Monday, January 13, 2014

Why Remember Anything?: The Crown International Experience

How did I discover the output of Crown International? 

There was a time in my life when I desperately yearned to be a filmmaker...oh yes, did I burn.  There is a strange event that takes place when you start to chase after a goal.  What is it?  You start pretending that you are more important than you are.  You attach signifiers to your name such as: “Writer-Director” and “Producer.” 

In reality, you are just another sucker that got a film project off the ground.  That doesn’t diminish the relationship you develop with you cohorts.  So for a while I had a friend who was willing to act as the “producer” to my “writer-director.”  I also had a script which I couldn’t finish.  There was something about the nature of the story that deeply depressed me.  I could barely talk about it without wanting to cry.   

What the hell does this have to do with cheap drive in movies?

My “producer” friend had given me a deadline for a finished script that I kept dodging.  Most of the time my favorite way to do this was go and buy cheap DVDs.  That was when I stumbled upon something that purported to be full of “DRIVE IN CULT CLASSICS.”  

What would seduce me into plunking down five dollars on such a purchase?  Well, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with the cover.

No, nothing at all.  Nor did it have anything to do with an attempt to escape the script that made me cry.  There are a few other things to consider: I had also recently started blogging and watching far too many movies.  

If my “producer” called, I most likely screened the caller ID and didn’t answer.  I was too busy destroying hours of my life with this pedestrian, “Cult Classics.”

I began watching the films, and found they had been produced by a production company called “Crown International.”  That’s when all the trouble began.       

My Original Plan for Writing About Crown International

I’ll level with you: my first inclination was to write a very long piece drawing on suburban ennui, Raymond Carver, and various religious symbolism.  Applying this “theory” to boob-and-schlock-fests like The Teacher and Malibu High was to be a particularly epic (and heroic) failure.  

You might ask yourself: “What would put that sort of idea into your head?”  

Let’s talk about what I saw in almost every outing with Crown International:
    • Wildly overblown “pot boiler” stories, usually involving domestic abuse, suicide, and marital dysfunction.  (Cindy and Donna, The Stepmother, The Teacher, Malibu High)
    • Ridiculously down beat endings to movies that were supposed to be salacious good times.  (I’ll write about that later in my little review of The Teacher.)  The characters are “done in” by ludicrous means (car crashes, gun fire that comes from nowhere, homicidal maniacs on the loose).  You can’t help but wonder:  “Are these characters being judged harshly for their behavior?  Or am I being implicated as an audience member?”  More specifically: “Am I the one who is being judged for watching this junky movie?  Am I being moralized to?”  
    • The Suburban Sprawl: I understand that this was likely a result of low production values.  That still didn’t stop me from noticing: most of the movies are set in generic, uninteresting, almost low rent suburban neighborhoods.  The kind that you see in your head when you read Raymond Carver.  Raymond Carver wrote about lost little moments in which people realized how hollow their lives had become.  Crown International made sleazy movies in which characters looked for any distraction they could find as a way of numbing boredom.  Don’t you see the connection?   I know I do.  (Note: I realized today that I might have readers who have never heard of Raymond Carver.  I’ll let you look that reference up on your own.)  

The fundamental problem: these movies don’t justify the effort...that didn’t quell my fascination with them.  (Despite the unsuccessful Raymond Carver allusions.)  That also didn’t stop me from trying to plumb the depths.  

This will lead me rather clumsily to the next section.  These are not so much “reviews,” as they are “memory pieces.”  

Exhibit A: The Teacher (1974)

There is the matter of what The Teacher is on the surface.  Angel Tompkins is a hot, older teacher who “cougars” the young and impressionable Jay North.  That sounds like brainless fodder for 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, right?  

Now let’s talk about what is inexplicably weird about The Teacher:
    • Jay North: this actor apparently played an incarnation of Dennis the Menace on TV in the 1960s.    Have you ever wondered what Dennis the Menace would look like if he hit a bad patch of adolescent awkwardness?  The best description I can offer is to imagine Dennis having an unfortunate accident involving radiation.  His once adorable boy like features are swollen, and he now reassembles one of the Geico cavemen.  We’re supposed to accept that a lovely woman like Angel Tompkins would want to seduce this dude.  Their love scenes made me feel cold and dead inside.  (And there’s a tag line for Crown International:  “The will make you feel cold and dead inside...Coming this Summer!”)
    • Angel lures Jay into her house for the first time by promising him: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to rape you.”  Yes, that is really what she says.
    • There’s a theme song that resembles what Muzak might sound like if it was played in Hell.  A female voice silkily sings: “Every boy needs a teacher....”  
    • Then there’s Anthony James as Ralph: this is what throws a giant web blanket on what should be a sleazy good time.  Anthony James, one of cinema’s great creepers, plays a man who is feverishly obsessed with Angel Tompkins.  He stalks her through out the movie, and we can’t help but wonder how these two worlds are going to collide.  His creepiness leads to one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen in any movie.  That occurs after Angel and Jay finish having a tryst on her houseboat.  (I’ve neglected to mention that Angel has a rich husband who never seems to be around.)  After they are done, our boy Anthony pops up in front of the boat wearing a Scuba Suit.  He has been lurking under water the entire time.  
    • Then there’s the ending: Anthony James lures Jay North to an abandoned warehouse and pushes him off a staircase.  The movie fades to black as Angel Tompkins holds Jay North’s crumpled dead body in her arms.  This is the paradox I spoke of earlier.  She is being punished for her indiscretions.  Logic would dictate that she is acting as the audience surrogate: we’re the ones being punished.  (I’m not just talking about the shame that comes from spending two hours of your life on The Teacher.)

Exhibit B: Malibu High (1979)

Do horrible movies happen by accident?  Or are they premeditated?  I’m not going to delve too far into the plot of Malibu High...though it is a doozy.  Jill Lansing plays a high school senior who falls into prostitution; then becomes a professional hit woman through an odd twist of fate.  

That’s not important, but two indelible scenes are two.
    • Lansing starts turning tricks out of a vintage VW van.  Would you like to feel very bad about yourself?  Just wait until you start chuckling at the following: A group of sleazy looking men form a line outside the van.  The camera pulls a rudimentary, dead pan scan through the line as if to say: “No big deal!”
    • We get a tragic flashback to Lansing’s childhood.  She walks into the room as her Daddy hangs himself.  Make no mistake about it people, this is the most unintentionally comic suicide ever put to film.  Were the filmmakers laughing as the camera rolled?  Or were they just horribly inept?  I just don’t believe that a piece of filmmaking like this happens on accident.  

Lansing meets another abrupt and tragic end.  The bullet literally seems to fall from the sky.  (Was she punished by a vengeful God?)  

What’s It All About?  

I’ll start by admitting the following: I recently watched The Van (1977).  Another Crown International “gem”: about a wormy dude who buys a Chevy Van.  He converts it into what might modestly be called “a Shaggin’-Wagon.”  This movie destroyed my theories about the “hidden depths” of Crown International.  This is a generic Porky’s precursor and not much else.  No dark ending, and certainly nothing resembling shame.    

Then what about my experience with the earlier films.  Was I digging too deep? 

I often wonder (in life as well as movie watching) if it’s possible to want something that isn’t there.  You can convince yourself that an experience is better than it is in reality.  I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I was wasting my time.  Raymond Carver, suburban ennui...why not? 

I never finished the script, and ended up giving up on filmmaking.  That said, I still finished watching every solitary film in this “Cult Classics” collection.  How is that for accomplishment?       

Now would anyone like to take this abysmal set of “Drive-In Classics” off my hands?   


  1. Hey, Dusty,

    I'll take that set off your hands. I grew of age in the '70s and early '80s and practically learned everything I know about girls, dating, Van Nuys and how to rock a van from these 'classics' during my misspent youth.

    And you are so correct - these supposed "fun time" films have a dark moral heart that does not quite let you off the hook. Unlike porn of the age (in which all was in good fun and no one got mad or even), the teen comedies have some remnant of the roughies of the 60s in them. Perhaps this is an attempt at respectability, perhaps it's an echo of the Hays Code (no bad deed goes unpunished), perhaps it's a reflection of the fact that most of these films were being written and/or produced by 40-year-old executives and they were jealous of the fun the kids were having.

    There's a whole book in this idea - if you can stand to do the research :)

    Keep it up,

    Best, Roger

  2. Roger, great to hear from you! It's been a while. (And thanks for holding on for new stuff).

    Secondly, my mind is absolutely blown by your comment. I would have killed to see these things in their "natural habitat," the Drive In. Watching for an audience reaction might have give me the context that I was sorely lacking. I know of the "roughies," but haven't seen them. However, that historical link seems like it would be correct. (If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.)

    I've half heartedly tried to do research about the "behind the scenes" story of Crown. There's very little out there, and I assume it would take doing research and contacting whoever is left from that era. One of my "bucket list" goals is to write a film book...and you know what? This is a viable subject for contemplation. Thanks for the idea!

    And you are more than welcome to that box set. (Seriously, my e-mail is listed next to my bio...get in touch).

    Thanks for reading,