Tuesday, April 07, 2009
LOTT D: Toxic assets?
NY Times theater reviewer Charles Isherwood takes a look at the new Trroma-inspired off Broadway musical The Toxic Avenger. To this blogger, the review suggests that this is one of those things you either decide you're into or you throw it a pass, but it is pretty much exactly what you think it's going to be. More interesting is Isherwood's rapid oscillations between elitist disdain and displays of "hey, I'm just a regular guy" wackiness. Check the end of this excerpt:
Actually, the dopey, intermittently funny show that opened on Monday night at New World Stages is not the first all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of this horror spoof dreamed up in the 1980s by Lloyd Kaufman, the no-brow auteur behind the nigh-legendary cheesy-flick manufacturer Troma Entertainment.
Um, it’s not even the second.
This new version, with book by Joe DiPietro (“I Love you, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) and music by the Bon Jovi member David Bryan, is at least the third attempt to transform Melvin, the geek turned righteous monster of the movie, into a Sweeney Todd for our times. Clearly some fictional characters are born to sing, but who could have imagined that Mr. Kaufman would become the new Metastasio?
If you can’t quite place Metastasio, he wrote opera libretti in the 18th century that were used and reused by various composers. Possibly this review is the first time these two artists’ names have ever appeared in a single paragraph. (And by the way, wouldn’t Metastasio be a great name for a superhero?)
To be fair, Isherwood's not above this campy self-referential trash cult stuff. He later opines:
Musicals based on preposterously unlikely material have become fairly commonplace — we have already been exposed to “Evil Dead: The Musical,” for heaven’s sake — so you don’t get a free pass for simply choosing a cheesy movie and making it sing. The joke is getting stale. “Little Shop of Horrors,” perhaps the progenitor of the genre, had wit, charm and a melodic, lovable retro score. Only a few songs in “Toxic Avenger” rise above the generic in either music or lyrics. (Mr. DiPietro wins a point for rhyming “macho” with “gazpacho,” but would a girl who thinks Toxic is a French name really know about that Spanish soup?)
We'll leave the aside the incongruity of wondering if a blind librarian would know gazpacho is, but not wondering why exposure to toxic waste gave Toxie superpowers instead of cancer. Rather, I think he's pulling his punches here. What he's really lamenting is the idea that, if you work in certain subgenres, you don't really have to try to produce quality. It's that free pass mentality that says, "I'm making a [fill in vaguely disreputable entertainment varietal]; quality is beside the point." This free pass mentality carries with it an often unspoken corollary that demanding quality is, somehow, elitist. As if to demanding that a third-time rehash of a production at least include some good music is the equivalent of declaring that theater has been dead since the Puritans pulled down the original Globe.
Recently, Roger Ebert hit a Isherwoodian note in his review of the new Last House on the Left. Like the Toxie musical, the new Last House is the latest addition to a long line of remakes, being the second remake of a remake. At the Hall of the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, it was decided that we should compose a response to Ebert's pan, specifically focused on this line:
Other scenes, while violent, fell within the range of contemporary horror films, which strive to invent new ways to kill people, so the horror fans in the audience will get a laugh.
That's certainly a zinger, composed intentionally to tick off a bunch of people Ebert thinks should be harassed. His characterization of horror film fans is broad and derogatory and his dismissal was sure to kick of wave after wave of pro-horrorist rodomontades. Though Ebert was an important defender of the original Halloween and (as his review mentions) the original Last House, fans have suggested that he doesn't understand the horror genre. Even more hysterically, some suggest that Ebert's a snobbish elitist, which ignores the fact that he wrote the Citizen Kane of trash flicks: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Still, despite it's fan-baiting sharpness, that line is not, I think, the heart of Ebert's jeremiad. That appears in the paragraph previous, emphasis mine:
Not many unseasoned audience members will find the 2009 rape scene "toned down," and indeed I found it painful to watch. In the 2005 film, it was so reprehensibly and lingeringly sadistic, I found it unforgivable. So now my job as a film critic involved grading rape scenes.
For Ebert, Isherwood, and I suspect a large number of critics and fans, the issue is the gratuity of so much genre art. By "gratuitous" I don't refer to extremely violence (though that is certainly the case in many horror flicks). Rather, I mean the pointlessness of its extremes. In Ebert's review, he contrasts the inspiration for the trio of remakes, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, with the later models. His issue is not, necessarily, with the violence of the latter flicks. After all, the story is pretty much the same between all three films. What he misses is the tangle of revenge and guilt, the questions about justice and the limits of the Christian ethic of forgiveness. In the remakes, all that's left is the killing. He admits that there is a primal tension in the naked struggle to survive – "We are only human, we identify with the parents, we fear for them, and we applaud their ingenuity." – but this is that really enough?
This film, for example, which as I write has inspired only one review (by "Fright"), has generated a spirited online discussion about whether you can kill someone by sticking their head in a microwave. Many argue that a microwave won't operate with the door open. Others cite an early scene establishing that the microwave is "broken." The question of whether one should microwave a man's head never arises.
(As an aside, some have suggested that this line points to Ebert's lack of a clue, claiming that it shows Ebert is unable to distinguish the fictional depiction of murder from the real thing. "Of course you don't really stick peoples' heads in microwaves, dummy," say these critics. What Ebert is really referring to is the moral conflict the parent's feel in the original film. When does justice become bloodlust? That's what Ebert claims is missing from both the film and the fandom that supports such flicks.)
Ultimately, Ebert's correct. He has over-generalized, but he gets the basic dynamic down. Too many horror producers are willing to take the free pass. The rebirth of the slasher subgenre, perhaps the purist expression of the "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" filmmaking Ebert decries (though here Ebert's wrong; these filmmakers very strongly believe in something: they believe they'll make some money), is it most recent example. Uninspired and phoned-in pastiches that are the color-by-numbers paintings of the horror film world, these flicks are the very definition of "free pass." And it’s the fans that are handing the passes out. When fans explain to critics that bad dialogue, lack of characterization, predictable plotting, barely competent camera work, and atrocious acting are part of the point of the subgenre, they're giving these talentless hacks carte blanche to turn in crap work.
I think it's high time for a little elitist disdain up in here and I'm glad Ebert brought some.
Imagine how different the genre would be if fans told filmmakers that every time they were going to kill a bunch of people, they should have a dramatically and intellectually convincing reason to do so.
To paraphrase Kurt Weill, I don't know if that would bring you joy or grief, but it would be fantastic, beyond belief.