A note: This is the eleventh entry in the Cinépathétic series, an interview-style back and forth between me and the interesting people in my life, jabbering about movies and why we love them so damned much. This week, I’m interviewing Joe Hemmerling, mad scientist behind the Progressive Cinema Scorecard, contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes, and a formidable film buff based in Bowling Green, Ohio.  Joe and I mull over our mutual attraction to Joan Cusack, the directorial debut of Charles Laughton, and how horror just ain’t no good no more. As usual, be wary for spoilers throughout, and please, enjoy.

grosse_pointe_blank_ver1_xlgDR: Joe, you are a prince for agreeing to take the time for this.

Joe: Are you kidding me? I’ve been stalking your Facebook feed for months hoping that you would ask me.

DR: (laughs) Well, how do you like that? Are you ready with your list?

Joe: Absolutely! If you don’t mind, I figured we could start with Grosse Pointe Blank?

DR: Now why would I mind beginning with a film that takes place in my old home of Michigan? And with my unofficial future version of myself? That’s John Cusack, mind.

Joe: This is a movie near and dear to my heart. The first time I saw it, I was fifteen years old, and I kind of credit it with getting me interested in film in a more serious way. Me and some friends went to see Batman And Robin at a drive-in movie theater, and after it ended, we snuck over to another screen where Grosse Pointe Blank was showing. You couldn’t really ask for a starker contrast in terms of quality.

DR: Oh, fer sure. And I suppose – given that contrast – anything seemed better, at least at the time, no?

Joe: Man, I’ve seen so many shit movies since then, but Batman And Robin is still, without doubt, the shittiest. I suppose I would have been relieved to watch a video of my dad getting a proctological examination with gratitude after that.

DR: (laughs) You don’t know. I’ve been so tempted to do a Nega – or an Anti – Cinépathétic featuring people’s Top 5 Films that elicit the most violent reactions. We could go on about Batman And Robin at length, I’d imagine. But I suppose… Focus? Tell me what you experienced the first time you saw this film.

Joe: I loved how the movie managed to demystify Martin’s profession without really detracting in any way from its coolness. You’ve got these badass hitmen who are just huge bundles of neuroses, and they face the same kinds of mundane concerns as the rest of us. Like, no matter what you job, you still get bored with work, you still have to deal with assholes, you still wish that there was something more to what you have.

DR: And Martin is quintessential Cusack cool. I couldn’t have been older than eighteen when I first saw this film – mostly because it took place in Michigan more than anything else – but I remember Martin in his black suit and his black hair and his guns and his dry wit and thinking, “I like this.”

Joe: Yes! When I think of Martin Blank, I’m reminded of that line in Snowcrash where Stephenson says, “Until a man is 25, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances, he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.” That’s totally Martin Blank. He was this bookish teen who disappeared, joined the army, and became a CIA killing machine before going solo. There was definitely an element of wish fulfillment in my attraction to this film.

DR: Then there’s Minnie Driver. Martin ditches her character on prom night – of all fucking nights – to run off and be a man, or whatever. And she gives him all the right amount of shit when he comes back for their High School reunion, and their banter – mixed with the reunion – just melts desperation for the pair of them, doesn’t it?

Joe: I couldn’t name another Minnie Driver movie if you put a gun to my head, but she was so good in this. There’s a palpable sense of history between the characters. They know what buttons to push for each other.

DR: Their chemistry is pretty tight. I remember having such a thing for Minnie Driver in this movie. It’s pathetic.

Joe: No shame in that my friend. I think I actually had a mild crush on Joan Cusack at the time.

DR: Oh yeah?

Joe: She made for a charming Girl Friday. Plus her work attire was pretty great. The “Sargent Pepper” outfit? What’s not to love. That was before she started doing commercials for… Who was that? Sprint? That kind of killed it for me.

DR: I don’t… I think I drank that memory away. But there’s no denying it. Joan Cusack was stone-cold HOT in Addams Family Values.

Joe: (laughs) I actually don’t think I ever saw that one. Teenage me is really bummed right now.

DR: I think I still love that movie, just a little bit. Get on that. Let me know what you think?

Joe: Yes, sir.

DR: Fantastic. Now, as much as I’d like to talk about how fucking deadly Dan Aykroyd is in this flick…

Joe: Aw, man. He’s so great. He’s the annoying guy at your job who’s always trying to act like your boss, but if that guy was also a deadly assassin.

DR: (laughs) I just loved how often he said “fuck” back then. It blew my mind. I idolized Ray Stanz for some reason all throughout my childhood, and here I am, smoking for some damned reason, and Dan Aykroyd was saying “fuck” all over the place. A different world.

Joe: A better world.

DR: Moving right along… What do you have next?

night_of_the_living_dead_xlgJoe: I was thinking we could jump into Night of the Living Dead.

DR: Aw, I was just lamenting George Romero the other day. This is – without question – one of my favorite films of all time. Anywhere it screens, like Casablanca, like gangbusters, I’m there. Tell me why you love this so.

Joe: Lamenting George Romero could be a full-time job. I’m a sucker for artists or works of art that create or recreate paradigms. I love Alan Moore because he completely changed the way people write superhero comics. I love Black Sabbath because they created heavy metal. I love Night of the Living Dead – well, in part at least – because it gave birth to the modern zombie film.

DR: It also set the bar for such fare ridiculously high.

Joe: God, yes. It really burst forth full-formed from the head of Zeus. Even though we’ve done every conceivable thing that can be done with zombies in the 40+ years since it came out, it’s still a pretty gut-wrenching experience to watch. Not many horror movies can match the slow-burning dread that just permeates this one from beginning to end.

DR: There’s something to be said about a film that still frightens people who’ve seen it time and again. I have issues walking around in the dark after a viewing of Night Of The Living Dead, I won’t front.

Joe: The end-credit sequence, with the still shots of the posse dragging Ben’s body onto the pyre always scoops out my insides. You’ve been through so much with this guy, and then… Over.

DR: That took a remarkable amount of backbone to end the film in that way. Guaranteed, if some dipshit like, oh say, Zack Snyder did a remake of the film – forgetting that Tom Savini did one in the 90s – he’d angle for a more audience-friendly take.

Joe: Yeah, it was a ballsy film on a lot of levels. Even just making Duane Jones the main character of the movie was risky. Plus the almost unheard-of level of gore almost kept it from getting a distributor.

DR: Duane Jones became my favorite actor for a very long while in my early twenties. I would bring him up in barroom arguments about film, and people would be all, “huh?” But I’d be steadfast. Jones had such a profound effect on that film, not just in his performance, but what he contributed to the story, how the other actors improvised, the works. I dated this girl back then who was very much in love with the character of Ben, and I’d be watching this with her, thinking, “I need to be more like this guy.”

Joe: Yes! I read that the character of Ben was originally written like kind of a rube, just sort of ignorant and uneducated. And Jones looked at that and said… “You know, maybe we could do this a little differently.”

DR: What a novel idea, right? But it was the 60s, for better and worse, I suppose. I’m grateful for this movie in so many ways. When I meet new people, I sometimes blurt out, “they’re coming to get you, Barbara…” Just to see if it elicits any kind of reaction from them.

Joe: “Look! There’s one of them now!” It’s the perfect secret handshake. The movie is really just a perfect example of what can be done with a small budget, a lot of ingenuity, and a little luck. I like how Romero is able to create this sense of pandemic horror without being able to SHOW us any of it. Like the scientist who talks about chopping all the arms and legs off a “ghoul” and how it still kept coming at them. Or Ben describing how he escaped a horde of them by just driving through them and how they didn’t move or get out of the way.

DR: It takes your imagination to darker places than any film could show you.

Joe: Absolutely. In the intervening years, we’ve seen all of that and more in the thousands of zombie movies that followed, but not much of it sticks in the memory like those moments.

DR: Isn’t that annoying? I swear those advantageous studio mercenary directors with their bullshit derivative horror garbage like Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The 13th took the imaginary engagement out of horror entirely. I think the 80s ruined horror for me, 90s horror made me stupid, and 00s horror made me hate.

Joe: I’m not so sure. Horror has always been dominated by formulaic bullshit to some extent, right? I think you’ve always had to dig pretty hard to find the good stuff.

DR: No, you’re absolutely right. Again, I was spoiled by a relationship I had in my very early twenties, where I went through the gamut of quality horror via my ex. She knew so much more than me, not just about horror, but film in general, and I attribute my passions for such things to her entirely. Once I stepped into the wider world on my own, well. I found a lot of garbage was around my waist. I suppose I got jaded. Did you know Romero adapted Richard Matheson for this film? Another tidbit I learned from her.

Joe: Yes! That’s where the apocalyptic overtones enter the zombie mythos. And it’s probably the defining element of that mythos, at least as important to it as the cannibal element.

DR: Making the ensuing destructive force zombies instead of vampires, that being an afterthought must have been like catching lightning in a bottle for Romero, in hindsight. I mean, how fucking innovative could one man be, armed with two nickles and whole lotta pluck?

Joe: Yeah, another early draft of the scripts involved aliens. If he’d gone in that direction, it’s pretty likely we would not be discussing this movie right now.

DR: I shudder to think. What’s next, Joe?

dolemite_poster_01Joe: Dolemite, you no-business, born-insecure, junkyard motherFUCKER!

DR: (laughs) I told my roommate Matt you picked this one, and he absolutely flipped his shit. Rudy Ray Moore! I never thought I’d be talking about this film here. Will wonders never cease. Justify your love.

Joe: I’m a firm believer that making a truly wonderful bad movie requires just as much ingenuity as making a really great one. I mean, you watch the low-budget straight-to-video stuff that crap factories like Asylum puts out, and they might have a few good chuckles in them, but they’re ultimately driven by formula, and you won’t come face-to-face with anything you haven’t seen a million times before. Not the case with a movie like Dolemite.

DR: A movie that would spawn many pretenders, but this one stands alone in how ridiculous it was. Just attitude and sex, all over the place.

Joe: Yes! And a completely incoherent plot. I watched it again recently in preparation for this chat, and no matter how many times I see it, I cannot draw any chain of causality between any of its major plot points. But it’s the most quotable movie this side of The Big Lebowski.

DR: I certainly can’t remember anything from the plot of the film, aside from him getting thrown in jail for something he didn’t do, which in Texas is called, “A Monday.”

Joe: Yup. But later he rips a guys heart out and an FBI agent shoots the corpse a couple times so Dolemite won’t get charged. So it all evens out!

DR: It’s all coming back to me. And kung-fu babes. Please do not forget those.

Joe: Perish the thought. They play a pivotal role in the climactic battle seen at The Total Experience. Someone actually got credited for choreographing the karate scenes.  Pretty remarkable, since some people with speaking parts didn’t even get credited by name.

DR: What choreography? All I remember is a lot of clumsy flipping and chopping.

Joe: Exactly! That’s not necessarily something I’d want on my resume.

DR: Man, I have to admit, I missed the formative boat on blaxpoitation films. I mean, I’ve watched a few – Sweet Sweetback, Coffy, Dolemite – but aside from acknowledging the cultural impact they had on film, and society as a whole, the experience would just fly right over my stupid head.

Joe: Yeah, I actually want to do some more exploration of the genre. I haven’t seen much beyond Moore’s filmography, like the sequel, Human Tornado, and Disco Godfather – which has the most incongruously dark ending I think I’ve ever seen – but that’s about it. I just have a lot of love for Rudy Ray Moore. A lot of blaxploitation was made by white dudes for bigger studios, but he made his movies all on his own with his friends. You could tell that he took a lot of pride in his work, and that he was really happy that his movies still touched so many people’s lives.

DR: It’s guerrilla filmmaking, make no mistake, and there has to be a tip of the feathered cap to Rudy Ray Moore for reveling in it as he did. The only independent outfit working these days that make films as balls-out as Moore did, as far as I’m concerned, is Troma.

Joe: Well, there’s also 1313, if you don’t mind your b-movies with a lot of safe-for-TV softcore gay porn.

DR: Hey, I’m cool.

Joe: Check Netflix for 1313: Cougar Cult. It’s…definitely a movie.

DR: (laughs) Maybe I’ll do a Scorecard for that one.

Joe: Oh please, oh please, oh please!

DR: You never know. What’s next?

night_of_the_hunterJoe: Well, it’s kind of an abrupt about-face, but how about Night of the Hunter?

DR: The kind of about-face I can get behind. You know? I’m seeing this at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday.

Joe: Aw, man! I have never seen this on the big screen. I’m staring angry, jealous daggers into your face right now.

DR: I must have seen this movie by now at least five times. This will be the first screening of the movie for me in a theater, which is a big deal for me. I’m a notorious sucker for classic film. And I’m a sucker for this dark little fucker. Explain to me what appeals you to Night Of The Hunter, Joe.

Joe: I am something of a noir obsessive, both the classic and the neo- variety, and Night of the Hunter is one of the most unique entries in the tradition. There’s just so much about it that’s both atypical for a classic noir film and totally prescient of where noir would go in the future. For instance, a lot of noir directors took their visual cues from German Expressionism, but none of them up to that point took it to the surreal extremes that Night did. There are so many gorgeous sequences that had no precedent in Hollywood at the time.

DR: Charles Laughton – a character actor from way back, from Mutiny On The Bounty to Witness For The Prosecution – directed this one film. Can you imagine that? This level of sophisticated imagery, compounded with such lurid subject matter, handled so masterfully.

Joe: It’s kind of amazing and a little sad. You wonder what else he could have done if he’d gotten another shot behind the camera.

DR: He was a notoriously stubborn and quiet man, and this movie took quite a critical pounding when it was released. It hardly made a nickel. The experience put him off filmmaking, and that’s a goddamned shame. This movie is downright scary. Robert Mitchum is goddamned scary.

Joe: He’s probably the most grotesque figure in classic noir. There wouldn’t be another to rival him until Anton Chigurh or Heath Ledger’s The Joker. The scene where he interrogates the kids at the kitchen table after killing their mom is unbelievably tense. You feel like there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do to them to find out where that money is hidden and he’s just a hair-trigger away from proving it.

DR: You nailed it, Joe.  Mitchum was such an effective bad man.  This and Cape Fear are two of my favored performances from him, both equally co-opted by lesser storytellers, and yet Night Of The Hunter remains as pure and visceral as anything that could follow it.  What are its enduring qualities, do you think?

Joe: God, it’s so hard to boil it down to just one thing. One of the things that fascinates me is how the film manages to be both incredibly bleak and incredibly hopeful. It ends on a pretty happy note, which is unusual for a noir film, but at the same time it provides it’s unflinchingly bleak view of humanity. It also has some really interesting things to say about Christianity and sexuality.

DR: Oh, absolutely.  That Mitchum uses Shelley Winter’s blind faith as an “in” to marry her, then spurns her advances “in the name of the Lord” – knowing the entire time he’s going to kill her – is one of the cruelest things I can think of doing to someone.  Taking someone’s passionate trust in something they wholeheartedly believe in, manipulating those feelings for your benefit, and then lording their desires over their heads in order for them to feel absolute shame is, well.  It’s fucked.

Joe: Totally. I was reading a piece that Margaret Atwood wrote about the film, and she had some interesting things to say about it, but I think she took a really reductive view of its depiction of sexuality. She attributed Lillian Gish’s immunity to Mitchum’s preacher to her “sexlessness,” but I think it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think the children’s mom falls for Mitchum because of carnal desire, or not solely for that reason, but because of spiritual desire. He makes her feel “clean” when he tells her that her husband threw the money into the river. And the busybody neighbor whose trying to set the two of them up falls totally under his spell, even though she spends her sexy-time thinking about her canning.

DR: Insofar as film noir goes, this was definitely a visual game-changer, much like The Third Man was a visual game-changer.  You brought up German Expressionism, and I feel that Third Man and Night Of The Hunter definitely fit that particular mold.  Their own mise-en-scenes individualize them, but they are qualified visual hallmarks of film noir.

Joe: Yes! The Third Man could have ended up on this list as well. The chase scene through the sewers is basically film noir concentrate. Plus I heart the shit out of Graham Greene.

DR: We’ll have to have a Round 2 sometime. What’s the final film on your list tonight?

videodromeJoe: That would have to be David Cronenburg’s Videodrome. Pretty much the Cronenburg-iest of all his films.

DR: Yes, and yes? I dunno. This movie is definitely on my list for one of the best grossouts I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m lumping in Cronenberg’s The Fly when I talk of such things.

Joe: Absolutely. The goo on his hands when he pulls that gun out of his stomach vagina is epically nasty. Also, the mere fact that this movie allowed me to create a sentence containing the phrase “pulls the gun out of his stomach vagina” is exactly what makes it magical.

DR: Also, Debbie Harry.

Joe: Yes! I always forget that she plays Nikki Brand. I guess that was one of her first acting roles. Not the kind of imagery I traditionally associate with Blondie.

DR: Explain to me what goes through that brilliant brain of yours when you’re watching Videodrome.

Joe: Man… We were talking a little earlier about how horror may or may not have been better in the past, and I have to admit that this is the period that I get a little nostalgic for, back when Barker and Carpenter and Cronenberg were making the kinds of horror movies that turned the whole genre on its head. There’s something very singular and unique about Cronenberg’s films, this idea of horror being located from within the body. With Videodrome, he probes the impact of living in a media-saturated world, while at the same time satirizing the viewpoint that taking in disturbing imagery can induce deviant behavior. And he does it using fleshguns; orgasming television sets; and pulsing, cancerous betamax tapes.

DR: “Cancerous betamax tapes.” (laughs).  And you know what?  For it certainly being a relic of its time – and I’m completely with you, that era was a wonderful sandbox for these filmmakers to play in – Videodrome still has some shit to say, not just about how twisted humanity is, but how humanity fucked humanity through the manipulation of mass media.  Nothing gets lost in the translation.

Joe: Yeah, pretty much all that’s changed is the technology. I love the paranoia of it as well. It sort of reminds me of Fight Club, where Tyler Durden’s alternative to corporate enslavement is a paramilitary organization wherein you don’t even get a name. Whether Max Renn is killing for Spectacular Optical or Bianca O’blivion’s Cathode Ray Mission, he’s still just a pawn in a bigger game, where the players see him merely as a means to an end.

DR: “Long live the new flesh.”

Joe: “Death to Videodrome!”

DR: Cronenberg has always had a way with violence as a means through which to tell a story, and it’s always been an effective endeavor. He made two films about the innate primal nature of man – A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises – and managed to allow his imagination to blossom through visceral fisticuffs and realistic bloodshed. But The Fly and Videodrome were violent on a whole other level. What you said earlier, about the horror of the body. It seems to be that he was crafting stories about the violence within us all along, but back then he was far more creative about it.

Joe: Most definitely. The Fly is such an amazing film, as well. It’s remarkable that he was able to craft such a repugnant story into something so… Dare I say touching? The Fly has a real, beating heart. By the story’s end, it feels like a genuine tragedy. Videodrome is more cerebral. More clinical, I think, but also more gruesomely imaginative. I’ll tell you what, though, if Cronenberg’s latter day output has gotten somewhat vanilla, his son looks ready to take up the mantel. Antiviral was a pretty nightmarish study in sci-fi body horror.

DR: Antiviral, huh.

Joe: Totally. It’s set in a future where people go to a clinic and pay to get infected with diseases harvested from celebrity bodies. It owes a very obvious debt to the elder Cronenberg – which is maybe it’s only weakness – but it’s a pretty brilliant and unsettling satire of where the deification of celebrity is heading. I loved the hell out of it.

DR: Oooh. I might wanna see that.

Joe: It’s streaming on Netflix!

DR: THAT DOES IT. (laughs) Joe, thank you again, so much for agreeing to do this.

Joe: Yeah, man, it was truly a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Joe Hemmerling lives in Northwest Ohio with his wife and toy poodle. When not mentally compiling a list of all the ways his current place of residence is inferior to Chicago, the city of his birth, Joe helps to maintain The Progressive Cinema Scorecard, a film comedy blog he co-founded with his friend Sean. He is also a longtime contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes, where he writes reviews of current albums and goes (digital) crate-digging for forgotten gems on their DeLorean blog.

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