CINEMA.

ME, LLOYD KAUFMAN, AND THE TOXIC AVENGER
[posted 03.15.2005]

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IT WAS BACK IN 1990, in Melbourne, Australia, that a young, nerdish boy stepped into a video store and managed to convince his long-suffering mother to hire The Toxic Avenger for him, reassuring her that the movie’s brazen legend on the rear of the case (“This movie contains loads of unnecessary sex and violence — You’ll love it!”) was meant ironically. Which was, of course, completely untrue.

All things have to begin somewhere, and as far as my love affair with independent Troma Entertainment goes, the opening salvo was fired then, as I pushed the case into my mother’s hands and watched her brows furrow with concern.

I had a foolproof method of getting her to hire the most sordid drivel I could find. I would grab the tape off the shelf — it might be Robocop, or The Thing, or Total Recall, or A Nightmare on Elm Street — and stare at it for a moment, checking over my shoulder to make sure Mum was engrossed in scanning the shelves. Then I’d nonchalantly wander over to her, pretending that it was absolutely no big deal, there was no reason for her to be concerned, and I’d slip it into her hands. Because I was such a cool cat, and there was nothing underhanded going on, I’d just look at the shelves with her, and stick my hands into my pockets, rocking back and forth on my feet.

“Found anything?” I’d ask.

She would frown, and look at the tape in her hands. “What’s THIS?”

I pretended I hadn’t heard her. “Hmm?”

“What’s this, David? It’s R-rated. I’m not sure—-”

“Oh, Mum. Don’t worry about THAT. That’s the OLD R rating. There’s nothing to be worried about.”

“But, I—-”

I’d be gone, coolly walking away, my eyes relaxed, hands swinging loosely by my side, exuding an air of total confidence. Of COURSE I’m going to hire Xtro. And while I’m here, I might pick out a few more tasty titles. Anyone for Basket Case?

And, rather than shatter my confidence, or risk getting into a heavy debate about the relative merits of the cinema, she’d hire the damned tape.

Of course, she should have been worried.The Toxic Avenger was about as depraved a film as one could imagine — a cornucopia of degenerate sex, pointless violence and perverse behavior brought to life by a cast who genuinely seemed brain-damaged. Squalid, foul, vulgar… I absolutely adored it.

I would gush proudly about the film whenever I could, and, for a few moments in the school yard, I reigned supreme. The other boys sat cross-legged around me, their faces displaying pure awe as I stood before them, arms folded across my chest, a defiant smirk pressing my rubbery, oversized lips together. I regaled my classmates with tales of the unknown and the forbidden. Violence, sexuality, and human depravity were the tools with which I asserted my intellectual and cultural supremacy over these peons. My biceps taut and hot, I waved my arms in the air like some kind of powerful sorcerer, the boys spiraling upwards in a frenzy of bloodlust as they envisioned The Toxic Avenger slipping into their VCRs, unlocking the world of clandestine cinema that as yet lay just beyond their grasp.

Then, once I?d run out of “There was a really cool bit when…” stories, they would beat the shit out of me and steal my lunch money.

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As I grew older, I delved into Troma’s back catalogue, an expansive series seemingly covering every conceivable sexual perversion and vehicle for dismantling the human body. I was awestruck by the chutzpah of these upstart filmmakers who held issues of taste and public morality in such little regard that they would actively mock their detractors from inside their film world. From The Class Of Nuke ‘Em High to Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid to Bloodsucking Freaks to the infamous Surf Nazis Must Die, Troma stopped at nothing to splatter the screen with their hellish, savage vision of humanity.

But one thing confused me. Despite the orgy of carnage and sex that constitutes the average Troma film, I couldn’t honestly conceive of anyone being offended by them. They were so good-natured, so amiable, somehow sweet and innocent. Even in their darkest, most savage lows, Troma films were tinged with a playful sensibility that stopped the images from being offensive and made them somehow fun: The bad jokes. The self-consciously goofy special effects. The ?80s rock scores. The acting, which can’t really be described, but can only be labeled the Troma Style.

Lloyd Kaufman

I suspect the sweetness behind Troma has something to do with Lloyd Kaufman, its president. Lloyd is one of the more accessible figures in cinema. The Troma website has a contact email address for him and he regularly publishes articles there on issues pertaining to free speech, globalization, and the monopolies on media and art that conglomerates are attempting to achieve, and he appears on most of the Troma’s VHS and DVD releases. He comes across as a man of great intelligence, verve and passion — self-deprecating, yet fiercely protective of his company’s cinematic output, citing Troma as one of the last bastions of free speech and independent thought in cinema.

Troma swooped down during the brief, glorious age of independent VHS distribution in the early ’80s. They attacked the market aggressively with flagship titles The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, stealing the thunder of the major studios, who were too paranoid about losing money through video piracy to actively take part in the video revolution. This was the pre-Blockbuster age, and it was not unusual to find I Drink Your Blood nestled beside Kramer Vs. Kramer. As Lloyd says in one of his DVD commentaries, there was a hell of a lot of shelf space to fill in those days, and shops would take whatever was offered. And there was a lot to offer — a tapestry of independent cinema, which was often too bizarre or individualistic to be given massive distribution. It was a world that wasn’t simply more Hollywood Product. We had the freedom to choose, and we loved it.

Today, Troma and other independent artists are shut out of the media-distribution hierarchy. Reviews aren’t written of Troma films in the mainstream press. When Troma acquired and reissued a classic children’s film on DVD, it was totally ignored. As viewers, we are gridlocked. Our pathways for access to non-mainstream film, music, and literature are being rapidly destroyed. If it isn’t Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, then it doesn’t exist. The passionate fire of Troma still burns — but it can only be seen by the devoted. The mainstream will have none of Troma’s mayhem — and for that, I pity them.

Troma’s films might be perverse, profane, violent, and filled with an obsessive, adolescent fixation on the female body — but that is how they were intended. Kaufman’s vision — which, when seriously analyzed, is actually quite profound and complicated — is just that: A deeply personal vision of humanity and society, interlaced with an exploitation film aesthetic. It is undiluted and raw. Troma does what Troma does, and if you don’t like it, they simply don?t care. If you want something clean and sanitized, then do as Lloyd says, and make your own damn movie.

I miss being able to scan the racks and dig out gems every time — weird and wonderful treasures, some so demented that I needed a shower afterward, others simply offering a window into someone else’s mind. Every time I walk past a cinema and see Ben Affleck’s head staring down at me, with a quote from Roger Ebert, I feel a little further away from little boy who whined at his mother to hire The Toxic Avenger. I want to take that little boy aside, give him a hug, and tell him to make the most of the wonderful array of choices he has — the seemingly endless kaleidoscopic vision of modern culture that the video shop provided in the ’80s and early ’90s. I really start to miss the freedom — the feeling of excitement and exhilaration at discovering something new, some little diamond in the rough I’d never seen before.

But that?s not going to happen. All that’s left is me, you, Blockbuster, and George Clooney. And it’s at such times that Lloyd Kaufman becomes even more important to me than usual.

An alternate version of this essay appeared on metalcity.org.

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david elliott is a melbourne-based writer. he has just finished his master’s degree in writing and editing, and hopes to one day move out of his parents house. he is currently working on a children’s novel concerning the adventures of his dog. his home on the web is metalcity.org.