Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Exploit this.

Before I go any further, I need to make one thing clear that mayhaps was not in the last post. I dig exploitation films. I find nothing pejorative in that label. Awesome sauce -- carrying on.


I've spent a lot of brainwaves on the idea of 'exploitation' and fairy tale and nostalgia and fantasy and marketing/audience draw. There are layers upon layers of webs of tangential connections plotted throughout my brain and there's no way of making full sense of it to even myself, much less others. So what do I do? Dive in head first, of course.

There's little surprise in the popularity of stories about The Other (or rather, An Other). These types of stories have existed since, well, stories have existed. What does strike me as interesting, though is the evolution of the audience draw between the examples pulled in the last post: fairy tale and exploitation film. The fairy tale's mythical appeal, at times base and ugly and frightening, still maintained a sense of order, a yin and yang. While this area of fantasy has far from disappeared (I would argue that three of the biggest pop culture properties: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, are all born of the stuff fairy tales are made of), it has gained a level of sophistication, a prerequisite universe of logic and definition. Gone, in contemporary society at least, are the heydays of loose fantasy, the unquestioning childview of The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal and the apathetic man-childview of Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster.

But somewhere along the line (and maybe not, we can instantly trace as far back as de Sade, probably much farther with a little further thought) a strain of art more concerned with the dark and dastardly, without absolute need for a counterbalance, began to spring from pens and brushes. Somewhere along the line (or perhaps not) a path was tread on which the artist, despite whatever else the work accomplished (and many accomplished much), thrilled in the exploration of the darker and/or more taboo sides of the human existence: death, pain, sex, pleasure, the corporeal and the points at which some or all of those threads cross. And while I won't deny that there can be a higher level of sophistication and inquiry in the approach, I also won't deny that a large part of the appeal to both artist and audience is purely thrillist -- the joy of playing a forbidden game with unknown or cryptic rules. By the time the heyday of the exploitation film rolled around, a few more taboos had been thrown into the great melting pot: primarily race, but also to a lesser degree the nuclear threat and the Holocaust. But the Two-Headed Shadow of sex and death still loomed strong, driving the production of most of the (sub-)genre(s). And the fact remained that no matter the specificities, from the Mondo film's blunt object approach towards death to the Giallo's lyricism of the same to the intensely disconcerting (and thus massively controversial) inversion in the Rape/Revenge film's sex=pain & violence=pleasure structure, the entry point for the audience (and the artist) remained a sense of enjoyable perversion, of bubble-wrapped complicitness. This is illustrated no more clearly than in the accepted use of the very term 'exploitation film', the uber-genre that would accept the heading not only for the marketing terminology it sprung from, but also all of the connotations and denotations that come part and parcel.

To bring this exploration to a present day conclusion begs the question whether we have reached a point where we can, as with so many other genres, throw the infamous prefix into the picture. Are we Post-sploitation yet? Part of me feels the popularity of Quentin Tarantino has to signal the transition: his films are drenched with such nostalgia that the become portraits of exploitation films rather than the films themselves. But, contrapuntally, there also the success of Neo-Splatter, in which the likes of Eli Roth and James Wan have risen as so many Herschell Gordon Lewises and snatched gore back from the comedic hands of the 80's horror comedy (in which Peter Jackson, oddly enough, bookends this discussion), showing the straight-faced, straight-laced thrillism of the taboo alive and well.

All of this, I suppose, counters my original intent -- that the exploitation film is the natural descendant of the fairy tale. It turns out that Peter Jackson is the actual descendant; exploitation is the bastard son; the solution for those curious about heaven, but dying to find out about hell. There's a little too much safety in the fairy tale; in exploitation, odds are good that the person you are rooting for and the person who you hate are one in the same.

And this is the point where I realize I've spent too much time on this post without actually saying anything about the genre. (What did I tell you? I really like the dark and dastardly.) So hey, look for yet another post next week exploring the moral structures of fantasy and exploitation, perhaps a foray into Neo-Splatter vs. Torture Porn, and hopefully some more direct connection to Put My Finger In Your Mouth.

As to what I brought up today, there have been a few synapses fired regarding Finger as well. It strikes me that perhaps my initial Lifetime movie comparison has more to it that I thought. After not being able to reconcile fairy tale and exploitation in my mind, I'm a little more prone to fit Finger under the former heading, as the titillation factor very much plays second fiddle to the moral demarcation of hero vs. villain. And after all, Drugsploitation is a genre more often approached ironically, usually (I'm guessing) because it's not easy to find an artist of the exploitative bent who finds drug use tremendously taboo. Instead, the form emerges either from the overblown silliness of early cautionary films like Reefer Madness or the apronstrings semi-sploitation of the all too seriously toned Lifetime films. The tonal shift in Finger I expressed some trouble with seems to be less a change in genre and more a delayed sense of irony. We've got a sneaking suspicion that the grit and grime of the whole thing is rather ridiculous in the most joyous of fashions, but it's a lot easier to celebrate this when the production agrees with the designation, as it does when the second act finally breathes freely.


While on the topic of exploitation, take a look at the work of Pat Vamos (possibly NSFW, depending on how stiff-necked your workplace is). I want to go into a further discussion of his output as part of my mash-up exploration, but in the meantime, you may as well bask in his amazingness.


Also, Ballad is finally open, and myself along with everyone involved is tres proud. (And I mean that for real -- the sense of ownership from the ensemble and crew as a whole is astounding.) Lisa Buscani's a fan, and Kris Vire is what I believe we call somewhat recommending.

He also brings up an interesting question regarding the necessity for motivation and purpose in dramatic structure and character that I think is closely tied in to my search for a modernist playwright a while back. I don't agree with his assertion; obviously I can't speak as an audience member for this particular example (nor would I try), but I think that, with honest handling, the caprice of the human heart is more than enough to command the stage. Of course, after the raging back and forth everything else on this blog has created, I shouldn't expect much from this one either, especially as my hands are tied as to just how much I can rightly bust into the discussion. But the opening stands regardless.

Hey, I know, maybe you should come see the show! That might help! It might not answer this question, but it sure is good to have a point of reference, ain't it? Thought so.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Put My Finger In Your Mouth

The Right Brain Project's Put My Finger In Your Mouth is billed as a contemporary fairy tale. Collaboraction's Sketchbook '09 was themed the New American Fable. House's Rose and The Rime carried the subtitle "An Original Midwestern Fairy Tale". I missed out on both of the latter, which I'm starting to regret as I sit down to write this, as a little compare and contrast would be nice. The current day fascination with the fairy tale makes perfect sense; the generation of theatre makers just starting to hit full stride is the same that grew up in the Jim Henson era, the 80's children's fantasy smorgasboard that brought us Labyrinth, Legend, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, etc., etc., etc. But, if it's not children's theatre (which I understand some might peg Rose & The Rime as), what does the adult extension of these tropes look like? With Put My Finger In Your Mouth, playwright Bob Fisher and director Nathan Robbel make a compelling case for the exploitation film as contemporary fairy tale...

Or rather, that's where they end up once they get comfortable with the idea. The show starts with a first act mother-daughter Lifetime drug drama (a term requiring two footnotes: a) I'm aware that this is actually a tale of two sisters, but fails to read as such, for better and worse, until the final few minutes, largely because of the combination underwritten and overdirected morality representative Turtle character, and b) and this may be the first and last time I ever say this: I'm evoking the Lifetime Channel as a compliment), beginning with a sexy plunge into clubkid culture, hanging over scenes of changing home life, and simmering into a picturesque downward spiral. As a whole it could use a little more energy -- the climactic club scene shows the full potential on tap here, peaking with a unexplainably beautiful spectral dance moment between Birdy and Snailman to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that calls up both the Lifetime movie first act, with its subtle, but not too, symbolism, and the more fairy tale-esque second act, with a surreal period feeling that parallels the ballroom sequence in Labyrinth -- and a LOT more volume, especially in the club scenes, but it's a satisfying bit of (ever so melo-)drama that had me curious and a little worried as to how it was going to reconcile itself.

What I wasn't expecting after the short intermission was full on over-the-top Drugsploitation. And I don't know that the show was necessarily expecting it, either, because the top of act two had me hit the ground stumbling. There are a couple of hard, hard tonal shifts here; the swing from addiction drama to save the day action is a big un', and the introduction of the villainous plot in a Soylent Green cum James Bond villain monologue is hampered both by Emily Mark's overuse of the Villain Voice (read: slow, booming, and without any real sense of purpose beyond "I'm the bad guy") and the fact that it leaves the Snailman standing out as the sole undeniably otherworldy factor in a show that is otherwise tremendously absurd, but abstractly so. But I'm wasting far too much space on the negative, because, once it gets past a few ground gears, the second act bursts with lifeblood -- the fight scenes are fast, furious and proudly sloppy; the dialogue is studded with one-liners each inducing a large groan or guffaw than the last; the emotions are ridiculously high and defiantly manipulative; and the humor is just plain silly. And I laughed my ass off and had a brilliant time.

As I mentioned, it's a very strong case for Exploitation film as the modern equivalent of the fairy tale, which I think I may take a second post to explore further with some Finger specifics next week. I want more time to play connect the dots with some thoughts. Until then, if the genre is of any interest of you I do suggest you check Finger out -- it's oddly stitched together, no doubt, but I know there are plenty of you out there that don't necessarily consider that a bad thing. Nor should you.


Hey, buy these tickets. Now.

I just had one of the easiest tech weekends of my life for The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Lights, music, props, and set are all mostly in place and costumes are coming tonight. And every bit of it looks and sounds amazing -- almost unnervingly so! For reals, yo, you're gonna wanna check this puppy out.