Lloyd Kaufman and partner Michael Herz started Troma entertainment over 30 years ago with very specific agendas—Herz, it seemed, saw it as a way of making money and paying off his Yale tuition; Kaufman felt the same way, but he also wanted to make a difference in the world. In the early ‘70s, America was still reeling from Vietnam and the ensuing protests. Young people out of college—like Kaufman and Herz—had no trust of the government and felt disenfranchised from their parents’ generation. It was the era of “trust no one over 30”, and even Hollywood was feeling the anger of the younger class. Psychedelic, freewheeling films like “Easy Rider” and “Wild in the Streets” spoke more to the flower children. Independent producers like Roger Corman were still in their hey-day, producing entertainment for the high school and college-age set—an untapped market prior to the 1950s.
As history has borne out, the majority of films being made outside of the studio system in the 1970s were about something—free love, oppression of the classes, drug use for good or ill, social commentary was finding its way into many low-budget films and, in turn, these films found an audience. Hollywood didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t gage what films would be popular, and began giving new directors nearly unheard-of free reign. New directors, fresh out of film school, like Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, were suddenly, at the start of their game, now at the top of their game.
Kaufman, who worked with John Avildsen on such films as “Rocky” and “Saturday Night Fever”, wanted to be a part of this movement. But he also wanted to make money. He and Herz began to explore a formula that would define their “Troma” name: social commentary hidden behind nearly excessive sex and violence. Early films like “The First Turn-On” and “Stuck on You” concentrated more on the skin than the grue, and while not blockbusters by any means, were finding their audience. Come the 80s and the home video boom, Troma hit its stride with a bizarre little movie called “The Toxic Avenger” and the tumblers finally clicked into place.
“The Toxic Avenger” was exceedingly violent and sexual, with these exploitable elements surrounding a subtext urging an end to improper disposal of nuclear waste, which was quite topical in 1980. “The Toxic Avenger” became a runaway hit, and went a long way to establishing “the Troma Way”.
For the next decade, Kaufman and Herz built an empire. Their audience appreciated the punk-oriented anarchy of “Class of Nuke ‘em High” and “Surf Nazis Must Die”. The anti-establishment attitude of the ‘70s still resonated in the “Me Generation”, even if in smaller degrees as the years ticked by.
On screen and off, Kaufman was the voice of Troma. Herz was comfortable in the business behind-the-scenes. It was usually “Uncle Lloyd” who stepped in front of the camera to exalt the virtues of independent film.
In the late ‘80s, Troma began to lose its way as they strove to make movies more commercial. The sequels to “The Toxic Avenger” were considered abominations by the filmmakers and audiences alike. It wasn’t until “Tromeo and Juliet” in the mid-90s that Troma found its feet again. “Tromeo” was written by newcomer and soon-to-be power player James Gunn, and featured a young actress who would soon become “the Goddess of Independent Cinema”—Debbie Rochon. “Tromeo” came at the height of the indie boom. A new generation of film school graduates—Spike Lee, John Singleton, Stephen Soderberg—had made indie film cause de celebre. Later in the decade, Kevin Smith made it hip. And Troma was embracing that attitude.
It was around this time—the “Tromeo” and Terror Firmer days—that Kaufman shouted “viva independent film” from the rooftops. Down with the “devil-worshipping multi-media conglomerate studios”. He attacked so-called “indie” institutions like the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax, accusing them— not without validity—of selling out the independent spirit and co-opting indie filmmaking right back to the studios. By the time of The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie, Lloyd’s battle-cry of “Let’s Make Some Art” was itself embraced by low-budget/micro-budget/no budget filmmakers across the world. And when Digital Video became readily available to any consumer with the capital to afford the equipment, suddenly, it seemed, everyone had a movie.
Ironically, when art was firmly in the hands of the people, Troma found itself in trouble. Nobody caught it at first. The anarchy that Kaufman loved so much was, all of a sudden, a dead concept.
“Terror Firmer”, a film many consider to be Troma’s and Lloyd’s finest film, tells the story of a film crew—a Troma film crew, no less— plagued by a serial killer. As shooting wears on, cast and crew alike are picked off in horrible and gruesome ways. Kaufman himself plays a blind director named Larry Benjamin who uses Kaufman’s own battle-cry, “Let’s Make Some Art!” before each take. “Terror Firmer” is, in a lot of ways an exaggerated documentary. As evidenced in the DVD documentary, the chaos seen on screen isn’t too dissimilar from the chaos that went on behind the camera. An overworked cast and crew suffered long hours, cramped third-world conditions and terrible craft services. Disgruntled, underpaid techs walked off the set, citing the unpleasant conditions, calling Lloyd a tyrant. Kaufman can be seen screaming at the crew, many of whom he accurately calls incompetent. Those who stuck it out felt, perhaps, that they were making art, and would continue to do so at any cost.
History repeated itself with “Citizen Toxie”. The over-worked and underpaid crew withstood, from their point of view, horrible working conditions to get the movie made. Kaufman, again as seen in the behind-the-scenes documentary, generally arrived at the set already livid about one problem or another. There seemed to be little in the way of cooperation in evidence. When the film was finally released, Troma fans flocked to the screenings—it played for months in Los Angeles— but something had definitely changed.
Kaufman is a Yale graduate. He speaks fluent French and is celebrated in France as a genius. He has been compared to surrealist Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Goddard in publications of no less importance than the Cahier du Cinema. He is seen as an anarchist, a Dadaist. In Europe, he is an artist. In America, he’s seen as an exploiter, a charlatan, almost a racketeer in some respects. Troma movies, on the homefront, are watched only for the surface elements—gratuitous violence and sex, toilet humor, and grotesqueries not on the level of Fellini, but simply grotesque.
It can be argued that there really isn’t anything lying beneath the surface of the typical Troma production, that they are just spectacle for the lowest-common-denominator. But Kaufman is indeed both conscious and sincere about the social commentary—however fleeting and often heavy-handed—that he injects between the body fluid and antisocial behavior. He still considers himself a punk mogul.
The problem lies with one simple fact: there aren’t many punks any more.
In the “Citizen Toxie” era, Troma was peopled not with anarchists and punks, but with slackers and, quite frankly, a******s. In 2001, Kaufman took select members of the Troma team to the Cannes Film Festival, ostensibly to make a documentary about the Cannes experience and perhaps create a primer for submitting a film there.. What the cameras captured was the team’s penchant for drunken revelry and chaos to no end. An office manager dressed as “Sgt. Kabukiman” gets drunk and lies down in the middle of the road, disrupting traffic and forcing the gendarmes to escort him back to the sidewalk. This same individual can be seen smearing fake blood on the walls of a beautiful hotel lobby and urinating on a guest’s luggage. The team as a whole wreaked havoc at the top of their lungs, ultimately getting the Troma offices removed from the hotel.
At the beginning of the documentary, Lloyd is his typical dynamic self. By the end, after a week plus of putting out fires, posting bail, and dealing with the angry French, he seems subdued and even defeated.
In the recently released “Tales from the Crapper”, a similar yet wholly different situation arises. Troma gave a quarter of a million dollars to a woman named India Allen to produce two digital video films for a proposed television series. What they got in return was nearly unusable footage, with unintelligible sound. Attempting to repair the damage as cheaply as possible only created new problems. Again, in the behind-the-scenes documentary, titled “The Thick Brown Line”, the crew is seen drinking themselves nearly blind—the assistant director vomits for entertainment after drinking nearly a bottle of vodka in one draught. At one point, a frustrated Kaufman can be seen kicking a wall in anger, but recovering quickly. In “Terror Firmer” he yelled to the heavens. In “Tales from the Crapper”, his voice is barely raised. He just seems tired, and a little sad.
For “punk” to have any meaning, indeed for “anarchy” to have any meaning, there must be something meaningful to rail and rebel against. Kaufman is still tilting at the Hollywood windmill, but is losing ground rapidly. Hollywood is barely aware of him anymore. The system has changed and grown beyond anything the golden age moguls could have imagined. Troma is barely a blip in “Variety”.
And the folks drawn to Troma are the ones who want merely to scream “Troma!” in as loud and drunken a voice as possible. To them, this act is royal rebellion. Screaming “Robert Redford can suck my c**k!” in the middle of Park City, Utah, where the Tromadance festival plays simultaneously with Sundance, landed Troma’s Doug Sakman in jail, and he saw that as a triumph. But that wasn’t an act of rebellion or civil disobedience. It was just public obnoxiousness.
For Troma to come out on top again, Uncle Lloyd may have to rethink what “Troma” means. Today’s young anarchists are little more than spoiled nihilists without the conviction. They’re not interested in making art—in promoting indie filmmaking for no money. Troma may well have outgrown its identity of s**t jokes, bodily fluids and viscera. What would be shocking to this jaded “South Park” society (a creature Troma was indirectly responsible for creating, after putting Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the map by distributing their Cannibal: The Musical), might be to create something meaningful, and lasting, without the use of fat, naked men fouling themselves. The age of the groping lesbian might be over. As it stands now, with “Tales from the Crapper” as evidence, the subtext is being rapidly consumed by the text.
Today’s audiences seek out Troma movies for the same reasons they always did: for the sex and the blood. “Cannibal Lesbian Hoe-down” is the height of comedy for most modern—and very young—Troma audiences. Unfortunately, Kaufman and company are caught in a vicious environment: digital filmmaking is running amok. Troma has pervaded the collective unconsciousness of the backyard filmmakers. If you have a bucket of blood, some Superslime, Bromo Seltzer and naked bodies, you too, it seems, can make a Troma movie. Without the subtext, of course. Troma has become a victim of their own marketing.
Now, from a recent assessment, Troma seems to be on the right track again. Having weeded through the more… anti-productive folks (for lack of a better word) last seen in “All the Love You Cannes”, Troma has filled out with people who are scarily on the ball. Extremely competent people like Kevin Michaels and Robert Sunderland, reclusive and talented editors like Gabe Friedman and Sean McGrath. The a******s of yore seem to have been replaced by other, healthier organs.
Kaufman’s new revolution may best be served by Troma rebelling against itself. Smaller movies, movies that can be made without driving a truck down to the East Village and shouting “Who wants to make a movie today?” and accepting whoever is around. Talented filmmakers and talented craftsman are needed. Perhaps making art without making an announcement… If there are no true anarchists, don’t waste time with the punks of today.
On a personal note, I tend to agree with the French regarding Lloyd. I, too, feel that Lloyd Kaufman is a genius. Troma has been a successful indie company and has outlasted the others. He is the last of the working artists. And all artists must rethink their art in order to grow. It’s not too late for Troma. And it’s not too late for Troma to continue to show the last remaining anarchists the way.
Mike Watt attempts to explore all the things that make Geek culture great, as well as pointing out all the things that make Geeks genetically superior to all other humans. During the course of this exploration, he may undoubtedly have to reveal horrid truths about Hollywood and Mainstream Cinema, as they compare to the riches of independent filmmaking. Ultimately, he hopes to bring higher awareness of and respect to Geek Culture, as well as secure a hefty book deal and the accolades of his (richer) peers. Feel free to lavish him with affection (or bitch at him) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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