'Time Warp Drive-In' returns with monthly marathons. Classics and cult faves to screen at Summer Drive-In
By JOHN BEIFUSS "Commercial Appeal"
After a successful test run in October, the “Time Warp Drive-In” concept returns Saturday, April 26, to the Malco Summer Drive-In with a program of music and “blaxploitation” films dubbed “Soulful Cinema.”
The quadruple feature -- which begins at dusk with “Hustle & Flow” (2005), continues with “Purple Rain” (1984) and “Super Fly” (1972), and concludes with Pam Grier in “Coffy” (1973) -- is the first of a series of monthly Saturday “Time Warp Drive-In” events that will continue through October.
The brainchild of two of Memphis’ more activist cult-movie devotees, filmmaker Mike McCarthy and Black Lodge Video co-owner Matt Martin, the “Time Warp Drive-In” concept is an attempt to bring back to the outdoor screen some of the classic and genre films that were staples of the drive-in circuit during the heyday of the so-called “passion pits,” when dusk-to-dawn “horrorthons” and other gimmicks were used to attract teenager and other movie thrill-seekers.
The Time Warp Drive-In schedule isn’t dedicated to “B” movies, however; masterpieces by Stanley Kubrick will be screened along with such less lionized fare as Roger Corman’s biker-gang epic, “The Wild Angels,” with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. Many of the films to be shown are hits with broad appeal, in hopes that the Time Warp concept will be a success and become an annual series.
The first Time Warp Drive-In event was a hit, attracting more than 400 paid admissions to the Summer Drive-In for an Oct. 26 “Shocktober” marathon that included “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Evil Dead II,” “The Return of the Living Dead” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Malco officials were impressed: October is near the end of the drive-in season, and more people attended the Time Warp event than were at the other three screens combined.
Unlike some drive-ins, the Summer always has shown prestige pictures along with youth and exploitation films. When the drive-in opened in 1966, it was the jewel of the many outdoor theaters operated by Malco at the time, and was advertised as being “As Modern as Tomorrow.” Now, with four screens, it’s the area’s last drive-in, but still “modern,” thanks to its digital projectors.
Martin can relate to the Summer’s last-man-standing status. He and Bryan Hogue opened Black Lodge Video at 831 S. Cooper in 2000, and now it’s just about the region’s only movie rental store, having outlasted Blockbuster and the rest of the big-money competition. He said the Time Warp Drive-In concept is a way to encourage people to return to the drive-in, and add some variety to their moviegoing. “It’s a whole different moviegoing experience,” he said. “You can make it as social or intimate as you want.”
Tickets to Time Warp Drive-In screenings are $10 per person.
Below, you’ll find the Time Warp Drive-In schedule for May through October. Changes are possible, but as of now, these are the films that will be shown.
Don tests the movies for Time Warp Drive-In with JMM
Photo by Chad Allen Barton
Summer Drive-In Memphis 1971
Poster designed by Lauren Rae Holterman
Poster designed by Lauren Rae Holterman
TIME WARP SCHEDULE 2014
SATURDAY, APRIL 26
Hustle & Flow
SATURDAY, MAY 24
GUERRILLA MONSTER FILMS (20th anniversary)
The Memphis Cult Films of Mike McCarthy
Elvis Meets The Beatles (short)
The Sore Losers
SATURDAY, JUNE 28
HELL ON WHEELS
Two Lane Blacktop
SATURDAY, JULY 26
A REAL HORROR SHOW
Stanly Kubrick Birthday Party!
A Clockwork Orange
2,001, A Space Odyssey
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16
SUMMER FUN WITH ELVIS
Elvis Tribute Film Night
Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Viva Las Vegas (1966)
King Creole (1958)
Elvis on Tour (1972)
SATURDAY, AUGUST 30
The Wild One
The Wild Angels
She Devils On Wheels
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 27
HERE COMES HALLOWEEN!
The Weird World of Tim Burton
Pee Wee's Big Adventure
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 25
Evil Dead: Army of Darkness
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
House of a 1,000 Corpses
Dusk Til Dawn
Poster designed by Lauren Rae Holterman
Screen your short film during Intermission at Time Warp Drive-In
Guidelines for entry into the Memphis Underground Film Festival:
Photo by RICK O'BRIEN
This event is sponsored by the Memphis Underground Film Festival (MUFF) which....
If I could run wild in the streets, odds are, I'd be shooting a very loose plot around it, just to see it projected every month on Screen number 4 during Time Warp Drive-In at the Summer Drive-In: Cars: Kubrick, Motorcycles, Horror; there's lot's of theme's to explore through October.
For many an awkward filmmaker, the question has often been "How do I put my stuff in MUFF?" Now that question has a practical application.
Since I wouldn't have an opportunity to contribute to MUFF every month, I decided to turn the entire month of May into my own private MUFF. Call it "Mikes Underground Film Finale". The Memphis Flyer called it "A love-in". It was definitely my version of Memphis in May. After 20 years of underground filmmaking in Memphis, it's good to be king...
I went to bed this morning when the sun was rising. Last night, In Memphis, at Time Warp Drive-In over 250 people had shown up to watch some of my (basically) non-commercial films dating back to 1994; four features and one short. One of those special people was my daughter Hanna - who until last night had never seen her daddies exploitation movies. I couldn't have picked a better way to officially end the run of my low-budget esoteric Guerrilla Monster Films. It's time to do something new - or be accepted within a larger market. My 20th century styled "cult" films were influenced by the people who broke down sexual repressions in cinema starting back in the fifties; Russ Meyer, David F. Friedman, and Bunny Yeager, to name a few. This morning after three hours of sleep, I received word that Bunny Yeager had passed. I'm so happy to have known her. I'm happy that Bunny photographed my starlets (and continued to photograph Francean Fanny since she lived in the Miami area). I once told Bunny I thought she was more beautiful than Bettie Page - whom she had photographed and helped 'discover'. She scoffed and said that was "crazy talk", but I still believe that today. Must be those cheekbones. Thanks Bunny for giving us your time and talent and for being the most American of legendary artists: under the surface, full of contradictions; the kind you have to find on your own. JMM
Bunny Yeager and JMM, Miami 2003. Photo by Victoria Renard
Shut Down, Vol. 1
I'm ending Guerrilla Monster Films.
It's been 20 years. That's enough time spent in the underground.
I don't want to be known for being unknown. And though Cigarette Girl just got a nice dvd release, let's face it - I finished that one back in 2009. I wasn't kidding when I said Cori Dials is the "last starlet".
It's taken awhile to sink in, but being poor is becoming more obvious to me. I don't blame Guerrilla Monster. Naturally, I blame mankind and their current bland palette. Perhaps it's because my kids are getting older and wiser. There is also some bitterness here. I can pontificate all day long on how American pop culture is dead, but that doesn't stop the misery of living through it - and waiting for something to happen (that you already predicated wouldn't happen) - because the model you worship no longer exists in the mass market.
The fat lady may be singing, but the punk rocker ain't crying.
I'm writing new screenplays for films with real budgets. Will they get made? I haven't a clue. These screenplays, though rife with formula, hopefully carry artistic weight - but not too much to fuck it up. If I can't use my connections to make these films happen, then I don't need to be making films.
I can always draw these ideas as comic books. That is the real creative direction I am taking. I'm good at things you can't make money at, but drawing has always been instinctual to me. I need to draw to stay sane. Lately, I'm looking for self-therapy and I think drawing is my only answer.
By taking Guerrilla Monster away, it nows gives us something to talk about...
I rigged these towers to come down in 2014 cause that's the twenty year birthday of my little southern brain trust called Guerrilla Monster Films. If you are arriving late to the party, know that the keg is not empty and those people are not passed out on the lawn - but indeed are actually, really, dead.
Let me spell it out to you. I'm tired of being here. I gotta go home and get some rest. Don't worry. I can do more in my sleep than most of you can do wide awake. But when I'm dead, you better look out. That's when everyone is gonna get the invitation.
I'll give you meta-facts: My close friend and collaborator Wheat Buckley is having some dire health issues. H.G. Ray passed away from single cell carcinoma last November. Elvis died in 1977. And those collaborators that are alive are physically and/or emotionally distant. The analogy had always likened Guerrilla Monster to a rock and roll band. But if I got no rhythm section, why bother writing the songs?
How much machine gun fire can the monster stand, perched precariously on the ledge of mortality, without letting go - drifting for a moment. Within that moment is everything that is, and is about to be.
Was he dead when he let go - or did he die on the way down?
The legend is in the fall.
Twas reality killed the beast.
Poster designed by Lauren Rae Holterman
Shut Down, Vol. 2:
I was talking to a dumb-ass recently. It's something I often do. He was bragging about how he managed to tear down a building before the local preservationists could come after him (yeah, those preservationists are like ninja's). He was really bragging about how he had the power to take something down quickly, in this case; an old building sitting way down Beale Street. I told him that he was only going to be on earth for so long and that the old building was created to be here beyond him.
As if to say, 'you are a greedy asshole'.
Greedy assholes always hate preservationists cause we take the high road. It's a road they can't take because they only care about money. Don't get me wrong, there's money on our road. But it might be our grand children's money or their children's money. It's certainly not ours to spend. It's not ours to tear down.
Where history is remembered physically, there is a sense of place. Sense of place creates community. I always filmed in the ruins. I found no fault with the ruins. I identified with the ruins. I felt like a shaman standing in a devastated building that still had more strength than something new that was not built to last.
Nothing beats old Memphis and it should be preserved at any cost.
I showed up late to the 'Memphis as living history' party. I got here in 1984, began to unleash weird hard-to-follow masterpieces in 1994, had a son in 2004 that was also hard to keep up with (love you, John Marvel) and decided to pull a 'hail to grandpa' and end the thing in 2014. I should mention that daughter Hanna Mildred came along in 1999.
The wife had come along in 1989. Starlet Dawn Ashcraft is the sweetest thing you will ever meet and she gave me 10 years of tomfoolery and opportunities to succeed before we were to have our first kid. If god would only stop making starlets and horny investors.
Generally, I have met punk rock starlets inside historic structures like Sun Studio and other landmarks that carry a sense of place.These are all women who were born in the 20th Century (just like my daughter Hanna Mildred). I wanted to preserve these women as much as I want to save the Mid-South Coliseum, or even my soul.
Where does one put the historic marker for the demise of Guerrilla Monster Films?
I don't speak highly of historic markers. Not because I was left off of one, but because historic markers usually call attention to failure; the failure to preserve the thing they are describing. I would rather be exhumed by a hip middle class that has resurrected rock and roll a hundred years now.
I love a good ritual - and American pop culture rituals are the best: Form a band in your garage with your girlfriend. Make a stag loop with your girl friend. Draw funny pictures with your girl friend. You get the picture. Sex sells - but will your girlfriend buy it? And let's pray that she does, because in our current emasculated society, she holds the purse strings (as well as the apron strings and the g-strings).
Black & White posters by JMM
Shut Down, Vol. 3
Guerrilla Monster was just as faith-based as any church I know. Indeed, I am a card-carrying Universal Life Church minister (a somewhat worthless term). After twenty years in the exploitation racket, I figured I needed to get right with the lord - but I had never been baptized. As a man who had never 'come clean', I preferred the world of 'gone dirty'. I suspected some others might need this service as well.
I had used the caption "A baptizm by popcorn" back in 2004 for LOSERDOM, my ten year Guerrilla Monster anniversary show - but I never knew what it felt like to be baptized in popcorn (or baptized at all). I reached out to Malco Theater's to save me any popcorn they could spare - so that I could be spared. They did.
But it wasn't enough.
You see, my friend, my mother makes popcorn and I make movies. There's always a little bit of it around the house. Hell, she mails it to us!
So I added it into the mix.
Summer Drive-In: Saturday, May 24, 2014, I filled the kiddie pool with popcorn. I baptized myself first, just to make sure the "water" was safe. Actually, it was more salty than safe. Thank you, Malco Theaters for saving my soul at the last drive-in picture show in Memphis.
A note of curiosity. Only two men were baptized that night. The rest were women.
I guess that's why they call it heaven. There aren't any men there.
That's how we kicked off my retrospective at Time Warp Drive-In. How can I top my retrospective at a drive-in? Let alone, a Memphis drive-in? I consider this to be the last screening of my work in Memphis for some time - and with 203 paid admissions and around 260 people total, it is the highest attendance so far of any Time Warp this year (and we just got started).
My kids were there.
John Marvel is only 9 years old. He left before the screen got topless, near the end of Cigarette Girl. But I figured there was no better time for Hanna to see her old man's oeuvre. She's been taking French now for a couple of years and is also wise beyond her years. She was 14 months old in ELVIS MEETS THE BEATLES and, at ten years old, makes a cameo in CIGARETTE GIRL.
Around 3 a.m. Hanna witnessed SUPERSTARLET A.D.. Nervously, I thought to myself, "geez, when will these lesbian scenes stop?".
Turned out, it was Hanna's favorite of all my films. Perhaps it had something to do with the notion that her mother was onscreen and Hanna was inside her tummy at the time.
John Marvel's time is a-coming - and it's got be spectacular.
June 8, 2014
Here are some Guerrilla Monster items to look forward to this year. If you have any questions on now to attain these items for your collection, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Release of Cigarette Girl
Mike McCarthy’s Cigarette Girl hits the streets and headlines the Time Warp Drive-In.
by GREG AKERS
This weekend sees the climax of May's Mike McCarthy love-in. Friday night, May 23rd, Black Lodge Video hosts the DVD release party for Cigarette Girl, McCarthy's latest feature, first released in 2009 and remastered and handsomely packaged by Music+Arts Studio. The DVD includes a director's commentary from McCarthy, loads of special features, and a CD of Jonathan Kirkscey's brilliant score. The party starts at 9:30 p.m., and it will include live music from Mouserocket and Hanna Star (McCarthy's daughter).
Saturday night is the main event, with a marathon of McCarthy's films showcased just where they ought to be: at a drive-in. Time Warp Drive-In celebrates 20 years of Guerrilla Monster films with a screening of Cigarette Girl, Teenage Tupelo, The Sore Losers, Superstarlet A.D., Elvis Meets the Beatles, Midnight Movie, and more. Among the "more": live music from the Subtractions and popcorn baptisms (!).
Time Warp Drive-In is the work of McCarthy, Malco's Jimmy Tashie, and Black Lodge's Matthew Martin. They launched Time Warp Drive-In last Halloween season with a "Shocktober" screening of horror classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead 2.
"Let's have fun," McCarthy says of the concept. "I talk about the past a lot, but I'm actively living in the present and looking forward to the future. But I want the past to travel with me."
Photos by Craig Brewer, Daniel Lynn, Brent Shrewsbury, and Ward Archer
In April, Time Warp Drive-In settled into a regular format, screening the last Saturday of each month. April was tagged Soulful Cinema, with Hustle & Flow, Purple Rain, Superfly, and Coffy; June has road classics like Two Lane Blacktop and Bullitt; July celebrates Stanley Kubrick's birthday; August memorializes death week with a selection of Elvis films; August also revs up for bike films such as The Wild One and Girl on a Motorcycle; September honors Tim Burton; and October brings Shocktober back with more horror.
"I can't say enough nice things about Jimmy Tashie at Malco," McCarthy says. "He is this presence who understands the 20th century and what the drive-in was originally there for."
McCarthy's films will look great projected in the Memphis night air.
Cigarette Girl DVD Release Party
Friday, May 23rd, 9:30 p.m.
Black Lodge Video
Time Warp Drive-In Presents the Underground Cinema of Mike McCarthy
Saturday, May 24th, dusk
$10 per person
Malco's Summer Drive-In
Every one of my film event's that occurred in May was a celebration of the underground: We had a wonderful CIGARETTE GIRL dvd release party at Black Lodge Video (the only video store left in Memphis). My son John Marvel helped Keith Crass out behind the counter getting Arthouse T-shirts ready to sell, My daughter HANNA STAR was the opening act for MOUSE ROCKET and SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.
John and Hanna have grown up at Black Lodge because we live one street over - and I've always told my kids, 'not many kids get to go to a video store anymore, much less WALK to one." Hanna might be the only 15 year old to play one.
Five years after I had met Ivy McLemore at Black Lodge and cast her as "Runaway" in CIGARETTE GIRL now she played with her excitingly good SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT. Before SVU, MOUSE ROCKET had taken the stage, lead by Jonathan Kirkscey who had scored the original music to CIGARETTE GIRL - and guitarist/singer Alicja Trout, who had the distinction of appearing in SHINE ON SWEET STARLET and SUPERSTARLET A.D. as well as scoring music for the latter. Starlet Cori Dials, who had flown in from Virginia to officiate over these underground-happenings, had first appeared as Alicja's double in her RIVER CITY TANLINES "Looking for a Line" video, right after I had first met Cori. It was a pre-Memphhis heat love-fest.
I picked up Cori at the airport and we whisked over to XenonArts so she could change. Then it was straight to Black Lodge where Ward Archer, Daniel Lynn, and Deborah Swiney assisted me in selling the brand-new dvd of CIGARETTE GIRL. Now Black Lodge is finally giving me my own section at the video store - somewhere between Ed Wood and John Waters.
Much thanks to Matt and Bryan for keeping film history alive in midtown Memphis.
Mike McCarthy's 'Cigarette Girl' Lights Up Screens
By John Beifuss
By the end of this week, “Cigarette Girl” will have been passed around more often than a cigar butt in a hobo jungle. A futuristic film noir in fishnet stockings about a sexy nicotine addict in the dystopian Memphis of 2035, 100 years after the birth of Elvis, the movie is being projected, promoted, streamed and celebrated.
SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM TO SEE A TRAILER FOR CIGARETTE GIRL
The Surgeon General may not approve, but the film’s creator, Memphis impresario and auteur Mike McCarthy, hopes the exposure will make his work habit-forming. With underground pop culture as with tobacco, hook ‘em at the right moment and they are yours for life.
“I liken working with Mike to being in a bar fight,” said Cori Dials, star of “Cigarette Girl,” who returns to Memphis for this weekend’s events. “It’s a little bit exciting and dangerous, but you come out of it with a great story to tell.”
Bookended by screenings at the Studio on the Square and the Summer Drive-In, “Cigarette Girl” -- which premiered in 2009, and had a week’s run at the Studio in 2010 — this week becomes available for purchase and rent on DVD and VOD as the inaugural release from Ward Archer’s Music+Arts Studio label. The label is an imprint for movies that will function as a companion to Archer Records, home to such artists as Amy LaVere and the Gamble Brothers Band.
The DVD release will be celebrated with a “Cigarette Girl” coming-out party Friday night at Black Lodge Video. The next night, the movie screens at the Summer Drive-In during a dusk-to-dawn McCarthython of more than a decade’s worth of movie- and mythmaking by the godfather of Memphis underground cinema.
Godfather? With apologies to Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, maybe McCarthy should be dubbed the Grindhousefather. Ingeniously crafted and beautifully shot on a very low budget, “Cigarette Girl” is only the latest in a string of McCarthy features and shorts that exposes an obsession with grindhouse cinema, comic books, rock and roll, Russ Meyer, Elvis Presley and Memphis pop culture and history.
“The pure products of America go crazy,” wrote William Carlos Williams, and none are crazier than those that inhabit the films of Mike McCarthy. These include the rival gangs of gun-toting pinup queens who stalk a post-disaster “Femphis” in McCarthy’s “apocalypse meow” saga, “SUPERSTARLET A.D.” (2000); the “Black Jesus” of “Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis” (1993); and the pregnant bombshell, Topsy Turvy, of “Teenage Tupelo” (1995), partly shot in McCarthy’s home state of Mississippi.
Could the coming out of “Cigarette Girl” also mean a going away? McCarthy, 50, also a musician and artist, is proud of “Cigarette Girl.” He hosted a screening of the film Saturday night at the Studio on the Square, a week before this weekend’s drive-in event, and he’s been plugging it the past week or so wherever possible via social and old-school media. Still, he says the movie could be just about the final release from his Guerrilla Monster Films, a company that is rich in ideas but anything but rich in finances.
“Every time I have done something regarding my art, it has taken away from my survival and my family’s survival,” said McCarthy, whose wife of 25 years, Kim, teaches preschool. (His kids are John Marvel McCarthy, almost 10, and Hanna Mildred McCarthy, 15, a talented singer-songwriter who will perform at the Black Lodge party under her nom de stage, Hanna Star).
McCarthy has been flown to festivals in Australia, Spain and Scandinavia, for screenings and even retrospectives of his work, but the embrace of foreign cult-movie aficionados doesn’t equal money at home. “I’ve spent this past half-century in obscurity, so I guess I would like to climb out of the underground,” he said. “I need to get serious as to whether I can do this as a career and sustain myself. I need to make films that have bigger budgets so I can pay people what they’re worth, and pay myself what I’m worth.”
Unlike the artist who cast them in their largest movie roles to date, McCarthy’s top “Cigarette Girl” stars, Cori Dials and Ivy McLemore, do have full-time jobs, albeit unusual ones.
“I had to cremate a 400-pound guy and then I had to go straight to the dentist,” said Dials, 32, the smoldering “Cigarette Girl” herself, in a phone interview earlier this week. “That’s a typical day for me, except for the dentist.”
A Memphis transplant when she met McCarthy, Dials now lives in Woodbridge, Va., where in her spare time she is a burlesque performer and a regular on the local cable horror movie program, “Monster Madness.” Her full-time job is even more unusual: The woman with the drop-dead looks is a mortician with the Northern Virginia Burial and Cremation Society. She describes the job as “recession-proof”; also, “I always warn my boyfriends, ‘You do realize I have access to a 24-hour crematorium?’”
Dials spent her teen years in a town in Kansas so small it didn’t even have a stop light, just a stop sign. (“I graduated in a high-school class with eight people,” she said. “It would have been 10, but two girls got pregnant”). She credits McCarthy with helping her blossom as a performer, after a chance meeting at Sun Studios, where McCarthy was working as a tour guide. Said Dials: “He was absolutely convinced there wasn’t anything else I should be doing other than being in front of a camera.”
Photos by: Don Perry, Robin Tucker, Dan Ball, Wheat Buckley
Like Dials, Ivy McLemore works with the human body, but McLemore’s clients are alive: She’s a tattoo artist at Underground Art, 2287 Young. She’s also a musician: Her band, Special Victims Unit, will close out the Friday night party at Black Lodge. She and Dials will be at the Black Lodge and Summer Drive-In events, to meet fans and to sign DVDs and posters. Other McCarthy “starlets” will be in attendance, including Dawn Ashcraft of “Teenage Tupelo” and Jodi Brewer of “SUPERSTARLET A.D.”
In “Cigarette Girl,” McLemore, now 24, plays “Runaway,” a punk rock misfit who wanders into the “Smoking Section” of future Memphis, a red light district where the vice for purchase includes tobacco, which has been outlawed in the rest of the city. McLemore was discovered by McCarthy, who saw her in Black Lodge Video, “exquisite in her organic rooster mohawk and shredded clothing and disaffected expression,” he said.
Pressed in what Archer calls a “limited edition” of a thousand copies, the “Cigarette Girl” DVD includes a commentary track with McCarthy and a second disc, a soundtrack CD of Memphis composer Jonathan Kirkscey’s evocative score.
A lot of recording and mixing for film projects has occurred at Archer’s Midtown Music+Arts studio, but Archer said he hopes the “Cigarette Girl” project will ignite interest in his company as a distribution outlet for film projects. “We’ve been able to get ‘Cigarette Girl’ into pretty mainline distribution channels,” he said, pointing out that the movie is available through iTunes and Google+.
The importance of such new technologies is somewhat ironic, considering that McCarthy and his movies are rooted in a love of the past and the ballyhoo tradition of the drive-in. To that end, McCarthy will fill a wading pool with popcorn Saturday night, to perform “Baptisms by Popcorn” at the drive-in. What better symbol of the saving grace of “B” movies, rock and roll and pop culture?
‘Cigarette Girl’ and the Cult World of Mike McCarthy
‘Cigarette Girl’ DVD Release Party: 9 p.m. Friday, Black Lodge Video, 831 Cooper. Music by Hanna Star, Mouserocket and Special Victims Unit. “Cigarette Girl” actresses Coria Dials and Ivy McLemore will sign DVDs. Admission free.
Time Warp Drive-In: Guerrilla Monster Films 20th Anniversary — The Memphis Cult Films of Mike McCarthy: 8 p.m. Saturday, Summer Quartet Drive-In, 5310 Summer. Screenings of “Elvis Meets the Beatles,” “Cigarette Girl,” “Teenage Tupelo,” “The Sore Losers,” “SUPERSTARLET A.D.” New and vintage short films between features and appearances by “starlets” from the films. Music by The Subtractions at 7:30 p.m. Admission: $10.
Cult King Mike McCarthy Celebrates 20 Years of Underground Movie-making
by GREG AKERS
April 2014, Clarksdale, Mississippi — Filmmaker Mike McCarthy stands inside an old movie theater, shooting a scene he describes as "the death of cinema." He has found a good location for it: The interior space is accented with moldering ceiling tiles, burlap walls, painted concrete, and frayed carpet runners. A crewmember, Jon Meyers, cranks up a fog machine. McCarthy and the rest of the crew — Jesse Davis, Kent Hamson, Kasey Dees, and Nathan Duff — are preparing a scene built around a casket near the screen at the bottom of the theater well. Inside the casket, the corpse — actor Anthony Gray — is wearing a hat. Looking on from above him are the scene's mourners, actors Zach Paulsen, Kenneth Farmer, and Brandon Sams.
From 9 a.m. until midnight on a Saturday, the cast and crew have to capture everything they need for Midnight Movie, a lengthy trailer for a script McCarthy has written. Ideally, someone will see the finished trailer and help finance the making of the actual feature.
But all that is later. Right now, the production has to shoot about 15 scenes at four locations in one day. On the shoot, McCarthy is lively, funny, confident, and efficient. He improvises, but everything is well set up and prepared for, and he trusts the opinions of his crew. He knows what's in his mind and knows what he sees; he only needs to know what's in the camera lens.
"Guys, crank up the grieving," he directs the actors. Paulsen plays Brandy/Randy, whom the script describes as "a small-town cross-dresser with big dreams ... a 'Frankenfurter' inside a Tennessee Williams bun." Paulsen is wearing the same coat that D'Lana Tunnell wore in McCarthy's seminal 1995 film, Teenage Tupelo. Farmer plays Charlie, an homage to Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. Sams is Eraserhead, with an appropriate hairstyle. A scene filming later in the night will feature Alex and Henry Greene as Jodorowsky's El Topo and son.
"Make it be like the Cecil B. DeMille of this kind of thing," McCarthy says. After a clock check, McCarthy puts his producer hat on and says, "We're doing all right on time, but barely. Which is the way it always is."
After the scene, the crew helps Gray (who plays murdered theater owner Ray Black) out of the personal-sized tomb. It's an expensive-looking prop. McCarthy names a funeral home in Memphis he has worked with before. He's a filmmaker who needs coffins sometimes.
Cult of personality
May 2014, Memphis — It looks as if Mike McCarthy's brain has exploded all over the walls and ceiling of the attic of his Cooper-Young home, as if his mortal cranium can't contain all of the immortal pop culture that resides within it. Every flat space of wall and ceiling angles features the images of Elvis Presley, David Bowie, Bettie Page, Frankenstein's monster, Brigitte Bardot, Godzilla — and a score more — and is stuffed with the artistic output of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Camille Paglia, David F. Friedman, Marvel Comics, Famous Monsters, the Replacements, and, crucially, items related to McCarthy's own work. Here, in the inner sanctum, he keeps scripts, props, art, comic books, a drum set, and the first magazine he was published in, and on and on.
"My psychosexual stuff is over there in that corner," he says, pointing in the attic, though he could just as well be talking about a patch of real estate in his mind.
McCarthy has consumed, internalized, and analyzed American pop culture in the 20th century. What he has produced in turn is a filmography — including the features Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis (1994), Teenage Tupelo (1995), The Sore Losers (1997), Superstarlet A.D. (2000), and Cigarette Girl (2009) and the short films Elvis Meets the Beatles (2000) and Goddamn Godard (2012) — that interprets that pop cultural cosmos into a visionary underground art. Many filmmakers, Memphis obsessives from around the world, and other non-mainstream consumers revere him.
Among those influenced by him are the filmmakers Craig Brewer and Chris McCoy.
"I feel like I took a college course from Mike McCarthy," Brewer says. "Since the time I started making films in Memphis, he has always served as my hero in everything in life. He’s passionate about making movies, and he is passionate about the region he lives in, and the history, and how to honor and preserve that history. I ran from home and the ideas that came from [my] surroundings, where Mike was embracing it and perhaps even exorcising demons through his work."
Brewer helped edit Superstarlet A.D. so that he could learn how to edit his own film, The Poor & Hungry, and Brewer produced, shot, and edited Elvis Meets the Beatles, which he calls "one of the best experiences of my life."
McCoy says, "In the early '90s, I was involved with a group who were inspired by Robert Rodriguez and Steven Soderbergh to make an independent film. I co-wrote the script and we had about $20,000 pledged to the project. But this was before the days of digital, and just the film cost alone would have eaten up the entire budget, so we abandoned the project as undoable. And then, Mike McCarthy came along and proved that it could be done."
Memphian Rick O'Brien has assisted McCarthy over the years with technical and production support. O'Brien says, "Step into the world of Mike McCarthy and you'll experience a wild mash-up of 50 years of fringe-pop culture. Mike could be the bastard love child of Russ Meyer, John Waters, and Tempest Storm. Or maybe Elvis ... only his mother knows."
May is McCarthy month in Memphis (alliteration not intended.) Cigarette Girl is being released by Music+Arts, and McCarthy is screening many of his films at the May edition of the monthly Time Warp Drive-In at Malco's Summer Avenue venue. His films are steeped in the traditions of exploitation cinema, including nudity and violence and rock-and-roll.
Watching them, you might think, where in the world did all this come from?
The man who fell to Memphis
1963-1993, Mississippi & Memphis — "Unless you can fixate on something, you don't learn the true value of it," McCarthy says. His own biography is something McCarthy is fixated on. Certain geniuses, such as James Ellroy or Alison Bechdel, possess a profound intellectual introspection. McCarthy fits in this category comfortably.
He was born in 1963. The way McCarthy's mind sees things, there's a numerology that glows in the structure of the universe. It's personal and universal, and it can be observed if you sit still long enough. "I was born six months before JFK was assassinated, which was nine months before the Beatles got here," McCarthy says. "So, 1963 was the last pure year of American pop culture and its influence around the world. The following year, the Beatles would arrive, and the European influence would follow, ironically based on Memphis music. I was conceived in the Lee County Drive-In in Tupelo, and I lived 14 years in the golden age of pop culture, before Elvis died."
Much of McCarthy's biography has been recounted in stories over the years, but, since the telling of it has evolved, it doesn't hurt to set the record straight about exactly what happened and when. He was raised by John and Mildred McCarthy outside of Tupelo. His mother had been a Georgia Tann baby, one of the children who came out of the woman's infamous Memphis black market adoption agency. His parents attended the famous 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, where Elvis performed. They can be seen at the top of the bleachers in Roger Marshutz's famous photo of the concert.
McCarthy grew up at the end of a gravel road, raised on comic books, monster magazines, and other pop that managed to trickle down to him. "On a good night we might pick up Sivad," he says, referring to Memphis' monster movie TV host. McCarthy consumed the culture he "could pick up in an analog way, or what was in the grocery store in a spinner rack. Music, I knew nothing about, because corporations had already settled in on it. I didn't know at the time that rockabilly had been created in my backyard."
When he was 20, McCarthy learned on his own a staggering truth the consequences of which continue to reverberate: He was adopted. "There's a certain amount of tragedy, but it's kind of a cool tragedy, because I decided I would mythologize my gravel road. Instead of street cred, I've got gravel road cred."
More bombshells: He was the second of four children his biological mother had. To this day, McCarthy doesn't know who his biological father is. (His brothers do know who their dads are: "Another angst-ridden detail," he says, laughing.) He did learn, however, that his biological mother also attended the Fair and Dairy Show, and, moreover, she also could be seen in the Marshutz photo — just a few feet away from the King's outstretched hand.
When he was 21, McCarthy moved to Memphis. "The point where I should have looked into my past, I moved to Memphis and turned it into art," he says. "It took me 10 years to focus my anger into an Elvis-oriented art plan."
He came to grad school at Memphis College of Art but dropped out and spent a few years playing in punk bands like Distemper and Rockroaches. He lived with his parents again to work on comic books, including material that would be produced by the renowned alternative publisher Fantagraphics.
He discovered the cult film subgenre. It changed everything. "I realized cult cinema was achievable on my own," he says.
If those are the facts, the why of it all is left to McCarthy's interpretation, both artistic and anecdotal, and is the basis for the mythology he has created in the film Teenage Tupelo and developed further over the years. He imagined that Elvis was his biological father: "All these things led to my breaking away from Mississippi, so that I could look back and mythologize with whatever details slowly came down to me from my adopted parents or my newfound brother at the time. So I reimagined the conversation my grandmother had with my mother when she was about to give birth to me. 'You've already had one kid with this guy who left you, you're certainly not going to keep this second kid.' So I made my grandmother into a villain — who Wanda Wilson plays in Teenage Tupelo."
20th century, America — "Elvis is 21 at the Tupelo Fair and Dairy Show in 1956, halfway through the arc of his life," McCarthy says. "That day he sings to both my mothers — and thousands of field hands and factory workers. He reaches the ascent of everything he will be. He conquers pop culture by 21, and then he just enjoys the downward slope. Sure, there are moments of greatness, but his life as art belongs on that day between Tupelo and his home on Audubon Drive in Memphis. So what does Tupelo do? They tear down the old Fairgrounds."
Ground zero for American pop culture is the purity and naiveté of rock-and-roll at its inception, when the middle class consumed and supported uncorrupted artists. The era ended when rock-and-roll, a singularly racially integrated art form, became commodified by commercial interests and became the product called "rock." American pop culture died to an extent when Elvis did. Punk was the last pure expression of rock-and-roll.
However, that isn't to say that rock-and-roll is dead and buried, McCarthy argues, because the pure creations from decades ago are still relevant. Worshipping at the feet of this cultural deity is still a worthwhile endeavor — and don't confuse it with nostalgia and sentimentality, he says, which "don't apply to things that are still relevant."
He sees the relevance of rock-and-roll, still lingering in the arifices of the past, and he fights to protect it. "Memphis should be a time capsule for that world, where blues music and country music combined to become rock-and-roll," McCarthy says. "We don't need to recreate it: It already happened. We can base an entire world on that model, if we would just stop tearing that world down."
Creating a Monster
1994-2014, Memphis — As scarring as his biological drama was, McCarthy received considerable support and love from his adopted parents. One important attribute McCarthy would learn from his Greatest Generation parents was "a Depression-era ethic, so that I could deal with poverty when I came face to face with it later, when I decided to be an artist." He would call upon that lesson time and again. His films were low budget; he didn't make money off of them; and he struggled to make ends meet. Much of that was by design as part of an artistic austerity. "Being a filmmaker in America is the most narcissistic, self-centered thing you could be. It even approaches evil," he says with a laugh.
"I always wondered why the circus is a metaphor for craziness," McCarthy says. "If that were really true about the circus being 'crazy,' we would never take the kids because it would be too insane. In reality, the circus contains a big ol' safety net. So the craziness is simulated, sort of like a film festival or video game. What happens when you remove the safety net? That's the real circus. When you have no safety net, no guaranteed salary, no trust fund, no nonprofit — that's the last 20 years of Guerrilla Monster." Guerrilla Monster's three rules were: Don't ask permission; shoot until they make you stop; and deny everything.
Don't call McCarthy's films "indie." He's careful to draw a distinction between indie film and underground film: "The indie scene is basically mainstream filmmaking without money," he says.
"I've been compared to Truffaut, Fellini, and Orson Welles, all by asking women to take their clothes off in the middle of the night in Mississippi with a camera."
It's now or never
Past, present, and future — Much of what occupies McCarthy's brain is what is now gone. "I miss Memphis Comics. I miss Pat's Pizza. I miss Ellis Auditorium. I already miss the Mid-South Coliseum. I identify with it. I miss me."
McCarthy takes the time to note that he and the Coliseum were born in the same year, and suggests we drive over to appraise its current state of neglect. McCarthy was a founding member of Save Libertyland, active in preserving the WHBQ booth at the Chisca, worked at Sun Studio for a time, served as a tour guide in Memphis, and is a strong advocate for preservation. "These things will be important to smart people 100 years from now," he says. "And they'll blame us as a generation that created a serious criminal offense against the 20th century, the American century, by tearing down the rock-and-roll structures that were in place in Memphis at the time when all of this music was created, when all of this goodwill was created."
Preservation probably isn't exactly the right English word for it. McCarthy's advocacy isn't about stasis but about vitality. "The further you get away from the pulse of something, the closer you get to the death of it," he says. "This bleeds into my dislike of historic markers, because we keep those people in business." For a few years, he has been developing a documentary about it, Destroy Memphis (tagline: "See it while you can").
"I wasn't born in the '50s, where I could take advantage of the thriving middle class that spit out rock-and-roll, great movies, and great comic books — so great they were outlawed by the government. I worship those things. Those things are greater than any dogmatic religious principles."
His thoughts on the subject are similar to those about Guerrilla Monster, which, he announces, may have reached its end. The fact is, he can't afford to keep his cinematic pursuit going without financial backing. He has a family to support. "Underground films are fascinating to watch because you see struggle. I've been through 20 years of good old-fashioned punk rock struggle. Deliver me from struggle.
"In the '90s," he continues, "I used to say the voice of a dead twin told me what to do. Now I'm not sure. Sometimes I feel like I've lost my way. I feel like I'm in the prime of my filmmaking life, but I can no longer make films 'on the cheap' where I keep asking people to do things for me for free. Guerrilla Monster has served its purpose. 'Twas reality that killed the beast."
If he has to, he will focus on comic books, which carry much less budgetary overhead. "I probably have another 20 years before my hand starts to shake. You've only got so much time to create."
What he really wants to do, though, is to get his films financed. He has a script, Kid Anarchy, based on a comic book he created in the 1980s with his friend George Cole. McCarthy, Cole, and Memphis filmmaker G.B. Shannon have written the script. It's much more accessible than his past films. He thinks it could be his shot.
"I always thought Mike would be fantastic working with a solid producer and a solid script," Brewer says. "He’s very professional and he’s really prepared."
"If I got a million bucks to make Kid Anarchy, it wouldn't be a Guerrilla Monster movie, it would be an indie movie with punk rock principles, closer to Richard Linklater or Mary Harron," McCarthy says. "It's about a 15-year-old boy in 1984 who gets kicked out of Memphis for being a juvenile delinquent. So, he goes to live with his religious aunt and uncle in northeast Mississippi, like a true fish out of water. He has to attend a new school, to pray before dinner, and he can't listen to the Dead Kennedys anymore. It's akin to Breaking Away, or every S.E. Hinton novel; it's a 'let's discover the next Matt Dillon' movie. It's all that. But I can't make it for nothing."
In other words, it's the McCarthy story told in reverse. Is the happy ending at the beginning or at the end of the story?
Producer John Crye, former creative director for Newmarket Films (where he oversaw the acquisition, development, and distribution of Memento, The Prestige, Whale Rider, Monster, Donnie Darko, and The Passion of the Christ), is helping McCarthy package the film in terms of investment and talent. "In this economy, the safest investments in film are with those filmmakers who can produce a $1 million film that looks like a $10 million film," Crye says. "McCarthy proved with Cigarette Girl that he can make tens of thousands of dollars look like hundreds of thousands. The time is right for him to come out of the underground, work with a better budget, and start creating more commercially viable movies. Kid Anarchy is that. It is to Cigarette Girl what Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused was to Slacker."
"The blues wouldn't have been created without oppression," McCarthy says. "Jesus wouldn't be worshipped without crucifixion. But without any of that you don't get resurrection. I want resurrection, I want to make money.
"I want to make Kid Anarchy. So crucify me."
The Mike McCarthy/GuerrillaMonster Films calendar of events:
Cigarette Girl stars Cori Dials and Ivy McLemore and live music from
Hanna Star and Mouserocket
Elvis Meets the Beatles, Cigarette Girl, Teenage Tupelo, The Sore Losers,
Superstarlet A.D., and Midnight Movie
For more about Mike McCarthy, including streaming videos of his films, essays, and the script for Kid Anarchy, go to guerrillamonsterfilms.com.
The first Memphis Underground Film Festival of 2014 had played host to my 7:29 trailer "Midnight Movie" in April alongside Sam Bahre's "Shelby Stax" Blaxpolitation entry. Right off the bat I had broken my own 'rules' that I had just created."Midnight Movie" was way over 3 minutes long and was barely a blaxploitation short. I showed Midnight Movie again in May alongside Keith Cadwallader's "World War Whore". I had never created a trailer from scratch before. I am really happy with the result. This could be the last film of Guerrilla Monster's catalog. "The Last Movie You Will Never See"....from Guerrilla Monster Films)"
copyright 2014 by Mike McCarthy