Saturday, October 3, 2009


(Originally published in the October edition of The Scene)

Life is shit, eat a bullet.

This is what appears to be the running philosophy throughout the mid 80s no-budget cult fixture 'Combat Shock'. The film is set in New York's Staten Island at a time when things where in a prime state of moral and aesthetic decay. This richly textured hellhole is the current residence/self inflicted prison of the tale's sorry protagonist, Frankie Dunlan, a filth and sweat laden Vietnam vet whose every waking hour plays out like a litany of all the things anyone clearheaded would try to sidestep in life. Frankie lives an utterly impoverished existence with his fat slob wife and Agent Orange tainted offspring in a fully soiled apartment. Income is less than sparse, the rent is woefully past due and the plumbing is an atrocity all unto itself. Faced with a family unit that is tired, irritable and starving in the face of a lumpy carton of sour milk and precious little else, Frankie takes it upon his hopeless self to venture out into the bleak surroundings to make one last, half-hearted stab at salvation.

Frankie's trek through the bargain rate Dante's Inferno that is his 'hood is peppered with the customary stumbling blocks of junkies, whores and the small time thugs that lord over them all. Between being roughed up and held up, the poor sod finds nothing but the negative in relation to employment options and, in turn, hope. Now, unless you happen to possess serious mental aberrations of your own, this synopsis is not going to read as 'feel-good' entertainment but, rather, an experimental endurance test devised to tap into a certain facet of the human psyche that lingers just outside the boarders of popular interest.

The project was brought to life on location and in complete guerrilla fashion by one Buddy Giovinazzo. Giovinazzo is yet another textbook case of the brand of D.I.Y. directors that seemed to live for (and, comparably, thrive by) the struggle of pure independent filmmaking in a time before the prevalence of such alternative distribution routes as DVD and the Internet. Sadly, as is the case with such peers as Jim 'Deadbeat at Dawn' VanBeeber, this resulted in a greatly minimized level of creative output as money conscious industry types were not exactly fawning over the concept of making product of a grim and uncompromising nature. Giovinazzo scraped and scavaged and tapped friends and family alike to make his stubbornly ugly vision come alive. His real life sibling Ricky inherited the lead role and proud brother Buddy works an epic level of pathos from every inch of his ragged, gaunt frame. He elects sturdy (if admittedly unpolished) performances all around with several key characters succeeding in pulling of some truly unnerving behavior (one stand apart moment involving a seriously jones afflicted junkie using a rusty coat hanger to open a vein deserves extra kudos for its genuinely unsettling qualities) and he even provides his non-hero with a gentile little moment of simple banter with a young girl, nevermind the fact that girl turns out to be a prostitute.

Following the completion of 'Comat Shock', Giovinazzo struck a distribution deal with the beloved low-rent Troma Studios (who retitled it from the original 'American Nightmares'). Troma then added Vietnam war stock footage and trimmed the copious violence to appease the omnipotent MPAA and earn a marquee friendly 'R' rating. They slapped a grossly misleading 'Rambo/Missing in Action' themed poster and stuffed it into any grindhouse dive that would take it. Now I guess it would be overstating the obvious when I point to the fact that 'Combat Shock' didn't become anything close to a box office phenom upon initial release, instead it had to gestate in the underground in the now familiar pattern that slowly builds a following for a film before earning it a second life as a 'special edition' DVD.

To their credit, Troma have packed the two-disc, 25th anniversary 'Tromasterpiece Collection' release with many significant goodies. Beside both the edited 'Combat Shock' cut of the film, there is the slightly longer (and rawer) 'American Nightmares' director's cut as well as a new documentary charting the butterfly effect the film has had in the independent film community (directors like John McNaughton, Richard Stanley and Jim VanBebber chime in on the subject) plus several early shorts and music videos (of Buddy and Ricky's band 2000 A.D.) from Buddy G's archives.

Apart from working the system to largely no avail to get other projects to fruition, Buddy Giovinazzo has also made a minor name as an author a collage film instructor and as a steady hand in German television (he jumped ship from America in the 1990s and settled in Berlin ). The man has managed to finish a handful of films as well. Several, including 'No Way Home' with Tim Roth and 'The Unscarred' are as of yet unseen by me, but I shall do my best to reverse that. His latest offering 'Life Is Hot in Cracktown', adapted from his own short story collection, just arrived on disc last month and gives full indication that Ol' Buddy has not lost his touch by a damn sight.

This film features a labyrinthine intersection of story lines involving street gangstas, deviants, addicts and even a blue collar married couple to throw us all for a loop. Giovinazzo as apparently assembled a bit more money and a rather impressive cast (Lara Flynn Boyle, Illeana Douglas, RZA, Shannyn Sossamon to name a few) to further address the ills of a low income, crime infected New York environment. He again displays a fearless take on the less glamorous side(s) of human nature but still finds time to let a little light shine through the grime. The best realized sub-scenario in all the pimping, thuggin' and melodrama comes care an awkward yet, oddly, sweet romance held between a pre-op tranny (a potent Kerry Washington) and her/his (uh?) eternally doped up Beau (Desmond Harrington). It really is their saga that proves the most endearing. In the end it just goes to show that the folks that should be behind the camera rolling it are fairly often left to fend for their own means and that helps to cause the art of film to become stifled, stilted or abandoned all together.

So, genuine film lovers not afraid to get some soot on their hands, step up.

This Buddy Giovinazzo fella needs your support.

Hunt 'em down....'Combat Shock'

'Life Is Hot in Cracktown'


I'm pretty certain the last thing the cinematic world desperately needs is another Hurricane Katrina documentary, so why not two?

First we have 'Trouble the Water' ( which separates itself from the rest simply on the strength of its central focus. Young, married Lower 9th Ward lifers Kimberly and Scott Roberts hooked up with filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who've had a helping hand in several Michael Moore projects) at a shelter in the mid state Louisiana city of Alexandria. Meshing footage Kim snagged pre/during/shortly following the now legendary natural disaster with their personal hardships set against the dumbfounding broader picture of the collapse of order across the Gulf Coast, the film serves as one of the most concise, ground zero depictions of life in the wake of an unmitigated catastrophe. We tag along for the bumpy ride as the couple must leave their homestate for the first time in their short lives and find a way to retrieve and reassemble the scattered pieces of their lives sent flying to the four winds thanks more to an infamous failure of politics than the so-called wrath of god or whatever other nonsense the truly soulless among us prefer to believe.

Unlike the more extensive investigative works on this very same basic subject (i.e. Spike Lee's to-end-all magnum opus 'When the Levees Broke') this film triumphs not so much from the overburdened rehashing of the disaster itself that has now become sadly cliché (oh! the floating dead bodies and overturned vehicles, good lord the horror!) but by giving the screen over to the Roberts's themselves, to let them convey in words and gestures just how staggering an impact this misfortune of time, tide and human error has had upon them and the place they have always called home. Kimberly earns her right as the film's natural star as she makes her way through the rigors of recovery with a moxie that could have only been honed from her years on the street hustlin' and, later, bumpin' rhymes (she goes by the MC tag 'Black Kold Madina'). It's from this latter skill set that she provides the film with one of its strongest moments, an on the spot rendition of one of her own tracks, 'Amazing', which effortlessly fills in personal back story details with an articulate economy most screenwriters would die for.

It comes as no real surprise that this film managed to garner both a fairly substantial big screen berth and a Best Documentary nomination from the Oscar crowd, it is a powerful and important slice of (a greatly disrupted) life, a sharp piece of social criticism and ultimately an affirmation of strength through perseverance. Recommended to those whose range of compassion branches well beyond their own comfortable surroundings.

Similarly there is the slightly more scatter shot 'Kamp Katrina' ( which plays more like an often dysfunctional group home movie then a polished feature. The locus this time 'round is a Bywater community (aka-Upper 9th Ward) fixture known as Mrs Pearl who opens her back yard to several wayward types in the fairly immediate aftermath of the big K. Her generosity benefits a mangy gathering of decrepit New Orleans standbys, drinkers, druggers and victimized dregs just looking for a place to 'heal' (don't miss the weathered lass with the removable eye). The movie burns most of its scant running time on various arguments and lapses in solid judgment, basically a low rent reality show meets soap opera thing with far more literal grit on its teeth. One thing that really works here (at least for my eyes) is a fair measure of solid visual representation of the rather bent charm of the Bywater neighborhood. I have ventured down its crooked streets dozens of times and crossed paths with colorful people and places on countless occasion, so it was kind of a fleeting thrill to go there again, if only care the confines of my television set. Recommended for N.O.L.A. or Katrina purists or if you stumble upon it by chance at the library, otherwise, don't try too hard.

Another month laid to rest like Patrick Swayze.

Wish me better luck next time, eh?