Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Wild Guitar
(Ray Dennis Steckler, 1962)

You know, it occurred to me the other day that over the past few months this blog has seen a lot of modern movies, and a lot of long-winded, serious-minded filmic yakking. Time for a break methinks, and few things conjure up a happy brain vacuum quite so effortlessly as a screening of 1962’s “Wild Guitar”! Ah, you’ve gotta love it.

In this seventy something minutes of flickering fiction, groaning under the historical weight of Ray Dennis Steckler’s first credit as director, we meet Bud Eagle, a naïve wouldbe teen idol played with boggle-eyed, thug-faced grace by mighty-quiffed Arch Hall Jr.

Bud has dirtbiked all the way to Hollywood from Spearfish, South Dakota, with his guitar (wildness unquantified) ‘pon his back, and a notion that his golden voice and ear for a tune will secure him some steady work as a pop star, thus allowing him to fund his beloved brother’s tenure at medical school. Don’t look at me man, I didn’t write this crap.

The man who did write it is Arch Hall Senior, who we also see here in the role of Mike McCauley, the corrupt and manipulative boss of Fairway Records, who swiftly takes Bud under his wing, making the youngster a star and proceeding to ruthlessly exploit him, with a little help from his right hand man - a leering, carnivorous gangster with an uncanny resemblance to Ray Dennis Steckler.

This lively drama should of course on no account be confused with the real life background to “Wild Guitar”s production, wherein naïve wouldbe rock n’ roller Arch Hall Jr was coerced into staring in a series of quickie teen flicks by his father Arch Hall Sr, ex-Hollywood bit-part actor and owner of Fairway Independent Productions, who at this point in time had hatched some kind of cracked creative partnership with Ray Dennis Steckler.

The first movie this ill-starred gang made together was the legendarily strange rock n’ roll caveman flick “Eegah!”, and by late 1962, with dad taking care of business and the Steckler in the driving seat, they were ready for a shot at the big time, primed to take Arch Jr’s – ahem – boyish good looks and natural charisma to the next level with a project that sane people might actually want to watch. “Wild Guitar” was born.

Back to our story, and life in Hollywood gets off to a surprisingly good start for Bud Eagle, as a needy, slightly cross-eyed girl called Vicki (Nancy Czar) takes a shine to him, and even lets him finish her sandwich! (So movingly does Arch Jr portray his pitiful hunger and penniless inability to pay the tax on a coffee & doughnut, that FUCK YEAH, SANDWICH feeling is palpable.) And Vicki’s generosity toward her new beau extends even further, as she promptly whisks Bud off to the filming of something called the Hal Kenton TV Show, where she’s got a gig as a dancer!

Ah, to live in an era when an enterprising gal could hang around in a sandwich shop all day long trying to pick up boys, then get a pay cheque and national TV exposure just by doing the twist to a groovy instro tune.

In all fairness to Ms Czar, it should be noted that she’s a hell of a lot more convincing as a dancer than she is whilst standing still delivering dialogue, making me think this movie could have been even better (yes, EVEN BETTER) if she’d expressed herself solely through the means of interpretive dance. She’s really good at ice-skating too, as we’ll learn later.

Anyway, wouldn’t you know it, some boob of a saxophone player has flunked out of the show at the last minute due to stage fright, giving Bud Eagle a chance to knock ‘em dead!

Which indeed he does, with the help of suspiciously well-rehearsed pick-up band. Bud’s take on post-Buddy Holly swoonsome bubblegum pop is pretty damn fine if you ask me, although ironically his solo sounds pretty rough here – probably not the kind of “wild guitar” they had in mind.

So naturally everyone loves him, and he’s ushered up to see aforementioned sultan of the record biz Mike McCauley, and blah blah blah – if you’ve ever seen any other generic rock star rise & fall movies you’ll know the score, so I won’t bore you with the general outline. Henceforth, I’ll just give you a whistle-stop tour of the more winningly eccentric sights along the way.

Like for instance, check out the décor in the swanky apartment they set Bud up in;

Sheesh, I wonder whose pad this actually was? Stecklers? Oh, please say it was. The murals on the opposite wall are really something too (see subsequent screengrabs).

And speaking of Steckler, it’s time we introduced your friend and mine, the Rat Pfink himself, the one and only Cash Flagg!

More usually regarded as a pioneer of casual attire, Cash here ditches his trademark hoodie for an ill-fitting suit, in order to better portray Mr. McCauley’s menacing chief enforcer.

“Steak, for breakfast?”

“Sure kid, what else is there?”

What a great line. Throughout my first viewing of the movie, I thought Flagg/Steckler’s character was called ‘Stig’, but no, he’s actually ‘Steak’. Because he eats it all the time, you see.

Here, in one of my favourite shots in the movie, we see Steak in a rare moment of repose, taking in a side;

Man, I love this guy so much. I know it’s a redundant and cruel thing to say, but he’s just so weird looking. Every time he’s on screen, it blows my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being who looks, or moves, quite the way he does in my whole life. Was Ray Dennis Steckler born somewhere? Did he have a childhood? I’d prefer to think he just walked outta the woods one day, the emissary of a higher race.

For any eligible ladies reading this in the early 1960s, I’m afraid the bad news is he’s married. We’re reminded of this via another great scene in which Carolyn Brandt, Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler, showcases her unique exotic dance skills whilst Bud Eagle stands atop a golden staircase, serenading his lost love Vicki with a self-penned hymn to their cruelly interrupted courtship. (You see, Mike and Steak want to prevent Bud from seeing Vicki at all costs, for reasons which seem extremely vague now I come to think about it – must just be because they’re evil, I suppose.)

For some reason – a dazed mixture of awe and respect perhaps – I didn’t take any screengrabs from the segment of “Wild Guitar” in which Bud and Vicki have an emotional reunion, and she takes him ice-skating after-hours at her uncle’s rink. Frankly I found the whole sequence unaccountably beautiful - evocative and deeply sad in a way that only a scene in a quickly shot b-movie in which two future-less teen actors silently embrace in the middle of a deserted skating rink, before walking home through the Hollywood streets at dawn as a band plays that deathless “Earth Angel” chord progression again and again on the soundtrack, really can be.

Most of “Wild Guitar” is concerned with a very different kind of genius, but… well maybe I’m just getting soppy, but the accidental, haunted profundity of that sequence really got to me.

Anyway, back to the grind, and there’s a great scene in which Bud finally realises the cynical nature of his fame, as he watches McCauley give the low-down to a gang of hip, on-the-payroll “fanclub presidents” ready to push the Bud Eagle agenda in all of LA’s major high schools. These mean, dead-eyed teens are kinda fun (“what kinda fad d’you want us ta start?”), but really I’m just writing about this scene in order to mention this chick, who gives the camera the most artlessly lascivious wink I’ve ever seen on screen;

Oh, BOY.

What else? Oh yeah, there’s a fine turn from, uh, this guy, as a bitter and drunken former protégé of Mike McCauley, who lets Bud know the score, before Steak find him and kicks him down the stairs. What a brute!

Then, just when you think you’ve got an angle on where this movie’s heading, Bud Eagle is unexpectedly kidnapped by the Three Stooges-esque comedy crooks we saw earlier on in the coffee shop scenes!

More than anything else in “Wild Guitar”, these guys are pure Steckler. An embryonic version of his later ‘Lemon Grove Kids’, they’re a troop of school play level non-actors who portray incompetent duh-brained clowns, mugging through a litany of extremely bad kid’s movie gags with what may generously be termed laissez faire direction, giving an overall impression of being severely brain-damaged. There is no earthy reason for them to be in this movie, and Arch Hall Jr’s “why the fuck are we filming this again?” look is priceless.

Even better is the subsequent scene in which Cash Flagg barges in with a gun, snarling in menacing gangster fashion as the gang caper around the weird, mismatched set that comprises their “shack” (they all line up at one point and shout “let’s get back to da shack!”, “yeah, da shack”, “ta da shack!”, etc., which I found highly amusing), attempting to hide behind a mattress, or clambering up a step ladder that leads to nowhere and bonking their head on the ceiling. Sheer goofball genius!

There are those who would argue that “Wild Guitar” isn’t a ‘real’ Ray Dennis Steckler movie, and that the more conventional aspirations of the Arch Halls held sway over the production, stifling their director’s natural idiosyncrasies. But to those people, I say phooey!

“Wild Guitar” has Cash Flagg throwing a guy down the stairs. It has Carolyn Brandt doing creepy dancing. It has poorly executed physical comedy, more dubious song and/or dance sequences than anybody asked for, and irregular outbursts of manic violence. It has obtuse self-referential in-jokes, loads of really weird looking people, and a shot of Nancy Czar running down the street where it looks as if the cameraman is running backwards in front of her! What more do you want?

Perennially sad-faced sidekick Atlas King is notable by his absence, but that aside, we’ve got the works. True, “Wild Guitar” may be a lot less free-wheeling than subsequent Steckler outings, to put it mildly. It may labour within the confines of a generic teen quickie screenplay, and filmmaking may sometimes stray toward the realm of the blandly proficient, but regardless, the film still conveys the same sense of irrepressible joie de vivre found in everything Steckler lent his name to during the ‘60s.

Brought into this world with no ambition beyond the desire to make a few bucks and give a few teenagers a good time, “Wild Guitar” is simple, unpretentious homemade entertainment, cut through with a strain of rampant eccentricity that allows it to remain a fascinating, nay rip-snorting, viewing experience decades after most of these teen flicks have sunk into the mulch of eternal mediocrity.

Just like the film’s initial set-up, the ending too seems to reflect the real-life destinies of its creators, as Bud Eagle and Mike McCauley shake hands on a blackmail-aided promise of doing HONEST business from now on, despite the latter’s proven track record of deceit and villainy. Well I mean it’s not like Arch Sr was going to write a movie that ended with his own son kicking the crap out of him, right?

Poor Steak is not so lucky however, and as we fade out on Cash Flagg, he lies bloody and bruised in the back of a fruit wagon, perhaps dreaming of the wonders that await him in ’63, when Ray Dennis Steckler struck out alone to realise his true masterpiece, the veritable Citizen Kane of Goofery that is “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies”.

Arch Hall Sr meanwhile would never see his golden dreams of film production riches materialise, his later, Steckler-less works ploughing a furrow of diminishing returns as he insisted on casting his long-suffering son in such sound commercial prospects as “The Sadist” and “The Nasty Rabbit”, eventually packing it in after submitting the screenplay for Ted V. Mikels’ classic-of-a-sort “The Corpse Grinders” in 1971.

If there’s one thing all these gentlemen understood though, it’s that you can’t end a gig like this on a downer, so let’s go out the same way “Wild Guitar” does – BEACH PARTY!


The Vicar of VHS said...

Brilliant write-up! I've heard a lot about Steckler and the Halls, but I think the only film involving either I've managed to see is EEEGAH! This review and history has made me more determined to seek out some of their filmmaking. Thanks for that!

Man, Arch Jr.'s hair was really something else, wasn't it? I mean, even back in the day, it seems people would consider such a massive pompadour/ducktail a bit...shall we say, "flamboyant"? :)

Ben said...

Thanks Rev!

As mentioned, I'm a big fan of all Steckler's 60s films. I think "Incredibly Strange Creatures..", "Rat Phink a Boo-Boo" and "The Thrill Killers" are little short of genius.

A brief google search will reveal that most of the world disagrees, but then most of the world doesn't like listening to Roky Erickson either, so whatcha gonna do?

I've not actually seen any of the other Arch Hall-related films - the later ones don't have a very good rep, but stuff like "The Nasty Rabbit" certainly sounds bizarro enough to merit a viewing, regardless of quality!

Re: the hair - yeah, the weird thing is that he looks relatively normal when filmed from the front, but everytime he's shot in profile it's like... holy crap.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

best review i've ever read online of a Steckler film(yes, i would qualify this as a Steckler film)and i'm picky about this sort of thing, thank you for making me feel a little less lonely in my admiration for the man & his work...

Vicar, what the heck, SEE THE MOVIES!...

Ben said...

Thanks Professor - your words are much appreciated.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think Steckler's really one of the unsung (ok, occasionally sung and/or just laughed at) greats of punk rock filmmaking.

That said, I've not had the guts to track down any of his post-Lemon Grove Kids films... d'you reckon they're worth a look?

Prof. Grewbeard said...

um, Body Fever aka Super Cool yes, The Chooper probably, The Hollywood Strangler Meets The Skid Row Slasher probably maybe, everything else probably not...

Anonymous said...

Ah Wild Guitar, yes it's a bit of a classic. It's no Bucket of Blood mind you but quite watchable.

I too found the ice skating scene strangely moving.