1st March 2000

How Brakhage Birthed The Toxic Avenger

posted in `Roids |

By Lloyd Kaufman with Ashlin Halfnight

It may come as a surprise to some, but Stan Brakhage and his incredible body of work have been an enormous impetus to the strategy of the fiercely independent (and disease-ridden) Troma Film Studios and a profound influence on the movies that I have written and directed. Yes! The company that brought you The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo & Juliet and Terror Firmer has its roots in Stan Brakhage’s brilliant melding of light and moving image – and in his total self-sufficiency as an artist.

Lloyd at Bard University
with Cupid and a couple of Troma Superfans

I highlighted this connection recently whilst at Bard College, where I was invited to screen the newest Troma disgrace, Terror Firmer. I had every intention of discussing both the film and Troma, but when I heard that Brakhage was soon to be visiting the school… well, I ended up talking non-stop about him.(1) Yeah, I ended up devoting most of my time in the spotlight to worshipping at the shrine of Brakhage (something I do at the click of an 8mm – or at the drop of a hat, or a painted butterfly wing). By the end of my incoherent rambling, it became clear to most people that I was a true fan of Brakhage’s work.(2) A bright young man in the audience, Jorge Santana apparently had a stroke of genius (or just a stroke) and asked me to write a little article about Stan. So here it is. Not because I presume to know anything about anything, but because someone asked me. If this article is a piece of shit, blame him, not me.

I first met Stan at Yale University in 1964;(3) I was a freshman and busy diving into life at the Yale film society. Stan came to Yale to screen his four-hour masterpiece, The Art of Vision and I managed to secure an interview with him. At the time I was very interested in earning a spot with the campus radio station and decided to use the interview with Stan as my on-air audition project. I began the interview with a question (see, I was an expert already) and then Stan talked for an hour. In all likelihood, it was the single greatest interview ever broadcast on Yale’s radio station. Unfortunately though, the Ivy League stiffs who were listening (people like George W. Bush, who was in my class) didn’t appreciate Stan’s greatness. The station received a number of hostile calls. I guess the listening lads were wondering where the hell all the Lovin’ Spoonful songs had gone. They were freaking out because the station wasn’t bombarding them with the crap that they normally pumped through the speakers. Holy shit! What a disaster! They were actually getting something that might make them think! Needless to say, the dickheads in charge of the station didn’t admit me… in part because I was so enthusiastic about what Stan had to say – in greater part because I’m me.

A postcard Lloyd received from the great Stan Brakhage after this essay was published,

I didn’t give a shit what everyone else thought; Stan’s interview blew me away and I was even more blown away by The Art of Vision. I’m no expert, but from my brief contact with him, from viewing his work, and from conversations with Eric Sherman,(4) my feeling is that Stan was then, and is still now, entirely devoted to, and saturated with, the moving visual image. He wants us to see things as a child would; he wants us to lose our preconceived notions about the world around us and about film in particular. Since those days back at school, when I made The Girl Who Returned with a 16mm Bolex, until right up to the present with movies like The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo & Juliet, I concentrate heavily on the visual, on the action. That first long form movie, The Girl Who Returned, was a silent film with music and sound overdubbed and I justified its very existence, let alone screening it at numerous colleges and charging admission, because of the brilliance of Stan’s silent films. Over and over, year after year, people criticize my films because they lack dialogue, but if the image alone can fully communicate meaning – as it so often can, who the hell needs some asshole on screen yammering on forever?

Since that first meeting in ’64, I’ve seen much of Stan’s work and learned a great deal from it. Films like The Horseman, The Woman and The Moth use double, triple and quadruple dissolves;(5) I too have adopted such techniques for the “nightmare” scenes in movies like Waitress! and Stuck on You. Stan’s extreme close-ups and lengthy explorations of subject matter in films like The Text of Light and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes have influenced me as well. Stan’s intense examination of light and textures in The Act was incredible in it’s own right, but when he pulls back to reveal that we are in fact inside a Pittsburgh morgue, thus linking “autopsy” with its Greek root, “to see with one’s own eyes,” he displays true brilliance.

Sometimes I think Stan’s films seep into my head unintentionally, subliminally perhaps, and if you check out Troma’s Terror Firmer, you will see obvious “Tromages” to Stan’s work – like the life-affirming rape scene from TF, for example. Some have criticized the scene because of its long and drawn-out exposition, but I had images of Stan’s cigarette in the crystal ashtray and the Pittsburgh morgue running around my brain during shooting.(6) What can I say? I needed time to fully explore the subject, so who cares if people think my film is too long.(7) Fuck them, where’s their life-affirming rape scene?

Which brings me to what is perhaps my most important point. Not only has Stan provided filmmakers with excellent technical examples to follow, but he has also been a personal inspiration to independent artists like me. His unwillingness to surrender his personal artistic vision to the oppressive weight of public opinion has been a true blessing. Although my efforts and art may look simple next to Stan’s – call me Zamphir the pan pipe player next to his Beethoven – both my outlook and the Troma Tao spring from the loins of Stan’s philosophy.

We Tromites are trying to accomplish something in the face of a public that is being spoon-fed baby food shit like Titanic and Wild Wild West. I have often thought that the mountain in Stan’s film, My Mountain Song(8) with it’s own (as Jeannie Sherman says) (9) “postulated reality in an obdurate universe,” is an apt symbol for the work of filmmakers like Stan and myself. We take a familial approach to the projects, often including our wives, friends, relatives, and even the pizza guy in the cast or crew. We use non-actors. We make movies outside the Hollywood system… way, way, way the fuck outside the Hollywood system.

Because of this philosophical kinship and due to my great admiration for Stan, I have managed to remember a few things he’s said.(10) I once asked him how he felt about people walking out to smoke or take a pee during his lengthier movies. He replied that viewers already miss parts of the movie when they blink, so it didn’t matter, he reasoned, if they went to the bathroom or left halfway through. Visionary thinking like that gives tremendous confidence to lesser-known filmmakers who are operating outside the accepted structure. Thinking like that has given the Troma Team the conviction to make the movies we want to make, and if people leave in the middle…well, all I can say is, don’t piss on the seat.

And as if all of the above isn’t enough, Stan has crossed the Troma path yet again very recently. When Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought us their unfinished first film, Cannibal! The Musical back in 1996, I sat down, watched it, and immediately jumped on board to help. Before I jumped on board, though, I had to change my thong underwear…the movie was so fucking funny that I needed a clean pair. Sure, I realized that Matt and Trey were geniuses who had made a kick-ass movie (they went on to create South Park and get nominated for an Oscar). Sure, I was drunk. But even if none of this had been true, even if the movie had sucked, Troma still would have devoted resources to it because Cannibal! (11) contained a crown jewel: Stan Brakhage in the role of The Judge.

Having Stan in a movie distributed by Troma meant I could go home at the end of the day and blow my brains out; my life was complete. That’s how important he is to me. You see, you encounter only a few certainties in life, a few truths. Most of what comes out of my mouth is a reflection of how I see my surroundings, how my Tromatic brain interprets the world at large. So when I say that Notting Hill was a blockbuster-sized piece of shite, it’s only my opinion and I qualify it thusly. When I rant and rave about Disney being a devil-worshipping conglomerate, it’s the truth – as I see it. When I say that a small group of ass-backward, elitist, lemmings has a stranglehold on art and entertainment in this country, I mean it, but I acknowledge that it’s up for debate. But, when I say that Stan Brakhage is the single greatest contemporary artist in America, it ain’t up for debate. It’s a certainty. It’s the truth. I don’t qualify it. I don’t need to.

As the Troma Team celebrates its 25th year in 2000 we can look back and say that we certainly owe a considerable debt to Brakhage’s visionary work. While it is absolutely true that my films differ from Brakhage’s in many respects; in my latest “oeuf”, Terror Firmer for example, I have pickle-assisted female self-pleasuring and de-fetusing scenes (I also have a funnel in the ass incident). Stan has never, to my knowledge, included the aforementioned scenes in any of his movies. But as I’ve discussed above, his work is always lurking somewhere in my thoughts while I brainstorm, write, and shoot our films. And as I mentioned before, what he symbolizes as an artist has been extremely important to me over the last quarter century while building Troma, America’s oldest continuously operating independent movie studio.

But Stan’s influence of course extends beyond the technical and philosophical arena. In times of creative frustration, I have often turned to Stan’s body of work for inspiration. It’s been said that all artists have a muse. Some go to the bottle, some turn to sex, some depend on nature, and some need a good hard spanking every so often. Michelangelo, Beethoven, Shakespeare – all great artists in their day who must have depended on some crucial stimulus to produce their masterpieces. But just think what they might have created if they could have looked to Stan Brakhage for inspiration… Shakespeare might have created The Toxic Avenger!!!

By Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment and creator of The Toxic Avenger. Kaufman is known as an artist, then a businessman… and then a foot fetishist. This article was written with assistance from Ashlin Halfnight, male escort and hired killer.

1 -Normally when I screen a Troma movie, the auditorium is jam-packed. But this one at Bard wasn’t very full because, some students informed me, a nasty, inconsiderate, stupid-fuck, pea-brained, film professor deliberately instructed all of his students to attend another program during the Terror Firmer showing; he did this so they couldn’t and wouldn’t see our movie. That pissed me off just a bit. I’d driven two hours in the rain (uphill both ways) paid my own way, and hadn’t even asked to be reimbursed for my gas expenditures…. All I can say is fuck him and the dildo he rode in on. Now if the professor had assigned a Brackhage program to counter me, I would have been all for it. Fuck yeah! I wouldn’t have cared if the auditorium for my film had been empty! But that was NOT the case, so I’ll repeat myself: Fuck him and the dildo he rode in on. Anyway, where was I?

2 -It also became abundantly clear that I was clinically insane.

3 – I have not seen him, in person, since.

4 -Eric, also a filmmaker, was my roommate at Yale and has won a Peabody Award and written Directing The Film for Acrobat, among other books.

5 -At least that’s what it looks like.

6 -Along with visions of naked lesbian vegetarian zombies.

7 -By the way, people also think that my penis is too long.

8 – I think that’s what it’s called, I’m not sure…I don’t remember clearly…it’s the movie with a mountain in it… and if it’s not a mountain that was the focus of the film, then maybe it was a cantaloupe with earmuffs or a cantamuff with earloupes.

9 -Eric Sherman’s significant other, see previous footnote.

10 -Which is rare considering how many hallucinogenic drugs I’ve done and how much rubbing alcohol I’ve swallowed.

11 -For more on Cannibal! The Musical and other Troma crap see All I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger, by Lloyd Kaufman; published by Penguin Putnam and available on Amazon.com, at Borders, Barnes & Noble and at fine bookstores everywhere.

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