Watching the finale of Liquid Sky a few weeks back, the image of an androgynous, new wave lady with lethal, alien powers facing a showdown on a Manhattan rooftop with the skyscrapers looming large in the background gave me a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. I knew I’d seen her before, somewhere.
The other day it hit me: GOZER.
Now I’m not claiming there’s anything deliberate or underhand going on here. But: ‘Liquid Sky’ was 1982, Ghostbusters was 1984. Isn’t it at least possible that someone on the production team for the latter caught a screening of the former, and thought, hey, that’s kinda neat?
A pretty off the wall reference point for a family-friendly studio blockbuster you might think, but perhaps it was this very spirit of open-mindedness that helped make ‘Ghostbusters’ the atmospheric, clever and imaginative film it undoubtedly is. Stretching this already tenuous musing to breaking point, perhaps it could be suggested that Sigourney Weaver’s demonically possessed sexual predator in ‘Ghostbusters’ also owes a debt to Anne Carlisle’s turn in ‘Liquid Sky’? No? Alright then, fine.
Of course, the respective finales of these films aren’t *actually* set in (or rather, on top of) either the Empire State Building or the more picturesque Chrysler Building, but their presence looms large in both movies – literally so in ‘Liquid Sky’s skyline, whilst ‘Ghostbusters’ haunted, gothic apartment block can clearly be read as a fictional stand-in for one or other of the skyscrapers.
It occurs to me that these buildings – built on a competing basis and completed within a year of each other in 1930/31 - actually have a long history of associations with cinematic monstrosity and alien power. Perhaps this is an obvious result of their brutally imposing art deco/gothic crossover architecture (I’m sure anyone who knows the first thing about architecture will do a doubletake at such clunky and no doubt wrongly applied terminology, but that’s what they’ve always looked like to my dumb eyes - sorry), and the way they dominate the skyline.
Or perhaps it’s more to do with the ongoing legacy of KING KONG.
From here, my brain jumps not to the significance of the big ape, but to the terminal power of decision that ‘King Kong’ invests in poor old Fay Wray, and how uncannily that brings us back to the exaggerated representations of female destructive power seen in the vicinity of these big ol’ phallic monuments to masculine industrial potency in ‘Liquid Sky’ and ‘Ghostbusters’. Do we dare draw a straight line between “beauty” killing “the beast” in the 1930s and Anne Carlisle “killing with her cunt” in the 1980s…?
I’d like to. Oh, c’mon, please, can we? No? Doesn’t float? Well, as Bill Murray puts it in the inevitably rather more normative ending of ‘Ghostbusters’: “that chick is toast!”
Growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I remember it seemed that a hefty proportion of the action/adventure type movies I watched were set in New York. This could just be my imagination, led astray by the fact that NY seems to inevitably become a strong presence in films which are set in the city, whereas LA or anonymous small town locations often sink into the background unless given special attention. But perhaps there actually WERE a lot of New York-set films in production in this era, moving the action there off the back of the success of movies like ‘Ghostbusters’. I don’t know.
Either way, this weird childhood nostalgia for New York based movies was also something that occurred to me whilst watching Larry Cohen’s stonecold classic independent monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent (1982). Needless to say, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to watch this one as a kid, which is a shame, as I’m sure my eleven year old self would have loved it then even more than my grown up self loves it now.
So, where in Cohen’s movie do you suppose the resurrected Quetzalcoatl calls home when visiting NY? Right up at the top of the Chrysler Building, that’s where - the semi-derelict spire bit where nobody ever goes. Apparently Cohen and his crew clambered up there and filmed the whole thing on location, 1000 feet in the air, stunts and effects shots and all. What a hero.
Of course, this Quetzalcoatl is also a female – a big, mean firebreathing one, plucking sunbathers off Manhattan rooftops to feed her newly hatched brood. Following the lead of Egon and the boys in a somewhat earthier fashion, David Carradine and his team of police commandos viciously machine gun the poor beastie to pieces, destroy her nest, and normality is restored….. for now.
It’s a pity ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’ wasn’t set in New York, or I could have gotten a whole dissertation out of this one.
Thursday, 26 February 2009
Watching the finale of Liquid Sky a few weeks back, the image of an androgynous, new wave lady with lethal, alien powers facing a showdown on a Manhattan rooftop with the skyscrapers looming large in the background gave me a strange sense of cinematic déjà vu. I knew I’d seen her before, somewhere.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
I have seen some pretty strange films in my time, and many of the strangest are to be found upon that consistently fertile faultline where exploitation/trash meets arthouse. Such inherently unstable territory provides the natural home of many of my favourite filmmakers, and, let’s face it, pretty much EVERY film I watch these days tends to fall into one or the other of those categories, so the meeting of the two is inevitably going to be a wellspring of unending strangeness, and a concept we’ll be exploring a lot on this blog.
Take ‘Arrebato’ for instance; that was pretty strange. And ‘Wax, or The Discovery Of Television Amongst The Bees’ – that was WAY stranger. I’m sure that after their recent official re-release, none of us need reminding how unbearably strange ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ are. Benjamin Christensen’s ‘Haxan’ isn’t gonna be getting any more normal any time soon. I seem to have sat through enough brain-melting claptrap from Poland and Japan to precipitate some kind of weirdness ragnarock, should the two film industries ever collide. And so on. On a purely objective level, ‘Liquid Sky’ can’t really compete in the strangeness stakes – it puts in a good effort, but in terms of sheer quantity of ‘?!?!!?’ moments, it’s outclassed. After all, it bloodmindedly persists in making a certain amount of sense. It features fine camerawork and performances, it won some awards. Its themes and imagery are, if not exactly conventional, at least coherent.
Nonetheless though, ‘Liquid Sky’ is still the first film in a long time that’s caused me to pause the DVD for a few minutes, catch my breath, and reflect that, ok, I have NO IDEA where this movie is coming from. After all, most of the films I’ve mentioned above are extremely SELF-CONSCIOUS in their weirdness, revelling in their position as carnivals of overwhelming cinematic lunacy. ‘Liquid Sky’, on the other hand, gives the impression of becoming inexplicably strange simply by virtue of the fact that it is the work of people who, culturally speaking, would normally lack both the means and inclination to make a commercially released feature film, especially a sci-fi/genre film, deciding that they’re going to make one anyway, and deciding that it will reflect the issues and aesthetics that are relevant to them, rather than drawing examples from established filmic language.
I mean, can you think of another example of a whacked out sci-fi movie made by a cast and crew largely drawn from early ‘80s New York queer/feminist art/fashion circles? Can you even imagine what one would look like? – if not, you’ve evidently not seen ‘Liquid Sky’, cos that’s exactly what we’ve got here. By turns, ‘Liquid Sky’ also manages to transform itself into a fairly grim sex film, a goofy black comedy, a celebration of early ‘80s club/drug culture, an examination of the schizoid nature of socially-enforced gender/identity creation and a psychedelic showcase of fluorescent op art visuals, as director Slava Tsukerman crams together a whole host of elements that have never been seen together on the silver screen before or since, creating a true one-off.
I’m aware that at least some of you will have already seen ‘Liquid Sky’. After all, it’s something of a perennial underground classic, a lynchpin of the ‘80s ‘midnight movie’ circuit, no doubt required viewing on any number of feminist cinema modules etc. – but this is the first time I’ve managed to see it (god bless my multi-region DVD player and Amazon Marketplace), so I’ll write this review from the POV of a neophyte if that’s ok with everybody.
When summarised on paper, the basic premise of ‘Liquid Sky’ is as simple as it is ludicrous: an incorporeal alien entity encased within a flying saucer the size of a dustbin lid has come to earth, with the intention of absorbing energy from the opiates released in the brains of humans who are high on heroin, killing them in the process. Having arrived and been around the block a few times, the alien has discovered that the energy that can be harvested from an orgasm is EVEN BETTER, and has parked on the top floor of an apartment block opposite the Empire State Building, focussing it’s attention primarily on Margaret (Anne Carlisle), an aspiring actress and new wave scenester whose life comprises an ugly nexus of bad sex and bad drugs.
We don’t learn this at first though – which is just as well, as if we did we might have assumed we were watching some gross-out Troma sex comedy or something. No, what will first grab you about this film is it’s incredibly stylised depiction of an ‘80s New York club scene that may or may not have actually existed at some point, a scene in which androgynous models with garish, homemade outfits, chopped asymmetrical hair and fluorescent face paint get down under neon strip lights to oppressive, minimal synth music. A no holds barred ‘80s overload, straight from that brief period when the signifiers that have come to stand for “the ‘80s” were still somewhat frightening and new. “We may look ridiculous to you now,” the film seems to yell, “but this is THE FUTURE!”
And, in a way, they were right. Go to New York or London today and you’ll still be able to find androgynous types with garish, homemade outfits, chopped asymmetrical hair getting down to minimal, oppressive electro music, more of them than ever before probably. In fact, when the film introduces us to Adrian, Margaret’s flatmate/lover, she’s in ‘the club’ (actually Manhattan’s famed Danceteria), performing her song “Me And My Rhythm Box”, a shouty, confrontational Suicide-esque number that she begins by sampling her own heartbeat, seeming to prefigure the style of everyone from Peaches to Crystal Castles to No Bra, whilst some of the outfits on display, for all their 80s kitsch, could have been pulled straight from the trash-glamour/global psyche aesthetics of Glass Candy or Gang Gang Dance. It’s, uh.. pretty awesome, actually.
Recently though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how little the signifiers of “NEW-ness” have changed over the years (specifically in terms of music scenes), and how “the future” seems to have atrophied as we’ve stumbled into what some regard as a post-modern/post-historical era. The purveyors of ‘electroclash’ a few years back at least seemed to be incorporating an element of conscious, tongue in cheek retro-futurism into their work, but increasingly that seems to have been dropped, as bottom-feeding media sources like the NME insist that stripped down electro-punk is new, new, new, and the androgynous types with garish, homemade outfits and chopped, asymmetrical hair hanging around colleges and galleries in 2008 STILL seem to be shouting, if a bit more quietly, “we may look ridiculous to you now, but this is THE FUTURE”, despite their working to a blueprint of “the future” that’s as well-worn as a bluesy roots-rocker’s blueprint of “the past”.
So anyway, that’s what I found myself thinking about as I poured another glass of wine and tried to get my head around ‘Liquid Sky’ of a Sunday evening. Visually, the film is a dense maze of quick cuts, awkward angles, stark, expressionistic imagery and bright, high contrast colour & darkness that often render it difficult to sit through for anyone not totally committed to the film’s stylistic agenda, and make even the simplest plot points seem difficult to follow.
Gnarly hair & fashion aside, ‘Liquid Sky’s main visual selling point is the incredible psychedelic visuals, which are utilised extensively, some might some excessively, throughout to represent the alien consciousness, the explosions of sex/drug inspired opiates within the human characters’ heads and, y’know, just because they look really cool. To connoisseurs of such stuff, it’s pretty extraordinary – perhaps the foremost pre-digital example of a narrative film managing to take the techniques of the ‘60s lightshow and the abstract underground films of Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs et al that flourished in New York during the same period, and to refashion them for the more consciously futurist, vaguely cyberpunk-y style of the early ‘80s, as the light rigs at the disco and the neon tubing and eerie ceremonial facemask that comprise the décor in Margaret and Adrian’s apartment melt via the use of fluorescent dye, extreme high contrast photography, heat sensitive imaging and god knows what else into an expressionistic alien landscape.
‘Liquid Sky’s soundtrack is equally jarring and distinctive, with most of the original music, quite fantastically, being “realised” by the director, along with Brenda Hutchinson and Clive Smith, using an early Fairlight CMI synthesizer at something called the Public Access Synthesizer Workshop in New York. Some pieces by Carl Orff and Marin Marais were reworked, but most of the score is original, and then some. The film’s main theme – I think it’s the bit based on Orff – initially just sounds plain wrong, a thunderous triptych of clamouring, dissonant slabs of tone that instantly put your teeth on edge, but, like the film as a whole, it begins to make glorious sense upon further exposure, becoming hypnotic, comforting and deeply involving, as the fuzz of ancient lower register analogue brutality hisses through your TV speakers. Combined with fragments of frenetic, post-punk/disco racket for the club scenes and the minimal electro-punk of Adrian’s song, and, needless to say, the soundtrack to ‘Liquid Sky’ is just as much of a cult touchstone as the film itself. In fact, both the sound and the visuals here are remarkable in the extent to which they push the ambitions and uncompromising, eerie menace of analogue technology to rarely seen perfection, making us curse the dawn of computerisation that swept away such unhinged invention in subsequent years.
‘Liquid Sky’s opening sections focus largely on establishing the parameters of Margaret’s world, and on exploring the toxic cycle she seems to be locked into, wherein she seems to get humiliated and abused by every man she encounters, hiding what we assume to be her deeply traumatised emotional core by obsessively restating that they can’t hurt her, she’s different from them, she just wants drugs, she couldn’t give a fuck, etc, etc.
Adrian, who’s supposedly her partner, doesn’t do a great deal to help matters. Although Paula F Sheppard puts in a very charismatic performance in the role (she seems like she’d be a real cool person IRL, even though her character is completely horrible, if you know what I mean), her character is portrayed as being completely amoral, a self-centred drug dealer who is unnecessarily nasty to everyone, all the time. Since she’s ostensibly our heroine’s best friend, we keep waiting for her to drop her nastiness mask (which seems kinda unconvincing anyway) and say something affectionate or reassuring, but she never does.
To confuse matters further, Anne Carlisle also takes on a second role as Billy, a male model who seems to exhibit many of the same characteristics – emotionless, monotone delivery, solipsism, drug habit etc. – that Margaret does, only he is, I’m assuming, supposed to be big and tough and macho where she is brittle and victimised. Either way, the two characters are so similar it’s hard to really fathom at first that Billy is supposed to be an independent character, rather than simply an evil twin/avatar/projection of Margaret’s imagining. The two play a lot of scenes together, with all the shot/reverse shot and body double action you’d expect, and depending on what Carlisle and Tsukerman’s intentions were in creating the dual role, the whole gimmick either falls flat or works far too well, as Margaret’s identity and gender (the two things she spends the whole film trying to disguise, subvert or destroy) are crushed to dust by Billy’s antagonistic presence. The moment during the film’s nightmarish final photoshoot where Anne Carlisle is effectively forced to give herself head is unbearably disturbing for all manner of reasons, perhaps competing with ‘Reanimator’ to claim the mantle of the definitive psychotronic cinema oral sex event of the 1980s.
For all that though, things don’t start to get what the likes of me might term PROPERLY weird until an eccentric German scientist (played by Otto Von Wernherr) turns up, on the trail of the pint-sized UFO that’s parked on the roof of Margaret and Adrian’s apartment. The scientist is so utterly, utterly out of place within the world of the film, Von Wernheer’s performance so wooden and awkward, that his very presence is totally hilarious, completely shattering ‘Liquid Sky’s carefully-wrought fashionista aesthetic at a stroke as he lumbers about like a down at heel, suburban Klaus Kinski in brown trousers and a sports jacket, earnestly espousing his theories about opiate-hungry extraterrestrials preying on “punk and hard rock music subcultures”, and his determination to stop them at all costs.
So our scientist friend – perhaps displaying what seems to have been a prevalent belief amongst ‘80s filmmakers that foreigners and other such ‘fish out of water’ characters forget all forms of universal social etiquette and just start acting bonkers when they visit New York – proceeds to the apartment directly opposite Margaret & Adrian’s (presumably in the Empire State Building), knocks on the door, and, in faltering English, informs the woman who answers that he is an unconventional scientist tracking the movements of UFOs, and could he come in please and set up his telescope to spy on the people in the apartment opposite – it’s VERY URGENT, you understand? And, luckily for Otto, he seems to have stumbled upon one in a million, as the lady not only invites him in, but orders a Chinese takeout for two, cracks open the wine, and immediately begins trying to seduce him. A series of farcical comic scenes follow, wherein the scientist valiantly ignores his host’s increasingly cringe-worthy stream of double entendres whilst she in turn displays a remarkable lack of interest in the bizarre orgy of extraterrestrial sex and murder that seems to be unfolding across the street. She even does a big *tt – MEN!* pout/sigh when he finally decides he’s got to rush over there and try to save Margaret’s life before it’s too late.
In fact, there seems to be a sort of running joke (or at least, I think it’s a joke… running COMMENTARY perhaps?) going on throughout ‘Liquid Sky’ about cynical, self-centred New Yorkers and their alienation from conventional social responsibility, and indeed reality. Every character in the film, with the exception of poor old Otto, seems entirely unconcerned about all the dead bodies, UFOs and alien laser craziness popping up all over the place. As long as they can still get their fix or get their rocks off, who gives a fuck, right? If guys keep dying with mysterious silver spikes through their head, or disappearing into thin air, well so what, more room for me and I never liked ‘em anyway.
It is through this increasingly exaggerated attitude of detached unpleasantness that the film begins to turn the tables on the underground scene it began by celebrating, fostering a slow realisation in the viewer that these people, for all their apparent flamboyance and creativity, are really, genuinely not nice, that their way of life as inhuman as the thrill-seeking, lonesome alien confined in it’s tin box. As Margaret begins to embrace the influence of the alien over her mind/body during the film’s finale, she seems to emerge from her fog of defiance and confusion, she realises that she’s been playing victim to these characters and their screwed up priorities all along, and instead begins to take on a self-immolating role as their destroyer (“I kill with my cunt”). In perhaps the film’s most effective moment, she throws a question at all the assorted lackeys present at the final photo shoot, demanding to know where they’re from. Each participant is framed by the camera portrait style as they say, “I’m from Cleveland”, “I’m from Lexington, Kentucky”, “I’m from Fresno”, and so on, as the true face of this highly stylised, implacable demimonde is revealed: screwed up Midwest kids, bullied small town queers, self-styled martyrs for art, damaged egos and outcasts who’ve all come together under the neon lights of Manhattan to…. well, to do WHAT exactly, the film seems to challenge them; to further their own narcissistic ends? To humiliate and fuck each other over? To get screwed up on drugs, turn tricks and die a wretched tragic loser as everyone else laughs at them? To take cash from corporate magazines for shallow, faux-shocking fashion spreads? Certainly not to support or communicate with each other, or to create any meaningful art or new ways of life, the film’s unspoken critique seems to imply.
For all the sci-fi craziness, this is a suitably grim and earth-bound conclusion, brutally prefiguring the political and artistic cynicism of the decade ‘Liquid Sky’s aesthetic helped to usher in.
There’s an absolutely brilliant moment during the cataclysmic photoshoot / sex n’ death session that comprises the film’s final half hour when one of the unnamed photographic assistants turns around, and declares in a clearly enunciated upper-crust accent, “there’s something strange going on here, and I don’t like it! I’m going to leave!”
Biggest laugh in the whole movie, and to be honest, I think he’s restating the conclusion that 90% of the film going public will have reached within the film’s first ten minutes. But, for the other 10% of us, ‘Liquid Sky’ ladies and gentlemen: truly, a film like no other, one whose ideas and imagery will be rattling around your brain in ever more disturbing permutations for months.
It’s not often you manage to learn something new from the info. box next to a Youtube video, but, for inclusion in the ‘credit where it’s due department’, several of the videos I’ve posted above are accompanied by the following message:
“The producer of the film [Slava Tsukerman] took full credit for everything they really did not do anything but put up the money. He and his wife ( who got the credit for the costumes) needed green cards and that was the way for them to get them.
Anne Carlisle ( wrote the entire script ) and Julia Morton were responsible for almost everything. It was Julia that brought in marcel and nanxy from cinandre, who did the hair and make up.”
Naturally I can’t comment re: the statement’s accuracy either way, but thought I’d throw it in for good measure.
Thursday, 19 February 2009
It has come to my attention that Sun Ra's 1974 film "Space Is The Place" is available to view in full via Google Video.
Even if, for some reason, you're not much of an aficionado of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, this has still got to rank as one of the strangest, funniest, most whacked out and beautiful independent American films of the 1970s.
Whether or not you can get your head around Ra's far-out cosmology and his quest to liberate his people, whether or not you enjoy the music, this movie is an absolute hoot on every level.
I remember one of the last times I went to All Tomorrow's Parties at Camber Sands a couple of years ago, 'Space Is The Place' was showing on one of the artist-curated TV channels one morning. About halfway through, my chalet-mates left to go and do something or other, and when they returned they asked me what had happened. "Well," I was duty bound to report, "I think the CIA have just kidnapped Sun Ra, and they've tied him to an armchair and are forcing him to listen to really square oom-pah music so that he won't be able to telepathically relay instructions to his band, who are about to play a big concert that will liberate the consciousness of Black America".
And that ain't the half of it.
Tuesday, 17 February 2009
I actually read this one all the way through – how could I not? That was a few years ago, but my memory of what transpires within goes as follows:
The memorably named Linc Hosler is our protagonist, and he and his best buddy Wes are both daring research scientists working over at the Space Research Lab, although they seem to spend most of their time hanging around at their friend Kelly’s house. They both seem to be competing for Kelly’s attentions, but refuse to admit this to each other, leading to a great deal of unspoken jealousy and resentment between them. Kelly, for her part, makes it clear that she doesn’t like either of them very much, and wishes they’d go away and get on with their daring research science, or whatever. They all sit around and eat a lot of steaks, and hamburgers. There’s an annoying dog who keeps getting in everyone’s face. Frankly, the whole situation is pretty grim, and to make matters worse, there are all these Flying Eyes popping up all over the place, hypnotising everybody and marching them off to a ‘black pit’ in the woods.
In the grand tradition of human storytelling, a bunch of other stuff happens, some of which I seem to recall involves Linc Hosler taking surrealism to new heights by trapping one of the Eyes in a cage and poking it with a giant stick so that it has to keep blinking, nullifying it’s hypnotic power. I think he learns to communicate with it telepathically, presumably enabling him to ask probing questions like “ok, seriously, what the hell?” I mean, where would you even start?
In any case, Wes gets dragged off to the black pit, Linc is wracked by guilt because his jealousy caused him to let down his former best pal, some other stuff happens, I think someone sets off an atomic bomb, or maybe not, but either way the whole thing ends, as any good pulp sci-fi should, with a guy, a girl and a dog, all of whom have been drawn closer together and learned to understand each other better during their epic struggle against the Flying Eyes, surveying the wreckage and vowing to rebuild the human race upon foundations of love and rationality, two qualities which it must be said ‘The Flying Eyes’ has been somewhat lacking in up to this point, so good luck to ‘em, and let the procreation begin!
Ah, Miss J. Hunter Holly, what became of thee?
A sporadic career writing other science fiction books throughout the '60s and '70s, and aside from that, total anonymity on the world wide web, it would seem.
This one, written the same year, sounds quite good, but it's no Flying Eyes:
Sunday, 15 February 2009
I found this (just the .jpg of the cover sadly, not the actual record) somewhere or other on the internet years ago, and since then the multitude of questions it raises have never ceased to be an inspiration, reinforcing my faith in the bewildering mysteries of human creation at every turn.
What could conceivably be the point of making an LP of morse code, when it's broadcast would presumably require the kind of direct playback equipment that would render morse code obsolete?
Why, assuming you WERE going to make some LPs of morse code, would you choose to render the life story of Nikola Tesla, of all godforsaken things, in dots and dashes?
I would guess that it would be difficult to fit that MUCH morse code on to a 30-40 minute LP... it must be quite an abbreviated life story they're working with here, surely?
And most importantly, did Tesla really so closely resemble a young Christopher Lee at any point?
I'm sure a brief session of googling could help shed light on all of those issues, but.... I'm happier not knowing.
Saturday, 14 February 2009
Yes, that’s right, “broads, bikes and blacks”. Clearly not the sort of thing the REAL Jesus would want anything to do with, eh?
Of course, the most immediate irony here is that despite the flagrantly offensive poster, (presumably designed to sell the movie to a redneck drive-in audience who were expected to be shocked and thrilled by the prospect of a film that dared portray something other than white men who drive cars), 'J.C.' is actually a surprisingly earnest and well-intentioned film, its sympathies laying firmly with the hapless, peace-loving hippies who are harassed at every turn by the villainous forces of redneck bigotry. Which is not to say it’s worth watching, but… at least it’s heart is in the right place, which is more than can be said for most other cheapo biker/hippie flicks.
Independently financed, ‘J.C.’ would seem to have been a bit of a labour of love for writer/director/producer/star William McGaha. According to IMDB, McGaha had helmed two previous shoestring quickies prior to the dawn of the post-Easy Rider hippie exploitation market - “Bad Girls For The Boys” (‘66) and “The Speed Lovers” (‘68). Whether or not he had actually morphed into a fully paid up freak brother by ‘72, he certainly does a fine impression of one in the eponymous role of J.C. Masters, a perpetually stoned biker whose gentle sensibilities are such that he can scarcely leave the house without swiftly becoming appalled at the brutality and bad vibes that greet him.
The whole opening section detailing J.C.’s day to day life is actually quite entertaining, in a barely watchable Cheech & Chong sort of way. Marvel as J.C. gets a job on a construction site, gets the giggles when he sneaks out for a quick smoke with his best pal, and quits because the taunts of his cracker co-workers are bringin’ him down! Guffaw as J.C. gets wasted in his psychedelic ‘pad’, and rolls around on the floor in his pants for far longer than is strictly necessary! Wonder why the hell you’re even watching this movie anyway as J.C. sits on the can reading the newspaper and gets so BUMMED OUT at all the evil in the world he can scarcely bring himself to stand up! Sigh sympathetically as J.C.’s girlfriend gets pissed off because he quit his job, but then can’t stay mad at him because he’s just too damn lovable, like a big hippie puppy dog! You get the general idea.
Unfortunately though, a movie like this is duty-bound to have a plot, and some sort of point, and this arrives when J.C. and his old lady get together with all their biker pals for a big, open air hoedown, during which J.C. drags himself to the top of a hill and starts drivelling on in a portentous manner about seeing “a big eye opening up in the sky” and about how he’s seen a glorious vision of a place where he and his buddies can live free of the hassles and discrimination of the straight world, and, y’know, things of that nature. For reasons that the script fails to sufficiently explain, J.C’s chums, rather than just assuming he’s stoned again and putting him to bed early, are deeply affected by his ramblings, declaring themselves his disciples and vowing to follow him to the ends of the earth in a grand quest for…. whatever.
The first stop in their quest, for reasons that remain equally vague, is J.C.’s old hometown, a backwoods Alabama shithole he left when he was 17, where he has a sudden urge to visit his sister, who is now married with kids, living the Christian life. Some reasonably authentic and evocative footage follows, as the gang motor through the centre of town in all their field hippie finery, McGaha’s camera doing a good job of capturing the sights, sounds and gawking “hey, that fat hairy guy’s a-filmin’ us” disbelief of smalltown Alabama circa 1972, at least until the actual actors portraying the local crew of yahoos and curmudgeons turn up, nullifying any sense of realism as they wave their fists and say stuff like “damn you boy, you weren’t never no good”, expressing violent consternation at his daring to “bring n*ggers into town”. What we learn here is that J.C.’s disciples, whilst they may be goofy and stoned, are also a pretty solid and uncompromising bunch who ain’t gonna take this shit laying down, instead taking the time to score maximum RIGHT ON points by defending their belief in racial and sexual equality in a town square debate with a fuming, racist storekeeper.
Once safely ensconced at J.C.’s sisters’ idyllic rural homestead, the gang camp out on the lawn, getting on with their hippie shenanigans in earnest as J.C. and his sister have some deeep talks about their differing ways of life, whilst waiting for her bad tempered cracker husband to come home and give everybody a hard time. This confrontation just about passes without incident, but not before J.C.’s best buddy Ben (the black guy) almost gets his head bashed in with an iron bar. It’s shortly after this that Ben, having established that he’s spending time in a town where most of the populance would lynch him as soon as look at him, displays a nigh-on herculean disregard for his own safety as he gets one toke over the line and wobbles off into town on his own to pick up a six pack. Naturally it’s only a matter of seconds before he’s in the local slammer on a narcotics charge, getting the shit beaten out of him by the cranky sheriff (played by Slim Pickens, bringing all the gravitas of a Smokey & The Bandit bit-part) and his deputy (a vengeful Vietnam vet who just won’t shut up about the service he gone done for his country). J.C. pays them a visit to attempt some diplomacy, only to discover that Deputy McKnucklehead is in fact his long-standing high school nemesis, and…. well after that the movie basically descends into a load of grim n’ squalid hippies vs. rednecks carnage that I’m sure you can pencil in in your brain without my plot synopsisin’ help.
For all the good will in the world, ‘J.C.’ is not really a classic movie. Direction and acting throughout may most generously be summed up as ‘adequate’, although in it’s portrayal of the confrontation between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ American South, the film is unusually direct for a b-movie, and the claustrophobia and racial/social tension is pretty compelling in places – more ‘In the Heat Of The Night’ than ‘Satan's Slaves’. The central problem is the rather lame-brained script, which systematically fails to really capitalise on any of the reasonably interesting issues the concept raises. Even the most screamingly obvious JESUS=HIPPIE parallels are left unexplored, despite, one would imagine, being the central conceit that kick-started the film in the first place. One of the better scenes has the sheriff delivering a monologue on J.C.’s family history – it turns out his father was a local religious fanatic with a handful of cult-like followers, who raised his son to be some kind of messiah (hence the name) – but once again, this potentially rich vein of interesting-ness is left undeveloped, and it scarcely mentioned again. J.C. only mirrors Jesus to the extent that he has the same initials, the same beard, a vague belief in peace & love and a few disciples, and beyond that… well if you don’t like it, write yer own damn thematically engaging script, city boy! Our one’s got fist fights and shotguns and Slim Pickens, and if that’s not good enough for ya, too bad.
Likewise, most of the characters’ actions and motivations don’t really make a great deal of sense at any point, and, for all the film’s clear cut sense of moral righteousness, I’m duty-bound to report that there’s also an absolutely appalling sequence wherein one of the hippies gets an eyeful of J.C.’s sister and tries to rape her. Having had his ass kicked, he goes back to apologise to her, coming out with something along the lines of “I’m sorry ma’am, ah didn’t mean nuffink by it, I’m a hippie and we’re used to just takin’ what we want”. Stirred by such enlightened reasoning, the sister instantly forgets her lifetime’s dedication to becoming a steadfast wife & mother, and lets the little creep have his way with her! What, and indeed, The Hell?
For all that though, you’ve still got to have a certain amount of respect for ‘J.C.’, as an exploitation movie that manages to drop almost any element of exploitation and instead strives to become what is, on at least some level, a serious drama. Top marks for effort anyway, even if William McGaha couldn’t quite pull it off. One suspects he was maybe spending too much time freakin’ out in his pants in his psychedelic shack when he should have been writing a better script, such is the unnerving realism of those early scenes, but either way, his failure to appear on the credits of any subsequent IMDB-recognised motion picture in any capacity sadly speaks volumes about the impressions this one gave people of his talent.
Original music, by the way, is provided by an outfit called ‘Covenant’ or something, who, appropriately enough I guess, have that cleaner-than-clean early ‘70s born again hippie thing going on, sounding much like I’d imagine all those private press Christian psych LPs that jaded collectors get all hot and bothered about probably sound. Eg, not good.
Some kind soul has uploaded a few scenes from the movie to youtube:
J.C. can be downloaded in full as an .avi file from Culta Rare Video.
I bought this one from a street market in Amsterdam the other week.
What a sterling chap!
So how does the science fiction writer's noble quest to signpost the way in every field of human knowledge pan out in this instance? Well....
Monday, 9 February 2009
My name is Ben. I having been ‘blogging’ over on Stereo Sanctity for the best part of five years. Throughout that time, that site has been dedicated almost exclusively to writing about music, with only the occasional post about movies, books, politics and other such things.
Now, for no particular reason, I’ve got myself a yen to open up a second blog as an outlet for stuff relating to movies, books, comic books, general weirdness, history, wider culture and so forth. This one. Which is not to say I won’t be posting music-related content over here from time to time (scans of unusual record covers, movie soundtracks, that sort of thing), or that I won’t reserve the right to post non-music stuff over on Stereo Sanctity should I feel like it.
My plan though is to use Breakfast In The Ruins to focus more on pictorial content – scans of interesting old book and record covers, comics, fanzines, posters etc. from my, er, ‘collection’, with only sporadic pieces of original writing (movie/book reviews and the like), which should make it easier to keep posts turning over regularly on both blogs.
‘Breakfast In The Ruins’ been my email address and sometime internet alias for quite a while now, but I thought it would suit the intentions of my new venture a lot better than any of the other contenders that were floating around my brain, so decided well go with it. The name is taken of course from a Michael Moorcock book, in which Karl Glogaeur (protagonist of Moorcock’s earlier crucifixion time travel caper, ‘Behold The Man’) is picked up by a muscular African man in Derry & Tom’s Roof Garden in London, and they proceed to spend the rest of the novel having rough sex, interspersed with disturbing visions of assorted alternate world apocalyptic scenarios. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy the book all that much, but it was certainly a characteristically daring bit of experimental fiction from Moorcock, and I did enjoy imagining the reaction of all the straight-laced Elric fans who must have picked it up by accident. But if nothing else, it's certainly a damn good title, reflecting both my interest in the forgotten, marginal aspects of our slowly collapsing culture, and also my fondness for a good breakfast.
So that’s that. Stereo Sanctity will continue to be bright and sharp and to chronicle my high livin’ adventures in the world of indie-rock (ha!), Breakfast In The Ruins will be dark and geeky and candlelit and unhealthily fixated with feasting morbidly upon the weird detritus of yesteryear. I hope you’ll join me in digging in.
The Illustration I’ve used on the title bar, by the way, is by Maurice Sendek, a wonderful illustrator best known for ‘Where The Wild Things Are’. I wish I could tell you which book of his it was taken from – I wish I had a copy! – but no such luck; I cut it out of a Sunday supplement years ago.
Oh, and as to the ‘Tombstone Head, Graveyard Mind’ tagline, let’s just say that I’d like you to imagine the following playing continuously as you browse this site:
And, hell, why not add some of this too:
A touch of this:
Some of this for good measure:
And, damn it, I’m talking about music already.