Last March, while The Pianist director Roman Polanski was receiving a standing ovation at the Oscars, a man 2,000 miles away sat planted firmly in his seat. Lloyd Kaufman was offended. One wonders what on earth could offend the cofounder of Troma Entertainment, a company whose pictures include Redneck Zombies and Surf Nazis Must Die. "We should not be giving ovations to a director who violated the chocolate canal of a 12-year-old girl," crackles the voice on the other end of the line.
Then Kaufman falls silent--a rarity from a man whose mile-a-minute rants sometimes recall Zero Mostel in The Producers. The mogul realizes that he has crossed the boundaries of decency. He apologizes, then quickly corrects himself. Scratch the word girl, he says, and substitute a more politically precise term: gyno-American. The distinction is important for Troma's upstanding image. "We're the moral conscience of the industry," says the distributor of Fag Hag and Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid.
The weird thing is, Kaufman may not be kidding. Take his new movie, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, screening this week at the St. Anthony Main as part of a 30th-anniversary Troma retrospective starting Friday. The fourth installment of the Toxic Avenger superhero series, which remains Troma's calling card, Citizen Toxie hammers taboo subjects such as abortion and mental disability with a fearless crudeness not seen since John Waters's early films. A borderline-comic scene that copies the pickup-dragging death of James Byrd is appalling by any imaginable standard of taste and decency. And yet it must be said that Kaufman may have been the first filmmaker to address this national trauma openly in a fictional feature, with its racist vehemence and ugliness laid bare. If it pisses off viewers, Kaufman wants them pissed off--for the right reasons.
"What's appalling--the scene or the crime?" Kaufman asks during a phone chat from Troma's New York offices. He uses the example of his late friend, filmmaker Samuel Fuller, whose attacks on internalized American bigotry sometimes got him branded a bigot. "He did a movie [White Dog] about a dog that people trained to be racist, and for that people called him a racist," Kaufman says. "He was ahead of his time. There's nothing courageous about making Schindler's List 50 years after the Holocaust. When 100 percent of the people agree with something, that's not the time to do it."
There's no danger of anyone agreeing with 100 percent of what Troma does. The typical Troma film is a fire-hose spew of drive-in essentials: jiggling jugs, spilling guts, leering fat guys, geysers of unmentionable fluids, and fart noises amplified to sonic-boom decibels. But it's a brew with a devoted following. Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, and Gaspar Noë are avowed Troma fans, and the Cinematheque Française has feted its films. Now Kaufman means to infect the populace with Make Your Own Damn Movie!, a guide-to-filmmaking book that tells wannabe directors how to exploit friends, family, and unsuspecting crew members the Troma way.
"There are very few books about moviemaking written by people who make movies," says Kaufman, who'll share secrets from the book at a "master class" at St. Anthony Main on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. (He'll also be on hand at the theater to introduce many of the screenings during the retro's first few days.) The full week of Troma trauma ranges from Joel M. Reed's indefensible Bloodsucking Freaks (screening Saturday at midnight) to Kaufman's own bid for Miramax tradition-of-quality approval, Tromeo and Juliet (August 24 and 27). In the latter, Troma improves upon the tame original with head-rippings, hot femme-on-femme sex, and a hero who happens to be a horny mutant squirrel. If you were a film-school geek, whom would you want to follow--musty old Shakespeare, or the guy with the squirrel suit?
"I lecture often at universities," Kaufman says, "and students ask the same questions. How do you raise money? How do you sell your movie? How do you market it, when the playing field is no longer level?"
The last point especially raises his ire. Independent filmmakers had more access to theaters in the early '70s, when Kaufman and his Troma business partner Michael Herz were Yale undergrads. Their first successes, raunchy sex comedies such as 1979's Squeeze Play (Friday at midnight), thrived in the wild and woolly days of competing indie theater chains and pre-consolidation cable. Now that a handful of "devil-worshipping conglomerates" controls all the avenues of exhibition, Kaufman argues, independents can barely get their films in theaters, let alone meet skyrocketing promotion costs.
"Under the Nixon-Reagan-Clinton axis, all the laws that protected audiences from cartels were destroyed," Kaufman says. As consolidation continues, he expects only indifference from current FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Nor does he count on help from his old Yale classmate, one George W. Bush. "I should've joined the Skull and Bones when they asked me," Kaufman laments. "I'd probably have more money."
That leaves Troma no choice but to use the guerrilla marketing, outright hucksterism, and utterly daft promotional opportunities outlined in Make Your Own Damn Movie! No niche market is too small. When the city of Kabul was liberated and its movie theaters opened after years of Taliban repression, what showed up overnight? A gift box of Troma's finest, courtesy of you-know-who. At the recent Cannes Film Festival, amidst the blue-badge scavengers and preening celebs, Kaufman could be found stalking the Croisette with his stable of deformed superheroes and busty starlets in tow.
Kaufman knows his enemy. He started as an assistant to director John G. Avildsen (Joe), and worked on major-studio features such as Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. Despite his impeccable vulgarian credentials, he served as production manager on that highbrow '80s fetish object, Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre. But he says that the waste and blubber of big-budget shoots pushed him over the edge. He and Herz co-directed several zero-budget comedies, but it wasn't until The Toxic Avenger in 1985 that they found Troma's winning combination of T&A, splatter, and beyond-the-pale gross-out gags.
This formula is celebrated both in Kaufman's book and in Citizen Toxie, Troma's ultimate bad-taste bombardment. Set in the town of Tromaville and its parallel universe, Amortville, Citizen Toxie pits the scabby superhero against his evil twin, the Noxious Offender. Body parts fly, feces are flung, a penis monster attacks, lots of icky sex ensues, and cameos by porn mavens Ron Jeremy and Al Goldstein lend a whiff of class. Say what you will about the repulsive content: Kaufman's direction has improved vastly since the original Toxie. Nobody rips apart a roomful of Nazis with more gallons of red food dye, or stages a more poignant "Take a Mexican to Lunch Day" at a school for the developmentally disabled.
Today, Troma stays afloat thanks to overseas TV, DVD sales, and Kaufman's own multimedia barnstorming. "It's harder and harder to be an independent in this country," he says. "We're at risk, there's no question." But the company continues to distribute its own movies, as well as those by like-minded auteurs. Only Kaufman had the nerve to pick up South Park creator Trey Parker's early film Cannibal! The Musical (August 23, 27, and 28), which marks the historic intersection of Troma and the late experimental-film titan Stan Brakhage (who has a cameo).
To support other up-and-comers, Kaufman and Troma are sponsoring their own version of Lars von Trier's back-to-basics DV movement, Dogme 95. Theirs is called Dogpile 95. "Dogme 95 has a 'vow of chastity,'" Kaufman explains. "We have a 'bow-wow-vow' of 'fast-and-shitty.'" The first Dogpile movie, Tales from the Crapper, is already underway. (The finished film will contain songs by Rochester, Minnesota-based band the F*#k Ups, who'll play a gig in Kaufman's honor on Saturday at St. Anthony Main.) Still, Kaufman predicts that his company will continue celebrating its 30th-anniversary year with tried-and-true elements that carry the familiar aroma du Troma. Indeed, with zombie chickens and a period piece entitled Schlock and Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen on the way, who needs an Oscar?
"There has never been a movie studio that lasted 30 years without a hit," says Kaufman proudly. "That tradition will continue unblemished for as long as I'm president of this institution."