Monday, October 31, 2005


Onion AV Club: What makes the horror genre so suited to political comment? This year especially, movies like George Romero's Land Of The Dead and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects have had more to say about the current geopolitical situation than straight dramas or comedies.

John Carpenter: Well, that's always been the case with the "B" genres. Not to say that horror movies are always "B," but they usually are. Because they're supposed to be about horror and blood and all that horrible stuff, it's easier to sneak in little subversive messages. You have to be more careful when you're making big mainstream comedies or mainstream drama. Nobody wants to touch that stuff.

I guess I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit more about “B” genres, schlock and grind house shows. I brought it up a little bit last Jamespeak and found the above quote from John Carpenter shortly thereafter. Originally I had wanted this to tie in with the Halloween weekend, but it looks like it’s just not happening.

(If anyone’s confused as to what constitutes “schlock” throughout this Jamespeak, prime examples of what I’m talking about can be taken from Joe Bob Briggs’ book, Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History, which contains essays on such movies as The Exorcist, Blood Feast, Reservoir Dogs, Deep Throat, The Wild Bunch, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.)

* * *

Recently, I hung out with a co-worker after we were done the day’s shift and on the subway from the bar to the movie house we ended up talking about horror movies. She hated them because she thought they were cruel, sadistic and unfun. “Why would anybody want to watch a movie where the character gets chopped up into pieces,” she asked. It was a fair point, and I had a tough time arguing with the logic. But then again, when did logic ever have anything to do with tastes?

Horror and schlock genres are always a tough “sell” to people who are squeamish and simply don’t like them. If they’re simply movies where the only thing that happens is people get chopped up into pieces, it’s damn near impossible to convince them that there’s more to them than that, or that people who like them do not simply like to see people being eviscerated.

Because in a way, fans of grind house schlock do like those elements. (Seriously, why watch a horror movie if nobody gets hacked up with an axe?)

We see them because they’re fun. Damn fun. They’re also very, very funny.

The experience of watching schlock is not an intellectual or cerebral one; it’s a visceral one. It’s the same (or similar) reason people ride roller coasters.

It’s also more than that. Like Mr. Carpenter said, in ignored genres, while offering a fun, visceral experience, the artists behind them can have things to say without being pedantic or heavy-handed. They also have a chance to get away with conveying very subversive and unpopular ideas.

Yes, a spoonful of disemboweled intestines (or topless ladies) makes the medicine go down.

There are elements of social and political commentary in the really great B-movies and underground plays. Faceboy and Robert Pritchard’s Grindhouse A-Go-Go was about as triple-X-rated as you can get without needing to obtain a dungeon license, and last year’s Off-Broadway horror/thriller Bug was the most fun I had had in a theatre in years. These were (are) pure, unadulterated entertainments, and not for the squeamish by any stretch of the imagination.

My experience going to see theatre like this was often thinking, “What fucking world have I entered into?”

I will freely admit here that much of what I’m writing about is along the lines of, “Hooray for boobies, hooray for splattering blood.” I’m not saying that all schlock is good (I’m not the biggest fan of the Friday the 13th movies and the current crop of PG-13 horror movies like The Ring or The Grudge leave me cold), but good schlock, good grind house is absolutely thrilling for me (seriously, when I went to go see Land of the Dead I had the look of a little kid in a candy store). It also has a lot of artistic merit.

For example, Grindhouse A-Go-Go, which featured naked women masturbating on the laps of audience members, hardcore pornographic tapes on the TV screens (like Edward Penishands) and a character called Moody Naziani done up in blackface was going on around the same time as Mayor Giuliani was gutting the alternative artistic scene in New York. He was cracking down on sidewalk and performance artists as well as such things as the “Sensation” exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum. Although seemingly nothing more than drunken midnight fun catering to prurient interests and downright “nobrow,” the makers behind Grindhouse A-Go-Go at the now defunct Surf Reality were using the show to openly protest Mayor Giuliani’s “friendly fascism” towards New York artists.

The Off-Broadway show Bug, one of the best plays I have seen in years (YEARS), featured the projectile vomiting of blood, full-frontal nudity and incessant violence to convey very dense ideas about the nature of abusive relationships and how people in said relationships establish their own skewed reality, and view outside voices of reason as poisonous lies.

A recurring problem I see with theatre right now is that it has a real arrogant attitude with a genuine lack of nerve. Shows often seem neither particularly fun nor particularly thought provoking. There’s nothing visceral about them, yet the ideas presented often seem heavy-handed, pretentious and academic.

In other words, many plays trying to convey political ideas are too “middle-of-the-road.” They don’t have the lowbrow, unapologetic fun of the films of Russ Meyer or John Carpenter and don’t have the serious philosophical, moral and spiritual weight of “highbrow” genres or media (classical music, poetry).

They’re not quite for kids and not quite for adults.

I suspect this is because they wear their theses on their sleeves. There’s no artifice (and often no art).

Maybe this is because of the reason Mr. Carpenter mentioned above. Maybe many outlets in the Off-off-Broadway world ultimately want mainstream acceptance, or at the very least, acceptance from the academic circles. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind either with regard to Nosedive, but at the same time, I’m not kidding myself here. Plus, I do enjoy writing plays that have the potential to be regarded as lowbrow schlock (hell, I’ve written a play that has brain-eating and another where a character cuts up a stripper).

I do think theatre-makers interested in making political statements can learn a lot from schlock, if only to learn how to make their work more interesting to watch and enticing to attend.

In other words, whereas I don’t see “Serious Theatre” right now as being either fun or thought provoking, I do see B-grade schlock as both.

* * *

While writing this, I took time out to go see Mac Rogers’ play, Hail Satan, which, although not based in the schlock grind house categories I’ve been talking about, was ostensibly a horror play and used elements of the horror genre to express several dense and complicated ideas. Plus, it was pretty fucking excellent.

Scaring little children,

James “Zombie” Comtois

October 27, 2005

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Third-Grade Recital

First off, a big (belated) congrats to Shay Gines, Nick Micozzi, Jason Bowcutt and everyone else involved in the NY Innovative Theatre Awards. From what I hear, the first annual ceremony was a huge success.

Also, congratulations to Harold Pinter for winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature (on the off-chance he peruses the Internet and reads Jamespeak to compensate for his missing the past few Nosedive shows). I think Mac Rogers is right on the money when he refers to Mr. Pinter as “Playwriting 101,” and cites Dominic Drumgoole’s line of Mr. Pinter and his work being "the aircraft carrier almost everyone else's plane takes off from." I really can’t put it any better than that, considering I actually find the viewpoint that Mr. Pinter merely writes acting exercises downright perverse and never considered that a strong defense for his work was needed (it’s pretty self-evident and speaks for itself, I always thought).

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Pinter, having played James in a high school production of “The Collection” my junior year and reading The Homecoming shortly thereafter. Pretty much since then I was hooked; as silly as it sounds, his use of the pause was (and is) pure genius. Like Mac, who admits that he believes his first few plays are Pinter knock-offs, my interest in writing scripts came from ripping off Mr. Pinter’s use of pauses and silences. I learned a lot about using pauses and silences, the difference between a pause and a silence (and between a slight pause and a long silence), how to use them and how they affect meaning and pacing from Mr. Pinter’s work.

Reading his work also taught me about subtext in theatre and deriving meaning from what is explicitly not said. For some reason, as frustrating and confusing as I found his plays (and I do always get the feeling when seeing or reading a play by Mr. Pinter that there’s a crucial scene or dialogue exchange missing from the text), the confusion was what always drew me to them. I believed the characters more the more they ended up evading answering questions and responded to confrontations with silence or non sequiturs. As Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times:

“Mr. Pinter even demands that his interpreters analyze the relative weights and measures of different kinds of speechlessness. In a play by Mr. Pinter, a silence is never a mere pause, and a pause is never to be confused with a silence. Each has its own presence and purpose, and it is the actor's job to unlock and communicate to the audience the secrets of the empty spaces in the text.”

Well put.

* * *

As for what’s been going on at my end of the barnyard, I’ve just finished my rewrites for A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol and we’re rounding up the cast for it as I write this (many cast members from last year’s production have stayed on, although a few have changed). I’m pretty happy with the updates (there aren’t that many; I’ve changed maybe a quarter of the dialogue) and am looking forward to seeing what Pete and the cast bring to the table this year.

Right now I’m working on writing a short script for Vampire Cowboy’s upcoming “Revamped” fundraiser on the origin of their company. With luck, people will find it fun and funny (hey, it’s making me laugh, but then again I’m a giggling simpleton).

* * *

As for my pretentious and grumbling musings about the state of independent theatre in New York, I guess I’d like to talk a little bit about professionalism and unprofessionalism that is seen in this sector.

What brought this up for me recently was mainly two things: one, my attendance at the last Dish meeting and an issue brought up during the session and two, watching an episode of New York Noise.

Upon going to my first Dish meeting in several months (I had been absent for various reasons; helping Pete move was one excuse, seeing a show was another, simply not feeling like going was another), the subject of commenting and discussing each other’s plays came up. In general, I really don’t think this is a good or bad idea. As much as I enjoy hearing what audiences of my plays think, I’m not really in the need for them to provide a “book report” or have them give me “notes.”

Of course, when the idea was brought up, there were so many terrified caveats and reservations from some of the directors and managing directors from companies. If people were to make comments about shows, only a certain (small) number of “talking points” should be allowed on the table. Only say constructive things. Don’t’ act as an editor or co-writer. Only say what you liked or didn’t like. Make an articulate case. Don’t make comments the director wouldn’t want to hear.

And so on, and so on.

(My opinion, which I expressed at the meeting, is that if the companies really wanted to hear comments and criticism from their peers, there really should be no criteria at all. In other words, if you want your audience to talk, let them talk, and say whatever they damn well want about the show, even if it’s “That fucking SUCKED!”)

The problem with all of this (and, regrettably, the problem I’ve seen the Dish have) is that these people want to simultaneously raise the profile of the Off-off companies involved and bring them closer to the level of the “Major Leagues” (i.e., raise attendance numbers, receive grants, get more press coverage, etc.) and foster a level of thin-skinned insulation and isolation (i.e., disregard harsh criticism, evade hard truths about the causes of diminished attendance levels and diminished interest in press coverage from major press outlets, etc.).

Receiving harsh criticism is very much is very much one of the “rules of the game” if you’re an independent theatre company and want a place at the “big kids’ table.” To be perfectly frank, if you can’t shrug off (or learn to shrug off) the occasional “You suck!” and “Go fuck yourself, asshole” comment or review, you should either be making theatre as part of a fun, private insular club (solely for close family and close friends) or not at all.

(This thought process was compounded after talking to a theatre critic who told stories of receiving copious amounts of hate mail from directors and writers after writing negative reviews of their work. I was really floored, since I genuinely believed — and still believe — that to be a purely amateur mistake. In other words, I can see someone writing a “Fuck you, critic” letter after staging their first play. A bad idea, but hey. They’re new and everyone makes mistakes. But after that first play and that first bad review, you grow up and get over it. I mean, yes I’ve received some shitty reviews and have been hurt by them, but the idea of attacking the reviewer that wrote it or the paper that printed it is fundamentally alien to me.)

What struck me (both after hearing some company comments about this peer review idea and hearing the critic’s horror stories) is that there really are a number of people who want to have their cake and eat it, too, and are shocked that they can’t. In order to be taken seriously in the independent theatre scene, you have to develop — or at least want to develop — thick skin.

Or, as my theatre critic friend said, “If you want papers to come see and review your show, you have to put up with what they choose to write.”

So that was Point One.

As for Point Two, one thing I had noticed, after watching an episode of New York Noise (kind of a local “MTV” for New York-based indie musicians) on Channel 25, was that watching Off-off theatre, like listening to unsigned rock groups, can either feel like watching something quite fun and innovative, or like sitting through a third-grader’s recital. And I don’t (necessarily) mean that in a pejorative way. I mean it quite literally. The sound of certain actors’ voices, the production values, the acoustics of the room brings me back on a visceral level to watching third-graders sing Christmas songs in an elementary school auditorium.

(Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the band that specifically triggered this feeling/revelation, I just remember it being one band in particular that made me think, “Shit. They might as well have taped a nine-year-old singing a show tune in a cafeteria, because this looks and sounds exactly the same.”)

Now, sometimes this can have a certain camp or kitsch value. That is, I have had fun seeing performances from groups that clearly don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of attaining any sort of mainstream (even alternative mainstream) success and play with that (the early “Grindhouse a-Go-Go” at Surf Reality is a perfect example of this, which was why I was mildly dismayed when they started trying to make it a little more professional and bring it down to an “R-Rated” musical comedy show from its original unapologetic reviled X-Rated trash).

And obviously, when a group does not go for this third-grade assembly feel (but succeeds in said feel), you hope they have an intermission so you can bolt the hell out of there.

Again, Nosedive is in a weird situation where (in my assessment) we don’t fit in with the downtown underground comedy scene (i.e., Zero Boy, Tom X. Chao, Red Bastard, et al.) or the conventional Off-off-Broadway scene. This has sometimes worked in our advantage (when we produce something that appeals to both audiences, such as Evil Hellcat and Other Lurid Tales and A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol), sometimes to our disadvantage (when we produce something that appeals to neither, such as Dying Goldfish). Ultimately, my personal preference as a spectator leans toward the former (given a choice between seeing, say, Bex Schwartz and an Off-off restaging of Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros isn’t much of a choice at all, to be frank) while my personal preference as a writer leans toward the latter (although I do enjoy writing what could be regarded as underground grindhouse schlock; The Adventures of Nervous Boy could very well be regarded as reviled X-Rated trash, which would be completely fine by me).

Anyway, I just wanted to talk about this for a bit. I now have to get back to writing this damn “Revamped” script for Qui and Abby.

Eating peanut butter at the big kids’ table,

James “Crying Little Bitch” Comtois

October 18, 2005

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