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July 3, 2007

"I seed it! I seed it with my own eyes!"

I'm only just now catching up with Phil Nugent's rant from last month that begins:

We're supposed to be living in this new era of CGI technology and kids who can sit down at their laptops and whip up a little movie showing Yogi Berra on the grassy knoll with as much ease as I used to stick baseball cards in between my bicycle spokes. (More ease, actually. I always used to give myself these wicked paper cuts.) I'm kind of disappointed that it doesn't seem to have resulted in a golden age of horrifyingly convincingly videos of lake monsters and skunk apes and little green men. I feel that if we'd had the the technology back when I was a sprout, we'd have had so many homemade spin-offs of the Patterson film (for those of you who can't quite make the connection, that's the footage of a pregnant-looking Bigfoot sashaying around the woods) plastered all over You Tube that it seem as if Sunn Classic Pictures exploded. Instead, all the little boogers are probably holed up working on their test reels for Pixar. I can't say as I blame them, but it does make you wonder. I've seen those characters in England demonstrating how they made all those crop circles themselves and scared Mel Gibson half to death. Whoever was or wasn't in on the making of the Patterson film, sticking somebody inside that costume and arranging to have a camera film the event for posterity took some initiative. As for the "surgeon's photograph" of Nessie that formed the modern image we all have of what the monster is supposed to look like and is the reason that some star-struck kids like me when quizzed about species of dinosaurs could immediately name, in addition to the T. Rex, the pterodactyl, and the brontosaurus, the long-necked sea-dwelling water balloon known as the plesiosaur--well, let's just say that after you've been informed flat out that it was just a picture of a toy sunmarine with some clay stuck on and seen the uncropped version of the photo that shows it as looking very small, it may not seem like much, but that didn't stop if from really getting something started, now did it?

He goes on, in due course, to a discussion of The Legend of Boggie Creek, which I saw at the age of 10 with my girlfriend (my first, but also the last one for seven long, long years) which on reflection seems like just the right age to be when you watch it. Legend is now available from Netflix, so I can confirm from a recent trip down memory lane that Nugent's precis here is reliable as to plot, tone, and style:

One dependable source of nightmare fuel came from the four-waller regional exploitation movie makers whose wares were promoted in saturation-TV-ad campaigns on weekends when I was parked in front of the tube, admiring the delicate comic touch that Charles Nelson Reilly brought to Uncle Croc's Block. The lollapallooza of the genre was The Legend of Boggy Creek, a 1973 epic about the Fouke Monster, a three-toed hairy hominid that reportedly terrorized the people of Fouke, Arkansas in the early 1970s. The movie, which was made for about $160,000 and probably holds the world record for the movie with the most cast members whose last name is "Crabtree", has actually been released on DVD and every once in a blue moon plays on cable TV around 3:00 in the morning on days when the programming chiefs have reason to believe that an unusually high percentage of the usual viewership will be asleep or on crack at that hour. It's a pretty good indicator of just how starved you had to be for entertainment to make it through any of the movies of this kind. Those that dwelt on sightings of backwoods monsters tended to be long--very, very long--on poorly shot, aimless nature footage, with long stretches where the camera just tools around the swamp and the high grass while moviegoers who made the mistake of actually taking their children to see this movie silently pray either for something to happen onscreen or for lightning to strike the theater. Then suddenly, you'll see some guy who looks like a dried apple carving wearing a gimme cap will snarl at the camera, "I seed it! I seed it with my own eyes!" Naturally the viewer's blood pressure will shoot right up after something as exciting as that, so as a mercy, there'll be some more nature footage. Then, about forty minutes into this eighty-minute movie, the narrator will inform you that Ned and Peg Haggerty were just getting ready for bed that night when something happened that would change their lives forever. This is the announcement that the story that made the papers a week and inspired the filmmakers to go into production is about to be reenacted, and you're going to get to see all the footage that was in the TV commercials. "Well, good night, Peg." "Good night, Ned." "Hey, do you smell something?" "Oh, it's awful!" "Woof! Woof! Woof!" "Hey, what's wrong, Samson? What is it boy!?" More nature footage, except that now it's so fucking dark that you can't see a thing, and somebody standing next to the microphone is doing his Brenda Vaccarro impression. "Peg, turn out the lights and get me my shotgun." Now you can't see the interior footage either, and the guy working the hand-held camera has come down with a bad case of St. Vitus's Dance. "Oh, what is it, it's not human!" Brenda Vaccarro sounds as if she's just finished the Boston Marathon while carrying lead bars in her fannypack. "Samson, come back, boy. Oh no!" At this point all the younger kids in the theater are crying. I take no pride in remembering that, watching these movies as a kid, I used to think that there must be a lot in there that I was missing because I wasn't smart enough yet to appreciate them.

That was the world of regional-distribution exploitation films and the cryptozoological subculture as of the early 1970s. Something very different started to emerge about ten years later -- something that I've pondered, and to some degree worried about, for a few years, trying to figure out how to write about it eventually. Nugent has noticed the change too:

There was a major resurgence in the 1990s, but it wasn't any fun at all; then, UFO abduction stories got mixed up with horseshit about satanic rituals and daycare centers that somehow doubled as orgiastic horror holes and the whole deeply sinister "recovered memory" shuck that destroyed so many innocent lives. At its most unnerving, it took the form of a general feeling, such as that articulated by Jodi Dean in her book Aliens in America, that believing ridiculous shit is "a political act" What counts for Dean is that a UFO report, however discreetly it may be couched, is "a political act" because it "contests the status quo," i.e., the boringly rational truth.

Yes, well, that would be a "political act" in the sense of "politics" meaning "having nothing to do with politics." As we know, cultural-studies people can be very activist with the remote control.

Anyway, all of this also calls to mind "The Devil and Bill Eliis," one of my Chronicle pieces, which I will recommend now to anyone who has gotten this far.

Posted by smclemee at July 3, 2007 6:24 AM