I promised it elsewhere, and I’m hoping for a small respite from odes to Catwoman and Van Damme (although, when teamed with Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Dennis Rodman, and/or a second Van Damme, the Belgian meatstick fits into this heading, as well), so….
A brief ode to sleaze, in the form of a list:
1. Important historical forebears:
It seems de rigeur in discussions of real trash cinema to nod toward Joe Bob Briggs, a reviewer for a Texas newspaper who in the ‘seventies or early ‘eighties grew desperate writing the same review, week after week, for mediocre Hollywood product. So he picked a pen-name and persona and began tossing out glorious epistles on the latest drive-in fare. He would routinely round off a review by counting the body parts that “roll,” the number of breasts bared (oddly, often an odd number), and sundry choice bits of dialogue or grue. Check him out.
I will only quote this, from his 1997 Hubbie awards, found here:
BEST GROSS-OUT SCENE
“Blood & Donuts”: Live rat-eating.
“Head of the Family”: Giant mutant tongue-licking.
“One Night Stand”: Plastic-surgery stitch-ripping.
“Polymorph”: Close-up razor-blade self-surgery.
“Tracks of a Killer”: Hot tongs to the open wound.
And the winner is…
“Mother”: Olympia Dukakis rubbing blood on her cheeks and REMOVING HER WIG.”
And, sure–the MST3000 guys, too, but I came to them long after I’d found this niche, so they seem more like context than precedent. And they’re less connoisseurs than the funniest stoned hecklers you’ll ever meet. (Perhaps the ONLY funny stoned hecklers, but I digress.)
What I really relish about real trash is the thorough examination of what cheap fx can do to a human body, or an inhuman body. Think of the most ridiculous way to slice, dice, dismember, puncture–then an impossible implement for said verb, then give it to a mutant. Spray blood everywhere. Do a thirty-second close-up on the piece of meat covered in dye that your fx crew spent seven hours crafting, after twenty-two years of reading Fangoria.
2a. Inevitable dash of pretension, part one: Did someone say Bakhtin? I heard one of you sneeze it. Of course. Trash cinema is the true inheritor of the carnival grotesque, the place where no boundaries (of physical or moral space) are left uncrossed; we in the audience glory in the sheer silliness of the carnal and the material, revel in the effortful hyperbolic attention to mortality.
2b. I.d.o.p., part two: Or maybe De Sade? While your mass-produced action film seeks small doses of difference to (ahem) “reinvigorate” the necessary repetitions of generic gags, real trash films are Sadean encyclopedias of bodily destruction. But I prefer the Bakhtinian form of pretension, myself.
3. Ethics: the dismantling of bodies is so exaggerated, yet so earnest, that one is shifted from the dull frame of mimetics and into a pure aesthetic alternative plane. Once you give yourself over to the film not being real, suddenly the moral codes of trash film seem not reprehensible or non-existent but — exactly! — highly-stylized alternate ethical dimensions. This is vague, but I’m no philosopher; I would point, instead, to Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which riffs through various trash-film genres to fully map the contours of ethics in a world wholly populated by assassins, villains, rapists, etc. By liberating us from the (dull) demands of the real world and real bodies, trash films invite us to read, assess, and think through morality without baseline assumptions. Sure, you and I wouldn’t stick hot tongs in an open wound… but it probably makes some kind of sense in Tracks of a Killer. The goal is to understand, to engage in that world.
4. I don’t know if I buy the above, but what fun! Fun is key here–I learned how to be a critic of film less by watching Bergman or Welles than by seeing the by-products of now-nameless hacks. I would emphasize: I did not ironically stand outside the films, mocking their silly “hack”-ness or ironically “appreciating” their exploitativeness or snobbishly dismissing their crude aesthetics. I more fully understand how, say, the suturing of shots really works by enjoying the crude stitching done in the first Evil Dead. I learned to be fully present, to be a viewer with not detached from ANYTHING, by choosing to stay up and see Hard Ticket to Hawaii.
Too many of the alt-film critics from the various Weekly or Pages rags never lose that sense of hauteur, of being just above and outside the experience of any film–so even a rave can end up seeming like a discourse on something watched years ago. What J. B. Briggs did was revitalize reviewing, by really giving in to pure viewing. God bless ‘im.
6. Yes, yes–but this is boy shit, again and again. What about the t&a factor? Yeah, hard to ignore. Could I get away with pointing back up to Bakhtin?
6a. No, you can’t–because it’s not just boobies, you bastard, it’s violence toward women, nine times out of thirteen. You make a good point. Could I get away with pointing back up to Tarantino? See, his Bill movies don’t revise a strong central protagonist, escaping the desecrations typical of the trash film–he reiterates how that escape is central to the ethos much great trash film. Like Carol Clover’s small nod to the potential for feminist empowerment in certain slasher flicks, we might examine how often these films (in their alternate moral, physical universes) foreground the relentless power dynamics of gender, the ruthless violence endemic against women, and yet relish the resistance to and vengeful demolition of that patriarchal ….
… ah, maybe. I’m having trouble selling this one, unless you buy the Bakhtin thing.
What number is this? Whatever. Some worthy titles: Frankenhooker, Escape 2000, almost anything by Takashi Miike, the oft-mentioned-in-passing Leprechaun series especially in space, The Hills Have Eyes, Ilsa She-devil pics (recommended to me, I kid you not, by Jello Biafra), Ed Wood’s work both innocent early stuff and later more lurid (The Sinister Urge, if you can find it), The Horny Vampire, 2000 Maniacs and Blood Feast….
I could go on. Forget my suggestions. Go to the video store, and ignore the dvd section. Look for videos. You’ll find ’em.