Archive for July, 2010

RIP Harvey

Two weeks.

Two fucking weeks.

That’s how long it’s taken me to get my head together enough to write something about the life, work — and passing — of a guy I never knew, but who had a more profound impact on my existence than most people I’ve known really well. I can count the actual heroes in my life on one hand (and don’t worry, Dad, if you’re ever reading this — you’re one of them). Now I can count them on four fingers.

In the overall scheme of things, Harvey Pekar could probably  be truthfully described as  neurotic, obsessive,  unkempt, curmudgeonly, disheveled, fatalistic, compulsive, and manic.

He could also be described as unflinchingly honest, enormously talented, creative, humane, brave, hyperintelligent, unpretentious, and in possession of more out-and-out integrity than the next hundred, the next thousand, the next million people you’re likely to meet — combined.

Chances are the character “attributes” I listed first could just as easily be laid at the doorstep of you, me, or anyone else when our time comes to shake off this mortal coil. Those in the second list? Not so much.

In a world full of showbiz phonies and jive Hollywood fast-talkers, Harvey Pekar never sold out. Not to David Letterman. Not to HBO. Not to Time Warner. Not to anyone.

Presented with one opportunity after another to turn his groundbreaking autobiographical comic series American Splendor into some kind of cash-cow, he hesitated. Not that he was opposed to finally, after decades of toiling in near-obscurity (despite the fact that dozens of his stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb, for crying out loud!), making a buck off his work. Far from it. Providing security to his wife Joyce and his adopted daughter Danielle was high on his list of things to do. But not if he had to compromise the essential integrity of his work in any way, shape, or form.

Harvey by R. Crumb

When American Splendor finally did make the leap from the printed page to the silver screen in 2003, it was exactly the type of film those of us who had followed Harvey’s work for years had hoped for — it was honest, insightful, intelligent, and innovative. Just as wed’ always known it could and should be, but maybe better than we’d dared hope. We should have had more faith in Harvey. If it was anything ever in danger of being anything less, he never would have had anything to do with it.

He shook off the easy trappings of fame not out of some high-and-mighty sense of self-importance, but because that whole scene just never even interested him. Even at the height of his Hollywood flavor-of-the-monthness, he’d rather be at home listening to an old jazz LP than be the center of attention at Sundance or Tribeca. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care.

"American Splendor" Movie Poster

For my part, I first encountered Pekar’s work in my late teens, still a hopeless comic book addict but well past being interested in the four-color “adventures” of men in tights and women in even-less-than-tights. The sheer banality of Harvey’s work, focused as it was on the most absolutely mundane aspects of his life as a VA hospital file clerk, hit me like a sledgehammer blow to the head. Here was reality in all its unvarnished non-glory — comics really could be about anything at all, as I’d been telling everyone for so long.

There will never be another

My favorite stories were those concerned with the quiet dramas that make up the average person’s life — the small setbacks that feel for all the world like monumental defeats, and the even smaller victories that feel like — well, like just that. Stories like “Rip-Off Chick, ” “A Semi-Bummer Weekend,” “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In The Supermarket,” and my personal favorite, “Stetson Shoes,” were in so many ways about nothing at all — yet they somehow managed to encompass almost all the ups and downs of human existence into their pictures and word balloons.

Harvey Pekar didn’t lead a life markedly different from you, me, or anyone else we might know. He didn’t possess some mystical sense of clarity that allowed him to see things in some amazingly profound way. He just had the balls, and the writing skill, to look at himself, and those around him, with honesty, wit, and a fair degree of compassion. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t faultless, and often he wasn’t fair. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to live, or even to be around for an extended period of time. But he was the genuine article.  He had something to say about his life, the lives of those he knew, and the society we live in, and he said it. He said it with the simple unrestrained eloquence of an equal. He never thought of himself as being “above” those around him, or as even being in any special or remarkable.

And that’s what was most remarkable about him. He was our voice, and our mirror — our best friend and our fiercest critic. He was , in the words of the front-page, top-of-the-fold article about his death in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, our “bard of the banal.” He was us, and we were him.

He was Harvey Pekar. An everyman. A working stiff. A regular schmuck. And we’ll never see his like again. Mr. Boats. Toby Radloff, Joyce, Danielle — there were so many great characters in Harvey’s stories, but he was always the heart and soul, even in the tales that didn’t feature him.  He was the voice. Our voice. Our guide through our own world. That voice is gone now, and the world itself seems to be missing its voice-over interpreter.

Harvey was only 70 when he died, although let’s be honest — it seems like he’s been 70, or older, for along time now. Youthful vigor was never one of his strong suits, even though in his later years, between his regular American Splendor series and his historical graphic novels, his work output was more prolific than ever. And those later years weren’t easy for Harvey. After retirement from the VA, he was lost without his work routine, He slipped into manic depression and received electroshock “therapy.”  Cancer, which almost took his life a decade earlier (as detailed in the superb Our Cancer Year graphic novel co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) made a return appearance. And his blood pressure was off the charts. So I can’t say that I was completely surprised by his death — but I was still shocked by it. I saw it coming, but still wasn’t ready.

Who are we kidding? I’m still not ready.

I don’t know what happens when we die, although all available evidence seems to suggest we end up as worm food and that’s it. I do, however, know a thing or two about life here on Earth — and I know that it was better two weeks ago, when Harvey Pekar was still a part of it.

"Bonnie's Kids" Movie Poster

If you’re looking for the prototype exploitation film, the one that has it all and then some, then friends, look no further than writer-director Arthur Marks’ 1973 low-budget opus Bonnie’s Kids.

First off, there’s the matter of the title — Bonnie And Clyde, despite being a couple years old, was still doing brisk box-office business at the time — and as the titular Bonnie in this film, the mother of the two protagonists we’ll get to in a moment, is dead, and never so much appears even in flashbacks, this flick’s name is an obvious cash-in attempt to “tie in” with the Faye Dunaway-Warren Beatty classic.

So far, so good. Let’s turn our attention, then, to the advertising campaign. Just take a look at that poster, dear readers — it features the lead actress’s (highly exaggerated, of course) measurements prominently displayed! I ask you, does it get any better than that? Your host thinks not.

Next up there’s the matter of the cast — exploitation veterans all around, from Tiffany Bolling (The Candy Snatchers, The Centerfold Girls) to Alex Rocco (Brute Corps, The Wild Riders) to Steve Sandor (Stryker, The No Mercy Man) to Robin Mattson (Candy Stripe Nurses, Phantom of the Paradise).

And finally, of course, there’s the plot — or rather, the sheer, perverse tawdriness of so many of the plot elements. Bad-news sisters Ellie (Bolling) and Myra (Mattson) Thomas, a small-town waitress and high school student, respectively, live with their good-for-nothing alcoholic stepfather, a guy so foul even his own poker buddies hate his guts and tell him so, frequently. One night after the game breaks up, step-daddy overhears Myra engaging in a little titillating phone talk with one of the many junior Romeo pricks she’s teasing. Slapping the phone out of her hand, he picks her up and hits her, kicking and screaming, to the bedroom. As he attempts to mount her, Ellie walks in and, resisting his charming entreaties to “come over and join them” and “give stepdaddy a kiss, like when you were a little girl” (or words to that effect), she decides, instead, to pull out a shotgun and blow his ass to kingdom come.  And did I mention (okay, I didn’t) that Myra’s phone frolicking takes places after she’s already taken a shower in full view of the leering eyes of both her stepdad’s poker pals and the local cops?

So we’ve already got bare teenage boobs, voyeurism, phone sex, attempted rape, implied child molestation, pseudo-incest, and bloody murder of a (sort of) family member — before the opening credits even roll!

From there’s things just get sleazier. Ellie and Myra split town and seek out their rich uncle, Ben, a fashion-industry mogul who puts them up on his expansive ranch-cum-estate and has a little plan : a couple of his —ahem! — “associates” (the aforementioned Rocco and Scott Brady) are arranging to pick up a package he’s sending them at the local bus station, but first Ben needs  someone to drop the package off, and the thugs he’s dealing with need someone to pick it up and bring it to another bus station, where it will be shipped to the one they intend to pick it up at (unnecessarily convoluted? You betcha). Ben enlists Ellie’s help to bring the package tothe drop-off-spot, a relatively seedy motel, and the two sorta-gangsters hire a dim-witted private eye (Sandor) to pick it up from her and take it to the Greyhound terminal for shipment.

At this point the two sisters, pictured as essentially inseparable in most of the film’s advertising, are split up — for the rest of the movie. While the main plot revolves around Ellie and her newfound PI boyfriend opening the package to discover a half-million dollars in cash, at which point she decides their best bet is to make off with it, the film turns back to Myra solely, it seems, to keep the sleaze quotient high.

The two we're supposed to thank God Bonnie stopped after

Not that Ellie’s story is, you know, classy — there’s plenty of pure, unadulterated raunchiness going on there, including gratuitous nudity (Bolling, a prototypical good-lookin’ 70s blonde bombshell bares almost all, I’m willing to bet, in every single movie she was ever in), amoral (we’ll get back to that word shortly) theft from a family member, the (temporary) selling out of her new boyfriend in order to get a shot at all the cash to herself, and the calculated making-up with the guy (guess he’s a real sucker) when she needs his help. Oh, and there’s accidental murder along the way, too — the two toughs kill the wrong couple in another motel room and Ellie and her beau mistakenly do away with the guy she’s trying to catch a ride off in her attempt to abscond with the cash by herself (it’s a long story).

But geez, our gal Ellie is positively a candidate for sainthood compared to her kid sister.

Back at Uncle Ben’s, Myra is busy bedding an older ranch-hand more out of boredom than anything else, stealing trinkets from her aunt, and teasing said aunt, a lecherous older lesbian, with her teenage charms in order to woo stuff out of her when she realizes that outright theft probably won’t be necessary.

And now we get back to that word amoral again. It’s pretty clear that either one of Bonnie’s little darlings will do whatever it takes to get them selves ahead, and when the aunt who’s taken a shine to young Myra is — uhhhmmm — “dispatched” from the ranch, in a truly shocking manner, the younger sister shows no more qualms about it than the elder does in selling out the guy who’s been risking his as for her.

And that streak or amorality plays all the way through to the film’s conclusion, when Ellie and her fella finally come face-to-face with the two small-time gangsters (and by the way, Rocco and Brady’s characters are the obvious prototypes — there’s that word again,  I guess amoral isn’t the only “Pee-Wee’s Word of the Day” in effect here — for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s cons in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) who’ve been on their tails, precluding the happy reunion of the two sisters (I’ll spare the specifics, since you really need to see this flick) at the end — and Myra, true to form ,brushes off the nixed meeting with astonishing nonchalance.

"Bonnie's Kids" DVD from Dark Sky Films

After years of clamoring from fans, Bonnie’s Kids has just been released on DVD from Dark Sky Films. For a so-called “Special Edition” it’s pretty light on the extras, but there are theatrical and TV ad spots included, and he disc features a fairly comprehensive interview with Arthur Marks (who also gave us exploitation gems like Bucktown and Detroit 9000 among other exploitation gems). The remastered anamorphic picture looks great and the mono audio track is crisp, clean, and largely distortion-free. A commentary would’ve been nice, but on the whole it’s a fairly solid little package.

There are better drive-in/grindhouse movies than Bonnie’s Kids, but few that tick off so many boxes on the unofficial comprehensive exploitation checklist. It’s sleazy, it’s violent, it’s surprisingly dark in tone and nihilistic, and there’s very little by way of pure filler in its 105-minute run time. Whatever you’re looking for in a B-movie sleazefest, this one;s got it, along with plenty you probably quite frankly weren’t looking for. You certainly couldn’t make a film anything like this today, it’s a sheer product of its time.

You’ll enjoy it, and hate yourself for enjoying it. What more could you possibly ask for?

"Trash Humpers" Movie Poster

So, anyway, Haromony Korine’s back. The former enfant terrible who gave us Gummo and  Julien Donkey-Boy before alienating a lot of fans with the almost-like-a-real-movie Mister Lonely has returned to his roots, so to speak, with Trash Humpers, a shot-on-VHS-camcorder-and-blown-up-to-35mm pseudo-found-footage extravanganza that literally screams “look at me! I’ve still got it!” and, annoyingly, sort of proves he does.

Following the exploits of three elderly vagrants (actually three younger actors in disturbingly-well-realized latex masks, one of whom is the “writer”-director’s wife, Rachel Korine) around the streets of  Korine’s new adopted home of Nashville, Tennessee (gosh, he really is still hip as hell, isn’t he?), Trash Humpers contains really no linear narrative whatsoever, and is essentially comprised of a series of vignettes featuring our erstwhile trio humping piles of garbage and trash cans, as the title suggests (okay, flatly states); humping trees and fellating their branches; humping mailboxes; peeking in the windows of homes; taking shits in people’s driveways; teaching kids how to hide razor blades inside apples; taking their wheelchair through a carwash; ignoring dead corpses lying in ditches; dragging a talking doll on a rope behind a bicycle; hanging out with a series of non-actors who either are, or should be, mental patients;  setting off firecrackers; and occasionally killing somebody.

If you give a shit about who these vagrants are or why they do what they do, you’re watching the wrong movie. Korine’s point, to the extent that he even has one, is, as ever, merely to document — all interpretation is left up to the viewer.

And that element of honesty is really what keeps me from hating this pretentious twit’s guts.

The trash humpers doing what they do

I really can’t find much to disparage in the film itself aside from the fact that we’ve seen all this done before, and better, by Korine himself — Gummo kind of set his modus operandi in stone and subsequent efforts haven’t really been able to top it, but this movie is, in fact, still interesting — just a lot less groundbreaking. The shitty VHS camcorder work is certainly appropriate to the material and adds a new stylistic touch to Korine’s repertoire, but beyond that, if you’re familiar with his shtick you pretty much know exactly what you’re getting here and, to its credit, the film delivers. But I’m not sure Korine can really shock us anymore — and despite his protestations to the contrary, it’s clear that he still desperately wants to do so.

Our "protagonists"

I offer as evidence of this charge a scene wherein our three trash humpin’ heroes are visiting the house of two local eccentrics who go around wearing a sewed-together double-hat and matching backless hospital gowns. They all sit down for a pancake breakfast with dish soap in place of syrup.

Okay, fair enough. The usual Korine weirdness-for-its-own-sake thing, right? But Jesus, how they go on about it. They spend a good few minutes making damn sure us folks out there in the audience understand that they’re gonna eat dish soap. “You mean syrup? ” “No, soap!” “Here we go, eat that soap!”

Okay, we get it already. One of the things I hated most about Juno was how Diablo Cody just had to rub the supposed “coolness” of her characters in our faces — Juno doesn’t just have a hamburger phone, for example — she takes a call and lets the person on the other end know she can’t hear them so well because she’s talking on her hamburger phone ! News flash, we can already see that!

Needless to say, the same principle is in effect here, with the key difference being that Korine’s work actually is outre, instead of providing the kind of safe, sanitized version of “out-there” hipsterness that Cody’s made the bedrock of her career. If a teenager got pregnant in a Harmony Korine film — well, that did happen, in Julien Donkey-Boy. And it wasn’t played for light comedy. But geez, Harmony, all I’m saying is trust us a bit — we know this shit is weird, you don’t need to hammer us over the head with a reminder of just how weird it is while we’re watching it. Let the material speak for itself.

Would you invite them to your next family picnic? It might liven things up

The other thing that’s lessening the impact these little slices of almost-aesthetic-terrorism Korine lobs out every few years — and this is no fault of his own — is the internet. There was an air of disrespectable danger surrounding Gummo due to the fact that the pretentious legions of “officially licensed” film snobs were nearly unanimous in their denunciation of that film as being pointless and exploitative of its freak-show subjects. Now we’ve got a secondary legion of semi-officially licensed film snobs, the “superstar bloggers,” if you will,  best exemplified by the likes of the insufferable and hideously pretentious Karina Longworth, who cheerlead for Korine’s films as genuine examples of guerrilla cinema and profound works of art. Personally I liked his stuff better when the critics just hated it. It just loses some of its charm when there’s not a big scarlet letter of disapproval stamped on it by the powers that be.

A moment ago I mentioned the freak-show aspect of all this, and that’s really what makes the proceedings here tick — it’s not so much the random and thoughtlessly violent (Korine has described this movie as “almost an ode to vandalism”) actions of the trash humpers themselves that provide the interest here, but the endless succession of truly disturbed people they come into contact with. Let’s face it — after the first trash-fucking scene and first tree-fucking scene, subsequent ones are going to lose their impact, even if one of the humpers is screaming “get that trash pussy!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And after the fiftieth time one of them intones their unofficial motto of “make it, make it, don’t fake it!” or sings their unofficial theme song that goes something liek “three little devil went out for a walk,”  you want to punch their fucking lights out. After you see one of them taking a dump outside on a driveway a subsequent scene where one of them is blowing out birthday candles on a cake while sitting on the crapper with the female THer telling him “you’ll pass it” seems pretty punchless. But the menagerie of sub-marginals on display never ceases to amaze, from the wanna-be-conjoined twins doing a sock-puppet-theater rendition of the lives of Yang and Chang, the original Siamese twins, to the shirtless overweight loser who sings songs about his penis on his guitar to the sub-moronic redneck cracking racist and homophobic “jokes” that have no punchline to the obviously disturbed older dude who “exercise regimen” consists of laying on his bed and lifting his chin up for 60 seconds at a time to the transvestite poetry reciter — God help me, they all kept me glued to my seat long after the whole garbage-fucking thing had played itself out.

Will you be my friend?

I caught Trash Humpers at a midnight screening (it’s being distributed around the country in limited-release by music distro outfit Drag City after garnering something of a reputation at SXSW and other film festivals) at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis over the weekend, and the primary audience reaction was laughter — the scenes meant to shock and horrify, or even to just make you go “what the fuck?,” seemed to fall a bit flat — and I think that’s evidence of the fact that the main “problem,” if you will, here, is one of diminishing returns. A viewer unfamiliar with Korine’s previous work would probably find this to be the most appalling, inexplicable, atrocious, and downright indecipherable thing they’ve ever seen. But for those of us who have seen his other films, it’s all kind of been done before, and better. even the ending, with the female THer making off with a baby from someone’s house, is a watered-down version of  Julien stealing his sister’s dead baby from the hospital right after we learn that he’s the father in Julien Donkey-Boy.

Still, in terms of doing what it sets out to do, Trash Humpers comes through. Korine has said that he wanted this movie to have the feel of a video tape found in a ditch or the bottom shelf of a VHS rental shop or in an old dresser drawer or the attic of an abandoned house, and to have the viewer pop it in the VCR without knowing what to expect and get an accidental glimpse into an unfamiliar parallel reality — one that they knwo to be real, but have no experience of. On that score, it succeeds admirably. But he’s proven in the past that he’s capable of much more.

Still, in spite of the fact that this feels like a watered-down rerun of previous efforts, and the fact that this flick has become something of a cause-celebre for the self-appointed hip, there is an honesty here underneath all the “look at me, I’m still cool and transgressive!” messaging of this film. I may not care much for the aging- former- hipster-still-desperate-to-be-relevant persona of Korine himself, nor the fact that he’s treading on familiar ground and “giving the punters what they want” rather than pushing himself in new directions, but I can’t take issue with all his motivations.

Some filmmakers put out a movie to make a buck, others to make a statement. Korine doesn’t seem too terribly interested in either. In the end, Trash Humpers feels like a movie he made just because — well, he could. And while that’s probably not praiseworthy in and of itself, it’s not really deserving of criticism, either. It just — is.

Kinda like Trash Humpers itself.