Saturday, April 12, 2008




"Thrills! Music! Laughs! Filmed in RegularScope Black and White!"


After chasing the aging prostitute Irma La Streetwalker all over town just to steal her purse, the maniacally cackling Chain Gang decides to choose its next victim at random from the phone book. As luck would have it, the fickle finger of fate lands on Cee Bee Beaumont, girlfriend to world famous rocker Lonnie Lord. After menacing Cee Bee for a few hours, the Chain Gang finally kidnaps her, punching her gardener Titus in the face in the process. Lonnie and Titus, unable to meet the ransom demands in a timely manner, instead change into their alter-egos, Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, and pursue the villains into a neighbor's backyard. After a round of fisticuffs takes care of one of the bad guys, the remaining evil-doers flee to the hillsides with the trying-really-hard-to-be dynamic duo in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, they all have the ill fortune to run into Kogar the swingin' ape and chaos ensues. So now, not only must Rat Pfink and Boo Boo race furiously in order to save Cee Bee from peril, they must also finish the job in time to make the big beach party that afternoon.


Have you ever seen one of those videos on YouTube where a bunch of LARPing fanboys throw on some homemade super-hero costumes they made for ComiCon and create their own graphic novel inspired video epic? Well, if you've ever wondered what it would be like to see one of those productions get a big screen release (and Lord only knows why you would wonder such a thing, but just in case you have), then Rat Pfink A Boo Boo is the film for you. This is a true "independent film", made at a time when such movies didn't cost 8 million dollars, star Jennifer Garner, or win Academy Awards for their ex-stripper screenwriters. (Okay, that's snarky, but come on IFC, Juno is NOT an independent film. You're not fooling anyone.) No, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo is 100% authentic guerilla filmmaking, a zero-budget opus crafted at the hands of schlock-auteur Ray Dennis Steckler, the man behind such similar bargain basement productions as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?, The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher, and Blood Shack (aka The Chooper. Don't ask.)

Now, considering the high volume of low budget fare which shows up on this blog, you might be wondering what makes Steckler films such a standout in the lack-of-funds department. Well, it's because with Steckler, "Don't Spend a Dime" is not some restraint imposed from outside forces, but rather an actual guiding philosophy, a state of mind if you will. "Before you make a movie you look around and see what you have, not what you want to go get." Steckler once said in an interview. "Think about all the things you don’t have to spend money for and then write your story around them, because now you’ve already saved $20,000. If you look at my films you will see the same things here and there because if it was still good, fine, then we used it again." And in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, we may well have Steckler's master class in this technique. So take notes all you aspiring filmmakers with no pocket change to spare, here's some lessons from Professor Ray on how you do it.

[1] Knowing that Ron Haydock, your leading man, was once in a rockabilly band called The Boppers, be sure to make your main character a rock star. Not only will the actor be able to provide his own guitar, but you'll even get some original songs out of the deal including the classic "You Is a Rat Fink". [2] Be sure to include a role for your wife Carolyn Brandt, an actress whose previous screen credits include Dancer, Dancer On Ramp, Fishman's Gal (in a little film you might have heard of called Eegah), and the ever demanding role of Woman. With that résumé, she's not likely to complain about the tedious ten minute long walking sequence in which the camera focuses almost entirely on alternating shots of her butt and the butt of her stalker. (To his dubious credit, Steckler was at least a non-sexist equal opportunity butt exploiter.) [3] If, after all that walking, your movie's running time is still a little short, covertly slip your costumed characters into the street parade which is going on in town and film a lot of footage. As long as you're not arrested, you'll be able to claim the parade was held in honor of your heroes. [4] Don't just put your friends in the movie because they'll work for less, but also because they might just know someone who owns something useful like, say, a motorcycle with a sidecar, or better yet, a gorilla suit. 

Which leads us up to what is perhaps the most important tip of all. [5] If something like a gorilla suit does suddenly become available, but your story doesn't include a gorilla, then just go ahead and change the story. Who's going to stop you? Always keep in mind that when you're making a real "independent film", you can do whatever you want to, even if "whatever" means changing directions completely in the middle of filming. Steckler not only did this with the scenes involving Kogar The Swingin' Ape, he did it with the whole darn movie. You see, Rat Pfink A Boo Boo was originally intended to be a gritty kidnapping caper with rock and roll overtones. That's why the first half of the movie jumps between scenes of the chain-wielding thugs terrorizing women with those of Lonnie Lord signing autographs for his legions of fans. (Hey, I'm sure in some third world country somewhere, three middle aged women sporting bouffant hairdos constitutes a legion.) But according to Steckler, he and his pals were getting bored with the criminal storyline and someone made an offhand comment about how funny it would be if Lonnie and Titus walked into a closet and came back out dressed as Batman and Robin. And so, at roughly 37 minutes into the movie, the pair do just that. However, not being one to simply cast aside all that previously shot footage, and absolutely not being one to indulge in any costly reshoots, Steckler simply altered the script from that point onwards to include Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. Now that, my friends, is true independent filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the tonal shift this plot twist causes in the film is pretty jarring, switching moods as it does on a moment's notice from a semi-effective creepiness to one of utter goofiness. It feels just like what it is, two different movies patched together, and it's likely to be unsatisfying for many a viewer. Those expecting a straight parody will probably be put off by the first half hour's relentless seediness, while those who appreciate the tenseness of the opening scenes will have it all ruined by the second half's forced slapstick. Truthfully, there's only a few types of people I can think of who might might be accustomed to the kind of complete switch you experience in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo. One is the aforementioned rabid fanboys who get their hopes up every time a movie is made involving people running around in masks and long underwear, only to have them cruelly dashed to pieces by something like Catwoman. Another are the unabashed B-movie fanatics who relentlessly seek out the most obscure films in existence in the slim hope of unearthing those few hidden celluloid gems still yet undiscovered, only to endure untold hours of excruciating crapfests. (But enough about me.) And finally, there's the Jews.

I guess I should explain that last one a little bit more, huh? Well, because of our over familiarity with the Bible (oh sure) and the salvific metanarrative we read into it, most of us Christians never give much thought to just how radical certain aspects of Christian teaching must have been to the ancient Jews. Sitting in our churches some 2000 years after the fact, we accept it as easily recognizable that the Old and New Testaments taken together as a whole relate an epic tale of how God redeems all of creation by starting with a small tribe of people, turning them first into a nation, and then, through Jesus, into a worldwide movement with which to deliver his truth and love to the world. It all flows together smoothly and naturally, right? Well, to us Christians, sure. But to a lot of Jews, the transition between their version of scripture, the Tanakh (our Old Testament minus a few books), and the Christian New Testament is infinitely more jarring than the out-of-left-field plot twist which happens in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo.

A good part of the reason for this is that the official Jewish Tanakh isn't organized quite the same way as The Christian Old Testament. The Christian version, following the Greek arrangement, ends with Malachi and his look towards a new messianic age, the “great and terrible day of the Lord”. So when Jesus shows up in the Gospels, it's a perfectly logical step forward. But as Professor Amy-Jill Levine points out in her book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, "The Tanakh ends not with Malachi, for this prophet comes in the Nevi’im, the middle section in the canon. Rather, the last passage in the Tanakh is 2 Chronicles 36... Judaism’s Scriptures thus have as their goal the return to Israel... The Tanakh thus ends not with a promise to be fulfilled by something new but with an injunction to return to one’s home, to one’s roots. For a modern analogy, sports metaphors prove helpful. Christianity is football [and not just because of possible “pigskin” references]. There is a linear sense to the Christian canon; one moves from the promise of the line of scrimmage to the goal of the [eschatological] end zone. Judaism, at least as understood by the canonical order, is baseball. The concern is to return to Zion, to go home."

Given that reasoning, it's understandable under the Hebraic arrangement of scripture why so many Jews expected the coming messiah was going to be a great human leader whose primary goal would be to reestablish the glory and power of the earthly kingdom of Israel. Only after that occurred would he get around to letting non-Jews into the club. And with that being the case, it's then a little easier to appreciate the incredulity of a lot of the Jews upon being told that not only was this rather meek guy Jesus their messiah, but that he was also God incarnate (blasphemy!) come to let Gentiles in on salvation history way ahead of the perceived schedule. For them it must have been similar to the effect of watching Rat Pfink A Boo Boo, like seeing two different stories spliced together and being told that it was really a single narrative.

All of which raises an obvious, but interesting question; if the Jewish interpretation is a reasonable one, how are us Christians to know our understanding of the totality of scripture, the one in which the two Testaments flow naturally together, is the correct one? Oddly enough, it seems, by partially agreeing with the Jews. In a 2001 document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission entitled The Jewish People And Their Sacred Scriptures In The Christian Bible it states that to read the Old Testament as Christians "does not mean wishing to find everywhere direct reference to Jesus and to Christian realities... Although the Christian reader is aware that the internal dynamism of the Old Testament finds its goal in Jesus, this is a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not (and let me throw in my unasked for emphasis here on the "is not") in the text as such, but in the events of the New Testament proclaimed by the apostolic preaching. It cannot be said, therefore, that Jews do not see what has been proclaimed in the text, but that the Christian, in the light of Christ and in the Spirit, discovers in the text an additional meaning that was hidden there." Or in simpler terms (cause them's the kind this here blogger understands the best) we Christians aren't relying solely on the texts to make our point.

Now don't get me wrong, exegesis and comparative theology are essential tools in religious study, and by using them Christians can make a strong and convincing argument for why our interpretation of scripture is the correct one. But, like so many other areas in life, when we reach this point of divergence with the Jews where both sides can be made to appear to be the rational choice, we have to rely on something more than proof-texts. To see Jesus absolutely clearly in the Old Testament, we have to ultimately rely on that hardest of things to come by; we have to have faith. "The grace of faith opens "the eyes of your hearts" to a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation" the Catechism explains, "that is, of the totality of God's plan and the mysteries of faith, of their connection with each other and with Christ, the center of the revealed mystery. "The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood." In the words of St. Augustine, "I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe."

You know, I'm not going to be dishonest here, there's something in this that annoys the living hell out of the study-hound in me. I like as many concrete verifiable answers as possible before making a choice. And being burdened with this weakness, when asked to make a leap of faith, I prefer the gap I have to jump over to be as small as possible. But God is smarter than me (luckily for this world), and since he prefers a system in which our Love for Him contains an element of trust, He's going to make sure these kind of choices pop up from time to time. And it's not like He didn't know there would be people like me going into this whole Jesus business. That's why St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, "since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." So, if you're like me, and leaps of faith make you a little nervous, take comfort in the fact that God ultimately rewards those who make them. And at least in this particular instance, regarding the transition in the narrative which occurs between the Old and New Testaments, it's not a blind leap. We do do have a pretty strong argument for our side before reaching the precipice. At least it makes more sense than what happens in Rat Pfink A Boo Boo.


And remember kids, as the Pontifical Biblical Commission reminds us, "The fact that the New Testament is essentially a proclamation of the fulfillment of God's plan in Jesus Christ, puts it in serious disagreement with the vast majority of the Jewish people who do not accept this fulfillment. The New Testament then expresses at one and the same time its attachment to Old Testament revelation and its disagreement with the Synagogue. This discord is not to be taken as “anti-Jewish sentiment”, for it is disagreement at the level of faith, the source of religious controversy between two human groups that take their point of departure from the same Old Testament faith basis, but are in disagreement on how to conceive the final development of that faith. Although profound, such disagreement in no way implies reciprocal hostility." Play nice.


Histor said...

Thanks for coming back!

Though from what you describe of Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, it seems that maybe independent films are better off with more money and (pardon the blasphemy) corporate meddling.


EegahInc said...

In this case, definitely! Not always, though. Hands down, no contest, my favorite movie of 2007 was Once, a little movie about music and friendship made by a bunch of Irish musicians for about $150,000. It's (to me at least)a near perfect movie made for about the same money they spend on lunch for Hollywood productions.