Thursday, August 21, 2014

Truths in the Grindhouse

"How the hell is a shitty film like Johnny Mnemonic so goddamn prescient?" asked a Facebook friend yesterday.

The answer hit me somewhat quickly - the movie in question was a semi-independent movie from Neuromancer writer William Gibson. Teaming with Robert Longo, they'd originally sought to make an underground, super-low-budget affair from Gibson's short story. But they soon found that it was easier to get $30 million for their movie instead of the $1.5 million they'd originally imagined. That the movie was cut by its distributor makes a terrible kind of sense, considering the omnipresence of Gibson's corporate villains. And yet with artists like Gibson and Longo collaborating a number of ideas are perhaps inevitably going to resonate through any level of corporate mangling. (Or so I tell myself.)

I told my friend "Movies with less mainstream studio oversight are more able to delve into political/cultural truths." Which is not terribly apropos considering the butchering of Johnny Mnemonic, but I had other things and other movies on my mind when I tossed it out.

At times over the last several days it's been a struggle to come to work - with the events of Ferguson weighing so heavily on one's mind, driving eyeballs to a movie site seems like one of the least holy things one could do.The series of William Lustig movies unfolding, with director in attendance, at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, promised a break from the angst provoked by following events in Ferguson via Twitter (the only medium that seemed to offer a clear picture of what was really going down there).

Happily, though, escape isn't really what we got. Just the brazenness of the presentation of the entire Maniac Cop trilogy suggested an abundance of cheap thrills, but Lustig worked on those movies with writer Larry Cohen, whose own movies, cheap as they often were, never flinched from political realities. We were entertained, to be sure, by all of the funny dialogue, surprisingly spectacular fire stunts, horror film homages (to the Universal Frankensteins, among others), and the lively and warm commentary by Lustig himself. But all of us were nailed to our seats by a scene in which various New Yorkers were interviewed on television about their impressions of a killer cop on the loose: the white interviewees were astonished that such horrible things could happen, while the African-Americans interviewed offered a more grounded perspective: "You know cops like killing...that's why they cops." "Nowadays, I guess, they gotta shoot ya to get respect." It didn't take us out of the movie to hear such prescient commentary, but startling it was to hear our current political reality coming at us from the screen. Yet comforting too that Cohen and Lustig wouldn't shy away from the inherent truths of the story they were telling, that a couple of guys making movies for drive-in theatres would admit readily to truths that news organizations would try to avoid.

We go to movies for escape, certainly, wanting to enter another world for a couple of hours that ideally is different from our own. It helps. Other times, though, the movies reflect aspects of our own world back at us, addressing truths in ways that no other media does. Not for nothing do some people consider the cinema their church - we assemble as a community to share stories together that give us a context to understand our world and our lives within it. Even the grindhouse can be a church, because sometimes the cheapest, craziest movies are the only things we see that aren't bullshitting us. And that helps, too.

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