Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Schlock and Aww: BC BUTCHER and the Kansas Bowling Miracle

Could our current Alt-Right Hype-Bart macho backwash moment be the last gasp of a drowning buffalo? If so, it's a comfort that what is best in man, his ability to celebrate and pay tribute to strong women, should be remembered and absorbed by the nation's upstart young things. The mighty masterpieces of switchblades and eyeliner by Meyer, Hill, Wood, Corman, Tenney, Waters, Sarno, etc. will live on long past that buffalo's panicked squealing, ennobling a new breed of female filmmakers like Anne Biller (THE LOVE WITCH) and most recently to my bemused, even (all things are relative) grandfatherly eye, precocious maniac Kansas Bowling, whose entry in the burgeoning prehistoric slasher-beach party genre, BC BUTCHER, was begun when she was just seventeen. Shot on bright and lovely actual film (16mm, but still) it's been released through Troma, and is currently available on Amazon Prime screaming und soon ze vorld. It's nowhere near as polished and coherent as Biller's film but damn if it don't look like itself, and it's the only one close to doing that. It's so itself it proudly clocks in at 52 minutes, which as we all know is a weird length, too long to be a short, too short to be a feature. What the hell is it if not its own damn thing? Bowling has made her own category, and there's no going back.

As with so many of Bowling's admitted favorite films (she even likes Herschel Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman! Eww!) the BUTCHER ain't exactly CITIZEN KANE, or even ONE MILLION BC or even CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. Or even CAVEMAN. Or GAVE GIRL. Or even EEGAH! But who wants them? Where da art der? No art at all, just a THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE-style romance between hulking prehistoric monster, the Butcher (Dwayne Johnson) and the vengeful spirit of a girl murdered by the fierce amazonian tribal leader (Leilani Fideler) for sleeping with an unbearably fey Rex (Kato Kaelin). Later, Rodney 'the Mayor of the Sunset Strip' Bingenheimer and his friend Duck-Duck appear on a rock in full 'modern' hipster clothes to introduce 'the Ugly Kids' a proto-punk band playing their latest "hit", using watermelons as instruments and generally behaving 'antically' as if they were in a Monkees video. The costumes are all clearly cut from the fabric store by jagged scissors the way a mom might whip up a Halloween costume never meant to survive the night. And the group is regularly endangered by their tribal leader's adolescent insecurity.

The shirt, sez it all

Yeah, it's complicated. But aint a damn thing changed, as high school-age Bowling coveys without hoisting a single pen. This is a story of a girl clique that lives and dies in a few hundred yard radius, their turf, their territory, and their queen has to hold it. It's AAW (All About Women), ala a lion pride where the male lions are either monsters, mincing idiots (Kaelin), or punk rock anachronisms. Instead of browbeating the issue, though: Bowling's rolled a perfect 'j' on the Bechdel Test.

We need girls like Kansas, they are the real future, if there's to be one. Her arrival on the scene is like a nascent Hill-Waters-Meyer version of John Connor, with the Terminator foe being the cookie cutter indie horror with its endless deluge of two-hander captivity dramas, torture-revenge cycles, haunted new tract homes, depressed misogyny masked as joyless softcore camp, and washed-out, wan HD video patinas. The rows of Prime streaming are choked with such things. Seek ye them not!

Look at her there, at left - a kind of Fiona Apple of the post-Psychotronic future, a groovy schlockmeister Joan of Arc. Whole cliques and tribes rise up around such figures, leading to the question of why and when will Bowling act in her own films (she's an extra in some of the scenes (left) but that's it. She should, for just like CITIZEN KANE is really as much about Orson as it is about Hearst, it's clear how her own charisma and cool has made a slight fan bubble around what is essentially a home movie almost lampooning her own mania for carnage. She turns the audience into an adoring and slightly senile grandfather (like my friend Alan's, who adored our super 8mm action films when we were kids) and the French troops besieging 1429 Orléan.  We follow her into the flames, but then find her licking the walls and babbling about tiny monsters inside her skin or worse, giggling. We know we've made a huge mistake and will not escape the inferno alive.

Then again, who does?

As for other films by women, it would also make a good triple bill with THE LOVE WITCH and #HORROR.  Like them it's a film that bravely does what it wants far outside the normal patriarchal linear structure. Billed as a 'prehistoric slasher film,' BUCHER is certainly not the least bit scary and, for a mostly-female cast, not sexy. It's not even very funny. In fact, it's probably somewhere between an annoying slumber party your younger sister is having upstairs, and if you fell asleep flipping back and forth between TEENAGE CAVEMAN and BEACH BLANKET BINGO after a night getting drunk outside the City Gardens All-Ages punk rock show circa 1983. If that ain't your bag, Jimson, just move along. If your friend's little sister is bothering you, put on your headphones and pretend to be asleep. It's only one night, and you will probably survive.

Bowling - center - a worker among workers, and melons.

The issue revealed within BUTCHER is the deep resemblance between an unchaperoned Girl Scout camping trip and life in a prehistoric tribe where the men went out hunting three years ago and never came back. Packs of girlfriends going through puberty, they rely on strength in numbers. Cockblockers run routine patrols around the camp perimeter, in search of girls off on secret trysts (fully aware slashers strike when they're at their most vulnerable and isolated, i.e. finding a secluded spot to fool around). There's safety-in-numbers, so going off to be with a lover or even to look for the last girl who vanished, is to risk never coming back. In these thick woods, a mere 20 yards away may as well be different planet.

Despite the undercutting and man-stealing, what we do see throughout BC is a kind of monkey-grooming tribal togetherness that's usually very hard to capture on film. A lot of other female-clan-led overdo the girls' initial victimization - as if women warriors are all forged in the heat of abuse by men, rather than via their own desires. Bowling's movie is way beyond that. A boy or two might play a part either as monster or object of desire tussled over between tribal girls, but in the end the men are little more than objects meant more to be boasted about, to seem sexually mature to impress the pack, then for any hormonal drive. They might stab each other in the back over one, but they make up as fast as they squabble. In the end it's the boy who suffers - they both drop him - sisterhood comes first.

What I really admire about this weird little mess of a film is that Bowling writes like a 16-17 year-old girl rather than aiming beyond her years and sometimes coming off naive, i.e. winding up like a Paul Thomas Anderson-Richard Kelly type for whom high literature seems to underwrite even the expletives. If theirs is the airbrushed-ELO van-driving older brother cinema, Bowling's is little sister punk rock slow walk home through the bad neighborhood without fear cinema. And that's what BC is, make no mistake. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The things that would please BUTCHER's detractors (if she added more breasts, sex, gore, scares, terrible jokes) would knock it back into just another Troma piece of shit territory. The fans of such things may heave trollish comment indignantly upon BC's imdb user comments just as higher-brow critics climbed over themselves with loathing for  #HORROR  and before that, TWILIGHT, or any other film that explores female psyche in its menstrual blood-drenched fury (re: The Bechdel Test).

Despite its problems #HORROR is film I'll defend any time, for a lot of the same reasons (its evil wild child pack mentality--fearless ride into the whirlwind of mini-lynching hot potato the kids regularly engage in as they turn en masse against each other in turn before passing the pariah badge).
I'd rather see and hear that kind of organic madness, cohering and dissolving like salt pool eddies in an incoming or outgoing tide, than some white elephant 'story' any day. Bowling's characters are similar in that situation, at each other's throats often enough, but united against more than exterior threats. They might kill each other and step on each other's turn to pick the activity for 'evening theater' but they make up and apologize too. It's the kind of clique-based insecurity round-robin so intrinsic to adolescence, where depending on the group leader even as you undermine her authority and steal her man' is no paradox. Little squabbles and apologies make up the ebb and flow of the 'pack mind'. Phrases are repeated and expanded on as if everyone is making declarative statements for the first time, then going back over them as if to remind themselves of their character notes. (which most dialogue hardly ever covers but is actually they way young groups of people talk, and is how slang spreads so fast).

 Chief Neandra (Fideler) for example keeps reiterating she already killed "the beast" so there can't be a real external threat (a split second flashback shows super fast shows her ripping stuffing from a small stuffed tiger). She might be a little too chest-thumpingly insecure and needy but she also can check herself and make up with girls she wronged; she knows when to take credit for killing a monster before it's even dead, but also doesn't run from the fight if it comes around her way. She knows instinctively that the one way to beat a monster in a cave fight is to pick the fruit off his girlfriend's dead body. For his beloved is none other than the girl Leilana killed and partially devoured in the opening scene, gussied up in a weird Vorhees mom FRIDAY 13th PART 2-style shrine. In other words, it's true love between hulking monster and vengeance-crazed corpse/ghost (laughing in black and white nightmare flashbacks in ways shockingly similar to the girl laughing at William Campbell from inside his wet canvas in BLOOD BATH).

For that alone BC BUTCHER deserves to stand next to LOVE WITCH, DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, and AMER (not in their league but it can still stand by them). Bowling's brazen anti-style idiocy proves refreshing antidote, in a sense, to the self-important narcissism of Brit Marling's self-important bourgeois 'intellectual' sci-fi films. Watching Marling's work you know she probably has never even seen any of the Hill-Meyer-Corman style primitivist drive-in fare. She's too busy cooing over SOLARIS and 2001. But Bowling even likes shit I do not, such as Troma movies and Blood Feast. I respect Lloyd Kaufman, he's a true original and has his own gonzo flavor, a pioneer of direct-to-video crapola. But unlike the depressing dinge of video tape shot films (which make me depressed), BC conjures when a reel or two of super 8mm film could be shot and 'edited in the can' by weekend nutcases like my friend Alan and I, then dubbed, mixed, gunshots scratched on, and ready to show the grandparents by the following Saturday, those will always be in tune with the moment, for they're not trying to 'take us away for 90 minutes' but rather show us how to actually escape altogether. Bowling may have a ways to go but she's already herself, and that's something. May she now join Biller, Amirpour, Xan Cassavettes, and Helene Cattet, to stand with elders Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, a not only more female-helmed horror future but a true kind of female horror, where men are neither the focus nor the demographic... My male gaze stands ready to feel as alienated as the female gaze has felt for so long. Let the scissors fall through the center of my evening paper. The ancient past is now rewritten in Panic hair dye. It is in good hands, albeit smeared in fake blood. She might be named Kansas Bowling, but she's not trying to be coy or Lolita-ish or otherwise conforming to some masculine gaze or nerd ideal. She actually loves this shit - she worked odd jobs all summer to afford 16mm instead of cheap video. Her love of the trash classics is palpable in every junky frame.  I love that I don't even like it. It's the end of the free period. The dawn of the non. 

"It is the waving of her Heavenly Hair!' The Sanctiomonious Sci-Fi of Marvy Brit Marling
Let the Darionioni Nuovo Entrain your Dissonance: AMER (2009)
Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Take out the Kids and Tuck in the Trash: #HORROR
Prepare for the Coming of the Hillary Matriarchy: DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT
Babes of Wrath: Dangerous Women of the New Depression vs. American Dogma
America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
CinemArchetype 23: The Wild Child
The Beautiful and the Darned: Avenging TWILIGHT

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