Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Schlock and Aww: BC BUTCHER and the Kansas Bowling Miracle

Could our current Alt-Right Hype-Bart macho backwash moment be the last gasp of a drowning buffalo? If so, it's a comfort that what is best in man, his ability to celebrate and pay tribute to strong women, should be remembered and absorbed by the nation's upstart young things. The mighty masterpieces of switchblades and eyeliner from Russ Meyer, Jack Hill, Ed Wood, Corman, Del Tenney, Waters, Arthur Marks, Sarno and the like will live on long past that buffalo's panicked squealing, ennobling a new breed of female filmmakers like Anne Biller (THE LOVE WITCH) and most recently to my bemused, even grandfatherly eye, precocious maniac Kansas Bowling, whose entry in the burgeoning prehistoric slasher-beach party genre, BC BUTCHER, was begun when she was a mere prat, i.e. 17. Shot on bright and lovely 16mm, it's been released through Troma, and available on Amazon Prime screaming und soon ze vorld. Or not. As with so many of her favorite films (she even likes Herschel Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman! Eww!) the BUTCHER ain't exactly CITIZEN KANE, or even ONE MILLION BC or even CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Or even CAVEMAN. Or GAVE GIRL. Or even EEGAH! But who wants them? Where da art der?

The shirt, sez it all
Instead, Bowling wisely jams in all the shit she wants, including anachronistic punk rock interludes, a THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE-style romance between hulking prehistoric monster, the BC Butcher (Dwayne Johnson) and the vengeful spirit of a girl murdered by the fierce amazonian tribal leader (Leilani Fideler) for sleeping with her man. In this cave clan matriarchy, boys are way way to the side. Only a few get any lines, and even then they come off as mincing idiots (Kaelin) or anachronisms. Instead of browbeating though, Bowling's rolled a perfect 'j' of A+ on the Bechdel Test.  At 52 minutes long, BUTCHER bravely dares you to dismiss it as too short for a feature, as little more than a home movie made by some bonkers little sister badass, the type who followed you and her cool brother to punk shows and ended up snogging with the bassist.  Everyone else loves her like a brother, and backs her screwy vision for the past.

We need girls like Kansas, they elevate the nerds and incorporate the jocks --even the bullies (like Max in RUSHMORE with that thug Scottish tosser). The Joan of Arc savior of geek kind, Bowling's arrival on the scene is like a nascent Hill-Waters-Meyer version of John Connor, with the Terminator foe being the cookie cutter indie horror with its endless deluge of two-hander captivity dramas, torture-revenge cycles, haunted new tract homes, and washed-out, wan HD video patinas. The rows of Prime streaming are choked with such things. Seek them not!

Look at her there, at left - a kind of Fiona Apple of the post-Psychotronic future, a groovy schlockmeister Joan of Arc. Blossoming natural charisma, when harnessed to democratic creativity (instead of the deadening 'bubble' effect of shallow mean girl-ism) tends to rally the troops. Whole cliques and tribes rise up around such figures, leading to the question of why and when will Bowling act in her own films as, just like CITIZEN KANE is really as much about Orson as it is about Hearst, it's clear how her own charisma and cool has made a slight fan bubble around what is essentially a home movie almost lampooning her own mania for carnage. She turns the audience into an adoring and slightly senile grandfather (like my friend Alan's, who adored our super 8mm action films when we were kids) and the French troops besieging 1429 Orléan.  We follow her into the flames, but then find her licking the walls and babbling about tiny monsters inside her skin or worse, giggling.

We see it a little bit of this effect in SUPER 8, when the boys get Elle Fanning to co-star in their sci-fi opus. Girls like Kansas are the balm of a wounded nerd soul. If they can avoid doing something stupid, liking trying to get romantic, these boys can ride in her crew to destiny. There's always the one dude who wants more, like that bassist in No Doubt; the more they whine and try to grab the ingenue's camera gaze, the more unsightly they become. Then they just... fade... away. It's the rule. No amateur filmmaker should ever be so dumb - for in just asking her out he dooms the entire project. Either she says yes and alienates everyone else in the cast and crew or she says no and you sulk for the rest of the shoot, deliberately sabotaging her sound mix, and otherwise darkening your once sunny resolve. These facts are inescapable, my young friend! Bowling must be free to roll. The Bowling breaks, cradles falling, all that. Joan would have lost all her powers if she started shagging some young buck in the ranks. Maybe she did anyway, but if so - she picked one who could keep his goddamned mouth shut.

If you have Prime, may I suggest you cradle BUTCHER betwixt the also-on-Prime QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS, CAVE GIRL, ADAM AND EVE MEET THE CANNIBALS, HUNDRA, etc. then it suddenly seems rather amazing. Contrast is surely 20/20.

As for other films by women, it would also make a good triple bill with THE LOVE WITCH and #HORROR.  Like them it's a film that bravely does what it wants far outside the normal patriarchal linear structure. For a 'prehistoric slasher film' BUCHER is certainly not the least bit scary and, for a mostly-female cast, not sexy. It's not even very funny. In fact, it's probably somewhere between an annoying slumber party your younger sister is having upstairs, and if you fell asleep flipping back and forth between TEENAGE CAVEMAN and BEACH BLANKET BINGO after a night getting drunk outside the City Gardens All-Ages punk rock show. If that ain't your bag, Jimson, just move along. If your friend's little sister is bothering you, put on your headphones and pretend to be asleep.

Bowling - center - a worker among workers

The issue revealed within BUTCHER is the deep resemblance between girls at a slumber party / unchaperoned Girl Scout camping trip and life in a prehistoric tribe where the men are all either out hunting for weeks at a time, or dead. Packs of girlfriends going through puberty, endangered by sleazy hormonal boys who hide in the shadows of the fronds like saber-tooth tigers; strength in numbers as a large order of cockblockers and final girls run routine patrols in search of stragglers keeps the group secure. The cockblocking DUFF is hated by the boys in the dead of night, but thanked the next afternoon when no one's pregnant. Despite the undercutting and man-stealing what we do see throughout BC is a kind of monkey-grooming tribal togetherness very hard to capture on film. There's safety-in-numbers, so going off to be with a lover or even to look for the last girl who vanished, is to risk never coming back. In these thick woods, a mere 20 yards away may as well be different planet.

A lot of female-helmed work seems to really overdo the victimization - as if these women were dropped into a hostile male-dominated world from out of the sky, utterly defenseless, open to attack, and all women warriors are molded for better or worse from the hands of men, rather than each other. Bowling's movie is way beyond that. A boy or two might play a part either as monster or object of desire tussled over between tribal girls, but in the end the men are little more than objects as seen by a 15-18 year-old girl with a pack of her girl friends. They might stab each other in the back over one, but they make up as fast as they squabble. Boys come and go, sisterhood is forever (as with lion prides).

The key difference is that, precocious or not, Bowling writes like a 16-17 year-old girl rather than beyond her years as some super genius Paul Thomas Anderson-Richard Kelly type for whom high literature seems to underwrite even the expletives, a howl of sacral chakra hunger, the airbrushed-ELO van-driving older brother cinema vs. Bowling's punk rock little sister cinema. And that's what BC is, make no mistake. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The things that would please BUTCHER's detractors (breasts, gore, scares, terrible jokes) would knock it back into just another topless dancer. So the average Troma-fan may heave trollish comment indignantly upon its imdb user comments just as higher-brow critics climbed over themselves with loathing for  #HORROR  and before that, TWILIGHT, or any other film that explores female psyche in its menstrual blood-drenched fury, to suggest a man isn't a woman's whole reason for existence, to show, as so few do, the interaction of women with women in ways other than competing over a man or talking about a man (re: The Bechdel Test). Despite its problems #HORROR is film I'll defend any time, its great EMA score, its chilly post-modernist art design, the privileged ennui and evil wild child pack mentality-- the whirlwind mini-lynching the kids regularly engage in as they turn en masse against each other in turn before passing the pariah badge onwards like a hot potato, it all reminds me of listening to "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Daughter are some Jive Ass Slippers" in sync with a light-sound machine while on Salvia Divinorum, and that's not easy to do. I'd rather see and hear that kind of organic madness, cohering and dissolving like salt pool eddies in an incoming or outgoing tide, rather than some white elephant 'story' any day. With Bowling it's the same as in #HORROR only different, with more love and less tech. Her characters are united against exterior threats, they might kill each other and step on each other's turn to pick the activity for 'evening theater' but they make up too. It's the kind of clique-based insecurity round-robin so intrinsic to adolescence, depending on the group leader even as they undermine her authority and steal her man' with lots of little fights and making up ebb and flow of the 'pack mind'. Phrases are repeated and expanded on as if everyone is making declarative statements for the first time, then going back over them as if to remind themselves of their character notes. Chief Neandra (Fideler) for example keeps reiterating she already killed "the beast" so there can't be a real external threat (a split second flashback shows super fast that she killed a stuffed animal).

We see some of this girl pack mentality in Biller's LOVE WITCH where Elaine tends to go for men who belong to other women, even that of her first new friend in town, or the vicious feeding frenzy of popularity hot potato chasing in #HORROR, but Bowling's script, and the charmingly amateur but naturalistic and sincere performances from the mostly all-female cast lend it a unique warmth, where the leader, Leilani, might be a little too chest-thumpingly insecure and needy, she also can check herself and make up with girls she wronged; she knows when to take credit for killing a monster before or after it's dead, but also doesn't run from the fight. She knows instinctively that the one way to beat a monster in a cave fight is to pick the fruit off his girlfriend's dead body. For his beloved is none other than the girl Leilana killed and partially devoured in the opening scene, gussied up in a weird Vorhees mom and son FRIDAY 13th PART 2-style operation. In other words, it's true love between hulking monster and vengeance-crazed corpse/ghost (laughing in black and white nightmare flashbacks in ways shockingly similar to the girl laughing at William Campbell from inside his wet canvas in BLOOD BATH).

When one of their tribe gets killed they can only look so far in these thick woods  -- the corpse could be mere feet away and there's just too many distractions. Characters kind of riff on their own insecurity like the tribe leader who's so possessive and needy of her man, unbearably fey Rex (Kato Kaelin) a seemingly mostly-gay weirdo more playful and giggly than sexy; or the anachronistic touches like Rodney 'the Mayor of the Sunset Strip' Bingenheimer and his friend Duck-Duck appearing on a rock in full 'modern' hipster clothes to introduce 'the Ugly Kids' a proto-punk band air-banding their latest hit on watermelons during the tribe's nightly story time, replete with slow mo jumps in the air like a Monkees music interlude. The costumes are all clearly cut from the fabric store by jagged scissors the way a mom might whip up a Halloween costume never meant to survive the night. And the group is regularly endangered by their tribal leader's adolescent insecurity.

The primitive milieu certainly serves the juvenilia, as does the Troma label. In other words, though I find Troma's puerile sense of humor generally nauseating, I do support its inlawful unalienable right to exist, I only lament the socker loom smell that comes from (in my mind) unlaid white guys making films so they can make girls take their tops off without it being weird, a sort of parenthetical misogyny and objectification barely held in check by the guiding hand of cool Lloyd Kaufman. A lot of that might be my own imagination, maybe mixing up Troma films with Fred Olen Ray's snarky half-assed silicone and Casio pre-programmed drum tracks. Video makes me depressed so how nice that a whole past era was shot on 16mm and 35mm film, when this shit had to be hunted down in the loathsome part of town, where underground nights would pack 'em in on weekend midnight shows to see stuff like John Waters' MULTIPLE MANIACS (recently out on a great Blu-ray from Criterion) or some Warhol or Richard Kern shock litany you literally couldn't see anywhere else. A young princess of the post-Psychotronic generation, Bowling shares that perfect Michael Weldon mix of punk rock and grindhouse influences so DIY and FU as to inspire generations to pick up cameras and guitars and start bands before they even know how to play or films before they know how to shoot.

Thus here we have colorful dialogue fusing classic caveman epics with modern feminism, so the girls have evening entertainment with Anaconda (Natasha Halevi  - with the best long hair I've seen in centuries) noting, "I've been waiting for two moons for my turn in the evening theater" and then wanting to play charades, and then Leilani cutting the game after one guess. Oh the nascent humanity! Is it the movie #HORROR so desperately wanted to be, in a way, the KIDS of darkness? No. It is what it is, and for that alone it deserves to stand next to LOVE WITCH, DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, and AMER as mach 7 feminist retro-throwbacks to the days of AIP beach movies and Italian Eurosleaze imports making strange double features.

Bowling is way beyond that kind of thing, and that's why she's so important - she's the antidote, in a sense, to the self-important narcissism of Brit Marling's self-important 'intellectual' sci-fi films. There's no way Marling likes Hill-Meyer-Corman style primitivist drive-in fare. She's too busy cooing over SOLARIS and 2001. But us, the male rows of eye stalks, who escaped into the movies back in nursery school and have been on the run ever since, we're delighted. Shit, son, Bowling even likes shit I do not, such as the Troma films. I respect Lloyd Kaufman, he's a true original and like Charles Band has his own gonzo flavor, the kind of 'sub-Corman post-Corman' entrepreneurs who carved their own niche with creativity born of poverty-necessitated improvisation. But for those of us who actually were teens in the 80s, taking first girlfriends to see BREAKFAST CLUB at the local Bijou, ugh, etc. it's something we're not always anxious to revisit. Nostalgia tends to drop off a steep shelf with puberty. But the movies that recapture the giddy thrill of making movies, back in the era before affordable video cameras, when a reel or two of super 8mm film could be shut and 'edited in the can' by weekend nutcases like my friend Alan and I, then dubbed, mixed, gunshots scratched on, and ready to show the grandparents by the following Saturday, those will always be in tune with the moment, for they're not trying to 'take us away for 90 minutes' but rather show us how to actually escape altogether. Movies like BUTCHER are the missing rung in the ladder, where a girl and a big 16mm camera in her father's Topanga Canyon backyard can be the Joan of Arc torch that awakens you from your Topps gum-stick slumber and into the Steadicam harness. Hurrah for Bowling then, for insisting on using 16mm, for bravely making a teenager-by-teen movie (rather than a precocious look at adulthood from outside it), for reveling in her own punk rock can-do aesthetic. Bowling may have a ways to go but she's already herself, and that's something. May she now join Biller, Amirpour, Xan Cassavettes, and Helene Cattet, to stand with elders Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, a not only more female-helmed horror future but a true kind of female horror, where men are neither the focus nor the demographic... My male gaze stands ready for its reverse gender co-option, let the scissors fall through the center of my evening paper. The ancient past is now rewritten in Panic hair dye. It is in good hands. The hands it is in are smeared in fake blood and they are attached to a real girl. She might be named Kansas Bowling, but she's not trying to be coy or Lolita-ish or otherwise conforming to some masculine gaze or nerd ideal, but she actually loves this shit - she worked all summer to make sure it was shot on 16mm instead of video. Her love of the trash classics is palpable in every junky frame.  I love that I don't even like it. It's the end of the free period. The dawn of the non.

"It is the waving of her Heavenly Hair!' The Sanctiomonious Sci-Fi of Marvy Brit Marling
Let the Darionioni Nuovo Entrain your Dissonance: AMER (2009)
Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Take out the Kids and Tuck in the Trash: #HORROR
Prepare for the Coming of the Hillary Matriarchy: DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT
Babes of Wrath: Dangerous Women of the New Depression vs. American Dogma
America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
CinemArchetype 23: The Wild Child
The Beautiful and the Darned: Avenging TWILIGHT

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