Page Two: May the Circle Be Unbroken
Exploitation film's family tree
The sensibility of this column, paper, and writer can be traced to originating in a number of distinct places. Some, though geographical specific, occurred at a place but over a period of time, proving more long range incubators of what was to come eventually. There was Ed Lowry's and my house on Hollywood, the Daily Texan office, the CinemaTexas office, and Raul's, the punk club on Guadalupe. Within these there are more specific notable dates: the Huns bust, Ondine staying with us for a week, cooking beef stroganoff in his shocking red pajamas. Kenneth Anger, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Demme visiting.
When it is happening you don't ever really know it. In the fall of 1977 at the recommendation of Ed Lowry, his friend Brian Mitchell and I drove to the South Austin Drive-In Theatre off Ben White to watch a double bill including Caged Heat, Jonathan Demme's 1974 directorial debut. Certainly we didn't know who Demme was, but we did know we were watching a women-in-prison drive-in exploitation film. At the end Brian and I were both leaning out our respective car windows, banging on the roof screaming. We couldn't believe the film was having the audacity to do what it was about to do and then went wilder when it did it. Women United Can Never Be Defeated. At a drive-in. In a film that included the generically necessary nude shower scene.
In many ways, Demme's Caged Heat was a film I had long carried in my head without knowing it. A political action film both feminist and exploitative, both cinematically savvy and street-wise. This was a genre work, a Godardian tract, unapologetically and explicitly exploitation fare executed with stylistically intoxicating filmmaking. It was Robert Kramer's faux-Godard Ice executed as a low-budget Western via the women-in-prison film and Southern drive-in circuit gore movies. The film worked for me on so many levels – narrative, acting, cinematic, musical (the score is by John Cale!), and political. It was more than just the movie I watched that I fell for, though I certainly fell for the film itself. Its director and genre also attracted my passion.
Over the next half-decade, every exploitation film we could find was screened. Every film possible – Truck Stop Women, Night Call Nurses, The Student Nurses, Boxcar Bertha, The Hot Box, The Big Doll House – was tracked down. Every film seen under whatever circumstances they could be, many seen at drive-ins or at inner-city grindhouses, with others caught on TV while traveling.
Of course we were auteurist, New World connoisseurs. Founded in 1970, Roger Corman's New World Pictures was the startling powerhouse production company behind a healthy percentage of all the interesting exploitation films being made. Hard to find another example of a company so dominating of a genre since, maybe for a while, Keystone Studios comedies under Mack Sennett as guided by Mabel Normand? The powerhouse of talent that passed through that company, or worked with Corman before – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, Jonathan Kaplan, John Sayles. This proved to be the richest of veins, where a couple of generations of the most talent before and behind the camera folks were unleashed by one studio to make whatever film they really wanted to make, given the broadest commercial guidelines. Other Corman graduates: Gale Anne Hurd, James Cameron, Stephanie Rothman, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush.
Seeing that movie Caged Heat at that drive-in ultimately led to a lifelong friendship with Jonathan Demme. In the immediate, it helped establish a career as a film graduate student. The films proved fascinating to watch, think about, write on, and study. Sure, it was college. And we're talking Black Mama White Mama, Terminal Island, The Student Teachers, Crazy Mama, Bloody Mama. Just to clear the air. And I said "study." A most intellectual fascinating endeavor – thinking about how often loaded ideology presented in the most fetishized generic context might actually be read and then further how their real audience of drive-in patrons would perceive them.
This all came rushing back recently. Jonathan Kaplan's Over The Edge, a cult masterpiece, has a brief clip in my documentary Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, because of our shared affection for that film. In the following weeks, Over the Edge seemed to come up in a number of discussions, mostly to all our dismay, with people having mostly never heard of it, much less seen it. The film still holds up. There is something about its swirling raging fluid energy, an animal-in-motion type action that transcends time and place. The sweat, smell, and stagger of the film resonates. Not just people, but film people, had mostly never heard of it and hadn't seen it. Maybe because Kaplan, despite a brilliant filmography, is not part of the current critical dialogue.
Filmmaker John Sayles is another important talent overlooked in the current discourse. Not just one of the founding visionary independents, Sayles still boasts an extraordinary body of films, so many unique in the way they portray labor, women, and regional America.
Beginning to try to rectify the situation by honoring the man, we presented A Weekend With John Sayles with our friends at Cinefamily on Fairfax in Los Angles. They joined with Production for Use, our indie film consulting company, on this one.
Last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Feb. 18-20, John Sayles and Maggie Renzi introduced their films to packed houses and sustained applause, as though the audiences were not just grateful but more also somehow relieved at having these films back.
David Strathairn discussed Return of the Secaucus Seven. Leonard Maltin led the Q&A with Ernest Dickerson, Tom Wright, Maggie Renzi, and John Sayles after the Brother From Another Planet screening. Not just the filmmakers but the works were celebrated, appreciated for what they are.
Over the Edge gained another notch when star Vincent Spano showed up to support Baby It's You. One night, standing off to the side of the stage, I watched as Roger Corman, graciously brought by his wonderful wife Julie, introduced Sayles, who introduced Piranha. Corman produced, Joe Dante directed, and Sayles had written the script. Eyes twinkling as always, Corman lovingly introduced Sayles, and for the moment that circle was unbroken.