Saturday, February 21, 2015

#201: Andy Warhol's Bad (Jed Johnson, 1977)

This New York black comedy/affectionate homage to bad taste and amorality put me in a wistful mood, which is probably not its intended effect. The movie opened a few months before I was born, which had me thinking about what was happening in the various underground and semi-underground scenes all over the world while I was taking my first breaths, but it wasn't just nostalgia for experiences I didn't have or the fact that several prominent members of the cast and crew are no longer with us that caused my warm melancholia. Those passage-of-time markers definitely contributed to my mood, but they were pieces of an overall mourning for, and gratefulness at having experienced, the pre-Internet era.
I'm not here to bash the Internet. Even more than I hate it, I love it. I love it a lot. But I do think that every advent in technology gives us something wonderful while destroying something wonderful. Please allow me to make some possibly unfair generalizations in the following sentences. The Internet destroyed the chase, the search, the difficulty of finding the weird parts of culture. This difficulty built character, sensibility, personality, and point of view, and created strong local communities that were hard to create but harder to dismantle, each one with a distinct character of its own. By turning almost everything into easily accessible content, the Internet destroyed counterculture, put a dent in local culture, and eliminated the thrill of the chase, artistic naivete, and accident. Things don't mean as much when they're easy to find. Great at building highly specialized online global communities, the Internet is pretty bad at accidental, circumstantial oddball community-building and historical context. It's also eliminated a lot of mystery and happy accident, turning us into overly self-aware consumers of cultural content who all know, or think we all know, how the sausage is made. Opinions and judgments must be made, immediately, about everything, and immediate opinions and judgments must be made about those immediate opinions and judgments. Silence, isolation, and deprivation, great catalysts for weird creative happenings, must become conscious choices.
There is still, and always will be, great and not-so-great below-the-radar stuff made by interesting and unusually talented people, but some indescribable magic is gone. I'm very glad I got to live in that world of hard-to-acquire magic as an impressionable kid, turning that chase and those experiences into the person I am. Also, if YouTube had existed when I was a teenager, I never would have graduated high school. I would have been on there for hours every night, checking out all the music and movies I didn't get a chance to experience until I moved out of my small, redneck hometown. I never would have passed a science or math test.
Shut up, old man, and get to the movie, right? "Magic" is not a word most people use to describe Bad, a movie where babies are hurled out of windows and dogs are stabbed, but I can be a sentimental guy, especially where the 1970s and Susan Tyrrell and New York exploitation films are concerned. This is the kind of pre-Internet counterculture thing that's right up my alley. (Speaking of alleys and New York, alleys are actually pretty difficult to find in NYC, despite much cinematic evidence.) Bad is the only film directed by small-town Minnesota boy/Factory floor-sweeper turned Warhol lover and roommate/film editor/interior designer to the stars (Richard Gere, Mick Jagger, etc.) Jed Johnson and was cowritten by Factory character Pat Hackett, who also wrote Paul Morrissey's Dracula and Frankenstein movies. I wish she'd written more films.
The cast is an intriguing mixture of Warhol scenesters, former Hollywood stars who'd fallen out of favor, cult actors, and genuine New York oddballs, including Baby Doll's Carroll Baker, Susan Tyrrell, Brigid Polk aka Brigid Berlin, Lawrence Tierney, Perry King, Charles McGregor, Suspiria's Stefania Casini, Cyrinda Foxe, and sisters Geraldine and Maria Smith. Despite the prominence of Warhol's name in the title, he had virtually nothing to do with this film other than slapping his name on it. Warhol had stopped making films of his own in the early 1970s and his "executive production" of this film (much like his "production" of the Velvet Underground's first album) was primarily an endorsement and an effective means of generating publicity and attention for friends. This was his last contribution to cinema, however tangential.
Bad opens with a woman named R.C. (Cyrinda Foxe) trashing a diner in the city then heading to the suburban Long Island home of Hazel Aiken (Carroll Baker) to pick up her money for the job, which turns out to be pretty mild compared to most of the money-making opportunities in the film. Hazel is a mean, mean woman who runs an electrolysis business out of her house but has a million other side gigs going. She's all business, no heart. Hazel rents most of her rooms to a group of women who are killers for hire (Casini, the Smith sisters, Foxe, Barbara Allen), taking a cut of their hit money as well, steals all the food stamp money from her daughter-in-law (Tyrrell) and infant grandson in exchange for allowing them to live in the basement, and pays off a corrupt detective (McGregor) by throwing him the occasional bust of one of her hit women and giving him a cut of her profits. She pretends to be living paycheck to paycheck, but her locked bedroom is full of expensive jewelry, furniture, and fur coats.
Hazel reluctantly takes in a male boarder, L.T. (King), who has been hired by one of her clients to murder the client's autistic son. The woman thinks the kid is boring and too much work and regrets the abortion she had in college because "that kid was probably normal." The hit can't go down for a week, so L.T. hangs around, driving Hazel nuts. Some of the other hits in the movie include a mechanic who shoved a musician onto the subway tracks, causing the loss of his arm. The passive musician doesn't seem to care that much, but his angry girlfriend (Renee Paris) wants some revenge. Estelle (Brigid Berlin/Polk) wants O'Reilly-O'Crapface's (Tierney) dog murdered because he insulted her hotness while she was wearing her short-shorts around the neighborhood and because he's worn the same pair of blue pants for two straight years. Another woman wants her baby killed because he cries too much. Poor Mary Aiken (Tyrrell) is the voice of conscience, in yet another classic Susan Tyrrell role. She absorbs everyone's abuse but never turns mean, pining for her absent trucker husband and urging her mother-in-law to stop the whole murder-for-hire thing. I love a movie that has Susan Tyrrell playing the sanest person.
Bad has some affinity with John Waters' early films (Berlin/Polk even became one of Waters' stock company actors after Warhol died) and the work of Johnson mentors Warhol and Paul Morrissey, as well as a clear kinship with New York's then-thriving punk rock scene (though the score is primarily Boz Scaggs-style white R&B by blues rocker Mike Bloomfield) and the exploitation and splatter films then playing the grindhouse theaters on 42nd Street, but Johnson's unique background as an interior designer and film editor gives his only directorial work a style all its own. Bad has a very strong sense of visual organization and space and relies on a mostly still camera that avoids closeups and only moves when it has to. The film is almost deliberately flat and avoids any stylistic tricks or flash, relying instead on subtle shot compositions and careful arrangement of the elements within the frame. Believe me, that is the only thing subtle or careful about this movie, which I found hilarious, fascinating, and thoroughly entertaining.
Bad received scathing reviews at the time. An arty exploitation movie celebrating bad taste and made on the cheap with cult figures would probably never have been reviewed by major news outlets, but Andy Warhol's name in the title made them take notice because advertising and celebrity have always driven mainstream news. Not having much context for the film, they didn't get it and panned it as trash. (As much as I like Roger Ebert, he was guilty of this same cluelessness when he reviewed Warhol and Morrissey's Chelsea Girls and gave it zero stars. It was the only non-narrative, avant-garde film he ever reviewed, and he only reviewed it because Warhol's name put it in places other experimental films never get seen. His lack of affinity for and understanding of this type of filmmaking are embarrassing to read. It's like asking my dad to review a hip-hop album.) I also suspect the film's female-centric cast flustered the male-centric newspaper critics who preferred their women polite. At any rate, the TV and newspaper rubes who think Gandhi is the pinnacle of film art are never going to understand a movie like Bad.
Johnson never made another film, which is a shame. His lucrative and satisfying career as an interior designer kept him busy until his untimely death at the age of 47 in the 1996 TWA 800 disaster, when a short circuit in the plane's fuel tank caused the plane to explode near Long Island shortly after takeoff. It was an unusual, quick, and eventful death following an unusual, quick, and eventful life.

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