The Wild World of John Michael McCarthy By Scott Wallace Brown. The extravagant cover photo of this issue of Cashiers du Cinemart can be traced back twenty years to a simple reactionary display of Memphis rock ‘n’ roll attitude...
The extravagant cover photo of this issue of Cashiers du Cinemart can be traced back twenty years to a simple reactionary display of Memphis rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
On August 26, 1984, Donald LaBadie, art critic for The Memphis Commercial Appeal, published an article criticizing three young men who were laughing at a modern art exhibit in the Brooks Museum of Art. LaBadie mistakenly claimed that the three men (John Prescott, George Cole, and Mike McCarthy) knew nothing about art.
This is where things get a little complicated...
What these three guys knew as art was, and is to this day, completely diametrically opposed to what LaBadie knew as art. Even at that tender age, John Michael McCarthy (JMM) was well aware of what he had embraced as art: comic books, rock and roll, and cult movies. Then as now, these supremely and uniquely American creations are still pooh-poohed by the aesthetic powers-that-be.
In that 1984 article, LaBadie went so far as to say that the three young ne’er-do-wells should stick to the "teenage dream movies" of their generation. ("Before I even made Art I was criticized!" cries John Michael McCarthy twenty years later.)
This must certainly be an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since McCarthy has gone on to create a number of "teenage dream movies" that belie, and are at once beholden to, their source material.
The element of filmmaking that sets it apart from all other art forms is editing. That is, the juxtaposition of images in a way that creates associations between them. The comic book is the only art form that has anything similar to film editing in its genetic makeup. In fact, a film storyboard basically is a comic strip in every sense. It’s therefore natural that film artists should emerge from the world of comics. But it doesn’t happen all that often.
Before entering films, JMM made his mark as the artist and co-author of the comic book Kid Anarchy, three issues of which were published by Fantagraphics Books (the pre-eminent publisher/distributor of so-called "alternative comics") in 1990. Fantagraphics also published two issues of Cadavera, the saga of a woman constructed, Frankenstein-like, from the body parts of dead movie stars. Under Fantagraphics’s Eros imprint, JMM published other titles such as Super Sexxx, BangGang, and (ever the entrepreneur) a promotional comic book for his first film, Damselvis.
SWB:How did your comics come to the attention of Fantagraphics?
JMM: George Cole and I presented five pages of penciled Kid Anarchy art to Gary Groth at the 1989 Dallas Fantasy Fair (a comic book conventionmy vice before film festivals!).
SWB:Did your comic books have a sizeable following?
JMM: Everything I’ve ever done has been unpopular. As I understand it, even Fantagraphics shredded the remaining copies of Kid Anarchy that I didn’t buy from them to free up warehouse space. My entire print run of Cadavera was ruined by a leaky warehouse ceiling. And yet Fantagraphics was the company I always wanted to work for.
SWB:Though many lazy writers would compare your films to Russ Meyer and John Waters, I see abundant similarities between you and Federico Fellini. You each started out doing comics; you each commonly post-dub the dialogue of your films; and you are each fond of buxom, sexually forthright women.
JMM: Most of my inspirations are derived from comics artists like Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, or Harvey Kurtzman. Alejandro Jodorowsky does comics too. How could one say they are truly inspired by Kubrick or Hitchcock when there is such a disparity in budget and talent?
I don’t have Alzheimer’s or a rich father either.
Demelvis, Daughter of Helvis (1994)
"I thought it was time that we pull the cosmic hair trigger on popular culture ... here in Memphis." from JMM’s promotional comic book about the making of Demelvis
In an effort to get his cinematic feet wet, JMM served as associate producer on two shot-on-video horror movies made in Memphis: Gorotica (1993; AKA Wake of the Dead) and Gore Whore (1994), both directed by Hugh Gallagher (who repaid the favor by doing some camerawork on Demelvis). "I set up the locations, found the actors, & let everyone stay at my house," said JMM.
Demelvis, Daughter of Helvis, the first feature from JMM and Big Broad (later GuerrillaMonster), was shot and edited on video (SVHS, to be precise). Originally conceived as a Fantagraphics comic, Damselvis (properly pronounced DAM-sul-vis) is the simple yet convoluted story of Isla M., the daughter of Evel Knievelvis, who eventually realizes (via a visitation from Rebelvis) her true identityDamselvis. Along the way she meets Psychedelvis, Elvicious, and Black Jesus (AKA Woofmon, the screen’s first Rastafarian werewolf). Huh?
Though JMM doesn’t talk about Demelvis too much these days (and, in private, tends to discount its importance), the film contains many of the thematic and visual elements that were to become hallmarks of his style, and is therefore of interest to anyone who finds JMM’s oeuvre to be compelling.
Teenage Tupelo (1995)
Again with the lovingly convoluted plotlines, Teenage Tupelo deals with the story of JMM’s own conception in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1962. "My biological father is unknown to me, so in my story I’ve made him into an Elvis-inspired character called ‘Johnny Tu-Note.’ Basically I’m saying Elvis is my father," he said in a promotional interview at the time of the film’s release.
"Teenage Tupelo makes my biological mother into the definitive heroine, though I’ve never met her. You might say this movie is a ‘semi auto bio sexploitation comedy drama musical’... I suppose the genesis of Teenage Tupelo belongs to history and synchronicity. My bio-mother saw Elvis play at the ’56 Tupelo fair when she was barely a teenager. You can see her in the famous photo of Elvis singing and reaching out to the crowd of mostly young women. At that same show the people who would adopt me years later are sitting in the back row. Elvis is my divine arbiter of synchronicity. We shot exclusively in Tupelo and Memphis where he walked."
SWB:What sort of reception did Teenage Tupelo receive? How widely was it exhibited?
JMM:Teenage Tupelo was Something Weird’s first all-new release [that is, not an unearthed exploitation classic] in affiliation with David F. Friedman [producer of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s gore epics and other exploitation classics], which was very exciting at the time (1995). We didn’t really show it in festivals, but it played the Knitting Factory in NYC and other various gigs.
SWB:How did Something Weird end up as the video distributor?
JMM: My awareness of exploitation film had gestated since 1986, when I read ReSearch’s Incredibly Strange Films. Then along came Something Weird, and their image caught me; also, their location in Seattle was/is timely too, since I had already been dealing with Fantagraphics up there. On the other hand, David F. Friedman lived about four hours from me in Aniston, Alabama. Friedman and I had a rendezvous in the Memphis airport and struck up a fast friendship. He agreed to put his name on Teenage Tupelo. And he’s no old geezer, either.
SWB:Are your other videotapes completely self-released?
JMM: Everything with the exception of The Sore Losers. Something Weird no longer carries Teenage Tupelo, but you can get it from me at guerrillamonster.com.
The Sore Losers (1996)
If you think JMM’s prior films sound convoluted, you may not be prepared for The Sore Losers. Set in present-day northeastern Mississippi and Memphis, Blackie (Jack Oblivian) returns to Earth 42 years after his first visit, having been given a second chance by The Elder of the Lo-Fi Frequency to finish his original mission. He hooks up with his old friends Mike (Mike Maker), Kerine (Kerine Elkins) and D’lana (D’lana Tunnell) to kill hippies, while being pursued by the ‘FBI’ from outer space, The Men In Black (played by Tokyo punk band Guitar Wolf, for whom JMM has also directed two special-effects-laden music videos).
SWB:How much of The Sore Losers’s (relatively) large budget was recouped?
JMM:The Sore Losers cost 31K when all was said and done. But that’s probably not exact. I just sold it against my better judgment to a company called Hourglass (formerly Parthenon). [This decision has resulted in The Sore Losers’s current availability as an inexpensive DVD, most notably as part of a double-disc package titled Hotter Than Hell. But you should pick it up from GuerrillaMonster.com instead.]
SWB:Tell me about the connection between The Sore Losers and The People Vs. Larry Flynt. (JMM did all production art for the Milos Forman film.)
JMM: I met [co-producer] Emmy Collins on the set and [cinematographer] Mike Hunkele as well. We stole dark beer from their offices once they had stolen time away from Memphis.
SWB:Who is Hugh B. Brooks [Johnny Tu-Note in Teenage Tupelo ; Tuthpick in The Sore Losers ; a caveman in Superstarlet A.D. ]? He’s incredible in each of your films.
JMM: Don’t tell him that. I noticed they just tore down his apartment house. I hope he wasn’t in it. You can see him walking around Memphis with a backpack spouting liberal philosophies.
Superstarlet A.D. (2000)
Originally titled Starlet A.D., this is in many ways the most austere and unconventional of JMM’s filmsand that’s saying a lot, of course. It’s his ultimate statement in his litany of woman-worship. He’s always maintained both in print and on film, that woman is superior to man in every respect. And here, on the heels of the Armageddon that occurred at the climax of The Sore Losers ("Apocalypse Meow"), the only creatures still alive are women (well, and a couple of cavemen). Unadorned by clothing and other fineries, they soldier along, undaunted in their quest for the stag films in which their grandmothers and great-grandmothers appeared. JMM’s first musical (with a great performance, both dramatically and tunefully, by the devastating Kerine Elkins) is not only a follow-up to The Sore Losers’s apocalyptic finale, but it’s also a sequel to Trashus Trailerus, the film-within-a-film in Teenage Tupelo. So it’s the first sequel to a film within a film, as far as we know.
SWB:Was Superstarlet A.D. consciously made on a fraction of the budget of The Sore Losers? Or was that just economic circumstance?
JMM: Naked starlets are my cheapest special effect. We cut clothes out of the budget.
SWB:In most ways, Superstarlet A.D. looks technically better than The Sore Losers, even at that fractional budget.
JMM: Why build a sewer set when you can just go stand in a real one?
SWB:Did Kerine Elkins do her own singing in Superstarlet A.D.? If so, she needs to start making records.
JMM: You said a mouthful. Kerine has some photos she’d like to show you.
SWB:Why was D’lana Tunnell [a starlet featured in most of JMM’s films] not in Superstarlet A.D.?
JMM: Good question. I tried, but she was into other things in her life at the time. D’lana is very headstrong, and has other goals from time to time (she’s a real person!). D’lana currently owns a lampshade company called Moonshine Shades. Anyone interested can reach her at MoonshineShades.com or contact me. You know, everyone gets older (though not necessarily more mature), and I know we’re all tired of being "poor and famous." It’s the price you pay for doing whatever the hell you want.
SWB: Superstarlet A.D. has even more gorgeous scantily-clad and naked women than any of your other films. Are these women starting to track you down, rather than you having to track them down?
JMM: I’ve decided I’m just going to hang out in the departure area for Norway Airlines and hand out cards to square-jawed Teutonic beauties.
SWB:The original plan was for Superstarlet A.D. to run 90 minutes. Yet the finished film is only 70 minutes. What got in the way?
JMM: One of the main starlets left two days into shooting. That left us scrambling to be more European with the plot.
Elvis Meets the Beatles (2000)
"All facts based on what someone else says is true!"GuerrillaMonster tagline, 2000
It’s well known that the Fabs visited the King at Graceland on August 27, 1965. However, little is known about the meeting itself, aside from a handful of essential facts: they did in fact make some music together (Charlie Rich’s then-recent hit "Mohair Sam," with Elvis on bass guitar), and shot pool together. Those few facts are the launching pad for JMM’s twenty-minute short film speculating what might have happened within the walls of Graceland that day. Stylistically, the film is (appropriately) reminiscent in many ways of A Hard Day’s Night, with zany compositions and camera angles, and editing to the rhythm of the soundtrack (performed by The Beatles-Asterisks).
SWB:It’s nice to see you do a short film. It has a completely new flavor for you; your features seem to all be on a sort of continuum, and the short seems to have a totally different mindset from your features.
JMM: There were other astonishing dualities I was finding out about both Elvis and the Beatles as we were shooting, and I couldn’t fit everything in. Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon wishes it were a feature, and that’s always a possibility. Regarding the "new flavor," I was hoping their popularity would rub off on me.
SWB:The guy who plays George Harrison looks almost exactly like Stig O’Hara (the George character in The Rutles), rather than Harrison himself. Was that intentional?
JMM: No, Steven Buckley played George, and he also happens to do a lot of my SoundForge programming, as well as every effect you see in Superstarlet A.D.
SWB:In a certain overexposed film by a certain overexposed filmmaker, there’s a deleted scene in which Uma Thurman’s character posits that there are two kinds of people: Elvis people, and Beatles people. She states that Elvis people can like the Beatles, and Beatles people can like Elvis, but no one likes them both the same. Have you found this to be true?
JMM: Elvis is punk, and the Beatles are hippie. The Beatles may have had punk moments, but Elvis never [had hippie moments], even though Elvis’s acid trip may have led him to reinvent himself as Captain Marvel Jr. Elvis in a silk cape should be juxtaposed against the Beatles in same. Then there’s that line on the White Album about Captain Marvel...
Shine on Sweet Starlet (1998)
Broad Daylight (2004)
JMM’s faithful recreations of vintage stag loops are a highlight of nearly all of his features. And his two incredible compilation filmsShine on Sweet Starlet, and its "she-quel" Broad Daylight are natural outgrowths of this pursuit. These films are actually collaborations between JMM and photographer Victoria Renard, with JMM taking producer credit on each of the films.
Keeping in step with the vintage look of so many of his films, Shine on Sweet Starlet and Broad Daylight appear at first glance to be compilations of actual ’50s and ’60s "nudie-cutie" loops. The only dead giveaways of their contemporary status are the tattoos and piercings on some of the "models." But the attention to period detail is painstaking; all of the "costumes" worn (and subsequently removed) by the gals are, at the latest, of Sixties vintage. And in one segment, a 1966 "girlie" calendar is visible on a wall behind one of the strippers. Every scene in each of the films was shot in either grainy black-and-white or garish color, and shots are often out-of-focus, dimly lit, and/or handheld.
Singularly appropriate soundtracks of ’50s- and ’60s-styled "raunch ‘n’ roll" (by bands such as the Woggles, Gas Huffer, the Oblivians, Riverboat Gamblers, Girl Trouble, and even Neko Case, who was originally to have appeared as a "dancer" in Broad Daylight) add to the vintage "feel."
Among the featured starlets in Broad Daylight is "Miss Exotic World 2002," Kitten DeVille. Her segment was shot in front of an old trailer with pink flamingos in the yard, which makes one wonder if this is an offhanded tribute to a Baltimore filmmaker whom JMM usually pooh-poohs.
As a promotional item for Broad Daylight, JMM created a deck of old-fashioned "girlie" playing cards, with the help of pin-up photography legend Bunny Yeager.
SWB:How did you hook up with Bunny Yeager?
JMM: Greg Theakston [publisher/editor of the burlesque tribute magazine Tease! ] hipped Victoria to the fact that Bunny Yeager is living in Miami. I called Bunny and invited her to our Cameras & Cocktails party down there. Ursulina, Dawn Ashcraft, Victoria, Kelly Ball, and Kitten DeVille were all present. It was a blast! Bunny’s photos are on the Broad Daylight disc.
SWB:It seems to me that Shine on Sweet Starlet is specifically an emulation of 1950s stag loops, and Broad Daylight more of a tribute to 1960s stag loops.
JMM:Broad Daylight is all color, if that’s what you mean. The original idea was to use outdoor locations and avoid artificial light. Some of it was shot indoors anyway.
SWB:These two films at last put the "tease" back into striptease. Especially the segment of Broad Daylight wherein one starlet had her "performance" distorted by (deliberate?) "problems" with sprocket holes in the print.
JMM: Are you talking about Mez? The mammoth-chested girlwith the accompanying song by Jack Oblivian called "Drinking Mother’s Milk?"
SWB:Yes! Some would label that particular effects technique "post-modern."
JMM: No film effects were used on Broad Daylight, ’cause we shot in Super-8, and most screw-ups were caused by the old cameras themselves.
SWB:How was Broad Daylight received at Tease-O-Rama [a national burlesque "convention"]?
JMM: I remember sitting behind Kitty Crimson. She watched herself onscreen for the first time, so that was great fun. I hope to work with Kitty Crimson in Cadavera !
SWB:Tell me about Victoria Renard’s role in Shine on Sweet Starlet and Broad Daylight.
JMM: She shot about 80% of Broad Daylight. I literally phoned some of the direction in, ’cause Victoria lives in Seattle and I’m in Memphis.
Projects in the Works
In a sense, JMM’s oeuvre may seem to the uninitiated to be little more than the sum of its parts (and his self-confessed premeditated approach, as well as his partially-serious numerological theories, may seem to bear out this mindset). But once you’ve visited his universe, you’ll probably find yourself in awe of his visual flair and his way with words, each of which reveal a unique and powerful artist, constantly at work and constantly at war with his perceived adversaries.
SWB:You’ve got more projects in various stages of completion than ever. Care to enumerate?
JMM:Psychedelvis is a cartoon show that I could use some help drawing. Cadavera is my Kenneth Anger meets Star Wars idea. It needs some money to live. Loserdom is a documentary on the ten-year anniversary of GuerillaMonster Films. Miles O’Keeffe has agreed to play the lead in my film Red Schism. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to a "star name" or "commercial" project. I need investors or patrons.
SWB:I notice there’s another film out that has Cadavera in the title ( The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra). But you wrote Cadavera (in comix form) almost a decade ago!
JMM: While I’ve been struggling to make Cadavera into a movie for years, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra appears now at the local video store! Instead of coming up with any other unrelated spooky word, they chose to emulate my character’s nameby changing one letter!
SWB:By all appearances, this is another one of those pre-fab "low-budget" movies that is actually propped up by lots of Hollywood money. It rings false to me.
JMM: It’s a pseudo-cult movieHollywood’s favorite kind.
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