Posts Tagged ‘jamie gillis’

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This entry represents the first in a semi-regular series of book reviews that I’ll be doing for this site whenever the mood strikes me. The sheer number of comic reviews I’ve written over the past few years have already guaranteed that the “Trash Film Guru” name is well past its sell-by date, but rather than narrow my focus back to films alone (remember the good old days?), for some reason in recent weeks it’s seemed like a good idea to annihilate my original premise for this site completely and just write about whatever the hell I feel like. And there’s probably no better way to kick off our new “Trash Literature” sub-section than with a write-up on perhaps the most relentlessly extreme piece of literary violence I’ve ever come across. BE WARNED, though — things get real ugly real quick here, and if you don’t have the stomach for it, then do yourself a favor and move along before you’re left with some mental imagery that you’d love to shake, but can’t.

For the past couple of years it’s been sitting there, on my bookshelf, never opened — a silent dare.

There are some things that can’t be unread.

I knew who Peter Sotos was/is when I bought Tool. (yes, the period is part of the title), of course, as well as what he was all about — and frankly, I can’t imagine anyone picking this up without any prior knowledge of the author’s history and “M.O.,” but for the uninitiated out there here’s a brief rundown of the particulars : in the early ’80s, Sotos’ self-published ‘zine, Pure — a visceral literary cumshot that extolled the supposed “virutes” of rape, murder, child molestation, and even Nazi death camps — caught the attention of local authorities in his hometown of Chicago, who duly raided his apartment convinced that he must be involved in doing the kinds of things in “real life” that he wrote about with such near-reverence on the printed page. No evidence of criminal activity was found, but one magazine discovered on the premises — an underground European import bearing the charming title Incest IV — was enough to get him busted for possession of child pornography and ensure that the next decade or so of his life would be spent digging out from under a mountain of legal bills that one can imagine the salary from his day job  at a meat-packing plant could scarcely begin to cover . As soon as he safely could he began publishing another ‘zine — this one with a more critique-oriented focus — titled Parasite, but during his legally-necessitated hiatus he indulged in writing of a more immediate and disturbingly personal nature, presumably with no “end users” in mind whatsoever, and those works eventually saw print in the form of a series of eight first-person-narrated vignettes under the title of Tool., the first selection of which — an imagined monologue from notorious British child murderer Peter Sutcliffe aimed in the direction of one of his victims, Lesley Ann Downey —was unleashed upon a world in no way prepared to deal with it in the notorious fourth issue of Jim and Debbie Goad’s Answer Me! (the so-called “Rape Issue”), bearing the none-too-subtle header of “Quality Time” and accompanied by a series of remarkably unsettling illustrations by Trevor Brown depicting a little-girl doll in various states of physical and emotional — uhhmmm — distress. To say that it permanently scarred the psyche of any number of readers (myself included) would probably be a profound understatement, and even those of us who “knew what we were getting into” (most likely due to the interview with Sotos that appeared in the pages of Adam Parfrey’s seminal Apocalypse Culture, which is where I — and probably many — self-styled connoisseurs of the extreme and heretical became aware of the man and his work) were effectively eyeball-raped by the searing verbal assault that came our way. We knew, right then and there, that this guy wasn’t fucking around and that he utilized words as a near-deadly weapon. Blisteringly hateful and harrowing passages such as (and, by all means, SENSITIVE READERS SHOULD TURN AWAY IMMEDIATELY) :”You’re going to die. I’m sorry. You cunt. I said I’m sorry. You filth. You female. You dog. Bark for me. Dry your face and go home. Let’s go see mommy. Wanna see mommy? Wanna go bye-bye in the car? Nope. I want to ram this chair leg in your ass first” were more than enough — understandably — to make a lot of folks downright physically ill, and to make even those with the most hardened constitutions have to digest what we were being “offered” in small chunks rather than all in one go. I can only speak for myself, but I felt like I had found the very bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel of human depravity transcribed without sentiment, apology, or anything even marginally resembling quasi-redeeming contextualization. When the Goads later published an omnibus edition of Sotos’ then-extant writing under the entirely appropriate name Total Abuse, Jim put that very thought into words when he said in his introduction that Peter Sotos represented “the outermost limit. Beyond him there is only darkness” —a description that I think (hell, I hope) still applies to this day.

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The entire contents of Tool. are available in the just-mentioned product of the former house of Goad, but even though I’ve got the book, “Quality Time” has always remained the only part of that particular section I was ever able to make it through. Pure was, without question, unsettling in the extreme (and is almost certainly even moreso in its original form, with the news clippings and other collage pieces missing from Total Abuse accompanying Sotos’ words), and Parasite is no walk in the park either, but both have the narrative “voice” of an outside observer commenting on events, perhaps even that of — not to be too glib — an over-enthusiastic fan of sex-murder waxing celebratory over his most favorite crimes. Granted, you can’t divorce any discussion of the writer’s own mindset from the events he’s delineating for you when he’s describing the most depraved horrors imaginable (and many that honestly can’t be imagined by most) in not just an approving, but a downright euphoric, way, but we still weren’t “in the mind” of the person or people doing these things — just “in the mind” of somebody who thought it was great that they were being done. Which, sure, is an ugly enough place to be, but it still leaves a certain level of distance between author and act.

Tool., by contrast, offers so such “safe harbor,” and when Nine-Banded books issued it in stand-alone form for the first time (it having also been collected in Creation Books’ Sotos “bumper-volume,” Proxy) in 2013, complete with an immersive-yet-in-no-way-reassuring introduction from publisher Chip Smith (anyone else out there remember The Hoover Hog?), any and all reification attached to these writings was obliterated as surely as a shotgun blast to the head. You were either in, or you were out. No turning back.

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I clearly wasn’t ready to digest and absorb the contents of this admittedly-slender volume back when I bought it, but operating under a “well, I probably never will be” mindset, I did finally sit down down to read it a few nights ago, only to discover that I was right — indeed, I probably never will be. In these pages we find sickening “victory letters” from lust-killers to the mothers of their victims, “glory-hole” patrons who get off on dehumanizing whoever’s on the other side of the wall, unrepentant child molesters/slaughterers, johns drunk on their own psychosexual pathologies, aging queens who find respite from their own self-hatred only though hating some hapless rent-boy even more, and not a single instance of “narrative distancing” to make it somehow more palatable. The entire grotesque panorama of mankind’s (and yes, the narrators herein are always male) sexual degeneracy is here in all its gory detail. The first segment probably still stands as the most stomach-churningly brutal, but from a psychological standpoint the piece where Sotos “answers” questions posed by a court-appointed therapist after his own arrest, and the shifting-focus final vignette wherein a killer addresses the mother of a victim that goes from male to female to pre-pubescent to of legal age to straight to gay, thereby making it clear that he’s in it for the sadistic “pleasure” of raping and killing and that anyone available will suffice for that purpose, rank as perhaps the most — and I don’t use this term lightly, or even necessarily as a compliment — unforgettable. And just when you think you can get up off the mat and take a mental break, the work is appended by the text of a “visual lecture”-style piece that Sotos gave in Paris a couple of years ago called “Mine/Kept” —a YouTube link to which I’ve included at the end of this review — that makes clear, in no uncertain terms, what he’s in this for. I’d say that he’s “in it for keeps,” but that’s only the tip of this unrelentingly malicious iceberg.

In recent years, as one could easily predict, various First Amendment advocates of the “uncompromising” and “absolutist” variety (which is probably the only kind worth being) have risen to Sotos’ defense, as have braver quarters of the art world, and their actions have congealed to form something vaguely approximating a legitimizing membrane around his writing that, from what I can gather, the author himself has no interest in helping to facilitate — his meticulous transcriptions of porn star (and Sotos “fan”) Jamie Gillis’ cruel and degrading interactions with prostitutes in the pages of the book Pure Filth presented as some sort of convoluted but still logically consistent statement about the absurdity of so-called “sex offender registry” laws notwithsanding . Whether on the printed page, where he’s been reasonably prolific for the past couple of decades (although his output remains, generally speaking, as inaccessible as ever), or as a (now former) member of the pioneering and justifiably controversial “power electronics” outfit Whitehouse, Sotos, in his post-Tool. incarnation, seems bound and determined to deliberately strip his work of anything that could be used as an argument either for or against its very existence. He doesn’t write about this stuff in order to push the envelope of free speech to its furthest point; he doesn’t write about this stuff in order to cast an uncomfortable but necessary light on the deepest recesses of the disturbed mind;  and he doesn’t even seem to write about this stuff in order to communicate with anyone else what he is thinking. He writes about this stuff because it’s what he’s into, because it’s what gets him off, and because he wants to and he can. That sort of unfettered self-honesty doesn’t make for much of an argument as to why his writing should exist — and it certainly doesn’t make any argument for why it needs to exist for anyone other than himself — but exist it does, and the sort of things it concerns itself with, like it or not, are every bit as real as cute puppies and beautiful rainbows. If you can muster up the resolve to be forced into thinking about a whole lot of shit that you probably don’t want to, and feel that you can withstand the abyss not just gazing but roaring back, well — Tool. is probably the mightiest test of your endurance you’re ever likely to come across. For anyone else, pretend you’ve never even heard of it and go on your considerably more merry way.

 

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

From the very first scene, a nasty and brutal gang-rape perpetrated by a gang of drug-dealing inner-city youth, it’s obvious that writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo’s “Life is Hot in Cracktown” (based on his book of the same name) requires a very strong constitution on the part of any prospective viewer. This is ruthless, cruel, dehumanizing stuff (and for those interested, this scene’s extension by a couple of minutes is the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts (the DVD cover for which is pictured atop this review) of this movie). It’s also depressingly and unavoidably realistic. And the brutality doesn’t stop there—the same gang performs a shockingly obscene forced enema on an old retiree who they routinely terrorize out of his social security checks by any means available. This is every bit as tough to watch as anything in the notorious 70s porn enema-rape flick “Waterpower” starring Jamie Gillis, a movie so steeped in controversy to this day that the identity of its actual director still remains a mystery (although the smart money is on Shaun Costello).

So yeah. Buddy G still hasn’t lost the grindhouse-derived ability to absolutely knock you for a loop that he first displayed in his 1986 masterpiece “Combat Shock”  (and the film boasts a terrific gindhouse-style advertising tagline : “Be Cool. Life is Cool. You’re So Coll In Cracktown.” How awesome is that?). And because of my freakishly high regard for that film, as well as his masterful and criminally-underrated 1996 offering “No Way Home” starring Tim Roth, “Cracktown” is a movie I wanted to not just like, but love. I went into this fully expecting it to be the movie of the year, if not the half-decade. And maybe that’s the problem, because  in the end, what we’ve got here is a decent little indie flick that certainly stands head and shoulders above 98% of what Hollywood is offering, and is more refreshingly honest and unselfconscious than at least the same percentage of today’s independent film offerings, but I still can’t escape the feeling that it’s nowhere near as good as it could, and quite frankly should, have been.

First off, let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t so much Giovinazzo doing his own thing as it is him trying to assume the mantle of Hubert Selby, Jr. In the DVD extras, there’s a pretty interesting little “making-of” featurette where Buddy even says as much, and Selby is listed in the “thank-you”s during the movie’s end credits. Viewed as straight-up homage, in fact, it works just fine, although it ultimately lacks the visceral punch the Selby-scripted of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or “Requiem for a Dream” because those stories really ripped you apart with their powerful endings, and “Cracktown” is too much a series of “day-in-the-life-of-residents-of-an-inner-city-hellhole” vignettes with often oblique, at best, connections to one another to provide the type of deeply-rooted audience-to-character relation that Selby’s stories use to absolutely rip our fucking guts out. Instead, what we have here are admittedly fascinating glimpses into the lives of admittedly fascinating and painfully realistic characters with no payoffs for any of their stories at the end.

It’s a testament to both Giovinazzo’s talents as a writer-director and the amazing performances of his extremely talented cast that we want to know more about these people, but that doesn’t make the fact that the movie only skims the surface of their stories any less satisfying. That’s as apt a summation I can think of as to why “Cracktown” ultimately feels like a letdown, even though you desperately want it to be anything but.

Taking center stage in this amazingly gifted ensemble is Kerry Washington as Marybeth, a pre-op transsexual and multi-drug (primarily heroin) addict who lives with her small-time burglar husband, Benny (portrayed with understated depth and understanding by Desmond Harrington), and works as a prostitute to finance their mutual habit. Washington is flat-out spectacular in this role and should definitely (but almost equally as definitely won’t) receive serious Oscar consideration for work here. Think about is : this is a woman playing a man living as a woman. She nails the part, my friends, absolutely nails it, and Harrington’s quiet, typical-guy confusion as Benny fruitlessly tries to resolve his heterosexual identity with the fact that the love of his life is, biologically speaking, still a man underpins every word he says and move he makes. It’s one of the most riveting screen relationships I can honestly ever recall seeing.

Other standout performances come from newcomers Victor Razuk as Manny, a struggling young father working two jobs, one as a daytime security officer at a welfare hotel the other as a graveyard-shift clerk at a Mexican convenience store, in an effort to support his wife and baby at home and who dreams of nothing more than saving up enough money to buy a modest starter home for his family, and Evan Ross as Romeo, leader of the aforementioned pack of violent neighborhood drug dealers, who dreams of “making his bones” with the larger gang infrastructure and ends up making a tragic mistake (or was he set up?) in his scramble up the underworld ladder. He’s got an innocent face and burning, seen-too-much-for-his-years eyes, and has a hell of a lot of natural screen charisma. You haven’t seen the last of either of these gifted young actors.

The other major subplot revolves around Edoardo Ballerini and Illeana Douglas as a crack-addicted couple with two kids living in the welfare hotel where Manny works and trying to balance their highly irresponsible lifestyle with some semblance of  parental responsibility — and failing miserably at it. They put in solid turns in their respective roles but are frankly outshone by their on-screen children, especially Ridge Canipe, who plays their son Willy, another wise-beyond-his years boy who forms a bond with a truly heartbreakingly young female child prostitute who works the same corners where he begs for spare change while his folks are off on their numerous benders.

Throw in smaller cameo parts by Lara Flynn Boyle and Brandon Routh as neighborhood junkies, Vondie Curtis Hall as a beat cop, and rapper RZA as a druglord gangbanger,  and you’ve got quite a group of players here. Heck, even the former Mrs. Prince, Mayte Garcia, pops in for a few minutes.

These are characters we never see in movies apart from throwaway “street scenes” where our leading man or lady walks down a dark street or alley and is either propositioned or mugged. These are lives few of us know very much about. They’re written with authenticity, and performed with same. But the plot structure of this movie lets them all down.

We’re given brief glimpses into their lives, trajectories or “arcs” for each of them unfold before us, and in the end, none of them are resolved. Maybe that’s realistic, maybe that’s the way it is, but in the end it feels like Giovinazzo didn’t really know how to end any of these stories, and in that respect it feels more like a documentary about various street people that happens to be performed by actors. It’s refreshing, it’s honest, and it’s authentic—but as I said before, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying.

I appreciate what Buddy G is trying to do here, I really do. It’s a genuinely gutsy piece of filmmaking in so many respects, which is what makes it’s plethora of non-resolutions feel even more like a cop-out. “Combat Shock” didn’t do this, nor did “No Way Home.” And given that our guy Buddy spends most of his time teaching film classes and working in German television these days and so rarely helms a feature film, one can’t help but feel that he missed an opportunity here, and a rare one at that, since there’s literally no telling when he’ll get another chance like this.

The atmosphere in “Cracktown” is undeniable. Giovinazzo absolutely captures the feel of life in the lower east side streets that he based his stories around (while the movie was shot in downtown L.A, you’d never know it so convincing is the world he and his cast have created). You definitely see enough of these people, and their world,  to understand what makes them tick — but you don’t see nearly enough of them to understand why.  As a result, “Life is Hot in Cracktown” makes me eager to read the book it’s  based on to gain a more detailed sense of who these characters are, but I don’t particularly care if I ever see the movie again.