B-movies, New Music, and the artistic merits of schlock and stupidity.
“Just like B-movies, ‘New Music’ can be colourful, violent and provocative, but most practitioners are scared to be incredibly stupid. I think squib-box can help fill that void.” Bernie Sanderz
So what do ‘New Music’ (You might need to look that up on Wikipedia) and B-movies have in common? Possibly more than you think. Both art forms exist on the fringe, often utilise ridiculous titles, are ignored by ‘serious’ critics and the practitioners work with zero budgets. But let’s stop there, lest I’m accused of sounding like some post-modernist, media studies teacher, instead I will stick with the more honest answer which is that I’m a ‘New Music’ composer that has grown up watching low budget, exploitation movies, and I’ve just fulfilled a dream, I’ve made a film for Troma…
I painted my basement black, borrowed some lights, exploited my friends and family (in more ways than one), and shot it with two tiny budget Sonys. It cost me about 300 quid, with the real expense being the custom made mechanical, concertina-boxing-glove and the £50 trout. Mr Topps is only a short film, but when has length ever really mattered? It’s shot in widescreen. The film will be featured on the DVD and Blu-ray releases of this summer’s Troma feature Return To Return To Nuke ‘Em High.
Mr Topps (2016)- Trailer:
So how did this all come about? In essence, via some good old fashioned bribery, in the form of its modern day outlet, a Kickstarter donation. It wasn’t an easy decision, I’m a musician, I don’t make much money, but I lucked out and a composition commission came through, one that actually paid well, which basically means it came from outside the UK. Thank you Norway. It’s an enriching thought that that money has been passed from one creative endeavour to another, it’s a bit like Pay It Forward, but that wasn’t a B-movie, that was just a crap movie, let’s talk a little about real Bs…
A Complete History of the B-movie, for Complete Idiots
I’m not going to go into the origin of the B-movie, you can Google that yourself, but I will point out that during the drive-in era of the 1950s this type of filmmaking was born of genuine artistic expression, providing entertainment, and of course, making a quick buck. Those teenagers didn’t care if the alien face-sucker looked like a sock puppet trapped in a condom, they just needed a backdrop while they sucked each other’s faces. What’s interesting, or indeed troubling though, is that sixty years on, the landscape is a little different, it would seem the directors looking for the quick buck are actually the ones with the most buck at their disposal, gone are the days that you could enter a cinema and witness a zero budget piece of trash, it’s now a multi million pound piece of trash. It’s the blockbusters that now have the B-scripts, but unfortunately none of the rough edges, or indeed the experimental verve of their drive-in ancestors, just often pure CG ‘gloss’, which means that turd can now be fossilised within a thick creamy studio varnish, the formula of which only Paramount and Disney execs have access to. Who’s to blame? Well as Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma, rightly points out, Ronald Reagan threw a nasty spanner in the works by tearing up the consent decree during his tenure (look that up), ensuring that the ‘big boys’ regained the monopoly on the large multiplexes. Then there’s the mainstream success of something like Star Wars and Jaws in the late 70s, essentially high budget B-movie themed blockbusters, that persuaded the big studios into pouring their resources directly into genre territory, effectively gentrifying it in the process. So, in a nutshell, as Kaufman states, the real blame lies with the ‘Devil-worshipping International Media Conglomerates’! Them and Michael Bay. With this in mind it’s no mean feat that an independent studio such as Troma is still alive and kicking.
I clearly remember my first exposure to a Troma movie, it was when I saw the VHS cover of The Toxic Avenger at my local Selecta Video store at around the age of 10, circa 1989. Any pre-pubescent growing up at that time will remember those heady video shop visits, this was my first real exposure to the weird and wonderful; that Killer Klowns From Outer Space cover twisted my noggin for months. I then remember making the connection between Troma’s obviously adult flick and its kiddy incarnation in the form of the animated series The Toxic Crusaders (‘Avengers’ was too violent), as part of Parallel 9 on BBC 1 in the early 90s. But the real fun happened the following decade when Channel 4’s late night Troma’s Edge finally tapped me directly into the B-movie…grindhouse, exploitation, trash, underground, cult, low budget, independent (or whatever you want to call it) mainline!
If you have never witnessed a Troma movie, the worst place to begin your toxic enlightenment would be to watch British film critic Mark Kermode’s Kermode Uncut: Beyond Parody (Look it up if you must, it’s on Youtube). Kermode poses the following question: “is a rubbish film still a rubbish film if it knows it’s rubbish? Or does it become something else?” Answers on a postcard. He then sets his sights specifically on Troma, stating that in the 80s, Troma “were selling the idea that a film could be so bad, it’s actually great” and that they borrowed this idea from our old friend Ed Wood, but, allegedly, where Troma falls down is that, unlike Wood, all of their films are intentionally rubbish. This is no small statement considering Troma have over a thousand movies in their 40+ year catalogue, and let’s not pretend for a minute that amongst a thousand low budget movies, there aren’t going to be a few duds. There are definitely a few duds. (although Actium Maximus is not one of them, and I’ll defend that monstrosity of a movie until the Grand-Automaton Polpox himself freezes over!). We also have to bear in mind that a huge percentage of these films are only distributed by Troma, not produced. So what is a true dyed-in-the-wool Troma film?
Well, for me, the real Troma films are those written and/or directed by Troma president and Independent movie icon/pin-up Lloyd Kaufman. These include such illustrious titles as Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D, Tromeo and Juliet, Terror Firmer, Poultrygeist, Return To Nuke ‘Em High and of course his ‘Citizen Kane’, The Toxic Avenger (celebrating 30 years since its US release), co-directed with Michael Herz. Here we have a film constructed from a plethora of genre tropes, all uniquely rolled (and more than occasionally pummelled) into one hideous, highly entertaining, superhuman package. It exists somewhere between a goofy 60s beach party movie, 70s sex comedy, monster movie, slapstick comedy, superhero movie, slasher, and splatter movie, with a romantic thread ripped straight from Chaplin’s City Lights. Ok, it’s not Godard, but why should it be? Did I mention it also has an ecological message? Now these ingredients could quite easily produce a rancid cake of epic proportions, but in this instance Kaufman/Herz perform a miracle of a balancing act, with the real magic being the incredible shifts of tone throughout, especially between the ridiculously stupid and ridiculously violent. This film demonstrates that, if done right, the combination of hyper trope-hopping and tonal juxtaposition, can effectively rip the safety net out from under your audience. The scene which hits this particular bullseye the hardest is the one best described as ‘the kid on the bike’, it’s the child death in Jaws times 100. I won’t describe it, just watch it (NSFW), it works even better in context, so watch the whole movie while you’re at it.
The Toxic Avenger (1984) NSFW:
The Toxic Avenger is not a Plan 9 From Outer Space, nor is it a mockbuster like Mega Piranha (the film with which Kermode kicks off his critique), and for me it certainly doesn’t belong in the ‘intentionally rubbish’ category, ‘intentionally stupid’ maybe. The main issue with Kermode’s lesson 101 is that by jumping straight to the ‘so bad it’s good’ label he implies that these kinds of B-movies (Z-movies?) are aiming for the same thing, when on closer inspection, it’s far more complex than that. But hey, we can’t all have the same perspective on things can we? Lest we forget, Kermode described The Dark Knight Rises as an arthouse film. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
I’m With Stupid
Let’s not kid ourselves then, stupidity, trash, schlock, the profane etc have been a mainstay of art for quite some time, you only have to look back to Rabelais, Jarry, the Dadaists, Fluxus etc. I suppose intentional stupidity may even be associated with forms of anti-art, although I have no idea what that term actually means. I just feel that the B-movie aesthetic deserves more respect, more artistic and cultural merit than it often receives.
At their best, these are films without limits, where almost anything can happen; a dying, white bigot’s head may get transplanted onto a soul brother’s body*; a morbidly obese man may crap out his inner, skinner self in the toilet of a cursed fast food chicken restaurant*. The filmmaking process is also a playground for the imagination; why not try the Jerry Warren method and cut and paste three already existing films together? You can add your own footage later to fill in the gaps…Warren’s sense of space and timing is also quite extraordinary, take a look at this fight scene from his 1981 film Frankenstein Island. Did that dog just break the fourth wall?
Frankenstein Island (1981) – Fight scene:
These films are often very experimental, they have to be, they simply do not have the luxury of time or budget. And here’s some trivia for you: One of America’s most revered experimental filmmakers, Stan Brakhage, was so supportive of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s (South Park) college project that he actually has a cameo in it, the film, Cannibal The Musical, is distributed by Troma. Also, don’t forget Andy Warhol lent his name to Paul Morrissey’s 1974 Flesh For Frankenstein. The screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, also penned Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, L’avventura and Blowup, plus Fellini’s Amarcord.
There are plenty of folks digging in and around this territory in other creative fields, although most of them seem to be comedians; Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Troma alumni), Neil Hamburger, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Stewart Lee (ish), Steve Roggenbuck and Hans Teeuwen to name a few. So where are the ‘New Music’ composers? Well, I was hoping you would ask that, I volunteer squib-box…
“squib-box is an artist collective and netlabel dedicated to the production and dissemination of radical and avant-garde music, regardless of its genre”. I think the ‘radical’ is meant in the Michaelangelo ninja-turtle kind of way. Anyway, squib-box is also a musical sanctuary for all things low budget, schlock and often stupid, which can be seen most clearly in the creative output of its three founding members, Federico Reuben, Neil Luck and…me. Some highlights include our space opera Shadow Prophets, where in a galaxy far, far away eastern dictators, western playboys and middle-class composers conflate in an alarming ejaculation of current affairs, hardcore modernism, slapstick, free jazz, and bad stand-up comedy. Our radio play Up the Shaft, in which Matt Methane(y), Vladimir Tintin, Mikael Gover, Tony Bassoon, Miley Cyrus and a host of other guests ride up and down, up and down in a magical elevator. Our Live Colonoscopy XXX where I vomit into a bin bag while London’s finest improvising musicians interpret a giant video projection of the inside of Federico’s beautiful colon. My Japanese TV gameshow pilot, Batsu!!! Humiliating Music for Guitar, where grown men dress as babies and flies and attempt, in vain, to avoid Man-Spider’s hairy mandibles and sticky, wayward spray. And Neil Luck’s Via Gut which expounds upon a physical, metaphysical, and ‘pataphysical reading of human flatulence, and what this can teach us about the nature of humanity, communication, and art…and in which I enact my career defining role; the physical embodiment of a tapdancing arsehole.
Are we the Troma of ‘New Music’? If only! All we can hope for is a life span of 40+ years and a dedicated and loyal fanbase.
…we’re currently working on the first one.
Adam de la Cour is a composer, performer and filmmaker from the UK. He has a Ph.D in music composition and lectures Music and Culture at the University of Kent. The views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily his own.
*The Thing With Two Heads