike, they're all at the same time unmistakably his. And their odd, spontaneous energy comes by cable direct from the man himself.

Energy is a key word when considering Mikels, along with enthusiasm, stamina and impregnable optimism: it's no accident that he is the one major name among the sixties and seventies exploitation pioneers who's still going. He's a film-making machine, part man and part celluloid, who, in his own words, has spent "28 hours a day, 10 days a week" making films. (Incidentally, as well as a director and an engaging raconteur, he's also a skilled magician, ventriloquist, accordionist, archer, fencer, horse rider, acrobat, weightlifter and escapologist. He’s also famous for having once lived in a castle, with a rotating pool of seven ‘castle ladies’: you can see both in his films, most notably Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, filmed extensively in the castle and its grounds.)

It's a shame he never wrote a book of his experiences, a kind of memoir-cum-manual along the lines of King Vidor's On Film-making. He's a born teacher, and the tips and tricks he has to offer budding moviemakers aren't going to be the same as Vidor's, for certain.
For him, the essence of moviemaking is logistical: it's not so much the product itself as what creating the product entails: how to get that effect in those circumstances, or on that budget; film to him is a physical and mental challenge, and the actual process of making it is the joy he thrives on. That's why as soon as he's finished, he's on to the next. He doesn't want a static body of work to look back on; he wants to be out there, doing it.
Ted likes being a cult director, as who would not, but he is wary of the exploitation mantle and positively dismissive of the suggestion that his work contributes to any kind of trash-aesthetic:

If the cult following is paying regard to somebody - like myself - who has made films under twenty impossible obstacles, but was able to do it and put together something out of nothing due to their sheer, driving will, then I'm really pleased with it. But I do not like to be included in admirations of trash films. I dislike that completely because I don't consider my films trash, and neither do the people who have actually seen them, which I find many of the people who have written about them clearly have not.

His preference is for action adventures, and he’s contributed at least two trash-classics (sorry, Ted!) to that genre: The Doll Squad (later ripped-off as Charlie’s Angels) and Ten Violent Women. But, he stresses, he’ll make whatever people want him to make, and he’s probably best known for his horror movies, especially the pair that keep him busily turning out sequel after sequel to this day: 1969's Astro-Zombies (with John Carradine, Tura Satana and Wendell Corey!) and 1972's The Corpse Grinders (that everyday story of wily entrepreneurs who mince dead bodies into catfood and inspire the nation’s cats to go on a murder rampage).

If there's one film that's going to be in the brackets after his name until the end of time, it's Corpse Grinders, dominated by that amazing central image of the corpse grinding machine, through which bodies are fed at one end on a conveyor belt before squirting out as sausage meat at the other. Mikels built it for a disgracefully extravagant thirty dollars. (As he points out, it doesn’t matter whether an effect cost one dollar or a million: all that counts is whether or not it works.) But the big surprise of the film is how good-natured and fun it is: Mikels does not take the opportunity of the grotesque central idea to go all out for an HG Lewis gorefest; it's more like a live-action episode of Scooby Doo, albeit with the most outre central idea and the weirdest cast of oddballs of just about any film you've ever seen in your life.
It was made, in Ted’s words, with "no money, baloney sandwiches with no cheese, a little bit of mustard and a lot of heart and soul" but the take was enormous - three million was the conservative estimate simply for first-run - and the film made number 11 at the American box-office. That's some achievement, impossible to even imagine today, but Mikels himself is happy to stress that when he says his films were low budget, he means really low budget:

I think I spent ninety percent of my life looking for money for films, and most of the films I made were for no money. But I managed a film or two a year, using short ends - twenty to fifty feet - of raw stock that I bought from the major studios for a penny a foot. Some of these short ends were so short that you had to reload the camera after every take. It was very demanding on your patience. People just don't know how hard it was putting a film together this way. They talk about low budgets as seven thousand dollars - if I'd had seven thousand dollars for some of my films I could have made a spectacular!

There’s good reason to love all these movies for what they are: supreme examples of an independent commercial cinema, and of just how personal genre material can seem when there's absolutely no interference whatsoever. And there is a campy quality to these horror and action subjects that make them ideal midnight movies, and understandably the works for which Mikels is best known.

Nonetheless, my own personal favourites are two of his lesser-known, earlier titles - and if anyone reading is inclined to write him off as a mere schlockmeister, make sure you see both of them first: Strike Me Deadly (1963) and The Black Klansman (1966).
Both are taut and precise black and white thrillers, with neither flab nor flubs; they display an aptitude and a concision of technique and expression that would be commendable in any low-budget studio movie: as the work of a non-studio maverick with tiny crews and a next-to-nothing budget they are sensational.

Strike Me Deadly, in fact - and incredibly - was his very first feature production, and he hocked everything he owned to finance it. Were I in his position I suspect I'd devise something with the technical complexity of My Dinner With Andre. Mikels instead devised a suspense thriller with difficult locations, complex motion photography and a raging forest fire, and brought it in with a nickels and dimes budget and a crew of four. (For the fire scenes, he integrated 16mm shots of controlled fires being dowsed during training exercises, but it’s not library footage: everything you see, Ted and his team shot for themselves.)
What really comes through is the man's enthusiasm, and the desire not just to overcome logistical challenges but to actually go looking for them, for the sheer pleasure of overcoming them. It is a filmmaker's film.

Even more unexpected is the sophistication of its narrative construction. The film plunges us straight into the action, without the smallest hint who the characters are, and with no background detail of any sort. All we know is what we see, as we see it: somewhere in the great outdoors, one guy stumbles upon a second guy in the act of cold-bloodedly murdering a third guy, and then starting a fire in the hope of getting away with it. When the second guy suddenly spots the first guy a chase begins. The first guy seems to get away, and rushes to a log cabin to tell the girl there what he has seen and that they have to get away and report it. Within seconds of his arrival, however, the killer bursts in.
This has so far occupied thirty nail-biting minutes, and it has scarcely occurred to us that we don't really know who these people are and what they are doing. But it is now, with the fire raging and the heroes trapped by the killer, that Mikels opts to backtrack, and fill in the gaps. Then, for the final third, we return to the action and find out how it is resolved.

It also looks good. For those of us with a black and white aesthetic, one of the best things about it is the vivid monochrome photography, but ironically this is the element of the film with which Ted is most displeased. Given the chance to do it again, he says, he would have sold even more of his possessions, or perhaps skimped yet further elsewhere, to shoot it in colour. Partly this is because the fires and backgrounds would look more impressive that way, but also because he is sure it limits its potential as a marketable commodity. Once, maybe, I'd have thought, but surely no longer. (There has been talk of colourising it: fair enough, I suppose, so long as the original remains available, but aesthetically? No, no, no!)

The Black Klansman is, if anything, even more compact, economical and effective, as well as an advance in terms of thematic depth and complexity, and the securing of effect through structure. (Contrasting with the essentially physical nature of the first film, there are here several gripping dialogue sequences, that hold the attention just as surely, with physical action used only intermittently.)
It could be argued that to a degree the film pulls the rug from under Mikels’s carefully cultivated stance of public servant: if all he cared about was box office returns then clearly this is an insane project to mount in 1966. Mikels knew how to make a safe buck at the drive-in: Astro-Zombies was only a couple of years away, after all! If he made this instead, it’s because he wanted to.
This is a message movie, really and truly, made with non-politically correct confidence, long before the very idea of a white commercial filmmaker utilising the civil rights movement as a source of exploitable drama would be perceived as suspect whatever his stance. While the central idea sounds like it’s straight out of the exploitation playbook – the father of a child killed in a church bombing poses as white to go undercover among the Klan to enact revenge - the film itself reeks of integrity, while still functioning powerfully on the level of exploitation thriller.
Like Dirty Harry it is a film that really does seek to recruit its audience’s outrage as a means of ensuring their attention and soliciting their approval; a work of moral passion, unpolluted by pussyfooting liberal piety. (A subplot about an equivalently murderous black gang stands out surprisingly now, just as surely as the main plot was contentious then.)
Here we see fulfilled the real value of Mikels's tendency to divorce content and form utterly in his work. As always, he's going all out to ingratiate himself with you as a film-maker, but the story being offered is the work of an angry man, who is more than happy to alienate; on the conceptual level he's not playing safe at all. The film has a socio-historic authenticity equivalent to (though of course distinct from) any newsreel.
There's a palpable realism to the settings and details, too, that belies the melodrama of the plot. The sense of makebelieve that lies behind even the best Hollywood sets is nowhere to be detected in this film's small, sweaty hotel rooms, cheap bars and austere, joyless offices. And look at the actors playing the Klansmen. If, somehow, this had been launched as a major studio project they'd all be Jack Palance-types, and knowingly villainous (as if they enjoy doing wrong, rather than think they're doing right). Mikels, by contrast, stresses how ordinary they are, especially Rock: sleazy, paunchy businessman by day and their leader by night, played superbly by Harry Lovejoy, a Mikels favourite also to be seen in Corpse Grinders and Girl In Gold Boots.

This is the liberty of the independent filmmaker really being used: Meyer gave us more nudity than the major studios could ever have dreamed of showing; Lewis, more explicit violence. But just as surely, no film from a major studio could possibly have told this story, at this time, from this angle, with this degree of intensity. So who’s best making use of his freedom: Meyer, Lewis or Mikels?
The film is exploitation cinema doing everything it’s able to do: use a saleable idea or gimmick to give it a head-start against the majors and make up for its lack of stars and lavish trappings, and use the fact that there's no requirement to conform to consensus ideology to actually say something. There were other exploitation films from around these years that used similar themes, of course, but few can boast the same obvious sincerity, let alone the same rigorous, unpretentious filmcraft. It is a small but gleaming masterpiece of low-budget American cinema.

In a way, these two films point to a road not taken for Mikels, technically as much as thematically, and it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the majors had stepped in after seeing them – as God knows they should have – and made an offer. Would he have foregone the freedom, and how would his career have shaped out? (Something like Sam Fuller's perhaps, or maybe Robert Aldrich's.) Probably, freedom is just too important to a man like Mikels. In any event, those Astro-Zombies were just around the corner, and so, too was the kind of immortality that neither Strike Me Deadly nor The Black Klansman could ever have provided.

That he’s still out there, still raising the money, still writing the scripts, still cranking out the movies, is just wonderful. If I had ten million dollars to give to any filmmaker in the world for any reason, I think I’d give it to Mikels to make the adaptation of Beowulf that has been his dream for his entire career and which, surely, would be his Citizen Kane, Ivan the Terrible and Heaven's Gate all rolled into one.
But until he or I strike it that lucky, Strike Me Deadly and The Black Klansman are testament enough to his talent, his commitment and his invention.

(Ted quotes from Vale and Juno's Incredibly Strange Films, John McCarty's The Sleaze Merchants, and the video series Directing Movies from "Action" to "Wrap" by Ted V. Mikels.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dropping in on The Ghoul

If you're anything like me, when you watch Veronica Carlson in a 1920s wig take a bath and then get slaughtered and eaten by a green-skinned maniac in a toga and sandals, you're thinking only one thing: where in England exactly is this movie set?
Read my speculations on the plot locations of The Ghoul, unless of course you're not anything like me, over at Hammer and Beyond (here).

Monday, January 28, 2013

Steckler for detail

That Ray Dennis Steckler appraisal I've been promising here for donks' yonks has landed over at Acidemic, here.