Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Favorite Film Critics: Joseph A. Ziemba & Dan Budnik (Bleeding Skull)

When I was around 12-16 I made a lot of super 8mm films with my friend Alan: lots of stalking and combat and little kids from the neighborhood outfitted in my dad's giant worn out suits, and fireworks special effects. I drew the explosions in with a pin on the emulsion, the old fashioned FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE way! On my super 8 projector you could do overdubs onto the finished celluloid. I'd que up the right section of CAT PEOPLE (1982) in the background as I banged pots to get the perfect Giorgio Moroder score. Alan's job was the guns, the casting, the dummies to throw off the roofs. We filmed for a week at his grandparents. His grandparents loved our movies, unconditionally. We could have shown them home movies from Mars and they would have adored them. We showed them over and over and they never wearied.

Good movie criticism then is about being a grandparent, not a snark. One should arm their reader with the insight/angle of vision by which you did enjoy or possibly could have enjoyed the film, for it becomes your job as a critic to enjoy films, to have a base-line to your rating curve that rests on your uninhibited enjoyment of all types of films (unless it's your job to warn your narrowed demographic of readers what not to waste money on at the multiplex that weekend, ala local paper journalists). If the film is a dumb sex comedy you could applaud that "for whole lengths of time the image is gloriously in focus," for example, and get laughs and applause where if you mentioned parts were not in focus, you'd stir butterfly tsunamis of bad karma.
But when the films get so bad that not even Alan's grandparents could love them... then you are in trouble.

That's when Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik come in.

No one seems to embody that beautiful gandparent truth in their film criticism more than Joseph A. Ziemba, in whose eyes the most appalling, haphazardly-shot cheapo horror pic can finally become the CITIZEN KANE it was meant to be. Ziemba's all about pulling away from any sort of expectation, beyond even the Brechtian meta-textual realms of Godard at his dullest, beyond Stan Brakhage abstraction and beyond even EXORCIST 2 level odiousness and into something Ziemba calls "grating, sub-arthouse anti-entertainment."

He'll still be there, til the last of the credits have rolled.

More matter-of-fact but just as insane, Skull's co-creator Dan Budnik focuses what you should actually bother to see rather than just read about. Budnik isn't afraid to tangent off on the step-by-step process of falling back in love with the final girl in HE KNOWS YOUR ALONE. Budnik is the Jon Stewart to Ziemba's Stephen Colbert, the Paul to his John, the Wyatt Earp to his Doc Holliday.

Bleeding Skull  started in 2004, had a hiatus, and is now back. I'm still digging around their archives, so might not even have yet found their recent stuff.  I particularly like their old VHS reviews, with their relishing of horrible blurred, faded color and unholy contrast levels, blurry tracking, and muffled sound. For Bleeding Skull, it is all part of the artistic meta-experience.

I didn't even go into their flawless choices in screenshots, and the dryly hilarious captions... Hell, y'all need to just go there with me now, to the source of some random quotes, first from Ziemba :

The Incredibly Strange Creatures that Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies...
What's that spell? Imagine Serge Gainsbourg meeting up with The Chordettes at a showing of The Weird World Of LSD, then stopping off for sno-cones at Coney Island before heading off to sleep." 
 Dark Night of the Scarecrow:
Although the template-driven plot and extended runtime can't match the taught anxiety of Bad Ronald, Scarecrow still consumes you. Performances? Definitely flawless. Imagery? Repeatedly frightening. Fat guys running through a field? Slightly humorous. The Halloween party and warbling synths enriched the Autumn aura and paved the way for a cryptic climax that could only leave a smile in its wake. 
Satan's Storybook (1989): (image atop)
A small void exists between "Super Mario Brothers On Ice" and an evening at Medieval Times. Consider it filled. Satan's Storybook is meant to be taken seriously. I think. Therefore, by the power vested in thine camcorder, the defective structure, theatrics, and presentation run tantamount with that sincerity. This unlikely collaboration leads to an experience that originates on Mother Earth, but clearly ends up in galaxies unknown. And that's what we want. While SS is nothing compared to the prodigious sweat-psych of Boarding House, the constant close-ups, grim tone, and ambitious-yet-crappy costumes resonate with that familiar stench. Even when you're half-asleep.
Blood and Lace (1971)
Ellie, the lovely mod. Tom, the drunken handyman. Colby, the horny cop. And, of course, "Old Man Mask", the burly hammer-killer.
I think I'm in the right place.

That's what it's all about, isn't it? The right place. The right time. The right feeling. Collectively, that's what we search for. A perfect B.L.T. at lunch, an evening headphone session with "Nilsson Sings Newman", a late-nite tryst with The David Steinberg Show; they all pave the road to many Rights and very few Wrongs. Of course, that depends on who you are. Do you have a thing for hammer POVs and rubber-limb gore?
Blood And Lace knows the answer. Welcome to the right place.
 Sinthia, the Devil's Doll (1970)
So there's the gist. When you add the frequent triple-exposures, warbled easy listening LP music cues, and a reliance on confined spaces, Sinthia reveals itself fully. Aimless. Dumb. Pretty boring. It's a superb example of grating, sub-arthouse anti-entertainment. Of course, that's the very reason why it's worth experiencing.
And Now, Dan Budnik... who blew my mind with this:

Demons of Ludlow:

"A haunted piano is delivered to the town of Ludlow just in time for their bicentennial. Of course, when the men deliver it, they don't say "Here's your haunted piano. Where do you want it?" The haunted part is a surprise. It's a gift from the man who founded the town. And that man was a jerk."

The Hungan
I mean, here's a beautiful example: the guy throwing the party introduces Cry Wolf. They start playing a song, pure-80's hair band. The camera sits on the other side of the room pointed at them. The song starts and folks begin to dance. In front of the camera. They all move in front of the camera. You can barely see the band. This goes on for two minutes. The great thing about the film's length is that this scene will not preclude something like this happening again in ten minutes. It does not mean that we won't get a long scene where the campers chat amongst themselves (sometimes incoherently) as they stroll to the campgrounds, with a strong whiff of Blood Lake  mixed in. It does not mean that we won't get a long scene where some waitresses' chat about a date one of them had. It means we get it all. 
And, it's all great. 
Dude, BLEEDING SKULL is all great! Even if (like myself) your natural decency doesn't permit you to enjoy these sorts of films, you owe it to yourself to be informed. May Cry Wolf and Sinthia have mercy on us all in the future. Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, Just drop by when it's convenient too, be sure to call before you do (read that sung by Nilsson) and goodbye burdensome sanity.


  1. I couldn't agree more.

    I love Bleeding Skull unconditionally - sneakily reading their reviews in spare moments at work has played a pretty big role in inspiring me to start actively seeking out/watching/writing about, um, "these sort of films" over the past few years.

    I'm always awed by how concise their reviews are - how in a couple of sentences they'll capture the very essence of some utterly mind-bending, inexplicable movie, whereas someone like me would blather on for about 6000 words about how mind-bending and explicable it all is, and still probably miss the point.

    And that they do that, and consistently manage to be *really funny* too...? Truly, they are the reclusive zen masters of online trash film criticism. I wish they'd run some kind of retreat/training programme to teach us rubes their secrets.

    This recent take on 'Zombie Lake' is one of my faves:

    Seems like every horror site in creation has had a bash at that movie, but no one's ever summed it up quite so beautifully.

  2. love love love Bleeding Skull. Joseph Ziemba is so good at articulating what's great about a certain type of movie, a type that I love but really have a hard time describing to others why I love so much

  3. oh, I guess Ben kinda said the same thing I did.. lol. sorry. but I totally agree.


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