Home

Sheba, Baby: American Indie #11

Leave a comment

Sheba, Baby

I’d guess that when Pam Grier assesses her long career, Sheba, Baby won’t be seen as a major highlight. She dismisses it in a couple of sentences in her autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.

So why bother posting about the movie? Well, it is Pam Grier. And it was the first blaxploitation movie I saw on the big screen. Yes, I came a very late to the party. Due to my age I should add.

Made by legendary independent American International Pictures and released in 1975, the film was one of many that Grier made for the company, the best of which were Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974).

But before Pam established herself as the queen of blaxploitation cinema, she had worked at AIP in a different capacity. She was a receptionist.

Pam Grier - Sheba, Baby x3

Here she plays Sheba Shayne, a Chicago based private eye who returns to her hometown of Louisville to help out her father. Andy Shayne is being pressurised by the local black mob into handing over the family’s loans company for a pittance. Or be killed.

And when I say loans company, don’t go thinking of some modern day payday loan rip-off merchants. This is an ethically run business on a quiet street corner with a staff of just two. They provide low-interest loans to ordinary members of the community. A true financial friend as they advertise themselves.

Three henchmen beat the poor fella up badly. Is this enough of a warning? ‘My company is not for sale,’ Andy declares the next day when phoned again by a gangster called Pilot. ‘Not Now. Not ever!’

Pops urges Sheba to leave him to face his own problems but predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

The local police advise Sheba against seeking retribution but predictably she doesn’t listen to what they have to say.

Her father’s business partner Brick warns Sheba that they’re not equipped to fight a ruthless crime organisation by themselves but guess what? Predictably she doesn’t listen to what he has to say.

After the beating, the hoods decide to escalate the pressure on Andy and in the words of a popular song of the time, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. They’re prepared to go to just about any lengths to take over this modest business from car bombings to opening machine gun fire inside the office.

Will Sheba possibly be able to wreak revenge on these lowlife criminals led by one dimensional generic bad guy Shark Merrill?

What do you think?

Pam Grier taking aim in Sheba, Baby

By 1975, when Sheba, Baby first hit cinema screens, blaxploitation was beginning to look a little stale. And Sheba, Baby looked a little tame. One contemporary advert might have claimed that she was hotter than Coffy and meaner than Foxy but the copywriter who came up with that line clearly hadn’t watched the film.

Compared to her two blaxploitation classics, Sheba, Baby can’t help looking like a retread but with more action and less violence – it was even given a PG rating (Parental guidance suggested).

Sometimes for Pam fans, you almost experience deja vu – such as when Coffy – sorry – Sheba infiltrates a party thrown by the crime kingpin by posing as an escort and then starts an attention seeking catfight.

It’s a good enough performance by Pam, displaying her usual charisma but sometimes her takes look a little rushed. On the plus side, unlike many modern-day women who take on action roles, Pam looks like she knew what she was doing. I bet she could kick the butts of all three of the latest batch of Charlie’s Angels without breaking sweat. Even today at 70.

Sheba and Pilot

The film has the feel of a speedily written script. Obviously, director and co-writer William Girdler was no slacker. In total, he chalked up a run of nine movies in six years during the 1970s. These included blaxploitation horror Abby, a blatant Exorcist cash-in and Grizzly, said to be the highest grossing independent film of 1976.

From Louisville himself, Girdler makes a pretty good fist of this, and he certainly knows how to film an explosion. It would have been interesting to see what he was capable of while working on a much bigger budget, but he sadly died in a helicopter accident in The Philippines in 1978, while scouting locations for what was to have been his next movie.

I wanted to like it more, but Sheba, Baby is entertaining though formulaic fun. An action romp with some comedic moments, such as the spectacularly over the top performance of Christopher Jay as a jive-talking, pimp suited hawker, and with a little romance – a subplot involving Sheba and old flame Brick.

Brick? Shark? Pilot? What is it with the names here?

Make sure to swallow your suspension of disbelief tablets beforehand or questions like where did Sheba manage to find a wetsuit at that time of night, might spoil the fun.

Saxophonist Monk Higgins supplies a very decent score and there’s a couple of tunes sung by Philly singer Barbara Mason, although I prefer her more Northern Soul sounding tracks like Keep Him and Don’t Ever Want to Lose Your Love.

The soundtrack album was released on Buddah and here is the title track:

The Color Wheel: American Indie #10

Leave a comment

The Color Wheel

‘The Color Wheel partially recalls the scathing audacity of The Graduate some 45 years ago.

Jeff Shannon (The Seattle Times)

‘Some will call The Color Wheel daring. Others will remember that it takes more than desperate shocks to add substance to the sloppy diddlings of a dilettante.’

David Fear (Time Out New York)

In the last decade, Alex Ross Perry has carved out a name for himself as a talented independent filmmaker. Her Smell, starring Elizabeth Moss as Courtney Love – sorry – a fictional singer named Becky, may be his best yet.

His second film, The Color Wheel (2011) was made on a significantly smaller budget with Perry giving himself one of the two starring roles. That’s him on the beautifully illustrated poster above together with Carlen Altman, who plays his sister JR.

The pair also co-wrote the script, with Perry producing and editing too.
The Color Wheel is a black comedy and a road movie. In a cinematic landscape where fewer and less fewer risks are being taken, this stood out. In places it’s very funny, but it can also make for some excruciating viewing. Its tagline: An objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.

Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman

Colin lives with his girlfriend Zoe and their relationship doesn’t appear rock solid. His hapless sister JR, an aspiring news anchor, asks him to help move her belongings out of her ex-boyfriend Neil’s place. Colin reluctantly agrees. As they drive there, they instantly begin to bicker incessantly and put each other down.

To save money, they rent a single room in a motel run by a strict Christian. This becomes problematic. Only married couples are allowed to share rooms. Colin and JR pretend to be wed.

‘We have a wonderful marriage,’ JR deadpans, going on to claim that she’s so happy with her husband that, ‘I can’t stop smiling. Most of the time my face hurts.’

Forced to give each other a kiss in order to prove that they are indeed married, Colin spews up once he’s in the room.

The uber-sarky siblings recommence with the hostilities, with JR, instead of showing any sympathy for his bout of ill health, demanding to know: ‘Was it really that bad pretending to kiss me?’ The trash talk maybe peaks later when Colin takes great pleasure in telling her: ‘You make me, mum, dad and my girlfriend sick to stomachs every single time you come up in the conversation.’

Carlen Altman

They arrive at Neil’s place, where he is with a new girlfriend. JR and Neil, an older professor who until recently had taught JR, also immediately begin tossing verbal hand-grenades at one another and relentlessly attempt to point- score.

‘I’m starting to think that we’re not going to have that one last conversation I was hoping for,’ he says, after she’s likened hanging out with him to being in ‘a geriatric facility’.

Almost like a tag-team, Colin takes over from JR. Not that he defends her against Neil’s accusations. He just despises people like Neil, probably because he is more successful and cooler than he is, although Neil’s obviously a jerk too.

What did JR see in him? Most likely, she was attracted to his list of media connections and promises of a job in television, along with the added bonuses of rent free accommodation and never having to pay for a meal.

He got a fantastic looking and much younger girlfriend.

Carlen Altman as JR

Both leads can be deeply unpleasant and their redeemable qualities are few although I kinda liked them but then I have always been drawn to sarcasm. Neither is as monstrous as other Perry creations such as Philip in Listen Up Philip or Becky in Her Smell. They’re also better company than Neil, or their snobbish ex-school pals who they later meet up with for a party. That could be said to be damning with very faint praise, though.

No surprise that JR only goes along to the party for a selfish reason. She’s heard that a TV agent will be there. In Planet JR, success is more likely to come from networking than talent. She demonstrates no interest in the news throughout and it’s easy to assume that the most ‘work’ she’s put into establishing her career is her vision board, which we see in the boot of her car.

Carlen Altman in The Color Wheel

Equally self-centred and shallow, JR reminded me of a number of people I knew back in my bedsit days, dreaming of some breakthrough in their chosen fields (usually music) but much more likely to smoke joints and watch daytime TV than putting in any hard work that might help them to achieve their goals.

As you can see from the quotes at the top of the post, reviews of The Color Wheel were very mixed. ‘There’s handmade and then there’s amateurish,’ Shawn Levy concluded in his review for The Oregonian. ‘This, alas, is the latter.’ The New York Times praised it as ‘sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant.’

Generally, I was pretty much hooked myself although the acting, particularly Perry’s, is a little flat and some of the comedy is of the very average sitcom variety.

Carlen Altman and Alex Ross Perry -The Color Wheel 2011

Made in super-grainy black and white, I did wonder why it was titled The Color Wheel. In my first week as a student my class had been forced to paint a color wheel. The main idea behind this being to sear into our collective memories the concept of opposite (complementary) colours.

Color wheels are all about opposites and Colin and JR might see themselves in this way. JR slates Colin for giving up on his dreams of being a writer and taking on a boring job. He criticises her for thinking she’s special when she clearly has no talent and not bothering to work.

They’ve both had a dream, though, and they clearly have much in common, from sharing the same family through to their near-identical misanthropic worldviews.

But the real reason for the title has nothing to do with color wheels. When he began developing a serious interest in cinema, Alex Ross Perry asked his parents what was the first film he’d ever seen. He was told it was The Color Wheel. Fifteen years later he looked up the title on IMDb (Internet Movie Database) and nothing with that name was listed.

He’d wanted entirely original titles for his films, and it sounded like a Philip Roth novel like The Ghost Writer and The Anatomy Lesson, so he adopted the name. Perry’s a big fan of the Pulitzer Prize winning writer and read a number of his novels while working on the screenplay for The Color Wheel.

Now, a word on the poster. The beautifully rendered double portrait is painted in acrylic by Perry’s then partner Anna Bak-Kvapil (now his wife). Anna, incidentally, also played Kim Thomson in the film as well as taking on a number of duties such as set decorator and script supervisor.

The typeface is (or closely resembles) Benguiat Caslon, the go-to serif font in the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s for bestselling books like Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Joan Didion’s The White Album and that man Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (which like The Color Wheel dealt with a controversial subject matter). Here is the poster again together with the first edition cover of the Roth novel.

Portnoy's Complaint & The Color Wheel

I did have a quick look on eBay to see if there were any quad posters up for auction but no luck. A pity. It would have looked great on my bedroom wall.

Finally, here’s the song that plays over the end credits. With its mumblecore feel I half expected something lo-fi and quirky. Wrong.

Released in 1972 on the Cotillion label, this is Chicago’s Patti & The Lovelites with the gorgeous Is That Loving in Your Heart:

The Blank Generation: American Indie #9

Leave a comment

Blank Generation 1976

I’m likely atypical on this one. I’m guessing we’ve all heard people speculate about the period of history and place that they would most like to witness if a time machine existed that could transport them back. Suggestions tend to involve grand events, being able to see the first Olympics in ancient Greece or getting a gander at Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel.

Me? I’d like to be able to see some shows by the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash in London in 1976. Or take in early appearances by the New York punk acts just a little earlier at iconic venue CBGB.

Luckily young film school student Julian Temple had the nous to take his camera along when he had the chance to document the Pistoleros and Clash live before they’d ever issued even a single, so at least I can get a flavour of events.

Over in NYC, Amos Poe was already doing something very similar along with Czech born musician Ivan Král.

Amos Poe had been born abroad too, in Tel Aviv. In the States, he got to know guys like Richard Hell and Terry Ork while working for New Line Cinema, when it was an independent film distribution company. He hired Král as his assistant and, in their spare time, the pair began filming a number of new bands together.

Choosing Král was an inspired choice. This was a young man with an intersting backstory. As a teenager he’d scored a hit in Czechoslovakia with a band called Saze (translation: Soot), but this success came just after his family relocated to America, where they had to be protected by the FBI as the Communists regime there were desperate to imprison his father for publicly condemning the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia at the UN. Ivan became involved with glam rockers Luger, who played Max’s Kansas City and often supported Kiss in their early days. More significantly, he briefly joined an embryonic Blondie and then the Patti Smith Group, two bands at the heart of the burgeoning New York punk scene. On his own accord he’d already recorded some footage of Iggy and The Stooges on his dad’s Yashica Super 8, before teaming up with Poe.

Actually, Král partly shot live bands as aide memoirs of his stay in New York in case he was ever deported back to Communist Czechoslovakia. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

When he and Poe had filmed enough bands, the pair decided they could assemble it into something that might do the rounds of America’s often lucrative midnight movie circuit.

The Blank Generation title still

The Blank Generation is mostly shot at CBGB but The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village and Max’s are two of the other locations utilised.

The handheld camera is restless throughout, swish panning around. Shot in 16mm black and white, it opens with two Patti Smith tracks. There’s Gloria followed by her take on the Velvet Underground’s We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together. Not the whole songs, a chunk of the former and just a snippet of the latter. One minute Patti’s in a biker jacket, the next in some kind of poncho dress, then she’s in a T-shirt. At one point, book in hand, she’s obviously giving a poetry reading. The sound is not synched, and no effort has gone into attempting to make it appear as if it might be.

Patti Smith - The Blank Generation 1976

This is because Poe, who did the bulk of the editing in the space of 24 hours, wanted to reference Jean-Luc Godard, who’d been keen to make viewers very aware they were watching a movie back when he was directing Nouvelle Vague classics like Breathless and Bande à part. Think of that famous dance scene in the latter when the jukebox music is repeatedly faded out to make way for some narration.

Next up is Television with Tom Verlaine displaying the kind of sunken cheekbones that suggest he could have been doing with a decent plate of scran. Heroin chic before that term had been coined. We get Little Johnny Jewel and Mi Amore (and then some more Little Johnny Jewel for no easily identifiable reason).

Again snippets only and out-of-synch sound. Which is becoming more and more disconcerting the longer I watch.

Time for some salvos of speed bubblegum in the shape of The Ramones. LoudmouthShockTreatmentIDon’tCareBlitzkriegBopLoudmouth. Hell, yeah. We’re then treated to a young and preppy looking David Byrne and Talking Heads looking suitably tense and nervous as they perform Psycho Killer. At this point Tina Weymouth could still be termed a beginner on the bass but this bassline is one of the most perfect you will ever hear.

After these CBGB superstars, we have a stream of bands that mostly might be called CBGB Division 2.

The Tuff Darts play down n’ dirty rock’n’roll. And it strikes me that it might have been an idea to flash up the band names along the way rather than leaving it to the end to let us know who some of these people are. Wayne (now Jayne) County is certainly recognizable enough, though, as he/she puts his/her own spin on Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?

Wayne County - The Blank Generation

In among the Division 2 bands like The Marbles, The Miamis and The Shirts are Blondie. This might seem surprising, but the band were initially not thought of very highly by many. When Charles Shaar Murray crossed the Atlantic to cover the burgeoning scene for NME at the tail-end of 1975, he predicted that ‘Blondie will never be a star because she ain’t good enough.’ We all get things wrong, CSM.

Debbie loves the camera but not as much as the camera loves those cheekbones and that pout of her’s. Here she wants to be platinum blonde, just like Marilyn and Jeane, Jayne, Mae and Marlene. This sequence with some live footage and some messing around on a fire escape and three of the guys pushing a car down a road could work as a video in its own right, albeit a particularly scuzzy video.

deb_1

Rather than anything remotely punk, Harry Toledo’s Knots sounds like ominous psych. So ominous that you could imagine it having been written and recorded in the immediate wake of some awful late 1960s event like Altamont or the Tate-LaBianca murders. I like it a lot. According to the booklet that accompanies the Max’s Kansas City 1976 album, Harry had disappeared from the music world by the start of the 1980s, leaving only one EP produced by John Cale. A shame.

New York Dolls track Funky But Chic isn’t one of their strongest and maybe they just look too respectable as they perform it. By the Doll’s standards anyway. They no longer look like the future but The Heartbreakers, who end the film do. This is when Richard Hell was part of the band and the song that would become the anthem of New York punk was a highlight of their set.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux & Richard Hell

Backstage, Lizzy Mercier Descloux poses moodily with Richard Hell and we also see glimpses of the CBGB New Year’s Eve party of 1975. Oh look, there’s Tina Weymouth. Wow, a smiling Debbie’s partying too. Is that John Cale in the festive paper hat? It sure is.

The film premiered at CBGB on a night that also saw The Heartbreakers play live. Since then Poe has made many films and even had a shot at writing for Hollywood. It wasn’t for him. He’s been described as ‘the titan of the No Wave Cinema Movement’ and ‘the progenitor of punk cinema’.

In her new autobiography Face It, Debbie Harry writes about how she and Chris Stein once planned to produce a remake of Godard’s Alphaville, with Debbie in the Anna Karina role and Robert Fripp playing Lemmy Caution. Godard thought they were crazy but sold them the rights anyway. Although he didn’t own them. Their record company resisted the idea of them taking time off to pursue such a project anyway, and not too surprisingly, the Poe, Harry and Stein Alphaville never got off the ground. Probably for the best.

Today Amos spends much of his time painting and teaching film.

Ivan went on to compose music for some other Poe films including Subway Riders. After playing with Patti, he joined up with Iggy Pop.

A sometimes frustrating but utterly fascinating watch, The Blank Generation remains a crucial document of the emerging mid-1970s music scene and I am very grateful to Poe and Král for chronicling so many of the key players in an age before concert-goers had the chance to spend most of their time aiming iPhones at the stage.

I would have liked to have seen Suicide but hey, they didn’t play CBGB at all in 1975 when most of The Blank Generation was shot. A wee bit of research tells me they did play in the summer of 1974 in a support slot with The Fast and didn’t return until three nights in December 1976 in a support slot for The Ramones. This ended with a show on the night of the 25th. How Christmassy that must have been? Yo ho ho.

Come on inventors, get a move on. I want a time machine ASAP and if I ever get one you can bet I might just set those controls to the Bowery on that particular Christmas night.

For more on The Blank Generation: https://theblankgeneration.com/

For more on Amos Poe: http://www.amospoe.com/

For more on Amos Poe, Ivan Ivan Král : http://www.ivankral.net/

Wanda: American Indie #8

2 Comments

Wanda (1970)

This week saw the final ever episode of The Deuce, one of the best TV series of the decade. The show also featured one of the finest television performances in recent memory, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen Merrell, aka Candy Renee.

Wry, conflicted but business-headed, Candy Renee was partly based on Candida Royalle. Like Renee, this former porn star made the move to behind the camera and started shooting ‘erotic’ pornos aimed more at females.

At its end, The Deuce fast-forwarded almost three and a half decades to a coda where Vincent roams around the soulless, corporate and Disneyfied Times Square of today. Here he was to find out that his old pal had not only shot 89 pornos, she’d also made a film with real artistic merit called Pawn in Their Game.

Rather than anything in Candida Royalle’s oeuvre, though, the idea of this film was inspired more by a little known independent movie by Barbara Loden called Wanda.

Wanda_(Barbara_Loden)

Born and raised in North Carolina in 1932, Loden later described herself as a ‘hillbilly’s daughter’.

She started out in the business as a model and chorus-dancer and performed at New York’s Copacabana. As an actress, Loden commenced her career in theatre and was a lifetime member of the renowned Actors Studio. She played Warren Beatty’s sister in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in 1961 and later married the director. In 1970, she directed her one and only feature film Wanda.

She also took on the role of the titular character, as well as writing the screenplay.

Barbra Loden

Silently an old woman prays, rosary beads in her hands. A baby sobs angrily despite some attention from a woman who is presumably its mother. The mother’s partner (again I’m guessing) slams the door as he leaves the house. This is likely to wake a woman lying asleep on a sofa in the living room.

This is Wanda.

Set in a working-class town in Pennsylvania, the house she’s staying at overlooks a coal quarry. This could be some bleak town in the Soviet Union of the time.

Wearing curlers on her blonde hair, she slips out and borrows some money from an old-timer scavenging for coal, not that he can afford to give her much. The pace is slow and has a real cinéma vérité feel.

Loden cuts to a court room where a man, Wanda’s husband, is explaining that she detested him and their children and walked out on them. She would lie around all day, drinking and paying no attention to their young boy and girl.

He now wants a divorce and custody of the kids. ‘That’s just like her,’ he observes, when her name is called out and she’s nowhere to be seen.

Wanda does finally arrive. Curlers still on and smoking, she freely admits that her kids would be better off staying with their father, and that he should be granted a divorce.

This is not someone who would ever imagine where she’ll be in, say, five year’s time. She’d be lucky if she planned anything five minutes in advance.

Wanda isn’t going to be an easy character to root for. She even fails to acknowledge her kids in the courtroom. No question, she’s a negligent mother, living a numbed existence although Loden isn’t interested in spelling out any reasons behind her attitude.

Wanda_in_court

She drifts around town. She sleeps with a man for money. She goes to see a melodramatic musical in a Hispanic cinema. She falls asleep and wakes up to discover that somebody has thieved the money from her purse.

This isn’t her day. It’s safe to assume it’s never her day.

Wanda then inveigles her way into a bar which is already closed. She goes to a dingy toilet and washes. She asks for a towel, and we see that there’s a barman lying gagged on the floor behind the bar. The man she thought was a bartender is cold-hearted robber.

Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins) rushes her out and buys her some spaghetti in a late night cafe. The messy way she eats it annoys him. Most things annoy Dennis. He doesn’t like nosey people. He doesn’t like friendly people. He ends up in bed with Wanda in a cheap hotel room, barking out demands when they both wake in the middle of the night. Please and thank you don’t appear to belong in his vocabulary.

Mr. Dennis, as Wanda always refers to him, is what in Scotland might be described as crabbit – mean and cantankerous. Clyde Barrow, he ain’t, and Wanda and Mr Dennis are not going to be a match made in heaven.

Wanda_with_Mr_Dennis

Loden chose to examine the lives of those with no real talents, no great ambitions, and no advanced education. But people like this can be fascinating, just as films about enormously successful or inspirational people can be borefests.

‘She’s trapped, Barbara Loden explained in a contemporary interview in the New York Times, ‘and she will never, ever get out of it and there are millions like her.’

If you were to compare it with another film, it would likely be something by John Cassavettes. And at one point I did imagine Cassavettes’ wife Gena Rowlands in the central role.

Wanda premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, and won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Despite this boost, it was little seen afterwards. According to the New York Times, it ‘failed to create excitement at the box-office’. It wasn’t given much of a chance to. Only one cinema in New York screened it, and it was never given any kind of run in the rest of the country.

Pauline Kael derided it as ‘an extremely drab and limited piece of realism’ and described the character of Wanda as ‘an ignorant slut’. Writing for Criterion, Amy Taubin noted that when she first showed it to the feminist film classes she taught in the mid-1980, the reaction of her most students was similar.

Wanda would remain the only feature-length work directed by Loden. She didn’t disappear, though. She directed theatre productions and made two short films.

The Edinburgh Film Festival had attempted to revive the film’s fortunes in 1979, when it was featured in its Women and Film strand.

Since then its reputation has slowly grown. It’s even been called a feminist classic although Loden didn’t see it as feminist when she made it and if you’re looking for strong female role models here, you’re going to be very disappointed.

It’s a film that is more of an interesting watch than an enjoyable one, although Barbara Loden is superb as Wanda. I much preferred the first half, which is more of a character study. The second half is more plot driven although nothing in the plot will surprise anyone.

It’s a little too long and I would have ditched the final five or so minutes but I would recommend you seeing it without hesitation.

Loden did look like she might direct a second film, based on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but illness prevented this happening.

She died of cancer in New York City in September 1980, aged 48.

For more on Wanda, click here

Finally this week, it’s back to the aforementioned Candida Royalle. Candice Marion Vadala as she was christened, wasn’t just a porn star and porn director. She also performed with hippy avant-garde theatre group The Cockettes, played Divine’s daughter in a play, and in 1975 collaborated on some tracks with Patrick Cowley (who himself supplied the soundtracks to a number of gay porn flicks).

The Royalle and Cowley recordings were eventually released in 2016 by Dark Entries Records as a 5-track EP titled Candida Cosmica. Not really my thing although they were way ahead of their time.

Here’s a taster:

Multiple Maniacs: American Indie #7

Leave a comment

You have never, and I mean never, seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

LA Free Press

During the late sixties I felt like a fish out of water. As the rest of my generation babbled about peace and love, I stood back, puzzled, and fantasized about the beginning of the “hate generation.” Woodstock was the last straw. Sitting in the mud with a bunch of naked hippies and their illegitimate children and listening to Joan Baez was hardly my idea of a good time.

John Waters: Shock Value (1981)

Multiple Maniacs

A couple of years ago, I got my hands on a copy of John Waters’ second feature length film on blu-ray. Released by Criterion, it was pricey but a great package – even though the music originally utilised by Waters had disappeared, due to copyright issues. The release boasted an impressive set of extras, including new interviews with Waters regulars like Mink Stole and George Figgs; a video essay by Gary Needham and a booklet with liner notes by Linda Yablonsky. Best of all was a new audio commentary featuring Waters.

The strange thing is I think I preferred this to watching the film ‘straight’.
Waters is clever and funny, a natural raconteur with a genuine subversive streak. Interviews with modern directors can often bore me rigid, as they constantly try to be complimentary about their cast and crew and desperately attempt not offend anyone who might just possibly stump up some cash and pay to see their films, but Waters is always a delight to listen to, even when I disagree with what he’s saying.

As a young director, he embraced bad taste and embarked on a mission to wind up absolutely everybody from conservatives to leftists and liberals and everyone in between. Most of his ire in Multiple Maniacs, though, is directed against Catholicism, the religion he was indoctrinated in to as a child but I’m sure other branches of Christianity might find themselves similarly infuriated if they bothered to watch.

Waters made the movie on a laughably low budget in his beloved Baltimore. As in all his early work, he adopted guerilla filmmaking techniques before that phrase was in common use and drafted in his Dreamlander regulars such as Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey and of course Divine, who is in his fat Elizabeth Taylor phase here.

Divine looking into mirror

In Multiple Maniacs, a master of ceremonies known as Mr David (David Lochary), lures in suburban passers-by by promising they will see all manner of depravities should they enter ‘the sleaziest show on earth’ – Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.

Mr. David’s warning that the show is full of ‘acts that would make any decent person recoil in disgust’ is no idle patter. There is a woman seemingly sexually attracted to a bicycle saddle, a man who eats his own vomit and a drug addict going through cold turkey.

The audience are dully disgusted, but they’re about to experience something far worse. Lady Divine is about to reveal the true purpose of the cavalcade. The whole travelling freakshow is a subterfuge, as onlookers at points across the country are only invited in so they can to be robbed – and murdered if they fail to co-operate.

Now, if you spend a moment analysing this, you will conclude that while this ruse might work once, the fact is that the police would interview witnesses afterwards, making it easy for them to track down the uber-eccentric misfits that comprise the crime gang, a true band of outsiders if ever there was one. Let’s face it, in the early 1970s, a grossly overweight transvestite would hardly be the most difficult suspect to track down.

Lady_Divine's_Cavalcade

Safe to say that realism is not the aim of Waters. Fun and shock are.

Lady Divine is Mr David’s girlfriend but Mr David – and he is only ever referred to this way – is tiring of Lady Divine’s out of control killing sprees. What’s almost as bad is that she also rejects the idea of letting ‘copraphrasiac and a gerontophiliac’ Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pierce) join the show.

Unknown to Lady Divine, Bonnie is Mr David’s secret girlfriend, and in the aftermath of her rejection, the pair hatch a plot to murder the serial murderess.

David Lochary in Multiple Maniacs

She is meanwhile getting fed up with Mr David and his attitude. When she receives a phone call from a blabbermouth bar worker (Edith Massey), she explodes in anger and heads out with payback on her mind.

Raging, she meets up with two glue sniffing men, one with a beard who wears a dress. They rape her.

Miraculously, Lady Divine then encounters a biblical figure, the Infant of Prague, who leads her to a nearby church. As she contemplates recent events, a young lesbian (Mink Stole) approaches her. She tells Lady Divine that she is known as the Religious Whore and seduces her, finding a use for a set of a rosary beads that the Catholic Church is never going to endorse.

Paul Swift, the actor who earlier portrayed the drug addict reappears, this time playing Jesus. This is followed by some graphic cannibalism.

And then things get really outrageous!

Lobstara_&_Divine

On the Trashometer, Multiple Maniacs is undoubtedly a ten but as a film it wouldn’t merit top marks.

The acting? It’s like a bunch of LSD casualties had taken over an am-dram group. The movie goes on too long and a middle section where Lady Divine imagines her version of the Stations of the Cross, it would have to be said, is frankly a drag.

Sometimes it just tries too hard to offend – such as the mentions of the Manson murders. It was shot before those awful events had led to any arrests and it’s occasionally hinted that one cavalcade member was heavily involved.

It isn’t nearly as good as many of his later works like Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry-Baby. Watching this in the 1970s, few would have predicted that Waters would go on to enjoy anything resembling the mainstream success that he managed later in his career with that trio of movies.

On the plus side, Multiple Maniacs is certainly original, and only one man could possibly have made it. As that quote at the top of the post says, if you haven’t already seen it, then you will never have seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

Unless that is, you’ve already seen his follow up, Pink Flamingos, but that is maybe for another time.

Bambi Meets Godzilla: American Indie #6

2 Comments

We all like Bambi, don’t we? And we all like Godzilla too, yeah?

In 1969, a Californian student named Marv Newland came up with the simple but inspired idea of bringing the two of them together in his very first animated short.

He spent two weeks working on the idea and made it for under 300 dollars. That budget, incidentally, didn’t include gaining music clearance from The Beatles for the use of that iconic reverberating piano chord that ends A Day in the Life so stunningly. Newland apparently slowed it down to half its original speed, lending it an even more ominous feel.

Bambi Meets Godzilla would go on to feature on many a supporting bill on the midnight movie/drive-in/university film club circuits back when you didn’t just get awful ads and a bunch of trailers for superhero movies before seeing the film of your choice.

Here it is in full, all one and a half minutes. Enjoy.

Girl Power: American Indie (#5)

Leave a comment

Sadie Benning Girl Power

Girl Power, I was once told, was a slogan coined by The Spice Girls.

‘Which one?’

The question was met with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘I’m not sure, think they might’ve came up with it together.’

No, no, no. Before The Spice Girls persuaded a big chunk of the world’s CD buying public that what they really, really wanted was manufactured pop dross, there was brattish bubblegum punks Shampoo with their Girl Power single and album, and before them Milwaukee born Sadie Benning called one of her early short videos Girl Power after the Bikini Kill: Girl Power fanzine.

So, within about five years Girl Power went from feminist riot grrrl slogan to being appropriated as marketing tool used to promote a global phenomenon – who liked to cite Maggie Thatcher as an influence. As Geri Halliwell put it in 1996: ‘Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology—Girl Power.’

Beware Girl Power

It’s said that the fifteen year old Benning spent most nights alone in her bedroom, where she would narrate the events of her life while gazing into the lens of her Fisher-Price PXL2000, a kid’s black-and-white camcorder that used a compact audio cassette as its recording medium and possessed only about half the resolution of most basic camcorders on the market at the time. Its images were high contrast and were surrounded by a thick letterboxed border.

Back in the first half of the 1990s, the idea of shooting films on a PXL2000 exploded, after Richard Linklater included a short sequence shot in PixelVision in his 1990 debut feature film, Slacker.

Inspired by directors like Linklater and Steven Soderbergh, independent filmmaking in America was on the rise at this point, as was the grunge music of bands like Nirvana and the Riot Girrrl movement. These influences all collided in the work of Sadie Benning, helping her forge her unique lo-fi aesthetic that quickly began attracting attention.

Sadie_Benning_Girl_Power

One early piece was the aforementioned Girl Power from 1992. Here Benning creates an urgent visual collage, incorporating scrawled text on paper and some cut-out lettering similar to The Sex Pistols’ ransom typography; there’s brief clips of TV ads; old home movies; music by The Sugarhill Gang, Blondie and Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now; shots of strange and shocking material lifted from a number of sources – these include an old lady shooting in a gun range and a snippet of an interview with the American Nazi Party leader of the time George Lincoln Rockwell; as well as highly pixelated black and white footage. The PixelVision was certainly accurately named.

All this, and much more, is accompanied by close-ups of Benning’s face and her rather flat voice over giving us accounts of her alienation as a child and thoughts on her lesbian identity. A constant camera hum is part of the package too.

Girl Power still.png

It’s much nearer to a punk or underground fanzine than watching a standard American studio movie*, although of course, whereas making a fanzine has always remained a relatively easy and cheap, making any kind of film in the pre-smartphone 1990s, was a more expensive area of creativity to become involved in.

As Benning explained in an interview with Jigsaw fanzine: ‘I have a 8mm camera, and an 8mm small little deck that cost like 400 dollars, and an editor controller that cost a hundred dollars, and I edit between the deck and the camera.’ She went on to explain: ‘I have only one channel of sound, and if I want to have music and voice over, I have to have my boom box and be turning it up, and saying the lines, and then be turning it down.’

I saw some of her work at the CCA in Glasgow and immediately wanted to get my hands on a PixelVision. Already, though, they were being considered a much sought after cult item. They were only on sale for around a year, with only 400,000 of them ever being manufactured worldwide. So I couldn’t join in the fun. Maybe this was for the best.

Benning’s camera, incidentally, would have cost around $100. Before the 1990s were out, they were selling for over ten times their original price.

GP1

Even early in her career Benning began appearing in prestigious art shows like NYC 1993: Jet Set, Trash and No Star at the New Museum and that same year, she became the youngest artist to show at long-running American art survey the Whitney Biennial, when she was only nineteen – her filmmaking father had been shown at five previous Biennials (and Sadie’s camera had been a Christmas gift from him).

In 1998, Benning joined Le Tigre, a feminist dance-punk band with singer/guitarist Kathleen Hanna (previously of Bikini Kill) and fanzine editor Johanna Fateman.

This century has seen her being awarded several solo exhibitions, including at the Walker Art Center in 2005 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009.

No trailer exists for Benning’s Girl Power – well it does only last fifteen minutes – but here’s likely where I first heard phrase Girl Power, mentioned here as a lyric on a fragile ditty by Ramones obsessed Helen Love, a Welsh singer/band that John Peel played a lot in the 1990s.

From 1993, this is Formula One Racing Girls:

* Asked in a 1993 New York Times interview, she was asked if Hollywood had ever come calling, she replied: ‘Yes, but it’s too weird to talk about.’

Older Entries