Saturday, April 28, 2012
“If were [sic] on next week our guest will probably be someone else.”-End credits of The Howard And Eli Show
Back in January I wrote a probably-too-long essay that covered Shot On Video (SOV) genre movies from the eighties, specifically the batch restored and collected in Camp! Video’s wonderful boxed set THE BASEMENT. Obviously if you descend deep you can tell the piece is about way more than that. “The Basement Tape” was written during a hyper-productive yet extremely conflicted gulch of my time. The thing turned out longer and weirder than I’d expected it to, with a great percentage written while under the influence of a demonic yet efficient mix of cheap white wine and grape juice. The allure of being inebriated shares DNA with the joys of being a playful carefree child, in that you can do silly things like hop around and inanely talk back to whatever you might be watching and the actions, to your mindstate, are not only fascinating and fun, but also necessary. I had never written drunk before. Episodes of VERONICA MARS and WONDER SHOWZEN were transferred into lava-lamp gunk. (In the case of SHOWZEN, it really is only worthwhile smashed, unlike the dead brilliant output of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.) Rereading the stuff in the next sober day I went against any sane instinct and decided to keep it all in. Why not? The manuscript of the essay reached 20 single-spaced pages. Some of it contained the exact kind of writing I envisioned for this blog. The tangents, ramblings, obscure references to specific incidents and personal interpretations that nobody save myself and a few absent people would understand, all that detritus was essential. It was a weird week. I had planned to include capsules or longer investigations of every film in the box, and for the most part I succeeded. Giving ample room to the highlights, VIDEO VIOLENCE and CANNIBAL CAMPOUT and shorter considerations to the likes of CAPTIVES and THE BASEMENT, I planned to include VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 in there, but by the time I finally watched it (on a Saturday) it was right before my self-imposed deadline. Even during the first five minutes of Gary P. Cohen’s film I realized I would have a lot to say about it, plus “The Basement Tape” was already unwieldy-for a blog entry at least-(my fault since I wouldn’t make any judicious edits to all that liquid prose) and pitched somewhere between a Rue Morgue write-up and this elegy for a lost generation that probably never existed anywhere outside of my brain. I slapped a “To Be Continued” at the end and moved on to an assessment of a certain few musicians that turned out to be longer than Basement (I had to unroll it in installments, if you remember) but a lot more coherent and with the guts of my soul better hidden.
It’s been a month since I posted anything substantial. What do I want out of life? What do I hope will be the endgame of my writings and my social life? What’s the secret to fear? After virtually three months of hard work I stopped the motor. Disengaging was easy enough-writing all the time is replenishing but a pain in the ass-and after a week of not producing a new article I wondered if I would ever strive to complete another. In this very Word document I have the beginnings of at least 3 “comeback” pieces. There’s some words about a Buckethead concert I attended that might find a home someplace, but not in a blog devoted to nasty things (I want to write about the negation of joy, and it was a great experience). For the simple reason that I can’t find the book I was going to get my hands dirty with I decided to return to this platform with a continuation of “The Basement Tape” wherein I finally unwrapped VIDEO VIOLENCE 2.
The title of this entry is “Video Violation”, which was actually my original title for “The Basement Tape” until I saw VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 and decided to reserve it for the essay you’re currently reading right now. I think you’ll agree it works better in this scaly context. Cohen’s film is about violation through videotape. It exploits an elemental dread in our relationship with television, namely, the question of what happens with protocol is overridden.
Watching television presupposes we make a contract with ourselves and whatever we’re watching that the signal won’t be rerouted, and the data won’t become unpredictable and compromised by insidious forces. This is the base fear that provides the memorable scene in Stephen King’s THE STAND when a group of black radicals take a live talk show hostage. It remains the only passage in King that has actually inspired in me a nightmare. Just as my only phobia seems to be of long corridors in well-lit hallways (what’s on the other side?) another instant Tingler chill is pirated television. This is why even the pretty innocuous 1986 Captain Midnight HBO jamming gives me the willies. The upset of comfortably middlebrow programming could cause a rift or rupture in the static interzone of television. What could escape into our world when that rift is left open?
The monster that emerges from between two parted curtains of TV snow is the laffs and snuff variety hour from Howard And Eli (Bart Sumner and “Uke”), two psychopaths who played a minor role in the previous film. Now they’ve become an urban legend that periodically manifests itself through jacked television retinas. The opening credits roll beside a boxed image of a newsman (director Cohen) reporting on this outlaw program, where viewers are encouraged to send genuine murder tapes to our hosts. His image begins to fuzz off. He knows it’s time. They’re coming. Is this Captain Midnight or Captain 3 a.m.?
The program broadcasts from a makeshift TV studio that looks to have been converted from a high school gymnasium or brightly lit dungeon. Our hosts, the scruffy Eli and rotund Howard sit on a hastily constructed stage of a few chairs and banter with, on the sidelines, their Paul Schaffer, a rubber-faced phantom pianoman called Gordon. The lights burn down on them all too brightly. The walls sweat porous video mange. Eli, the more Carnival Barker of the two, cracks macabre jokes and engages in scuzzy repartee with an unmiked, barely audible Gordon. Tech guys huddled around now-antiquated equipment look on. Where did they come from? The hosts promise a special guest and a wealth of gory clips. This illegal channel is dubbed “W.G.O.R.”
I find this all quite more sinister than it was probably intended to be. Television is burdened with a self-fulfilling addiction to egregious sparkle. Imagine how hellish this is, to emptily entertain and feign affection for someone just because they’re hosting a show that might pool you into the homes of a public that could hypothetically further the capital of your career. When the stream is tampered with, like Crispin Glover and Joaquin Pheonix’s respective Letterman appearances, the public goes a few degrees of apeshit, yet why doesn’t culture get angry over thousands of forgettable “interviews” where nothing goes wrong and subsequently nothing is revealed. The door to the Black Lodge stays locked.
The opening of nearly every masterful episode of The Larry Sanders Show has, over credit black, the audience-lubricating joke told by Larry’s beleaguered sidekick “Hey Now” Hank Kingsley (a rarely better Jeffrey Tambor). “See that sign, it says…Applesauce! No, just kidding, it says ‘Applause.’” The psychology of Hank-his hypocritical, passive-aggressive mess of a personality-could very well have roots in his numbing commitment to the inane Applesauce routine. I’ve seen the Applesauce grimace over the entire TV spectrum, from late night promotional skimming to the early Styrofoam pastoral of faux potted plant infomercials.
Because video smacks of the local, no matter the production zone, Howard and Eli’s Applesauce derangement takes me back to the years I worked for my high school’s regional public access show. I didn’t cohere with the too-tightly knit crew, possibly because I was a standoffish prick who corralled the station into airing my two-part Paul Schrader exegesis. (Wonder where I found time to read THE STAND in little under a month? The second year, when I “reviewed” movies, I was only needed for about fifteen minutes a week and had excess time in the lounge area. I also read some Salinger, ANGELS IN AMERICA; first confused exposure to Burroughs.) I saw VIDEO VIOLENCE 1 during a broody and webbed February 2004 and, since Impoco’s didn’t carry the sequel, waited eight years to encounter Cohen’s follow up. I wasn’t even sure the movie existed as more than a name.
When I finally watched it during my week in exile last January, that intake coincided with a reading in March of THE MARBLED SWARM, Dennis Cooper’s new novel. Cooper’s book is a kind of formal galleria exhibiting hidden passageways in ornate houses spooked by decadence, cannibalism, voyeurism and streams of strategic firefly language impossible for our lead character to bottle. In one audacious instance, the narrator (22, heir to a fortune, possibly the illegitimate son of actor Pierre Clementi) stops the narrative cold-though perhaps there is no narrative: after all, he has compared the act of reading an early paragraph to standing as a guest in his Chateau-to instruct the reader to go home if they are reading in a park or somewhere outside. Literally, put the book down until you are safely(!) walled in. Now pick it up again. Look at the wall closest to where you’re sitting. Notice a pinhole there. The narrator is on the other side of that wall, hidden, spying on you through the pinhole, sequestered in a private corridor. I happened to read that chilling passage while waiting for friends in a Pittsfield Barnes and Noble that did not in fact carry THE MARBLED SWARM. The only thing I could think of was fucking CTSB and was there a room beyond the official room of wires and Lurch-like cameras where, scarily, The Howard And Eli Show was taking place under cover of a newer, depraved reality or dimension allowed by the evil ether of Television, the same sphere entered by Captain Video and commandeered by Howard And Eli to break through our regularly scheduled programming. Was this same cold place built into the studios of Letterman, Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler? If Cooper’s book had existed back then I would have known to stand from the porn-set lighting of my pompous movie cubicle, head towards a vent or a secret door that would have deposited me to the other side of CTSB to the wizards of gore themselves, Eli shuffling the official materials of Captain Midnight with Howard as his First Mate Midnight, and we would have sailed the rainbow static together.
There are Video Violence Mythos. Part 2 expands on the community of malevolent townsfolk who populate the Video Studio Mom’n’Pop and ardently catch Howard And Eli whenever they happen to manacle the airwaves. This ur-coven sends them the genuine snuff, and we’re reintroduced to such characters (and “characters”) as the first film’s geriatric sheriff-here showing off his handmade electric chair zapping a kidnapped thug in a display of basement frontier justice (watching this is truly jarring right after Werner Herzog’s almost awe-inspiringly sad INTO THE ABYSS)-and the jocular deli manager who has put together some Cronenbergian body mutilation tools (hand slicer, blood sieve, etc.). Kind of like the ham-radio town in Jonathan Demme’s CITIZEN’S BAND, but gashed. There’s more, as this is essentially an anthology film. Robot roll call:
-A commercial for the Wilber Doll, a monstrous construction that comes to life and takes a bloody chomp out of it’s boy owner’s neck. A bit of Joe Dante consumer satire, the TV Spot mirrors the forever epidemic of recalled products, company write offs, “must-have” gifts like Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, Turboman, ads from the same period shilling utter xasthurs like Atari’s E.T. videogame.
-A sketch, already sketched in “The Basement Tape,” of three ladies who watch a typically gruesome Howard and Eli kill (of a woman, natch) and decide to turn the tables. (I won’t press this, but all the “amateur” videos sent into the show are in fact edited and scored to music. Who cares.) They are meant to be sorority sisters but all of them, though attractive, don’t look a day under 30. They call in a pizza delivery boy and seduce him. This is getting dangerously close to porno, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been exposed to the clichéd “Pizza boy” thing. (Know how you can tell the difference between people like me and people with like, say real jobs and real responsibilities and an average upbringing? They can joke about Pizza Boys in porno but could not with a gun to their heads name a single XXX title with a delivery guy getting sucked and boned. I can not only list some titles-Married With Hormones, Taboo 3 (“Pizza twins, we deliver!”)-I can give you a tape where the Pizza Boy had an absent, ghostly resonance for my friends and I. When we were all in Middle School I used to spend so many wasted hours with the guys as Sam’s sad house, once the shelter of a large family lately broken. There was room after room where a hive of secreting older brothers used to live. In the slipstream of dirty socks and karate trophies from 1994, beside closets that for some of Sam’s brothers were metaphorical in nature, lay the boxes of tapes that forever imprinted and decided our perception of and fear of what sex was presented to us as being. The first tape off the pile was called ANAL ASSASSINS. It was initiation for us, not only into the moist awkwardness of guys alone together aroused and hiding their arousal because outer release was available but we had all been reared in a townscape that ran on the unofficial slogan Hetero Or Die, but an initiation into the double-edge of dated erotica. I couldn’t really get off because I knew the names of the producers and performers, rendered in the same plastic PBS font that would later be employed to annotate my name on the CTSB channel, weren’t their actual names. (This impersonal shroud of stage names still upsets me for some reason. I haven’t one right to know, but I feel a little offended that I can’t have that personal information, especially after the intense experience these folks have given me.) At any rate, there was a threesome. I won’t paint it graphically for you because family members have been very supportive of my writings and they might read this. One of the participants leaves the room, saying he’s going to go “Wait for the Pizza Boy.” Either because there was no actor or the team ran out of ideas (ANAL is suspiciously underpopulated and kind of ends in a nebulous void) the Pizza Boy never shows up, never meshes himself in the action, never delivers a pie. Beyond the bleak of Sam’s house, we made numerous references to ANAL ASSASSIN’S Pizza Boy. He became shorthand. Any teacher who was late, any tardy student became the Pizza Boy. We turned around and shared glances. We subtly mocked those excluded from the fold. How were they to know? It was our stupid secret.) When the Pizza Boy drops in the women convince him to stay and dance with them. The screen deteriorates into blocky slow motion, primitive A.V. room SFX that would evolve into Final Cut Psychadelia decades later. They flash their boobies and soon cut into him. They hack into the victim’s fish-eyed POV. Look, women can be sick. I don’t mean in a woe-is-me heartbreaker way. I mean hungry for transgressive content. An old girlfriend of sorts (I can’t seem to get into any involvement with someone that’s simple and doesn’t only makes sense after tons of linguistic uncoiling) watched rapt while I screened IRREVERSIBLE for her, and didn’t even wince a twitch during that scene. I actually saw her December last year in a theater lobby as I waited for a highly anticipated show to start. She told me she “liked Dark,” though I had already known that almost ten years prior. There’s another gal I used to be pretty tight with who, back in highschool, in the cluttered arena for the public access show, made me read to her selections from AMERICAN PSYCHO. Later, she allowed me to drench her in blood for a now-lost short movie that might be the basis of a future memoir essay. She’s avoided any attempt I’ve made in recent years to get back in touch. I understand. Apparently those were bad years for her. I’m a human reminder of stretched limits in dire times. In college I found a handful of women who brightened with great St. Elmo’s Fire at the simulated underground horror I described. One very cool person I’m thankfully still in contact with practically throttled me into lending her my copy of AUGUST UNDERGROUND. (Remember that? It’s the first movie I reviewed on this blog. I’m planning something with the sequel, MORDUM.) Later, at another college, a group of us trekked to the school science building to wrangle a big screen and watch a DVDR of the infamously vile ‘Nam Vet “rape porno” roughie FORCED ENTRY. A woman was the instigator of that screening, pulling us from a private dorm and the boxed computer screen. Later, she promised to make T-shirts of some of the film’s choicest lines (“Scummy hippies!”) but never delivered. Just as well. She’s supposedly very religious now. Well. I apologize, because I’m not. The last such engagement with a woman similarly inclined is a matter I won’t discuss (“but you’ve been so candid up to now!” Yea, I hate that too, when people shove that one piece of intrigue in the dumbwaiter and pitch it ascending. But if I did, I would lose. Part of the reason I didn’t write anything for a month was because I would only have been able to write about that shit, and therefore would have lost). The segment is prophet for a generation of pale shlock nuts who go down blind alleys in pursuit of romances founded on a common lust for the blood porn.
-A murder in the Video Studio. Poor young coed goes there to “rent some tapes” for her sorority and the owners and costumers restrain her, seal her face in plastic wrap and set the blowdryer on high.
-A commercial in the style of those “Greatest Hits Of The 50s” album comps with a comprehensive list of snuff titles from the citizens of the town where Howard And Eli originated. Tens of tape names scroll s-l-o-w-l-y across the screen. Sadly, Howard and Eli can’t actually give an address where you can send away for these, so titles like “Two Ghouls For Sister Tara” and “Electrocuting Rita” stand as gigantic teases. In the writing of “The Basement Tape” I hoped to convey how insular and isolated the appraisal of SOV Horror can be, and this segment does a much better job because Cohen isn’t trying to articulate inarticulate routines on former friends and small town melancholia. Under the scrolling text is a showering woman who turns to see a man dressed as all the principle movie murderers. She spins, he’s Michael Myers and advances. Back to the front, she spins, he’s Freddy Kruger and advances. Jason Vorhees and finally, appropriately, dragged-out Norman Bates. Clearly, this nude victimous woman is a part of the Secret Society. Now, in the endless list one stokes serious embers. “…And this announcer’s personal favorite, The Deaths Of Mr./Mrs. Emory.” If we’ve seen the first VIDEO VIOLENCE we recognize the names of that film’s protagonists who met their end at the hands of Balzac and Rivette’s Thirteen multiplied into a destructive Star’s Hollow. I doubt if Cohen realized how layered and intricate these few minutes are. The montage of horror characters represents the genre’s mainstream iconography, while the list of clandestine snuff trades reveal the counterworld hidden beneath these “acceptable” monsters. This is the juxtaposition of Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter and the flickers of child pornography scalding the eyes of a Hitman in the fantastic British import KILL LIST. The inside reference to VIDEO VIOLENCE rolls the boulder in front of the crypt. Like Burroughs in Tangier, I have hallucinations while stumbling around this movie. One after the other after the other.
The wraparound scenes reinforce Cohen’s dank media satire, years before NATURAL BORN KILLERS harmed female bodies in search of The Truth. Howard and Eli lure a woman to the “studio,” an aspiring actress. There’s a brief, condescending interview. (“Have you done any Beckett?” “I did a car commercial, is that Beckett?” “It sounds absurd, so close enough.”) They give her a script. While doing the sides she accidentally reads the stage directions out loud. Soon enough they pounce, tie her to the chair, and she realizes there isn’t an audition or a movie. Following a clip, they cut into her wrist and pull the nerve endings to ensure she gives the segment a rating with her fingers. Howard removes an eyeball and pushes the severed whites toward the camera. The life wriggles out of her as they mug and laff. The videotape doesn’t save her. Celluloid would, but video leaves her to suffer and die. If I would only have strained from the brick-hard CTSB seat, taken off the mic and walked into the studio’s private counter-room I could have saved her, but I was confined to my fringe sector of that media cubby.
The last fifteen minutes of VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 (…The Exploitation) are kind of stupid, as if Cohen decided to pull back because things were getting a little too unnerving. As far as we’re concerned you can turn it off after the “show” itself ends, with credits that don’t know if they are crediting the last episode or not. Howard and Eli will have to find another basement that inhales the feed. Yet I feel like I’m watching their antics at every piece of Network soul death. Just the other day (after I’d finished the first page of Video Violation) I caught the last few minutes of The Insider right before a new episode of COMMUNITY. One of the hosts was interviewing A-Rod. All that was demanded of Mr. Rod was to name celebrities whose faces were partially obscured in pictures where they drank his endorsed health beverage. Then he was lobbed some softballs about ex Cameron Diaz. When we cut back to the female host, the Blond Whatever shook her head pensively and said, with all the fake awe she could muster, how that was “so revealing.” It wasn’t. Make of that and VIDEO VIOLENCE 2 what you will. They both scared the hell out of me.
I forgot to mention the prologue, where the filming of a vampire movie turns into an actual murder of the lead actress, much like an analog cousin of Roberta Findlay’s SNUFF. This doesn’t really have a place in the rest of the soup, but its there, as elliptical as television, as writing, as humans are.