June 7, 2012

Convenient Truths: POPATOPOLIS

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.

Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2009's Popatopolis by Clay Westervelt
Elkin: The focus of the documentary Popatopolis is the making of a movie called The Witches of Breastwick. Yes, that's right, The Witches of Breastwick. Why make a documentary about the making of a B-Movie Exploitation Film? Well, director Clay Westervelt took on this project for two reasons. First, this was one of the first times that a full-length feature film was made in only three days, and the process of that undertaking alone is worthy of documentation. Secondly, and most importantly, The Witches of Breastwick was directed by the legendary B-Movie film maker, Jim Wynorksi, and his story is more fascinating than anything he has ever filmed.
Jim Wynorksi has, according to the film, “directed more movies than Martin Scorsese, and produced more profitable movies than Jerry Bruckheimer.” You may know him from such fine B-features as Chopping Mall976-EVILDinosaur IslandMunchieCheerleader Massacre,Return of the Swamp Thing or The Bare Wench Project. Wynorksi's formula for a successful movie is simple. Make sure it contains both “a big chase and a big chest.” He makes exploitation films. They follow a certain set of rules. Yet somehow, Wynorksi's films distinguish themselves above the enormous trough of movies of this genre.
As B-Movie King Roger Corman says about Wynorksi in Popatopolis, “He has never lost his enthusiasm for film. He is a better director than he thinks he is and is capable of doing more than he's done.” And this, I think, is the central point of this documentary and what drew me to it in the first place. Wynorksi is an artist (although he casts himself as the kind of artist who “paints Elvis on velvet”), but he has let his lack of confidence limit his range. He discovered that he makes pretty good soft-core porn movies, always within budget and always on time and he has made a comfortable career doing so. But as the technology has advanced, the expectations in both budget and turnaround have changed. Now, instead of taking months to make one of these films, Wynorksi is limited to THREE DAYS.
And because he is not willing to challenge himself, because he does not see himself as a serious artist, because he is afraid to fail, his art suffers. And suffers. And suffers. Until he is down to a crew of two and is hiring porn actresses as his leading ladies.
This, I think, is the central theme of Poptopolis. As an artist, your art is only as successful as the challenges you take on. Great art is made under a sense of doom, that it could all fail, and it is the courage to try that brings forth the beauty. In a way, Jim Wynorski's story, as seen in this documentary, is, in fact, kind of a tragic tale of success.
What were your thoughts, Sacks?
Sacks: My thoughts were … hmm …
"Oooh, breasts!"
And "Run you fucking monks, run!"

Oh, and isn't it interesting that so many of the movies that we cover for this column are about exploring the edges of the arts, finding the lost and hidden and plain weird in so many areas of the world of Art and art, from found art tape recordings to edgy video games to nostalgia for animatronic creatures to a profile of the breast – excuse me – best director ever to work in exploitation films (next to Roger Corman, that is)? All props to you, my friend, for taking our discussions into topics that I never would have expected to write about. And for getting me to write breathlessly long run-on sentences.
Jim Wynorski is a pure original, a guy who somehow continually tries to find the artfulness in every brainless little exploitation C-level flick he makes. I really enjoyed this movie just from the standpoint of how well it explores Wynorski's world and the way he lives and works in it. This was an unflinching portrait of a pretty complex man, but it that unblinking eye allows us to see Jim through the eyes of his friends, coworkers and himself.
More than anything I was struck by how entrepreneurial Wynorski is with his work; how everything is about maximizing speed in order to maximize the amount of money he can make. As you say, he can make pretty good soft-core horror flicks – profitable, above all else, with artfulness being a much less important aspect of the work.
I'm not sure if I agree with you that Wynorski's career is a tragic form of success, Daniel. You seem to be concerned that Wynorski isn't creating directly from his heart, but to me the director is the best kind of hack: a creative professional doing his best to carve out a reasonable profit creating reasonably fun work in a reasonably decent way. Do you think this self-professed film geek really seems tremendously unhappy making these sorts of soft-core porn/horror flicks? Or is he realistic about his place in the world?
I'm not sure I saw tragedy. I saw a guy trying to make a decent living and having a reasonable amount of fun doing it. And boobies. Can you elaborate on your thoughts on this tragic tale of success?
Elkin: I guess it is all a question of wasted potential for me, Sacks. Here is a guy, Jim Wynorski, who seems to have the ability to create something of meaning, something of lasting value, something that could, in some small way, change a person's perspective on the world, on truth, on human nature, and yet because of his eagerness to settle into a relatively safe and easy career path, squanders his potential to do something valuable.
Am I suggesting that a movie consisting of tits, explosions and car chases has no value?
It has its place but does it add anything to the world?
No. It is pure escapism. And pure escapism, as far as I am concerned, is all about escape – denying, deferring, deleting. Pure escapism does nothing to solve whatever problem it is that a person is trying to escape from and, in some cases, may exacerbate the situation.
Art? Art, on the other hand, forces an audience to confront the problem, to look at the actual (metaphoric) teeth of the situation as it drips blood into their eyes. Art does not hide us from our pain. Art does not wrap us in magenta hued muslin and sing lullabies into our tired ears as it clutches us to its ample breast. Art is a thinking person's game, in so far as it goads us into thinking, even if it is just an emotional kind of thinking.
Wynorski, from what I can tell, has the talent to do something like this, to confront his audience, to make them think. What he does instead, because of his fear(?), because of his comfort(?), because of his choices(!), is suit us in nerf-armor and lead us down a padded path to the giant Slurpee fountain and California King McRib bed (featuring constantly running vibro-fingers and soft flannel sheets that smell like puppy breath).
And that's the tragedy. Potential lost. Nothing gained. Time ticks by and Wynorski's voice will fade like all the other could-be artists who settle, who fear, who make comfortable choices.
In the course of our conversations about films and comics, Sacks, I've begun to change my perspective on a number of things. I mentioned in our last talk about the documentary Rock-afire Explosion that I used to say in the Cheap Thrills column something to the tune of “Just because you CAN make a comic, doesn't mean you SHOULD.” Through our conversations, though, I've changed that to “If you want to make a comic (or any art for that matter), do everything in your power to make it happen.” I've come to that place because I have begun to see the legitimacy of the desire to create to be as important as the creation itself. The fearlessness of creation is what makes us, as humans, dynamic, interesting, important, valid and worth something. Hiding in a comfort zone is the antithesis of this.
This is the tragedy of Jim Wynorski.
Sacks: My good friend Don McGregor is often asked why every story he writes is so intense, so operatic and so thoroughly and deeply passionate. Don has a simple reply to that question; he says "I write every story as if it was the last one you get to write. And because of that, you need to write from your heart, with passion and allow it to reflect who you are."
I think you and Don will get along great, because I see a lot of what he talks about in the comments that you make above. You're saying that the worst fault that any of us can make is to live a life full of compromises, a life where you trade your passions and energies and your thoroughly unique voice for a reasonably easy paycheck and the metaphorical giant Slurpee machine that you refer to above.
I'm not sure I can add much to your comments because they are so heartfelt and passionate. It’s really cool that our continuing dialogues about art and creativity and self-expression have had as much impact on you as they have on me. Your last long paragraph represents a full-fledged embrace of optimism, passion, energy and the freedom of creativity. It's all about following your dream. I bet your students love your classes!
The fascinating paradox of Popatopolis is that while you look with disdain on the way that Jim Wynorski's life evolved, you were actually inspired by it. You saw in him the complete rejection of complacency, of the endless chase after a paycheck, the choice of commerce over art. And while I didn't have nearly as negative reaction to Wynorski as you did, I was also fascinated by the world that this movie presents.
I think my vision of the artist's life is a little bit more compromised by yours. Maybe because you work in education and I work at an entrepreneurial small business, I found Wynorski's endless energy and passion for his work compelling. The man works, and he works hard, and while he has no time or patience for quality or extra time, the man is always hustling, always working to make another buck. Against all odds, the man is making a decent living in an uncaring world.
There is a long scene in the movie where Wynorski gives the filmmakers a tour of his house, which is almost literally bursting its walls from all the DVDs and other movie material in the place. The man truly loves movies and is fascinated by the art of creating great cinema. At the same time he frankly admits that he will never make a great movie. To me, I am at least happy that the man has a chance to earn a living making bad movies.
Am I getting you wrong to say that you find it a tragedy that he can't earn a living making great movies?
Elkin: While it is always a tragedy when a talented artist with something profound to say can't survive off of that endeavor, in the case of Wynorski the tragedy is one of his own making. Wynorski is a tragic figure in so far as he doesn't have the balls to challenge himself. He is the one that puts the limits on his own horizons. He is the one that makes the choices to cage his potential, to hamstring his talent. And I think you see that in this film every time he berates an “actor” for not getting a scene right, yells at the “cinematographer” for missing a shot, or screams at the “sound guy” for not running tape when he should have.  Each one of these moments show that Wynorski has a vision AND does care about what it is that he is committing to film, but he continues to put himself in contexts where his full vision cannot be realized, and, really, he is the only one who cares.
So he ends up taking his inner frustrations out on others. It seems to me that this is what makes him so difficult to work with, while at the same time makes working with him such a memorable experience.
I don't begrudge Wynorski the opportunity to make a living, nor do I think his life has been wasted or filled with sadness. I also certainly don't think that with the films he has released he has done any irreparable damage to the world. I just see his life as ultimately unfulfilled. Not that it hasn't been fulfilling for him, for who am I to judge, but it is just that what so many agree is his obvious potential has been squandered, thus unfulfilled.
And that makes me sad, which makes me impassioned, which causes me to rant.
Although, I am beginning to wonder if the fact that I have just finished teaching Death of a Salesmen to my junior class has anything to do with this ...
It also makes me wonder how much of my own life I am actually projecting onto this film. ...
Sacks: We all project our personal lives onto everything that we consume and appreciate. We might have seen this fact most clearly with the fans of animatronics that we talked about last time, but you and I are also completely complicit in applying our prejudices to a specific work, no matter how much we might strive to be objective.
So it doesn't surprise me that you're reading yourself into this story a bit, as am I. This is a little similar to the conversation that some of the staffers on the site and I had when we spoke to Darren Davis, who's the owner of Bluewater Comics – often seen as a lowest common denominator style schlockmeister. I responded to the fact that Davis was striving, always striving, to make a living. Meanwhile, our fellow Bulletineers were much more focused on the quality of the work.
That's a lot of what I enjoy about these documentaries, Elkin: they change our viewpoints on the world while also allowing us to filter the experience through our own experiences.
Elkin: Well, Sacks, as it says in the banner at the beginning of each of these Convenient Truths columns: “Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human.”
I think that our discussion of the documentary Popatopolis pretty much proves that once again.
Trailer for the film:

Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.

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