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‘Trash Cinema’ gets star treatment at last

Friday May 17, 2002

By Peter Crimmins 

Special to the Daily Planet 


There once was a time when “trash” cinema was literally that: after the biker flicks, the nudist-colony one-reelers, the juvenile delinquents and the medical grotesqueries traveled the national grindhouse circuit, edited and re-edited by their ex-carnie exhibitors per whatever regional censor board would allow, the celluloid would be stripped of whatever valuable silver nitrate could be removed and the remains dumped in the ocean – like so many Hollywood dreams – off the coast of Los Angeles. 

Today, trash film exists mostly on video, care of para-cinema and psychotronic distribution companies catering to a young generation with a strong sense of irony, and the occasional narcotized midnight screening. It also exists in academia. What were once guilty pleasures and secret perversions have in the past several years become fodder for university study. 

Many thinkers of sex and violence in cinema from America and Europe are converging in Berkeley this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive to attend “Born To Be Bad: Trash Cinema From the 1960’s and 70’s” conference and film festival. Spearheaded by UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Tamao Nakahara, the conference will bring over 20 professors and graduate students to speak on subjects once thought too tasteless or too foolish to consider in ivory towers. 

Nakahara said many grad students with a love for trashier fare find upon entering university programs that they cannot indulge their intellectual energies studying it. This weekend will be a confluence of closeted interests: “Recontextualizing the Historical Reception of Blaxploitation: Articulation of Class, Black Nationalism, and Anxiety in the Genre’s Advertisements,” “Trash and Transgression: Gross-Out Aesthetics and the Late 70’s Avant-Garde,” “Twilight of the Third Sex: The Familiar Spirit of Lesbian Pulp Films,” etc. 

Does this mean the pleasures and rough-hewn profundities of sexploitation and blaxploitation and even “nunsploitation” will be buried in a landfill of Ph.D. papers with high-falutin’ 5-syllable words? UC Berkeley professor Linda Williams points out the problems of treating low-brow fare with high education in the forward to her influential book “Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’”, a major genre study of pornography. In a swift and succinct maneuver to lay aside questions of her own motivations, Williams writes “…even though I know that the slightest admission that not every image of every film was absolutely disgusting to me may render my insights worthless to many women, I also know that not to admit some enjoyment is to perpetuate an equally invidious double standard that still insists that the nonsexual woman is the credible, ‘good’ woman.” 

Williams, who is scheduled to appear at the conference, writes that she began her book project as a look into what she calls “body genre,” films focusing on body movement and body spectacle (comedy, horror, melodrama, eroticism) designed to elicit a physical reaction from the audience in the way of laughter, terror, crying, or arousal. She discovered a wealth of overlooked material on the often maligned and dismissed porno shelf, where a parallel movie industry not only rips off Hollywood movies, but also – considering “Boogie Nights” and the Calvin Klein kiddie porn ads – influences mainstream media, a la “porno-chic.” 

Trash cinema wouldn’t exist without Hollywood. As Joan Hawkins points out in her book “Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde,” the producers of exploitation and slasher films define themselves against popular cinema. It’s something trash shares with the avant-garde. Psychotronic movies and art cinema, Hawkins writes, are “a reaction against the hegemonic and normatizing practices of mainstream, dominant Hollywood production.” 

Hawkins will be at the conference to present her thoughts on “Gross-Out Aesthetics and the late 70’s Avant-garde.” As a professor at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, Hawkins has been teaching the popular “History and Politics of Horror” class, and she finds similarities between the low-brow gore flicks and the transgressive artwork of the 20th century avant-garde who dig into imagery of Freudian unconscious and thumb their noses at society. “Surrealists loved the transgressive elements of horror films,” she said in an interview on KALX radio last year. 

There is a handful of films being screened to complement all the talking about films this weekend. PFA curator Steve Seid has put together three programs of sleazy films for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. “Color Me Blood Red” (Friday, 9p.m.) is by “gore guru” and quintessential exploitation producer Herschell Gordon Lewis. The 1965 film in full bloody Technicolor follows a painter who discovers a grisly way to maintain inspiration by keeping his palette vibrant with the blood of pretty young models. 

On Saturday night a pair of skin flicks will be presented: “Agony of Love” (1966) about a bored, buxom housewife, and “The Student Nurses” (1970) about four R.N.’s-to-be caught between hospital bureaucracy, hippie love-ins, randy doctors, and an armed, grass-roots revolution. Featuring a perfunctory discussion of Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf,” Latino street theater, and a terminally ill patient with Edgar Allen Poe on the brain, each plot dilemma is approached with varying degrees of stilted dialogue and topless-ness. A paper about “The Student Nurses” and its director will be presented at the conference on Saturday (“Stephanie Rothman: Feminist Filmmaker of Sexploitation Comedies”) and Stephanie Rothman herself will present to introduce the screening of her film. 

Also screened will be two films by George Kuchar: “Color Me Shameless” and “Corruption of the Damned.” The films are usually regarded as part of the 1960s underground and avant-garde cinema, although they also have much of the spirit of exploitation films.  

Kuchar and his twin brother Mike Kuchar began making films together when they were young, and learning techniques by watching movies.  

“I loved going to the movies,” said George Kuchar, who now teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute. “I liked Douglas Sirk melodramas. My brother liked Hercules pictures.” His brother Mike initially began making “Corruption of the Damned” and shot a few love scenes before he became disinterested and handed it over to George who shot a few action scenes. 

“I like big scenes,” said George. “I didn’t see why you need shots of doors and people coming in and out of buildings to let them know where they are. Establishing shots? I got tired of that after awhile. I did it, but I said to hell with that, let’s just get to the big scenes.” 

Kuchar said he once had dreams of become the head of a movie studio, with a roster of stars to make the films he wanted to make. But the professionalism needed to run a business and turn out hits turned him off. Too much pressure, he said, will make a person never want to make a picture. “When I got to work with actors I realized they wanted to know what the part was all about, and many times I wouldn’t know and they would get irritated. I felt they were different breed of people and possibly I couldn’t work with them because I wouldn’t have answers to their questions. I liked experimenting.” 

With the sensibility of avant-garde and the heart of schlock, Kuchar’s films were, and are, embraced by the underground. That “Corruption of the Damned” might not stand up to plot scrutiny, and that much of it doesn’t make sense, is OK with the viewers it attracts; it’s another way underground cinema and high art cinema relate, says Professor Hawkins. “Horror audiences, like avant-garde audiences, are willing to live with a large degree of plot ambiguity.”