This week, as I prepared for my interview with Lloyd Kaufman, the director of The toxic avenger, Tromeo and Julietand so many other films over the past 50 or so years and the creative mind behind one of the few truly independent independent film companies, Troma Entertainment – I re-read the book he co-wrote with Troma alum James Gunn (guardians of the galaxy, Peacemaker).
Everything I Need to Know About Movies I Learned From The Toxic Avenger is part memoir, part tutorial, part comic novel – in short, a crossover, as you’d expect from the guy who pioneered classic sci-fi/action/horror /comedy like Nuke ‘Em High Class and The Troma War. But it’s also a fascinating look at the business of Hollywood, and how that business changed first to help studios like Troma and then bring them to their knees.
Troma’s early films as Squeeze Play were hit and miss in theaters, doing modest business while hitting the drive-in circuit, but being made at a price low enough that they weren’t disaster bombs. It wasn’t until the advent of home video that Troma really found its financial edge: video stores were desperate for equipment to rent and tenants were desperate for equipment to rent and Troma was desperate to sell tapes at 100 $ per piece to stores to supply materials. for rent to tenants. Everybody was happy.
But the big studios quickly realized there was a huge market here that wasn’t hurting their theatrical results too much, so they started sending their movies to rental outlets. Meanwhile, the stuff Troma does isn’t exactly family-friendly, making it anathema to respectable chains like Blockbuster that have come to dominate the scene. And, finally, customers being customers, they wanted to rent things that were safe, mainstream, and star-heavy, so stores stopped buying, say, 10 copies each of The toxic avenger and Rocky III buy 20 copies of Rocky IV and one of The Toxic Avenger Part III: Toxie’s Last Temptation several years later.
The book was written in 1998, at the dawn of the Internet, when Troma was selling tapes directly to customers. In a footnote, Kaufman and Gunn issued a warning: “Those who care about the continued purity of the internet, take note of this historic disaster and don’t let it happen again.” While Kaufman and Troma remain committed to filmmaking – their last and his final film, #ShakespearesShitstorm hasn’t hit VOD yet despite being released in 2020 because it’s showing it in independent theaters and museums across the country – they’ve also adapted to the times, delivering decades of Tromatic entertainment for just £5 $ per month on their streaming service.
Troma has survived by providing entertainment that appeals to a very specific niche of people, and the internet is perfectly suited for niches (like, say, an online magazine published by Never Trump curators) to not just survive but thrive. While it’s understandable to worry about consolidation in the face of giants like Amazon and Netflix looking to stifle competition, the beauty of the internet is that it’s limitless. Here are 50 more years of Troma; may the Toxic Avenger reign long.
On this week’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we discussed a movie that may have been traumatic for Peter to watch, but is about as far from a Troma movie as it gets: Morbius. If you haven’t signed up for Bulwark+, do so now so you can savagely listen to this disaster of a movie.
In the main episode of ATMA, we talked about the Richard Linklater movie which just unexpectedly appeared on Netflix, Apollo 10½. It’s funny!
Two new Chris Pine films have been released on streaming/VOD in the past two weeks. So I saw them both. All the old knives is streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video; It’s good! Meanwhile, The contractor costs $20 to rent and is less good.
Be sure to check out Kelsa Pellettiere’s essay on Ken Burns’ new documentary on Ben Franklin.
Assigned display: Everything everywhere all at once
I don’t usually attribute cinema films, but: Everything everywhere all at once finally opens wide (rather) this weekend, hitting around 1,200 screens. If he’s near you, you have to go see him. And if he’s not playing near you, get on a plane and fly to a place where he’s playing. It’s worth it, trust me. Here’s what I wrote last month when I reviewed it:
Everything everywhere all at once is almost aggressively silly, using the idea of the multiverse and the suggestion that literally anything can happen anytime, anywhere to do things like turn blood into organic ketchup or blow spirits away like they’re confetti. (Literally.) At some point, a character realizes that the unique memory they must generate to move from verse to verse involves using a trophy that looks more than a little like a butt plug, and, I mean, if you can I can’t imagine how it goes or how it could be done in a way that generates actual belly laughs, well, maybe it isn’t the movie for you.
But the silliness is deployed by Daniels as a cover to keep the cynics in the audience from being overwhelmed by the seriousness at the heart of Everything everywhere all at once. It is a deeply moving film, a long meditation on the meaning we derive from family and friendship. On the power of kindness. It’s an enthusiastic rejection of the irony-infused spirit of memes that has come to dominate political and cultural discourse, the “lol nothing matters” mindset that so many of us have adopted to protect our psyche from the realization that we have very little impact on macro trends. And it all works because Ke Huy Quan delivers one of the best and most heartfelt performances I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Love – for his wife Evelyn, for their daughter Joy, even for taxman Deirdre – pours out of him, overwhelms the bloody ugliness on screen.