Saturday, April 03, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: The Narcotics Story (4/3/21)

It’s the month with the weed number, so we’re doing movies all about why you shouldn’t do drugs, and you certainly shouldn’t be high while watching them! First, it’s the police-training film The Narcotics Story! Learn from a very serious narrator how users of marijuana are potentially violent even though they never show any signs of violence in the very movie warning you about them!

Going back to the well a little bit for this one. Initially, I would stream movies live on Twitch, very quickly moving to themed weeks and months. The theme for November was paranoia and propaganda with weeks focused on Communism, Nazism, the atom bomb, and, of course, drugs. I’d make a poll on my Twitter account with three movies and let people vote for which one would be shown. To make the promos for each week, I’d watch all three movies on fast-forward to get a list of all the interesting visuals to pull. I wouldn’t have any audio, but I’d have a general sense of what happened.

For drug week, the options were Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed (which was shown), Assassin of Youth (which will be coming up), and The Narcotics Story. This was the only one in color and the one with the most interesting visuals. I was not aware at the time that it was almost completely narrated or so silly. Considering the nature of the narration, it’s a little surprising that it took me so long to come up with the bit I did for the intermission: gameplay footage of Animal Crossin narrated in this heated, over-the-top, and patently inaccurate way.

I avoided getting political in this script as best I could, but there is continuing fallout from police training films like this. I note in the script that the intended audience isn’t cops so much as the people who have to judge cops: city councils deciding on budgets and juries deciding on the legitimacy of police action. In Texas, juries who have to decide cases where police murder people are made to watch police training films that define every person as a potential threat. The point is to convince the jury that the officers were sincerely afraid for their lives when they murdered that unarmed child or the, and I am not making this example up, wheelchair-using triple-amputee who was wielding a pen. After all, he could have stabbed the officer with the pen if he wasn’t using his only limb, which was holding the pen, to wheel himself closer to them.

All of which points to the underlying grimness and cynicism of these films. We can look at them now through a camp lens, laugh at their over-the-top claims and outright lies, even enjoy the disconnect between what they are showing us and what they are telling us—things that they had complete control over!—but the reality is these lies are still being used to ruin people’s lives. Even as legalization and decriminalization proceeds, the structure of the lies continues. “I feared for my life when I met these people who were not a threat, so I had to kill them.”

Defund the police.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Stock footage repository. Since the audio is so often unrelated to what’s happening on screen, this becomes a great resource for stock footage plundering. It has lots of shots of real drugs and paraphernalia and it all has that patina of age that makes it a touch more dreamlike and removed. For being an anti-drug film, this ironically could give you all the material you need to make loads of acid-soaked music videos for stoner rock bands.

The Bad: Nothing proper bout your propaganda. I said it above, but it’s pretty sick the way they just lie, even about what’s happening on screen. The users are always described as violent and potential threats and, literally, not one of them ever does anything. In this movie you can see the structure of what became Cops—following a cop on their beat and explicitly lying about what you’re showing them do.

Production note: The copy of the film I’m using comes from a print released by Alpha Video, which means they put a little Alpha Video logo in the upper righthand corner during the title sequence. I had to find a program to remove the bug because with the bug, it’s a copywritten print. Without, it’s the public domain version.

And I don’t want to cast aspersion on Alpha Video: they do good work in making a lot of public domain material available in solid and affordable formats, but slipping their logo into the works, which Mill Creek does as well, is frustrating. Weirdly, I suspect their goal in doing so is less to prevent things like copies being uploaded to YouTube or the Internet Archive, but to prevent the movies from being copied and released by other public domain DVD publishers.

The Narcotics Story

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 5)

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: War God (3/27/21)

This week on the Busan Midnight Movie: War God! The single most gonzo film I’ve found in my hunt for public domain midnight movie fare.

Moving away from old PD Project material, this is something that was entirely new to me. This is a 1976 Taiwanese kaiju film originally titled Zhan shen, but also known as Hong Kong Calamity, Kuan Yu Battles with the Aliens, and Gwan Gung vs Aliens. Martians invade the Earth to punish Earthlings for their abuse of science. The only force that can defeat the Martians is Kuan Yu, a former general now worshiped as a god. He can only manifest, though, if a statue of his likeness is carved with enough excellence and sincerity.

In other words, you have a 100-foot-tall ancient Chinese general using his kung fu against laser-wielding aliens, but only if Linus chooses the right pumpkin patch to wait in overnight.

Naturally it’s my film of the year.

In all seriousness, this movie’s a hoot and it’s the first time I’ve seen palpable translation errors improve the watching experience. A lot of cultural signifiers get lost in translation, something that can end up making sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies in other languages seem at once more inventive and uncanny: something is being said here with the expectation that you’ll understand and the fact that you don’t makes it feel even more like an illicit pleasure, like you’re listening in on something you’re not supposed to.

The translation issues with this film aren’t questions of dubbing, though, it’s the subtitles. The whole movie is subtitled in Mandarin and English, but the English doesn’t make sense, at least, it doesn’t make sense when you can read it. Most of the time parts of it are cropped out on the left and right or are simply unreadable as they’re white text on a pale and fading print. At best you get snippets that border on comprehensibility which makes them even more compelling. You’re not looking at nonsense, but it feels a step away from saying what it means.

I should note that I became aware of this movie through Gold Ninja Video, a distribution company that focuses on BluRay releases of obscure and public domain features. They prepared a copy of this film which led me to the version on The Internet Archive. It’s always nice to see a company dedicated to maintaining the wilder side of the film scene.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Throwing everything at the wall. There are so many goofy elements in this movie that I’ve forgotten most of them. You have hilarious reaction shots to the aliens’ arrival, bizarre effects of alien interference, and so many odd character moments.

The aliens’ joie de vivre. The kaiju here don’t just stomp through the city destroying buildings, they strut! They look like they’re dancing at various points and it just amplifies the silliness of everything which of course serves to amplify the joy.

The Bad: The print is really washed out. I joke in the episode that this looks to be a copy of a VCD bootleg of a VHS bootleg of a cam rip, but that may be the actual lineage of this copy. The film only circulated as a bootleg VCD for years. And while I may joke about the subtitle issue, it does prove to be a problem in that it creates the sense that you could potentially understand what’s happening if you just rewound and looked at the subtitle a little harder. I went through this movie pretty thoroughly. Let me assure you, it does not help.

Production note: This episode has the longest set of host segments so far. If you don’t include the music video I cut for the episode, it’s the second longest after Gappa. Once I had the idea of doing the member drive riff for the host segments, they kind of took on a life of their own.

Regarding the “member drive,” that’s a moment of me kidding on the square. Obviously it’s all a joke, but I do feel a certain way about having so few subscribers and views. I’m not looking for thousands or even hundreds of views by this point, but I do have the goal of averaging about one new subscriber per week. While I’m having a lot of fun making this show and getting stranger and stranger with both the edits and the movies shown, it is a lot of work and it’s hard not to ask why I’m putting all that effort in. This episode took me about 8 hours from recording the script to editing the final version, and that’s not an unusual amount of time for one of these. I gotta ask why I’m putting the time into this instead of watching movies in my queue or playing the games that I’ve bought.

But to end on a more positive note, editing the music video was such a joy. It came together relatively quickly although there are things I would do to make it better if I were to spend more time on it. Every time I watch it I just start cracking up, though. As I said on Twitter and Facebook as I was working on it, I kept repeating, “So fucking jaunty” in response to the Martians. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of the video as much as I am still surprisingly entertained by it.

War God

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 4)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: The Giant Gila Monster (3/20/21)

This week on the Busan Midnight Movie: The Giant Gila Monster! A giant gila monster attacks residents of a small town.

Another deep cut from the PD Project. I mistakenly described the film then as featuring “Giant radioactive monsters and incompetent rear-projection for the win!” The mistake is that the titular gila monster is not the product of radiation, just a result of gila monsters growing large.

No, that’s really the whole story of where the giant gila monster comes from: gila monsters can get big, so here’s one that got really big. There’s no mystery as to why or how and none of the characters wonder either.

The same depth of drama applies to every part of this film. What happens in this movie? Not a whole lot. You could say the disappearance of a young couple at the start is the inciting incident since it leads to the boy’s father tasking the sheriff with finding his son (and casting aspersion upon our hero). However, that father doesn’t return until the very end of the film (where he doesn’t seem too torn up about the likely death of his son) and our hero isn’t drawn into the mystery of where his friends have gone or what’s causing all the car accidents in the area.

In short, it’s a profoundly incurious film that begs you to be interested. But at least it has several interludes of pointless singing.

Wrap Up:

The Good: Elderly teens. This is a film from back when you had people on their third mortgages playing “the kids” and it’s just kind of funny to see suit-bound men with receding hairlines get called “kid.”

The monster. They use an actual lizard shot in close-up and have it interact with models when it needs to smash things. Unfortunately the models aren’t very impressive and the lizard doesn’t so much smash them as have to be coaxed through them.

The Bad: Very little. This would be the place to bring up the songs of Don Sullivan and make fun of the movie for featuring them, but they’re just generic examples of the music of the time. The movie’s so profoundly unambitious that it doesn’t get much wrong, but that’s only because it strives to do so little. The best films of this kind have some bonkers decision on screen—anything from an over-the-top monster to a clear display of the director’s reach exceeding their grasp—and this just has nothing.

Production note: As I say in the episode, I was originally going to show Yongary, Monster From the Deep. It’s a Korean kaiju film and it’s well past time that I feature a Korean film on the Busan Midnight Movie. When I did the copyright test of uploading all this month’s movies to YouTube to see what got flagged, Yongary came up as owned by MGM. Except for the Gamera movies, I’m not aware of any other kaiju films in the public domain so I reached for Gila Monster as a replacement. Coincidentally, this is the same thing Mystery Science Theater 3000 did when they released a box set of their show with Godzilla vs. Megalon: they didn’t have the rights for that and had to pull the sets immediately. When they reissued it, they replaced Godzilla with The Giant Gila Monster

The Giant Gila Monster

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 3)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Busan Midnight Movie: Gappa, the Triphibian Monster (3/13/21)

This week on the Busan Midnight Movie: Gappa, The Triphibian Monster, aka Monster from a Prehistoric Planet! Explorers searching for exotic animals to populate a publishing magnate’s theme park discover Gappa, a heretofore unknown prehistoric beast! Only Gappa is freshly hatched and its parents are not happy to see it taken away.

This is a movie I wrote about briefly almost 13 years ago when I was doing the PD Project, the precursor to the Misery Mill. Back then I noted,

The movie can be pretty shocking though. A female scientist is asked why she isn't at home making babies and the film has Japanese people in blackface. There is some craziness going on here.

What a difference time makes! I’m much less sanguine about the blackface now, so actively uncomfortable that I debated whether to use the movie or not. Honestly, in a few years’ time, I probably would drop it from the schedule even if I had already announced it.

Here’s what I wrote about this movie and then cut from the episode’s script:

Tonight's feature is Gappa, the Triphibian Monster and let's address the pigeon-faced beast in the room: blackface. The immediate defense of it would be "consider the context," and certainly context matters. This is a Japanese film so it does not have the same cultural associations with blackface that people from the United States would have. Still, they chose to use skin tone to differentiate the islanders from the Japanese characters, as though the shirts vs skins dichotomy of the costumes wasn't enough. The filmmakers wanted to use that idea of "blackness" as "other" and that's why the islanders look the way they do. Even if you're okay with that idea, the film has Americans playing Americans instead of Japanese people done up as mimes. That suggests that it's not that the filmmakers couldn't hire black people for the roles, it's that they didn't or wouldn't.

And context works both ways. We should not only consider the context of when the film was made but also the context of when the film is being shown: right now. Even though I'm pointing up the problematic aspects of this film, I'm still choosing to show it, still implicitly saying to my audience, "eh, you can look past this." And there are a couple reasons for that. One is laziness: I wanted to do kaiju movies all month long and, unless I wanted to do Gamera movies every week, this was what was available. I just have to hope that by announcing, "this is here and it's not okay" I'm at least mitigating some of the harm done by choosing to show this, but I have to acknowledge that I still chose to show it.

But the other reason I chose to show it is specifically to have this discussion. In the community of midnight-movie aficionados, part of the pleasure we take from these old films is that "they don't make them like this anymore," but that phrase does a lot of work. Of course it means there is a pleasure in seeing ways of telling stories that we don't use anymore. For instance, part of the appeal of old westerns is the amazing stunt work on horseback. The Western is a good example, though, because when some people say "they don't make them like that anymore," they're talking about the kind of politics that used to be portrayed on screen and lamenting their absence. The racial and gender politics in this movie--and we haven't even said a word about that "shut up, quit your job, make babies" exchange--are what that part of the audience wants. What they miss from these old films IS the overt racism, misogyny, and every other kind of hierarchy and bigotry that used to be not only the norm on screen, but violently enforced off of it. Whenever we showcase these films without highlighting and calling out those elements, we leave a space for that subset to thrive and, even worse, start spreading and normalizing the even worse aspects of their ideology.

There is a lot to recommend this film: the cinematography is fantastic, the landscapes look amazing, and, when the monsters finally arrive in this second half, they look great. Plus all the city-smashy stuff is a lot of fun. But it's no fun if we're telling our friends and neighbors to ignore problematic aspects of a film and certainly no fun for them to have to wonder, whenever things like overt racism pops up in a film and we DON'T say anything about it, if that's not what we're actually tuning in for.

So, with that unexpectedly heavy aside finished, let's return to the second half of Gappa, the Triphibian Monster.

That was cut due to time because the whole thing is as long as the entirety of the content I write for other episodes. However, it was something I wanted to say and to share. One of the things I think about when doing this midnight movie stuff is that you have to engage with the text somehow. I could say that post-MST3k it’s no longer enough to just show the movie, but the reality is these movies are readily available. What makes the experience of watching them with the framing device of a host better than just watching the movie itself? The host has to add something to the experience.

When you have a movie with problematic content like this, that kind of engagement is doubly important. As Stewart Lee notes, you’re cultivating an audience, drawing the boundaries around who is and is not included in the experience. If you let moments of explicit racism, sexism, homophobia, or a whole host of other things go unremarked, you’re telling your audience that people who take issue with those things aren’t welcome, that you don’t want them.

At the end of the day, I want, not just in my audience but in the broader community I’m a part of, to spend time with the people who would stand up and call those things out.

Wrap Up:

The Good: amazing print. The version I watched for the PD Project so long ago was a pan-and-scan 4:3 crop that was dramatically faded. This print is so good you might think you're watching a good movie.

The monster design. The improved print also lets us enjoy the high-quality monster design. The Gappas look like kaiju versions of gargoyles and that’s a twist I hadn’t seen before. Also, when I watched this for the PD Project, I described one of the monsters as something “choking on a starfish,” but in the improved print it’s clear the monster is carrying an octopus to feed its baby. Great detail!

The Bad: really? After all that?

Additionally: Pretty boring. Despite the beautiful cinematography, there’s not much action on screen, not even much activity with the monsters until the second half. On top of that, the characters are whisper-thin. Some reviews on IMDB describe this as a satire of kaiju films, but it feels much more like an unambitious pastiche, like the characters are just there to fill out a checklist rather than provide any story or interest of their own.

Production note: I was so happy to find clips of the Gappa giving the side-eye for the trailer. Being able to juxtapose those shots with the examples of blackface and misogyny in the film was a lot of fun for me.

Gappa, the Triphibian Monster

Zorro’s Black Whip (Episode 2)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 7/4/20 "Out Loud"

"It's not bad or good/It's just this way/Put on a face/Be happy with the crowd." Happy 4th of July. America is now posting more than 50,000 new cases of coronavirus a day, getting very close to hitting 60. So what is there to say? There's nothing left to say. This is the last Jandek album I have access to. There have been 4 new releases since I started this, so take comfort that even in the darkest times some things persist, but I can't get a hold of them at the moment. Plus there's a nice symmetry in having a chronicle of the death of America as we know it end on the celebration of the nation's birth. The 4th of July is fundamentally about a grand irony--it celebrates the overthrowing of a king by a people desperate to be ruled. Even today, we see people running to slavishly kiss the boot while their fellow citizens continue to take to the streets in a rebellion demanding the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

-7/4/20. "Out Loud" from Austin Sunday 2007 (lyrics)
(one week earlier)

Friday, July 10, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 7/3/20 "The Ray"

"I'm so happy to be here/I can't say that enough/I'm not talking to you/It's the ghost that I knew." One of my happiest moments in Philadelphia was falling into a group that watched bad movies regularly. I'd been wanting to be part of a group like that for over 10 years. Since coming to Busan, I've started playing Dungeons & Dragons again, I've been writing consistently, and I submitted something for publication for the first time in a decade. Because of the pandemic, nothing feels real anymore, like life has been put on hold and every day exists in its own liminal state divorced from every other. All that means is that the constant opportunity for renewal, for recreation is now obvious. We always have the chance to make our world anew; the pandemic has removed the delusion that we will return to our old world or that we even want to. Even before the pandemic, my family was asking me when I'd come back, but I'm not coming back. My situation is the same as yours: where we are is where we build our better world.

-7/3/20. "The Ray" from The Ray (lyrics)
(one week earlier)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

My Jandek Plague Journal: 7/2/20 "Here Now Today"

"Yesterday I had to run away/Couldn't stand the depression/It didn't matter what I did/As long as I got away from myself/And the blue thoughts I was having." I found a journal entry from 2017 talking about my sense of exhaustion. I'd just come back from a union rally that I'd spent ages recruiting for only to have no one show up, the sense that everyone I was talking to was abdicating responsibility because I had it covered. I wrote, "I don't have it covered and I'm looking for ways to leave." After the rally I had to remove white nationalist fliers from the building my classes were in. Seeing the work happening in the US now--the solidarity, the anti-racism--makes me feel both heartened and ashamed. I was part of this fight. I burned myself out fighting this fight. And I left before the fight was over. I quit not just my job, not just the struggle, but the nation, going as far as I could be leave it all behind me. Only I never let go because the work was not yet done.

-7/2/20. "Here Now Today" from Gainesville Monday (lyrics)
(one week earlier)