ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The TAO of Poverty Row

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Erich Kuersten

In the rush to "clean up" the images of classic cinema, to remove every speck and splice digitally, etc., are we not also losing something? What about the blurry, hazy artifact-ridden images of yesterday, the streaky bad-tracking VHS blurs and statics? Was there really no "point" to that "accidental" art you spent so much time looking at but never "seeing"?

Before CGI there was something called imagination...and whiskey. I recently watched TOMORROW WE LIVE (1943), a very obscure PRC film directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (DETOUR). It stars Ricardo Cortez as a literally insane gangster called the Ghost out in some very abstract minimalist version of Nevada. The Ghost is based on Lucky Luciano or maybe Bugsy Seigel, and thanks to Cortez he's also oozing dangerous charisma as he runs a threadbare nightclub and black market tire market (rubber was a scarce commodity at the height of WW2) from his checkered office. When he gets a load of sexy Jean Parker, he flips out, busting some playa moves and spouting some wackjob hipster philosophy.

Parker's grandfather-type dad (PRC veteran old man character actor, Emmett Lynn) runs a diner and rents out sheds for presumably illegal wartime spare tires; he's also a mood-swinging nutjob who slaps Jean when she accuses him of lying about the tire cache. A minute later he's all loving and befuddled. No one seems certain what "tone" to play their scenes in, and so a mood-swinging sense of insanity pervades. They call Cortez "the Ghost" because he has a bullet in the brain from the second time the mugs tried to kill him, which explains his insanity and why he has only a few years left to live... and love! Watching him seduce Parker is like having an acid flashback. What the hell is he talking about?! The warring gang muscling up against the Ghost's piece of the action are cowboys (must have been a lot of cowboy costumes floating around at the PRC soundstage) and towards the end they beat up the Ghost and torch his "nightclub." This leads to lots of smoke--as if there wasn't tons already.

The true love of Jean Parker (right) is not the Ghost, through all this (though she is drawn to his confidence and aggression) but her ex-Chemistry teacher turned military guy on his way overseas, Lt. Bob Lord (William Marshall). Bob''s dull, but not that dull. And even pops has a girl of sorts, the waitress Melba (Rose Ann Stevens). It all ends with a long display of military vehicles parading across the vast empty flats. Which at least you can almost see depending on the quality of the DVD or mpeg you're watching.

Ulmer's brilliant use of actors and minimalist sets here is akin to his genius in DETOUR. Cortez is transcendental, embodying all that is essential about Poverty Row cinema. The hallucinatory blocking and camera movements are straight out of German silents, in the Ulmer tradition but while the dime store expressionism coalesces into Brechtian abstraction it becomes the very bankruptcy of the production and the streaked muffled transfer that makes these PRC films transmutable into art. Darkness and light assume comic book flatness; long shots blur into meaningless white noise and close-ups seem painted with streaks of horizontal gray light, all just springboards to jump loose from the confines of narrative, to see the blurry blobs of black and white the way a caveman might look at the twigs on the ground by the fire to foresee the future, or kids might perform Scorsese's CASINO as a play in their garage in order to swindle sips of cocktails from their drunken parents on a Saturday night.

PRC's fellow Poverty Row residents, Monogram Pictures, influenced Godard enough that he dedicated BREATHLESS too them, and I am sure the prints he saw were similarly in tatters. Many of them were probably circulating Paris film clubs without subtitles, adding to the abstract appeal. Consider the top picture of this post. It's from a scene in TOMORROW where people are walking around outside, doing something. What they are doing is impossible to tell, but the screen is a brilliant composition of white and dark squares, a gray market Mondrian, ditto the checkered wallpaper in the second shot (below) which shows the results of a fire in the Ghost's office. The smoke bleeds the whole right half of the frame a pure white, like the film is being forgotten by Jim Carrey in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, or bleached by some experimental abstract Brakhage-style filmmaker. Note too the vertical reflection at left, which indicates that these checkered walls are in fact shower curtains, or some other sort of wondrously flea-bitten 1940's sound stage free-hanging wallpaper.

A great movie to see in this vein as well was TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The way Hooper uses the hallways of the house to create a far right vertical rectangle in the blocking of the shots, for example, would be clear as day in the blurry pan and scan VHS dupe. In the DVD, where is that Kubrickian monolith motif I saw before? Was it just the acid? Now it's all, like, details.

UNDER THE VOLCANO is another example - Albert Finney as a dipsomaniac British consul in Mexico, his wife played by Jacquelin Bisset inexplicably wants to return to him; Finney's sober brother, Hugh, puts the moves on her. This was all very droll and cathartic in the eyes wide open R. Bud Dwyer acid blurr VHS dupe from a very old rental days of the early 1990s. When Finney made his weird faces, you would just be able to see this fuzzy white line hovering over an abyss of black in his mouth, like a thin ray of kamikaze Thanatos cathode toothpaste. We'd all get drunk and call each other "cchHuuugh" the way Finney said "Hugh" and it was all very mirthful. Now, 20 years after, watching the swanky Criterion edition, I'm wondering what the fuss was about. Huston is clearly white elaphanting a termite book, like doing a Merchant Ivory remake of TAXI DRIVER.

So is it me or the movie that has changed? I've cleaned up a lot too in the last decade, but I'm not as clean as the Criterion transfer of UNDER THE VOLCANO. So in this case I would argue that no, it's not me, it's the pictures that got great --and therefore small. Based on what I see amongst the budding countercultural leaders at Pratt, I predict that one day we will be returning to VHS tapes and players, abandoning the digital format and relishing the blurry streaks and garbled sound of old VHS tapes. Until then, only grant-hungry artists like Stan Brakhage can decompose film and have it be art. When nature does it, it's just outmoded media formatting and decomposing nitrates. Oh ghost of Edgar G., forgive us our dread of the decay which so wants to set us free.

(originally published on Bright Lights After Dark - 2003)

Next: Temporal Stretching, Missed Cues and Dark Shadows

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