Driller Killer

drillerkillerposterAbel Ferrara’s 1979 movie Driller Killer is a notorious cult horror film, included on the “video nasties” list of banned films in the UK, and long available in the US on VHS and DVD only in an edited, incomplete version. Now, with the wonders of on- demand TV, Driller Killer (like so much hard-to-find entertainment) can be directly piped, uncut, right into your own home. Is this a sign of social progress, or yet another symptom of the decline of Western Civilization? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Having waited to see this movie for so long, I was concerned that it would turn out to be as tritely obnoxious and aesthetically worthless as some outraged critics have claimed. Instead, Driller Killer turns out to be an unusually complicated horror film that is both gruesome and psychologically interesting.

Set in 1970’s New York City, the aesthetic of Driller Killer is pure punk. The titles and credits have a homemade look, and the film opens with a typically punk rock message: “This film should be played loud.” Max’s Kansas City, the legendary New York punk club, is prominently featured as a location where a band called the Roosters (with Tony Coca-cola as the frontman) is central to the unfolding, gory events. Throughout the film, the main characters all exhibit that blank, vaguely confused, and periodically hostile way of acting typical of early east coast punk and new wave. The locations are all run-down, and the characters unglamorous.

The New York depicted in Driller Killer is not the affluent, touristy New York City of today. It is the New York of Taxi Driver and Maniac. It is the “old” New York sung about by Agnostic Front. It is the New York City that I recall from the early 1980’s when I visited my friend who was attending art school in Brooklyn. During that visit, I fondly remember seeing Killdozer perform at CBGB’s, and listening to local punk bands at some nameless warehouse before wandering back to my friend’s cockroach infested apartment, cutting through the terrifyingly dangerous streets of Bedford Stuyvesant. At night, there were garbage cans on fire, illuminating the dark streets. There was graffiti all over the subway trains. Hucksters and scam artists were on all the street corners. It felt as if everyone was out to exploit someone, somehow. It was a place much different from the New York City that I’ve visited in recent times, which feels more like a safely monitored amusement park than the gritty, dangerous metropolis that appears in Driller Killer.

the-driller-killer-1979Driller Killer tells the story of an artist named Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara, but credited as Jimmy Laine) who lives in a small New York apartment with two women, Carol Slaughter (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). While it appears that Reno and Carol have some sort of romantic connection, it is instead Carol and Pamela who are sexually intimate with one another. Reno, on the other hand, is depicted as virtually asexual, more interested in working on his paintings than he is in romance, music or socializing with others. In particular, he is obsessed with the completion of a painting of a buffalo, which he is convinced will make him rich and famous. However, his work on this painting is constantly interrupted by the Roosters, who practice in one of the adjoining apartments. Because of the constant punk rock music disturbing his concentration and sleep, Reno becomes progressively more and more unhinged, until he snaps and embarks on a killing spree with a power drill.

All of this makes Driller Killer sound like a piece of conventional exploitation. What lifts it above other, less interesting films of the genre, however, are the themes that Abel Ferrara weaves together as he explores the psychological disintegration of the main character.

The first of these themes has to do with homelessness. The opening scene has Reno being summoned to a church, where nuns have discovered a homeless man mutely sitting in the pews. In this man’s pocket is Reno’s contact information. But upon arrival, Reno has no knowledge of who this person is. When he tries to talk with the man, the homeless person grabs his hand, sending Reno into an unreasonable panic. The mystery of this scene is never fully resolved, but later in the movie we find that Reno is in the habit of hanging out with homeless people on the streets, sketching them and drinking with them. It seems that Abel Ferrara wants to suggest that this main character both identifies with the rootless isolation of the homeless at the same time that he is also repelled by this very same quality. In the homeless, he sees something of himself; something that he fears and wants to destroy. In fact, when he goes on his killing spree, his violence is largely directed toward familiar homeless people in his neighborhood rather than against the members of the noisy punk band who disturb his work or the apartment manager who threatens him with eviction.

The theme of passivity is connected to the images of homelessness. As mentioned above, Reno is depicted as virtually asexual. He is more concerned with his artwork than he is with his girlfriend, and this seems to be indicative of his own passive, impotent nature. As the only male member of his household, he is unable to pay the rent. In order to avoid eviction, Carol has to rely on alimony and other money that she borrows from her ex-husband, thus also relegating Reno to dependent status.  Additionally, even though he is being driven crazy by the constant music that disturbs his work, Reno never has the courage to confront the band members, but instead befriends them and even agrees to paint a portrait of the lead singer, Tony Coca-cola. So although it is clear that Reno is an angry man, he is passively reliant on the people around him and unable to assert himself. At one point, Pamela naively says to Reno that he should let the gallery owner who is interested in his paintings “stick it up your ass,” further suggesting that Reno is by nature passive and submissive. This passivity is symbolized at one point by a skinned rabbit that his landlord gives to him, apparently aware that Reno is unable to provide food for the household. Like a rabbit, Reno is skittish and vulnerable – gutless – and he seems to become consciously aware of this vulnerability when he is alone with the wet, bloody, skinny body of the rodent. Instead of eating it, Reno begins to stab the rabbit in the head until it is broken and destroyed. This seems to be a foreshadowing of his attacks upon humans with his power drill.

driller-killer-buffalo-paintingWoven into all of this is the buffalo painting that consumes Reno’s attention. He is convinced that this painting will be his masterpiece, but he is unable to let it go, feeling as if it always needs more work, despite the fact that the gallery owner and Carol keep pestering him to finish it. There are points when Reno seems hostile toward the painting, as though he is intimidated by it. He threatens  to stab it in the eye, but then apologizes to the painting, saying that he would never harm it. The buffalo appears as an image that is contrary to that of the rabbit. Whereas the rabbit represents Reno’s timidity and weakness, the buffalo represents his urge toward strength and aggression. He finds it difficult to let go of the painting precisely because he is unsure of his own powers, and as it turns out, he is correct to be hesitant. For when he does deliver the finished piece, the gallery owner is unimpressed, insulting the artist’s talents and telling him that his work has been in vain. He has lost his creative powers. The buffalo is a failure, and now Reno has nothing to hide behind. He is unable to conceal his impotence.

The use of a drill as a murder weapon clearly evokes phallic symbolism. As Reno stalks the gritty streets of New York, he attacks mostly homeless men, stabbing their torsos with his drill and occasionally also drilling them in their heads; just as he had stabbed the skinned rabbit in its head and as he had threatened to stab his buffalo painting in the eye. With this murder spree, Reno attempts to kill that rootless, vulnerable part of himself that he sees reflected in street people. The use of the drill is an exaggerated way to emphasize his own desperate desire to be a masculine, dominant, and potent male. Once his confidence in his own power is solidified by killing the vulnerable, he turns his murderous rage toward those who actually do possess the power to threaten his masculinity: the gallery owner and Carol’s ex-husband.

driller9The gallery owner is the person Pamela had suggested Reno let screw him in the ass, and so by murdering him, Reno reasserts his own dominance. This murder results in a sort of crucifixion, as the body is pierced and held in place up against a door in a pose reminiscent of the dead Christ. This draws the audience’s minds back to the opening scene of the film, which takes place in a Catholic church; the place where Reno first panicked when grabbed by the homeless man. It also recalls an early scene – a foreshadowing this gruesome climax –in which Reno helps Pamela drill holes in this very same door frame.

The film ends when Carol leaves Reno, returning to her ex-husband. Reno follows her to the couple’s house and murders her ex-husband with his drill. He then waits for Carol beneath the sheets in the couple’s darkened bedroom. In the closing scene, unaware of Reno’s presence, Carol slips into bed, thinking that she is next to her ex-husband. Thus, Reno finally triumphs. He has taken back his girlfriend and presumably will now finally reassert his sexual virility.

a1t2obzllgl-_sl1500_I’m glad that when I finally did get to see Driller Killer, it was in its original, unedited version as intended by the director. I find it ironic that while in years past this movie was either banned or heavily censored, today I can watch the fully intact scenes of sex, violence and abjection at home, on demand, in the coziness of my own living room. The wonders of modern technology have preserved and made widely accessible this (and other) masterpiece(s) of low-budget, low-tech horror so that simply by turning on the television set, you or your children can freely view material previously considered obscene, vile and damaging to the moral health of film goers.

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PCA/ACA Summer Writer’s Workshop

2013_summer_writer_workshopIn late June, my wife and I attended the first ever Summer Writer’s Workshop hosted by the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association. It was a great experience being in New York City and meeting a friendly group of scholars working in various areas of popular culture studies. I hope that the PCA/ACA decides to host many more of these sorts of events in the future.

The workshop was organized and led by Rosemarie Conforti, from Southern Connecticut University, and Joe Hancock, from Drexel University; both of whom did an outstanding job of putting together a series of meetings and visits that allowed participants to become immersed in the culture and the excitement of the City. Over the course of the week we had the opportunity to experience the offerings of New York while still having ample time to write, talk and debate. The participants were of diverse ages, interests and backgrounds, but what united us all was an enthusiatic concern with the study of popular culture and a desire to develop and work on our own particular writing projects. One of the true joys of the workshop was hearing about the various subjects being explored by the attendees, which ranged from research on video games and detective fiction to investigations into fashion and fat studies. It was inspiring – and eye-opening – to learn just how diverse the nature of popular culture studies is. The whole experience gave me hope that the image of college professors as  stuffy,  boring and arrogant is now a fading myth. I myself was filled with a renewed sense of confidence in, and passion for, my own somewhat unusual area of research.

af3cc5d892881eae0cb6b3f244cdfcd82b68f6bb445ab6d35a0c089eMy goal was to develop ideas for an essay on the nihilistic themes in the films of Darren Aronofsky. What initially attracted me to this workshop was the opportunity to spend time immersed in the atmosphere of New York City, which serves as the backdrop for many of this director’s most important films like PI and Black Swan. In Aronofsky’s work, the streets and subways of NYC often serve as visual metaphors for the human mind; and they are normally depicted as dark, mysterious and threatening. As we began wandering about, however, the actual streets of the City seemed anything but threatening and dark. The initial impression that I had was of a place bustling with activity, wealth and friendly people. This did not appear to be the hard-boiled, crime-ridden New York of days gone by! Yet, the more that we walked around, and the closer that I scrutinized my surroundings, the more I came to appreciate the significance of Aronofsky’s imagery.

calcagno-2010-06-28c.gifWandering about day and night, the labyrinthine quality of New York City streets and subway routes conjured a distinctive sense of nihilism in me. The streets are maze-like, turning in on themselves, leading one farther and farther into a tangled knot that ultimately goes nowhere. The subways –  those dark, underground tunnels – while they convey passengers to their destinations, also ultimately terminate in dead-ends. You could travel these tubes all your life, going round and round in vast circles, never leaving New York.  This is reflected in the subway map, in which the loose end of one train route becomes entangled with the various strings from other routes, forming one big jumbled knot of colored threads. Once you reach the end of the line, there is nowhere to go but to retrace your path. Whether above or below ground, people go here, there, and then back to where they started. If nihilism is a feeling provoked when, as Nietzsche claimed, a final goal is lacking, then the map of New York City offers a good metaphor of this conundrum. While superficially all is prosperity and purpose, the hamster wheel of absurdity is inscribed in the well-worn contours of the city’s infrastructure.

DSC00215In the process of wandering the streets, we had the opportunity to visit some of the particular locations that serve as settings in Aronfsky’s films, also stopping by the flat in the East Village that he used to own with Rachael Weiss. This was actually quite informative, as it reinforced in my mind the proximity of Aronofsky’s home to other NYC locations that he has utilized in his films. For instance, the club from Black Swan where Nina (Natalie Portman) gets drunk and experiences a breakthrough from her moral repressions, turns out to be right around the corner from Aronfsky’s flat. Could it be that the director’s own mental topography is reflected here?

Besides having the opportunity to simply experience the streets of New York, our workshop organizers scheduled a series of visits to some key sites and exhibits. These visits, whether intentionally or unintentionally, shared an underlying theme that served both to intrigue and to disturb me. Each place that we toured exemplified how living culture can become crystalized into a product that can then be sold back to the public as a commodity.

DSC00220Our first visit was to the Special Collection at the Fales Library at NYU. The curator, Marvin Taylor, has a special interest in punk culture, and consequently we were treated to an unexpectedly odd juxtaposition of artifacts. Old issues of Punk Magazine, the journals of Patti Smith, and videos of punk performances at CBGB’s are archived alongside ancient Greek texts and cuneiform tablets. This strange collection of  high and low culture, housed in the very same archive, unsettled me. As someone who grew up with punk, and who still defines himself as a kind of punk outsider, seeing the traces of my own subculture enshrined in a university archive made me wonder:  has the vigor and Dionysian energy of punk rock now been tamed and made safe? Is punk rock now a museum piece, no longer living, but preserved, mummy-like, under glass, only to be inspected with gloved hands? Am I, myself, now a part of a curious tradition that is of merely academic interest? I asked Marvin some of these questions, and while he acknowledged that these are relevant issues of concern, in the next moment we were back to perusing shelves of video performances by The Dead Boys that are archived in a vault along with first editions of Jane Austen.

DSC00287These same questions reemerged when we visited the punk exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Chaos to Couture. The fact that Beyonce served as the honorary chair of a benefit in support of the show immediately gave me pause. On the other hand  John Lydon also was a consultant, so I thought there might be something authentic here. Upon entering the exhibition, I nonetheless fell into a state of bewilderment. Video images of Sid Vicious and clips from The Punk Rock Movie looped on huge screens, while the music of the Buzzcocks and X-Ray Specs played. A re-creation of the bathroom at CBGB’s occupied one room, next to the high fashion designs of Versace and Prada. The atmosphere that was conjured made me feel like I was in the Church of Punk Rock. Here were the holy icons of punk history juxtaposed with the creations of a high priesthood of fashion designers who were about as far from the original punks as St. Paul was from Jesus!

diyhardwareThis intentional incongruity between “low” and “high” punk fashion was accompanied by another, perhaps less clear irony. All through the exhibit, docents enforced a “no photography” rule and signs hung everywhere commanding that patrons not touch the exhibits. This was, once again, punk rock under glass, sanitized, made safe and boring. Faux graffiti was scrawled on the walls and I found it curious that while anarchy signs were present, conspicuously absent was any appearance of a swastika, that iconically punk symbol of offensiveness. I kept thinking that to spray paint such an image in the fake bathroom or on the fake alleyway walls would have been the most “punk” gesture that anyone could have made at this exhibition; yet it would also no doubt be misunderstood and condemned by those who desire punk to be safe, unambiguous and unthreatening. My unease continued once we left the exhibit, and we found ourselves in a gift shop where patrons could buy overpriced copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, band pins, t-shirts and skateboard decks. I kept thinking of the closing scene of the film Breaking Glass, where the main character finally sells her punk-rock soul to the corporate devil. When it becomes a solidified, commoditized and sanitized museum piece, perhaps punk has finally died. Anarchy in the UK? That’ll be $25 dollars, please.

DSC00239Just as we experienced punk under glass at the Fales Collection and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we also experienced sex under glass at the Museum of Sex. The exhibits here were interesting – on one floor we learned about the most common search terms for porn, while on another we learned about the kinds of non-procreative sex engaged in by animals – but the idea of viewing pornographic images in the sterile and controlled confines of a museum was, yet again, a perplexing experience. I wondered how I was supposed to feel about all of this. Is the message that it is OK to look at porn so long as you feel no sexual arousal? As always, there was a gift shop, which if it were not in a museum would simply be called a “sex shop.” It’s shelves were stocked with dildoes, vibrators and hard-bound coffee table editions of pornographic photography. Within the context of a museum it almost seemed as if these objects were not intended for use, but rather simply to be admired and contemplated, like the high fashion creations we saw at the Met. I couldn’t help but think that maybe, as with punk rock, the best place to encounter sex is not in a museum at all! There is no shortage of punk clubs or sex shops in NYC, so why do we choose museum exhibits over the real thing?

DSC00319The most honest displays of commodification that we encountered during our workshop tours were at the clothing store Bergdorf-Goodman and at the New York Stock Exchange. Both locations are unapologetic icons of American excess and capitalist over-consumption, and so unlike with the punk exhibit or the sex museum, they can’t be criticized for being untrue to their core principles. We were told up front by our host at Bergdorf-Goodman that the store self-consciously cultivates an image and a clientele that is prestigious, elite and remote from the run-of-the-mill department stores and clothing boutiques that cater to everyday people. The managers here actually take steps to thin out the brands that they carry in order to become more and more exclusive as time goes on. They strive to be a store where only the rich and the powerful shop. Beyonce is one of their regular customers, we were told, and after hearing this I wasn’t surprised to see a pair of mohawk adorned skull cuff links for sale in one of the jewelery cases. Price: $7,000.00. Here again was punk rock for the rich.

DSC00602The Stock Exchange was our last scheduled destination, and it served as an appropriate capstone to the week. Considered a prime terrorist target, entry into the building is tightly controlled. There are barricades in the streets around the Exchange, and visitors need to be accompanied by a host. We were photographed and issued identification tags before going through metal detectors and being allowed onto the floor. Once inside I was immediately struck by how much it truly resembles a casino. Suspended from the ceilings are blue and green glowing boxes that announce where you are: NYSE. Beneath these are scores of  flat screens displaying the names of various companies and their stock activity. While the hustle and bustle is not as extreme as it appears in some movies, there are still plenty of men and women yelling at one another, running across the floor and pushing people out of their way as they rush to make trades. In the center of the floor is a news desk for MSNBC where cable broadcasts take place. At the closing bell, people cheered as if they were at some sort of sporting event.

The honesty of the NYSE was a sobering conclusion to our series of visits over the week. Here is a place that makes no excuses for what it is. It is a place where people are simply trying to make money. There are no attempts to disguise what is going on; the interior even looks like Las Vegas! The only irony here is that now that trades are made electronically and mostly by computers, the need for a building to house the Stock Exchange has passed. It is an expense that no longer needs to be maintained. Our guide told me that it is largely due to tradition that people still gather here, and that in 10 or 15 years, this building probably won’t exist anymore. Capitalism destroys its own traditions without regret. Maybe there is something punk rock about that after all.

DSC00429Incidentally, the New York Stock Exchange is just a few blocks away from a couple of other buildings that have ceased to exist. These particular buildings are now memorialized by two fountains occupying the footprints in which they once stood. By their absence, these buildings have come to represent the closest thing to a holy shrine that Americans have today, and it is perhaps fitting that at the 9/11 Memorial you must stand in line with tickets among hundreds of others before entering a park where people pose for pictures, after which they exit through a gift shop. In America, this is how we show reverence: we turn things into commodities.