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Popatopolis

When I was a young’un, I received my cinematic education from the same sorts of places from whence this humble blog is named: the video stores (both corporate and mom-n-pop) which once used to dot this great land of ours. In those bygone days before the internet, movie blogs or Netflix, anyone interested in trashy, exploitational or out-there films had one good option: hit up your local video store and browse the stacks. How did you know if you’d found a good one? Well, in the days before identical box/poster art swept through film-land like a wildfire (standing figure, semi-profile pose, back to the camera, red and yellow color scheme, floating faces on the horizon, yadda yadda yadda), you usually knew you had someone worth watching because the box-art would make your young brain explode with possibilities.

I can’t count the number of times that I walked up and down those endless, identical rows of endless, identical little rectangular cases, picking up one after the other until I finally found an image that sent my reptilian senses soaring. Taking my treasure home, I would often be confronted with one of my first real lessons as a kid: never judge a VHS tape by its cover. Just as often, however, I would be presented with something that actually lived up to the promise of its cover. One of these early discoveries was a brilliant little film called Chopping Mall, which bears the distinction of having one of my favorite “old school” covers (as well as one of my favorite taglines): a robotic hand holds a brown-paper shopping sack full of various body-parts, while the tagline reminds us that “Shopping costs an arm and a leg.” Indeed!

 

This little gem ended up being full of all the things that a growing young boy needs: copious T & A, lots of gratuitous gore, killer robots and tons of dumb action. Who was the genius behind this inspirational little film? Why, none other than one of the undisputed masters of trash/exploitation cinema: Jim Wynorski. Over the years, I’ve seen many, many Wynorski films, some without even realizing they were his, thanks to his various pseudonyms (one of my favorites being “HR Blueberry”). I’d never seen any behind-the-scenes or documentary footage of Wynorski, however, until I viewed Clay Westervelt’s Popatopolis. This look into how Wynorski makes one of his old-fashioned exploitationers in this modern-day and age is a warts-and-all look at a filmmaker that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit over the years. The unfortunate takeaway, however? Sometimes, it’s better not to peek at the wizard behind the curtain.

Westervelt’s documentary, which takes its name from Wynorski’s frequent request of actresses that they “pop those tops,” follows the no-budget auteur as he sets out to do something he’s never done before: shoot a complete film in only three days with just a couple of crew members. The film in question is The Witches of Breastwick, however, so the deck already seems pretty stacked in his favor. Wynorski’s films since the 2000s have tended to favor porn actors/actresses over actual actors/actresses, which is a good thing since his directorial style has tended towards “point-and-shoot.” Combined with his tendency to shoot one-take of everything, Wynorski tends to put quite a bit of film in the can (metaphorically speaking), so finishing a no-budget, crappy film parody in three days doesn’t seem particularly impossible. And it’s not, as we see over the course of the film. From what we can see, however, it’s also not particularly pleasant, least of all for the poor performers stuck with Wynorksi for those three days.

The film is composed of two separate but intrinsically linked parts: talking head interviews with Wynorski peers like Andy Sidaris, Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman and the actual behind-the-scenes footage of the Witches of Breaswick shoot. The talking head portions are definitely the highlight of the film (at least for me) since they give an interesting perspective into where Wynorski started (as a Production Assistant for Corman) and where he’s (presumably) going. Kaufman’s bit is hilarious and way too short, but Corman’s parts are pure gold: there’s something really neat about seeing Corman sit there, the grand poobah of low-budget cinema, waxing philosophically like someone’s ultra-hip granddad. You can tell that he’s got genuine affection for Wynorski and pays him the film’s best, most sincere compliment when he says that Wynorski could do bigger and better projects if he would only take more time and care.

And that, in essence, becomes the depressing rub of the film: modern-day Wynorski just doesn’t seem to give two shits about anything. He’s been making films since the mid-’80s and many of his ’80s-’90s output are considered to be minor exploitation classics: Chopping Mall (1986), Deathstalker II (1987), Not of This Earth (1988), The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), The Haunting of Morella (1990). None of his films are what one could reasonably call “good” and none are what anyone would consider to be particularly well-crafted but, up until the 2000s, Wynorski’s movies were still essentially good ol’ fashioned B-movies. Since the 2000s, however, Wynorski seems to have found a new calling making soft-core, “Skinmax”-esque “films,” including such…product…as The Bare Wench Project (2000), Busty Cops (2004), The Witches of Breastwick (2005), The Breastford Wives (2007), The Devil Wears Nada (2009) and what one can only assume is complete truth in advertising: Busty Coeds vs Lusty Cheerleaders (2011). Whereas Wynorski used to work with the likes of Louis Jourdan, he now works almost exclusively with porn stars, the vast majority of which aren’t necessarily known for their skills as thespians. Breast size, not acting ability, are key indicators to Wynorski’s filmmaking mindset.

Once we dive into the actual shooting of The Witches of Breastwick, Wynorski is revealed to be a short-tempered, highly irritable, crude and decidedly sexist individual. His script includes the written descriptor “cow” to describe several female characters; he doesn’t say “action,” “roll camera” or any other filmmaking commands, leading to continual confusion between him and his cameraman and sound-guy; his catch-phrase appears to be “I hate it” and Wynorski makes his actors repeat their lines endlessly until they say it exactly as he wants: there’s no sense of “directing” or “coaching,” merely brute force repetition. In one of the most telling moments of the entire film, Julie K. Smith, one of Wynorski’s longtime actresses and a bit of a dramatic foil for him, says that the “Jim W” of the old days would always work extensively with his actors, pulling them aside and working them through the emotional beats of a scene. The current “Jim W” just has them repeat lines until he likes what he hears: there’s no attempt to actually get into a character, since he clearly doesn’t care about that anymore. It’s particularly illuminating to hear this from one of Wynorski’s longtime collaborators, no more so than when she states, “Good Jim is amazing…you love him. Bad Jim…I don’t use the term ‘hate’ often but…you don’t like him.”

As a look into indie filmmaking, Popatopolis is fun and quick, if more than a little depressing ala American Movie. Wynorski, however, really comes across as a repressed man-child and the rampant sexism and misogyny becomes tiring very quickly. I’ve always had a soft-spot for B-movies and exploitation cinema but there should always be basic levels of decency maintained between filmmaker and cast/crew. Too often, Wynorski comes across as a sexist bully and I just can’t get behind that, no matter how much I love Chopping Mall or Dinosaur Island. While his older films may be crude, Wynorski’s last 15 years of product has been pretty much soft-core garbage: at this point, I’m beginning to feel like the goodwill he’s earned may be used up. At the very least, the scene involving Wynorski and his elderly mother is quite charming and very cute. Mother Wynorski goes on and on about her love for Chopping Mall, with one major complaint: she hates the gratuitous nude scene, feeling it unnecessary and detrimental to the film. Maybe it’s time to start listening to your mom, Jim: after 96 films in 29 years, I’d sure love to get another Chopping Mall before you finally hang up the ol’ megaphone.

 

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