Wives by Moonlight

These stills come from Joe Sarno's celebrated sexploitation title of 1966, Moonlighting Wives. Building on the era's fascination with the suburbs as a hotbed of illicit sexual escapades, the film tells the story of an ambitious housewife who turns her part-time stenography business into a classy prostitution ring. As in so many other low-budget films, this story seems to unfold in a world rather like ours and yet somewhat "off." Key to this is the lighting, which either through Sarno's brilliant design or limited resources (in the end, it doesn't matter) portrays sixties suburbia as an incredibly dark and foreboding series of interiors. Early in the film, a sleazy boss hits on his temp, framed against a window of impenetrable blackness, almost as if there is no existence beyond this dingy office. Plotting to expand their empire, three women stand at a bar of shadows, emerging from a black pool and framed against black marble. A wife reluctant to "moonlight" sits with her adulterous lover/pimp on a bed as more shadows creep up the wall. A lowly grindhouse title with no ambitions beyond titillation, the film nevertheless captures a certain sinister spirit--enabled by the no doubt "accidental" poetry of skipping on the fill lights.

Pebbles Flintstone -- Evangelist!

Beyond offering the novel image of a prehistoric computer, this 1979 incarnation of The Flintstones invites us to wonder about the relationship between Christ and cartoon characters. The opening page reminds us: As everyone knows, the Flintstones lived in a Stone Age town called Bedrock. The Flintstones, therefore, were Stone Age people, as were all of the residents of Bedrock. This meant that they lived many, many tens of thousands of years ago, so that a lot of things which we take for granted simply hadn't happened yet. Of course, this includes Christmas. Adopting a secular angle on this debate, the plot here revolves around a contest to rename something called "The Cool, Merry Season After Summer's Harvest is Reaped." The stone-age computer on the cover is programmed to evaluate all the new names for the holiday, but in the end Fred and Barney's incompetence ruins the contest. On the last page, however, we see that Pebbles has arranged her building blocks to spell "CHRISTMAS." Viewers of the original series may remember that Pebbles and Bam Bam sang a song called, "Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In" (a fragment can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpab0a3W4Ec). The song features the line, "She said he causes trouble when you let him in the room/He will never ever leave you if your heart is full of gloom." The "he" here is Satan (or as he is called in the song, "the devil"). The song is now a Christian standard. In the Flintstones story bible, was Pebbles charged with the task of anticipating the advent of Christianity?

Anxious Coed Spontaneous Fried-Chicken Dance Party

Sublime badness exists in a signifying purgatory, caught somewhere between diegetic suspension and profilmic fascination.  Scenes are blocked, lines delivered, images shot and edited—we recognize that we are witnessing an attempt at narration of some sort.  At the same time, an unpredictable alliance of forces conspires to pull us out of this fabricated world; or, perhaps more accurately, to draw us into an historical index, a photographic record.

In the Herschel Gordon Lewis gore fest, The Gruesome Twosome (1967), coeds in negligees gather in a dorm room for a late-night snack.   They share concerns about their friend Dawn moving off-campus, given that a deranged killer is on the loose and three more girls have just gone missing.  Incredibly, strangely, beautifully, their anxiety transforms into a spontaneous dance party—youthful exuberance unable to resist the lure of stock discotheque music blaring from the radio.

Lewis handles all of this in his characteristically leaden visual style, staging both the conversation and the dance outbreak as a static tableau.  Other than a quick insert for a timely newspaper headline (itself seemingly typeset by a madman), Lewis waits a full seventy-three seconds before moving the camera into the space, only to return immediately for another protracted 38 seconds of the original set-up.  Much fruggin’ and passing of chicken legs takes place—a few moments of rather tame erotic spectacle to offset and motivate the gore to follow.  And then back to the plot—a radio announcer interrupts the music to warn that the three missing college girls are now presumed murdered—a revelation Lewis covers with a few cutaways and a couple of awkward pans. 

As is so common in “bad” cinema, we are left with the sensation that we are not watching a movie so much as watching people pretending to be in a movie.  Lewis’ dedication to the “long-take” (out of economic necessity, of course) only exacerbates this sense of play-acting.  Without the escape valve of cutaways or the emphasis of camera movement, the actors are left to fend for themselves.  Unable to sustain the scene’s challenging shift from anxiety to pajama party to sober attention, the actors instead perform a strange array of overly deliberate gestures rehearsed to convey a “convincing” portrait of a vibrant coed confab.  In a travesty of Bazin, however, Lewis’ lingering camera transforms this seemingly spontaneous party into a tableau of odd profilmic details: the woman in white folding her lingerie in the midst of a greasy chicken feast; her playful poking of the woman in the tiger-print mini to dance; the woman in pink’s awkward transition from concerned friend to momentarily distracted dancer; white-negligee woman inexplicably transferring a throw pillow from one bed to the other; Tiger-print dancer’s clumsy pointing at the radio to convey the narrative import of the announcer; Dawn’s stolid blocking and absolute impassivity throughout all three sections of the scene; the wallpaper; the hair; the hairspray.  A pink stuffed animal desperately attempts to trick us into believing this cheap Florida motel suite is actually a cozy dorm room.  

And through it all looms the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, centered in the frame as a kind of deep-fried punctum, a trademark so familiar that its appearance, perversely, only adds to the unreality of the scene (On at least two occasions, Lewis turned to the Colonel as an investor.  In another film, an aspiring rock band gets paid in KFC, served by Colonel Sanders himself).  Early product placement, the bucket also draws the ensemble together in another daunting challenge: how does one engage in a sexy go-go dance while brandishing a greasy chicken leg (this bucket has only legs, apparently, perhaps because they “read” better on film as chicken).  Once again, action staged to draw us deeper into this world of endangered coeds instead becomes an index of some other reality—in this case a poorly lit and unflattering presentation of antique fast-food, dominating the mise-en-scene as a distracting and inconvenient prop.   

Such is the crisis that occurs at some point in every H.G. Lewis title—indeed in any “bad” film of merit.  Should the viewer continue pretending to believe in the film’s pretending to be real?  Or is it better to plunge nauseously, like Roquentin, into the real real that lurks within the image?  In the badfilm sublime, this real hides in plain sight, waiting for that moment when narration and diegetic investment can no longer contain its greasy, pink, wallpapered, fruggin’ insistence to be set free.     

Serial Killers of Tomorrow

I recently found these decapitated figures side by side at a local thrift store. Given the degree of surgical precision, the removal of the heads appears to have been deliberate. The clown feeding a headless boy is from a series based on the paintings of Norman Rockwell. The praying child is kneeling on a Bible with a secret compartment inside.

Good Night, Vampira


This piece appeared in the BYOTV exhibition at the New American Art Union gallery in Portland, Oregon (March 2008). Commemorating the imminent demise of analog broadcasting, the show used a low-power signal to transmit a series of short video pieces within the gallery (patrons were issued their own portable TV sets upon entrance).

Will Hallucinate for Licensed Product

Orderlies working the psych-ward spend a fair amount of time policing the television set. The psychotic, as it turns out, do not fare well when left completely alone with what remains our most imperious of media. At the center of their difficulties is what psychiatry calls the “delusion of reference”—a belief that the mass media speak directly to you or about you. Is Drew Carey asking you, specifically, to “come on down?” Do “Pop-Up Videos” hit a little too close to home? Do you somehow feel the new 90210 is an elaborate allegory based on your own personal humiliations in high school, possibly stolen directly from your diary or mind? Congratulations, you’ve earned that first round of Thorazine.

The rest of this article can be read at FlowTV

Circuit City, Unplugged

The entertainment industry is an industry—nothing could be more obvious than that. Somewhere out there, suits debate if the market will bear another Will Ferrell sports parody, advertisers conspire to convince us that deleted scenes from Hancock actually constitute a “bonus feature,” and retailers search for new ways to liquidate extra copies of another failed Dane Cook project. And yet, while we may be vaguely aware that budgeting, marketing, demographics, advertising, and distribution have an impact on media commodities, the business side of entertainment often remains remote and almost magical—like Keebler elves shoveling cookies out of a tree.
There are, however, occasions when a radical irruption forces a more direct and all-too-real confrontation between the economic realms of production and consumption, Fudge Stripe factory and cookie jar. I experienced just such a breach a few days ago while having my car’s oil changed at the local Jiffy Lube. With a half-hour to kill, I decided to check out a “store closing” sale at the Circuit City across the street. For those who haven’t heard, Circuit City—once the nation’s second-largest retailer of media and electronics—recently declared bankruptcy, bested by Best Buy. While a few of the flagship stores will remain open, most Circuit City locations are in the midst of liquidating inventory and closing their doors for good.
The rest of this article can be read at World Picture

A Specter is Haunting Television Studies

The party is over, or so we are told. Blame who you want: Wall Street speculators—minorities with the audacity to be home owners—two years of a Democratic congress or eight years of Dubya. Bottom line–America has awoken to the cruel reality that an economy cannot survive based only on endless and increasingly manic consumption. For a time the nation made a valiant last-stand of mass disavowal, millions of Americans raiding the nearest Wal-Mart each week for new flat-screens, bulk salad-shooters, and mountains of 99 cent undershirts, all the while realizing that their own community’s only remaining exports were tears and crystal meth. To those reading this beyond the borders of the U.S.A.: our apologies—we would have bought more crap, but we’re completely maxed out.

The rest of this article can be read at: FlowTV