BFI Southbank – Trog (1970) & John Waters In Conversation
When it comes to the movies I’ll humbly admit to nursing a few blindspots in my education and appreciation. I know virtually nothing about African or Indian filmmaking for example, with the obvious exception of Satyajit Ray and a passable knowledge of Bollywood and Nollywood techniques and tendencies. My silent movie knowledge is mostly confined to the muted titans of Chaplin and Sennet, Keaton and Griffith, although I have picked up a few fragments of history of cinemas infancy through numerous books and documentaries over the years. No, what I do (perhaps pretentiously) consider myself is something of an expert on genre and cult cinema, especially horror, SF and the associated plateaus of the cinematic landscape, although even those rivulets run fast and deep over the past century of production. In that light I must confess to my eternal embarrassment my failure with the work of John Waters, the self styled ‘Pope of Trash’, once regarded as the most vulgar and amateur filmmaker who ever stepped behind a camera, whose work was once utterly reviled by most of the mainstream culture. I’ve not seen any of his films in their entirety prior to his 1990 ‘breakthrough’ Hairspray, simply because a) they obviously were never shown on UK TV back in the midst of the 20th century b) they’ve had no mainstream VHS or Region 2 DVD release (more on that later) and c) generally speaking, I’m really not a huge fan of his particular brand of black-pitch, puerile humour. Like most people’s approach to comedy that’s a purely subjective view, I do however like his affection for Americana and some of the highly pitched satire in some of his 1990’s work, so I can see how he has been embraced by the midnight movie maniacs out there, as well of course as being something of an icon in the LGBT cinema landscape. Like many UK movie fans of my generation I first became aware of his work via the Jonathan Ross film show, a late night treat which introduced me to that scene in Pink Flamingos, a moment which I think etched itself deep in the memory and didn’t exactly urge me to seek out his earlier work. Since then he has matured into something of a mainstream figure outside the cinema spheres through appearances in The Simpsons, cameos on TV and in other films, being a respected on-line commentator and writer, and immersing himself in the international art world.
Still, despite my general ambivalence the ultra rare chance to see this cult movie crafter in the flesh couldn’t be avoided, as he was being awarded a full career retrospective at the BFI, including the first ever screenings of some of his earlier, funnier work outside of North America. Since those early efforts he has evolved into something of an acclaimed raconteur and his cinema knowledge is taken quite seriously in his elder years, with the annual commentary on his top ten movies of the year dissected and debated as studiously as Tarantino, Scorsese or your favourite movie critic’s list. When you combine that with a unique opportunity to see Trog on the big-screen which Waters has selected as one of his favourite UK films then we have a unmissable double bill, this bad movie classic often cited by the likes of John Landis and Joe Dante as a personal favourite, and having never seen the film before I thought I might be in for quite an experience. Gentle reader, this modest assumption turned out to be something of an understatement…
As you might imagine the film is terrible in every possible way, but of course the nature of the beast (heh) was that this was terrific fun, the entire audience chuckling along to the staggering dialogue and atrocious SFX, up there on par with Mano Hands of Fate, Plan Nine From Outer Space and Forrest Gump as among the worst ever atrocities inflicted on an audience. The very notion of Joan Crawford, one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden era reduced to staggering through her final screen appearance on a litre of 100% proof vodka a day is less amusing but eclipsed by her absolute commitment to the seriousness of her demeanour, still gracing the incompetence with a small graze of Hollywood magic among the thrifty production design, absurd plot, abysmal acting and dumbfounding dialogue delivery. It was a 35mm print whose reel change jumps also prompted laughs, and let me be clear that this was a screening where the audience was laughing with the film, not at the film, which I think is a crucial distinction. There was a viral article by LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson earlier in the year which bemoans a recent movement of retrospective screenings being damaged by the braying attitude of the so-called ‘hipster’ contingent, but thankfully that wasn’t the case here – this screening was inflected with genuine enjoyment and appreciation, not faux-sneering sniggering.
Truth be told after the first couple of reels the next half hour was a bit of a chore, but man when the final reel was threaded up and Trog inevitably escapes to blaze a trail of carnage through a sleepy rural village I along with the audience was in hysterics, and to be fair at a scant 90 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its unevolved welcome. You have to wonder what on earth acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Francis thought he was doing in the directors chair – this is the man who photographed the Oscar-winning Sons & Lovers, Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Lynch’s The Elephant Man among other masterpieces – ands I can only assume he was also chugging at the teat of Crawford’s secret stash of brain freezing liquor. But wait, more cinephile catnip was to come, with the arrival of a very special guest and a world first premiere. As you know I have witnessed many memorable evenings at the BFI, some worthy of deathbed recollections or gravestone inscriptions – memories for the grandchildren. So finally after that incandescent print of Vertigo that screened after the Camilla Paglia lecture, after the star and industry studded 90th Birthday Ray Harryhausen evening or even after the Douglas Trumbull hosted 70mm screening of Kubrick’s own print of 2001: A Space Odyssey we now complete the tetraptych, as to a riotous applause our special guest lumbered onto stage – Trog himself, actor Joe Cornelius, at the first screening he has attended since its premiere forty-five years ago. Truth be told the chap wasn’t the greatest of yarn spinners as he just called everyone on the set ‘marvellous’ and that it was a ‘fun’ experience, and despite some leading questions didn’t really elaborate much on the shooting history, although he did assert that Crawford was very friendly and collaborative with everyone at every level of the production, which kind of weakens the popular myths about her demeanour and behaviour in the twilight of her career.
On Friday Waters was interviewed in the sold out NFT1, and unlike some events I’ve attended there was a genuine atmosphere in the air. Waters was as amusing as you’d expect with some terrific anecdotes of his early career, his films populated with and co-crafted by his coterie of pot-heads, panty sniffers, political rejects, sexual degenerates, blazing queers, drag queens and some bemused yet supportive parental influence. There were tales of LSD fuelled midnight Ingmar Bergman double bills at the drive-in, and shocked burly union technicians taking one look at his DIY sets populated with his family of weirdos that they turned heel and fled in terrified befuddlement. Many of the references to his early colleagues and collaborators sailed over my head but the sheer love of movies and moviemaking emanates from the man, and you simply have to admire anyone who has the bravery to pick up a camera and craft a story rather than critically snipe at them from the safety of the internet, not to mention that Water’s is a true auteur who writes, directs, edits and scores his films, even if he hasn’t assaulted our tender sensibilities in a decade.
Some of the clips of his earlier work that was shown was very funny and have warmed me to track down some material – the sequence with the hilariously monikered Peggy Gravel from Desperate Living brought the house down – and he effortlessly batted away any allegations of his films having any ‘social’ value by explaining that you have to be entertaining first, and any cultural or social resonance is an added bonus – if you go seeking the former as a priority is where you get those preachy, ‘worthy’, exceedingly dull pictures. Speaking of his earlier work many of his first films have still been censored in the UK until very recently, an oversight which seems absurd after forty years (Waters amusingly remarked that the BBFC are the most dangerous of censors, the liberal educated ones whom are more difficult to pull the wool over their eyes), so maybe some enterprising distributors can snap up the rights for one nice boxed set? I can’t help but be highly amused in seeing a political story exploding across social media which could easily have been a scene in a Waters movie, you have to wonder if his presence in the UK hasn’t altered the space/time continuum in a most unusual way. So that’s two entertaining events which adds to a pretty strong year at the NFT, and with an imminent Tarkovsky season on the horizon my Southbank activities should be changing gears somewhat. But before we start moving into LFF press screenings territory which start today but will be embargoed for a couple of weeks (although here is my top ten to see if you’re interested) we have Sicario which I’m really looking forward to, we’ve certainly come a long way from this;