Monday, May 16, 2011

Synchronicity's Spine Number

Item: Strange echo found in the cover illustrations of The Criterion Collection's releases for May 17, 2011. A woman's hand presses upon a man's brow and in context neither gesture is particularly soothing.

Vague opinion: It goes without saying, I hope, that both films are renowned knockers off of socks, and a better use of one's disposable income than attendance at any pictures opening this weekend, whatever the weekend.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Down Inside You're Dirty!: A Tribute to David F. Friedman — Screening Report

Pioneering exploitation movie producer/ writer/ distributor/ actor/ advertiser/ theater owner/ etc. David F. Friedman died in his hometown of Anniston, Alabama on Valentine's Day of 2011. At the time, I happened to be eyeball-deep in studying his collaborations with Herschell Gordon Lewis (some of which I've written about here), and suddenly found myself at a loss for words. With a sizable filmography, leading the way or producing key films in a number of subgenres, Friedman's influence and import is something of a matter of public record, while the quality and reputation of what he made is rather up in the air. Part of the reason for that is that the audience for the sort of films he produced is an endangered species. While the groundbreaking splatter films with Lewis are certainly his most famous films, Friedman wrote so many of his own scripts that even when paired with a dozen different directors, his voice as an artist is clear as a bell.

On April 30, Eric Caidin and Brian Quinn of the Grindhouse Film Festival and Something Weird Video presented a special Tribute to David Friedman at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Seven saucy and shocking films, sundry titillating trailers, and sensational short subjects were screened over the course of twelve and a half hours, and a bevy of special guests shared personal memories and reflections about the beloved exploitation film impresario.

All told, turnout for this all-day sleaze-a-thon was hearty, if not packed to capacity, with an increase in warm bodies in the evening and severe tapering off after midnight and maybe a dozen diehards making it to the very end. Guests ranged from character actor Bill McKinney (the Ten-in-One owner of She Freak, whose work you surely enjoy) to L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas (about whose work you may have Opinions), and Ted Bonnitt, director of the 2001 documentary Mau Mau Sex Sex read a message from Rosa Lee Sonney (daughter of Dan Sonney, Friedman's partner in the Pussycat Theater chain). If anything came across in everyone's reminisces it is that Dave Friedman was a tremendous amount of fun to be around, loved his work, and lived heartily. The always affable Mike Vraney was on hand for film intros, anecdotes about his adventures with Friedman, historical contextualizing, and available for pestering on the sidewalk during smoke breaks. Some SWV news was spilt, so to that end:

Something Weird Blu-rays should be out around September, 2011 with Basket Case as the first title! Sorry, fellow Shanty Tramp fans. This will be followed by a Herschell Gordon Lewis triple feature with Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red all on one disc. I'm sorry, for whatever reason, I just can't call it the "Blood Trilogy."

As for the film fest, I might have organized the movies in chronological order and/or selected more representative or important productions for a sort of pedantic Friedman 101 presentation. But I'd have been wrong, because damned if the day wasn't programmed nearly perfectly. Here's the thing: you either enjoy these movies or you don't. I'm mostly talking about nudie pictures here, not low-budget horror or drive-in action, or sundry other exploitation subphylum. I do think they are a (rotten) taste that can be acquired, but there's not something to "get" before they start clicking, unless it's context or nostalgia. To me, Friedman's nudies are the heart of exploitation film, the dividing line of scum that separates the "real" grindhouse from the mainstream. So I'd like to think that everyone in Los Angeles who finds this the Mid-Century Smut anti-aesthetic inherently appealing was in the audience, and a few new pairs of eyes got a baptism by fire. The movies:

Space Thing (1968, dir. Byron Mabe as B. Ron Elliot)

Nonsensical, super-boring, and idiotic, Space Thing is about a Planetarian alien disguised (somehow?) as a Terranian (e.g.— Earthling, "from Kansas," no less) who infiltrates an enemy spacecraft, learns the art of making out with girls, wanders around a rock quarry, then concludes his mission by blowing up the ship with a bomb that he could have set off the minute the film began. On one hand starting with this movie this is jumping in with both feet, and on the other hand it worked perfectly, infusing a little SF genre flavor into the line-up, and providing the early birds with an opening salvo of interminable scenes of hairy-backed men rolling around on passably cute chicks with bad skin, unsynched audio over MOS footage and extensive whipping of bare butts. Because as much hysteria as it causes the first time, there will be a lot of whipping of bare butts. We do not, as the poster promises, visit the "Planet of the Rapes." If this is some sort of deal-breaker, be forewarned.

Presented in a print gone 500 shades of pink. Vraney helpfully explained a pointless, non sequitur prologue as an attempt to pad out the picture, which came in short when Mabe was fired.

Scum of the Earth (1963, dir. H.G. Lewis as Lewis H. Gordon)

1963 was a banner year for the Lewis and Friedman team, with a flurry of nudies, the invention of splatter films, and this J.D./ fallen girl/ pornography exposé melodrama in the vein of Ed Wood, Jr.'s The Sinister Urge (1960). Scum of the Earth might be my favorite Lewis/Friedman project. It's got the Bill Kerwin/ Mal Arnold/ Lawrence Aberwood acting trifecta chewing things up as crazy characters, the unforgettable "all you kids make me sick!" speech (among others), unconvincingly staged violence, great period cars and clothes, and a turgid, sweaty conviction that feels like it's covered with a coat of slime even though there is zero nudity. Also, 30-year-old Mal Arnold repeatedly brags that he is a minor in the eyes of the law, to the delight of all viewers.

What I like most about Scum (this goes for Sinister Urge, too) is that it is a wholly ludicrous depiction of the adult entertainment business from men who know perfectly well how it actually works. In this respect it is an interesting companion piece to their earlier Living Venus (1961), which takes a more down-to-earth approach to chronicling the professional workings and moral downward spiral of a Hugh Hefner analogue, and to Friedman's later Starlet! (see below).

Presented in a print with consistent scratching but otherwise aces.

She Freak (1967, dir. Byron Mabe)

Okay, I adore She Freak. It starts with the lowering of a Ferris wheel safety bar, and then we're off! If you want to know what Dave Friedman was about, who he was, where he came from, I suspect She Freak is the place to look. Whatever else is going on in the movie — loose remake of Freaks, ruthless maneater melodrama, love and violence among showpeople yarn, 80 minutes of barking for two minutes of horror — She Freak is head over heels for the carnival — the people, the culture, the lifestyle — and wants to show you in detail every tent stake being pounded, every midway lightbulb being screwed in, every corn dog being dipped. Where a majority of Friedman movies would have ten-minute heavy petting scenes, She Freak instead shows its carnival setting up, running, and tearing down.

Presented in quite nice condition, with color starting to go red but not entirely gone over.

A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine (1966, dir. Byron Mabe as B. Ron Elliot)

Hateful, fascinating and feverish, Smell of Honey sees seductress Sharon Winters (Friedman discovery Stacey Walker née Barbara Jean Moore) drive a string of would-be lovers into a frenzy, up until they try to peel off her panties, at which point she cries rape. And this she does over and over... until she pays the price. The roughie subgenre would obviously produce much uglier, more objectionable products, and Friedman hadn't gotten into Love Camp 7 or Ilsa territory quite yet. While Smell/Swallow is no walk in the park compared to the cuties of earlier in the decade, there is enough camp and bitter comedy to make this more entertaining than vile.

Besides almost working as a metaphor for the degree of explicitness allowable in nudie pictures, Smell of Honey strikes me as sort of a female counterpart to Raging Bull: a study of a character with single-minded, stripped-down psychology, a stunted person with one nasty trait that may be observable in real people but here is just hammered and hammered and hammered. Where Jake La Motta's entire sexuality, personality and being are focused down to "he punches things," Sharon Winters is a sadistic tease. Both one-track characters follow their patterns like rats in a maze until they spiral into hell. There's no inciting incident, no exploration, no learning, no excuses, no apologies. There is, however, a fantastic, relentless rock score by "Et Cetera" that might be described as "Exile on Shaggs Street," and a remarkable, bizarrely sexy lead performance by Walker. Cinematographer László Kovács (as Art Radford) and director Mabe are 100% on point, and this may be as close as Friedman ever got to a well-crafted picture.

Presented in an occasionally jumpy but otherwise excellent print.

-Short subject: "But Charlie, I Never Played Volleyball!" (1966)

Fun to see this stupid little nudist camp reel with narrated banter and wraparound story featuring Stacey Walker as an actress hired to judge the Miss Nude Universe pageant. IMDb says that this number, Smell of Honey and Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (all in a year) comprise all of Walker's film work, which is kind of a drag. If you need to see it, check the Fanny Hill/ The Head Mistress DVD, if you can get a copy.

This was also the point at which the audience had hit "the wall" and pushed through into "the zone." That is, things started to get a little loopy. Personally, my perspective warped, the dumb jokes became hilarious, and the prolonged softcore scenes whizzed by like they weren't completely stupefying. Case in point, Blood Feast seemed to move at light speed...

Blood Feast (1963, dir. H.G. Lewis)

This print was just about as close to perfect as one could ask, Blood Color intact and with barely a scratch but for those legs what got cut off. Hey man, it brought down the house like always. My favorite part is when Mal Arnold says "You see, I am an old man!," the same comedy in reverse as when he says he's under 18 in Scum of the Earth.

The Pick-Up (1968, dir. Lee Frost)

Vraney helpfully provided backstory on the search for this ultra-rarity, a film Friedman had asked him to locate for years, which was ultimately found in a Copenhagen film collector's vault. This nigh pristine print (with Danish subs) is the only known copy, so you can see it on SWV's DVD-R; it's only been screened publicly twice now. I'd enjoyed The Pick-Up before, but it gained a lot of power in this context, since Friedman has a large onscreen role as stressed-out Vegas crime boss Charlie Rosa. And, bonus, fellow exploitation producer Bob Cresse (you loved 'im in House on Bare Mountain!) plays L.A. mob boss, Sal. Both producers are extremely entertaining as they stress out about what happened to a missing Cadillac trunkfull of casino skimmings. Meanwhile, the hapless bagmen endeavor to retrieve the twice-stolen cash from a pair of foxy female crooks.

Besides one over-the-top roughie-style torture scene, The Pick-Up is primarily a punchy hardboiled crime thriller, stylishly stripped-down like a Richard Stark book or a proto Reservoir Dogs. I'd say it really cooks along, because it mostly does, but my brain is phasing out on the ten-minute make out scenes. If you've already watched five Friedman movies, The Pick-Up is wound up like a watch spring. Cool vintage Vegas footage at the top, too.

-Aaand another goofy-ass short, "The Casting Director" (1968), also starring Bob Cresse, who sexually harasses an auditioning actress in an office full of beautiful, beautiful exploitation movie posters and lobby cards. Cresse mostly pulls faces and pours sweat, in the classic Lucky Pierrenudie-cutie-peeper style. Due to the lateness of the hour, excessive Junior Mints intake, and coccyx agony, I just kind of couldn't stop laughing. If you must see it, check the SWV double feature of Dr. Sex/ Wanda the Wicked Hypnotist.

Starlet! (1969, dir. Richard Kantor)

You shoot anything on the old Monogram lot, and I'm there.

Starlet! is an epic-scale (100 minutes!) portrait of the exploitation film industry and it feels rather like Friedman's final word on the subject. But it's not — he hadn't made Trader Hornee (1970), gotten into Nazisploitation, finished making those "Erotic Adventures" films or unleashed Johnny Firecloud (1975). While Starlet! isn't technically the end of an era, it does appear as the nudie cycle is winding down and — as metaphorically depicted in the opening scene — transforming into no-holes-barred hardcore. So the movie was a perfect capper for this celebration of Friedman's career, as it is, in itself, a celebration of Friedman's career, full of in-jokes and cameos and requiring of the audience at least a basic familiarity with the genre.

The tapestry-style story basically concerns the exploits at EVI Studios (the film's real production company, depicting itself within... oh, forget it) as it gears up, shoots, and releases the college-themed nudie smash "A Youth in Babylon" (a title so good or personally meaningful that Friedman used it for his autobiography). The backbone of the plot follows fresh talent Carol Yates (beautiful, funny, articulate Dee Lockwood credited as Deirdre Nelson), who we meet doing stag films for rent money and rises to become EVI's biggest new star. The emphasis is on good-natured situational comedy, but with a dozen colorful characters swirling around the fringes there is room for romance, slapstick, gripping blackmail plots, and All About Eve-type backstage drama.

The thing I like best about Starlet! is its familial, jocular tone, and though the characters are cartoonish to a degree, the film is non-judgmental about who they are, what they are doing, and why they do it. Where Scum of the Earth depicts a convoluted extortion plot just to get a girl to take cheesecake photos, Starlet! opens with its strong-willed, likable and down-to-earth heroine being convinced to turn a softcore scene into hard, and rather than weeping and screaming indignantly, Carol just rolls her eyes and shrugs. Insta-crush-object Deirdre Nelson is the rightful Starlet here, but the supporting cast is a great mix of talented vets (Stuart Lancaster, John Alderman, both kinda-sorta-not-really reprising their characters from Thar She Blows!) and unspeakably wooden topless gals. The overall warm "look what we got away with" tone is darkened and complicated with depictions of artistic frustration, the disposability of aging talent, and violent abuse of power by directors and producers. A particularly effective subplot, not played for laughs, involves a first-time nudie director learning to compromise his vision and morals, and finding out, basically, that joining the carnival comes with some personal sacrifices: those who aren't With the Show will never understand. If the nude squirming scenes were trimmed down, Starlet! could almost play to a non-weirdo audience, and I believe it belongs in the company of Ed Wood and Boogie Nights — a small family of affectionate, good-hearted but complex, conflicted depictions of particular times and places in trash filmmaking history. Starlet! does not achieve (or aspire to) the same level of fine-tuning and polish as those mainstream masterpieces, but it has something they don't: it was made by the people it is about. They lived this story, even as they filmed Starlet!

Presented in a... nice print? I was pretty out of it, sorry. Surely it is the same acceptable print used for the SWV DVD-R. Includes much vintage L.A. footage, always a joy.

Famously humorous and bombastic trailers for classic Friedman product were interspersed throughout the program, usually featuring tie-in glimpses of cast members, locations, or, in one case, a big white dog. I took no notes, but we were treated to trailers for: The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966), Brand of Shame (1968), Bummer (1973), A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine ('66), Thar She Blows! (1968), Love Camp 7 (1969), Trader Hornee (1970), and, undoubtedly, more which are lost to delirium.