"Guilty Pleasures" (1992)


"Jarmusch's Guilty Pleasures"

From: Film Comment 28:3 (June 1992)


Wim Wenders prefaced his ”Guilty Pleasures” by saying, ”I don’t feel guilty about any of this.” I’d like to echo that. One thing I object to is cultural hierarchy. To me, there’s no difference in value between Beethoven and the Butthole Surfers, Between Shakespeare and Mickey Spillane. If something’s good, it’s good, whether it’s a comic book or a ”great” novel.

The first film I remember seeing was Thunder Road, with Robert Mitchum and his son Jim playing moonshine-running brothers. I saw it in a drive-in theater in Florida on vacation with my mother and sister; I was really small, about 6. It had pretty violent car chase scenes - running through roadblocks in hopped-up Chevys. That I remember impressed me a lot. I’d like to see Thunder Road again; I’ve never seen it since.

One of my favorite films, that actually encouraged me to make films, was Amos Poe’s The Foreigner. When I saw that, in 1978 or so, I got really inspired because he had made a feature film for about $5,000. It was so loose and raw, so close to the idea of the music of the late Seventies - so-called punk music where musicianship wasn’t important, virtuosity wasn’t the main criterion, it was ”I have something I want to express.” It’s a very loose story about a guy, played by Eric Mitchell, who’s being chased most of the film. He has real short hair, bleached blond, and there’s a great scene where he’s walking down an alley and he walks by Debbie Harry, who plays a hooker; she’s really gorgeous and she has a cigarette and she says, ”You got a light, blondie?” I haven’t seen it in years, but it really gave me a lot of energy. It was my favorite New York punk movie - I hate to use that kind of label - of that period.

Everybody loves them but I can’t not mention how much I love the Marx Brothers. Especially Harpo, because he doesn’t use language - it’s all physical and reactive. In one film some guys catch Harpo and say, ”Who are you anyway?” He pulls up his sleeve and there’s a tattoo of his own face. Then he honks his horn and runs away. When I get depressed I always watch the Marx Brothers. Antonin Artaud has a very beautiful short essay in which he really misinterprets them - because he saw Monkey Business and Animal Crackers in the original versions and he didn’t speak any English. He writes especially about the climax of Monkey Business in a barn - it’s complete chaos, they’re dancing, fighting, Groucho is doing boxing commentary with a cowbell. Artaud refers to ”a kind of boiling anarchy, an essential disintegration of the real by poetry.” It’s fascinating, his misinterpretation of the Marx Brothers being surrealist, which in fact they aren’t - although they’re definitely anarchistic.

One actor I’m a big fan of is Lee Marvin. My favorites of his are The Wild One (Laslo Benedek), The Big Heat (Fritz Lang), The Man Who hot Liberty Valance (John Ford), The Killers (Don Siegel), the Aldrich films Attack and The Dirty Dozen. My favorite of all is Point Blank (John Boorman) from the book by Donald Westlake writing under the name Richard Stark - one of the Parker book, all of which I’d read before I saw Point Blank. Just the idea of Marvin’s characters being outsiders and very violent appeals to me. Some seem to have a very strong code - even if it’s a psychotic one - that he follows rigidly. Like in Prime Cut: There are some amazing things in that, especially the scene where they drive this Cadillac Fleetwood into a thresher and it grinds up the car. These guys are selling drugged-up naked girls in stalls the way you would sell cattle, and [end page 35] Marvin goes there as a hired hitman outsider and rescues Sissy Spacek, who’s one of these naked girls in this barn. That’s a wild film.

A secret organization exists called The Sons of Lee Marvin - it includes myself, Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Richard Bose. We’re initiating Nick Cave into it too. There are many honorary members too. I have a good story about it. Six months ago Tom Waits was in a bar in somewhere like Sonoma County in Northern California, and the bartender said, ”You’re Tom Waits, right? A guy over there wants to talk to you.” Tom went over to this dark corner booth and the guy sitting there said, ”Sit down, I want to talk to you.” So Tom started getting a little aggressive: ”What the fuck do you want to talk to me about? I don’t know you.” And the guy said, ”What is this bullshit about the Sons of Lee Marvin?” Tom said, ”Well, it’s a secret organization and I’m not supposed to talk about it.” The guy said, ”I don’t like it.” Tom said, ”What’s it to you?” The guy said, ”I’m Lee Marvin’s son” - and he really was. He thought it was insulting, but it’s not, it’s completely out of respect for Lee Marvin.

Sometimes I get obsessive and have to rent videos of all the Jackie Chan or Steven Segal or Steve McQueen films - films that wouldn’t normally appeal to me. Jackie Chan is pretty cool, although sometimes overly ridiculous for my taste. I’ve seen all the Hell’s Angel biker movies, including those with John Cassavetes. I’ve seen most of the Troma films on video; I liked Class of Nuke ‘Em High, I don’t really know why - it’s just kind of sick and interesting. Killer Klowns from Outer Space I saw just because clowns have always been scary to me. The film barely held my attention but there were a few frightening things in it.

Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead films: I didn’t really like Darkman, I was totally lost, but the Evil Dead movies are brilliant. It’s like bad acid or something - your girlfriend turns into a monster so you chop her up with an ax and then you realize it’s still your girlfriend! That kind of hysteria is really amazing, and rare. And such ingenious camera tricks without much technology. Those films are real classics.

I’m not a Brian DePalma fan but I think Scarface is a brilliant American film. It’s DePalma’s masterpiece, just because of the vulgarity and violence of it. Tony Montana is the most vulgar portrayal of the American dream. For that reason I like that film a lot. I see it at least once a year - ”I got to go get Scarface.”

Spinal Tap: I see that movie at least once a year also, I don’t know why - I know all the jokes and I still find them funny. Musicians say, ”That’s not funny” - but they watch it all the time!

Cocksucker Blues by Robert Frank is one of the greatest rock’n’roll movies because it makes you feel like being a rock star is one of the last things you’d want to do. It’s very depressing and gritty. It was withdrawn because of all the drug use in it. Robert Frank told me the Canadian Mounties came to his house with legal papers to get all the prints from him, right after Keith Richards got busted for heroin in Canada. Apparently Frank hid one under the floorboards and he shows it now and then. I’ve seen that four times. The other great rock’n’roll movie, obviously, is Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker, about Bob Dylan. There was another film they made on his next tour to England, Eat the Document, and I think Dylan then edited it - with a Veg-O-Matic. I don’t know what drugs they must have been on, but there are some interesting things in it too, as a sequel to Don’t Look Back.

I don’t generally like music videos because they provide you images to go with the songs rather than you providing your own. You lose the beauty of music by not bringing your own mental images or recollections or associations. Music videos obliterate that. That said, one of the better videos I’ve seen is not a music video at all: it’s ”Subterranean Homesick Blues” where Dylan just stands there with the cards - it’s one single shot. They lifted that out of Don’t Look Back and showed it on MTV. I saw a good video the Butthole Surfers did, directed by the actor from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Alex Winter; very weird, not your MTV fare. Julia Haywood’s Talking Heads video ”Burning Down the House” was interesting - projecting fire onto the house itself, and images onto the road and re-photographing them. Zbigniew Rybczinski has done amazing things. But mostly i like videos that don’t get too complicated.

The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967): This film I should feel guilty about, because it’s really a bad film. Roy Orbison’s only movie - he did the soundtrack songs; I even own the soundtrack! I found it in some secondhand store. In the movie Roy’s got his shotgun concealed inside his guitar and it’s really ridiculous, but it’s the only Roy Orbison vehicle and I like Roy Orbison a lot. There’s a memorable scene where he uses his gun in his guitar to rescue the dancing Chestnut Sisters.

Screaming Mimi (‘58): directed by Gerd Oswald, who went on to direct a lot of The Outer Limits episodes. A guy tries to stab Anita Ekberg to death when she’s taking an outdoor shower in the woods or somewhere - I saw it twice but I haven’s seen it in ten years. The guy who tries to kill her gets shot by somebody and she sees all this and is traumatized, so she hooks up with some [end page 36] kind of sleazy therapist who then takes control of poor Anita’s psyche and encourages her to continue her career. She does a kind of striptease on a swing in this nightclub called El Madhouse. They used the exact same footage several times in the movie whenever she does her performance. The striptease part is great. It’s an odd film.

Invasion of the Bee Girls (‘73): These women somehow turn into bee-women, insect women, and they seduce men and kill them - when the men reach orgasm they die. The Bee Girls wear thick Jackie O-style sunglasses because when they take them off you see their eyes are faceted, like insect eyes. When they initiate other women to become bee-girls, they get them naked and cover them with this white, gooey fluid.

Spider Baby: with Lon Chaney Jr., who also sings the title song! I liked the idea of this demented in-bred cannibal family - a sick, offbeat sort of pleasant surprise when I first saw it. In that same vein, there’s this film I’ve only seen once on TV one afternoon in the late Seventies, called Planets Against Us, a 1961 Italian-French black-and-white sci-fi film. This alien comes to earth and he looks like Lou Reed circa ”Rock’n’Roll Animal” - he wears wraparound sunglasses, leather clothes and gloves. He can hypnotize people with his vision by removing his sunglasses, or if he removes his gloves he has the touch of death. It’s a real Euro-schlock, Euro-pop film. I’d love to see it again, but I couldn’t find it even in Italy.

Twister: directed by Michael Almereyda, with Harry Dean Stanton and Crispin Glover. The music almost ruined the film for me - a glossy soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, terrible. The actress who plays the older sister, Suzy Amis, is great. I just liked the idea of a totally mad, dysfunctional family and Harry Dean Stanton is the father. I like the scene where they turn the soup over on the table after he tells them their mother is actually dead. There are flaws in it and it gets slow at times, but that scene with Crispin Glover sitting there with his girlfriend singing that song, and then it cuts to another room where Harry Dean Stanton is in the bed listening to this music that’s filling the house.

White of the Eye: directed by Donald Cammell. I saw it because I’m a big Cathy Moriarty fan. Her voice knocks me out. Her accent, her naturalness. It was really interesting - a housewife who discovers her husband is a murderous maniac. The style of the film is very hallucinogenic, kind of late-Sixties. It’s unnerving but there’s something very strong about it.

I went through a blaxploitation movies phase. My favorite is a film called Dolemite. I remember when I was a teenager seeing it in a theater on the East Side of Cleveland. The main actor’s name is Rudy Ray Moore and I remember the ads latenight on local TV: ”Sometimes he’s Sad, sometimes he’s Glad, but he’s always Bad, Bad, Superbad Dolemite.” Rudy Ray Moore, I think, lives in L.A. now: Johnny Depp met him somewhere and got a business card that said, ”A Big Piece of Leather and Well Put Together - Rudy Ray Moore,” or something like that.

I’ve had a fixation on Brigitte Bardot since I was a young teenager. For me, her lips, that kind of pout, her upwardly pointing anatomy, her swayback, the way she moves, the way her hair is kind of waifish . . . . I think of her wearing a towel or a bikini, or nude. Her characters are never embellished with elegant clothes or jewelry - it’s only her own wild elegance or sensuality. I’ve always had a big thing for her. I loved it when Godard used her in Contempt.

Tura Satana: an actress-stripper who starred in The Astro-Zombies, a 1968 Mexican horror/sci-fi film. She’s half Apache and half Japanese. She also stars in Russ Meyer’s Fatser Pussycat, Kill! Kill! She’s just so weird. Those are the only two films I know of that she was in.

Traci Lords I kind of find intriguing - not as an actress but as a presence: the combination of nasty and innocent. I actually have one of her porno films on video, called New Wave Hookers. You can’t find them anymore. A friend of mine, an English rock musician I won’t name, has a whole collection of Traci Lords porno videos.

Another odd fetish thing: the cowboy actor Lash LaRue. He was always dressed in black and he was famous for this 16-foot bullwhip that he used to snatch cigarettes out of people’s mouths or rip girl’s shirts off, stuff like that. Most of his films are from the Forties - Law of the Lash (‘46), Mark of the Lash (‘48) and Son of Billy the Kid (‘49). I think maybe Jimmy Page got some whip technique from Lash LaRue. He had more than ten wives and he used to hang out a lot in Memphis between films. When we were shooting Mystery Train there I heard a lot of stories about him. He was arrested for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, marijuana . . . he was really a wild man and he always carried these whips with him in little black bags. 

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