Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Favorite Film Critics: Michael Weldon

It's hard to remember a time when the internet was still over a decade away; VHS rentals were mostly found in backrooms of local appliance shops, and books mostly at mall chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. As far as film guides, well, there was Leonard Maltin, period. But then, in 1983, as if smuggled into B. Dalton from some strange alternate universe, was this weird thick, expensive ($25!) silver book called the Psychotronic Encylopedia of Film. Life as we knew it would never be the same again... is a cliche Weldon would never use.


Back then please recall, Quentin Tarantino was under the legal drinking age, and the Times Square grindhouse era was only beginning to die. I was 16 and my few grindhouse experiences had been traumatic: boredom trumped good sense and we NJ teenagers would take the train to Times Square the way farmers used to go to freak shows, to soak up the depravity from behind the protective barrier of our teenage alienation and sense of suburban invulnerability. All I remember is the awful stench of this one, the Roxy, showing films in at least three different shoebox size second floor holes, we came in at the end RUBY and left 1/3 into some Jackie Chan thing -- all on projector video: a mix of really cheap weed, freebase coke, urinal cigars, homelessness, unclean sex, and god knows what else in the air. I can still smell it after 25 years.


But my morbid acuteness of the olfactory senses didn't stop me from relishing the experience, and continuing to soak up the seediness from the safety of my beige wall papered tract home bedroom, and no one was better at conveying the lurid trashy glory of the unseen cinema than Michael Weldon. Psychotronic became my bible, my source book, my security blanket. I still have my original copy--bought with money begged from mom--and the page edges are black with my endless thumbing.

The best is the brevity of his prose. Most of the time there's not really an inkling of if the movie's good, sometimes he confesses he hasn't seen it. Most of it was written from memory, before the advent of home video. Instead of sitting around in the suburbs, Weldon was in two punk bands. He still writes but it seems to be more along the lines of pop culture criticism as in this editorial essay I found online:
"Some people have been complaining about pop songs being used as commercials since the 70s. I always loved The Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” especially for the brilliant falsetto harmony ending and Sly And The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In the Summertime.” And the intro of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” (featuring the drumming of Soupy Sales son) has become the new “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (or the 2001, Elvis intro theme) of TV ads. Key parts of all three are now being used for cruise ship TV spots. Music from an LSD casualty, a coke casualty, and a long time heroin addict to attract mostly retired couples to take overpriced vacations on ocean polluting ships that a record number of people have been puking their guts out on. Brilliant!  (Psychotronic #38)
No, Mr. Weldon. It's you who are brilliant for spinning it that way! I don't think Weldon comes by these observations via some Guy Debord détournement-recuperation angle, and that's why he's so cool. Well one of the reasons. His sense of the absurd is poker-faced in a way that would make Bunuel drop a woman's shoe in salute.

In 1998 I got one of my first steady freelance film criticism jobs, working on search engine entries for a vast director canon project, condensing all these classic films (given out by director) into 200-250 word capsule reviews, up to 20 a week. Some--like D.W. Griffith and Edmund Goulding--had over 30 or 40 films to cover; they taught me a lot about film history. Others, like Roger Corman, Jess Franco, and Edgar Ulmer had even more titles and taught me how to bullshit. Who would have imagined that my endless obsessing over Michael Weldon's tight-lipped style in Pyschotronic would come in so handy? His deadpan stressing of random details and gift for collapsing mountains of impressions and factoids into one smooth, hilarious, joke-free punchline was my boilerplate. I had absorbed some of his style, like the blob!


Here's some random samples: For his review of THE FLESH EATERS (1964, above): "... (Kolsek) was a bottom of the barrel villain at Universal during the '40s and played Joseph Paul Goebbels at least three times. The film's other standout performance is Ray Tudor as the jive-talking, shipwrecked beatnik Omar." (p. 246)

What makes that pair of sentences such sublime poetry? Note the inclusion of Goebbel's middle name or the way Omar's whole groovy hipster shtick is collapsed into a three adjectives. And you could trust Weldon to understate, so if he says "the film's other stand-out" that means Kolsek and Tudor are better than the rest of the cast, but since it's Weldon you know it means more than that, Omar is AWESOME, and the rest of the cast isn't bad.

Then there's his quiet meta-statements, made all the more powerful by their rarity, as in his capsule for I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF: 
"Young Michael Landon (real name Eugene Horowitz) will never be forgotten as the troubled high school student turned into a snarling drooling hairy monster by Whit Bissell. No full moons or crucifixes are involved. Hypnotism causes the retrogressive transformation whenever Landon is startled." (p. 355).
Again, nothing jaw-dropping first-off, but note the way he just drops a weird word like 'retrogressive' in there, like it's no big deal, or the anachronistic mention of crucifixes (for werewolves?), or the lack of commas for 'snarling drooling hairy.' Savor the deadpan solemnity that's wittily undermined by the inclusion of Landon's goofy real name in the opening sentence.

Weldon's magazine has gone out of print, and so has the original Psychotronic Encyclopedia. His 1996 follow-up, the Psychotronic Video Guide is also essential reading, though by then internet and endless film guides had made it hard to stand-out as starkly as the original had 13 years previously. DVD has polished up a lot of these films poor Weldon had to see on streaky fuzzy faded dupes or in sticky Deuce seating, so that we could be free. It's up to us now to keep his flame alive, just as he dedicated his second book to 42nd Street, meaning "the" 42nd Street, as it used to be," so too should we dedicate ourselves to Weldon. I really need to rediscover this book, now that it's sitting in my lap, and order some of the magazine's back issues (at cover price, still!) from the Psychotronic website. Check it out here.

In the end, Michael Weldon is a bit like the Velvet Underground in that he never became super popular so much as hugely influential; every kid who read Psychotronic apparently became a writer or filmmaker. Weldon taught half-suffocated, tragically bored mid-1980s suburban punks and poseurs how to see deeply into even the most opaque 42nd Street garbage and find the shining gems within.

For the 25th anniversary of Weldon's landmark original Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, Hollywood Bitchslap's Ron Gonsalves noted:
A note on the back of Psychotronic Encyclopedia reads, "Warning: The author of this book has been watching these movies obsessively since the age of 6. He is now unfit for conventional employment." Well, conventional employment's loss was our gain. I ache for a third volume of psychotronic angel-dust — maybe you do, too. (It's been twelve years, almost as long as the gap between the first two books.) But for now, we can simply raise a toast to the original gray brick's 25th birthday, perhaps take it off the shelf and swim around in it all over again, and give props to the man who was there before everyone else, without whom there wouldn't have been a Grindhouse or a Tarantino or a Film Threat... (10/08)
Writers, filmmakers, and artists can go to school all they want but in the end they learn by reading other writers. In other words, we're sponges. Many fiction writers spend a year or so trying to write like Hemingway or Raymond Carver, so do we film critics of a certain age and interest range spend a lifetime trying to capsulize like Michael Weldon.

But Michael Weldon is not just another big brother guide who led us from passive to active, from viewer to maker, from reader to writer. In his dry unobtrusive way he's also the grinder of the lens through which all the sleaze of yesteryear is re-evaluated as art today. So thank you, thank you, Michael Weldon!  In transforming schlock appreciation into a literary art form (of brevity and wit) you not only supplied expert guidance for our strange viewing interests, you taught us to how to fucking see jewels in the trashy street.

(See also Favorite Film Critics: Kim Morgan)

8 comments:

  1. Aces!

    I've always loved how encyclopedic Weldon's reviews were, without being in the least erudite.

    At least for me, it's important to know what Landon's real name was, but only in the context of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF.

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  2. Spot on.

    Every time I see a copy of Psychotronic Encyclopedia, I buy it.

    So far that only gives me two copies, but I'd like to think one day I'll have a whole shelf of identical volumes to hand out to a hypothetical class of impressionable kids.

    "Just open at a random page and get started - I'll be back in an hour!"

    And of course Weldon played in seminal Cleveland psyche-punk group Mirrors too - what an inspirational hipster (old definition) all-rounder he is.

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  3. I must track down this book! Thanks for this fascinating post. I had the same visceral reaction to Harlan Ellison's film reviews. They grabbed me by the lapels and made me want to write about film.

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  4. Both Psychotronic volumes are treasures. I didn't discover the magazine until about 1993. Then I bought the original book as soon as I found a copy, while the publication of the second was an epoch in my fandom. The magazine seemed more in tune with the spirit of an age than any of its rivals then or now, what with the music interviews, the obsession with horror hosts and the incredible obit section. Its demise was a tragedy. Shock Cinema is probably the closest thing out now, but for all its virtues it's nowhere near the same thing.

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  5. J.D. I loved Harlan Ellison too! Part of my whole trauma over slasher films stemmed from his tale of being all depressed after people were laughing at the violence in a theater showing THE OMEN. Ellison is where anti-misogyny becomes misanthropy, leading to Frank Miller, and Sweden.

    Ben - you are so right, it would be great to teach a class on Weldon. He'd be a perfect gateway into film criticism for alienated youths. My younger friends get confused when I use the word hipster as a compliment, since now it's practically derogatory and means the opposite of what it used to mean. Now it means what 'poseur' meant to us. But to us it means people like Weldon, or Allen Ginsberg, or Dame D'Arcy.

    AC Bleach! In da house! Thanks for reminding me that erudite is not always a good thing. The beauty of Weldon is he only knows the cool interesting stuff, he doesn't have to fill your head with dates and plotlines, or even if the movie's any good. Some of them in the book you can tell he didn't even see. He admits it! Love Weldon!

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  6. I haven't read this, but I've seen it name-dropped a lot, particularly when people are citing formative books: nice to take an (indirect) peek inside. Great piece.

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  7. The Psychotronic Video Guide is literally my bible. I keep it on my bedside table always and am constantly reading little bits from it

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  8. I love that book and I use it all the time

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