Category Archives: Film Politics

Troma and Economic Inequality

Troma and Economic Inequality

I’m preparing a page on perhaps Troma’s best film, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (and one that is, well, not). And I happened upon a “making of” documentary, Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. And it was awful to watch. For one thing, it made me hate Lloyd Kaufman.

But it’s funny, because even though the documentary is hard on Kaufman, it is especially hard on the cinematographer, Brendan C Flynt. But I didn’t see it that way at all. Flynt just thought they were making a professional film. And Troma doesn’t really make professional films. (Not that Flynt doesn’t seem to have the same kind of annoying arrogance that I’ve noticed in everyone I’ve ever met who has “made it” in Hollywood.) The end result of Troma might be of professional quality. But the company depends upon a lot of naive young people to work for free under terrible conditions with people like Kaufman abusing them.

Don’t get me wrong. If some struggling filmmaker came to me, I would be happy to be their production manager or extra or whatever for free. But when a company that has made many dozens of successful films is making millions of dollars, getting 200 young people to pay to go to the shoot, work for free, and live under terrible conditions, it’s wrong.

Troma’s Volunteers Don’t Know What They Are Getting Into

And the documentary makes clear that most of the volunteers had no idea what they were getting into. Even the star of the film was paid only $900. The secondary star was paid $1,800 — I assume because she did much of the film topless. Regardless, this isn’t non-union work. This is exploitation.

But sure: that’s what “exploitation film” means: the producers exploit whatever they have. But in general, that means nudity, gore, a great location, and countless other things. It also means exploiting free labor. But at some point, you grow up. Exploiting massive amounts of free labor is the main part of Troma’s business plan. The company is almost 45 years old and it is still doing this. It’s not just that it’s pathetic. It’s that it ought to be illegal.

Some Friendly Advice

So let me give you all some advice: there are filmmakers everywhere trying to get their stories told. If you want to have the experience of being on a film set, help one of them out. Don’t help out Troma! Don’t help a guy sitting on at least $5 million make yet another film so much like every other film he’s made. He’s not an artist; he’s a businessman. That’s who you are giving your summer up for.

The funny thing is that when I was trying to make my own film, there were always people who glommed onto the production. But they never did anything. I did have a cinematographer, but he was there mostly because it gave him a chance to work with a camera that was better than anything he had ever used. (And he was relentless in not doing what I asked for — something I would only find out after paying a fortune for development and work print.) Otherwise, it seemed to be me: I was the director, assistant director, production manager, gaffer, and anything else that was necessary. I got tired of it after a while.

People love to be on film sets. I don’t get it, actually. Even before I started trying to make a film, I knew that it was incredibly boring. It’s mostly a bunch of people waiting for something to happen. If you shoot two minutes of film in a day, you’re doing well.

But people weren’t working for me because I wasn’t a tyrant. If I produced the Troma way, everyone would have been working.

How Troma Works

On Troma’s FAQ, they say:

Unpaid Enterprise Observer/Volunteer positions are almost always available at Troma…

Now “observer” doesn’t sound that bad. But they put that in because they know they will be able to badger anyone around into doing something. And I have little doubt they get young women who would never imagine doing it to be in their films topless. I don’t know that, of course. That just seems to be the Troma way.

(I should point out that the lower level Troma employees seem pretty nice. But they also seem to know that what they are doing is wrong.)

But again: my point is that you have this super successful film company. And their business depends upon tricking people into giving them huge amounts of money in unpaid work.

Troma Doesn’t Look Good Compared to Other Companies

At the same time, more reputable production companies will often advertise for extras on Craig’s List. If you happen to get into a big budget movie, the money’s not bad. A friend of mine was an extra for Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). She worked for 3 days and was paid $50 per day. That would be over $110 today — for mostly sitting around.

Troma Should Be Put Out of Business

If Troma can’t produce films with all paid people by now, I don’t think they should be in business.

If you get a chance, watch Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken, because there is a lot more to hate about Troma. Of course, the documentary is a Troma film too. So they are proud of this.

Old Dracula and the Stupidity of Critics Like Roger Ebert

Old DraculaOld Dracula is a 1974 British horror comedy.

It was originally released as Vampira. The reason for that name is that Vampira[1] (Teresa Graves) is Dracula’s old flame, who is now dead. Well, I guess she was dead before, but now she’s dead dead or in a coma. I didn’t see the beginning of the film.

Dracula (David Niven) wants her back. Old age is so lonely. So he gets blood from a number of Playboy playmates. But this turns Vampira into a black-skinned woman. So the film is about Dracula’s attempt to turn Vimpira white. In the end, Dracula is turned black.

Racial Politics In 1970s Film

This was 1974, after all, and inter-racial couples were still taboo. Although they were not all that unusual, they were certainly not something seen in mainstream films. So it’s a happy ending, even if David Niven looks ridiculous in black face.

Shortly after Vampira was released, Young Frankenstein was released and became a huge hit. It was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1974, even though it was released on 15 December.

Roger Ebert Pretends He Doesn’t Know How Films Are Made

So when the distributor took the film to the US in 1975, they called it Old Dracula, hoping to goose the film with the similar title. It doesn’t make much sense to me, because it took me forever to connect “Old Dracula” with “Young Frankenstein.”

The films couldn’t be more different. Old Dracula is a very British comedy — more droll than exquisitely silly like Young Frankenstein[2].

So the distributor changed the name. This led the supposedly good film “critic” Roger Ebert to write, “The movie’s obviously intended as a rip-off of Young Frankenstein, right down to the artwork in the ads.

Old Dracula Was Released Before Young Frankenstein

Young FrankensteinBut Old Dracula was released before it. It was doubtless also conceived and produced before it. Ebert knows how movies are made. He can’t possibly have thought that the producers of Old Dracula saw Young Frankenstein doing so well at the very end of 1974, got the money and casting set, had a screenplay (that is clearly not targeting the same audience) written, shot, edited, and released it within a year.

But there he is. He gives the film one star and calls it incoherent. I haven’t created a page for the film, because I’ve only been able to see the last half of the film, and I had no problem following it.

What’s more, major film “critics” get a whole package on the films they are going to review. That’s how, in the days before Wikipedia and IMDb, film “critics” knew lots of inside information about the films, including the names of minor actors.

How Roger Ebert Could Have Liked Old Dracula

But let’s face it. If Young Frankenstein had never been produced, Ebert would have given the film a chance. (He spends two paragraphs trying to convince us that he did give it a chance because of Niven and director Clive Donner. In a 5 paragraph review, that screams, “I went into this film determined to pan it!”)

I’m not suggesting that Ebert would have loved the film. From what I saw, I’d guess he would have given it 2 and a half or 3 stars. Or maybe only 2 stars. But not one. Not with this movie.

In the quote above, Ebert says the artwork was meant to rip-off Young Frankenstein. I’ve included the images of both posters. Could any objective person say one was trying to rip-off the other?

Film “Critics” Suck

I’m so tired of film “critics.” And it’s particularly bad when you consider that popular music criticism is actually pretty good. Yet people continue to listen to these film blowhards.

Look forward to a full page on the film. I’m hoping I can rent it, because it sells for $20, and I’m not that interested in the film.

[1] Although spelled the same way as Maila Nurmi’s character, her name is pronounced with soft “i” — undoubtedly not wanting to associate the character with Maila Nurmi.

[2] For the record, the brilliance of Young Frankenstein is due to Gene Wilder, not Mel Brooks. From interviews, it’s clear that Brooks had very little to do with the writing. A less narcissistic director wouldn’t even have put his name on the credits. The same is largely true of Blazing Saddles where Brooks did everything he could to minimize Andrew Bergman, the brilliant comedy writer and director. I will admit that I have a very low opinion of Brooks, but it is based on everything I’ve learned over the years. Read the chapter on The Producers in Ralph Rosenblum’s book When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story.

Kobe Bryant Wins Oscar for Best Animated Short With Dear Basketball?!

Dear Basketball
I hate the Academy Awards. No film lover — much less a psychotronic film lover — should have any patience for this narcissistic display. So I didn’t watched a second of last night’s event. But I did read that Kobe Bryant won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for “his” film Dear Basketball. It is mostly stirring controversy because (I don’t know if you’ve heard) sexism is no longer allowed in Hollywood.

And there’s this little problem that Kobe Bryant, to a fair degree of certainty, raped a young woman in 2003. Ultimately, like most rich men, Bryant bought his way out of his legal problems. I don’t like to mix artists with their personal lives, although I must admit that after I got to the point of believing the allegations against Woody Allen, I haven’t been able to watch any of his films. Some like Manhattan are particularly troublesome at the same time that it’s hard to deprive myself of some of Gordon Willis’ best work.

Since When Is Kobe Bryant a Filmmaker?

But what really bugs me here is that Kobe Bryant isn’t a filmmaker. He’s just a rich guy who hired the best people in the field to make something for him. It’s really the creation of Glen Keane, a man usually referred to as “legendary animator.” The music was created by John Williams, a film composer so well known and respected that I can’t imagine anyone reading this not knowing him. His themes for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are major parts of the soundtrack of America.

All Bryant provided was the money and what people are calling a poem, “Dear Basketball.” I wouldn’t call it a poem. A bunch of lines written on a piece of paper is not a poem. That’s especially true when those lines are riddled with platitudes and cliches. “Dear Basketball” doesn’t have a transcendent phrase in it. What’s more, the “poem” is little more than a grand tribute to its writer’s ability to play basketball. It isn’t about basketball. That might generate something of interest. But as it stands, this would fail in a high school sophomore creative writing class.

The Oscars Are a Popularity Contest

I know why Bryant won. He was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years. He was well-known and well-liked in the Los Angeles area for much of the time — minus occasional downs when he raped or did other things. So he’s popular. So he won. The Academy Awards don’t have anything to do with the quality of the films. It’s a popularity test. And this is the most obvious and pathetic example I’ve seen so far.

There’s another thing. I understand that given that all ticket prices are the same, all films should be judged equally at the box office. But when it comes to awards, I think it’s unfair to judge a $100 million film with a $10,000 film. There are men and women’s categories in the Olympic games because men and women have different physical resources. Why isn’t it the same with film? The truth is, the Academy won’t even consider nominating low budget films except under extraordinary circumstances. The Academy Awards is just one long commercial for big-time filmmaking. What does it say to the students who showed so much creativity that they managed to sneak by Hollywood’s natural shallowness? It says lots. But mostly, it says art doesn’t matter and money does.

Dear Basketball Isn’t Even Very Good

But the amazing thing is, the film itself is not that good. Sure, it’s professionally produced. How could it not be?! It was made by a bunch of professionals. But it uses an animation style that was considered cool before Kobe Bryant began playing for the Lakers over two decades ago. The music is saccharine, designed to make the viewer cry despite the fact that there is nothing on the screen to warrant it. I don’t know. Am I supposed to feel bad that a man got to live his ultimate dreams and get paid hundreds of millions of dollars for it now has to retire from one aspect of the game?[1]

Forget the Academy Awards and Hollywood

The one good thing about Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short is that no one can seriously argue that the Academy Awards have any artistic merit. If a film wins an award, it means it was either commercially successful or made by popular people, and the the product didn’t completely suck. But that’s perfect, really. Because that’s Hollywood: an industry designed to make money by making things that aren’t too offensive to the keen viewer. (They mostly fail at that, but they do try.)

[1] Note that if he really loved playing basketball so much, he could go and play in another league. It just wouldn’t be one that paid him tens of millions of dollars per year. And his career is hardly over. He can do different things in the NBA for the rest of his life. But judging from what I’ve seen, he will choose to do the things that will get him the most attention and money.