Schlock & Awe 00: ManifestoA column article, Schlock & Awe by: Paul Brian McCoy
Schlock is a loaded term, usually used to describe bad movies, television, music, etc., deriving from the Yiddish shlak, meaning something cheap, shoddy, or inferior. Although this default implication refers to bad quality, creators have taken possession of the term, twisting it around to specifically refer to tasteless movies or music designed to shock the audience.
To be quite honest, I find this definition to also be problematic, as it relies on popular conceptions of taste and beauty to define itself against and is inherently combative. This isn't a major problem, but it does establish an unspoken philosophical hierarchy of intent, where the considered embrace of tastelessness or shock value is sometimes valued over what might be described as incidentally amateur quality.
It's a punk aesthetic at heart and has become the public face of low/no budget genre film making. Bloodier, gorier, and gloriously in-your-face is the self-respecting Schlock aesthetic.
But for the purposes of this column, we want to embrace a wider definition that also encompasses those films that don't intentionally transgress, but are just doing the best they can with the talent available; those films with a handmade quality and a lack of cynicism; films that capture the magic of translating a singular vision to the screen, warts and all.
We're around twenty years into a film culture forever altered by Jurassic Park (although the shift had begun much earlier) where suddenly it was clear that with enough money and technology, special effects could be more realistic than anything we'd ever seen before. Those CG and animatronic dinosaurs changed everything. A cultural shift in audiences' aesthetic processing occurred and anything less than seamlessness became inexcusable.
The charms of stop-motion photography or time-lapse transformations or even cardboard sets would no longer satisfy the mainstream audience (when viewers dismissed Farscape because it had 'Muppet' characters, we hit a cultural iceberg). Technical flaws were no longer considered simply a part of the film making process, to be chuckled at but accepted (the occasional boom mike in a shot, the obvious stunt double, the awkward glance at the camera by an extra), but as marks of failure or points for ironic hipster mockery.
Loving something because you ironically "love" bad movies is not what we practice in this dojo. We understand that the movie-making process is unapologetically a collaborative effort, and that the mere act of completion is sometimes a monumental cause for celebration.
Mainstream cultural products aim for a believability that is inherently a lie. A manipulation. They present a false reality, sold to the marketplace as the true nature of things. The status quo has become all and we have reached a point where sexless pornographers have begun selling us undisguised pastiche and cold masturbatory nostalgia in place of actual art. Genre film making is being sold out to spectacle pimps while individual visions are ridiculed and shunted off to critical ghettos.
That's on the marketing and production side of things. Most horrifying is that criticism itself has become a pocket industry, with corporate ownership and psychological self-loathing. Mainstream genre critics are quick to embrace the popularizing and validating of soulless mass-production in exchange for perceived critical validity and authority. And brainwashed "fans" are quick to defend their pablum in bursts of blatant self-validation and exclusion. Geek wagons are being circled tighter every day and all the joy in fringe film (and comics and music and art and etc.) is being condemned as frivolous or lacking "serious" value.
Is it any wonder that the majority of critical voices that can be trusted anymore are independent bloggers and YouTube accounts?
The "flaws" or "mistakes" in schlock films force the viewer to psychologically confront the narrative construction of reality; to see the films for what they are - craftworks and storytelling without deceit or cosmetic manipulation. The reality of a flawed work trumps the "reality" of a glossy lie. When the process is honest and real, truth is communicated. When we can't see the wires we become accepting of lies. We need to see the lies to decipher the truth.
Schlock & Awe is devoted to celebrating the joyous, almost innocent, creative spark behind the films that didn't change the world. Biker films, Blaxploitation films, Sword & Sorcery films, Kaiju films, Splatter films, Wrestling films, Trash, Camp, Kitsch, Sci-fi and beyond. If the edges have been polished then it's not in our purview. If cynicism is obvious or there's no real attempt to create something special, we won't touch it. We understand that sometimes a bad movie is just a bad movie. Joylessness is not something to celebrate.
Films like Miami Connection, Starcrash, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Three the Hard Way, Female Trouble, or Run, Angel, Run are our keystone moments. Performers like Karen Black, Sid Haig, Tura Satana, Fred Williamson, Divine, and William Smith are our guiding lights. Writers and Directors like Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, John Waters, Lloyd Kaufman, Albert Pyun, and Stuart Gordon are our dreamweavers.
These are the films, the performers, and the creators who fill us with Schlock & Awe, and over the weeks to come, we at Comics Bulletin hope to shed some light and spread some love. It won't be pretty, but it'll be honest. We hope you come along for the ride in two weeks as we pay tribute to the memory of the late, great Karen Black.
And after that? Let's see where this road takes us.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.