by Rodrigo Dorfman
If you happen to be a Herzog fan, have private fantasies involving dwarf tossing and licking Marcel Duchamp's stamp collection, or if you just plain enjoy blowing your mind away without incurring the expense of an illegal substance, then don't walk - run! Hop on your scooter, your donkey, your lover's back, whatever you can find and cavalcade to your local Video store and demand a copy of one of the greatest, one of the most infamous cult movies ever made now finally made available for a mass market hallucination: Werner Herzog's "Even Dwarves Started Small".
Not since the all dwarf cast of the film "Tiny Town" (1942) terrorized mainstream America's delicate sense of good taste and respectability, for ever blemishing their ideal of Munshkins as a lovable and domesticated race, has a film hit such a raw nerve in its quiet unsuspecting audience.
Filmed in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, "Even Dwarves Started Small" documents an insurrection in a half way house for criminal dwarves. Herzog with one brilliant surreal stroke is able to both capture the harsh nihilism of the times and expose the world to his deranged mind. I don't want to mislead anyone here. The film makes no sense whatsoever but if you want to experience demonic midgets laughing at defecating camels, crucified monkeys leading Mass, a white wedding marriage of cockroaches, chickens used as Molotov cocktail and the absurdity inherent in hearing dwarves tell dirty jokes in German then you won't be disappointed.
Call it Nihilism redox or the Revolution of the Anarchist dwarves, call it one of the most bizarre and disturbingly absurd films ever made, just don't mix it with anything else or it might explode right there in your living room and leave you with one nasty case of video transmitted existential disease.
Looking for Trouble
Stephen Soderbergh is the kind of film director that just slips through your fingers whenever you try to put a tag on him. Since his 1989 first feature Sex Lies and Videotape, the film credited with re-launching the commercial viability of low budget independent cinema , Soderbergh has been on the experimental path of trying to make a film in every possible genre known to Man.
His second feature, Kafka, (1991), a wild and crazy 11 million dollar kaleidoscopic retro sci-fi art house thriller was stylistically galaxies apart from Sex Lies and Videotape. His King of the Hill (1993), a tender coming of age story, was followed in 1995 by the film noir The Underneath .In 1997, he made the sometimes unbearable and dadaistic avant garde "Schizopolis" In 1998, he had his big Hollywood breakthrough with his entertaining and ultimately inane "sexy crime caper" melodrama Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Then in 1999 he went harsh and made The Limey, a violent retro cool 1960's kind of flick starring Terence Stamp. And then came Erin Brokovich, his "working class woman against the system" Hollywood liberal movie starring Julia Roberts that has earned over $250 million worldwide.
Thanks in part to Julia Roberts, Stephen Soderbegh is now officially an A-List Hollywood film director. This puts him in the exhilarating position of being able to, presumably, do whatever he wants with the backing of some of the most powerful commercial institutions in America. It's a dangerous place to be for someone who has gotten there from the experimental margins. Hegemony, defined as the predominant influence of one system over an other is a complex mechanism of absorption and co-option that works only with the tacit approval of its willing participants. This is a slow and insidious process. It insures that those who want to get to a position of power in Hollywood, and remain there (think of it as a mirror image of America's electoral process) are constantly seduced into a tamed self censored mediocrity by the entertainment industry. The fantastic offerings of fame and fortune are two of the most powerful tranquilizers offered by this system. They offer the illusion of freedom and calm the conscience of its participants, helping them forget that they are principally working for bankers who disregard the artistic, educational or political responsibilities of the medium.
There are exceptions to this paradigm of course. Once in a while, a film comes out of the sterile Hollywood landscape that is so refreshing, so subversive that it leaves you breathlessly muttering to yourself the mantras " how did they get away with it?" and " I can't believe it got distributed". Bullworth, Dead Man Walking and Three Kings come to mind as recent examples of films that have pushed the limits of what the system allows, in political terms, to be produced and distributed. We can now add to that list Soderberghs's latest film Traffic, a political thriller about America's War on Drugs, that is doubly subversive. It skillfully blends a harsh, uncompromising critical perspective with the successful appropriation of the formal "roller coaster" requirements of a slick action flick: guns, explosions, big breasted women, double crossings and clever "Tarrantino" style dialogue. It's by far the best action film I have seen since Three Kings.
This kind of blend is unusual in the political thriller genre. For example, Soderbergh claims to have been influenced by Costa Gavra's jagged classic political film Z and yet, in that movie there is an almost austere use of violence that underlines the director's careful and cautious approach to the dangers of subverting one's own message for the sake of commercial sensationalism. In the case of Traffic, Soderbergh was probably more interested in adapting Z's fractured narrative style rather than its restrained sense of tragedy and he was well served by his choice.
Organically speaking, the film's fractured style is perfect for addressing a subject matter as vast and complex as the War on Drugs. Traffic follows three different stories that will slowly begin to weave in and out of each other with the visually expressionist power of a hand held camera and the carefully scripted clarity of a classic thriller. As the audience sits on the edge of its brain trying to piece these different plots together, it is also invited to recognize the political interrelation and the corrupting degree to which the War on Drugs is imbedded in the social and economic fabric of American society.
The first story is 99% Spanish and takes place in Mexico. It centers around a Tijuana Cop played by Benicio del Toro (The Usual Suspects) who is caught between two warring drug cartels and a corrupt Army general. Del Toro's dangerously enigmatic performance perfectly sets the tone of the film. He captures the corrupting effects of the Drug War with such intensity that I wasn't even bothered by the fact that his Puerto-Rican accent (he was born Javier Rodriguez) is completely out of place in Tijuana.
The second story deals with a naive house wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (Zorro) whose wealthy lifestyle comes to a crashing halt when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking. In order to survive she is going to have to make a choice between escaping her new found world or plunging into it with the cold bloodedness of a killer. Two DEA cops, played by Don Cheadle (Bullworth) and Luis Guzman (Out of Sight) are assigned to follow her every move.
The third story centers around the newly appointed Drug Czar played by the risk taking and politically engaged Michael Douglas. His path follows the classic trajectory of the "righteous American" who is exposed to a personal experience that makes him conscious not only of his own hypocrisy but of the corruption of his own government. No wonder that Harrison Ford, who has popularized Clancey's CIA/ Pentagon apologist Jack Ryan in many films, turned this harsher role down after reading a more elaborate version of the script. That's one stamp of approval for the radical nature of Traffic. Another badge of honor this films wears is the fact that no studio wanted to touch it.
And for good reason. In an age where the financial and ideological interests of the Entertainment Industry and the Political Establishment are relentlessly becoming one, it's no wonder that a film like Traffic was viewed with apprehension. Traffic dares to say what politicians don't want you to hear: the War on Drugs is a total failure and that far from protecting our children, it is corrupting the very future our democratic system.
At the end of his production notes, Soderbergh writes: "If we've done our jobs right on Traffic, everybody will be pissed off." If he really means it, I'm impressed by the seriousness of his convictions. After all the War on Drugs is one of America's most profitable industries, it benefits the American drug cartels and corporate prison builders and it keeps US law enforcement agencies and tough on crime politicians well funded. If this were any other country in the world I would venture that Soderbergh had a reasonably high chance of getting killed making statements like that. Thankfully this is still America. Or is it?
For A/V Geeks grandmaster Skip Elsheimer life is like an educational film with a cryptically titillating title, you never know what you're going to get. I'm in the basement of Skip's rented house holding an old 16mm film canister labeled "Don't Tell the Cripples About Sex ". Not the most politically correct title for an educational film, that's for sure. But hell, this is postmodern cultural archeology after all. There are no limits to the bad taste of America's evolving mores.
"This is an example of a film with a great title but it wasn't very interesting", Skip confesses with a resigned smile. "It's essentially members of a support group with various physical handicaps talking about sexuality."
There are more than five thousand films in this basement and thirty four hundred more upstairs, all sealed in their metal or hard plastic sarcophagi, rows upon rows, stacked ceiling high in alphabetical order waiting in rapture to be spooled, projected and resuscitated. The sheer intensity of this cultural Zeitgeist is overwhelming. I hadn't seen this many films since the night some of my friends and I sneaked into the cavernous Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, California looking to borrow a print of Jodorowski's Spaghetti Sufi Western El Topo.
Now, standing in this basement in Raleigh, North Carolina, I felt an impassioned impulse to vegetate among these forgotten celluloid orphans and reminiscence about the first time a film on the dangers of Venereal Disease was projected onto my virginal psyche. How about that first car safety film? Remember those maimed body parts splattered across your classroom wall? So many films, so many themes, so may forgotten memories: dating, food poisoning, fire safety, teen pregnancy, the evils of communism, mad painters, animal mating rituals, famous presidents. Skip seemed to have it all and then more: there were also corporate sponsored films, rectal examination training films, hygiene films, baking films, cop training films, you name it, there it was, in all its quirky and potentially dull splendor.
It's hard to believe that not long ago this was the preferred means for governments and private organizations to visually communicate educational information to a specific target audience. Television, videos and the internet have all contributed to the slow demise of this distinct cinematic form that once upon a time produced thousands of films a year. Thankfully, Skip Elsheimer and a precious few like him across this nation have consecrated their lives to rescuing these little mirrors of our collective and personal past since WWII from the depths of America's dumpsters. These films reflect a time lived in the mists of desegregation, imperial wars, cultural ands sexual revolutions coupled with the terror brought by that savage onslaught of puberty and its festering pimples, neo-fascistic cliques and repressed pre-marital sexual desires.
Skip was just telling me how his obsession had slowly taken root when we heard voices coming from upstairs. His guests had arrived. When I had called Skip to set up an interview he told me to come and visit him at his home in Raleigh on a Sunday night. That's when he privately previews his latest celluloid finds to a roomful of friends and their guests and chooses some of the material for his monthly cinematic performance in The Triangle. His website, a/vgeeks.com, was filled with mind tickling information about his past shows and having only read some of the titles I must confess that I was ready to be tickled.
"I'm actively pursuing films that fit a specific theme," Skip told me when I asked him if he considered himself a curator. "I'm trying to create a certain ambiance. Tom Whiteside was doing the Durham Cinemateque and I started going to his shows and he found out that I had a collection of films and he suggested that I should show them. He got me a little bit of money. The first big show that I did was entitled: "Courtship and Safety: You are Playing with Fire." I had three projectors running at the same time. Two of the projectors had fire safety films and the middle projector had courtship and dating films. I would mix the audio back and forth between them, and so you would have all these amazing serendipitous events where you would have a couple picnicking and on the other screen you would see a forest fire. It was a lot of work. I guess I started with a big bang and I realized that it was really a bit too intense for everyone involved and I scaled back to two projectors and finally finished using one."
It was showtime, so we went upstairs where around ten avid A/V Geeks, all Generation X'ers, were getting comfortable in plushy sofas along Skip's rectangular shaped living room that doubled as a mini theater. The upstairs was as bad as the downstairs. The successful invasion of the film canisters had body snatched every living corner of the house. If, to this, you add more than eight years of accumulated kitschy memorabilia, weird masks, mannequins, eviscerated electronic equipment and the hundreds of red cylinder shipping tubes belonging to his roommate who sells an adventure board game by mail, you can begin to imagine the surreal environmental landscape Skip lives in.
Skip came upon his first educational film way back in the early nineties when, with a bunch of folks who were collaborating on various sound/music projects under the collective banner of Wifflefist, (wifflefist.com), he won an auction consisting of audio visual equipment: old tv's, vcr's, reel to reel tape players and a 16 mm film projector. They first tested the projector with Contraception and Conception, a film someone had bought at a flee market. That film was silent, so they got another, Uncle Jerry's Dairy Farm. It worked like a charm and they were hooked. Not long after that they bought 500 more for just 50 bucks. Since Skip was the one running the projector, he started cataloguing them. Something clicked in his head, like an impulsive reflex and from them on it started getting easier and easier to get stuff.
Skip soon realized that some of these films had more than just wall paper value. "Originally when we were watching these films it was a kind of a corny effect, making fun of the people," Skip explained. "I didn't really look at them in any type of academic sense. After a while, I started seeing them more regularly and realizing that a lot of these films I didn't want to show while the band was playing . I wanted to show them so that you could hear the sound and the dialogue. So I started transitioning, saying, I'll show these films while the band is playing but I want to show this one between bands because it has its own merits. Then it got to the point where I would be the opening act before a band and do a hour show."
Back in Skip's monoplex everyone's ready to be audiovisually geeked into retro-ecstasy. Before the lights go down, Skip announces a surprise: the person who sold him this latest batch of STD educational films on E-Bay had thrown in a free stag film into the mix . A "stag film" is a short XXX porn flick that was the required form of entertainment at bachelor parties until the advent of the call-in stripper. Skip wanted to know if we wanted to see it before or after the STD films. We decided to play it safe and see it after.
The first film entitled More Common Than Measles and Mumps, produced in 1972 by the Canadian National Health Board was an animated story about two not very bright working class students sent on a mission to investigate venereal diseases. The style was absurd, minimalist and informative and our two young heroes looked more like a walking penises, except that they were purple and green. The second film was a dramatic short The Lunatic, made by Centron - a company that's been making educational films since the 40s. They've made some other classic VD films - Innocent Victim and Dance Little Children. The Lunatic was relatively well made with a cheesy 70's acid rock soundtrack, artsy camera angles and a cast of performances ranging from good to over the top that included, the sensitive teenage girl who gets VD from her older boyfriend, a freaky painter with wild hair and chops and the African American health clinic worker with an Afro. It was classic. We finished with Panties For Sale, the early 1940's scratchy and faded black and white stag film, starring, in a surprising feminist twist, a traveling panty sales woman who knocks on the door of a guy who's fiddling with his diddle in the shower. After some scary abstract and expressionistic close ups, the couple tenderly hugs on the sofa. I almost had tears in my eyes.
The promised chocolate cookies were served during intermission and the conversation switched to the spelling of the word "invagination" as it relates to medical examinations of any folded bodily cavities, armpits etc... To our great disappointment after a quick search on the web we found out that invagination.com had already been snatched. Oh, well...
The second part of the show was considerably less controversial. We watched a "pulse taking" demonstration film and I learned that humans have two jugular veins. Then came a cute animated short The Wizard, made in the eighties, about an existentially depressed little mouse who asks a wizard to transform him into another animal. There are some psychedelic fantasy sequences that include butterflies and ants with mouse heads attached to them. In the end, nature prevails and the mouse learns that it's okay to be who you are. The feature presentation was an episode from a 1980's BBC documentary series on China called Heart of the Dragon. The episode was titled "Understanding" and dealt with the intersection of modern and traditional Chinese medicine. Beautifully shot and narrated with that impeccable accent the Brits do so well, it was the perfect ending to a thoroughly satisfying and refreshing evening at the movies.
After everyone had left, I asked Skip about his curating choices. "Different films appeal to me for different reasons: some are just funny to watch, the dialogue, the clothing, the mannerisms" he told me while putting away his paraphernalia. " Others, like venereal disease films, I look at a little bit deeper, I know the subject, the history behind it, I know the challenges of talking about it: how does the filmmaker get the message across without stepping on toes, what are the limits of the permissible. Looking at different films on the same subject from the same year or same company, I can appreciate the specific style that different filmmakers, various companies or a certain series has."
Skip's fascination with STD films is the product of a confluence of elliptical events in his life. By pure chance, as a junior in College, he stumbled upon a booklet published by the American Social Hygiene Association. "I looked at it", Skip later told me on the phone, "and it was filled with all this wonderful and weird information about venereal disease. On article was titled: "VD Control in Atomic Bombed Areas." It was captivating and it was my introduction to looking at a science journal for a specific audience. " Many years later he began working for the National Aids Hotline. The hotline was run by the American Social Health Organization that actually used to be called the American Social Hygiene Association. He wound up doing some research for them on the type of films that they had made.
Skip is still doing research but this time for himself and is planning to write a book on this very American subject matter. Meanwhile he continues his struggles to self finance his acquisitions and find a suitable fire proof home for his invaluable treasure trove. Check out his monthly screening, blow your mind and support those orphaned memories of your past with a laugh and a couple of dollars. You won't regret it.
Skip's Top Ten:
1) Squeak the Squirrel - The film is supposed to demonstrate how animals learn, but quickly becomes an allegory championing the proletariat.
2) Pamela Wong's Birthday for Grandma - A story about a young Chinese-American girl who is gathering things for her Chinese grandmother's birthday party. The ending usually has the whole audience screaming....
3) Down and Out - This is a work-safety film about the dangers of falling. In the course of the film, the main character falls about a hundred times, making this film as funny as most Three Stooges shorts.
4) Social Acceptability - This film explains cliques and all the social politicking that takes place in high school. The moral of the story is that you're only as popular as your parents.
5) VD Attack Plan - An animated Disney film about venereal disease-intentionally entertaining and surprisingly, very factual. And no, none of the Disney characters star in this film.
6) White Wilderness - Lemmings - A Disney True Life Adventure film with dramatic footage of lemmings committing suicide. Since lemmings mass suicide is a myth, how do you think Disney got all this footage...?
7) Soapy the Germ Fighter - Billy is a little boy who thinks that washing up after playing cowboy makes him a sissy. A giant, talking, cowboy-cake of soap convinces him otherwise.
8) Sudden Birth - This film, made for police officers, gives the basics on how to deliver a baby. The acting is so terrible that when a woman actually does give birth - in the back of a car - you're too bewildered to realize what you just saw.
9) Wheels of Tragedy - One of those classic Ohio Highway Patrol driver's education films, designed to disgust and scare people into driving safely. Real car crashes and gore punctuate brief and badly acted dramatizations of poor driving habits.
10) Winged Scourge - An animated Disney film about malaria and how to stomp it out. The Seven Dwarfs drain wetlands and spray pesticide to deal with the mosquitoes.
Mule Skinner Blues
This is a true story.
He can shuffle like Travolta, play the kazoo like Miles Davis' evil twin and wear more aftershave lotion than a boatload of hairy fishmongers. Meet Beanie Andrew, reformed alcoholic and Jacksonville, FL., trailer park entertainer, who has been living for more than sixty years under the shadows of a bizarre apocalyptic vision: one day, he will rise from beneath the murky swamps behind the local junkyard in a blue ape suit looking for his severed arm.
The real madness started when Beanie confessed his terrifying secret to the New York film crew who had just hired him and other eccentric trailer park performers to appear in a music video for country artist Jim White. The crew, taken in by Beanie's wetland demons gave him a cheap video camera and asked him to videotape locations for a low budget horror movie they were thinking of shooting in the area. But Beanie had other plans: he was going to make his own horror movie and fulfill his vision's destiny. Like Moses, he was going to lead his desperate community of artists and performers into the promised land of celluloid fame and recognition. He was going to unleash on an unsuspecting world the mesmerizing talents of the Buckaneer Trailer Park Tribe.
The New York Film crew led by Stephen Earnhart, former Miramax director of production, realizing that reality was indeed stranger than fiction, decided to make a documentary about Beanie's efforts to bring his demented vision to the big screen. The result? Mule Skinner Blues, the craziest, wackiest most humanly surreal experience this side of the Mississippi since the making of Freaks more than sixty years ago.
Narrated by the irrepressible Beanie, who shows all the raw charisma of a popular circus ringmaster, the film slowly unveils its cast of characters with the nitty gritty seductive wink of a raunchy Tijuana stripper. It has that "there you are and you can t quite believe your eyes" sort of voyeuristic thrill mixed with an equally compassionate dose of horror. By the time Annabelle Lea, who miraculously happens to have more than a hundred costumes in storage, introduces her adored dead dog she keeps in a freezer waiting for the blessed day she can bury him on a piece of land she can afford, you're more than ready to enter this parallel universe and sacrifice your cynical disbelief for all time to come. There's also Larry Parrot devoted horror fanatic, member of the official Christopher Lee fan club, who back in the sixties entered an essay contest and won a signed facsimile of the press kit of the 1959 film The Mummy. He's a man who has sown into the very flesh of his heart every single B-horror flick clichü known to man. Larry supports his Filipino wife and his 99-year-old paralyzed mother on a janitor's salary as he pumps out short stories at night. And how can you resist Miss Jeanie, a guitar-picking, yodeling, 70-year-old blues woman with more husbands than there are plagues in the Bible and whose arthritic pain miraculously disappears with a bottle of Schnapps? There's also Steve Walker, who calls himself "a drunk musician with a future" and whose mind still haunts the rice paddies of Vietnam. He once wrote a song dedicated to the blood-stained portrait of his suicided wife that he keeps hanging on his wall. A trailer park wall that is both his home and his prison.
The unpretentiousness of their pain, the complexity of their compassion and their proletarian resilience to survive and express the madness of their times have that unmistakable tangibility American fiction films rarely achieve these days. The power of Mule Skinner Blues thus comes from the creeping ambiguities and pressing questions that lurk beneath the making of any great documentary: can one ever transcend the camera eye? When does our inner life end and our public persona begin? And in the end, who's conning who? Who's representing who?
That this film is able to address these complex issues without condescending or exploiting the outrageous eccentricities of this marginalized community is not only an indication of the radical nature of the documentary form but also of the avantgarde position it holds in the flotsam and jetsam we call American cinema today.
Mule Skinner Blues, directed by Stephen Earnhart was recently shown at the 2001 Double Take Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina.
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