Note: I have been given permission by the students of ENGL4980 to use their images in this post.
Hey there, you. Yes, I’m talking to you, my dear reader. I know it’s been three months since my last post. That doesn’t mean that I forgot about you. In fact, there has been a blog-sized hole in my heart these last few months that I have been aching to fill with my gob-smacking insights into film and television. But now I’m back. And I’ve brought you chocolates and roses. Or rather, I’m bringing you a post about chocolates and roses and rain-slicked windows and “sexy” red dresses and lots and lots ham-fisted performances and green screens and unexplained establishing shots and tiny doggies and alley football. In other words, I’m bringing you a post about screening The Room...[insert dramatic music]…2012!
I came up with the idea of having my student run their own cult film screening when I first taught ENGL4980 “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema” in the Fall of 2009. The course objective was to examine the aesthetics of films which were notorious, not for their excellence, but for their terribleness. In “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students,” Jeffrey Sconce argues: “beach blanket films, Elvis pictures, 1950s monster-movies — any film where history and technique remove students from the ‘effects’ of representation and plunge them headlong into the quagmire of signification itself” can be fruitful classroom texts (31). The polished Hollywood stalwarts that populate the syllabi of so many film studies courses — Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) — are so seamlessly crafted and carry the weight of so much critical praise that it is often difficult for students to find a way to analyze their “invisible” style. Of course, I do teach these films in other classes (one film I will always teach in Intro to Film is Casablanca –always and forever). But I think it’s useful for film studies students to also look at films with a highly visible style — ideally one in which all of the seams are showing. Further, understanding how and why we classify popular culture as being in “good” or “bad” taste tells us a lot about how unnatural and constructed such categories can be. These are topics that can often be easily ignored when we only watched Ingrid Bergman framed in a beautifully lit close up.
Throughout the semester my students and I have been studying American films that have been marginalized due to a variety of interrelated factors: their small budgets and chintzy set designs (Sins of the Fleshapoids [1965, Mike Kuchar]), their completely inept style (Glen or Glenda? [1953, Ed Wood, Jr]), their offensive subject matter (Pink Flamingos [1972, John Waters] and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story [1987, Todd Haynes]), their violent or sexual imagery (2000 Maniacs [1964, Herschell Gordon Lewis] and Bad Girls Go to Hell [1965, Doris Wishman]) and their desire to place marginalized faces at the center of the screen (Freaks [1932, Tod Browning] and Blacula [1972, William Crain]). In addition to understanding why these films have historically been viewed as “trash” (we relied heavily on Pierre Bordieu’s pithy line “Taste classifies and classifies the classifier” to answer this question) we also sought to understand why moviegoers persist in watching these movies. This second question is, admittedly, harder to answer. Why did my students enjoy watching the blurry, overdubbed images of Todd Haynes’ Superstar or delight in the conclusion of Sins of the Fleshapoids when (SPOILER ALERT!) a female “fleshapoid” gives birth to her own baby toy robot?
Watch a fleshapoid give birth to the fruit of her forbidden robot love.
Enter The Room. I will admit now that the idea for this assignment was partially selfish: I had read about The Room and wanted to experience a live screening myself. Right here in my own town! Of course, beyond my desire to scream the holy words “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” with a crowd of rambunctious moviegoers, I also felt that this assignment would be an inventive way of having my students learn by doing. The fancy word for that is “praxis.” You’re impressed now, aren’t you?
I had a few goals with this class project:
1. To teach students about the importance of “ballyhoo”
Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows…a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises audiences something—an image, an experience or a reaction (“This movie will make you puke!”)—that it does not always fulfill. This unfulfilled promise is a convention of exploitation advertising. I encouraged my students to think of their advertising in this way — as an exaggeration or complete misrepresentation of the experience of attending The Room. Say whatever you need to say to fill the theater seats.
I told the students that their grade for this project would be partially determined by the amount of people in the audience and the level of enthusiasm emanating from the audience during the screening. Just as exploiteers like Kroger Babb and David Friedman endeavored to fill as many theater seats as possible because their livelihoods depended on it, my students had to fill the theater or risk a low grade. The students were given the duration of the semester to design and distribute posters, create a buzz in various forms of media, and prepare the venue for the night of the screening — just as their exploiteer ancestors did.
They made a variety of posters and flyers:
They created a Facebook event page and posted regular reminders extolling the virtues of The Room:
They created a series of “Golden Tickets” which they planted around campus. Students who located the tickets and attended the screening received a “special” prize which I believe was just a ring pop. But you see: that’s exploitation!
The students also convinced the school paper, The East Carolinian, to write an article about our event and called the campus radio station to plug the screening after the Presidential election. Overall, I found their ballyhoo to be creative and persistent, which is key to the successful exploitation of a film. Indeed, about 15 minutes before the start of the screening, when it appeared as if they would not fill the theater, several of my students ran outside the venue to harass students as they walked by: “Don’t you want to come and watch The Room? It’s the greatest movie ever! We’ll give you spoons!” That’s exploitation too! Lesson learned, students. Lesson learned.
2. To teach students about how cult film audiences are created and nurtured
This was the trickiest aspect of the class project because a cult audience is defined by its almost spontaneous nature. A cult is created by the audience, not by a group of students hoping to score an A in the film studies class that they’re taking to fulfill their Writing Intensive requirement for graduation. We watched The Room during our first full week of class and the campus-wide screening did not take place until the 13th week of class, so by the night of the screening I think my students were legitimate enthusiasts. But what of the audience members who had been lured into the theater on a Monday night, through false promises that the event would be the screening event of a lifetime or because their friends in the class had begged them to or because they were promised special prizes?
Could a group of students (the majority of whom had never seen The Room prior to enrolling in my course) create a cult film audience out of sheer force of will? I think they did.
It was the students’ responsibility to prepare the audience for the evening’s events through their promotional efforts and also by presenting a brief introduction to the film. Ostensibly motivated by the desire to educate, exploiteers would often bring in “experts” (or actors dressed as doctors and nurses) to speak to audiences who came to watch their sex hygiene or drug films. But of course, this was titillation in the guise of education, further adding to the experience of watching the film (which started the moment an audience member saw the first advertisement in the local paper). We attempted to replicate this environment by having one of the students serve as an emcee. She provided the audience with insight into the cult of The Room and a demonstration of key rituals. Our emcee cracked jokes and interacted with the audience throughout her introduction, which prepped the audience for the film to come.
The students were also tasked with assembling prop bags for the audience and deciding on what rituals they wanted the audience to perform (again, a seemingly antithetical concept in the world of interactive screenings). They repeated some of the most basic rituals of The Room — the throwing of spoons, the shouting of “Because you’re a woman!” every time Lisa offered up an excuse for her duplicitous behavior, and the calling out of “Hi Denny! Bye Denny!” — but they also added a few new rituals. First, during each of the film’s lengthy and grotesque lovemaking scenes, my students wandered through the audience with bunches of fake red roses (because the film’s protagonist, Johnny, and his fiance, Lisa, make love on a pile of roses). They would tap an audience member on the shoulder and whisper “Welcome to the sex scene. Please accept this rose.” It’s already uncomfortable watching Johnny make love to Lisa’s belly button but to have someone offer you a rose during such an awkward scene heightens those feelings. The second ritual they added was to release several garbage bags worth of balloons during the film’s climactic (and lengthy) party scene. Once the balloons were released, the audience began to bat them around (they would pop after hitting the ceiling), thus bringing the on-screen party into the audience:
On a side note, I should add that the students also purchased a small pack of glowing, LED-filled balloons, which they thought would be a fun addition to this ritual. However, upon reading the instructions the students discovered that these balloons were potentially dangerous when popped and had to be safely “detonated” after use. This added a little, personalized thrill to the screening for me as every time I heard a popping noise I wondered if I might lose my job because a student had just been blinded. That’s exploitation too! Way to go, students!
3. To teach students about the joys (and frustrations) of a class project
In the classes I teach there is rarely a good reason to assign a class project. However, this screening assignment afforded me a truly useful reason to force my students to work together — to create an environment in which it is safe for me to hurl curses at a screen for 100 glorious minutes. As I mentioned, part of the students’ grades for this project was going to be determined by the amount of people they could convince to attend the screening as well as the enthusiasm of the audience (after all, a cult film audience who sits silently is no kind of cult film audience at all). This meant that if the event was a bust, the grades were a bust too. In the weeks leading up to the screening, I witnessed more and more cohesion among my 14 students. They conferred before and after class, collecting in corners of the classroom to share flyers and advertising ideas. Indeed, on the night of the event I noticed a change in the dynamic of the group. I stood back and watched as they arranged prop bags, fiddled with their power point, psyched up the event’s emcee, and of course, fretted over whether or not the evening would be a success. True, I felt a little like the judge, jury and executioner throughout all of this — in the hour leading up to the screening I caught students eyeing me nervously — but I also felt very proud of them. Moments before the event started we gathered for a class huddle and shouted “YOU’RE TEARING ME APART LISA!”
In short, I was delighted with the results of this student project. I think students learned — first hand — what it would be like to be an exploiteer whose livelihood depended on generating enough ballyhoo to fill a theater. I think they also learned about the joys and rewards of cult viewership even if the viewership they created was highly constructed and mediated through the lens of a class project.
Below I would love to hear about any successes (or failures) you’ve had in attempting to implement class projects into the film or media studies classroom. Were these projects simply “busywork” or do you think they helped your students to gain a greater understanding of the course material?
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Sconce, Jeffrey. “Esper, the Renunciator: Teaching ‘Bad’ Movies to Good Students.” Defining Cult Films: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Eds. Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer, and Andy Willis. Manchester: Machester University Press, 2003. 14-34.
No, I haven’t written a new blog post. January has been a crazy month! January’s been so crazy, in fact, that it has bled into February. I plan to write more in the next few months. But until then, please to enjoy my thoughts about Black Swan and the power of those icky, cuticle-pulling scenes in the latest issue of Flow TV, online now.
Click here to read.
Machete was not a movie that I planned to see this summer. Films like Inception, The Kids are Alright, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and even Piranha 3-D (yes, really) were higher on my to-do list. But there were several factors that drove us into the arms of this film: the movie theaters in Greenville do not hang on to independent films for more than a week (Get Low we hardly knew ye). In fact, if a film does not contain explosions, fart jokes, boobs, or talking animals, it probably won’t even make it to Greenville; I could only go to see a movie that was over by 10 pm (the 8 month old is still not a stellar sleeper); and finally, my husband and I had wrangled us a babysitter. So, no matter what, we were going to see a movie dammit. And that was how I found myself sitting in a darkened theater, watching Machete last Saturday night.
Almost immediately Machete, yet another entry in Robert Rodriguez’s canon of Mexploitation films, won me over. I’m a sucker for exploitation films. Indeed, the opening credits were a perfect replica of low-budget 1970s blaxploitation films: an animated title card pronouncing our hero’s name (MACHETE!), and then a simple listing of the credits. Then there was the music. Blaxploitation films often featured cohesive soundtracks written exclusively for the film, and which acted as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action in the film, praising or scolding the hero, and making future predictions. Machete‘s thumping, rock n’ roll/mariachi band hybrid soundtrack was composed by Chingon. They sing about the film’s hero (Danny Trejo), providing him with his own personal soundtrack. Hell, the “Machete Theme” makes me want to pick up a machete and kick some ass, and I’m just some lame white lady.
In addition to having his own soundtrack, Machete resembles his blaxploitation ancestors in his uncanny ability to punch, kick, shoot, and of course, slice his way through any fight with barely a scratch. At one point in the film Machete is offered $500 to participate in a street fight with a shirtless thug who has just pummeled the life out of his latest opponent. Machete consents, but continues to hold onto the burrito he has just purchased. As his increasingly annoyed opponent swings and jabs, Machete calmly dunks, swerves and chomps on his lunch. The fight ends when Machete dodges a punch in a such a way that his opponent ends up punching a rafter and breaking his arm. Machete wins the fight without ever raising his fist. Finally, as in blaxploitation films, the villains of Machete are unequivocally evil. Von (Don Johnson!) shoots a pregnant Mexican woman in the stomach to prevent her from giving birth on American soil while Torrrez (Steven Seagal!) decapitates Machete’s wife as he is made to watch. By tying this evil to the heated emotions surrounding contemporary immigration debates, the character of Machete effectively gives filmic form to the revenge fantasies of countless, enraged (and terrified) illegal immigrants living in the United States, much as Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles) “sticking it to the Man” in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song made contemporary black audiences stand up and cheer back in 1971.
Where Machete differs from blaxploitation, however, is in its self awareness. Blaxploitation films were, for the most part, quite earnest. When Superfly tells The Man “You don’t own me pig!” by golly he means it. Machete contains lines like these — my favorite being “We didn’t cross the border! The border crossed US!” But they are always delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Nevertheless, Machete is self-aware without being a full on parody. The film wants us to laugh, but doesn’t hit us over the head with its humor. This is a delicate balance to achieve, and one of the film’s primary achievements. For example, in the film’s best visual gag, Machete is being treated in a hospital. The attending doctor and nurses start discussing anatomy, leading one of the nurses to state “So you mean the human intestines are 80 feet long?” This statement is made in the great Chekhovian tradition of “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Indeed, moments later Machete’s enemies storm the hospital. The doctor informs Machete that his only means of escape is through the window, which is approximately 80 feet above the ground (wait for it…). As Machete hacks his way through the crowd of baddies (with a grotesque weapon assembled out of medical-grade knives, natch), he disembowels one unlucky fellow, grabs hold of his intestines and then leaps out of the window. It took about 20 seconds for the audience to comprehend what had just transpired on-screen and then? Raucous laughter.
There were many scenes like this in Machete — violent, disturbing scenes — that provoked the audience’s laughter. What a strange and liberating feeling — to laugh at something which would normally provoke disgust or terror. This switching of affect highlights Machete’s status as pure camp. The term camp comes from the French word “se camper” which means “to posture or flaunt.” To be camp, a film must be extraordinary in its aims. It must be flamboyant and theatrical. Why have your hero behead one man when you can have him behead three at once (and filmed in a stunning aerial shot)? Why have your hero use a machine gun when you can attach that machine gun to a motorcycle flying through the air?
Susan Sontag argues that to be pure, camp must be naive. Camp must love itself passionately but be blind to its own missteps. Camp takes itself seriously but cannot be taken seriously. By contrast, most film parodies disparage their subjects, revealing a contempt for them. Sontag does admit that on a few rare occasions (as in the work of Oscar Wilde) camp can be self-aware. I would add Machete to that short list of self-aware texts that are also camp. Rodriguez knows that his film is farce, yet he is never contemptuous or disparaging. He films Machete with a real love for the character. We can tell that Machete is Rodriguez’s hero too.
Here are some of the great camp moments in the film:
1. Two words: Linday Lohan. At this point in her career, Lindsay Lohan has become the ultimate in camp. She is pure artifice, a replica of Hollywood celebrity. Like a lamp that is shaped like a woman’s leg, Lindsay is what she is not. Every time her image appears on-screen it screams “Lindsay Lohan!” or better yet “LINDSAY LOHAN!!!” And she is therefore a perfect choice to play April, the strung out, adored daughter of Machete’s nemesis, Booth (Jeff Fahey).
2. In the film’s only gratuitous sex scene, Machete agrees to engage in a threesome with April and her mother, June (Alicia Marek). And yes, those names are used, but not abused, to hilarious effect. When the women reveal their breasts –as is the custom in gratuitous sex scenes — it is clear that April is being played by a body double. Even the hair is different. There is no reason why Lindsay Lohan should be shy about revealing her breasts — she’s done it before. So this moment exists more as a nod to the camp films of yore, where little care was taken with disguising body doubles or with correcting obvious mistakes. It is also a tease to the audience “Did you come to this movie to see Lindsay Lohan topless? Too bad for you!”
3. Every character in a camp film must appear in quotation marks. When that character appears on-screen we must instantly know what that character embodies. Thus, Machete is “Machete.” Machete becomes myth/archetype/folk hero within the first few minutes of the film when he and his partner storm a house where a kidnapped woman is being held. Machete slams his foot on the gas and drives through a throng of machine guns. The bullets ricochet through the car, making contact with his partner. By the time Machete has driven his car through the wall of the house, his partner is bloodied mess (and very, very dead). Machete, however, is fine. Because he is “Machete.” In fact, when Agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) does a background check on the hero, she discovers, among other details, that his birth name is “Machete.” Of course it is.
4. Camp is all about exaggerated sexuality: highly feminine femininity and highly masculine masculinity. Woman is “woman” and man is “man.” Thus, throughout the film, Agent Sartana wears stiletto heels, despite the fact that she is often chasing bad guys around and shooting weapons. She even uses one of her heels as a weapon later in the film. Sartana also researches the internet while taking a steamy shower (and with full make up on). Who has a computer hooked up in their shower? I would not have been surprised if she were wearing stilettos in the shower. And I won’t even mention the secret agent featured in the opening scene who hides a cell phone in her vagina because she is naked and has no other place to put it. Oops, I guess I did mention that. Sorry.
Camp taste is a mode of enjoyment and appreciation rather than judgment. Camp is not mean, but loving. Rodriguez clearly loves his subject: exploitation films, grindhouse cinema, seedy border films, and revenge fantasy flicks. He does not want us to laugh at the silliness of these film. Instead, he invites us to celebrate them in their excessive glory. As I watch Danny Trejo slice his way through bodies, fashion deadly weapons out of objects he finds around him, and make out with Jessica Alba while driving a motorcycle, I am not incredulous. The film tells me “I am silly but I am wonderful. Don’t judge me! Enjoy me!” And I did.
Yes, it’s true, my blogging has decreased precipitously over the last three months. I had a second child and he takes up all of my time, what with his eating and pooping and inability to sit up on his own. But I did recently finish one last article for the online journal, FLOW on the subject of Direct to DVD releases. In it I argue that the study of direct to DVD films (D2D films) offers an important contribution to the fields of both reception and genre studies. If you’re a fan of such classics of Hood of tha Living Dead or Leprechaun 5: Leprechaun in the Hood, then my friends, this is the article for you.
You can click here to read the article. And for those of you still reading my blog, thanks and I promise to post more frequently in the coming months.
As discussed in previous posts, I am teaching “Topics in Film Aesthetics” this semester, with a focus on what is known as “trash cinema.” For those unfamiliar with this term, trash cinema refers to films thathave been relegated to the borders of the mainstream because of their small budgets, inept style, offensive subject matter, and/or shocking political perspectives. All semester long my students have watched marginalized films like The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965, Doris Wishman) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965, Mike Kuchar), interrogating and debating their style, subject matter, and ideology. Why are these films considered to be “bad” movies and what do we have to gain by studying them?
We also spent much of the semester discussing how and why certain films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975, Jim Sharman], El Topo [1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky]) were able to achieve cult status as midnight movies and what drives audiences to perform elaborate rituals at film screenings. In keeping with these discussions, the class project was to host, promote and run a screening of a contemporary cult film, the notoriously awful The Room (2003, Tommy Wiseau). Since my students had read so much about midnight movies and the great lengths that theater exhibitors would go to draw in potential ticket buyers (known as “ballyhoo”), my hope was that the class would put some of those lessons into practice.
Early in the semester the class broke themselves up into working groups: promotions, advertising, booking the venue, etc. The advertising group was responsible for designing flyers, posters and ad copy for the promotions group to implement. Although money is tight in my department, my chair was kind enough to allow us limitless copies for our flyers and $50 for two large posters (I limited my role in this project to obtaining funds for the $100 screening license and for adveritising materials):
Once posters and flyers were created, it was time for the promotions group to start spreading the word. In addition to putting flyers up around campus and doing a word of mouth campaign, they started up a Facebook group for the event and convinced a writer for the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian, to mention the screening in an article about campus happenings.
Nevertheless, as the night of the screening approached I was a little nervous: I had not seen many flyers up around campus and I was beginning to doubt the class’ enthusiasm for the project. To make matters worse, the screening was held on a rainy night (ECU students are relcutant to do anything unless it’s 70 degrees outside and precipitation free) when District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) was playing for free in the same building as part of the Student Activities Board’s fall film series. Finally, our event was booked in a difficult to locate area of the student union. It therefore made sense when barely 50 seats were taken 10 minutes before the start of the event.
I could tell that my students were also starting to get nervous — part of their grade would be based on how many people they could entice into the theater (after all, a theater exhibitor who couldn’t fill seats would lose his/her business). With a few minutes to spare, audience members began to appear in droves, wet from the rain but ready for a good time. By the time we started the film, we had at least 200 attendees:
Most of the people entering the theater took a bag of props to throw at the screen including: plastic spoons (whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears in the mise en scene), chocolates (during a supposed-to-be-erotic scene involving a box of chocolates), and footballs (several scenes feature the male characters tossing around a football, presumably because this is what Wiseau assumes American men do to bond with each other):
I told the students that in addition to gathering a large crowd they needed to foster a participatory screening environment. A silent audience was simply not acceptable. To encourage participation, audience members were handed a photocopied list of rituals selected by the class:
“SPOON!” – Nearly all the artwork in the film features spoons. When they appear in the shot, yell “Spoon!” and fling yours at the screen.
“DENNY!” – Used to herald the arrival/departure of the tragic kidult. “Hi & Bye” is encouraged.
“SHOOT HER!” – Yelled during Lisa’s couch conversation with her mother. The throbbing neck is the cue. Also acceptable, “QUAID, GET TO THE REACTOR!”
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN!” – Useful after any comment made in regards to a female character. Considered a dig at the film’s casual misogyny.
“FOCUS! UNFOCUS!” – Frequent shots slip in and out of focus and it is customary to yell “FOCUS” when it gets blurry. Feel free to yell “UNFOCUS!” during the gratuitous sex scenes.
“FIANCE/FIANCEE” – This term is never uttered, instead Johnny or Lisa refer to one another as their future wife/husband. That is the cue to scream “Fiancé & Fiancée”
“ALCATRAZ” – Yell this during scenes framed with bars & during establishing shots of the famous island prison. Also encouraged, “WELCOME TO THE ROCK!” (Connery-esque only)
“GO! GO! GO! GO!” – Used to cheer on tracking shots of the bridge. Celebrate when it makes it all the way across, voice your disappointment when it doesn’t.
“EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK” (Full House theme) – Sung during establishing shot of the San Francisco homes that look eerily similar.
“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME” – Hummed during the phone tapping scene.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU!” – Yelled when characters appear on screen that are out of place or unknown. (Happens more than you think)
“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” – Johnny channels his inner James Dean near the conclusion of the film. Yell along, louder the better.
While this is only a small list of ways to get involved, feel free to interject your own thoughts throughout the screening or join in with audience members who aren’t seeing the film for the first time. All we ask is for you to be safe and respect those around you. Enjoy!
The evening also opened with a brief introduction to the film and its colorful production history. Our Master of Ceremonies encouraged the audience to participate and demonstrated a few of the rituals for the audience.
These tactics seemed to work because almost as soon as the film began, with its useless, extended establishing shots of San Francisco, the crowd was yelling at the screen. They followed the suggested rituals (with “Because you’re a woman!” and “Denny!” being two crowd favorites) but also lots of ad-libbing.
Note: Not from our screening.
When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) mixes Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) a cocktail of what appears to be 1/2 scotch and 1/2 vodka, someone behind me declared “I call it…scotchka!” [note: I just discovered that this particular line is already a Room ritual]. And whenever a character commented on how “beautiful” Lisa was, several audience members would yell “LIAR!” In fact, the room was rarely silent; people booed, groaned, clapped and heckled throughout the screening.
Note: Not from our screening.
I was hoping that the students would have come up with some more inventive advertising tactics, especially given the time we spent discussing how classical exploitation films like Mom and Dad (1945, William Beaudine) were advertised and promoted. Ultimately though, the class screening of The Room lived up to my expectations. The crowd was rowdy and interactive and everyone seemed to have a great time. Most importantly, I think my students had a great opportunity to experience firsthand what they had only been able to read about.
Randall Martoccia has graciously agreed to write the first guest post ever for Judgmental Observer. Having a guest writer makes me feel important, like I’m too busy to write for my own blog. So while my servant boys feed me grapes and massage my feet please enjoy this guest post:
Thanks to Amanda for letting me guest write. I’m sure the rest of you will appreciate the break from the usual insight on this web site. Intelligent ideas can be so daunting.
This tale begins in the late 1970s. I was 7 years old, scared of girls, and infatuated with sea creatures. My parents, either through a desire to encourage my passion or due to negligence, let me see any marine-related movie, even though these tended to be thrillers. They took me to Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) (when I was 6-freakin’-years old), and then to Orca (1977, Michael Anderson) and Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis).
When I was 8 years old, my parents let my brother and me stay up late to watch another one of these creature features that followed in Jaws’s wake. This one was a network TV movie. A scene in which the turtle rises up and swamps a boat is pretty much all I remembered—and all that are left of that scene are fragments: A boat in rough seas. An ominous sky. A seven-story-tall, pissed off turtle.
Over the ensuing three decades, the patchy memory of the turtle kept coming back to me, but I had come to wonder if the scene was from a movie or a recurring dream. My memory never really nagged me so much for me to look into it. Any impulses to identify the movie were swept away by the usual business of life—or my lame version of it.
About two years ago, for one reason or another, I decided to find out for sure about this movie. Blessed be Google—it only took about ten minutes to find with the key words “giant sea turtle TV movie.”
It turns out the movie exists. It’s called The Bermuda Depths, directed by Tsugunobu Kotani and starring Connie Selleca and Carl Weathers. What is astonishing about the movie is the odd community that has formed around it. Here are some typical posts on the movie’s IMDB discussion board:
From yihaa2: Wow. I’m not crazy, it is a real movie, after 25 haunted years of dreams and fragmented memories, I really wasn’t imagining it.
From lilbearlovr: I had the same problem since I was a little kid. I was beginning to wonder if it was just some silly little kid dream.
From barbiegrrl: I have been telling people for years about the fragmented memories I had of seeing this movie as a kid, and no one ever knew what in the heck I was talking about!
From lamsaes: This is extraordinary. I thought I was the only one to remember this film. I saw it on TV when I was just a little kid. For a very long time, I thought I had imagined this film.
From traceymermaid: Holy smokes. Is this coincidence that so many of us are not only remembering this movie but are also taking action, such as writing on this message board? Maybe it is a symbol of something.
From Demarkov-1: My own experience with this movie is so similar to all of you…this is incredibly creepy and wonderfully comforting.
From newtondkc-1: Wow…so I’m not the only one in the world that remembers this flick…. I remember seeing this and I too was scared but strangely drawn to it. I remember the girl with the glowing eyes standing on a boat – I think she came out of the water? And the kids on the beach, carving their initials into the poor turtle’s shell – and then seeing the distorted initials on the back of the fully, fully grown giant turtle as well as a guy caught in the net that the turle was dragging into the depths.
Strangely enough, I have no memory of the oft-referenced girl with glowing eyes, but she would explain my fear of girls.
Michael Summers compares the Bermuda Depths phenomenon to the shared vision of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg), and I do wonder how many of you–like the skeptics in Close Encounters–are thinking that the authors of those posts and this blog entry are, well, nuts.
But I doubt all of you think this. While I was doing my sea-turtle research and reading The Bermuda Depths’ posts, my wife Christie (I got over my fear of women—or most of them) piped up and said that she had a similar experience with a different movie, making me think that this kind of experience was fairly common. I’m willing to bet that many of you—being movie junkies, scholars, or makers—have your own version of a giant sea turtle haunting you.
By the way, Christie’s fragmentary memory was of a short called “All Summer in a Day,” based on a Ray Bradbury story, which left her with little more than a image of the sweep of the sun’s ray under a closed door. But that image stayed with her for more than two decades.
Do you have your own haunting movie or television experience? An image fragment that you can’t shake? If you share them below, then perhaps I can help you to identify your movie or to discover a community of like-minded inviduals. Or, if you prefer, you can just call me “nuts.” With lilbearlvr, yihaa2, and barbiegrrl getting my back, I feel secure.
About the Author: When Randall Martoccia isn’t grading stacks of freshman papers he writes screenplays and makes short films. His “Pub of the Living Dead” and “They Shoot Zombies, Don’t They?” can be found on YouTube—though (alas) few people have found them. You can checkout his faculty profile here and you can e-mail him at: MARTOCCIAR@ecu.edu.
“Let us not mince words. The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.”
–Surrealist Manifesto (1924)
“Badness appreciation is the most acquired taste, the most refined”
-fan of paracinema (qtd. in Sconce 109)
In “Trashing the Academy: Taste, excess and an emerging politics of cinematic style” (1995), one of the first attempts to theorize cult cinema within the academy, Jeffrey Sconce defines “paracinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus. In short, the explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash’, whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture” (101). In an earlier post I discussed how I would be using precisely these kinds of texts in my Trash Cinema course.
This week my students watched and discussed one prime example of paracinema, Edward D. Wood Jr’s Glen or Glenda? (1953). Glen or Glenda (which has also played under the more sensational title I Changed My Sex) originated as a documentary about the life of one of the first highly publicized transsexuals, Christine Jorgensen, but the film quickly morphed into an odd, often dreamlike self portrait of the director, who was fond of wearing women’s clothing (particularly angora sweaters).
When watching Glen or Glenda? it is vital to know such extratextual details. For example, this knowledge explains Wood’s passionate defense of crossdressing (at a time when men who crossdressed in public were frequently arrested and/or beaten) and his frequent, emphatic claims that the film’s crossdressing protagonist, Glen (played by the director) is NOT a homosexual. At these moments the film becomes Wood’s plea to be understood and embraced by a society bent on rigid gender codification. Indeed, as Sconce points out, paracinematic texts often push the viewer beyond the boundaries of the cinematic frame, demanding that we account for the profilmic.
The moments that pull the viewer out of the fantasy of the text, pointing them to extratextual, are often identified by fans of paracinema as instances of “badtruth”: “As with the [Surrealist concept of the] marvellous, the badtruth as a nodal point of paracinematic style, provides a defamiliarized view of the world by merging the transcendentally weird and the catastrophically awful” (Sconce 112). For example, Bela Lugosi’s role in Glen or Glenda? — a mix between a God figure, a mad scientist, and Glen’s subconscious — is strange and distracting and therefore a primary example of “badtruth.”
The above scene only becomes tolerable (and even pleasurable) when we know that Lugosi was, at this point in his career, a fallen star, desperate for money to support his debilitating morphine addiction. Wood was a huge Lugosi fan and could not believe his luck when Lugosi agreed to star in his film. Despite Wood’s enthusiasm (and one can never doubt Wood’s enthusiasm), he clearly had difficulty fully integrating Lugosi into his crossdressing/sex change film. One of my students even asked “Did Lugosi even know that he was making a film?” These moments of badtruth, when Lugosi plods through nonsensical lines like “Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys,” point us to the extratextual, and the extratextual, in turn, contextualizes, even rationalizes, the film’s badtruth. This is the circuitous logic of paracinema and one of its primary pleasures.
The obviously doctored newspaper: a great moment of badtruth in Glen or Glenda?
Unfortunately, the majority of my students did not see it this way. They described the movie as “too long” (the version we watched was just 68 minutes long), “exhausting” and “annoying.” Our discussion of what many cinephiles consider to be the “worst film ever made” naturally led us back to The Room, with my students claiming that the latter was far more enjoyable. As one student put it “Both films were poorly made but at least The Room didn’t preach to the viewer.” Apparently, badtruth on its own is pleasurable, but badtruth mixed with a political agenda is not.
Despite my students’ less than enthusiastic response to Glen or Glenda?, I will continue to screen it in the classroom (it holds a regular spot on my Introduction to Film Studies syllabus). As a fan of paracinema I delight in the way the film constantly pushes me past the frame, to think about its production history, its stars and its now iconic director. But maybe Tim Burton and I are alone on this one? At least I’m in good company…
Scene from Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)
This week in my Trash Cinema class my students watched and discussed Tod Browning’s controversial horror film turned cult masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Freaks was released by MGM, but it was an odd choice for the studio given that their house style was associated with glamourous stars (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore), elegant settings, and story properties teeming with cultural capital. But after seeing the phenomenal box office returns for Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) and other Universal studios horror films, Irving Thalberg is supposed to have said to Tod Browning, “I want something that out-horrors Frankenstein!” (qtd. in Norden 115).
What Browning submitted to Thalberg was a film that touched on many of the themes that he had covered in previous releases like The Penalty (1920), The Unnkown (1927), and The Unholy Three (1930). These bleak stories emphasize protagonists (all played by the incomparable Lon Chaney) with physical disabilities and how these disabilities shape their personalities and affect those around them.
Freaks is a tale of love and vengeance in a traveling circus. But unlike his Lon Chaney collaborations, which relied on prosthetics and binding to create the image of disability, Browning cast real life “freaks” (a term embraced by the sideshow community and the freaks themselves) in his film. As a result, many anecdotes have circulated about the strange production history of this film. Most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sometime scriptwriter at MGM, allegedly walked out of the studio cafeteria in disgust when he saw the famous Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, eating there. Another employee recalls “Suddenly, we who were sitting in the commissary having lunch would find ‘Zip the What-Is-It’ sitting at the next table or the Siamese twins who were linked together, and half the studio would empty when they would walk in because the appetites went out” (qtd. in Norden 118).
MGM employees were not the only ones to make a fuss about Browning’s casting choices. The Hays Office (which would not heavily crack down on studios until 1934) requested numerous cuts of the original print and a disastrous test screening alerted the studio that the film was going to be controversial and problematic. The uncut version of Freaks (which is lost to this day) did well in its brief, initial run but MGM eventually withdrew it from circulation. The scandal surrounding the film permanently damaged Browning’s career and resulted in Thalberg’s demotion (Norden 118). Clever exploiteer Dwain Esper knew the value of the film, however, and took it on the road, marketing it as an exploitation film under sensational titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes.
But what was so problematic about this film? What was so horrifying, so offensive, that it ruined careers? In her essay “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” Elizabeth Grosz attempts to unpack our fascination with freak shows. She concludes that the individuals most frequently showcased in these spectacles, including Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, “pinheads” (microcephalics), midgets, and bearded ladies “imperil the very definitions we rely on to classify humans, identities and sexes — our most fundamental categories of self-definition and boundaries dividing self from otherness” (57). In other words, while we comfort ourselves by breaking down the world into neat binary oppositions, such as Male/Female, Self/Other, Human/Animal, Child/Adult, “freaks” blur the boundaries between these reassuring oppositions. She concludes, “The freak confirms the viewer as bounded, belonging to a ‘proper’ social category. The viewer’s horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her identity, for it is all that must be ejected or abjected from self-image to make the bounded, category-obeying self possible” (65). We need the freak to confirm our own static, bounded identities. And yet, I think there is a certain terror that we may not be as bounded as we think. If the hermaphrodite can transcend traditional gender categories, then perhaps our own genders are more fluid. For many that is a truly horrifying thought.
For example, in one of the film’s earliest scenes we witness the “pinheads” Schlitze, Elvira and Jenny Lee dancing and playing in the forest. From a distance they look like innocent, happy children. But as the camera approaches, it is clear that they are neither children, nor are they quite adults either. Thus it is the ambiguity here, rather than the disability itself, which is momentarily disturbing.
Grosz also mentions that “Any discussion of freaks brings back into focus a topic that has had a largely underground existence in contemporary cultural and intellectual life, partly because it is considered below the refined sensibilities of ‘good taste’ and ‘personal politeness’ in a civilized and politically correct milieu” (55). It is for this reason that I selected Freaks for my Trash Cinema course — the film, as well as its content, is considered to be in bad taste. It is in bad taste to exploit those with handicaps for a profit and it’s even worse to view the handicapped with horror, as Freaks seems to be asking us to do.
During our class discussion, I wanted the students to talk about these issues as well as Browning’s failure in the film. Freaks preaches acceptance and, as the above scene claims, the belief that we are all “God’s children.” And yet, the film was intended to “out horror” Frankenstein through its fantastic display of disabled bodies.
However, this teaching moment failed as soon as I replayed the famous “wedding banquet” scene for my students. In this scene the freaks have gathered to celebrate the marriage of a midget, Hans (Harry Earles), to the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra and her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), plan to poison Hans in order to collect his vast inheritance, but at this point the freaks are unaware of her ulterior motives and attempt to embrace her as one of the group.
I wanted my students to see how Browning had made this scene “horrific” by having the freaks don their performance clothing (which serves to further highlight their differences) and chant in unison, “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!” while beating rhythmically on the table. While the words themselves are friendly and accepting, they almost sound like a threat in this scene. Indeed, in the film’s opening frame story, a sideshow barker introduces the diegetic audience to an unseen but undoubtedly horrific sight: “You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time!” (Here a woman in the crowd screams and recoils in horror). “Friends,” he continues, “she was once a beautiful woman…” This opening indicates that Cleopatra will meet a horrifying fate at some point during the film.
My students, however, were not horrified by this scene. They did not think Browning was exploiting his disabled actors by making them appear monstrous or threatening. Rather, many of them saw this scene as a celebration of diversity and a warm welcome to Cleopatra (who would reject that welcome moments later). The only monstrous characters in this scene, according to my students, are Hercules and Cleopatra.
I then asked them to discuss the film’s violent climax, when the freaks exact their revenge on Hercules and Cleopatra. I pointed out that in the film’s opening a man describes the frolicking pinheads as horrible, twisted things that “crawl and glide” in the dark. We are meant to dismiss this cruel assessment and yet, in the revenge scene, the freaks are depicted as horrible, twisted, gliding things (Hawkins 269). They crawl through the mud, clutching knives, and peer out at their victims through the darkness. Although the entire film argues that the freaks are happy, normal, loving human beings, this scene appears to undo that message. I wanted my students to therefore question why Browning depicted his disabled actors in this way, exploiting their physical differences as a method for horrifying his primarily able-bodied audience. Indeed, many contemporary critics of the film denounced this scene as a “significant miscalculation by Browning and his scenarists” (Norden 116).
While my students admitted that Browning seemed to replicate the very imagery he denounced earlier in the film, they felt very strongly that the revenge — Hercules is stabbed while Cleopatra is horribly disfigured — was warranted. While most horror films ask us to identify with the helpless victim and his or her suffering, my students argued that their sympathies never shifted. Cleopatra got what she deserved.
Although this class discussion did not go the way I intended — I wanted to talk about taste and exploitation — it did prove to be an interesting example of how a film’s reception can change dramatically over time. In 1932 Browning intended to “horrify” with this film and he succeeded to such an extent that MGM had to pull the film from circulation. Although Browning successfully horrified his contemporary audiences, who were accustomed to the conventions of the freak show, it is possible that his own view of his disabled actors is more in line with those of my students, who saw the film as a quaint tale of love and revenge. So maybe Browning was not an exploiteer after all — maybe he was just making his film for the wrong audience? Regardless, I will need to rethink these issues before I teach Freaks again.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 55-68.
Hawkins, Joan. ” ‘One of Us’: Tod Browning’s Freaks.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 265-276.
Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.