Pink Justice (USA, 1977)

October 19, 2009

There can be few cinema sub-genres as small as the one-director, four-film series collectively known as ‘gaysploitation.’ Inspired by the upsurge in California’s gay movement in the mid-1970s, formerly closeted film student-turned-flamboyant activist Vijay Kostenloser saw an opportunity to show his community on film. He was able to convince American International Pictures boss Samuel Z. Arkoff to fund a slate of four action pictures to be shot in San Francisco. In spite of Arkoff’s rabid and much publicized homophobia, Kostenloser persuaded him that there were enough pink dollars floating around to guarantee great box office returns. Production began immediately on Pink Justice and Pink Justice 2: Flaming Vengeance, which were shot back to back, with the lesbian spy caper D.Y.K.E. following shortly after. Sadly the dismal failure of the Pink Justice films meant that the fourth production, the sci-fi actioner Queer 2099, was abandoned at the script stage. Arkoff furiously ordered all copies of the three existing films destroyed, so we were surprised and delighted to find a battered but watchable work print of Pink Justice in crate 7.

A cursory viewing of the film shows that Kostenloser and his screenwriter Gary Gaylord (genuinely his real name, and he was in fact straight) stuck closely to the blaxploitation model of a few years earlier. Rainbow Jones (Alan J. Jay, b. José Iglesias Martínez-Suárez Pérez Olivera Pérez Puente Soriano) is a gay ex-marine living happily in San Francisco’s Castro district with his lover, prominent city council member Harry Silk (Liberace). Rainbow’s pleasant existence is shattered when his best friend Pinky (Fard Fielding, Martian Biker Punks) is beaten to death by a gang of homophobic hoodlums known as Straights For Hate. Using his military training and survival skills honed in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Rainbow engages in a bloody street war with the Straights. As the film progresses, Rainbow unveils a connection between the Straights and bigoted Catholic minister Father O’Maloney (Dick Tramm, Cry Rabies!), a truly creepy character with an unhealthy predilection for underage girls. In the gripping final reel, Rainbow discovers the ugly truth: that O’Maloney is in league with Harry Silk, who has secretly agreed to allow the building of a ‘forced re-education center’ in the heart of the Castro district.

After many disappointments, it was a true pleasure to find such an enjoyable lost work in crate 7. Pink Justice crackles with energy and excitement, fine performances, and sharply quotable dialogue. It’s easy to imagine that had the film been more successful, many of the lines would have found their way into our shared cultural lexicon. In particular, Rainbow Jones referring to his gold plated .475 Wildey Magnum ‘Big Steve’ with kittens painted on the handgrips; “this is the closest these fingers get to pussy, honey!” before blowing away a bad guy. From the moment Rainbow beds a straight guy simply by kissing him, to his distinctive limp-wristed hand to hand combat style, he seems to be a ready-made hero for the gay community, a pink Shaft if you will. He even has his own theme ‘Rainbow Jones Is Here’ by gay soul collective Fag Street Junction, with the catchy refrain “Rainbow Jones: the Queer you Fear.” Our print also included the film’s theatrical trailer, a two-minute explosion of action and colour with the superb voice-over “He’s the fag who’ll put you in body bag… Call him a homo and he’ll put you in a coma! This summer, God Save You from The Queen!”

Kostenloser’s agenda is clear from the outset. All of the heterosexual characters are loathsome, particularly the paedophile priest (who, one notes, only interferes with girls). The gay characters on the other hand are almost all sympathetic, with the exception of ‘Harry Silk.’ It’s odd that a role so clearly based on celebrated gay politician Harvey Milk is shown in such a negative light. Apparently this was due to an acrimonious one night stand between Milk and Kostenloser a few years earlier. The director even subverts Milk’s famous catchphrase by having Silk say in the final scene, “My name is Harry Silk and I’m here to shoot you!” However, this is a small black mark against an otherwise terrific film.

Sadly the failure of Pink Justice meant that many of the cast and crew drifted into obscurity. Not so Alan J. Jay, who infamously underwent treatment at a religious compound and became a Pentecostal minister, getting married and funding several viciously anti-gay films including The Swishy Scourge and the notorious Death Camp 3. His autobiography ‘Alan J. Jay – the J stands for Jesus’ was a bestseller in Alabama and Louisiana. Later still he renounced his conversion, and following his wife’s mysterious and unsolved death he fled back to Mexico, undergoing gender reassignment surgery. He still works today on television under the name Rosa Iglesias Martínez-Suárez Pérez Olivera Pérez Puente Soriano, and won a 1997 TV Novela Award as the dying matriarch in popular telenovela ¡Sexo prohibido!

It is our hope that with some extensive restoration of the print we may be able to secure a DVD release for Pink Justice. As both a cultural artefact and a gripping action-adventure film, it deserves to be seen at last.

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Crate Two contains a mammoth collection of apartheid-era South African action films, some of which (Boer Commando II and Die Lord Roberts, Die!) are quite rare. A few (the sprawling Xhosa Wars Saga, Maritz: the Last Boer) are comparatively well-known. All of them are casually and blatantly racist in a manner that can cause the average American viewer (and this cataloger) to blanch repeatedly. The Pretoria Option is no exception, and by the twenty minute mark, I gave up trying to list all of the objectionable views on display. Suffice it to say that there are enough to constitute a non-stop assault on the senses.

During apartheid, even well before the 1985 sanctions,  a lot of things were simply unobtainable in South Africa. American (and to a lesser extent European) action films, for instance, frequently depicted blacks as equals, which for obvious reasons wasn’t going to fly. A number of local z-grade producers leaped to fill the void, including Pieter Copperhorn. The son of British immigrants to South Africa, Copperhorn, like many converts to many ideologies over the years, became a fanatical Boer nationalist (he would commit suicide in 1992), but one with a certain talent for gaining financial backing for his films. Government connections also meant that he was often able to obtain the services of South African Army and Navy units for crowd or action scenes, which went a long way, given the meager budgets he operated with (Bigotry, Violence and Implied Sex: The Triple Features of Apartheid Exploitation Cinema claims Copperhorn never had a budget higher than R500,000).  He also tended to write, direct, and star in his own films. In 1977, this wasn’t a serious imposition, as the thirty-six-year-old Copperhorn was still ruggedly handsome, but age and success took a toll on him. By 1988’s Haul Down the Union Jack, he was overweight, balding, and perspired heavily in all of his scenes.

The film opens with a title card informing us that we are looking at a secret American military base, “THE HOME OF US STRATEGIC NUCLEAR COMMAND”. It appears to be a collection of World War II-era Quonset Huts. An admittedly impressive explosion then obliterates the huts.

A new title card informs us we are looking at the “US WHITE HOUSE WAR ROOM”. It looks pretty much like any other conference room you’ve ever seen, but there’s a big map of the world like you might see in an elementary school on the wall, and what appears to be a transparency of the org chart for an armored division hanging next to it.  The President of the United States (Gerald Pienaar, in a surprisingly funny turn) , a thinly veiled caricature of Gerald Ford, is receiving a report that all of the NATO countries (and France) have had their nuclear arsenals destroyed, and that Russia is now announcing a plan for German reunification. It is implied that this will be a Communist Germany.

Obviously, the USA can’t let this stand, and the President demands to know where a stopgap nuclear deterrent can be found. Where indeed?

We cut to Pretoria, as another title card helpfully informs us. Actually, we cut to the war memorial Fort Klapperkop, a disused Boer War-era fortress, where Jan Baaker (Copperhorn), an agent of BOSS (the South African’s Orwellian-sounding Bureau Of State Security, subsequently disbanded in 1980 and replaced with the National Intelligence Service) is receiving a briefing from his superior, “G” (Piers Uys) on the protection of South Africa’s atomic defenses. Now that the Russians (presumably) have destroyed NATO and France’s atom bombs, South Africa is the world’s last bulwark against Communism and anarchy. As if to emphasize the danger, a sniper narrowly misses Baaker and G, who in turn kill him with a fusillade of stunningly well-aimed pistol shots.

Meanwhile, at the “USSR ATOMIC WARHEAD STORAGE”, a team of Americans (including one black man played by a white in blackface) have carried out a countersabotage of the USSR’s missiles. However, the black American is revealed as a GRU mole, and they are ambushed by the Russians, who kill them all. Before he dies, however, the commander of the Americans manages to trigger their demolition charges. Now both sides are on an equal footing.

“BACK IN PRETORIA” (Copperhorn must have gotten a bulk discount on these captions), Baaker is riding shotgun to a convoy with one of South Africa’s nuclear weapons (played by what appears to be an old British Bloodhound SAM) when a group of Communist-affiliated (read: black) guerrillas attack in overwhelming numbers. The convoy, incidentally, is played by two land rovers plus the missile truck. The overwhelming numbers are probably ten or fifteen distinct attackers shot from different angles. They are beaten off, but in the confusion, an American spy (Carson Roberts) steals the missile truck.

What follows is a low speed chase; Copperhorn doesn’t even bother to speed up the film. That’s just as well, because it would have looked ridiculous, with the missile swinging about on its trailer and a hilariously unconcerned herd of cattle looking on at one point.

Baaker eventually manages to catch up to the missile, where he finds the American getting ready to hotwire the missile and launch it at Moscow.  A tense stand-off follows, but then the South African shoots his nemesis dead in what is apparently supposed to be a demonstration of Dirty Harry-esque elan.  (Copperhorn was a huge fan of the Dirty Harry films, and reportedly tried to obtain rights to remake them in South Africa. The refusal led to his later film, Filthy Pieter [1982].)

Following this is the denouement, in which South Africa, now the world’s sole nuclear power, announces that it will be acting as a world police force, “to stop conflicts before they start”. Apparently the two-power system threw the world out of balance, and now everyone will be safer in a one-power world.

With the rising popularity of Japanese kaiju films among American audiences, it was inevitable that an American studio would throw a lot of money into the ring and make a truly appalling movie that overlooked the joy of watching guys in rubber suits pound on each other in a miniature city. But that would have to wait until Godzilla (1998). Long before that, two high school dropouts in Illinois made Big Monster Ruckus with more gusto than cash and made an enjoyable mess of a movie.

John Henry Fielding was the son of Isaac Fielding, whose Fields of Screens company produced training films for Chicago’s meat packing industry. After interning at his father’s company over summer vacation, John dropped out of school to work full time. He fell in with the firm’s young lighting technician, Paul Whitestone, and they began using the Fields of Screens equipment and film remnants on weekends to make Big Monster Ruckus. According to the testimony in Whitestone v. Fielding, the movie cost about $4,000 to make — the majority of which went to pizza and train sets.

There is no credit listed for the screenwriter (although both men claimed in court to have written the majority of the script), and there is in fact little credit to give. What dialog exists is purely clumsy exposition, most often in the form of narration. In fact the soundscape is barren. Aside from voices, there is only the stock music played through the opening credits. Even when the promised ruckus begins there is no sound whatsoever. That’s not entirely true, I have to confess. There’s also the occasional pop of the degraded soundtrack.

The film is in remarkably good condition. It shows very little wear, which may mean that it was the copy given to Isaac Fielding in return for the use of equipment. Testimony indicated that only three prints of the film were made, and two were periodically taken to amenable drive-ins for screenings. According to Whitestone, one town made it part of a yearly festival and held costumed wrestling contests.

The story is as follows: some scientists are exploring the island of Nipponia (…yeah…) which seems to be the shoreline of Lake Michigan. We’re told that they are there to follow up on “readings”. As they wander around, we are treated to some forced perspective shots of a guy in an ape suit. When the scientists leave, the “ape” stumbles after them. So much for plot. After that, it’s all ruckus as first the ape rampages over model houses for train sets then is joined inexplicably by a man in robes and a fright mask. After some individual tromping on plastic buildings, they start to wrestle. Shots of stomping in trainyards are interspersed with close shots of an extended slappy-fest. Eventually the guy in the robes runs away, and the ape does a victory lap that ends with punting a moving train.

It’s kind of awesome in its childish directness, although the lack of noises makes it feel as though it’s longer than the 56 minute running time.

In case you’re curious, Whitestone lost his suit against Fielding. The judge ruled that as the only agreement about profits was a verbal arrangement that each man had a copy to do with as he pleased there was no basis for assuming that Fielding should split the take from any given showing. I can only assume that this leaves a sequel in serious doubt.

Maurice “MoJo” Jones Jr. never really managed to make a name for himself as an American film director, though he was able to eke out a modest living as a theater director in southern France until his tragic and early death in a set collapse at an outdoor theater festival in 1989. This is doubly unfortunate, because not only was an underrated director lost to the world, but his widow (second wife Annette Cartier-Jones) destroyed the manuscript to his oft-discussed but never finished autobiography, Long Swim From the White Lagoon.

It’s telling that even sixteen years after he’d made it in six weeks with a small cast almost all related to him by blood or marriage, Creature from the White Lagoon still had some kind of hold on him. If you’ve ever seen it, it’s not hard to see why: Jones’ deft touch cuts through all the pseudo-Blaxpo swagger and bravado and broad satire to craft a sensitive portrayal of a creature adrift in a time it doesn’t belong in.

Unfortunately, while the directing—and even the acting, especially considering the level of experience most cast members had—is ably done, the special effects, such as they are, are terrible. The Creature himself (Maurice Jones Senior, giving a remarkable first—and last—performance) is simply a man with a shaven head in what appears to be a combination of white facepaint and sprinkled flour. The actual lagoon he hails from is never shown. Virtually any scene calling for more action than fisticuffs happens offscreen.

The plot is simple enough: the Creature from the White Lagoon awakens after a slumber “thousands of years in duration”, as a voiceover (ably done by Jones Jr) informs us, and shambles out into the modern world. He finds himself in a typical 1970s-era city (specifically Chicago, although no major landmarks are shown), and despite his clearly freakish appearance, he attempts to blend in with modern society. When the creature’s species roamed the earth, the voiceover tells us, the albinos of the race ruled over the more numerous pigmented members of their species, and naturally the creature, seeing caucasians, believes them to be the ruling class and attempts to rejoin the elite.

A series of misadventures follow. In the most memorable, a housewife (Annette Cartier, who Jones would leave his wife for in 1976) tries to get her henpecked husband (Jack Graham) to KO the creature so the authorities can come to pick it up, but the WASP patrician and the creature instead end up sitting on the porch, drunkenly discussing how the world has slipped through their fingers. Much of the movie is like this; muted and tinged with sadness, but with a strange kind of optimism: the racist world the creature wanders through is dying out, and it knows it, just as the creature knows he will soon die in the modern world’s inhospitable climate. (In a later scene, the creature runs afoul of two racist cops, who mistake it for an African-American albino and hassle it before it beats them up and flees. In a more conventional blaxploitation film, this would precipitate a massive manhunt, but in White Lagoon, the cops shrug resignedly and limp back to their cruiser.)

The print in Crate 5 is in a bad way, and the sound is inaudible in many parts; I was fortunate that a poorly mimeographed copy of the shooting script was included, so that even when there was no audio I could follow along. Even so, I was deeply impressed by this film, a totally atypical blaxploitation film that nonetheless is quietly triumphalistic in its own way: while whites seem to rule everything and are oppressive, Jones seems to say, they even more than their victims are cognizant of the fact that they are no longer in control of the edifices they’ve created. It’s a message made all the more effective by the fact that the villains are neither completely unsympathetic  nor caricatures.

Hot Cars (USA, 1983)

July 23, 2009

This is the first fully intact film I’ve found in Crate 5, though God knows why anyone would have wanted to keep this preserved over a rare genre masterpiece like Creature from the White Lagoon; it’s beyond me.

Hot Cars was directed by Ira “Don” Cascowitz, a Detroit-based director of industrial shorts and z-grade films who did the majority of his work (Non-Mechanical Press, Swinging Shop Class—which Tarantino is apparently a big fan of—etc.) in the 1970s. A few visual cues lead me to believe that Hot Cars may have been made in the ’70s as well, but since Cascowitz’s own autobiography (Have It Rain on the Broad, Simon & Schuster, 1998, and a pretty good source for a lot of the weirdness in the Detroit film scene of the era, though Cascowitz comes off as a complete jerk) states they began prinicipal filming in 1982, I’ll go with the generally accepted release date for now.

The plot, such as there is, is extremely simple. This is a terrible, terrible teen sex comedy revolving around Patrick (Wally Thoma), a seventeen-year-old boy who desperately wants to lose his virginity to his attractive—I use the term loosely— high school classmate Dana (Janet Eller). There’s a hitch, however: Patrick’s widowed dad (Forrest Bluth) is a VP at one of the Big Three Automakers (never stated which one, but since Patrick spends a lot of the movie tooling around in a 1974 four-cylinder Mustang II—the most maligned Mustang of all time, by the way—it’s not to hard to read between the lines), and Dana’s divorced mom (Ingrid Wallenbacher, who actually would have looked pretty in this if they’d gone easier on the eye makeup) works on the production line, and so they exist in different worlds.

Adding complications to the plot is that a sinister union boss (Cascowitz himself)—who’s actually working with a foreign car company to try and blackmail Patrick’s dad into undertaking a little industrial espionage for them—has decided he wants both Dana AND her mom, preferably at the same time. He also thinks that the best way to get to Patrick’s dad is by getting Patrick in a compromising situation with a kimono-wearing foreign femme fatale (Ruth Kim) and going from there.

It might almost sound, from the above summary, that this could be kind of a busy movie. It is not. Literally a full 30 minutes of the overlong 93 minute running time is taken up by shots of Patrick driving from place to place. True to form, Cascowitz tries to spice things up by having, for example, a bus full of old-looking co-eds flash Patrick as they drive by, but this and virtually everything else in the movie feels forced.

Now, my theory on the making of this film, which is ultimately more interesting, I think , than the movie itself: Cascowitz produced a number of training films for Ford in the 1970s, even as his exploitation films were achieiving some level of success, albeit mainly in the Detroit metro area. The production values of Hot Cars are incredible, and not just by comparison to what Cascowitz had done previously (this may be the only film of his I’ve seen that was shot with multiple cameras). There are crowd scenes, some assembly line footage that clearly isn’t stock, and a whole lot of Ford automobiles, including what is, if I’m not mistaken, the original 1972 Ford Carousel Minivan concept car standing in as the “revolutionary new American auto” that the bad guys want to steal.

Now, I have nothing beyond circumstantial evidence and a 300-word interview in a 1974 issue of Detroiter Magazine where Cascowitz mentions he’s “partnering up with a household name to do something big”, but my theory is this: what if, from 1975-1976, which Cascowitz has always claimed was spent getting funding for Sex Drivers Ed, he was actually working on a teen sex comedy originally paid for and sponsored by Ford Motor Company? Presumably saner heads intervened (perhaps this was one of the reasons Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca?) and the project was shelved. By 1978, Cascowitz was already having trouble finding distributers, and Hot Cars was actually sold, essentially door-to-door, to drive-ins by Cascowitz himself.

Something to consider…

[Both the first and final reels of this film are heavily damaged, making it difficult to ascertain cast and crew information. The title comes from the numbered 3″x5″ notecards affixed to each reel.]

My Lover, The Alien is an extremely disjoined film. I apologize in advance if my summary of it doesn’t make much sense, but I’m working off of my notes. I’d almost watch it again to make sure I’ve got this all down correctly, but there’s some concern over how the film will hold up, considering both its age and (poor) material condition. Anyway, on to the movie.

The film is set in what is apparently supposed to be New York in 1988 (although what appears to be Milan’s Pirelli Tower is clearly visible in a number of shots). Apparently, in 1980(? or 1983, both years are given at seperate times) there was the “Final War”, between the US and Russia; at the end of the war, the world renounced conflict forever and formed the “Earth Unified Movement”, which now runs the planet and manages the “Outer Colonization Runs”. Despite this advance, poverty is widespread, and the movie opens with the main character, Deric, in a bread line. Apparently Deric was a war hero in the “USA Missile Control Command”, and he is extremely embittered to have been denied a chance to leave Earth after the war.

A woman tries to cut in the bread line, which sparks a riot, and the “Ground Enforcers” show up to disperse the rioters. I should probably note that these guys need to be seen to be believed. They’re wearing a sort of track suit with epaulets and a cuirassier-style breastplate, and their headgear is just sunglasses and white football helmets with the word “POLIC” [sic] on them. This misspelling is pretty visible, as there are a number of close-ups on their faces. They appear to be carrying a bunch of weapons left over from a WWII movie of some sort.

Deric punches out a bunch of Ground Enforcers and helps the woman who tried to cut to escape by stealing one of the Ground Enforcers’ golf carts. The police chase them half-heartedly, but eventually Deric manages to get her to the ruined building he squats in, and then slaps her around a bit and demands to know why she caused a riot. The woman says she is an alien from “the third leg of Tartorkas[? sound quality was very poor here]” and that she had come to Earth on a mission of peace, but that her star cruiser was shot down by the Earth Unified Movement when she tried to land. Apparently, humanity is colonizing worlds that other species already inhabit, and the government is covering this up.

The scene now shifts to what’s pretty clearly a still image of the World Trade Center, where “Special Galactical Unified Intelligence” is headquartered. There, the sinister Mister Galk is receiving orders from a speaker. I love the guy who plays Galk. He’s kind of a Henry Silva type, and he has this big black eyepatch with a red lightbulb in the middle over his right eye and wears a pinstripe suit with army boots. He’s also really the only actor who does even a mediocre job; everyone else is pretty numb with their lines.  Anyway, the speaker orders Galk to stop Deric and the woman before they can tell anyone else. Galk promises to do so, and opens the wall of his office to reveal a cargo elevator(!) with a jet black golf cart kind of like the police were using.

Meanwhile Deric and the woman (whose name is Vazelle) try to buy passage off earth from people who have been selected to be colonists. Apparently there is a thriving black market where people sell their place on a ship. (Note that at this point, nearly 45 minutes into the movie, we have not yet seen a spaceship.) The police show up and bust up the transaction, and kill the people selling their places. Deric manages to grab their “spacepasses” (which look a lot like Michelin maps) and escapes with Vazelle. They both hide in an abandoned shack and Vazelle confesses to Deric that if she doesn’t get in contact with her people, they will make war on the Earth. Then she tells him that she loves him and wants to have a human baby with him(!) and what follows must be some of the least sexy-looking making out ever put on screen. At one point, Deric squeezes Vazelle’s breasts through her sweater, and the actress playing Vazelle doesn’t even bother to hide her expression of pain and annoyance.

Meanwhile, Mister Galk is interrogating informants and killing them if he doesn’t like what they have to say. I think the actor who played him may really have only had one eye, because he uses the lightbulb in his eyepatch to kill them with “a fatal ray” (his words), and when he does this, wisps of smoke come out from behind the patch. Apparently word has gotten out about Vazelle, and this is a big deal because the government has told people that there are no other species out there. Galk reports this development to a speaker on his golf cart, and it makes his eyepatch light up and give him a terrible headache. He vows to find Deric and Vazelle and to kill them.

Deric and Vazelle meanwhile have decided to board a colony ship using their stolen passes and then hijack it and use its “hypercrystal radio” to contact Vazelle’s people, who will then pick them up and tell the people of Earth what’s being done in their name via “ultrathought broadcast”. Why they didn’t do this to begin with isn’t really explained. The two get in line to board the spaceship (which we can’t see; the crowd waiting in front of an elevator of some sort), and they become increasingly nervous as they see there are a lot of guards around. Then Galk shows up, slowly driving his cart past the line and looking for Vazelle, who gets more and more nervous until she suddenly cuts and runs. Deric follows her, and Galk and the guards chase them onto a catwalk. Deric now has a gun for some reason, and he shoots a bunch of guards before Galk uses his eyepatch bulb to shoot the gun out of Deric’s hand. Vazelle then tells the guards that she’s an alien and that Galk is lying to them, and Galk gets increasingly upset as it seems like the police are buying it. Finally, he tries to shoot Vazelle, but Deric jumps in the way and takes the hit, and then the police shoot Galk, who becomes a mannequin and falls to his death. The tearful Vazelle takes Deric’s hand and tells him he would have been a good father for their baby, and then roll credits.

This was a weird one. It’s arguably in the worst material condition of any film in Crate 5, and in parts it seems like it had a pretty big budget for the time, while at others it looks like it was made in somone’s basement. One of the other interns suggests that this was a vanity project for the director, who used studio resources to make this brief (78 minutes) film; what research I’ve been able to do indicates it may never have been theatrically released, and I certainly don’t recognize any of the actors in it.