Forget crap–try sleaze!

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:


The runners-up:
“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.

“Transgression”: Corpse-licking.

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.)

2. Grue
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.

28 thoughts on “Forget crap–try sleaze!”

  1. Mike, if I were an editor of a major University press and I read this post as a chapter outline of a proposed manuscript, I’d say “sign on the dotted line, boy, and get me a draft by the end of the year.”

    As far as #3, read Bakhtin’s stuff on the chronotope–the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships expressed in a work of literature. Some critics have tried, with varying degrees of success, to apply this to film. From what I understand, you’re trying to understand how ethics are a matter of particular, concrete cases, and are not generalizable (if this is what you’re after, you should read Levinas as well). So genres (such as “trash cinema”) do not transcribe ideas discovered elsewhere, they themselves makes their own discoveries (this is from Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson’s lengthy book Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, by the way. It helped me make my way through Bakhtin’s more difficult writings, including “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”).

    As far as #2, check out Robert Stam’s Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film

  2. Wow–nice suggestions–thanks for those scholarly connections, my esteemed friend. I don’t know about publishing… maybe I will put something together. I do get all fired up about these films.

    But what we really want to know is: what’s your favorite brand of sleaze, JB?

  3. I’m not really a fan of sleaze but Mike’s reading is eloquently engaging. Still, it’s hard to take a discussion on sleaze seriously from a man who swore up and down that his child would never see him naked. Talk about your place where no boundaries (of physical or moral space) are left uncrossed! Now, I don’t know if Mike’s promise has been kept (thankfully), but I’m sure Bakhtin would have word or two to share on the subject.

  4. Brilliant exposition from Mike, as usual. This is definitely worth showing to a publisher, especially since that JFK assassination stuff is a little slow in coming out…

    I’m still not entirely sure what constitutes sleaze. Given the recurrent theme of dismemberment, let me ask: does ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ count as sleaze? I ask because i watched it and, setting aside any success it might have in whatever genre it is located, it is the only film i have ever watched where I wondered if it was the product of a diseased mind. Really, I’m no Michael Medved, but the sickness of the main characters was relentless; one repulsive scene after another.

  5. Oh, yeah, Zombie’s films are both homage to and rigid, ridiculously (it goes without saying) thorough enactments of sleaze. The conflation of sex and death–particularly the strange, uncomfortable scene where Forsythe slits Mama crazy’s guts while parroting sexual congress (with the viewers caught confused about which is which). The desire on the part of many characters not just to inflict pain, but to do so in extravagantly sadistic fashion. The strange code of ethics underlying the bad behavior on all fronts — just the vision of the “family” at the center, outside the rules of society. (In fact, the film is chock-a-block full of different kinds of family–the victims at the hotel are themselves a kind of familial unit. Hmmm… that may be another common element in sleaze–the disruptions and reconstructions of ‘deviant’ families. Deviant in senses both statistical and sociological.) Etc.

    The object in such a barrage of sadism and strangeness is, I’m arguing, a kind of liberation. From being Medvedian, from Hollywood aesthetics, from a moral code that is itself entirely corrupt. (A. O. Scott in one of his “trend” essays tossed off a reference to Zombie’s flick as one of a slew of pulp/pop films reimagining, after Iraq, the terrible swamps of revenge. Maybe.)

    And I’d push on the weird humor of the film. The connections I would like to draw between sadistic violence and carnivalesque farce are pretty damn explicit in Corpses: not just the name of Captain Spaulding but his whole ethos, as if Zombie was asking us for a kind of Marxist reassessment (ahem), seeing the psychotic energies underlying the anarchism of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho. (I have my doubts about Zeppo and Gummo’s anarchism.) And that great scene where the sheriffs bring in a film critic to find out more about the killers…

    As to my publishing, ah, sigh. A friend on campus here warned me a few years ago that practically the smart thing is not to kill yourself getting a book together before the sixth-year review but to prep it for after, when you have a real sabbatical in which to be more focused. (It might be interesting on some other thread, or just via email, to bat around our respective institutional existences. But then we’d be rehashing what academics always rehash, so fuck it. I hope to write, therefore I am.)

  6. Oops–I conflated Corpses with Rejects. I actually found the latter easier to watch, so perhaps that’s me admitting that it ain’t easy being sleazy. The “invitation” to “escape” can seem a bit much even for this viewer. (My pals and I turned off, as I recall, just one of the hundreds of films we rented: Bloodsucking Freaks, right after the dwarf began electrocuting and torturing the naked woman tied to a bedframe. This was early in the picture, and… well… even for us it seemed so… I… I hope Michael Medved doesn’t read this blog. Or, if he does, he doesn’t have my phone number.

  7. Um, I just watched Ichi the Killer. Takashi Miike seems made to both embody (in all senses of that word) and challenge my appreciations of sleaze. I could just name a few of the elements of this film (starting with its opening, where the title is spelled out in semen) before I’d start to doubt my own appreciation of the film. (Wait–what happened? And you liked that?) But I kid you not: the film is vile yet remarkably thoughtful, cartoonish yet awash in beautiful strange images, steeped in sleazy manga yet full of citations of Japanese film history (with a major character swiped from Stray Dog and a persistent musical theme–signifying a moment of honor–that seems stolen from any ’50s samurai flick). It’s like a crash-course in the Japanese pop unconscious.

    Or at least Takashi Miike’s unconscious. Then again, given that guy’s output (in its qualities and quantities), I am not sure there’s much “un” left in his consciousness: it all seems pretty front and center. Miike has to be about the most vivid, violent, playful surrealist working; he can make David Lynch’s work feel like Italian neo-realism.

    I recommend it, except I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Let’s say I found it fairly stunning, usually in a good way. Star Tadanobu Asano, who was so great in Last Life in the Universe (which I’d recommend again, as a beautiful film, and not at all in the lunatic fringe that Ichi inhabits), is pretty wonderful here as the vicious scarred Kakihara, who longs to meet the fabled, even-more-vicious-and-sadistic Ichi….

  8. This movie was more than I could stomach. I had to stop watching about halfway through when the violence became overwhelming and I started to wonder about the kind of mind that could produce it. There were moments that I admired, but ultimately, it was just too much. It would have been much better with Meryl Streep.

  9. this is the best place I can imagine to discuss two interesting Super Bowl commercials (Michael, I’m thinking of you). Here are the two that intrigued me most: GMC’s robot spot and this one from In general, I found the ads tonight to be violent, misogynist, and downright cruel, a Hobbesian vision at best (or, at least, if Niles is reading, the bastardized definition of Hobbes’ political philosophy); but there is something worth discussing in these spots. All the neo-Marxists in the house, what did you think?

  10. That GMC robot ad is astonishingly offensive. A year after GM fired 30,000 workers, they do an ad which shows compassion for a laid-off robot? Many of those same workers, plus the close to 100,000 auto workers laid-off by the big three automakers last year must have been sitting home watching the Superbowl. How do they process this ad?

    Pizza Hut did a commercial in the Superbowl pregame show about ten years ago (so sadly I cannot find it online and show it to students). It opened with a classic strike situation: a cold night time, fires blazing in oil drums outside the factory gates, bitter, angry strikers milling around. The managers are meeting in a high corner office of the factory, arguing with each other about how to settle the strike. One manager looks down at the cold, hungry strikers and picks up the phone. Cut to men happily eating pizza and hardened union leader looks up to the lighted window of the factory, catches the eye of the manager and nods. The strike is over, and by implication all strikes could be settled with a little more goodwill and a lot of pizza.

    Actually the GM ad reminds me of an old ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ sketch at the time when Fiat was running ads with the tagline ‘Fiat: made by robots.’ It is a British automobile factory with a bunch of workers building a car. They pass tools around and each of them is apparently named Bob. The fake ad ends with the tagline ‘British Leyland: made by Roberts.’

  11. unfortunately I could not watch the Super Bowl, but I did tape it for the ads–I am doing a unit on visual analysis with my class, so I figured there’d be something useful there. The GM ad sounds appalling–do you know about where in the broadcast it came? Jeff–I’ll give you a neo Marxist update as soon as I get a chance to see it.

  12. Speaking of commercials, has anyone noticed (of course you have) the bizarre juxtaposition of word and image in ads for major pharmaceuticals? “Side effects may include anxiety, insomnia, altered appetite, headaches, dry mouth, dyspepsia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, depression, dizziness, rash, and somnolence.” But never you mind, just look at the pretty butterfly! Oh, pretty, pretty butterfly!

  13. Here is a question. What do people on this blog mean by the term “neo-Marxist”? In particular, what intellectual work is the modifier “neo” doing? I suspect that it has a somewhat different meaning for those in cultural studies, who went through US graduate programs at the turn of this century, than it does/did in the social sciences a decade or so earlier. Its meaning may also vary somewhat for those raised in the United States from those raised in Britain, India, or Italy (the latter two even have viable communist parties and some degree of communist public culture).

    Marxism is so marginalized in academia these days that I sometimes wonder whether the self-description “neo-Marxist” is primarily a badge of political identification, a public distancing from some image of “vulgar” Marxism, or a coherent intellectual position.

  14. First we’re genre-centric. Now we’re neo-Marxists? To be fair, Jeff, I’ve only seen one reference on this blog to “neo marxism” (michael’s comment on this post, comment #14). Why are you accusing “people” (I’m assuming this includes me, being one of the “people” on this blog) of circulating what you characterize as an insulting attitude towards Marxism? Where else have we used the term neo-Marxist or applied its concepts?

  15. Well… Chris threw it out, and I took it less as a challenge than an honest (if sharp) inquiry–he teaches PoliSci, and works intensively in labor relations, so he’s got some chops. I’m good with you scolding Jeff, though–please do it often.

    As I don’t use the term, I’ll consider myself absolved from having to answer. I thought Michael’s use was more joking, but he’s got his own impressive chops about Marxism and can toss out his own reactions.

  16. my favorite caveat on the pharmaceutical commercials is for Viagra and the like– “if you have an erection that lasts for more than 4 hours, see a doctor.” imagine the visit! What kind of doctor do you see? A love doctor? And what does s/he do? oh boy, with the erecting and the hurting, yet so exciting!

    I’m ducking the neo-Marxist question for the moment.

  17. I certainly didn’t mean this question as a challenge, and I retract the last line if it seems overly sharp. Jeff mentioned “All the neo-Marxists in the house” and Michael offered to respond with a “neo-Marxist update” so I thought I’d inquire as to what that term means for people on the blog. I came of political age in London in the late 1970s studying history and politics. It was a pretty frenzied time for the study and evolution of Marxism. So I carry a lot of baggage from that time and those struggles. I know there are prominent Marxian-inspired scholars in cultural studies (Jameson and Eagleton are the two I have read), but they are both of a much older generation (and of course Raymond Williams is dead). I just wondered how people currently think about materialism, base-superstructure, that kind of thing. Really, it wasn’t a challenge. Just a question.

    And you don’t need to self-identify as a neo-Marxist to answer it. If someone describes their analysis as neo-Marxist, what kinds of claims would one expect them to be making?

  18. It’s not overy sharp, it’s a generalization about the content on this blog. I suppose what you intended to say was “what do people on this post or thread mean by neo-Marxist?”

  19. I am not sure what a neo-Marxist would mean. I don’t identify as such, but even more don’t really use the term. I get confused by the proliferation of schisms and then qualifying prefixes, but that’s been an issue for Marxism since inception, hasn’t it?

    I guess I might use it simply to define people inflected by cultural studies in the ways you suggest — “neo”, as opposed to “vulgar.” Which is kind of a division between those (the latter category) who are sticklers about a precise structural economy from those (the ‘neo’phytes) attentive to the representational and super-structural and textual work which complicates attention to base/structure. (It makes more sense to me to talk about structuralist and poststructuralist Marxism, which opens its own can of worms but I understand the point of the terms more clearly.)

    I take your point about the academic position of Marxism today. We have a new dean who continually calls himself a Marxist structural critic (of Communications), but it’s rare to hear anyone front such a theoretical foundation. (And even when they do, what do they mean?) The British school of cultural studies seems far more foundationally and, still, fundamentally concerned with economics (and I think therefore with Marxist schools of thought). But in American academies… hell, but for some of the folks on this blog (Michael, John, the ever-silent P. Stokes) I wouldn’t have run into anything but a ‘coverage’-question about Marx in my orals and the occasional Jameson essay in my whole graduate career. (Because of these guys, I spent some well-deserved time trying to make sense of Williams, Althusser, Gramsci, Laclau & Mouffe… who else did we read?)

  20. Wow. I just used the term as shorthand. It was in no way meant to be pejorative. Perhaps I should have asked: “Does anybody want to enter into a materialist critique of these two texts.” Or maybe we could apply some “new left” thinking to unpack, in Chris’ words, the “astonishingly offensive” nature of the GMC commercial or the way the workplace has become a site of anxiety and contestation in so many of the SuperBowl commercials and what that may, if anything, say about the world, America, Iraq, the middle-class. Neo-Marxist, for me, filters Marx through Weber and Gramsci (among others) and might also be a post-cold war classfication or maybe a postmodern, post-Jameson rearticulation. I’m not sure why John wrote “Gasp! Sorry Jeff”, but in the spirit of community I say “it’s all good.”

    Jacqueline Rose, Althusser, Williams, Judith Butler, Edward Said, Jill Dolan, Stuart Hall . . .

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