Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Out of the Celluloid Closet

In August, 2003, I was contacted by a Canadian; James was his name, and he wrote to my Australian e-mail address. At the time, I was back in Australia making a formula-heavy erotic thriller.

James was a big genre fan. He was ten years younger than me, but he'd seen what I considered an impressive number of movies from all corners of the world. His knowledge of genre was deep. He asked for my phone number because he intended to call me. He didn't indicate what the call would be about, but he insisted on having my number. Reluctantly, I gave it to him.

Twenty-four hours later, at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning, James from Canada called. After introducing himself and thanking me for the number, he told me that my first movie, Marauders ('87), had changed his life.

"How did you see it?" I asked him, not sure how to respond to his confession.

What if Marauders had changed the life of James in a bad way? Perhaps the purpose of his long distance call was to blame me for a rash of personal misfortune?

A less likely scenario: What if James was calling from the grave (ala the "Night Call" episode of The Twilight Zone)?

"There was a VHS at our video store," James said.

"Really? It must have been a pirate copy. The film was never released in Canada," I explained, pretty sure now that James wasn't using a fallen phone line in a cemetery to call me.

Years earlier, I did make the stupid mistake of sending a 1" master of the film to an LA-based distributor run by a trio of unbelievably sleazy Indians. When I met with them, they promised the world, as distributors often do. They delivered fresh air.

It was my first lesson in dealing with distributors. Just don't.

The film also turned up unlicensed at Midnight Video, a popular gray market destination.

I contacted them and instructed them to stop selling it. They complied.

"What do you mean it changed your life, James?" I continued.

James hesitated before answering. "It felt real. I know people like that. It made me want to make films like that."

And there it was. The film connected with James.

Marauders is a basic but energetic exploitation film with a New Wave/Flock of Seagulls/John Foxx/Ultravox design sensibility. It was my first feature. It was made for a bag of peanuts.

It's not Antonioni.

The storyline is simple. Set in Melbourne, it is the story of two thugs, JD and Emilio; JD begins his day by murdering his mother; Emilio shoots his wife in the head due to a misunderstanding.

En route to meet Emilio for a day of boozing, JD is struck by a car driven by David, who gives him the finger.

After David drives on and picks up his school age girlfriend, Becky, who he plans to rape at his father's country house, Emilio and JD follow the couple, eager to exact revenge for the callous the hit and run.

While waiting to kill David, the thugs rape a young woman who's in the wrong place at the wrong time and steal liquor from a local bottle shop. The townies then form a lynch mob to hang the thugs for the rape and the theft. Meanwhile, David and Becky get an unexpected knock at the door.

Unrelenting violence ensues until almost everyone is dead.

For James's sake, I truly hoped he didn't know people quite like the characters in my movie. If he did, he wouldn't have been alive to call me.

His colleagues had to be less impulsive than the Marauders cast.

On James's Canadian dime, we chatted for two hours. We discovered that we liked many of the same genre films. He was not familiar with the non-genre films I seem to champion until I'm blue in the face (The Elementary School, Forbidden Games, Le Grand Chemin, The Tin Drum, My Sweet Little Village, Gregory's Girl), but he was a very decent guy with wit and sharp intelligence.

James kept in touch and would send me reviews, by email, of films he had just seen. I kept him abreast of the new Japanese titles I would receive regularly from my dear friend and fellow director in Tokyo, Tomoaki Hosoyama.

One of Tomoaki's earliest films, Lesbian Colony, is an amazing
Japanese take on John Waters' Desperate Living.

At the beginning of December, James asked me if I'd be interested in writing reviews on imdb with him. He would write some, I would write some. But we'd share a pseudonym and a password.

I liked the pseudonym idea. At least back then I did.

I encountered a strange phenomenon around 1999. I'd only been on-line for two years at that time, and I didn't participate in any forums in the first twelve months. I didn't know where they were, and I didn't understand how they worked. Eventually, I posted to a couple using my real name. It was usually an opinion on a film I liked or disliked. Just an opinion. I wasn't grandstanding or demanding to be heard. I was just explaining why I liked or disliked something.

I began to receive streams of very angry messages from mostly anonynmous senders. They were in direct response to negative comments I'd made.

For example, if I said that the ending iof a movie was unsatisfying, the response I would get would be: "How can you say that, you fuck! That last movie of yours sucked!"

Another one I remember clearly was a reply to a comment I'd made about Ron Jeremy. The original comment went something along the lines of: "Sad to see Ron in another pathetic vehicle for his talents." I wasn't criticizing Ron, I was criticizing a particular movie he was in. I got a venomous reply from another anonymous writer who ranted: "Isn't Ron in one of your new movies, you hypocrite!"

These are just two examples of close to fifty messages I received in response to various comments.

It was as if the writers felt that a filmmaker had no business commenting on other people's films. Even worse, there was the implication that I was a hypocrite for finding fault with the films of others when my own films were less than perfect.

In my posts, I never compared anything in my films to the films I was commenting on. It was just my opinion. When somebody expresses an opinion, there ought not be an assumption that the expresser of that opinion holds themselves above the work discussed. They don't.

A filmmaker's opinion on a film is no less or more worthy than anybody else's. I'm sure I bring a certain bias to a review and I know I have a hard time just relaxing while watching a movie sometimes, but all that really matters in film criticism are these basic questions: Is it good or bad? Why's it good or bad?

It doesn't take a filmmaker to answer those questions, and being a filmmaker shouldn't preclude you from answering them, either.

The aggressive messages I received felt very personal, and they made commenting on movies not much fun at all.

So when James suggested that we write under a pseudonym, I liked the idea a lot.

The first review we published under the fertilecelluloid non de plume was Cannibal Holocaust on the 29th of December, 2003.

The fourth review was a film of mine.


James insisted on reviewing it, and reviewing all my films (at least the ones listed on imdb. anyway).

Trail of Passion was the film I'd come back to Australia to make, and I'd just delivered the final cut; it wouldn't be distributed for six months.


Knowing that James was sympathetic to my work, of course I let him review it under our pseudonym. I didn't try to sway his opinion on it, but I thought his was a more than fair review. Probably too fair.

In the subsequent years, James reviewed all my films and close to fifty other films from other directors. He was always generous with me, and I, in turn, was generous with my encouragement of his filmmaking ambitions. Unfortunately, he didn't get to make the films he wanted.

James died of cancer in 2005. His mother emailed me on his personal account, which was slightly creepy.

I hadn't heard from him for a month, which was unusual, but I figured that work commitments or relationship issues had gotten the better of his time.

James never mentioned his illness to me. He'd been fighting it for four horrible years.

In retrospect, I did find it perplexing at times that James's contributions to our pseudonymous partnership were few and far between after the first six months. His initial enthusiasm about reviewing seemed out of balance with the number of reviews he ended up posting.

Now I knew why.

James's ashes were scattered at sea in Nova Scotia.

I miss his enthusiasm and love of cinema.

He was a true Apostle of Pulp and an AAA-rated human being.

***

While reviewing as fertilecelluloid in the last couple of years, I would receive inquires from some of the other excellent reviewers such as Humanoid of Flesh (aka Embalmer) and the multi-pseud "Dan" about my true identity. They would use my correct name (guessing it by matching my reviews to things I'd said in interviews) and ask me if I was him? I always said no. I felt bad doing this, but I didn't want to be seen to review films as a filmmaker. I wanted to review films as a fan. I was a fan first. An anonymous one.

A worrying trend on imdb was creeping, irrational censorship. For no stated reason, you could have your review deleted because of one "abuse" complaint; "abuse" could be the use of words like "breast", "Christ", and "lesbian". If someone -- just one person -- didn't like your tone, their complaint could result in the deletion of your review.

I was feeling very apprehensive about continuing to contribute to a fucked-up regime that sanctioned bullshit like that.

Friday the 13th (2009) was my last review there, the 803rd.

Around Xmas, I received a brief call from James's ex-wife. She wished me Merry Xmas and asked me if I intended to retire fertilecelluloid.

The answer to that question was an answer I'd already arrived at two months earlier when I decided to start blogging.

I'd never blogged before, and I didn't know how to do it, but I knew that in order to spread the riches of my passions, I'd have to start being myself on-line.

And that's why I'm here.

Thanks to all the terrific followers, fellow bloggers, and anonymous browsers, I'm having a great time.

It's a community I'm so happy to make a contribution to.


RIP James

10 comments:

  1. Initially I considered saying something very silly and light. Luckily I don't always give in to my first impulses.

    Thank you for sharing this tale. I enjoy *all* of your posts. I also appreciate the comments you leave (regularly!). I will only occasionally leave you in depth commentary, not because I'm not enjoying the time I spend here...more that I prefer the voyeur's vantage point.

    (you didn't tell me how impressive dinner was going to be...)

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  2. I don't even know how to respond to this yet though I want to. I'll revisit this in the morning with a whimsical response. Till then.


    -mAQ

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  3. you got bigger balls than i do. i'm in the closet, hiding behind my nom de plume. i suppose i'll always be a fan first and filmmaker second, even if the real world has it backwards. since a lot of my reviews are scathing, maybe i'm just afraid of pissing people off. it's hard enough finding work. i get worked up over movies...what can i do? i suppose shutting up is an option...

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  4. Ahem...

    You two need to find a room!

    Let me just say, contrary to my rather naive expectations that the Internet would turn out to be not only the last- and most fertile- bastion of free speech available to types like us, as well as a repository for fun, freakishness, fandom and fellowship, there is to my lasting chagrin and ultimate despair as much hatred (if not moreso) here than there is in the real world. In fact, I think because of this anonymity thing, there are even more 'courageous' types playing fast and loose with insult and degradation.

    In my opinion, free speech should be used with care, judiciously, and in the right place and right way to the optimum effect; like foul language, used in excess, it loses it's value. I like a little vinegar with my fish, but not a whole bottle all in one sitting.

    There is much vinegar splashed all over this medium; it makes my eyes water. From simple disagreement- no, not even disagreement; completely irrational resentment and sour grapes over questions of taste (how can you argue/get angry over taste???)- to the heartless audiences egging on those who choose to commit suicide live on air, hatred is on the WWW even more predominant than in the 'real world'.

    Were my expectations too high?

    It is hard to believe that the medium is being sullied and abused by half wits and viciously jealous 'wanna be's' who trash the work of those in the arena actually slugging it out- when the medium could be used as a positive forum for peace, creativity, fraternity, liberty and happiness for all.

    I don't get C-Span, so I have to watch the torture hearings on YouTube. I get free access to everything from the truth behind WACO to GITMO, to the reality of Scientology. There are so many good things here.

    And yet this is not going to last if arseholes get on line and treat this incredible privelidge as if it were one of the unfortunate kiddies in Pasolini's 'Salo'; treating your freedom of speech like a jizzy jazz mag by urging the mentally ill to 'do it', by picking up children in chatrooms, or by loading on youtube your latest 'pack rape' for the viewing pleasure of morally corrupt will ultimately see your priveliges, and freedoms, taken from you.

    Freedoms, like the 'glass menagerie', should be handled with care as precious and beautiful things- not treated like the innocent victims in 'Last House on the Left'.

    Mark my words; this tool will be taken away, sure as shit. Not might, not possibly, but will. Don't scoff. The military created this tool, and if you think they can't bring the hammer down, you are a fool and are lucky to have lived this long.

    A country that can invade another country full of poor brown people for oil and convince the world it is for our safety and security, can do pretty much anything. Don't make the mistake of thinking the WWW, free speech, or even you are completely safe in your homes.

    There are a litany of crimes 'hiding in plain sight' all over the 'free world' that these bastards could pile on about, Phantom; and they spit on your 'opinions'.

    Shall we never be set free??

    I feel as though I am becoming a little evangelical. But...

    I began writing on line in order to reach out to other human beings in the name of peace, love and fellowship. I do this by tracking down websites and blogs referencing my own passions and interests, and I try to strike up truthful, honest exchanges with like minds. Truth and honesty are usually not that welcome (except here on your Blog) because, lets face it, we all say we like truth, but when it comes to the crunch...truth hurts.

    The way around this? Stem and stymie all discussion about the nature and definition of 'Truth', speak your own 'truth' (as you do), and do it for it's own sake, on the off chance others resonate with you.

    Same as in real life.

    CS Lewis said 'we read to know we are not alone'. I hop online to know I am not alone. The heart is a lonely hunter (even- and especially- on line) but I do it anyway; I am thankful for the wonderful gifts and joys here (like Phantom's Blog) but as in real life, I lament the fear, loathing and ordinary hatred to be found here as well, along the way.

    Some dick heads have no idea how hard it is to make a film (or do anything creative, except bleat like a wayward farm animal); if they did, they would be a little more circumspect in their criticism, just like you, Phantom, who I always find sober, balanced, but not devoid of the requisite passion.

    Similarly, some people have no idea how hard it is to be 'in the arena', 'doing the deed'; they live in that 'grey twilight that knows neither sucess, nor failure'. (Roosevelt) And they fuck things up for the rest of us.

    Keep the faith, my friends; or don't. Up to you. There are no white knights and happy endings, 'being positive' all the time will most likely drive you mad, and when you wish upon a star...it is most likely a satellite spying on you. No good can come from wishing upon military hardware, Pinnochio...

    If you must do the thing, do it for no reward, bar the reward of doing for it's own sake- for there is no 'magic kingdom' at the end of it all, nor grey bearded father figures like Gandalf on thrones waiting to cuddle us.

    It is just us.

    Born, living, and dying alone, with a little company along the way, a hell of a lot of pushing, hoping, shoving and trying (if we can handle it), and maybe a satisfaction or two here and there.

    Look to little Frodo; I can take the 'holy trilogy' or leave it for the most part, but I feel sad when little Frodo gets poisoned by the spider. He wins out in the end, but many of us- like your friend James, Phantom- don't make it past the poison spider.

    Enjoy your passion. Love the pulp. Devour your pleasures.

    Do it 'for the sheer fuck-off-ness of it', and you can't go far wrong.

    Do it.

    Ignore the venom.

    Live...

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  5. Ha! I think it was pretty obvious to one and all that Mark Savage and fertilecelluloid were one and the same. To be honest, I always thought your denials just meant you were batshit crazy. Now I know.

    Good to know you can now say "tit," "shit," "fuckface," "cuntbag," and a host of other words that normal people use without fear of recrimination. Shame that in the most popular media for sharing ideas all it takes is one boring hausfrau with a gripe to motivate the censors.

    Cheers and thanks for helping to further pervert the sensibilities of a young mind.

    -Dan

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  6. You're welcome, Dan (or is it Tina?)

    Yeah, I know it was obvious, but I had my reasons (as my post explained).

    With James gone, it felt weird.

    I'll never understand why one complaint warrants urgent action. One fuckin complaint!

    What about a thousand complaints? Maybe then there'd be a reason to look into the matter... but one? That's just knee-jerk bullshit.

    ***

    Mandingo -- what can I say to your heartfelt explosion of wisdom? It's so good to have you on board here.

    You are right in your prediction that this may not last. Freedom, by definition, insults the generals. You know they're maneuvering right now to wrestle it away from us under the guise of "additional services" and "faster speeds".

    You leave a fine trail of passion, my friend.

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  7. Even in the tiny world of online porn writing, fwriters who wanted to review other people's porn had to take false names just to avoid the "well your shit sucked" response. It always amused me, as if there was one universal standard of quality. I can almost understand other creators being defensive, but the insane anger that fans can summon when their favorite pieces are critiqued baffle me.

    I don't remember how I came upon your blog but what kept me here is how informed your opinions are. Whether it is horror, porn or films, you know how you feel and you express yourself passionately. I'm glad you found a place where we can see all of creative side and your fan side in the same place.

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  8. A point well made, Shon. The "well, your shit sucked!" response is an odd one.

    To be frank, if Ed Wood were writing film reviews, I'd be all over them.

    I'd be interested in his point of view. If he didn't like the central performance of David Bennent "The Tin Drum", one of my favorites, I can't imagine slinging him a nasty reply saying: "That's a bit rich, Ed. At least his acting was better than fuckin Tor Johnson in Plan Nine!"

    One thing has nothing to do with the other.

    I appreciate your company here, Shon.

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  9. I've got to head out, but I definitely want to reread over this. I quite enjoyed what I could scan. I'm really enjoying your blog.

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