MARTIN MCINTOSH SPEAKS WITH ONE OF LA'S
FINEST UNDERGROUND FILMMAKERS & ARTISTS:
Meet Larry Wessel: Los Angeles based filmmaker and artist. The name may not be immediatly familiar to you -- well, let me change that.
Since the early 1990s Wessel has been a one man film company -- shooting, directing, producing and releasing his own documentaries through his Wesselmania film company. His films are unlike anything you may have seen before -- certainly different to your standard documentary.
Though all of Wesselmania's releases to date have been quite eclectic, they all have a few common elements that give them the distinguishable mark of their auteur. Each share a lack of voice track narration, so prevalent in many documentaries. Wessel wants his viewers to think for themselves and formulate their own opinions, not have someone else tell us what and how to interpret what we are viewing. This is 'cinema verite'. The film production and everything that goes with it (boom mikes, crew and so on) are kept to a bare minimum (i.e. Wessel with his video camera) allowing the subjects to be uninhibited by all the goings on behind the camera.
Another of the constants is the subject matter - Wesselmania releases are offbeat and diverse. Along the way Wessel has documented such subjects and people as unusual street performers, graffiti, bullfighting, The Goddess Bunny, drag queens and transsexuals, lowbrow and underground art, Charles Manson's cellmate, the art of killer John Wayne Gacy, a black power group, street preachers, the McMartin preschool and much more.
Before we get underway with the interview, here is a quick overview of the Wesselmania range to date:
Taurobolium (subtitles The Tijuana Bullfight Documentary) : It is just that. It chronicles both the action in the arena as well as all of the behind the scenes activity and fanfare.
This is your chance to witness the whole bullfight experience - from the bombastic music of the bullfight brass orchestra/band to crowd action, to the actual bullring theatrics and slaughter, to the final behind the scenes dissection of the bull. There is seemingly nothing Wessel's camera does not capture.
One of my favourite moments was watching various members of the crowd fighting eachother before the bullfight was to begin! Talk about pent up anger and frustration.
Sugar & Spice: Journey into the world of drag queens, transsexuals and transvestites. I found this to be a very interesting and informative film. As with Taurobolium the viewer is treated to both the "public" performances (club show) of such artists as Glen Meadmore, Lypsinka, The Cosmic Danielle, and the amazing Goddess Bunny, and also the backstage preparation that "transforms" these performers.
We get to see beyond all the glitz and glamour and hear the intriguing stories of these people's lives. And if that isn't enough, learn about the San Francisco based "Lost Girls" organization, see the art of killer John Wayne Gacy, facial surgery, and much more.
As with all these videos there is a voyeuristic sense to all this. Backstage at a trasvestite club is something many of us normally would not be able to see, but through Wessel's filming style we're treated to both front row and dressing room seats.
Carny Talk: Robert Williams artwork will no doubt be familiar to many readers (if not seek out the numerous books and prints that are available). For those who do know his work, this video provides a fascinating insight into some of the experiences that have influenced Williams' art.
The video is made up of several stories from Williams' youth. Each segment is separated by loud and repetetive music - very much like music from the circus which complements the sideshow/carnival nature of many of these stories.
To whet your appetite, here are the segments titles: "A Violent Encounter", "Carny Talk", The Great Fecal Matter", "Motorcycles and Hot Rods", Hospital Still Borns", "The Blow Job", and finally "Sunshine & Health".
Throughout the hour plus film the camera focuses exclusively on Williams' face (with one minor exception where the camera pans to one of his paintings). Apparantly not at all rehearsed, this adds to the effect of actually listning to Williams live in a one on one conversation.
Ultramegalopolis: This is Wessel's two and a half hour tour of Los Angeles, and quite a tour at that. Diverse in subject matter, the one thread that ties all these subjects together is location - Los Angeles, named Ultramegalopolis in this video - quite a fitting description. Various people and places are documented and presented to the viewer. After watching Ultramegalopolis one is left with a barrage of images - graffiti, deformed and enterprising street performers, riot worn streets, boxers, black power groups, fanatical street preachers - all somehow fit perfectly into place in this city of millions. . .
I first met Larry in 1997 while attending a Hot Rod and art show (he had a piece on exhibit titled "Nazi Fink") just outside of Los Angeles. I knew of him through having previously ordered some of his videos, plus his involvement in other various projects (see interview). Not quite knowing what to expect on meeting him I was delighted to meet a genuinely nice person - friendly, intelligent, and accommodating (the type Misanthrope readers would be aware are only too rare).
He invited me to a show later that night of The Imperial Butt Wizards (best described as pyrotechnic pirate music), and then a few days later to a Portugese bullfight in Artesia, just outside of Los Angeles. I was getting my own tour of Ultramegalopolis.
Enjoy this glimpse into the world of Wesselmania . . .
Martin Macintosh: Where did your interest in filmmaking begin?
Larry Wessel: In my mother's womb! My parents are both fanatical movie buffs and they decided to name me after my father's favourite actor, Laurence Olivier. I remember having a playground discussion in kindergarten about Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man.
When I was a kid my favourite magazine was Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters Of Filmland. My folks were always taking me to the movies with them and old films were constantly being shown on our black and white television. I started making films in 1968 when I was eleven years old. My first film was made with an old 8mm movie camera that my friend Tommy Sullivan found while snooping around in his father's closet. It was a horror film called "The Black Glove". I cast myself in the starring role as a knife-wielding psycho killer.
MM: Were there any specific movies that inspired you to make your own films?
LW: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the first film I saw that made me want to pick up a movie camera and try it myself. I remember being eleven years old and staying up late to see Psycho on television. It was broadcasted late at night and I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up just as Janet Leigh was getting into the shower. I had to pee but I was so riveted by what I was seing that I delayed my bathroom break until the very end of the movie. Some of the other films that had a similar impact on me were also directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and Frenzy. A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr.Strangelove, and Lolita are my favourite Stanley Kubrick films. There's The Brood, and Videodrome by David Cronenberg. The Wild Bunch and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia by Sam Pekinpah. Titticut Follies, Hospital, and Near Death by Frederick Wiseman. The Tenant, Repulsion, Cul De Sac, and The Fearless Vampire Killers by Roman Polanski. 8 1/2, La Strada, Satyricon, Casanova, and The Clowns by Frederico Fellini. Even Dwarves Started Small, The Great Ecstacy of The Sculptor Steiner, How Much Wood can a Woodchuck Chuck?, Huey's Sermon and God's Angry Man by Werner Herzog. The Devils, The Music Lovers, Women in Love and Mahler by Ken Russell. El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Blow Up and The Passenger by Michelangelo Antonioni. Nightride and What's The Matter With Helen? by Curtis Harrington. Suspiria and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage by Dario Argento. Mondo Topless and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens by Russ Meyer.
Other films that have been an inspiration to me are: Freaks, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, The Last Wave, The Excorcist, Dead Alive, Man of Flowers, M, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jason and the Argonauts, The Ghost and Mr.Chicken, Seance on a wet afternoon, 10 Rillington Place, The Green Wall, The Third Man, A Touch of Evil, The Bukowski Tapes, The Red Balloon, Un Chien Andalou, If, The Undertaker & HIs Pals, The Bullfighter & The Lady, Arsenic & Old Lace, The Magic Christian, The Bad Seed, The Night of The Hunter, Tokyo GA, Witchcraft Through the Ages, Flamenco, Henry Miller Asleep & Awake, Kids, Gummo, Nil by Mouth, and my current favourite What Is It? by Crispin Glover.
MM: Have you studied cinema and filmmaking?
LW: As I mentioned before I had spent my entire childhood and teenage years immersed in cinema. I started making films at the age of eleven and never stopped! I made a 16mm sound-sync film based on J.D. Salinger's A Perfect Day For Bananafish when I was 16. By the time that I had graduated from High School in 1975 I had received three scholarships to attend film school at the University of Southern California. I felt that the education I was receiving from U.S.C. 's cinema department was redundant. U.S.C. film school is highly overrated. I dropped out after three years. I know this sounds crazy but it seemed that there was a conspiracy among the faculty of the cinema department to kill my creative spirit so I left before it was too late!
MM: Your films are very much 'cinema verite' style. You let the camera do the talking for you. What attracts you to this style of filmmaking?
LW: The truth is very important to me. When I set out to make my documentaries I want to be completely objective. What i dislike about a lot of documentaries is that they are biased. These so-called "documentary filmmakers" all have "axes to grind" and are busy revealing more about themselves than the subjects they profess to be documenting! Take bullfighting for instance. People tend to be very polarized when it comes to bullfighting. They are either for bullfighting or against bullfighting.
It is because of the polarization that I wanted to document bullfighting the way it has never been done before . . . the way it is! 'Cinema verite' is the closest an audience can come to actually being there and intelligently formulate their own opinions.
MM: Besides making films you've also had a number of interesting jobs such as being a recruiting agent for "The Dating Game". Can you tell me a little about this plus any other interesting jobs you've had?
LW: As a "Dating Game" talent recruiter it was my job to find attractive women and men who were willing to degrade and humiliate each other on national television. Finding attractive people was the tough part. Most people are just so damned ugly!
Before this I worked at a sculpture and design studio making prototypes for toys that get mass-produced in Chinese slave-labour camps and then given away with "Happy Meals" at McDonalds!! Some of my more interesting jobs have included doing illustration work for Larry Flynt's HUSTLER magazine, writing a "how-to" book on killing rats, and selling fake vomit and whoopee cushions at a novelty shop called "The Mad House".
MM: Some people may know you from the "King of The B's" photo shoot which was one of the many highlights of the Feral House book CAD: A Handbook For Heels. The shoot very convincingly recreates a 1950's B-Movie producer's office. Could you tell me a little bit about how this all came about?
LW: Charles Schneider originally wanted me to contribute something to CAD. I had a great-uncle who was a truck driver. He had an amazing collection of dirty postcards that he acquired from his road trips across America in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. I photocopied the entire collection but none of them ended up being used in CAD. Instead, I got a phone call from Adam Parfrey asking me if I would appear in a CAD photo-play as a lecherous B-Movie producer! The whole thing was expertly shot by Scott Lindgren in a wonderful nifty 50's living room in a house previously owned by Gale Gordon, the actor who played Mr.Wilson on the old television series Dennis The Menace. My favourite photograph in the series depicts me squeezing the lovely ass of scream-queen Debra Lamb!
MM: Taurobolium was the first release from your company Wesselmania. It chronicles the Tijuana bullfight. When did you first become interested in bullfighting?
LW: My friend Brendan Leech had shown me some photographs he had taken of the last bullfight in Tijuana's 1990 season. These pictures caused my eyes to bulge out of my head not unlike Big Daddy Roths's Rat Fink! I then read a couple of books: My Life as a Matador by Carlos Arruza and La Fiesta Brava by Barnaby Conrad. Bullfighting quickly became an obsession of mine. I began collecting everything on the subject: books, records, posters, paintings, potcards, toys, you name it. And when the 1991 Tijuana bullfight season began, I had what Ernest Hemingway called "A Front Row Seat at War".
MM: Taurobolium was filmed in Tijuana between 1991-1993. Over this time did you get to know any matadors or others involved in the sport?
LW: The people in the bullfight world I became the closest with were the guys who work in the bullring slaughterhouse. It was in the bloody environment that I received the friendliest reception!
MM: Bullfighting is often critized as being a cruel and inhumane sport. Is this justified?
LW: The fact that bullfighting has been around for 3.000 years is justification for its right to exist.
All real aficionados are animal lovers. To aficionados, that bull is the most magnificent creature on the face of the earth and they will raise a mighty furor if the bull is treated any way other than dignified and artistic.
The objective is to make art with the animal, to make beauty with the animal. It's not what is accomplished but how it is accomplished. How artistically was it done? That's what bullfighting is all about. Toro Bravo, the fighting bull, lives two years longer than the domestic steer. He is not penned and raised shoulder to shoulder with his brother. He is not castrated. He is raised as a wild animal, acres and acres on which to roam, he is afforded all the food and water that he wants.
The grave goring rate for a matador is 600%. Every matador in his career will receive the last rites from his church six times on the average.
MM: It was interesting to watch the end of Taurobolium. You film the bull being dissected after the kill. Nothing seems to be wasted, obviously the meat is sold for human consumption after the fight. Was there any other "behind the scenes" filming that you did?
LW: There was some but I didn't include it in the final film because I found that what was going on inside the arena and inside the slaughterhouse was so exciting that everything else I shot didn't seem to be as important.
MM: Watching your films one gets the feeling you have a lot of fun making these. This is particularly evident during Sugar & Spice when you are interviewing The Goddess Bunny (you seem to be trying your hardest to keep your laughter under control while she recounts stories to you). Could you tell me a little bit about her?
LW: The Goddess Bunny is a polio-stricken pre-op transsexual that likes to refer to herself as a "confused faggot with tits". Occasionally Bunny will score some hormones and grow a pair of breasts. She's a gnarled and cadaverous anatomical wonder who in an earlier decade would have been a much sought-after star attraction in any carnival's ten-in-one!
MM: Sugar & Spice documents the world of transvestites, transsexuals and drag queens, particularly focusing on a number of colorful performers ( such as Tyrell Morris, The Cosmic Danielle, Lypsinka, and The Goddess Bunny ). Did you know any of these people before deciding to make Sugar & Spice?
LW: Yes. Glen Meadmore, The Goddess Bunny, The Cosmic Danielle, Gender, and Karen Dior were all friends of mine prior to making Sugar & Spice. I had all of these very colorful friends in my life so it seemed natural to turn my camera toward them!
One night I got a call from John Aes-Nihil. He was living in "The Black House" in Hollywood with Zeena LaVey , Nicholas Schreck and Zeena's son Stanton.
Zeena, Nicholas and Stanton were moving to Austria and John needed two roomates. I moved into a bedroom on the first floor and Glen Meadmore moved into a bedroom on the second floor directly above mine.
At least once every week I would hear some very strange noises emanating from Glen's room above, I found out later that Glen was having phone sex with the killer clown from Chicago . . . John Wayne Gacy!
Glen owns quite a few portraits that Gacy had painted from photographs that Glen had sent him. All of these bizarre portraits can be seen in Sugar & Spice.
MM: Ultramegalopolis is an epic 21/2 hour tour of Los Angeles. It showcases parts of L.A. not generally covered in other exposes of tinsel town. You shot it over a six year period. When you started filming in 1990 did you have a definate idea of what you wanted to include, or did it all come together/fall into place during this period?
LW: Ultramegalopolis evolved over time . . . I had no idea what I was in for when I started! I approached it as an expedition into uncharted territory. The first shooting I did took place in graffiti-yards which were sprouting up all over Los Angeles in 1990. One day at the Belmont tunnel site I was lucky enough to capture one of the kings of graffiti art, Hex, spray painting an enormous mural of the Frankenstein monster! Ultramegalopolis is full of magic moments like this where I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with my video camera.
MM: Was there much footage that ended up being omitted from the final film?
LW: Oh yeah! The ratio of video that I shot to the video that got used is about 100 to 1. That's the nature of cinema verite'. You just have to keep shooting until something magic happens. It's a lot like fishing, you wait and wait and then . . . with a little bit of luck . . . you catch the big one!
MM: The L.A. riots occurred during the filming of Ultramegalopolis. You document this by shooting various places (i.e., shops) affected by the riots - scenes that look more like battlefields than public places. Can you see this happening again?
LW: I see it as inevitable.
MM: Carny Talk is an hour plus document of artist Robert Williams recounting various events from his youth. He has a compelling story-telling skill. Are these stories you've heard before?
LW: I hadn't heard any of thee stories before but I was quite aware of his power as a raconteur. The oral tradition is quickly becoming a lost art. I wanted to give people the experience of being in the presence of a master story-teller. I'm sure you agree that there is nothing quite like the experience of hearing Robert Williams reminisce about "The Great Fecal Matter"!
MM: You were part of a group Williams formed in the early 80's called "The Art Boys". Could you tell me a little bit about this group?
LW: This was a wild bunch of artists that got together once a year to drink some beer and have a group exhibition with a particular theme. I participated in the last two "Art Boys" shows. 1985's show was called "The Day of Infamy" and it's theme was treachery and deceit. For this I did a drawing of the Peter Lorre character from Fritz Lang's M. The final "Art Boys" show was on Valentine's Day in 1986 and was called "The Marinated Heart". For this I showed a horror film I had made called Lust For Knife. It featured a mohawked gutter-punk stabbing a beautiful bikini-clad blonde to death with a switchblade knife, disemboweling her and then baptising himself in her bloody intestines. I transfered this film onto a video-cassette so that it repeated continuously for six hours during the entire course of the art opening!
MM: I'm sure MISANTHROPE readers will be aware (even unknowingly) of your artwork from the cover of Adam Parfrey's book, Cult Rapture. Tell me about this.
LW: Adam had previously asked me to do a cover for a revised and expanded edition of his book Rants and Incendiary Tracts that he co-wrote with Bob Black. This new edition never surfaced but he liked the cover I did and asked if I would do the cover for Cult Rapture. The central image on the cover is David Koresh depicted as the avenging angel Michael. His screaming mouth actually belongs to Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. The image of the White House being bombed below him was created a year or so before the movie Independence Day came out using a similar image for their ad campaign.
MM: Anton LaVey writes some praise for Taurobolium which you use in publicity. Plus you appeared in Nick Bougas' Speak of the Devil documentary. What is your connection with the Church of Satan?
LW: On the wall just above my editing console is a gold-framed certificate. This certificate is embossed with an upside-down pentagram pierced with a lightning bolt. It reads: "Be it known, on this day, October 1, XXIX, Larry Wessel has been appointed to the office of Priest of the Church of Satan and empowered to act in that capacity". It is signed, Anton Szandor LaVey.
I miss Anton. He was a good friend of mine, the nicest guy I ever met and a big fan of my documentaries. I dedicated my new documentary, Tattoo Deluxe to his memory.
MM: Can you give me a quick rundown on Tattoo Deluxe?
LW: I ran into Jeff Thielman, an old friend of mine one night at a coffee house in San Pedro called "Sacred Grounds". He came up to my table and told me that he and another tattoo artist, Peter Loggins, were going to open up their own tattoo parlour across the street from "Sacred Grounds". I asked him what they planned to call their tattoo parlour and he said "Tattoo Deluxe". I instantly knew that this would be the title and subject of my next documentary. I hung out in their tattoo parlour for the next two years until I felt I had enough raw footage for an interesting film.
MM: What's next?
LW: The documentary that I'm working on right now is called Sex, Death & The Hollywood Mystique. It's about the writer John Gilmore and the subjects that haunts the pages of his books. Charles Manson, James Dean, Charles Schmid, The Black Dahlia, Curtis Harrington, and Forrest Ackerman all make guest appearances.