Friday, March 27, 2009

Theater Review: I, Undertow (Beckmann Theatre)

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet


In the staging of his latest play, I, Undertow, prolific playwright and Emmy winner Blake Bradford once again focuses his characters in rural western North Carolina, where he was raised.

[Blake Bradford, playwright]
In this Phare Play Production at the Beckmann Theater at 314 West 54 Street (through April 5), he focuses on the return of a favored grand/son, a budding painter on the verge of fame who had left his home a dozen years before to move to New York, and has now arrived home to see the ailing matriarch’s last days. The relations to whom he returns are sprawling, including some extended family folks. Along the way, he brings with him his lusty and out-of-comfort-zone British art dealer, directly after a one-night fling.

[Attending services]
The Morgan family is deeply spiritual, with many scenes depicting services either in or around the church, and the characters throughout sing many hymnals, especially during scene breaks as transitions. Bradford explains in the program, “I grew up in a small community of religious conservatives and although I decided hot to live my life in the same manner as these people, I do understand them. I have seen how beautiful a church service can be and how lives can be changed through religious communities.” He brings that made flesh to the audience.

[Michael Weems, expatriate painter Justin Morgan]
We are first introduced to the main protagonist, Justin Morgan, as he begins his night of passion with his agent and art dealer, the sophisticated Monica LeTourneau. Justin is a wounded soul who has a memory gap from his teen years that drove him away, leading him to New York. He is about to head back home when the call that his dearly loved and superbly strong willed grandmother is approaching her time to leave this veil. Michael Weems subtly underplays Justin as someone who has become more sophisticated than his family on some levels, but still humbled by his background. Plus there is a mystery about why he left, which of course will be made clear by the end of the two hours.

[Sara Lerner, art dealer Monica LeTourneau]
As the lust interest who travels down to the small town with Justin for a lark (and to secure her latch on him for commission security), Sara Lerner is long and slender in a part that was seemingly written for her (though I don’t really understand why Monica is British, except possibly to make her all the more alien and alienated from anyone else; being a high-brow New Yorker probably would have worked just as fine). Although initially not sure of her place in the family (or even with Justin, for that matter), which is keenly expressed in a bean-snapping scene (literally and figuratively), Monica slowly comes to appreciate the slower pace and the good heart of the Morgan family.

[Carol Neiman, matriarch Eunice Morgan]
As the ailing mother of two sons and two grandkids, Carol Neiman plays Eunice Morgan with dignity and respect. She is a woman of her era, who knows how little time she has left and has the strong desire to set everything right – as she sees it – before death comes a-knockin’. She is one of the many catalysts in a play about resilient women who have strong opinions, and are not afraid to make them clear. Eunice is the loving center of it all, and I saw the gentleman in front of me wiping away some tears at a tender moment near the final act, which attests to both the writing and the talent of Carol, who came to the acting field later in life.

[Bill Purdy, religious leader Paul Daniel Morgan]
The elder of Eunice’s two sons is the pastor at the local church, Paul Daniel Morgan, played with conviction by Bill Purdy. For most of the play, Paul Daniel is present as spiritual leader, brother, and uncle, and it is not clear until much later what pivotal role he has in the story. His place appears to be guidance to the family, to help them through their troubled times, though he has some quandaries of his own with which to deal.

[Laurence Waltman, father Grayson Morgan]
Paul Daniel’s brother Grayson, ably played by Laurence Waltman, is in a hard place: while still in love with his repressed wife, he also is coming off an affair with a much younger employee, and is penitent for it. Despite the Jerry Springer moment, Grayson is actually a warm-hearted character who easily has the audience on his side, despite the dastardly deed (performed and ended way before the play starts). It would be quite simple to make him a pitiable milquetoast or the flip of that, a womanizing swine, but his affair comes out of pain, and Laurence plays that character well.

[Peggy Queener, lonely wife Deborah Morgan]
Bored with her surroundings and angry at her cheatin’ hearted husband, Deborah Morgan is looking for something to spark her quiet, unfulfilled life. Peggy Queener is excellent as Deborah, who runs the gamut of anger to expressing her excitement in a most public forum. Armed with a DVD collection and bolstered by face time with the sophisticated Monica, Peggy delivers a strong monolog, which is one of the strangest and funniest moments of the play. Completely likeable, Peggy gives Deborah a dignity that could have been lost in the shrill anger of her frustrated character.

[Emily Fitzpatrick, sibling rival Nicole Morgan]
As the sister of the prodigal son, Nichole Morgan has had to endure knowing that she comes second in her family to her runaway brother, Justin, which has echoing effects on her life (and possibly her marriage). For years she has had to swallow her pride, but especially when he comes back. Luckily, Emily Fitzpatrick is up for the task of making Nichole a clear voice, and is especially strong during her agitated monolog midway in the second act. Emily does a wonderful slow burn, emoting with her face all the anger and anguish that Nicole feels.

[Molly Church, hospice nurse Katie Gouge]
Playing the girl from the past who got away, Molly Church breathes life into Katie Gouge, a long time acquaintance of the Morgan family, and Justin’s ex- who he left behind when he mysteriously left for New York. There is no mystery about Katie’s allegiances and feelings, which Molly plays with quiet pride, giving her a deep strength. She is not just the spurned ex-love interest, she holds an important key to Justin’s secret, and her crucial character shows that she’s not just a dancing donkey nurse’s uniform. There is a subtle focus to the character that Molly embodies.

[Susanne Gottesman-Traub, family friend Aunt Lizzie]
Most people know an Aunt Lizzie, the person in the neighborhood who everyone calls “Aunt” (or “Ma” or “Granny”), but is not related to anyone, but is still part of the family. Susanne Gottesman-Traub personifies this role in a warm, gimme-a-hug way, but under this is one of the strongest of women in the play, who makes a life-changing decision that affects nearly every other character. No, I won’t give it away, but I would like to say that we all need an Aunt Lizzie, and if she were as Susanne embodies her, well, we’d all be better for it.

[Katie and Justin rally round Eunice]
Although this is a play with a male central character (Justin), it is actually the women in the play that are the driving force as the agents for change. The three males are not necessarily weak, but are unsure and unstable, even when in leadership roles. They are either insecure about what is behind them, where they stand presently, where they are going, or any combination. It is the women who take a stand, project their needs, speak their minds, and cause things to happen. Whatever actions the males take, it is through the catalyst of the proceedingss of the women. Stay married or not? Figure out the mysteries of the past? Resolve the problems of the present? It’s the women who are the strongest. Fortunately the female cast members are certainly up for the job of portraying their characters as fierce without being harridans, and the male actors are strong enough to play their men as, well, distracted without making them clowns.

While I understand that religion is an important part of family and relationships in this play, perhaps it was used a bit too freely. For example, as the scenes change from one to another and the cast members change the set props, they sing (quite lovely, actually) hymns to reflect the bond between the characters and their faith. However, occasionally as scene separators, the church is “set up” and the hymns are sung while they sit there for the length of the song, and then the set is broken down again. While I understand and appreciate that seat placement during these vignettes is telling (for example in the Grayson / Deborah relationship), this was perhaps a little overdone, and actually slowed the story flow down rather than pushing it along. That being said, I do like the way Bradford infuses the beliefs of this extended family without hitting the audience over the head with it.

Though he is prolific, I have only seen two plays by Blake Bradford, the other being Gay Slave Handbook, reviewed earlier this month in this blog. Both were departures for him (Gay contained a three-person cast when he usually write for ensembles, and this play is, in his own words, “my first attempt at a love story”), but there are some overlapping themes. For example, both plays have violent fights between close loved ones, a strong belief in faith (in either one or all characters), sexual impropriety, and at some point the action takes place in New York.

To sum up, this is a perceptive ensemble cast who takes the fine material and makes it even better. I look forward to seeing many of these actors in future productions.

Phare Play Mission statement (in part) : The name Phare Play says it all. On one hand it reflects our desire to be the beacon of light in the Off and Off-Off Broadway community. We work to be the lighthouse that artists can find as a home for exploration of their creativity. The second meaning is participation on equal terms (fair play). We are true believers of the power of the ensemble and allow everyone that works on our productions the ability to make their voices heard. Our purpose is to provide a top-quality public arena for the professional implementation of the philosophy and aesthetics our ensemble wishes to explore. Through the collaboration of artists, resident professionals and audiences, we examine the theatrical event and the methods used for its realization in contemporary performance. We explore playmaking in and of our time. We produce a broad variety of material, from classic to contemporary. We encourage both up and coming talent and our seasoned veterans to join our journey. We believe these artists that contribute to our mission will grow with us while stimulating all of us to grow as well. Our artists will always find a home to explore, engage, and entice.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Public Reading: JD Glass and Sarah Schulman, March 25, 2009

Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos
Book cover images from the Internet


It was a cold evening last night, March 25, as I drove to the feminist-focused Bent Pages bookstore at 391 Van Duzer St., on Staten Island. It is directly across from the Cup (nee the Muddy Cup), and diagonally from music scene legendary bar, Martini Red.

This spot is a sort of trifecta for JD Glass: Her band, Life Underwater, has performed at the (Muddy) Cup, she had DJ’d at Martini Red, and now she has read from her newest book, X, at the Bent Pages.

When I arrived, JD was deep in discussion with co-speaker Sarah Schulman at a local restaurant, so after dropping in to say hello to her, I spent some time hanging out with her friend that I had met just a few minutes earlier in the warmth of her car, waiting for the magic moment.

At 7:30, as JD and Sarah arrived, we disembarked from the car and all headed into the compact bookstore, which was packed. All were eager to hear the speakers read.

First up was Sarah Shulman, a multiple award winning author and activist who was reading from her newest novel, The Child. Currently, Sarah teaches at the College of Staten Island (CSI), where JD attended for a while a few years ago. Sarah is a prolific writer of novels (The Mere Future [forthcoming 2009], The Child, Shimmer, Rat Bohemia, Empathy, People In Trouble, After Delores, Girls, Visions and Everything, The Sophie Horowitz Story), nonfiction books (The Twist: Familial Homophobia And Its Consequences [forthcoming], The Gentrification Of The Mind [forthcoming], Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and The Marketing Of Gay America, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During The Reagan/Bush Years), and plays Carson McCullers, Manic Flight Reaction, The Burning Deck, and Enemies: A Love Story.

In The Child, from which Sarah read a chapter, a gay man is entrapped by the police after a sting in a bathroom. It was humorous and terrifying at parts.

Then JD Glass read a chapter from her newest novel, X. She is also the author of Lambda Literary Award finalist Punk Like Me, its follow up Punk And Zen, Lambda Literary and Ben Franklin Award finalist Red Light, and American Goth (I have read – with enormous pleasure – all of these previous novels). She also has the forthcoming Yuri Monogatari 6 anthology with a side story from American Goth (Sakura Gun (London)), and graphic novels Sakura Gun, and Legacy Of Stone, an anthology work in progress with fellow author Gabrielle Goldsby.

This new book, X, is different from her previous exercises in a number of ways. The first four were dark modern gothic novels with a supernatural bent. This new one is more of a cyberpunk mystery. Also, as JD pointed out to a round of humor and applause, this novel is not in first person narrative (the crowd reaction a positive acknowledgement of growth of the author’s style). I look forward to reading it.

Next, Sarah came up and read the acknowledgement part of the book, which focused on her struggles to get it published, followed by an open discussion with JD and Sarah over many topics, such as JD’s separation from her present publisher, the media, government, and cultural changing views of lesbians and gays in the Obama era, and what I found most interesting, the question of what makes a fiction “lesbian” (e.g., the author, the story, the characters), and on which store bookshelf should it be found. Sarah also described her debt of thanks to musician Diamanda Galas for her contribution in getting it out. It was a lively discussion from the authors and many in the audience.

For an interview this blog did with my good friend JD Glass, check the FFanzeen Blog archives: December 8, 2007 (Part 1); February 19, 2008 (Part 2).

[JD Glass and Sarah Schulman discuss over dinner]
[The book table]
[Sarah Shulman reads a chapter]
[JD Glass reads from her book]
[Sarah's acknowledges]
[JD leads the discussion]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wording the Pet Peeve

Text © Robert Barry Francos

In an episode from an earlier season of Family Guy, Stewie takes over the government and as a demand has a list of words or expressions he is banning, such as “irregardless.”

We all have words that are pet peeves. For me, it is not necessarily just words or expressions, but the overuse of them. Truly, words have always been overused: if not the “f-bomb,” which some of my friends seemed to discover as they went into Junior High (usually called Middle School now), there is the usually space fillers like, well, “like,” “y’know,” and “Know what I’m sayin’?”

I started to strongly notice this when I worked for a Fortune 500-based management-consulting firm. Around 1991, the word “synergy” starting being used to the point that nearly every document I worked on had this word thrown in to show some (or any) aspect of the tork of growth.

The overused word that is currently “grinding my gears” is “history.” Obama’s election is historic. While I would dread the alternative, are they trying to say that if McCain had won it would not have been historic? It would not have been written about in history books because he is an elderly white man? No matter who won it would have been “historic.” Obama’s election was a singularly important historic event, but it was not just “historic.”

Another case is, say, the current economy (or lack thereof). “It’s a(n) historic market.” Well, as a culture, we keep records of all the stock market results, don’t we? That means no matter what the market is doing, it’s history, or historic. Again, it’s a noteworthy moment in history, but no matter what the DOW is doing, it is “history.”

History means an event in the past. Lynn Sherr, in her 2006 book Outside the Box, comments how the word is used in broadcast media as any story that has been aired, no matter how long before, from years to seconds. While this use of the word may be her bane, I find it to be accurate. Any event, after it has happened, is history. When something amazing happens, it is as much history as is the mundane “man bites dog” event. There needs to be a new word that will apply to a singular or precedent breaking event.

The current expression that makes me grrr is referring to someone as “a statistic.” Some event happens, and it is said they are “now a statistic.” We are all statistics in today’s information heavy world. Picture a pie chart that is segmented into, say, “women who become teen mothers” at 40% (I’m making these numbers up) and “women who do not become teen mothers” at 60%. Well, both sides are “statistics,” if you are a mother or not. Referring to someone becoming a “statistic” because they became pregnant is only one side of the equation. Even if they do not, they are part of the statistic of those who avoid the situation.

We are all statistics in every single thing we do. We are in at least one group or another: those who do, those who don’t, or those who do not apply. The use of calling someone a statistic is usually in a negative connotation (accidents, crime, and so on), but we truly are all statistics in some form or another, whether the negative or the positive side. My favorite pie chart from that management firm, written by someone who apparently needs an ESL brush-up, had one side as “men” and the other as “non-men.” Of course, I fixed this, but kept the original hand-drawn because it was just too amusing.

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy, or sensitive (or, as my pal Alan recently called me, a curmudgeon). On a large scale, I know this is not important past a pimple on culture’s butt, and certainly I am not going to do a Stewie and take over to enforce my pet peeve, but…take heed!

Monday, March 16, 2009

CD Reviews: A Blast of Sounds

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
Originally published at www.jerseybeat.com/quietcorner.html


Named after a bar in Grand Central, New York-based THE CAMPBELL APARTMENT has released Insomniac’s Almanac (Blacktop Records, RR#4, Langton, Ontario N0E 1G0). A popish trio, vocalist/guitarist Ari Vais shows a bit of imagination with his songs, which covers such topics as being unreciprocated in his being in love with someone else’s wife (he names the someone, but not the wife) in “Wife,” stating how “Long Distance Relationship (Is a Four Letter Word),” and how they are (like the Diodes) “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” There is also a strong sense of humor with cuts like “Addicted to MySpace.” Ari’s vocals are a bit rough, but the message gets through, is fun to listen to, and isn’t that what’s important?

I had never heard of ANI DiFRANCO the first time I saw her play the Falcon Ridge Festival around the time Not A Pretty Girl came out. Since then, she’s become a one-woman-from-Buffalo indie industry, thanks in part to the success of her own label, Righteous Babe (who has Hamell on Trial among its roster). Continuing in her prolific work(wo)myn way, now comes Red Letter Year (righteousbabe.com). One of the things that make her so special is that her music is so uncategorical. Yeah, she plays folk festivals, but putting her solely in the category of folk, or singer/songwriter…or ANY single slot is just not possible (at least not and be accurate). She sticks her toes into many genres (well, maybe not hardcore), and she’s not afraid to use some ambience and electronica in the blend. Her sound is sort of a Milligan’s stew of styles. Here, there is a lot of dissonance, and strange mixtures of sounds that puts the listener as slightly off-center as she is, especially considering how beautiful her voice is in the middle of it. Most of her songs are first person, with an occasional first and third thrown into the mix. All are with a bright light on the topic and no shadows, exposing all flaws and lines in a sense of purpose towards revealing the human in herself, and of others. The image may not always be pretty, but it is in a form that is consistently just stunning. Not a bad cut here.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of All the While by the sextet FRANCES (giganticmusic.com), who have been called “chamber pop”. They sort of remind me of a more straightforward version of the finally appreciated They Might Be Giants, with many more hands in the pot. Let me start at the top and work my way down: Frances is the brainchild of bandleader Paul Hogan, Ph.D. in Music. His voice is sweet and clear-cut, singing about the mundane and the odd (songs include “The Brain,” “Lighthouse,” “Telephone,” “The New Decoy”). Along with the vocals, he also handles the keyboards. And then there is all the rest, including (but not inclusive) guitars, violins, “glockenspiel, a Suzuki Omnichord, and a Tennessee high school marching band,” a “litany of (literal) bells and whistles,” a ”field of tubas” and “sundries” (according to their press release). Anyway, through all of this mishugas, it usually works. Occasionally there are the parts that sound a bit rinky-dink or dissonant to the point of annoyance, but mostly it’s well orchestrated and definitely different than most releases I’ve heard recently. Gotta give ‘em that, big time.

One of the aspects that has endured (and endeared) about the 28-year-old FUZZTONES is how they can take the genre of voodoo garage and stretch it, as they have with their new release, Horny as Hell (ElectriqueMud.com). Leader Rudi Protrudi lives in Germany and has adopted a version of garage that is prevalent there, which includes horns and female chorus, giving the sound a bit more of a soulful edge. In this tweaked form (which is basically the old one with a new layer, I’m actually happy to say), there is still an ecstatically high energy level on the rank of the Fleshtones, the Cramps, and the Chesterfield Kings (even though they all use a similar foundation, each lives in a separate building). Along with updated versions of some of their classic hits, such as “Ward 81”, “Highway 69,” and “She’s Wicked,” there are also quite a number of newer tunes and covers. There are way to many to list them all, so I’ll just posit that every cut here on this nearly hour-long release is worth a listen. But if you do, be sure you wear your dancing shoes. Just TRY to sit still during numbers like “Third Time’s the Charm”!

What year is this, again? RACHEL HARRINGTON‘s City of Refuge sounds like it came off a John Lomax recording from the Appalachian area during the FDR era. Which is why the timing is so perfect for this new CD (skinnydennis.com), as we face a new Depression. Seattle-based Rachel pays tribute to lots of icons here, including a stubborn old man named Harry “Truman,” who died on St. Helen’s when he refused to come on down, traditional orality in music with a superb medley of two religious standbys, “Old Time Religion/Working on a Building,” and even a nod toward country with Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” There is a heavy reliance on banjo and fiddle, giving this an even sweeter sound, completely complementing Rachel’s exquisite voice. A couple of my fave cuts are the original opener, “Karen Kane,” about a woman who took off to the Yukon to look for gold, and the traditional “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World.”

Rather than playing every instrument, as he did on his first release, BRETT HARRIS has a band backing him on Side Two (EP) (brettharris.com). It was worth the effort by the 4-song, 16-minute end result, which is solid ‘80s style power pop. This could have been the Romantics, or one of those new wave kinds of pop bands that were so big around the start of MTV. The standout is “Red Dress” (two different version here), which was such a flashback, with that electronic wall of sound feel, crashing on the beats. This would have been a big hit at some of the larger, more general clubs back then, like Hurrah’s.

Yes, this is the same IAN LLOYD who did “Brother Louie” with his band Stories. He’s had a couple of other hits, but he’s mostly remembered for that. I wonder if he gets tired that just about every review mentions it. Perhaps not, because even in this new release, In the Land of O-de-PO (machinedreamrecords.com), he covers his own hit. But more on that later. All these years later, I actually believe his voice may be strong than it was back then. That being said, this release is produced with a heavy hand, tripped out in an excess of sounds, especially its opening cut, “Wonderful World” (that is, after the introduction of “Frogpond,” which is just what the title implies). This is certainly radio friendly for classic rock and even some dance stations, but there is not enough of his Steve Tyler-ish power that made him such a strong RnB flavored rocker. Without saying anything here is bad, because the potential is right there, it desperately needs to be scrapped down to more of its bare essentials to focus on Lloyd’s voice and growl, not on the “wooga-wooga” of synthesizers, overdubs, and not just a wall of sound, but a tsunami of it; it is just too distracting. It’s like the game “Operation”: you worry more about touching the sides than the actual task of removing the bone (or whatever). “Rip It Out” is the closest to actually showcasing his voice rather than the production; many other cuts like “Heat” are so overdone that they have an ‘80s feel (can anyone say Animotion?). The CD officially ends with a disco-y version of “Brother Louie,” and who needs that? It sounds a lot less committed than the hit from years ago, which is what made it such a hit. There are two bonus tracks (why are they called bonus tracks? Is there another version of this CD?), “Sensetize” [sic] and “Island,” both of which are actually a good songs, despite the washing-machine rhythm track of the former. I’d like to hear this entire CD redone without synthesizer and rocked the fuck out.

PHIL MINISSALE is sparkling and friendly, youthful and enthusiastic. Then he plays his music, such as on his new CD, Home to Me, (myspace.com/philminissalemusic), and one is tempted to think, is this the same guy? Yep, it is. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Phil’s sound is solid delta blues, with a jangle in a House Son steel string style to rattle the roof. All but the first cut are originals, and LI- and PA-based Phil shows he has was not a one-EP wonder. There is the sprightly “Just Getting Started” somewhere in the middle, but most cuts are pretty straightforward blues. While his group ably supports him here, special notice should be given to mouthharper Ken “The Rocket” Korb. Yeah, one can hear the white on him, but Phil blows a lot of white blues artists away, even at his age. He should be playing at places like the House of Blues or B.B. King’s regularly. If your muse is blues, or if you just want to choose to hear what’s what, check this out.

It has been 10 years since I first interviewed the Staten Island-based PROFESSOR and MARYANNE, after their second release. They have continued to put out music, and now their latest is Every Day is a Good Day…If You’re Breathing (professorandmaryann.com). For those uninitiated in PandM, the duo consists of vocalist Danielle Brancaccio and acoustic guitarist / vocalist / songwriter Ken Rockwood. Danielle has one of the more amazing, and easily identifiable voices around today, with a vocal style that is lazily seductive and equally charming. She lulls the listener in, and by the time one realizes just what Ken’s words are saying, the trap is already sprung. Ken also has a sweet, welcoming voice, though he only sings two of the cuts here (love her, and yet would like to see him sing more as well). The melodies are whimsical without being slight, and the lyrics are uncommon songs about love, passion, and death (I teased him once about the latter). Ken is actually a strong songwriter in a Jacque Brel sort of way, in that the songs are more intense than one may expect from the music, but they both play off each other so symbiotically.

Folk music is as varied a genre as any other. Calling CHRIS STEWART and BACKCOUNTRY Americana is probably a bit more accurate. Their CD Crooked Man (christstuart.com/crookedman) is more traditional than most, with an occasional slip into country. This is chock full of fiddles, banjos, pennywhistles, mandolins, and the like. Chris handles most of the vocals and songwriting, with Janet Beazley writing and singing two of her own here. Despite two songs about the Canadian Maritimes, the band hails from California (though a few of them taught at a workshop up there). There are lots of different blends here, from traditional Kingston Trio type through the King George period, and ending with a modern gospel ballad. It’s all done extremely well and is exceedingly listenable, if one enjoys this kind of sound (and I do). Stylistically, I can easily imagine them playing the Newport Folk Festival in the early ‘60s. A lot of good work in here.

Hailing from Omaha, McCARTHY TRENCHING has released another living room self-recording, Calamity Drenching (team-love.com). His reason for this method is “there is so much snow-shoveling to do during the winter.” Despite this collection more or less being about varying shades of rejection by others to him and vice versa, there is also a strong sense of black humor that runs throughout the recording. His voice is a bit off kilter, sort of like a cross between Greg Brown and Russ Tolman (of the Totem Polemen), but in this case it just makes it more personal. The style is mostly leaning toward Brown, but MT has some singer-songwriter, blues, alt country, and even a bit of jazziness in there sometimes. It’s for certain an interesting listen.

UP FOR NOTHING has been going for half a decade now. Their first release, 7-songer Keep It At That (myspace/upfornothing1) was a self-release, in a totally different incarnation as a solid foursome of pop punk (punk pop?). And yet now that they are a power trio, their new full release put out by Boston punkers the Dimwits, We’re Singing Our Last Breath, (myspace/winterstreetrecords) is possibly even more solid, due in part to the manic drumming of Jesse, and the bass and vocal counterpoint of Steven. But it’s the consistency of vocalist/guitarist/backward-hat-wearing Justin that is the lynchpin in this group. His vocals are just the right of yell and pop. While most of the songs are told from a personal perspective, I would hardly call this navel gazing as much as life observation, i.e., it’s not overly sentimental. What you have here consists of solid Brooklyn punk playing, singing, and songwriting. Remember, UFN = FUN.

Despite some personnel changes, it is so worth checking out the New York hardcore WORLD WAR IX and their 7” vinyl 4-song EP, Brown Bagging It (Red Black and Blue Records, PO Box 982, Vernon, NJ 07461). They come from a solid GG Allin influence - as do a so many other bands lately, like SQNS, Chesty Malone and the Slice-Em-Up, Kissy Kamikaze - except that these later bands are more focused than GG ever was (his recordings were great, but his shows, not so much). In typical WWIX fashion, the songs here are quite humorous, with one half being the Drinks Side, and the other the Other Side. All four tunes are fast and loud, and luckily mostly legible. The standouts are actually from the Other Side, “Jesus Freak” and the LMAO “Employee of the Month.” The other two are also very well written and performed. And when you’re done listening to this, check out the comic books about GG Allin (and others) by the band. Now, GO!

Married couple WRECKLESS ERIC and AMY RIGBY has released their first collaborative, self-titled CD (stiff-records.com). By themselves, both are a bit quirky, and together, they blend into an overlapping skewed pop-singer-songwriting duo. Lyrically, American Amy holds her own to the Brit Eric, though stylistically he seems to have the upper hand. I don’t mean this to sound like some kind of contest, just that both are a bit different in their solo presentation. Amy has rocked out power pop rock (e.g., “Dancing With Joey Ramone,” “I Don’t Wanna Talk About Love”), but here she is showing a softer, sometimes goofy side (“Astrovan”). I’m more familiar with her stuff than his (even though he’s one of the original Stiff artists in the ‘70s), so I don’t know where he compromised. I do know there is a strong electronica overlay (e.g., oscillator, talkbox, mellotron, synthesizer) that I find kind of distracting, especially on the “Revolution #9”-ish “Trotters.” There are a few memorable tunes here though, such as “The Downside of Being a Fuck-Up,” “Please Be Nice to Her,” and “Round.” I will add that vocally, they quite complement each other, and – er – make beautiful music together.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Theater Review: Gay Slave Handbook (Wings Theatre Company)

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Play logo photo by Brooklyn Scalzo (brooklynscalzo.com)
Actor photos from the Internet


Gay Slave Handbook is the latest play staged by prolific writer and director (and Emmy winner) Blake Bradford. It is nearing the end of its run at the Wings Theatre, home of the Wings Theatre Company, at 154 Christopher Street, in New York.

The title is a bit misleading for a play that is actually quite an intimate study of three friends who are brought together in high school by a tragedy in rural North Carolina, and follows them over the next 12 years through three non-intermission acts.

[Justin Maruri plays Sebastian]
We are introduced at first to Sebastian and Jimmy at the funeral of a teen (who dies before the story begins, via a fire). Sebastian is played intensely by Justin Maruri. From the first moment, the audience’s eyes are drawn to him. He emotes well just by moving his face in reaction without overreacting, the sign of strong performing skills in this reviewer’s opinion. Sebastian is a bundle of nerves, and the heart of the trio. Though he is out, he holds secrets that bring his life into turmoil by the second act. His is the driving force that moves the characters into action, sometimes for the better and, well, sometimes not.

[Peter Carrier is Jimmy]
Jimmy is introduced as someone who is a gazer in life. He is a devout Mormon, and tries to stick to his beliefs though his heart is with Sebastian. His church’s strict, homophobic tenets force him into a conflicted closet. Jimmy is the spiritual and childlike part of the trio, and is as confused as everyone, but in a more obvious way. Boston-born actor Peter Carrier presents him as quiet, but in a bubbling under, constricted way, until the last act (don’t worry, I won’t divulge too much). Peter has a wide range, from the blank deer-in-headlights self-blinding innocence, to the thunderous realization of what the effects his suppression has on others.

[Jackie Byrne is Giulia]
As the dead teen’s best friend and emotional id of the bonded trio, is Giulia, a natural force played by Jackie Byrne. While she is loud, vulgar and speaks her mind (often at the top of her lungs), it is a simple stare near the end of the first act that brought tears to my eyes. Jackie plays her at full speed, as her character is trying to get past her emotions and bad health, and especially her fears of being alone, through bravado and self-medication. Jackie portrays her unabashedly, without making her a joke (though she does have some of the best comedic dialog, she never becomes a clown, which would cheapen the character). I’m not quite sure why, however, she is the only one with an accent.

These three strong characters fade in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes for the betterment, and at others for the detriment, but they all need each other. For, you see, they have no problem being brutally honest with each other, but it seems they cannot be honest to themselves, and need the others to hold up their own mirrors.

[Blake Bradford, writer/director]
The first act, which takes place in 1997, is a series of vignettes, taking place over the first months of the relationship between the three. While it develops the core affection between Sebastian and Jimmy, and how they interrelate with Giulia, it shows their growing bond and sets the grounding for what follows. Despite a couple of cliché moments (e.g., Giulia threatening Jimmy if he hurts Sebastian, which I can remember as far back as the film Bed of Roses in 1996), the story line keeps one’s attention to the lives to these recent high school graduates as they try to find themselves by finding each other.

The next act takes place in a solo location a few years later, which is an apartment in New York City, as they are in young adulthood, still on the path or trying to realize what their place is in the world, or in one case, if there even is such situation. But even that turns into something else that places a catalyst in the story for the third act, but I jump ahead. While there are still some funny moments, such as a Giulia meltdown during the 2003 blackout, this act is a lot more serious as information bursts into the forefront, and where some characters can handle this and grow from it; others have further problems because of it.

The final act, and I won’t give it away, takes place in the present. It has a sort of redemptive quality for one character, but sort of leaves others in self-made limbo. This act finds the humor level in the middle, with some very humorous moments, and some blatantly shocking ones. The play leaves off on a sort of dissonant tone, but in a way that makes the audience wanting more, even after an hour and a half.

I would like to make a quick kudo about the set design, which varied from both simple to eloquent, and the designer handled them both well.

This was the first production I have seen at the Wings Theatre, and I congratulate them for acknowledging this work, which is a new play that had only been staged before (to crucial acclaim) at the Scottish Fringe Festival. Meanwhile, Blake is already busying his next project, which includes actors Sara Towber and Molly Church, with whom I shared a drink after we saw this play. I look forward to seeing them all work together.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Half Dozen I Shouldn't Like, But...

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet


We all have music that are guilty pleasures, that if the world knew we probably would turn various shades of red. Well, I’m coming out and saying these songs are all ones that I should be embarrassed to like, but screw it, I do. Don’t know why, but it is true.

Attached is the YouTube video link, but since these seem to be transitory at times, I’ve also included the URL.

1. Josie and the Pussycats – Three Small Words, 2001
Yes, I know this is just about as commercial as one can get (and if you saw the film, it really was one commercial after another), but the rhythm of the song and its catch phrase can get stuck in the brainpan, and in a positive way, if one lets it. Yes, I realize that this is one step above the Spice Girls (who I did not care for), but it is a fun song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsvpg963ej8

2. Franka Potente – Believe, 1998
The techno aspect of this would usually just turn me off, but the scream of “I belieeeeeve” keeps it interesting for me. Besides, Run Lola Run really was a great film.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAGBndvUhZA

3. Soulja Girl Remix Crank Dat Marta Train – Ludachrist
I’ve seen the original video this Atlanta subway confrontation is based on, and honestly, it is quite scary. But this souped up, edited version is hysterical. Is it racist? I hope not, because it seems much more Jerry Springer personality than racially based. Riding the New York subway I’ve seen worse than this, and of an entire rainbow.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeSKhcpLkIM

4. Chilliwack – My Girl, 1981
All my Canadian ami’s are probably losing respect for me even as you read this. While this was on the radio, it was the equivalent of the Knack’s “My Sharonna”: overplayed to being overbearing. Down here in the States, one tended not to hear it much (especially if one did not have MTV), so it was not killed for me. Yeah, it fits into the lame production excess of the period, but it still sticks with me.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yahBtp_1jWE

5. Karla DeVito – Cool World, 1981
Again, this was a commercial hit (both on the radio and a variation in a beer ad, I believe), but Mrs. Robbie Benson proves she can belt it out. Saw her at the Bottom Line in NY as part of an ensemble for an Ellie Greenwich show called Leader of the Pack, and she did some decent work in it.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIszQOGcpvI

6. Sarah Brightman - Pie Jesu, 1995
I know… Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ex-, Sarah Brightman. But this song, in which the video turns into an anti IRA treatise, is still beautiful. The kid is annoying as hell, but Sarah really does a splendid job here.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3mTANHqZLI

Monday, March 9, 2009

Trading the Travel Agent

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet


Some of the places I have worked have been fun, and one of which was at a trade magazine called Travel Agent. When I started there it was part of Fairchild Publications, which was bought out by Capital Cities/ABC, and after I left there a few years later, was owned by Disney, who siphoned it off to Conde Nast, who in turn closed it down.

CompuGraphic Verityper
My job was to take the writers’ hard copy and type it into a CompuGraphic Verityper and print it out as a long sheet, which was then pasted onto boards by others, and sent off to the printers. This was the mid-1980s, and the computer revolution was just around the corner. As Media Ecology theory teaches, when a new technology is introduced to a culture, it does not change any one thing, it changes everything.

When I joined the company, it was ensconced in a building around 52 Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, but we moved to 53rd Street and 7th Avenue at one point after it was bought by Capital Cities/ABC. The bottom floor was (and still is) Lindy’s Cheesecakes, the second floor was ABC’s Credit Union, known as ABE, and we were on the third.

The company that transferred us to the new location was called Clancy, who are one of the top corporate movers in the city. Just before the transition stage, there were piles of huge boxes in the hallway, with the company name printed on them. One day, as I walked by one, I noticed someone had hand written in marker, “Ok Clancy, get the boys and surround the house.” Recognizing the Bugs Bunny reference, of course I put in the next line, “All right rabbit! Where’s Rocky? Where’s he hidin’?” In a third handwriting, there later appeared, “He’s not in this stove.” Subsequently, “Oh ho, he’s hidin’ in the stove, eh?” By the time we moved, the entire scene had been written out by a number of hands. No one ever mentioned who wrote what, but to me, that no one questioned it was as cool as the actual event.

My department was full of interesting people. For one, my boss was a bit of a flake, and was in a punk band called Not the Gabors. While she was generally okay, she was not exactly on the ball. For example, she once hired someone incompetent simply because the woman was a body builder, never mind the lack of any kind of either experience or desire to learn. All of us had to pull her weight to keep on an even level, and as we were not paid for overtime, this was sometimes troubling considering what we were paid. One time, the boss-lady with the spiked bleached hair asked me how she was, as a boss, which seemed to me a silly question to ask an employee. Maybe how she could be better, but to rate her put me in an awkward position. What I finally answered, which was not what she expected but was totally honest, was, “Well, I’ve had worse.” I was kind of a smartass back then, so I got away with the passive-aggressive unofficial review.

One of my funnier coworkers was a Latino man named Ricky. He had married incredibly young, and at the age of 19 when I met him, he was already married and had two daughters. Fascinated with the military, he was seriously thinking of joining the Army if and when he left. He had this bit where, if there was someone around, he would hold his head and moan, like he had a headache, and when the person asked him what was wrong, he would answer, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just a flashback to ‘Nam.” This would always crack me up, because he was around 8 years old when that “war” ended. It was even better when he’d get sympathetic responses from people who were just reacting and not thinking.

The only person in our department at our level that was not in our clique (other than Mz Bodybuilder) was Harold, who pasted up boards. He was tall, lanky, and, well, honestly not too bright, though saddest of all he did not seem to know it. Being the somewhat abrasive punker (with a heart of gold) at the time, I played Harold like an instrument. For example, I shared a room with him and another paste-up artist, the fun and wacky Lynn. While I usually baffled Lynn with my obscure references and tendency toward non-sequiters, she had a lot more on the ball. Harold liked to insult me because I confused him (I would tell the following joke: Rene Descartes is on a train. Steward comes up and says, “Would you like something to drink?” Descartes answers, “I think not,” and then disappears. Harold called the joke – and me – stupid because he did not understand it). When Harold insulted me, most of the time I just let it slide. Once, over lunch, Lynn asked me why I let him get away with it. What I explained was I had nothing to prove to either him, or to Lynn, because she knew me better, and because I would respond when I felt it was worth the effort. This happened occasionally, such as:

In November 1985, I bought a camcorder. It was one of those big, bulky VHS ones that weighted 7 pounds, but was then near the top-of-the-line. While showing the camera off to a couple of the female writers, Harold chuckled and said in a nasty tone trying to embarrass me in front of everyone, “Do you ever take videos of yourself naked?” Without missing a beat or even looking up, I said, “No, I don’t have a wide angle lens,” and then kept on explaining the features of the camera. The writers, however, had a great laugh at Harold right there. And that Harold didn’t get what I meant made it all the funnier to them (and me). I gave Lynn a look like, “See what I mean?” She smiled back as if to say, “Got it!”

Harold loved Top 10 radio, and would listen to it out loud on his personal portable radio, which was on a table right next to me. This would drive me nuts, and I let him know my displeasure. Sometimes, when Harold walked out of the room, I would just change it to oldies station WCBS (when it actually played oldies), which drove him crazy back. Of course, Lynn, who was much more open minded about music than I was, witnessed and enjoyed the power struggle, while at the same time, it also stressed her out.

At some point, some crappy Huey Lewis song (crappy + Huey Lewis = redundant) came on and I commented out loud, in disgust, “Ugh! Huey Lewis and the News!” At that point, I walked out of the room and went to the bathroom to escape the drivel. When I emerged, Harold was waiting for me in the still corridor. He was visibly angry (he definitely had issues in the rage department). “I’m tired of you insulting my music all the time, Francos!”

“Let me fill you in on something, Harold,” I calmly asserted, not backing down. “If I was in a room by myself and a Huey Lewis and the News song came on, I would say, out loud, ‘Ugh! Huey Lewis and the News.’ It has nothing do to with you; it has to do with bad music. Get over yourself.” Then I walked back to my desk.

Harold was fired when he nearly got into a fistfight with one of the upper bosses. He often talked about how happy he had been working at his brother’s car detailing business when he was younger, and I hope he went back to it and is at peace.

As the technology changed, my job slowly vanished more and more. We received Macs and started using layout software rather than typesetting. The layout people went first. As more of the writers, especially the newer ones, typed their own copy directly into the computer, my typesetting coworkers were being let go. Until I was the only one left. Eventually, my job turned into doing the ad layouts for the entire magazine on the computer. This took me and hour-and-a-half, once a week, on Tuesday. The rest of the time there was nothing for me to do, but I was required to sit at my desk. I tried reading, but doing that for 8 hours a day became tiresome. There wasn’t even an Internet to roam. I was bored to tears, and became very agitated.

After a month of this, I asked my boss to lay me off because the rule at the time was that if I quit, I was not eligible for unemployment (same if I was fired). A layoff was the only way to get it. I carefully explained that it was more cost efficient to let me go than to keep in a room by myself (which could be used by a writer or editor). It was agreed, and I was gratefully and gracefully gone.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ming and Memphis, two/too cool cats

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos

Memphis and MingSitting here in the vetenerian’s office leads me to think of pets. Presently one of our 10-year-old cats has a recurring bladder infection, and this is her third time here.

I never really had a pet before our present cats; my dad did not believe in keeping animals in the house. I do not remember what was my mom’s opinion on the subject; I just knew we did not have pets. Yes, we did have a pair of turtles (named Romeo and Juliet) and a couple of goldfish over the years of my early youth, but they never lasted longer than a week. Usually, I would just play with other people’s cats and dogs, such as my Aunt Elsie’s pooch, Rusty.

Mostly I was a dog person. Dogs always seemed to appreciate affection better, but everyone knows the differences that have been covered so many times. I won’t bore you with that, but it should come as no surprise that since I have my cats, I’ve become much more open to both.

While visiting relations that lived a distance away in 1998, we learned about a litter of kittens born under the back stairs of the neighbors where we were staying. Seems the mother disappeared a couple of days after the birth, never to return. Locals adopted two of the kittens, and one or two died. This left another pair.

Our relation would go over and give them milk when she could, but at less than 3 weeks, the owners of the house decided that when the kittens opened their eyes, they were old enough to start eating real food, and give them some cans. The cats walked over the open tins looking for appropriate food. They were starving.

During this visit, I was upstairs when I heard crying from below. Going down to investigate, there was my partner and relations, sobbing over the cats. Our daughter held the two of them in one hand. Though 3 weeks old, they were tiny and thin, and it was pretty obvious that this was probably their last day.

MemphisThen my partner said to me exactly what I knew she was going to say: Think we can take them home and rescue them?

I had no choice but to say yes, but there was no doubt it was the right decision, right then and there.

First thing I did was to go to the mall. I stopped by a big pharmacy where I bought a sterile glass eyedropper. Next was to the pet store to buy some cans of Mother’s Milk. Honestly, I had never heard of it before, but my partner filled me in on what was needed.

We put the cats into a newspaper-lined VCR box, and on the long drive home, my partner kept feeding them from the dropper. At one point, the smaller one, who practically had no face at all, climbed onto her shoulder to sleep in the sun. The bigger one (relatively) was so weak she would walk a couple of steps and have to rest, was soon roaming around the box. We knew that they would probably be okay.

One of my partner’s earliest books was TS Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats , which she had memorized in grade school. She named the bigger cat Tugger (short for Rum Tum Tugger) and the smaller one Mephistopheles.

MingWhen we arrived home, we returned to a full house. There was a couple visiting from Berlin, and a two cousins visiting from out West. And all were cat friendly. Time zones worked out well for us, because the Berliners were six hours ahead, and the cousins were two hours behind, so the kittens had nearly around-the-clock attention for their first week in Brooklyn. Everyone was grateful, and the cats started to fill out. They are both long hair calicos and despite their puniness, they were quite pretty, and affectionate. Of course, they as both females, as nearly all calicos are; seems the gene that causes calico is not present in males.

A couple of days later, I said to my partner, “Y’know, I’m not that fond of the name Mephistopheles. Even beyond that it is the name of the devil, it’s certainly a mouthful. What are we going to call her for short, ‘Memphy’? Yuck.”

Eye of Horus
She thought about it and said, “Well, what about Memphis?” The kitten has a marking around one of her yes that is similar to the Eye of Horus. We had been to the original Memphis in Egypt, and loved the whole mythology, so that worked. Plus, being the homeland of rock and roll here (Cleveland? Bah!), Memphis it was! Isis would be proud.

After a couple of more days, I said, “Y'know, I’m not that fond of the name Tugger, either. It’s so common, like Rover or Spot. Boring!”

My partner thought about this, and said, “Well, she’s had the name for over a week, won’t she find it confusing?”

“I have never seen her respond to it, yet. And better now, that a year later.”

And here is the weird part: she picked up this tiny, month old kitten and said, “Okay, what do you want to be called? The kitty, which had not yet made a sound at all, answered with a “meeew.”

With a smile, my partner smiled, and put the cat down, who started to walk away. “She wants to be called Ming.” When she said the name, the newly christened Ming turned around as if to say, “You called?” Spooky.

MemphisTheir personalities have developed over the years, and though they are womb-sisters, they are quite different in taste and temperament. Memphis is super friendly and likes to meet people at the door, whereas Ming is more reticent at first. Ming has an “elevator butt” when scratched behind the tail, Memphis likes to lick your finger so you can rub the hard to reach part at the top of her head. Memphis likes to drink out of the bathroom tap, and Ming prefers the toilet. Ming likes strings dragged along the floor; Memphis likes to chase toys that are tossed. They chase each other down the hall, and sleep together at nap times, but never during night-sleep.

Now they are 10 years old, and hairy at middle age. Ming is the strong, older sister. With Memphis, she has favored her hind legs since the beginning, but she loves to run in a slightly crooked way. But Memphis has developed a urinary tract infection 3 times now in the last year and a half, and having to give her injections has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do with them. But she and her sister have taken care of us over the years, and I am willing to do the same.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Graphic Violence in the Cinema: A Brief History

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
Videos from the Internet


The following is a paper I wrote for an expository writing class in 1992. Of course it is outdated, but I still like it, so I am posting it here. Note how many of these films mentioned either have been remade, or are about to be.

Violence in the cinema is hardly a new concept; its presence has been felt from the first narrative film.

In 1903, Edison and company released The Great Train Robbery, a western shoot-‘em-up involving, naturally, the robbing of a train. What was interesting in a social context was the last scene in the single-reel film (approximately 12 minutes). The shot opened up on a waist-high profile of one of the robbers. He faces the camera, pulled out a pistol, and fired directly at the camera, hence the “audience.” The concept of the cinema was so new, what reportedly occurred was that members of the audience invariably ducked, and some even fainted.
The Great Train Robbery clip: start at 4:05

Graphic violence came to light in 1929, when Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel released La Chien Andalou. In s scene toward the beginning of the film, a man approached a woman from behind. The action is inter-cut between the man and the woman, and the moon that is slit by a cloud. Mirroring this, the man proceeds to slice the woman’s eyeball with a straight razor in extreme close-up. She is intact in the next scene, but the surrealistic film is shocking, even to this day.
La Chien Andalou trailer:

With the advent of the Hayes Commission (an internal morals board created in the early 1930s led by the Postmaster General as a reaction to the response by religious and citizens groups to the violent gangster films of the period, such as Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and especially Scarface), Hollywood was reined in while the rest of the world continued to show violence in a relatively graphic nature. An example would be the samurai films of Akira Kaurasowa, like Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth), The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo.
Throne of Blood trailer:

In the United States, violence once again took a tack to the graphic extreme in the late 1950s when particular film companies no longer agreed to bring their films to the mainstream Board. The maverick filmmakers whose production companies were not affiliated with the Hollywood “machine” made these. The leaders of this movement were Samuel Z. Arkoff (producer) and Roger Corman (director), who created their own company, titled American International Pictures. They became a film factory, creaking out “B” pictures by the dozens each year, sometimes filming them in less than a week (1).

Herschell Gordon Lewis
In the field of graphically violent films, the “grandfather” of this genre was a real estate agent in Ft. Lauderdale named Herschell Gordon Lewis. With an extremely minimal budget, he co-produced (with David Friedman) and directed a film titled Blood Feast (1964), which contained no acting talent to speak of (though two Playboy centerfold models were featured), little, if nonsensical plot, and many body parts torn from their host (leg, arm, tongue, scalp). The film was distributed to second-=run theaters, drive-in, and art houses. It sold out wherever it played and made a lot of money. His follow-up films in the 1960s included The Gore-Gore Girls, The Wizard of Gore, Color Me Blood Red and 2,000 Maniacs, the latter of which is considered a classic to genre fans. Unknowingly, Lewis has single-handedly created a new subgenre, the gore film, a term taken form his films.
Blood Feast trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJ2t0et8wWc

Producer Dave Friedman and star Mal Arnold, Blood Feast
The gore genre had laid its foundations. It did not really pick up momentum until the end of the decade and through the beginning of the next. At that time, there were three seminal films that appeared from unknown filmmakers that helped project the independent production field further into the public’s eye.

Kyra Schon, littlest zombie (see image behind), The Night of the Living Dead
The first release was filmed in black-and-white due to its budget, and was produced and shot in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2). Directed by George A. Romero, who had previously worked on industrial films until this production, Night of the Living Dead was released to a startled, yet receptive audience in 1968. The story of flesh-eating zombies was loosely based on the classic Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend (3). Although it cost a mere $60,000 to produce, the film has made millions of dollars and is still shown regularly in revival houses, midnight shows, and on college campuses.
Night of the Living Dead trailer

Gunnar "Leatherface" Hansen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The second film to produce a profound effect on the newly emerging genre was directed by yet another unknown named Tobe Hooper. His film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, actually shows very little blood, but it is astonishingly brutal in its implied violence. For once, the terrorizing was not by ghosts, zombies, or other supernatural means and beings, but rather by an everyfamily. It was also shocking because it was based (again, loosely) on a real-life incident perpetrated by Edward Gein. In Minnesota, during the mid-1950s, Gein killed an unknown number of people, dug up graves, used human leather (including a “face mask”), and participated in cannibalism. (4) As with Night of the Living Dead, this film was at first a curiosity, and then became a cult favorite.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre trailer:

David Hess, Last House on the Left
The last of the three films of this growth period was not as popular as the previous two, and practically disappeared until video made its appearance (released first in an edited version and eventually uncut, pun not intended). Still the film had enough of an effect to make a dent in the genre and create an advertising slogan that is still famous: “To keep from fainting, repeat to yourself, ‘It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie…’.” Although it too was claimed to be based on a true incident, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left was actually founded on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In this story, two teen girls are kidnapped and brutally killed by a trio of escaped “lunatics” (one being a woman) who, in turn, are butchered for revenge by the parents of one of the victims (a morality tale).
Last House on the Left trailer:

The latter two of these “reality-based” films set a precedent that would start a brand new subgenre, which is described below.

John Carpenter, the director of Halloween, took the serial killer to a new dimension of nearly mythic proportions. His assassin, The Shape (nee Michael Myers), could be wounded, but could not be killed (for, as the studio learned, if the killer does there could be no sequels). The film kick started the subgenre known as slasher films, the basic premise of which is as follows: a group, usually teens, gather at a physically restrictive space (e.g., a house, camp, island), participate in sexual activity, and then die in gruesome and graphic manners (arrows, hatchets, machetes, etc.). The killer is eventually “stopped” by a female or child-like figure (innocence triumphant).
Halloween trailer:

The unstoppable killer was further extended into the psyche with a new and usurping slaughterer, Jason Voorhees (quickly shortened to just Jason), the hockey mask wearing, machete-bearing “monster”) in the Friday, the 13th series. (5)
Friday, the 13th trailer:

Occasionally, the major studios would put their “toe in the water” and produce a film with excessive violence. Some of these included Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1968), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1975). The leading auteur director of mainstream gore of this period was Sam Peckinpaw. He came to prominence in 1968 with The Wild Bunch, a western shoot-em-up to the extreme. Thousands of bullets flew and people died with blood literally spraying out of their wounds, usually in slow motion. (6) Peckinpaw’s other films, such as Straw Dogs, are artistically sound, yet excessively violent in some moments.
The Wild Bunch trailer:

Most of the mainstream films that approached the violent genre were morality tales, showing the results of living an “evil” existence outside the status quo. With rare exceptions, most of the larger budget films tended to place the violence during the climatic conclusions, whereas the independent releases were usually increasingly relentless throughout.

What made the independent films of this genre so successful was catering to its audience (demographically teenage/young adult males), pushing ever further the barriers of taste and sensibilities than had previously been cinematographically tried, enticing the audience with “what will they try next?” While the studios were still mostly reined by the fading system, the freewheeling indies went for the “juggler” (pun intended) by not worrying about “art” and star power, being more character (villain) driven, and using that money for effects.

Eventually, in the 1980s, major studio started to catch on to the financial possibilities of the gore and “splatter” genres. They entered the foray with easy, careful steps, which would eventually be coined somewhere as “sequelities.” Halloween II was followed by Halloween III (7), as were Friday, the 13th II (8) through Friday, the 13th VII. (9)

During this phase in the 1980s, while reviewing one of the Friday, the 13th sequels on WNBC-TV local news in New York City, critic Pia Lindstrom asked why these kinds of trashy films keep being made. She went on to answer her own question by commenting that the film has made much more money than the recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

Paramount, one of the larger studios, struck out and released one of the most popular films of this genre, West Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1983). This was also quickly followed by a string of (connected) sequels, each marginally more of less financially successful than the previous productions. A segment of Entertainment Tonight, which was taped during the Second Annual Horror Awards on WABC-TV (also New York City) during 1991, Robert Englund (10) stated that most of the major studios released films of this nature through satellite subsidiaries to keep their distance (and reputation) from them, and yet used the money raised from the low budget, high income films to finance and make up for the losses incurred by expensive flops, such as Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.
A Nightmare on Elm Street trailer:

As the motion picture industry increasingly moves both physically and spiritually away from Hollywood, the level of acceptance of these films is increasingly making its presence felt in the mainstream cinema. Proof of this is Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 Academy Award winner of many awards, including Best Picture. The film includes scenes of cannibalism and the shearing of human skin (Ed Gein writ large, indeed).
Silence of the Lamb trailer:

With this acceptance of graphic violence by mainstream America and Hollywood, as always there are the fringes of cinema, which is now presented in the field of the home video market. As the marketplace for the distribution of off-center films slowly dries up with theaters only showing single features, and with the closing of many art houses and drive-ins, the route many independent films now take is straight to the home via video. Companies like Full Moon Films (Puppet Master, Subspecies) and Tembre Productions (Abominations, Riot in Redneck County) are examples of the present leaders in the direct-home market.
Puppet Master trailer:

Markets and tastes change, and the mass media follows. There will, however, always be people on the fringes of the masses, whose tastes need to be catered to by some means. As video is now reliable and handy, those tastes are being met, and all is happy in the imaginary land of adrenalin, cinematic fear, and especially violence.

Footnotes:
1. Little Shop of Horrors and The Terror, for example. In the first case, Roger Corman learned that a set from another film would be up for a week, so he had the film written in four days and then shot it in 2-1/2 days. Rumor was that Corman had use of another set for a week, and of actor Boris Karloff, so he told his art department if they could come up with a good “one-sheet” poster, he’d make a film using the set and the actor. The poster is arguably the best product of this endeavor, being a close-up of Karloff’s face made up of writing bodies, though the film itself made no sense whatsoever. Coincidentally, both of these films had Jack Nicholson as a principle.
2. Whose nickname was “City of the Living Dead.”
3. Also based on this book were the films The Last Man on Earth (1956) and The Omega Man, respectively starring Vincent Price and Charlton Heston.
4. Other films based on this case include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Deranged (1973).
5. In the first film of the series, it was actually Jason’s mother who was doing the killing, and in the fourth sequel, a teenager who was possessed by the “evil spirit” of Jason. Jason was “revived” by lightening in the sixth film in the series.
6. In their television show, the group Monty Python’s Flying Circus did a hysterical spoof of Peckinpaw’s style of filmmaking, called “The Tea Set,” in which a miss-tossed tennis racket cases blood and limbs to fly – in slow motion, of course.
7. The latter of which actually had nothing to do with the two previous releases. This precedent has been keenly applied in the video realm. Many so-called sequels are actually original films, but are titled as sequels to cash in on the previous film’s success. As examples, there are Curse II and The Howling II through The Howling VII, none of which are actually sequels of each other.
8. The first true appearance of Jason as a killer.
9. Eventually, the studios started using clumsy subnames to distinguish the films, such as Friday, the 13th V: A New Beginning or Friday, the 13th VII: Jason’s New York Adventure.
10. The actor who played popular Freddie Kruger, the central character/villain of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Bibliography:
Naha, Ed. The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Third Edition (New York: Arco Publishing, Inc.), 1992.
Phantom of the Movies. The Phantom’s Ultimate Video Guide (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.), 1989.
Stanley, John. Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide, Third Edition (Pacifica, CA: Creatures At Large Press.), 1988.
Vale, V. and Andrea Juno. Number 10. Incredibly Strange Films (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications), 1986.