Nathan Schiff Round-Up : “They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore”

Posted: April 10, 2012 in movies
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DIE YUPPIE SCUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Admit it —that was one clever bumper sticker back in the day. You probably thought those exact same words to yourself on more than one occasion. I certainly did. And the person who came up with the sticker probably made millions of dollars and went on to become a yuppie him or herself. Such is the way of the world. But back in 1985, after half a decade  away from his Super-8 camera, Long Island’s master of no-budget ghoulishness, Nathan Schiff, evidently thought that simple catchphrase was enough to base an entire (in this case “entire” meaning a whopping 70 minutes) film on. The result? The wildly uneven, admittedly nonsensical, essentially plot-free, decidedly mean-spirited, and flabbergastingly- weirdly- titled They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore.First off, a little bit of background — obviously Schiff’s films alone weren’t enough to earn the guy a living, so he took a job at a posh Manhattan hotel, where he was exposed to the absolute worst of the worst of emerging yuppie “culture.”  Frankly,  dealing with the petty whims of the Donald Trumps and Leona Helmsleys of the world would probably be enough to drive anyone over the bend, but when you consider Schiff’s already-ingrained socio-political views, as documented so vividly in 1980’s Long Island Cannibal Massacre, you gotta figure he was probably the last guy who could stomach fetching warm towels and tennis rackets for the hoi-polloi. After five years he decided he’d had enough and went about venting his frustrations in the only way he knew how — he got his friends together, hit the fields, houses, and back yards of Long Island, and made another DIY movie.

This time, though, there was to be a decidedly marked shift in tone from his previous efforts. Oh, sure, you can tell he still didn’t take the whole thing too seriously — with around a thousand bucks and a five-day shooting schedule, how can you? — but nevertheless, this flick about two Texas hired yard-hands, Billy Buck (Schiff mainstay John Smihula) and Jacob (Adam Berke, in a role that was originally conceived for fellow “stock player” Fred Borges, but he had moved out of town, taking a lot of the self-deprecating humor inherent in Schiff’s earlier productions with him — Berke was conscripted into service at the last minute, didn’t know what few lines his character had, and was uncomfortable appearing on camera, so he played the part mute and with a weird-looking mask on the entire time) who make their way north to Long Island to service the lawns of the rich and famous and then take out their country-fried rage on their city-slicker paymasters by using whatever grounds-keeping implements were handy at the time has a decidedly nasty edge to it.

For one thing, there’s essentially no story here to speak of at all, just a rough-looking assemblage of particularly vicious murder set-pieces, and while killing people (primarily women, but a couple guys get whacked in this flick, as well) with lawnmowers, hacksaws, chainsaws, etc. is old hat for a Nathan Schiff movie (although the death-by-firecracker-in-the-mouth is a new wrinkle), the sheer amount of time he spends, not only on the killings themselves but on the innards-removing, head-stomping, face-peeling aftermaths of each is sometimes pretty hard to stomach, even if the gore FX, as always, look more or less completely unconvincing. It’s not so much the execution, then,  as the intent that feels vulgar and, frankly, kinda nasty here.

Which isn’t to say that Schiff’s work has lost all its homemade charm or anything. The delightfully OTT performances, as well as the Z-grade production values,  pretty much guarantee that no matter what you’re still gonna see this thing for the amateurish effort it is, but whereas Long Island Cannibal Massacre had the tone of a cautionary tale of impending social unrest, They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore feels like a violent reaction to the emergence of the haves-vs.-have-nots social order that our guy Nate had been trying to warn us about. Quite clearly, his worst fears about Reaganism had been realized and he was none too happy about it.Confession time — I’m pretty sympathetic to Schiff’s anti-yuppie views (as if you couldn’t tell), and I’m not averse to gory cinematic spectacles, but there is such a thing as piling on. Yes, Nathan, we know this lady your characters are doing in a shallow, superficial, gold-digging bitch, but come on — we knew that before Jacob started digging into the smashed pulp of her skull for five minutes before opening up her stomach with his hands and yanking her entrails out. I hate these uppity sons-and-daughters-of-bitches, too, but I got limits, man! And the sad fact is, by having these Texas yokels cross the line from violent, murdering maniacs into violent, murdering maniacs with a penchant for agonizingly slow disembowelment, you piss away any sympathy your audience might have for their, and by extension your, viewpoint. In short, your excesses become self-defeating in the extreme.

The “story” here “ends” with Billy Buck and Jacob performing a homemade county music number called “We Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore” (hence the movie’s title) before donning three-piece suits, getting on a train into Manhattan, and joining the yuppie world themselves. Which I suppose is a natural enough, ir entirely predictable, ending, but lacks any of the (admittedly meager) resonance it might have had given that there’s no “plot trajectory” here at all. They just kill and kill and kill and kill and then stop one day. Kind of like the movie itself just runs and runs and runs and runs and then doesn’t anymore. So, hey, I guess in that respect, it’s a fitting conclusion.

Like his two previous super-8 efforts, They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore got seen largely through a small-scale VHS distribution deal that Schiff inked himself and was later picked up for DVD release in 2003 by Image Entertainment as part of their “Cult Cinema Collection” series. It’s presented in a remastered-but-still-rough-and-scratchy full-frame transfer with (again uneven at best) stereo sound, and extras include a 15-or-so-minute interview with the filmmaker, an interview with John Smihula and Fred Borges (not that he’s in this one) of roughly equal length, a feature-length commentary from Schiff that, as usual, can be a challenge to make it through due to his monotonous voice but is actually fairly interesting, and a selection of four of his short films, a couple of which are actually more interesting and engaging than the feature itself.  A pretty decent package that gives you good value for money despite the short run time of the “main product.”

Still, while I admire the guy’s pluck as always, I’d only recommend this one for die-hard Nathan Schiff completists. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for yuppies, and that’s a very strange and alien sentiment for me that I’m still having a difficult time processing — to the extent that an ultimately throwaway piece of DIY moviemaking can, you know, actually cause a person anything resembling actual difficulty at all. Good thing I didn’t get this feeling from a flick that insists on taking itself seriously, much less having anyone else do the same.

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