If at any time in history it could be said that as a nation our collective unconscious actualized a Troma movie directed by Lloyd Kaufman, that time is now. We live in a world where a genius billionaire sends into space a roadster with an astronaut dummy listening to David Bowie; and a fake billionaire turns what was arguably the most commanding job in the world into a grotesque and toxic farce. So it's not hard to imagine that at some point we slipped through a crack in the multiverse and ended up in a mashup of a Douglas Adams science fiction comedy and Tromaville.
When I bring up this parallel to Kaufman during a recent FaceTime chat, he chuckles, “Good point. Every movie we have made has the basic theme that there is the town of Tromaville and that its people are very capable of organizing their own existence, their own livelihood, but they are victimized by a conspiracy of elected officials.”
Taking the “ripped straight from today's headlines” approach, a Troma film, with its wall-to-wall hyper-surrealism, tends to skewer whatever's happening in society at the moment. At this particular juncture in time, Kaufman's latest, Return to Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 2 (“R2V2” from this point on) also manages to serve as a sort of exorcistic prism. Its outrageous imagery brings to light the absurdity we're currently up against as a society dealing with all sorts of turmoil. That artistic choice and social commentary comes at a high price, since the general moviegoing public is typically put off by anything not given a mainstream stamp of approval. Kaufman concedes that his recent movies receive very little attention in the major newspapers and end up with poor box office attendance.
When I ask if he's seen The Room, a movie touted as the “best worst movie ever made,” which has been selling out at recent screenings and is the source material for the award-winning The Disaster Artist, he reflects, “God bless [The Room writer-director-star] Tommy Wiseau. Any independent vision that is permitted to the public, God bless them. The healthiest society is a society with a mixture of voices. Those are the societies that prosper, and we are becoming a third-rate country because there are not enough voices heard. The voices that are heard refuse to debate with the other voices.” Halfway through it's obvious he's referring to our current political climate, but he could still be talking about the state of cinema.
In a year that has seen Oscar-nominated movies containing elements that for decades had only been broached by B-movies and exploitation flicks — horror as an analogy for racism in Get Out, female masturbation in The Shape of Water, a consensual affair with a minor in Call Me By Your Name — it begs the question: Is Hollywood cinema finally catching up to exploitation?
“We've been ignored,” Kaufman counters. “To some extent our movies are very rough around the edges because our budgets are so low. We make $20 million movies for $100,000 or less. To some extent that's sort of fun. For some people, unless something makes a huge amount of money, it's worthless. If it's a lot of money, then it's valuable.”
When I mention that Truffaut, Godard, De Sica and Bresson are all “rough around the edges,” Kaufman recalls, “At Yale, the Film Society had a big stack of Cahiers du Cinéma, which were all written by Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut. I speak French so I became brainwashed by the auteur theory. I gravitated toward John Ford, Howard Hawks. One night I was watching Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be and I decided in the darkness of that Film Society auditorium I would make movies. I'd give what I have to those people in the dark.”
With R2V2, those people in the dark receive an experience not unlike curling up with Burroughs' Naked Lunch or skipping down a hall lined with Hieronymus Bosch landscapes. Like most of Troma's output, the film's perversity is relentless, almost in a naive sort of way. Part Grand Guignol, part Theater of the Absurd, all Troma.
Between involuntary eye-averting, R2V2's plot materializes: Two lesbian bloggers fight a glee club whose members have turned into mutants. Behind that mutation is the Tromorganic Foodstuff Conglomerate, with its plan to take over Tromaville and ultimately the world.
In Tromaville, it's not unusual for women to kick some male ass. Kaufman says, “The Troma movies have been hashtagged 'down with the patriarchy' since 1974. Go look at Tromeo and Juliet. It's all about Juliet. Tromeo is there, but it's Juliet's movie. Check out the third Toxic Avenger: The Last Temptation of Toxie. It's Toxie's significant other who gets him away from becoming a yuppie and joining the big conglomerate.”
One striking difference between R2V2 and Kaufman's previous work is the use of CGI. “The way we use CGI continues our Brechtian style of breaking down the fourth wall. It's very obvious. It's very abstract. There's no attempt to be realistic since we can't possibly compete with the big movies, nor do we really want to. I love looking at it. It's beautiful.”
“The Troma movies have been hashtagged 'down with the patriarchy' since 1974.” —Lloyd Kaufman
Along with that Brechtian style, R2V2 remains true to a lot of the Troma aesthetic. The angular close-ups, the red lighting, a cool soundtrack and the practical effects are all there; and if Kaufman can make a phallus out of something, you can bet he will.
While Hollywood is no doubt at this moment redrafting scripts based on what Kaufman refers to as the “clown car that is the Trump administration,” Kaufman himself has beat them to it. To be fair, R2V2 gives no quarter. It's also critical of enterprises that are making America great again, such as certain aspects of the #MeToo movement. “We'll be the source of our very own Ox-Bow Incident!” exclaims one of our heroines in an improbable reference to a Western and novel that both teeter on the edge of obscurity. “Unfortunately, in the Twittersphere,” Kaufman laments, “there's a lot of ignorant people. I'm curious about the mob justice. We don't need The Ox-Bow Incident. Due process might be a better way to go.
“You know, I still go and watch Howard Hawks movies,” he confides. “I love Rio Bravo, it's one of the greatest Westerns ever. But [Hawks] beat up women. He was a horrible person. Picasso beat up his women. That shouldn't be. The geniuses of the world should have to be geniuses without beating up anybody. I think the world is a better place because of #MeToo and the people who have exposed this.”
He later adds with his trademark wink-wink gusto, “We change the world here at Troma. Most of the movies that you have to see as a critic are baby food. Troma makes the jalapeño peppers and the cultural pizza.” With its fiercely noncomformist bent and unforgiving social criticism, a Troma film is as American as apple pie, if maybe not as sweet.
Return to Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 2 has its world premiere Thursday, March 8, Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, with celebrity guests to be announced. It then runs March 9-15 at the Laemmle Noho 7, 5240 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
On Wednesday, March 7, Hyaena Gallery opens “A Troma Fan Art Show,” with selected pieces on display at both theaters on March 8 and 9. Hyaena Gallery is at 1928 W. Olive Ave., Burbank.