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Monthly Archives: November 2022

And Now, For Something Really Different

Oh man, we’re going deep down the rabbit hole of 1970’s independent movies that staddled the chasm between drive-in exploitation and grindhouse art-film. I’m talking, of course, about Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”Wow. Where do even I start? I guess with Roger Ebert’s script.Yeah, that’s right. Roger Ebert. And it’s fucking good. Like, really good.

This is one of those films that seems to have been made in a parallel universe, kind of like the one you live in but with different rules. It looks like a Hollywood movie circa 1970, but no self-respecting theater chain would screen something so bizarrely entertaining. It certainly wasn’t porn, but the sexual subtext and highly stylized nudity, combined with grotesquely cartoonish violence, ultimately earned it an X Rating.

Russ was a WWII veteran who went on to a successful career as a photographer for, among other things, Playboy magazine. He wasn’t a young man when he made this movie, so his viewpoint on youth culture is always a little “off.” But it was striking to rewatch it and see real LGBTQ characters in the film – not for novelty, they were the main characters, with distinct voices and plot lines. And not just one, but several black characters, also used as an integral part of the story.

Then there was his depiction of women. Always in charge, always more powerful than men. WTF!? Who else was doing this shit in a 1970 exploitation flick?

And finally, the main character is transgender and speaks the entire film in Shakespearean dialogue. No, you didn’t read that wrong.

I love shit that’s so personal it doesn’t fit into any box

Russ Meyer made his own goddamn box.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Jesus fucking Christ – I guess this is what it takes to get me back into a movie theater post COVID – a 3D release of George Romero’s 1978 Zombie masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead.

44 years ago I had my mind properly scrambled by seeing this film at The Park Square Cinema in Boston. So how did it hold up?

Quite well, actually, although my perspective has changed. In 1978, the over-the-top violence and gore probably made the biggest impression. Understandable, since there had never been anything remotely like it. I mean, Sam Peckinpah did squibs with gunshots, and Herschel Gordon Lewis did amateurish gore, but this? WTF!? With Tom Savini using his experience as a combat photographer in ‘Nam to ground the special effects in reality, this was disarming to say the least. And relentless. By the time you get to the disembowelments in the third reel, you’re already numb from exploding heads and chunks of stretchy flesh being bit off screaming humans by zombies that used to be their loved ones. Sheesh. Just writing that sounds disturbing.

But this time, that’s not what struck me. What really stood out was Romero’s richly layered script, an allegory rife with commentary on the shallowness of consumerism in a capitalist society. And of course, the age old question: If everything went away, how would the survivors cope? Watching this film one can’t help but think about what’s happening in Ukraine. My money says Romero has a lot of fans over there.

The other thing that struck me was his mastery of editing. He had a limited budget, which showed. But it was the script and his ability to tell the story through editing that makes this movie consistently rated as the greatest zombie film ever made.

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget fearlessness. Romero wasn’t afraid to go places no one had gone before, even under extreme pressure not to do so. When it became clear that the MPAA was going to give his film an X rating if he didn’t make draconian cuts, what did he do? He released it unrated in an environment where that meant many theaters wouldn’t show it! Talk about balls and having convictions about one’s art.

The 3D transfer was done in Korea, and they did a fantastic job. From a production standpoint, the film looks dated but still packs a punch. You have to understand that this was a regional filmmaker working in Pittsburgh with a budget of $640,000, so Hitchcock level craft was never going to happen. The cast, however, was uniformly great, and the films underlying message was clear.

To truly understand why some art is so great and influential, one has to understand it’s historical context. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane don’t sound so shocking today because they set the standard everyone copied. Romero was no different.

But if you understand the medium, when you land on ground zero, it’s a mindfuck.

Romero would laugh if he read this, but it’s the Citizen Kane of zombie movies. Dig it.

Cultural Flux

Everything evolves; cultural identities, social behavioral expectations, accepted ways of addressing past wrongs. In the context of explosively confrontational social media, it can all be confusing and intimidating. One might be forgiven for thinking, “Where do I start?”

The thing is, the only thing new about these changes are the speed at which they’re happening, and the bullying mob-mentality of online social networks.

Here’s my approach: just start from a position of humbleness, kindness, and respect. When you inevitably get something wrong, admit it, apologize, and move on. Lesson learned. Won’t make that mistake again.

With Twitter mobs eager to burn the next person at the stake, it can seem pretty scary out there. But when cultural norms shift, there’s always going to be a rocky start. So don’t get all grumpy and cling to “the old ways.”

This is how things change and get better.

If you feel like resisting, just remind yourself that adapting is what humans do best.

The Function of the Artist

Kurt Vonnegut who once remarked that “the function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before,” adding that “when I’ve been asked if I’ve ever seen that done. I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.'”