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. All I remember is the awful stench of this one sleazy storefront second floor dive showing RUBY: a mix of really cheap weed, freebase coke, cigars, sweat, sex, dirt, urine and god knows what else. I can still smell it after 25 years.
But my morbid acuteness of the olfactory senses didn't stop me from reading about it all, soaking 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 big brother, 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.
Half neo-Godardian half plain-spoken genuine dude, no posing. The man's been in two punk bands. His dad fought in World War Two. His life was saved by rock and roll. 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 quietly weep for joy into a woman's shoe.
In 1998 I got one of my first steady freelance film criticism jobs, working on search engine entries by director for a vast film canon project, condensing all these films 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 make art out of leftover sets and reel ends. 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 both Kolsek and Tudor is better than the rest of the cast, but since it's Weldon you know it means more than that, Omar is AWESOME!
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.
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 found Psychotronic like I did 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 that we could then shine up in our own film writing...
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 or perhaps even a Hollywood Bitchslap. Michael J. Weldon, for those about to schlock, we salute you. (10/08)
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.
(See also Favorite Film Critics: Kim Morgan)