05 January 2011

Basket Case (1982)

"But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call

- from Frank O'Hara's Why I Am Not a Painter, because this could be Why I Am Not a Critic, as it's only tangentially a discussion of Basket Case:

It's difficult for me to imagine a mainstream one-thousand theater rerelease of Basket Case, mainly because it's never enjoyed such mammoth distribution. The film, even in its time of production, was self-consciously executed from the margins. Made by a certain type of movie fan, it's dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis, for a reciprocating audience familiar with its rote of camp and humor infused gore and horror, it has fared better than some of its contemporaries that didn't make it to dvd and don't enjoy reputations. The lifespans of this film type are entirely dependent upon fans of the movies, as the film is released by an independent distributor, Something Weird, and has only a sliver of cultural relevance. If not for its esoteric demand it could easily become lost, and, more terrifying to me, people could easily question the relevance of its disappearance. While films by Orson Welles are still underseen and underreleased, who cares about Basket Case? I care about both, and think everyone else should too.

The question of its perpetuation is for me a matter of social self-censorship, a matter of the merits of Basket Case versus the reality of Basket Case. Films like this are now rarely ever made, supplanted mostly by films of ironic self-consciousness, and far better produced films, and distribution for independent films is ever diminishing. Within Basket Case, for example, shot in New York City, 1982, the protagonist strolls by a kung-fu theater playing a triple feature next to a grindhouse with its own set of features. In John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Ben Gazzara takes his dancer girlfriends to a kung-fu theater and has to ask the girls to leave because they're still sitting after three movies! Three kung-fu movies! This culture, even in its time marginal, has mostly disappeared. Its lingering presence can be relished in revival screenings, in youth populated revival screenings, wherein the majority excitedly see the movie for a first time or attend for an "experience," and especially in random encounters with aging film fans. Nothing reminds me of the shared, universal condition of human suffering and longing so much as encountering a genuine fan of a movie after a revival screening, someone seeing it for the second time since its initial theatrical release, even better if it's a non-cinephile, and only loves the particular movie and had to see it again. For me, the more esoteric the film, the deeper the connection, because I often have meaningful conversations about popular films, but rarely have the chance for passionate conversation about the obscure, and treasure when I do. The conversation can be of a delicate, personal nature, the kind prone to evaporate with time.

Films from the margins often show or appeal to the marginalized. For example, their actors are often less talented, less perfectly beautiful, or never became well-known enough for their looks and talent to receive popular validation. Sometimes they are unappealing, sometimes despicable, sometimes outrageous. In this way outsider independent films can depict overlooked characters in a society, people not usually on screens, screens more and more reserved for manufactured, big-budgeted entertainment. So in time an outsider film can come to be defined by what it does show, the particular forms of personality and character it exhibits.

Cities well-known for filmmaking often tend to depict shifting populations. Think of the shades of urban character that flourish and vanish through decades of Los Angeles film, and the continuing near-eradication of particular forms of eccentricity that used to be a striking characteristic of New York City's personality. Bright, imaginative, fresh-thinking NYC films still exist for a different type of minority, one that has always blossomed in the film community: the sophisticated, cultured film fan. Recent NYC movies like Momma's Man, Frownland, and Tiny Furniture prosper because their subjects are members of the viewing cadre, and they're great films, but it's hard to imagine Gazzara's dancers sitting through them in succession*!

Diminished and homogeneous genre films, and other forms of esotericism, are partially to blame for the receding scope of independent films. The baby has been thrown out with the bath water. As smaller independent theaters, production companies, and distributors leave the stage, theatrical options narrow, and with them the potential for diverse encounters. Quality levels have risen, in theaters and films, but the curious and unconventional continue to die out^. All film fans have recently heard the repopularized "I'd rather stay home and watch television (!)" The reason for this get-the-fuck-out-of-town comment's revitalization is that television has begun to surprise its audiences, while cinema only flatters.

Cinematic taste has turned the corner while fleeing from Basket Case and films like it, and that's too bad. The progress of narrative variety and the evolution of filmic curiosity shouldn't be slowed to accommodate the safe or familiar. It's not that I want Basket Case to be remade again, the solution Hollywood suggests with their surge of remakes, it's that I see a necessity for an environment of creativity that allows for films like it to be made. In order to sustain the legacy of Basket Case, the outer boundaries of the imagination must continually be sought by filmmakers of all types. While continuing to ask for honesty, I also ask for invention, and gratefully welcome the intrusion of dreams.

* Momma's Man, Frownland, and Tiny Furniture, while not portraying an audience generating minority, due of course portray the statistically marginal, and are made deliberately non-mainstream in order to appeal to a certain group. They don't have well-known actors and they receive limited distribution. Like Basket Case, they sometimes challenge your reasons for watching them with either poor or atypical decisions and processes. The films' specific tones and points of view alienate audiences seeking comfortable inclusion, but reward the curious. I love them, and love that they get shown, but they're not the subject here. They should stay the same and in addition there can be other types of films.

^ If I must mention Internet alternatives well here I have, but it's not really the subject.

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