Sunday, 1 July 2018

You Cannot Fart Around With Love:
A Tribute to Fredric Hobbs


“Even the distributor, who’s a very smart guy, said, ‘Everybody goes nuts at the end! Is that what you always do, Hobbs? In every movie you make everybody always goes nuts at the end!’ I said, ‘No, for chrissakes, listen to the dialogue! It’s in there […] But you know what? The images were so strong that nobody listened. That’s why some of my movies fail, in some things. People say, ‘Oh, the story’s weak, Hobbs doesn’t know how to do stories.’ That’s bullshit! My imagery is so powerful that they can't listen.”
- Fredric Hobbs, interview with Stephen Thrower, 2007

This week, I learned that Fredric Hobbs, a man I’d make a point of including on any list of my favourite American filmmakers, passed away in April at his home in Monterey, California. He was eighty five. (Source.)

As anyone who has read the chapter in Stephen Thrower’s indispensable Nightmare USA devoted to Hobbs and his work will be aware, to describe him as a ‘unique character’ would be something of an understatement.

Throughout his life, Hobbs primarily worked as a visual artist, and, insofar as I’ve been able to view or learn about it, I’ve always found both the theory and practice behind the “Art-Eco” movement of which he was the self-proclaimed founder to be quite appealing.

Mixing ecological / environmental concerns with a distinctly Californian outsider / pioneer aesthetic, much of his earlier work seems to have focussed on ‘moveable’ art of one kind or another, much of which can be seen in his films. Using monolithic “junk” sculptures, parade floats, ritualistic costumed processions and “drivable art”, he aimed to break away from sterile museum and gallery spaces, instead bringing his creations “straight to the people”, infiltrating everyday environments and, presumably, relishing the confusion and surrealism that resulted – a notion that, again, can be strongly felt in his cinematic work.

Assorted Fredric Hobbs art images taken from

In addition to this, Hobbs also seems to have been deeply involved for a time with the preservation and restoration of the historic frontier town of Virginia City, Nevada (coincidentally the same locale in which acid-rock pioneers The Charlatans held their legendary residency at the Red Dog Saloon in 1965 – an event that many historians credit with first solidifying the aesthetic of San Francisco’s psychedelic counter-culture, a scene whose later mutations Hobbs would eventually incorporate into Alabama’s Ghost in 1972).

At one point, Hobbs was apparently the owner of Virginia City’s Silver Dollar Hotel, and he co-authored a history of the area, ‘The Richest Place on Earth: a History of Nevada's Comstock Lode’, with radical journalist and Hunter S. Thompson associate Warren Hinckle in 1978. More significantly for our purposes, he also shot Godmonster of Indian Flats in and around Virginia City in 1973.

Hobbs’ adventures in filmmaking began with an entirely independent production named Troika, which he initially deemed ready for exhibition in 1969. Consisting of three separate segments that may or not have been intended to be screened simultaneously on parallel screens (reports vary), this was a pretty experimental affair, utilising imagery and objects that seem to have arisen largely from Hobbs’ art practice. But, it also appears to have had a self-reflexive narrative of sorts, with the director appearing as himself, waging war in the name of art against a commercially minded Hollywood producer.

According to information unearthed by the Temple of Schlock weblog, ‘Troika’ was picked up for distribution by a company named Emerson Film Enterprises, and was screened at least a few times in both New York and Los Angeles, even gaining a remarkably positive review from Variety in October 1969. As far as I’m aware however, ‘Troika’ has never been released or screened in any form since that date, and no one has subsequently been able to view it without direct access to the materials held by Hobbs.

When Thrower interviewed Hobbs for his book, the director insisted ‘Troika’ was still unfinished(!), but he nonetheless provided Thrower with the means to watch it, thus allowing the writer to give a lengthy, and tantalising, description of its contents, running to what must be several thousand words. To give you but one extract;

“A fantastical biped, its mask-like face nodding within a carapace resembling some wondrous beetle, takes a ride on an old-West train. The creature (end credits refer to it as the Bug-Man; its onscreen name is Rax) disembarks to walk the hills, before being attacked by a savage seen burning a chicken with a blowtorch. Beaten with a stone-axe and left for dead, the Bug-Man staggers to a beach and collapses, twitching feebly, whereupon a deep reddish-orange woman emerges from the sea pushing a sculpture mounted on wheels. She attempts an erotic encounter, caressing the Bug-Man and fingering his wounds, but as he lies there unable to respond, she ends up pleasuring herself instead. Perhaps the encounter was not so one-sided after all; as if rejuvenated, we then see Rax enter an ice cave, where he encounters a black shaman called the Attentuated Man, a seven foot tall giant who speaks in drastically slowed down Arabic.”

And so on. After eventually concluding his description, Thrower observes;

“The version Fredric Hobbs has allowed me to see is still not the ‘final cut’, but it is already apparent to me that this is an important, original work by an artist of genuine vision. While his subsequent movies veer between astounding and frustrating, ‘Troika’ is his masterpiece, and its eventual release on DVD should be awaited with the utmost anticipation.”
- Nightmare USA, pp.358-360

Over a decade later, we are, sadly, still waiting.

Production stills from ‘Troika’, via Lost Media Wiki.

Quite how Hobbs went on from here to become involved in directing more commercial movies – or why anyone ever deemed it a sound investment to give him money to do so – is still not something I fully understand, but hey – it was a strange time, and for the sake of us all, I’m extremely glad that unreason prevailed in this regard, for at least a few years.

Bearing only scant resemblance to the marketable genres into which they were ostensibly supposed to fit, the three features Hobbs wrote and directed between 1971 and 1973 are a world unto themselves. Venturing far beyond the limits of such mild terms as “idiosyncratic” or “eccentric”, they are landmarks of High Weirdness, in which crude cinematic technique and egregiously theatrical performances fail to disguise the lunatic ambition and unrestrained visual imagination of their creator, not to mention his uniquely strange insight into life on earth and the human condition.

Inexplicably marketed as a sexploitation item by notorious producer Harry Novak, Hobbs’ first commercial film, Roseland, remains probably the least seen and most, shall we say, problematic of his three extant works. Perhaps taking the idea of a “sex drama” a bit more literally than anyone had intended, ‘Roseland’ finds Hobbs regular E. Kerrigan Prescott enunciating to the back of the room in the role of a popular operatic singer who has been confined to a psychiatric institute, where an extremely unconventional doctor attempts to cure him of his perceived sexual deviancy, following a scandalous incident that saw him hi-jacking the Ed Sullivan show to perform an allegedly obscene song entitled “You Cannot Fart Around With Love”.

Rebelling against the doctor’s regime, Prescott takes on the alter-ego of “the black bandit” and begins to indulge in nocturnal expeditions to steal prints of pornographic films. Meanwhile, heavily saturated fish-eye footage shows us an army of naked hippie primitives transporting a gigantic, phallic sculpture on a hill, draping it in chains of flowers, and dancing around it, maypole style.

Presumably this is supposed to represent a dream or vision of the kind of paradise that Prescott envisions emerging from his curious new philosophy, the ins and outs of which spends the majority of the film enunciating at length, both to the doctor, and to a black, jive-talking avatar of the artist Hieronymous Bosch (played by future Hobbs MVP Christopher Brooks), who emerges from beneath Prescott’s bed to act as some sort of spirit guide.

Basically playing out like an earnest diatribe on the need for a more progressive approach to human sexuality, as dramatised by an enthusiastic street theatre troupe and injected with industrial quantities of post-psychedelic mind damage, I can’t even begin to imagine what Novak’s usual audience made of all this. I suppose we must assume that, back in the day, punters were willing to sit through an awful lot of footage of strange, bearded men swapping spittle-flecked philosophical infective in order to eventually catch sight of some naked hippies.

Frankly, ‘Roseland’s value to 21st century viewers is equally questionable, but to Hobbs devotees such as myself, every glimpse into his singular creative process is gold, and the key facet of his filmmaking – namely, the idea of never taking the expected route from A to B, and ensuring that every small detail of his productions should in some way be rendered incredibly strange - is certainly in full effect throughout.

I realise of course that celebrating a film simply on the basis that it is “strange” or “weird” is fairly reductive, but it is difficult to know where else to start when considering Hobbs’ next production, the extraordinary Alabama’s Ghost. Sometimes written off as a “Blaxploitation horror film” (a summation that feels akin to describing Godard’s ‘Week End’ as a “comedy of manners”), I would make the case for ‘Alabama..’ being one of the most errant outpourings of unhinged creativity that has ever been placed before the American public in the guise of a narrative entertainment.

I wrote extensively about the film after first watching it back in 2011, but, in summary, ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ concerns the travails of Christopher Brooks as the titular Alabama – a free-wheeling hep-cat who discovers the artefacts and props of real life 1920s magician Carter The Great buried beneath Earthquake McGoon’s Irish pub, and subsequently decides to reinvent himself as a stage magician. This decision catapults him into a sprawling drama whose ever-shifting sands involve sinister Nazi mind control techniques, vampire world domination conspiracies, messianic desert rock festivals, obnoxious racist ghosts, paper-mache enhanced monster cars and – you probably saw this one coming – mind-altering psychoactive snuff. Also featuring voodoo blood-letting rituals, a rampaging elephant, witches, bikers, a robot, many, many hippies and music from The Loading Zone and The Turk Murphy Jazz Band.

Unsurprisingly, this heady brew – which to some extent retained the theatrical performance styles and lengthy, digressive dialogue of its predecessor, in spite of all the hullaballoo outlined above – proved impossible for America’s grindhouse/drive-in audiences to adequately digest, especially when the film was ill-advisedly marketed to inner-city theatres as a straight up blaxploitation item, and it soon sank without trace.

(It’s a real shame I think that no one came up with the idea of resurrecting ‘Alabama..’ as a “midnight movie” ala ‘El Topo’ or ‘Eraserhead’. Something tells me if would be far better remembered today if it had been allowed the chance to establish a similar cult following.)

After ‘Alabama..’, I’d imagine Hobbs probably had to put in a lot of persuasion to secure financial backing for his next project. In the end, I suppose his long-suffering production associates thought, well, the guy loves to build crazy creatures and big, monstrous costumes and stuff… how far wrong can he go with a good, old-fashioned monster movie? Little did they know.

Although Godmonster of Indian Flatswhich I reviewed here in 2012 – may lack the ostentatious freakery of ‘Alabama..’, it is at heart perhaps an even more unique proposition, and a film that I find more compelling and thematically rich each time I return to it.

To recap, ‘Godmonster..’ begins when a simple-minded shepherd, returning from a gambling and drinking binge, collapses amid his beloved flock and experiences what can only be described as a religious visitation. When he awakes, he finds that one of his sheep has given birth to some kind of shapeless, embryonic creature, which is subsequently commandeered and placed in an incubator by the local not-quite-mad-but-probably-getting-there scientist (again played by the irrepressible E. Kerrigan Prescott).

Meanwhile, we find ourselves drawn into the cut-throat world of local Virginia City politics, as a charismatic black cowboy named Barnstable (Brooks once again) arrives in town with the intention of trying to wrestle the city’s mining concessions away from the cabal surrounding the corrupt Mayor Silverdale, and handing them instead to his employer, a reclusive billionaire with the somewhat loaded name of Mr. Reich. (In view of Hobbs’ personal connections to Virginia City, one wonders how much of this storyline may have been inspired by his own experiences.)

How will Barnstable’s story intersect with that of the misshapen beast growing in the doctor’s lab? And what indeed of Madame Alta, the local clairvoyant, who briefs some of our more sympathetic characters on the nature of her connection to the land, and communes with spirits in the derelict, Wild West era cemetery?

Well, I may have watched the film three or four times, but… don’t ask me. What I can tell you however is that these parallel threads allow Hobbs a perfect opportunity to introduce some of the themes and networks of imagery that also informed his art into what might on the surface appear to be little more than a boilerplate monster movie narrative (anti-pollution sub-division).

In particular, Hobbs uses the film to consistently highlight the disjuncture that exists between the spiritual and materialistic impulses underlying American history and culture (even the “Godmonster” of the title hints at this all-consuming contradiction), whilst also exploring notions of environmental degradation, mutation and reclamation that now appear quite prescient.

When the fully grown “Godmonster” – designed by Hobbs himself, of course – eventually emerges meanwhile, it is quite a thing to behold, if not quite in the manner monster fans may have been hoping for. An utterly inexplicable mass of bulbous flesh with a camel-like head and gangly, malformed limbs, it is simultaneously forlorn, pathetic and hilarious. The scene in which it rambles out of the undergrowth to disrupt a children’s picnic has rightly become the stuff of cult movie legend.

Of course, the true horror of this story though lays not with the mild outrages committed by this poor, harmless beast, so misshapen that can barely stand upright, but with the directionless rage, avarice and hysteria exhibited by the confused local populace as they attempt to capture and destroy it.

Even as we may be driven to laughter by the “Godmonster”s lumbering, uncoordinated movements (at times it looks somewhat like a gigantic, hairy flea), we simultaneously feel vast sympathy for it during its traumatic journey through our world. In spite of its inhuman, faceless construction, there is a terrible poignancy to this sad-sack creation that is difficult to put into words.

The film’s final sequence, in which the strangely messianic, caged creature is crucified by proxy, pelted with silver dollars whilst the townspeople shriek and cry and argue beneath it as if descending into collective insanity, is senselessly harrowing – a kind of apocalyptic Golgotha of the Western American soul, and a bleak and genuinely upsetting conclusion to Fredric Hobbs’ brief directorial career. (His recollection of a distributor’s reaction to this divisive ending has been quoted at the start of this post.)

Having taken a bath three times on these basketcase motion pictures, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hobbs’ financial backers pulled the plug at this stage, and, with no other potential revenue sources forthcoming, Hobbs returned his attention to the art world.

Even on the basis of this limited canon, I believe that Hobbs deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as such filmmakers as Alejandro Jodorowsky, José Mojica Marins, David Lynch, Kim Ki-Young or Ken Russell – a true one-off whose personality veritably screams from every frame of his work - and am consistently saddened by the fact that his films remains so misunderstood and under-appreciated by the cult movie fraternity.

Sadly, Hobbs’ reputation is probably not helped by the fact the all currently extant copies of his films look absolutely terrible. ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ in particular is (to my knowledge) only available as a brutally cropped ‘80s-era VHS rip featuring murky, degraded colours that seem to reduce everything to an unsavoury shade of brown.

I’ve often reflected that, should I ever attain the time and finances necessary to enter the film restoration game, attempting to track down whatever elements still survive for ‘Alabama..’ would be my number one priority, but unfortunately, from what I can gather, the film’s legal ownership seems to be lost in some kind of limbo, and, by this stage, when every obscure horror film under the sun seems to be getting a special edition blu-ray, I’m sure others before me must have tried and failed.

Speaking of which, at the time of writing, The American Genre Film Archive are taking pre-orders for their forthcoming blu-ray release of ‘Godmonster of Indian Flats’, and have also helped spread the news of Fredric Hobbs’ passing in recent weeks.

Whilst on the one hand I am absolutely overjoyed at the prospect of soon being able to watch a transfer of a Hobbs film that does not, in the parlance of our times, look like ass, I was initially quite crushed to see that the extras on AGFA’s release offer no context at all on Hobbs or the film’s place within his work, instead filling out the disc with some generic cheesy-monster-movie type stuff.

Now, sadly, the knowledge that the director had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for around five years prior to his recent passing helps to explain why AGFA couldn’t go straight to the source for some background, but I’m still disappointed they were unable to at least reach out to Thrower or someone else who might have been able to properly contextualise the film for first time viewers.

Still, to some extent it is the mystery that surrounds this man and his work that continues to make it so fascinating, and, as long as the films are still out there in some form, we can at least be reassured that sympathetic viewers will be able to recognise them as something special, and will beat their way down the same well-worn Google trail I’ve taken in compiling this article in order to learn more.

In truth though, given both the prolific/obsessive manner in which he went about creating art, and the attention-grabbing nature of his work, I’m amazed at what an obscure figure Hobbs remains. I suppose it is possible that both his disinclination toward self-publicity and his, uh, somewhat extreme personality may not have exactly endeared him to writers or researchers who might have helped to raise his profile during his lifetime, but either way, the sheer dearth of available information about him is remarkable.

For a man who seems to have produced such a vast quantity of paintings, drawings and sculpture, there are very few images of his work online, and, although his capsule biographies speak of work held by major institutions, I can find very little in the way of info regarding exhibitions, auctions and so forth. Frankly, most of the information about him on the internet concerns his films, and, as we’ve established, not many people even seem to like his films. In 1980 he authored a book entitled ‘Eat Your House: An Art Eco Guide to Self-Sufficiency’, but I only know this because it is for sale on Amazon for £0.01 plus postage. (Should I take a chance?)

Just like the unseen content of ‘Troika’, the few scraps of information we do have are fascinating, and the vast gaps in the story remain tantalising.

How did he end up owning the Silver Dollar Hotel, and what did he do with it whilst he was there? How did he go about assembling the several hundred people who took their clothes off and carried his giant penis statue up a hill whilst filming ‘Roseland’, and how did the complaints of outraged locals that are reported in a scanned clipping from the San Mateo Times pan out? Why did he withdraw ‘Troika’ from circulation, and what on earth was he doing to it that rendered it “unfinished” over thirty years later? Why is there so little photographic evidence of the ‘Highway’ exhibition of “drivable art” that he apparently sent roaring across America at some point in the 1960s? What did he do to inspire a snarky, anonymous Youtube commenter to declare that he was “still alive and being obnoxious” in 2010? What was he UP TO through all these invisible years, and will We The People ever be able to benefit from seeing the results?

If I’ve learned anything from watching his films, it’s that the answers to these questions will not be simple.

R.I.P. Fredric Hobbs. Safe to say, we will not see his like again.

A memorial site set up by his friends and family can be visited here.

“Aesthetic communication may stop wars. If a man would build his own chartreuse gargoyle and live in it rather than glass and steel boxes, he could communicate better with his neighbour.”
- Fredric Hobbs, quoted in the San Mateo Times, January 1971


JW said...

I have sometimes wondered if it was strange to have a favorite filmmaker who only made 4 films out of which I have only seen 3. You articulate quite well how such could be the case. I am a bit more partial to ROSELAND and thought it was a head scratcher that SWV/Image never included it among their Harry Novak titles. I hope TROIKA will at some point be available as it sounds incredible. If I recall correctly, the critical blurb from Scanlan's on the ROSELAND ads is actually referring to TROIKA. This may be common knowledge but for those unaware - The Loading Zone's ONE FOR ALL album has two songs featured in ROSELAND. Also, the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation released a CD of Turk Murphy called EUPHONIC SOUNDS and it features "Alabama's Ghost". Raw Zeta all day, never Deadly Zeta.

Ben said...

Thank you for your comments, and for the addtional info, JW - much appreciated.

The lack of info/availability/appreciation out there re: Hobbs ouvre remains frustrating. There must be such a wealth of unseen stuff out there, lurking in brains, attics, processing labs, gradually fading away, and so little has made it into the digital era. Some nights I'll dream of traversing some deep, dark astral cave where the original negs for 'Alabama..' and 'Troika' lurk.... but no luck as yet.

Ben said...

Have I mentioned by the way, my completely unsubstantiated theory that Hobbs may have secretly had something to do with 'Space is the Place', the (wonderful) Sun Ra movie..?

As well as featuring Christopher Brooks, which gives us a solid connection, it just... has the right vibe, I suppose.

As with so many things though, we'll probably never know.

JW said...

I was hoping with both Severin and Arrow dealing with some of the Novak titles, ROSELAND might have a shot. One of the nice things about sites like etc is finding more info on TROIKA, etc. If I recall correctly, there were plans for a ALABAMA'S GHOST tie-in book and soundtrack at one point. Too bad that never happened. Ironically, the film I have found the least amount of info on - GODMONSTER - is the one with the Blu-Ray release. Hate to say it, but someone really "hip" may have to champion it in order for one of these companies to get interested. As you said, Hobbs is definitely worthy of a reappraisal and I hope I live to see it.

JW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JW said...

Ben - it's funny that you mentioned that as I have felt for a long time that ALABAMA'S GHOST and SPACE IS THE PLACE would make a great double feature*. I hadn't entertained the notion of Hobbs' involvement though. Intriguing idea. Christopher Brooks is great in both films. (*Actually I would make it a triple feature and include TOP OF THE HEAP.)