Saturday, June 29, 2013

Impressive Overreaching Imagination: The Twisted Films of Charles Pinion

Supersaturated with eyeball kicks and a non-mainstream aesthetic, psychedelic splatterpunk is one way to describe the underground films of low-budget auteur Charles Pinion.
Consensus reality just gives up after a certain point and the nudity, madness, supernatural sacrilege and gore—lots of gore—spills all over the floor, slithers up your legs and eats your brain.

“Pinion’s imagination occasionally overreaches his limited budget, but the results are always impressive,” Shock Cinema’s Steve Pulchalski accurately pointed out in 1997.

[In addition to my being a long-term fan of Pinion’s work, this post is part of my cross-pollination/promotion with a retrospective of his films to take place in July at the fabulous Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn. Showtimes to be listed at the end of the article.]

Pinion on the set of
American Mummy
Shooting on video, the frighteningly handsome director (and a regular actor in his own films) has called his work “the modern exploitation cinema,” otherwise known as “Pulp Video…where the narrative limits for sex, violence and depravity can be expanded and transcended…. Gruesome and prurient surface narratives combined with affordable reproduction techniques.” [Full Pulp Video Manifesto below]

As weird and disturbing as they are, Pinion’s movies are inclusive and fun: Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense, just try and keep up and all will be revealed. Script may frequently be subservient to pacing, mood and the inclusion of any sort of exploitation element, but there is always a sense of purpose, a lysergic and propulsive drive to his pictures.

Keeping busy in a variety of mediums since 1996’s We Await, Pinion is now finishing his magnum opus, American Mummy—to be shown in 3-D!

Showing at the Spectacle Theater in July will be Pinion’s three feature-length films:

Twisted Issues
1988, 80 min.
Filmed with a RCA camcorder swiped from his old man, what began as a documentary covering Gainesville, Florida’s hardcore punk rock scene rapidly mutated into a weird and kinetic tale about a zombie skater seeking gory revenge, while still being a love-letter to and a slice-of-life of the skatepunks from the director’s hometown.

Full of more youthful energy than sense, Twisted Issues’ pace is breathless (and a tad messy), covering lots of ground: skateboarding, astral projection, mad doctors and much more are thrown at the viewer, all scored to a hardcore soundtrack. According to punk-rock movie encyclopedia Destroy All Movies!!!, “the gore is relentless… Things take a decidedly psychedelic turn by the end, but homemade viscera and general creative drive triumph in a brutal intestine-war finale.”

In an interview for that book, Pinion said, “I was able to hit a horror market because of the gore, and a punk market because of the music.”

Meanwhile, Film Threat Video Guide called Twisted Issues one of the “25 Must-See Underground Movies of the 1980s.” Featuring Pinion as a “dimension-hopping mastermind” who’s also the frontman for melodic-hardcore/metal/thrash band Psychic Violents!

Red Spirit Lake
1993, 69 min. USA
Red Spirit Lake has been described by Basket Case creator Frank Henenlotter as “a disgusting art film: Poetic and elegant.”

Marilyn (played by the sexy Amanda Collins, the film’s co-author—and Pinion’s ex-wife) has inherited a supernatural estate after her aunt’s mysterious death. Nude apparitions prance night and day, while the groundskeepers are tormented when the sun goes down by their memories of alien abduction.

Rick Hall as Wesley, the weaselly lawyer
Red Spirit Lake
Using any and all excuses for gore or nudity (male and female), Pinion’s unholy tribute to late-1960s/early-1970s exploitation films (especially those created by Herschell Gordon Lewis and Lucio Fulci) could also be packaged as “Clive Barker’s Last House on the Left,” where sexy poltergeists derail a home invasion with blood-splattered results.

While the subplots pile with reckless abandon, Marilyn’s visions grow more intense, and during a debauched weekend with some stoner/nudist pals, the gangsters who killed her aunt show up. But the ghosts and phantoms (and maybe even the aliens) have an agenda of their own—because Marilyn is the last of a long line of witches, and Red Spirit Lake is the center of their power.

Kern in Red Spirit Lake
Featuring underground filmmaker Richard Kern as an evil henchman and cult icon Kembra Pfahler as a naughty but goofy spook, Red Spirit Lake has plenty of “the good stuff” fans of B-movies desire: nudity, mayhem, hallucinations, nudity, psychotic violence—including murder by fisting!—and plenty more nudity in the snow. It’s the 20th Anniversary of this wild, wild movie, and it may be another 20 years before you see something like this again.
With a surprisingly haunting soundtrack by Cop Shoot Cop, Clint Ruin and Lydia Lunch, Lunachicks and others.

We Await
1996, 54 min. USA
Pinion’s most accomplished film, I feel, one that really grows on you—like a fungus
We Await has been described as “an urban Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but that’s only half the story—you must add, “as if written by Terrence McKenna,” because there’s a heavy “magic mushroom” vibe to this short but very dense and thought-provoking film.

A con man gets embroiled with a family willfully communing with a sentient transdimensional jewel whose spores are highly psychoactive green fungus—that encourages a “group mind,” as well as a taste for human flesh! The family, including a “dog” who has chosen to be one, needs a vessel for the birth of “The Wise One,” and our hapless con man is the candidate. But first he must be prepared…

Calling We Await “beautifully edited and executed,” and Pinion’s “best, most playfully disturbing work yet,” Shock Cinema’s Pulchalski noted how “Pinion also captures a genuine sense of nightmarish, societal chaos.”

The director really has the knives out for televangelists and their disciples in this film, showing family member Barrett (well-played by Pinion, oozing charm and menace equally) getting himself worked up into a killing frenzy while watching multiple, simultaneous TVs (a reoccurring audio-visual overload/motif with the director), all broadcasting overwrought religious programming—before he goes out and slaughters some holy rollers by literally and graphically kicking their heads in.

There’s a real gnarly primordial vibe going on in We Await, as if ancient texts and mystic rites were not just being obeyed, but imprinted on the videotape, waiting to infect its viewers…

Pinion with We Await's Jesus, David Aaron Clark
“Far darker than its predecessors,” writes Jack Sargeant, author of Deathtripping, “We Await reiterates Pinion's fascination with mytho-poetic thematics, most clearly manifested when the family undertakes a ‘spirit drive’—a psychedelic journey in which they come face to face with a gigantic blood-smothered grimacing Jesus,” in a tribute to Bert I. Gordon’s 1957 giant radioactive-monster movie The Amazing Colossal Man.
(BTW, the 900-foot-tall Jesus is played by the late novelist and filmmaker David Aaron Clark, master of subversive erotica and an early champion of Pinion’s work.)

Set in San Francisco’s Mission District but with enough bad vibes to send the City by the Bay to the very bottom of the sea, We Await features music by Crash Worship, Unsane, Eugene Chadbourne and many others.

Living in Los Angeles, and currently in the process of editing his
3-D opus, American Mummy (love the title, by the way), Pinion was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions:

What are you up to now, and why did it take so long after We Await? What have you been up to?

Pinion filming We Await
We Await was completed and premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in 1996. Around that time I wrote my Pulp Video Manifesto [see below], proclaiming and defining my shot-on-video aesthetic ghetto.
Shortly afterward, I went on a "Pulp Video" tour of parts of Europe, showing Red Spirit Lake and We Await. Venues ranged from tiny film clubs with eleven people in the audience, to all-out rock shows, where my movies were the opening act to the live music.

Upon my return to San Francisco, I wrote a screenplay called Thousand Eyes that was set in the Tenderloin district, the location of my newly-restored bachelorhood.
At that time, I viewed the "feature-length" paradigm to be over-long. I felt that there was a Grail of sorts in story-length, somewhere around 47 minutes. (We Await, at 54 minutes, almost achieved that.)
I saw Thousand Eyes as a 16mm black-and-white tone poem, with narrative elisions an intrinsic aspect of its poetry. And the Tenderloin setting was an essential character for the film.

Between the dot-com boom of the Nineties, with its dire effect on the rents in San Francisco, and my emotional and economic free-fall, I was pressed to move to the greener job-market pastures of Los Angeles.
The City of Angels, in that period, was the beneficiary of a great deal of displaced Bay Area talent, forced like me to find other venues for artistic and economic survival.
In my case, after I moved to L.A. I shot and/or edited industrial video and documentaries, meanwhile trying to get my own movies made.

Hall and Kern behind the scenes on
the frozen location of
Red Spirit Lake
A producer in Los Angeles wanted to remake Red Spirit Lake. I offered him Thousand Eyes instead. He introduced me to a writer…who helped me to expand the movie to a more conventional length, while also putting in elements that made the material more palatable and less transgressive. "We want transgressive, but not too transgressive." Har. (Endless pages have been written on the unconsciously hilarious aspects of getting a movie made in Hollywood.)

There were fairy-tale aspects to trying to get Thousand Eyes made. Salma Hayek and Miguel Ferrer wanted to read my script! I had coffee with Lou Diamond Philips! (Lou wanted to play the main baddie, not the corrupt cop. Okay.) Coffee with Wilmer Valderrama! (His agent wouldn't let him play the gay drug dealer. Okay.) Dinner with producer Don Murphy! A meeting with that guy who produced River's Edge! And so on.
Meanwhile, my status as a shiny penny from out of town changed to that of yet another tarnished dreamer with some stories to tell. Welcome to L.A.!

In 2005 my friend Greg Salman invited me to collaborate on a feature he had in mind called American Mummy. We were set to make American Mummy in 2006 and then the financing fell through. In late 2010, we re-visited the project with new financing. We shot American Mummy in true stereoscopic 3-D in 2011. Its release is imminent!

Like most creative residents of Los Angeles, I have several projects on various back-burners.

Mysticism plays a big part of your films, whether via the supernatural, alien intelligences, higher consciousness and so on—is this part of how you use genre, or would shamanism be in your life nonetheless?

Kali appears; We Await
I lived on a yoga ashram in my twenties, so I guess mysticism/shamanism was already in my make-up. I was a painter before filmmaker and my paintings were figurative with elements of transfiguration, transcendence, etc. (In "pure," non-narrative aesthetics, my movies, color-wise, look like what I was going for back then, painting-wise.)

Of course, for genre, mysticism offers great Deus ex Machina options and can open the narrative gates wide.

Where some experimental filmmakers tend to skate around a genre-trope, you dive right in: Why so fearless of genres like horror or sci-fi?

I don't see myself as an experimental filmmaker. I feel more like a stubborn storyteller, using available technology to get my stories told.
[Meanwhile,] genre is fun. I don't feel smarter than it, or smarter than my audience. I don't want to wink and quote. I want to actually achieve its guilty pleasures while pushing it beyond its genre-tropes. I also like to throw genre-tropes in a blender and see what happens.

I have always loved horror and science-fiction. As a child, on bright Saturday afternoons, I watched black-and-white monster movies like War of the Colossal Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, and THEM! 

When I was older, I would sneak out into the dark living room and watch “Project Terror,” a local midnight hosted horror-show. The first thing I saw on that show was Roger Corman's The Terror. Lurid and (due to having snuck out to watch it) forbidden. The good stuff!

Older still, my genre-requirements were filled by glorious double-features in drive-ins, where I saw many seminal movies.

From Red Spirit Lake: Angel or Alien?
What are some direct influences on your work? (Not just from film either)

Roman Polanski's The Tenant was a game-changer, the first movie I'd seen (at age 17) that challenged the paradigm of the good guy always winning. Serious mind-fuck, beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist. Huge inspiration and influence.
Chantal Ackermann's Le Rendezvous D'anna and Jeanne Dilman got under my aesthetic skin and remain there.
And Repo Man was a great inspiration to me. I saw it while still an art teacher, months before I quit teaching and started singing in a punk band. Repo Man put a chink in my perceptual armor that was necessary and for which I'll always be grateful.

Other direct influences would be what I read and listen to. This is an ever-changing roster.

What is the genesis of Red Spirit Lake?

Camping one summer with my collaborator [Amanda Collins], we were napping in the tent when she suddenly got up, went outside and put the rain-fly over the tent. She got back inside and said, "Thanks." Then it began to rain.

Later I asked her what the "thanks" was for, and she said she heard a voice tell her to "Put on the rain-fly, it's going to rain." She assumed it was me. This was the genesis of the line in Red Spirit Lake: "Don't freeze to death, Marilyn." We had this idea about a beneficent forest-spirit helping the protagonist.

Holly Adams threatens Kern in Red Spirit Lake
As our camping trip continued, one morning I sat up in the tent and said, "Red Spirit Lake." So we had the title. The actual story, plot, etc. we wrote in a two-week period, some months later.

What is the genesis of We Await?

We Await was condensed from a feature-length script of mine called Killbillies. I tried to make Killbillies in 1990 or so, while living in New York. I had a whole brick of slightly out-dated Super-8 sound film…and my own Elmo sound camera. I wanted to make Killbillies as my follow-up to Twisted Issues. But in film! Artistic progress.

It was totally doable and I regret never doing it. It's a classic tale of hot air and hubris clouding and eventually derailing a project. First, the DP talked me out of Super-8 and into 16mm. We shot three expensive weekends in 16mm color, the DP going way over budget on his camera rigs etc.
Only then did naive and stupid me realize that he was building his presentation reel, not telling my story or making my feature.

It was traumatic, and spun me into a different, more ambitious orbit, attempting to make the film in 35mm. I met with Debbie Harry (who was really, really nice), and got rejected by Harvey Keitel and Laurence Fishburne. Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers was going to play the Dog Boy in Killbillies (and it is sheer coincidence that Peter Weiss as the Dog Boy in We Await somewhat resembles Gibby).
Joey Ramone and Richard Edson were also going to be in Killbillies. There was a full-page interview and picture of Richard in Details magazine where he spoke of his role in this movie.
We did a press release in The Hollywood Reporter that said it had Debbie Harry, Richard Edson, Tom Towles (Otis from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Gibby Haynes, and Joey Ramone in the cast.

A family portrait from We Await
Shortly thereafter, Debbie's people told us to take her name out of any press releases until something actually happened with the financing of the movie.
As time passed and less happened (despite many meetings and drinks and conversations), I learned that hot air and enthusiasm do not get a movie made, especially when you aren't shooting it yourself with a video camera.
I licked my wounds from this soul-destroying, frustrating, not-very-artistic process and subsequently made Red Spirit Lake.

Years later, in San Francisco, I drove around the Bay Area looking for a rural location to reboot the Killbillies project. We found a great place in Novato that belonged to someone we knew, but that location fell through.
One evening, during a Hawkwind concert featuring Genesis P-Orridge, as I spaced out to the music, I got this vision of Killbillies, stripped down, urbanized, and transferred to San Francisco's grimy Mission District.
While we, the crowd, were buffeted by the harsh but tunefully transcendent sound waves generated by Hawkwind et al, the phrase "We Await" entered my brain.

Did growing up a “military brat” give you any insights/skills which helped you in filmmaking? [The director’s father was a flight surgeon for the USAF, and at one point, the commander of a military hospital in Japan.]

My family moved a lot, per the typical military brat experience, and we often found ourselves getting out of bed and on the road in the pre-dawn hours. One of my earliest memories, age seven or eight, was watching the waking world move by my window in the far back of the station wagon, while a country song was on the radio. I deemed that song the soundtrack to the movie outside my window. This was my first experience of "making a movie." I wish I could remember the song.

To your question of insights and skills, I learned adaptability in general, and the embrace of getting up early: two very useful skills in making a film!

Kembra Pfahler in Red Spirit Lake
How do you finance your projects?

I live close to the bone in general. I make movies as inexpensively as I can. I embrace filmmaking in the spirit of Kembra Pfahler's "Availablism" and have done so as long as I remember. You always need to feed your cast and crew, but other than that, there are few irreducible budgetary items. 

My 3-D feature American Mummy, on the other hand, had the crew and infrastructure of a "real" movie, and was shot stereoscopically to boot, so it's a different animal than my three Pulp Videos. I'm told it still feels like one of my movies, thank goodness. 3-D, if nothing else, can really be fun!

What’s your dream project(s)?

A rambling epic called Dimension Door—one of my challenges is to make it ramble less.
I conceived it more or less in 1988. It depicted a dystopic near-future that, now pretty [much] reflects our current time. In a sense, that will be a huge help if Dimension Door ever makes it to the screen. That world has arrived, we don't have to create it.
What is the story about? Ultimately it involves societal transcendence, a salvific shamanistic character from another dimension, a punk-rock-industrial-grungecore band called Zombie Torment, and a religious cult leader who's hornswoggling the public. If I wait long enough, reality might well tell that story and I won't need to make the movie!

I am also thinking of making a low-budget 3-D genre movie, shot on a super-low-budget 3-D rig. It would be more along the lines of my earlier movies, where I shot the thing myself. Maybe I just long for my youth.

Players want to know: How do you get your actors to show so much flesh?

Ha-ha. It's funny, the few brief moments of partial nudity in American Mummy were hard-negotiated and ultimately consensual, but man, were they a struggle! I laugh because, in the case of Red Spirit Lake, it was hard to get the actors to keep their clothes on.

What’s always in your fridge that would surprise us?

The naughty bits of my last interviewer. But does that surprise you?

Not at all, sir, not at all…
LERNER INTERNATIONAL, meanwhile, is looking forward to the release of American Mummy; the eventual cinematic creation of Dimension Door, as well as any other films Charles Pinion is willing to grace us with.

Charles Pinion’s PULP VIDEO manifesto, from 1994:
This is the modern exploitation cinema. Pulp Video is where the narrative limits for sex, violence and depravity can be expanded and transcended. The makers need answer to no one but themselves. Gruesome and prurient surface narratives combined with affordable reproduction techniques make Pulp Video the bastard amalgam of the Hollywood B-Picture and the Xerox machine.

Before the modern world’s waking-REM sleep (at thirty frames per second), reading was an activity much treasured. Fine books are still a beautiful aesthetic experience: acid-free archival papers made of rag, marbled end papers, and hand-tooled leather covers. Content: writing of the masters. Ponder and snort while drinking your port. Meanwhile, people have always loved junk: the dime novels and horror magazines, their brown and crumbly pages (made of wood pulp) turning your fingers a shiny black. The kind of popular-culture detritus that painter Robert Williams referred to as “the garbage... the good stuff!”

The cigar-chomping moguls of the past, coming from an environment of adversity (Eastern Europe), shot from the hip and went with their gut. As the expense of making a Hollywood film has grown more bloated and obscene, these latter-day risk-taking mensch have been replaced by corporate-style CEOs with the collective heart, aesthetic and eye for figures of an accountancy firm...

How long will our nascent police state tolerate these obnoxious examples of creative autonomy?

In 2006, CP added to the PVM:
Sigh. Granted, there was a naive faith here in video’s subversive potential. I was shooting in VHS, 8mm and Hi-8 video, unaware that digital video was coming down the pipeline to change everything. The “video feature” became less an obnoxious post-punk art statement and more of “the way things are.” As a filmmaker, today, I couldn’t be happier. As a rebellious shit-stirrer, I am somewhat subdued by it.

A big thanks to Charles Pinion with his assistance for setting up these screenings at the Spectacle, as well as all his help with this article.

Here's the trailer for the Pinion films at the Spectactle!

SHOWTIMES of Pinion’s Films at the Spectacle Theater in July are as follows:

Monday, July 1, 7:30pm: We Await
Wednesday, July 10, 10pm: Twisted Issues
Saturday, July 13, 10pm: Red Spirit Lake
Sunday, July 14, 10pm: We Await
Friday, July 19, 10pm: Twisted Issues
Sunday, July 21, 7:30pm: Red Spirit Lake
Sunday, July 28, 10pm: Red Spirit Lake
Tuesday, July 30, 7:30pm: We Await

The Spectacle Theater is located at 124 South 3rd Street, Brooklyn, New York, between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street (but closer to Bedford).
Tickets always $5! (CHEAP!!!)
Pinion as only a lucky few have seen him

1 comment:

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