B-movies are one of my weaknesses. In many ways, I prefer them to the slicker, big-budget Hollywood films. B-movies are more variable in quality, and – therefore – have more potential to surprise.
Way back in the 1980s, my mother heard of a cult film titled The Toxic Avenger and suggested that we rent it. (This was completely out of character for Mom). Toxic Avenger was great, low-rent fun. Toxic Avenger came from a little-known company called Troma. Eventually, I learned that Troma is synonymous with fun, campy B-movies. A few weeks ago, when I needed to add something else to an Amazon order to get free shipping, I chose Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman’s book about the company. So far, I’m glad that I did so.
Lloyd Kaufman’s book
All I Need to Know… is an unusual book about a different kind of company. It’s joke-a-second style reminds me of the humor in the (non-Troma) Naked Gun movies – some of the jokes fall flat, but they come at you so fast that you don’t pay that much attention to the misses.
Kaufman repeatedly states that he’s not a writer and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He frequently lapses into a stream-of-consciousness perspective, telling the reader what he’s thinking @ the moment. Around these digressions, Kaufman recounts his history in the film business, starting with his student films at Yale University, moving through several failures, and then finally making some money with 1979’s Squeeze Play. In between making his own films, Kaufman worked as an assistant on several well-known films, such as Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. He does good job of explaining what he learned at each stage of his career.
Light Tone, with Some Serious Moments
The overall tone of the book is irreverent. Here’s a sample that discusses Kaufman’s 1971 film, The Battle of Love’s Return –
We didn’t want to pay for a critics’ screening. Howard Thompson of The New York Times actually came over to my mother’s house to review it. He watched it projected onto a stand-up screen in my bedroom. The New York magazine critic Judith Crist, like most women, refused to come to my bedroom, so we relented and rented a theater. Crist threw her feet up on the seat in front of her, scowled through the entire film, and didn’t glance at me on the way out the door. ‘That ugly cow!’ I thought to myself, knowing with all my heart that she was going to skewer my movie. But when I read the review Ms. Crist wrote a few days later, comparing me to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, I realized that she was quite beautiful indeed. The most negative review probably came from my father. When asked by a newsman what he liked best about the film, my old man replied, ‘The part where Lloyd dies’ (Pp. 45-46).
But, amidst the mirth, Kaufman can suddenly turn serious. He recounts how the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills influenced his views of himself as an outsider. At Troma, Kaufman engaged in all sorts of “guerrilla filmmaking” – shooting without permits, releasing graphic director’s cuts to theaters that carried ratings assigned to “tamer” versions of the films, and directing under assumed names to fool Hollywood’s guilds.
Some of the book’s other revelations seem unintentional. Kaufman writes about how – on Troma films – only about 1 in 20 production assistants makes it through an entire film. (Kaufman states that, to be a success in the film business, you have to be willing to fire people). Also, Kaufman has a tendency to wallow in gutter humor. There’s a passage in which he discusses the various sounds associated with flatulence and which sounds he prefers for his films. I could have lived without that material.
Troma & #MeToo
Perhaps most seriously, Troma and Kaufman could come in for some criticism in their treatment of women. Kaufman recounts his experiences with prostitutes in a joking tone. On his movies, he states that he always films nude scenes first; that way, if an actress refuses to do the scene, he can fire and replace her (because Troma wouldn’t have committed time and money to filming any scenes in which she appears). A lot has changed since Kaufman wrote this book in 1998; his attitudes might not wash in the #metoo era.
If you’re going to enjoy Kaufman’s book, you can’t take it too seriously. He said that one purpose for the book is to teach young filmmakers how to create independent films. I can’t speak to the material’s relevance in this regard. For the b-movie fan, this is a fun book, despite its flaws. Kaufman keeps it light (for the most part) and he holds the reader’s interest. So far, I’d give it 8 out of 10.