Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movies: Bitching and moaning.

There's a story, one of those industry stories that may or may not be true, but it's good and telling, and that's a good as true - better than true - in the business of making dreams, so people keep telling it.

Before the sputtering collapse of the Sex Pistols, punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren was trying to assemble a film project that he'd already titled, with uncharacteristic honesty, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. There was already something of a script and, from the details I've gleaned from the various sources I've run across, it was something of a mess of a film. A phantasmagoric collage of unconnected provocations, it was meant not only to ensure the impresario's status at the UK's most scandalous entrepreneur, but to put his increasingly rebellious help - the Pistols themselves - in their place. For example, the plot would have required John "Rotton" Lydon to play act his way through an incestuous affair with an actress playing his mother, a shot at the fact that Lydon's family bonds were one of the reasons he was never as fully under the sway of McLaren's spell as some of his other bandmates (most notably and regrettably Sid Vicious).

UPDATE: Roger Ebert recently wrote up the full story of the Meyer/McLaren unpartnership, for the details as Ebert remembers them - along with portions of Ebert's unused script for the film - click over to the Chicago Sun Times. If differs from this version is many important respects.

McLaren hoped to rope Russ Meyer, American king of the softcore flick, into shooting this disaster. He flew Meyer and his youthful sidekick and sometime-collaborator Roger Ebert to England. McLaren, in his typically weird simultaneously self-promoting and self-defeating way, sent John Lydon as his representative. Meyer, Ebert, and Lydon met for dinner and Lydon started to trash talk the State's premiere titty flick expert. Meyer, a WWII vet, launched on a classic "if it wasn't for us, you'd be speaking German" diatribe - apparently unaware that a few of the Pistols were infamous for working swastikas into their fashion statements. A physically imposing, near-bullyish sort of man, Meyer actually scared the crap out of Lydon. Lydon backed down and apologized for his behavior.

Later, after the meal, it was revealed that Lydon didn't have enough money for cab fare back home. McLaren had given him just enough to get to the dinner and pay for his meal. Ebert and Meyer questioned Lydon and discovered that McLaren controlled the purse strings, taking essentially everything the Pistols made. And he liked to keep the boys hungry. Lydon hadn't had a good meal in days because McLaren kept him in a state of poverty. Meyer and Ebert got a cab, got Lydon some groceries and some beer, and dropped him off at home.

After that meal, Meyer decided he'd seen enough of the sort of outfit McLaren was running and he went back home.

Meyer was never going to work with McLaren. No doubt McLaren saw Meyer's breast-filled flicks and believed he recognized the work of a fellow soul. McLaren assumed, not without reason, that somebody who makes and exploitation flick is, by definition, an exploiter. McLaren assumed that the Great Rock and Roll Swindle would be a conspiracy of vampires.

But he had drastically misread the nature of Russ Meyer. It's common for film viewers to construct a pathology of filmmakers that's reverse engineered from the final product they've viewed, though this exercise is the equivalent of attempting to diagnose the makers of Rorschach cards on the basis of the images you believe you see within them. What McLaren missed is that Russ Meyer was, essentially, sentimental. At his best, Meyer was a sentimental fool. He believed there was evil and good, that families that didn't love each other were genuinely broken, that betrayal was a sin, and corruption ultimately ate itself from the inside out. His most significant dramatic modes were broad action and comedy, partaking of the lowest common denominator of existence that is also our most essential shared experience, and melodrama, defined by Guy Maddin: "I think that melodrama isn't just life exaggerated, but life uninhibited." It hard to buy this because we often employ a sort of comic book mentality to our assessments of others. We can't believe that there's room enough in one head to believe in good and evil and to be obsessed with giant tits. But, it can happen. Meyer is proof. He earnestly owned his obsessions and his beliefs. In his excesses, he was honest, often embarrassingly and thrillingly so. Perhaps it was a product of Meyer developing his chops as a cameraman in WWII, a residual and unstated bias that what happens on the other side of your lens should matter. If not to everybody, at least to filmmaker.

What Meyer "lacked" that McLaren had was cool detachment. McLaren, despite his importance to punk, did not traffic in excess. He did exactly what he needed to in order to create his desired effect. There's a cold monasticism to McLaren's art that suggests a strategic and outward focus. He's doing everything for the reaction of others. For those with long memories, there's some debate over McLaren's repeated use of the naked photos of the under-aged lead singer of Bow Wow Wow for marketing purposes. (Defenders who cite the artistic allusion to Manet as a dismissal of McLaren's exploitative impulses often ignore that said cover was actually the second nude photo of Lwin that McLaren created to shill his wares, the first being the nude cover of the "I Want Candy" single.) Whatever the ultimate result of the moral calculus on that decision, one can be sure that McLaren wasn't doing it for his own kicks. In McLaren's eyes, Lwin's nubile flesh wasn't an erotic draw. It was a canny investment.

Meyer was one of cinema's last primitives. Uncooth, awkward, vibrant, energetic, forceful, and unironic. For better or worse, he's fully present. In contrast, McLaren approached the medium with the economical and emotional detachment of a junk bond trader.

Rick Jacobson's 2009 Bitch Slap is a fast moving B-flick that shows us what Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! would have looked like if Malcolm McLaren made it.


Neil Sarver said...

I just wrote a rather slapdash review of Bitch Slap the other day, and I'd considered writing some about Malcolm McLaren, as well as that kind of in general and the way it pervades our culture. I can't imagine I'd have done anything like as good a job.

Great post. Thanks so much for putting this into words.

Paul said...

Love this. You have said a lot here, with great economy and feeling. I couldn't watch more than 30 mins of Bitch Slap and couldn't explain why it made me so angry and sad. Thanks.

Troy Z said...

Trustworthy "Cinema Suicide" also has a very similar take on the movie: . It's worth a read and makes you go "Oof!" even from the cheap seats.

jm_kaye said...

Excellent post. Thank you.

Unknown said...

There can be a great deal of joy found in absurdity, but very, very little in quote/unquote irony. What I have seen of Meyer always had a bit of joy worked into it. Fearsome joy, perhaps, but it's like going out drinking with a wastrel friend or uncle and knowing you'll either find a safe place to crash for the night, or he'll get you home safe come the morn.