Actually, both are one and the same. When John Michael McCarthy started in comics, he branded himself with the JMM logo. And if you’ve seen JMM’s work either in comics or movies, your impression is probably:
Basically, what was/is considered to be the rudiments of American pop culture of the 20th Century. If you really want to get into subtopics, specifically Southern American Pop Culture, including the films of David Friedman, early Russ Meyer, and lots of others I can’t begin to list…
JMM started in the late 80’s/early 90s, just ahead of the Nu Garage/Greaser/Glam Explosion* of the late 90s, which he and his work helped spread.
[* – NOT an official genre term]
McCarthy’s pinnacle (?) was possibly Superstarlet A.D., which was picked up for distribution by Troma in 2000, making it the easiest of his films to find. After that… that Garage/Greaseball/Glam Boom slowed down and got overshadowed by Whatever New Thing was current. And although McCarthy got notice and acclaim overseas, back home he was just what was called a “cult figure”; an interesting but obscure branch of underground film. Meanwhile, others in the Memphis film scene broke through to studio interest, and money.
As McCarthy has stated himself, as a mantra: “My work is UNPOPULAR“.
I’ve long wondered why. Full disclosure: I was a crew-member on Superstarlet A.D. for the last half of shooting. But I was a fan of McCarthy’s before that, having seen The Sore Losers in Kansas City during the “Vice Parties” tour. My San Francisco roommate was a fan of Russ Meyer, which is how I started discovering that particular corner of film. So when an opportunity came to check out that type of filmmaking, I jumped right in—but that’s another story for another time…
Afterwards, I delved more into McCarthy’s work, and tried to keep an eye on what he was up to. If there’s a genre label for McCarthy/JMM, it’s “Redneck Art-house.” He remarks in the Blu-ray commentary for Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis that a reviewer once referred to him (and the film) as a “Pawnshop Kubrick.” Both terms sound derisive, initially; but they’re both on-the-nose and correct, and not in a bad way.
McCarthy’s work follows two distinct paths:
JMM comix adaptations. McCarthy’s lo-fi versions of his own personal Cinematic Universe: Damselvis (1994), The Sore Losers (1997), and Superstarlet A.D. (2000) fit in here, along with his comix “Cadavera”, “SuperSexxx”, and “Bang Gang.”
Late Saturday, I received sad word that our own Alfred Eaker had passed away. No further details were provided. I don’t even know his exact age; I believe he was in his early 60s.
Alfred’s contribution to this site, from almost the very beginning, was immeasurable. He was the first contributor here besides myself. Although he had scaled back his writing here to pursue other projects, he was still engaged with 366 Weird Movies; in fact, he had ambitions for a written series running through the entire video nasties list. He recorded this podcast episode with me (others were planned) a mere three weeks ago:
Alfred was the kind of guy who became famous (here) more for what he hated than for what he loved. But when he loved something—Ed Wood, or classic Westerns, or opera, or Chaplin, or Ken Russel, or Andrei Tarkovsky, or Mahler, or Picasso—his passions matched or exceeded his excoriations. Alfred’s loves were no more secrets than his hatreds. It’s just that his hatreds tended to draw more offended commenters.
For every reference to “Mango Mussolini” or such you read in Alfred’s essays, be sure I edited out at least one other. But although I didn’t always agree with whatever outrageously elaborate insult Alfred drifted into whenever he sensed the presence of Trumpists, evangelicals, or assorted “constipated critics,” I let him say it, because it came from the heart. Alfred annoyed a lot of readers, and admittedly he earned the site a hearty handful of hate-clicks, but whatever broadsides he launched were aimed at what he honestly viewed as cultural threats.
Over the weekend, I culled through hundreds of pages of Alfred’s writing to select a few of my favorite gems below. (If printed, Alfred’s contributions to the site would take up several volumes on a 366 bookshelf). This is, I think, the best tribute I could give him: to let him speak in his own words. Please enjoy.
“I rarely set out to push people’s buttons. I just don’t give a hoot or a holler if I do, and I believe it’s an artist’s ethical responsibility to have the balls to write without inhibition and to always take an attitude of saying to hell with the status quo (and everything has the potential to develop its own status quo, even weird movie aficionados).”–Alfred Eaker on a decade of writing for 366 Weird Movies
“… essentially a 21st century update of Animal House… a bodiless set of redneck testicles.”–Alfred on Avengers: Infinity War
At the Fantasia Film Festival in 2016, before a screening of the punk video art black comedy She’s Allergic to Cats, I recall programmer Mitch Davis declaring that “weird is hot” in the then-current climate. Having run 366 Weird Movies for 8 years at the time, I was skeptical. Sure, scrappy filmmakers managed to squeeze out a handful of weird movies every year, but I consistently had trouble identifying ten truly weird ones for our year-end lists. Were things about to change for the strange?
Later that night, I askedunderground director Pat Tremblay for his opinion on whether weird movies were “hot.” He said that when he described his work, most people happily responded “‘I’m OK with weird movies,’ but then you show them the weird movie and they’re like ‘ahhh… I didn’t get anything,’ and they’re completely confused and they hate the thing, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I knew it.’”
The next day I askedAllergic to Catsauteurs Michael Reich and Mike Pinkney if they thought weird movies were “hot.” They said the concepts they pitched for music videos for local L.A. bands were always rejected for being “too weird.” Reich said things started to change around the time Tim and Eric became popular, but they still had issues. Pitching a webseries, potential producers told them to make it more mainstream; then, they complained it wasn’t weird enough. “We were so outraged, we’d never been accused of not being weird before,” Pinkney laughed.
The point being, I—and the people working on the ground producing weird videos—are always skeptical when outsiders and marketers proclaim that out-of-the-ordinary is currently in demand. Have things changed in the movie industry in the six years since I last asked these questions in 2016? Variety‘s chief film critic Peter Debruge thinks the answer is “yes,” and he wrote a column titled “Why Are Indie Films So Strange Now?” to that effect. But, while Debruge’s observations are optimistic, I think his conclusions don’t match specialists’ expectations for what a true revival of the weird would look like.
To give credit where credit is due, Debruge applauds this “trend,” praising “unapologetically odd and original creations, led by a gifted group of rebel auteurs who don’t kowtow to popular expectations” and suggesting that there is a viewing “appetite [that] in turn supports an indie-film environment where directors are motivated to be more original, more surprising and all around more creative.” So far, so good. But is this really much different than the situation in previous decades? We here at 366 are not noticing a greater concentration of strange films than in prior years. Our own survey of Canonically Weird films by year found that weird movie production peaked between about 1968-1971. 2006, which was just outside the decade-long weird movie renaissance Debruge postulates, was also a good year for strange films, and there were some notable Continue reading WHY AREN’T HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRANGE ANYMORE?→
The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.
For the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.
Stephen Sondheim was a notedcinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.
But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!
As a great many companies have realized by now, the marketing potential of internet memes is tremendous. Incorporate your brand or product into a successful meme, and internet users will happily spread it across the world of their own volition, every one of them organically developing a positive association with it.
And as video artist Cecelia Condit recently discovered, the effectiveness of marketing through memes is hardly limited to mainstream brands.
You’ve likely come across Condit’s 1983 short film “Possibly in Michigan” (possibly on this site). The abstract narrative follows a pair of young women as they are pursued by a masked cannibal; the anarchic editing; Casio-backed musical numbers; and the strange, lilting tone with which the actresses deliver their lines give it a distinctively surreal tone. It feels like a bizarre combination of a B-movie, an acid trip, a lighthearted musical, and a feminist statement on the nature of toxic relationships all mixed together.
It’s a wonderfully witty and dreamlike piece of work, but it could hardly be called widely accessible; and it is, moreover, infused with a heavily 80s tone and aesthetic. In brief, it’s hardly the sort of thing that one would expect to resonate with the internet generation. So needless to say, it surprised a great many people when songs from the short began showing up on videos posted to the social media website TikTok.
“Possibly in Michigan” had received some internet attention in the past, beginning in mid-2015, when a clip of the film was posted to the popular subreddit /r/creepy, subsequently appearing on the front page of Reddit. But it was through its use in TikTok videos that it attained what could be called widespread notice. A sixteen-year-old TikTok user named Vris Dillard started the trend by posting a video of herself lip-synching a portion of the film’s melodic dialogue. The absurd nature of the source material clearly resonated with the app’s young users, many of whom started making their own videos using “Possibly“’s audio. The result was a burst of mainstream interest in Condit’s work that, given its abstract nature, would be unusual at any point in time. In the weeks following the TikTok trend, Condit’s official YouTube channel received around 4,000 new subscribers, and her weekly view count temporarily shot up more than tenfold.
TikTok, a social media app primarily featuring videos of users lip-synching to popular songs, has a user base consisting primarily of teenagers and twenty-somethings. For better or for worse, it’s a brand with inextricable ties to Generation Z . To see a piece of weird cinema crafted in the early 80s—especially one so deeply steeped in then-contemporary aesthetics and social concerns— gain popularity on such a platform makes it clear that cinematic weirdness, done properly, has an inter-generational appeal that we’ve yet to properly tap into.
“Possibly in Michigan” is hardly the only example of this phenomenon. Weirdness and absurdism are recurring features in meme culture and viral phenomena, and surrealism is probably one of the most prominent features of internet-based humor (right behind self-awareness and self-deprecation). As a result, many millennials and Gen Z’ers raised on the internet have come across some of the 20th century’s finest examples of weird cinema in piecemeal form: stills and clips that caught other users’ fancy.
My personal first encounter with Begotten was in the late 2000s, through a still frame of the opening scene. It had been posted, without context (along with a litany of other, far more underwhelming “scary” images), to a webpage of “creepypasta”, the digital age’s own iteration of horror literature.
At around the same time, a video appeared on YouTube, claiming to be an authentic version of “The Grifter”, an urban legend begun on 4chan about a supposedly “cursed” video that could drive viewers insane. In actuality, the video consisted mostly of heavily edited clips from Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik.
Virality has proved a boon for weird movie trailers, as well—many of which, in the past, would likely have only been seen at specialized screenings and art film festivals. Such was the case with the infamous After Last Season. Prior to the internet, it’s unlikely that this painfully amateur-looking trailer would have been screened anywhere. When enthusiasts uploaded to freely accessible video sites like Apple’s trailer page, however, it quickly found its audience: morbidly fascinated internet users befuddled by the surreal ineptitude of what they were seeing. It was pretty much everything that internet users of the time adored: completely absurd, and laughably amateurish (“cringey,” in the argot). The result, of course, was a surge of interest in a disastrous film that could never have come from any community of “serious” cinephiles. Reviled though the movie was, and still is, After Last Season would likely never have found an audience of any kind were it not for internet culture’s fascination with bile.
The implications are clear: if weird cinema is to survive in our tumultuous modern age, it might do best to market itself through memes, viral phenomena, and other mediums that catch the attention of the internet’s youngsters. They may not be familiar with names like Buñuel or Cocteau, but they share an appreciation for the absurd and the irreverent that, properly tapped in to, could help raise a whole new generation of weird-cinema auteurs.
Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!